Forum Q&A | Making Mistakes

Our previous Forum Q&A was about items students like to see in incentive prize boxes.  Thanks for all the responses!

It is time for new topic!  Our new Forum Q&A topic was submitted by Hannah (thanks so much!):

What do you do for students who stop and get frustrated at every tiny mistake they make? How can we encourage them and help them to know it is okay to make mistakes every now and then?  How can we help them find ways to improve and prevent mistakes without stressing further stressing them out?

Please leave your thoughts in the comments section below this post!

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13 thoughts on “Forum Q&A | Making Mistakes”

  1. I encourage them to play until a certain measure before they stop, usually 8-16 measures. I try to shift the focus away from their mistakes by focusing on the stopping point.

  2. I remind them that in “this space” (the studio), mistakes are not only allowed, but are to be somewhat celebrated, as they allow us the chance to grow. It’s not about perfection all the time, sometimes it’s about spending time in the “messy parts,” and becoming comfortable with admitting our own faults.

  3. We talk about “big mistakes” and “little mistakes”
    Big mistakes are something that anyone would notice. Mostly, saying “oops” while playing or stopping and starting over.
    Little mistakes are things like playing a wrong rhythm, a wrong note, skipping a note, adding a note, etc.

    Little mistakes are okay, but we don’t want to turn them into big mistakes.

  4. My one and only studio rule for piano students is that they’re not allowed to apologize for mistakes, or say “I suck!,” or “I’m horrible!” or “I can’t do this!” or any variation on that. With kids, it becomes a bit of a game (since of course I don’t really get anyone “in trouble” for it or scold students in any serious way)…a kid will make a mistake and then say “I’m sorry…oh…oops!” and then we’ll laugh and they’ll get over it faster.
    I also talk about how everyone makes mistakes when they’re learning piano, and if you never made any mistakes, it would mean you were never trying anything hard enough to challenge yourself. I also make a point of saying that I’ve made thousands of mistakes over my years of playing, that I don’t judge (why would I have become a teacher otherwise?), etc. And sometimes I’ll tell stories of ways that my students and acquaintances have covered up mistakes onstage before–times when the performer messed something up and kept going so confidently that no one even noticed the mistake. (And I have some great stories in my arsenal for that one–I bet we all do.)
    I’ve noticed that, for the most part, the kids who struggle the most with making mistakes are usually the most intelligent ones (although there are always exceptions to this, of course.) They’re used to getting everything so quickly and easily at school, so when piano doesn’t come as naturally to them as, say, math (and why would it? A strong intellect helps with theory and sometimes sightreading, but the physical coordination required is a whole different beast), they get frustrated and think they can’t do it. Sometimes with these kids, I just flat-out acknowledge that I can tell they’re very smart and probably have a very easy time in school, but that piano is hard, even for smart people. Even if they don’t feel like they’re learning it as fast as they learn other things, they ARE still making progress, and they WILL still get there.

  5. Mistakes have to be okay from day one, period. No one is perfect. Children learn best in a positive, safe and nurturing environment. It’s as simple as that.

  6. I model the patience I want my students to have but I also explain the philosophy of how mistakes are necessary for growth and should be expected.

    I usually have students rate their frustration level with mistakes on a scale of 1 to 10. This helps them define it in their own heads.

  7. A subject near and dear to my heart, as I teach many teenagesrs, who seem prone to easy frustration! First I’ll watch them play, and then I’ll comment “You seem to be awfully hard on yourself. Playing piano is such a complex endeavor, that you need to be patient with yourself.” Then I usually suggest playing a slower tempo (with metronome), dividing the problem passsage into smaller segments, and even congratulating oneself upon complettion. I also tell them that I make mistakes, too, (in performance, even, in front of lots of people!) and also that mistakes are OK, normal, and necessary to learning. I aim to model with lots of warmth, and encouragement, and start the discussion always with whatever the kid got right (said in an enthusiastic voice) .

  8. We talk a lot about two different types of practicing. Practicing to perfect and practicing to perform.

    If they are “practicing to perfect” and they make a mistake then they need to address that measure, phrase, or section accordingly. RH only, LH only, slower tempo, … whatever technique is appropriate… and then move forward to the next weak spot.

    When practicing to perform they are not allowed to stop. Period. I want them to learn and teach themselves to work through the mistakes and not get flustered or frustrated.

  9. Keep in mind most of my students are beginners, and most under Grade One piano! I have found the most huge help this year had been to teach and “require” students to sight-read a piece, even one they’ve been working on for a period of time, before they ever press a note. Look at time and key signatures, where RH and LH begins, accidentals through the piece, eighth notes, rests, changes in dynamics — you know, all those things we’re supposed to do. But, I make them take at least a minute to look through the piece. WHAT a difference that has made in the three weeks I’ve been teaching!!! WOW! Who would have guessed? Even my students I was despairing of really getting notes or timing, etc. I’ve encouraged them to use this every time they practice at home.
    One of my students who has been weak in every area, even though they’ve “been” in lessons for several years, done theory busy-work, etc. is understanding intervals, “got” eighth notes this summer at music camp when there was rhythm alone, is finding it easier to identify notes, etc.
    I’m so EXCITED to be teaching this year!

  10. I have a panic button that students get to push when they get frustrated with their mistakes. It is a VERY SILLY button that I got from a Hallmark Store once that features their Hops and Yoyo characters (I think that’s what they call them). It says, “Stay calm, stay calm on second thought…” and then it screams! The kids and I are practically rolling on the floor laughing after that craziness and then we’re able to get back to making music.

  11. I really like the idea posted by Aleta. It totally makes sense and is good for beginners. We should do sight-reading right from the beginning. I will be trying this for my students.

  12. From the very first lesson, I direct my students’ attention to a sign on my bulletin board. It shows a student playing the piano (clip art, not actual photograph) and it says “In this room, I’m allowed to make a bazilion………………………. Boo Boos! Of course, then I have to address, it’s a good thing not to make the same mistake twice and help them figure out how the mistake can be fixed such as breaking the music into chunks, playing hands separately, working on counting and ABSOLUTELY knowing their notes: the names on the staff, where they are on the keyboard and which finger is the best one to use for each note. A good safe learning environment is HUGEly important!

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