Monday Mailbag – 5 Tips for Helping Students Fix Persistent Mistakes

How do you help your students when they keep playing the same mistakes? I tried different method and section or so-called “smart practice” with him, but somehow, he still makes the same mistakes even though I have said that a thousand times!

What a relevant question for all of us music teachers! This is such a broad issue that we could approach it dozens of different ways, but let me just offer 5 tips for addressing persistent mistakes:

  1. Identify what the root issue is that’s causing the mistake. As the teacher, you basically have to be a super sleuth – watching every little detail as your student plays so that you know what’s going on and what issues need to be addressed. For example, let’s say that your student is playing the wrong note every single time in a particular place. As the teacher, you have to observe and figure out why – is he reading it incorrectly? Or is he using a poor fingering choice that’s causing him to miss the note? Or is he playing by ear and has the wrong note stuck in his head so that it sounds like the correct note?
  2. Guide the student to identify the problem. Start more generally and move to specific targeted questions, like, “Are there any spots where you’re having trouble?” “Do you like how the piece sounds when you play it?” “Do you have any questions about any of the notes?” “In measure 5, do you realize that you’re playing a note differently than what’s written in the printed music?” “Can you tell which note it is?” And so on.
  3. Help the student hear the difference between the correct way to play it and the incorrect way that they are playing it. This seems similar to the previous point, but it’s one step further. I actually hit on this crucial step after one of my lessons one week. At my first practice time following the lesson, I stared at my printed music, thinking, “I know there was something about this section that I needed to fix, but now I can’t remember what it was!” As I thought about this disconnect in my own experience, I realized that teachers often hear a problem and tell the student what it is and how to fix it; but unless the student actually hears the problem for himself, he won’t be able to take the appropriate ownership to make a difference in his playing. Basically, you want to get the student to the point that when he plays it incorrectly, he immediately hears it and is compelled to fix it.
  4. Determine the student’s level of interest in fixing the mistake. Is this a piece that the student has been working on for months and is sick of playing? Do they like the piece? Do they want to play it better, or are they happy with where it’s at? Of course, you don’t want to enable students who have a tendency toward laziness, but I think there are plenty of legitimate reasons to move on even if a piece is not perfected. As the teacher, just make a note of the concept or skill with which the student is struggling and find another piece of repertoire that will address it.
  5. Be up front with the student. Maybe it’s because I’m impatient with lack of progress, or maybe it’s because I’ve just learned not to gloss over things with my students, but I have no problem saying to a student. “OK, you’ve been playing this same mistake for the last three weeks. Are you really still having trouble with it or are you just not putting in the time to fix it?” Put the responsibility back on their shoulders if you’ve given them the tools and instruction they need to fix the mistakes and play the piece. Above all, welcome communication. Find out what’s going on and why they aren’t making progress. I used to have a habit of tip-toeing around things like this because I didn’t want to hurt my students’ feelings, but nobody enjoys doing something repeatedly that they’re not good at, so if they’ve been stuck on the same problem for a considerable length of time, be up front and work with them to figure out how to get past it. Encourage them and let them know that you have confidence that they can overcome the difficulties and play the piece beautifully. Everyone – including the student – will be much happier in the end!

Like I said, there are many other ways of addressing situations like this – and we all face such situations! So, does anyone have other tips they’d like to offer for helping students overcome persistent mistakes?

Remember, if you have a question you’d like to contribute to next week’s Monday Mailbag, leave it in the comments below or send me an e-mail sometime this week with Monday Mailbag in the subject line!

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