Do you find yourself making the same mistake over. And. Over. in your violin practice? We all can relate to this irritating problem.

Fortunately, the solution is simple: improving your PRACTICE HABITS, and learn how to interrupt that cycle where you make the same mistake on the first try and fix it on the second try.

First, lose the training wheels

If you make the mistake, is it better to run back and fix it, or just plow forward and let it go? Let’s think this through. We practice so that we can nail it in performance. Can you go back and fix a mistake in a performance? Of course not.

So to stop making the same mistake in the same spot, the first habit you need to break is that of giving yourself the luxury of a second chance. The reason we screw up in performance is because we practice for perfection instead of practicing to recover from mistakes that may happen.

How to prepare for mistake recovery

If you prepare yourself to successfully get through a piece of music without stopping, regardless of mistakes made, you will have a great safety net for times when you make a totally unexpected mistake in performance and cannot stop.

This is what I call “practicing for mistake recovery”. Mistakes are going to happen. They’re just part of being human. What you want to do is to make them as rarely as possible, and with as little disruption as possible.

The most important recovery tool is your mental recovery. The ability to let mistakes go, to not dwell on them. Immediately turn your focus to what you are playing at the moment, and what is coming up in the next few seconds. This helps you let go of the mistake. STAY focused in the present, anticipating slightly for difficult special focus passages.

But also, keep in mind that very often the audience does not know you made a mistake unless you broadcast it with your facial expression or body language. Keep a poker face! To help prepare for mistake recovery BEFORE a performance, you simply have to practice getting into the performance mind-set of “no do-overs”. Perform for family, friends, a video camera, even a teddy bear. Try to simulate the feeling you will have when you perform.

Cold turkey, hot turkey

When helping students to overcome a stubborn mistake spot, we first work on the passage to iron out the difficulty, analyzing the root of the problem, overcoming it, then playing it correctly several times in a row.

Later in the lesson, I come back to that passage unexpectedly and ask the student to prepare mentally, and then play it for me cold turkey, to see if they can nail it on their first try. This is the real test of whether they have fixed the problem.

But even that is not enough. Sometimes, a student can nail the passage when it is isolated from the rest of the music. So once they can nail it cold, I have them plug it in and play it “hot turkey.” This means they have to play it in context without slowing down or stumbling in any way. Once they can play it both hot and cold turkey, it’s pretty darned stable.

Let me outline a few steps I use in my own practice to help me gain more consistency and eliminate pesky repeated mistakes once and for all!

  1. Isolate the trouble spot and figure out why it is hard. Is it left hand, right hand, string crossing…be a detective and figure out the root cause. (hint: mistakes are often triggered by a tough string crossing or slur, or a shift with the left hand, although there are many different possibilities)
  2. Practice that trouble spot slowly, until you can do it 10 times in a row right. Then faster, 10 times, then faster 10 times. If you screw it up, you have to reset your counter to zero.

    The trick here is to slow down enough to where you can play it absolutely perfectly and easily. If you cannot play the passage perfectly no matter how slow you go, then you have a technique deficiency, and it will require much more study to raise your technical ability to the demands of the passage. But let’s assume you can play it perfectly very slowly. It is important to allow your body and mind to experience playing with perfection and ease many times before speeding it up. This is untangling the bad habits you developed by making the same mistake over and over. Speed it up only after 10 perfect runs in a row.

  3. This is the Cold Turkey step. After you have completed step 2 above, do something else for awhile to let your muscles forget and reset. Then, come back to the passage, prepare yourself mentally, and try to nail it a little slower than your maximum speed. This sets you up for success. If you nail it at the slightly slower speed, AWESOME. You are well on your way. Do something else for a few minutes, then try it Cold Turkey up to your full speed. If you cannot do it cold turkey, then you simply need to go back to step 2 a little more.

    The whole point of Cold Turkey practice is to break the habit of giving yourself a second shot. Nailing it after you have been practicing it for 20 minutes does not prepare you for performance. Cold Turkey prepares you for performance.

  4. This is the Hot Turkey step. You need to successfully anticipate the spot you usually mess up, and prepare yourself to nail it as it approaches. This might involve slowing down a little (or a lot), putting a short break before the hard note, whatever it takes to successfully nail it, in context, perfectly, on the first try. Then, try to do it successfully 10 times in a row in context. Once you do that, try to minimize the slowing down or the break, and do it 10 times. Then finally, eliminate the slow down or the break, and try it 10 times.

    One other Hot Turkey technique I use is to figure out at what metronome speed can I nail the trouble spot. Then I start at that speed, I practice the whole section so that I stop screwing it up, and learn that I CAN nail it. Even if it’s a snail speed, at least I’m breaking the habit of messing up and starting all over. I do it 10 times. Then I speed up ONE metronome mark, and do it 10 times. Then another mark, 10 times, and so on. As you get better at this, you can sometimes only do 5 times, and you can bump up the metronome several clicks. But it takes time to develop the focus skills.

This might seem like a long, complicated process. But it’s really not. It just takes a while to explain. The key is smart, targeted repetition. That’s how you break a bad habit, by replacing it with one or more good ones.