On Careless Mistakes – Practising the Piano

Think back to when you learned to ride a bicycle. It was a process, right? You fell off many times before you figured out how to coordinate your body to stay on the cycle, and when you took a tumble nobody reprimanded you for it nor did you give up. You knew deep down that these “mistakes” were nothing more than the learning process itself. The first time we learn something new it is difficult – it takes effort and perseverance until it becomes natural and easy.

Relating this to piano playing, I want to distinguish between three different types of what we might label mistakes:

  • clumsiness or awkwardness as we acquire and refine the motor skills necessary for a particular piece or technical skill
  • accidental mistakes that happen in performance when we are under stress
  • honest mistakes that happen during a lesson, when you know you can play it perfectly well at home
  • mistakes that arise in our practice room from a careless and sloppy attitude

I am not going to concern myself with the first three points. We are not robots, and therefore fallibility is part of our story. Why is it, when the consequences of sloppy practice are so debilitating when we have to perform, do players indulge in it? I think it is because serious piano practice is actually rather difficult. It takes as much concentration as we can muster, constant listening, evaluating and reflecting and a fair amount of frustration at times. Much easier just to sit there and enjoy the music, and the physical act of playing the piano.


With a new or newish piece, there’s a great temptation to learn it by repeatedly reading it through. You get into a state of flow after half an hour of this, sensing that you know the piece well. How disheartening and frustrating to discover the next day that you’re back to square one – nothing seems to have stuck.


You’ve opened your score and you’re sitting there playing, really enjoying how the music is sounding and feeling. Trouble is, you’re turning a blind eye to the LH fingering that always derails you in bar 6 (“I’ll work it out one day”), and a deaf ear to the chord in bar 27 (“I know it’s not quite right, but I’m bound to get it by the end of the week”). You stop and start again constantly, but somehow assume you’ll manage to get from the start to the finish in one beautiful long arch with no stumbles or fumbles in your performance as if my magic.

There is a lot of truth to the proverb “a stitch in time saves nine” applied to piano practice. What are the odds that, having played a note, chord or a passage wrong nine times and correct only on the tenth attempt, you will get it right in your performance or exam on the first attempt? Slim, I’d say, but a lot of players seem to allow themselves to get away with murder in their practice (when they are calm and relaxed) and are then surprised that not everything goes quite according to plan when they are called upon to perform (when they might feel somewhat anxious).

I am going to present you with probably the most boring video I have ever made, and I doubt I will ever make one more boring even if I live to be 100. I would request that you watch it all the way to the end because it does make a point – a very important point about the way first impressions seem to become hard-wired into our brain. If you ingrain a careless error, it may well take a lot of time, energy and effort to correct it later. Like a stain on a carpet, the original mistake is always there in the background, waiting to resurface just when you least expect it (when you’re nervous or off your guard). So, the moral of this story is to be on the alert for careless errors in your practice, and when they happen – fix them immediately!

It took about 5 seconds to write the word “error” and even after a laborious minute of erasing I had not managed to remove its impression from the page. No matter how much longer I spent erasing, I would still not eliminate it completely.

For more on this subject, I can highly recommend William Westney’s excellent book The Perfect Wrong Note: Learning to Trust Your Musical Self , where he makes the important distinction between honest mistakes and careless mistakes.