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I am having a debate with the drummer in my band. His view seems to be that it is inevitable that musicians will make mistakes so it is more important to practice recovering from mistakes than it is to practice not making the mistake in the first place. I find this viewpoint extremely odd, and to be honest a bit of an excuse for not practicing and making mistakes. No one in my band practices alone and they make constant mistakes, and fail to remember arrangements. However the whole band are beginning to argue that this is ok: "It's fine to make mistakes", "I like imperfection" are just some of the excuses given for not practicing. The thing is I think its sloppy and lazy and I feel embarrassed on stage often. I am not sure if I should just ditch this band if this is the attitude. Before I take such drastic steps I'd like to know the views of others on this topic? Am I wrong to think this perhaps?

For a professional musician, (or aspiring professional), do you think its more important to practice recovering from mistakes (i.e. covering them up) or should the primary focus of practice be on eradicating mistakes form one's playing and technique? And what kind of attitude is expected of professional musicians?

11 Answers 11

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First of all, it's worth analyzing the logic in the drummer's suggestion. How would one practice the skill of recovering from a mistake? It sounds like the drummer is suggesting that the group intentionally make mistakes (or at least, intentionally not learn to play correctly) and subsequently play the very next part of the music correctly. But when someone does this, they're training themselves to play incorrectly--the mistakes become ingrained. Let's take a closer look at the scenario we want to avoid. A musician is performing and suddenly messes up. She wants to recover quickly, which means she wants to quickly return to playing the music correctly. How can she train herself to play the very next part of the song correctly? By practicing that part of the song correctly. Our earlier practice, our muscle memory, and our experience with the song are the things that save us when we make a mistake. People who practice a song thoroughly and without mistakes are quicker to recover from an in-performance mistake than people who don't practice this way.

Given two bands--one that practices their craft and one that doesn't--who will listeners tend to flock to? I think history favors the former. Being a career musician requires a lot of hard work and sacrifice. Practicing at home is probably one of the easiest and most convenient tasks required of a career musician. It's important too: practicing produces improvement, and there's no debating this fact. Someone who isn't willing to show this low-level commitment to music probably won't be successful in a career as a professional musician.

Spending time practicing to cover up one's mistakes seems destructive and doesn't make sense to me, on any level. I'm understanding this proposal to mean: setting up practice scenarios designed to result in mistakes, in order to then practice hiding them. But practicing in conditions designed to produce mistakes stunts one's progress. Growth is substantially faster when one practices the music under conditions (slow enough tempos, etc.) where one can play the music correctly. Additionally, given how many mistakes you've said your bandmates are making, the attitude/rationale that it's better to practice hiding those mistakes could indicate a destructive mindset that it's more important thing to convince others they are good than to actually be good. But is it really possible to hide one's mistakes? In a professional context, I think the answer is no: mistakes can't be hidden from a producer, a record company, other professional musicians, or even a recording itself. Refusing to improve on one's flaws will set a very low ceiling of success for an aspiring professional musician.

In my opinion, here's the most productive mindset a musician can have on this topic: root out the mistakes one makes (don't ignore them/hide from them), analyze those mistakes, and work hard to avoid making those mistakes in the future. You can choose any genre of music, and most (if not all) of the musicians at the very peak of that genre do not accept a "mistakes are inevitable" attitude. That doesn't necessarily mean those top musicians are flawless--it simply means they practice to remove their mistakes.

As a side note, I'm not suggesting that every time one makes a mistake when practicing, one should immediately stop playing the song. The original post is dealing with a scenario involving "constant mistakes," which I think means that the practice is occurring under conditions that are detrimental. Quite the contrary, continuing to practice a song when one makes an infrequent mistake can be beneficial. Delayed feedback has been shown in some cases to have more benefit than immediate feedback because it forces the person to recall the mistake later, which can strengthen one's memory of the correct way to play. I'm not talking about that scenario involving infrequent mistakes. I'm simply trying to address the idea of whether it makes sense to practice knowing that lots of mistakes will occur, as is described in the original post.

  • Actually, at practice we always do continue playing and don't ever stop when we make a mistake. The problem is no-one is taking steps to reduce the mistake in the first place, possibly because they are good at fudging it together but it doesn't sound great. I myself prefer delayed feedback, but this is no good in my situation as half the band don't know what section I'm talking about by the time we've finished the track if I want to point out a particular mistake or lack of "togetherness" on a certain section. This is my favourite answer as it examines the logic of both arguments. Thanks! – Ralphonz Jul 3 '17 at 8:39
  • @Ralphonz - I try to record any rehearsals I am part of, sometimes to listen to how improvements can be made, sometimes to go back and see exactly what did go wrong. That way, if there's an immediate problem, it can be replayed immediately. No arguments, no hiding, no forgetting. – Tim Jul 3 '17 at 10:47
  • My concern with this band is that listening to awful mistakes does not seem to be motivating them to get it right next time. I do all ready record all the practices (well most of the time!) and make them available to the band via dropbox. – Ralphonz Jul 3 '17 at 11:59
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    @Ralphonz try editing them into tracks and putting them on soundcloud or youtube, then sharing on social media. See if that affects their motivation to correct mistakes :P – Darren Ringer Jul 3 '17 at 14:22
  • @Ralphonz, I think Jared K's answer has done a really nice job of describing the two ways to practice. I agree that practicing performance is important. However, upon practicing performance and finding that the song is full of mistakes, then the next step is to practice the specific portions that cannot yet be played correctly. It sounds like your band members are missing the second step. – jdjazz Jul 3 '17 at 15:28
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Short answer: Both, but practicing to avoid mistakes is by far the more important thing to practice.

The whole idea of rehearsing as a band is to minimize the amount of mistakes you'll make on stage. When rehearsing you will stop when there's a problem and fix it. Hopefully you'll be able to play the song through to the end without error.

That being said, it is inevitable that any musician, no matter how good they are, will make mistakes when performing live. The ability to give the appearance of not making mistakes generally comes from experience playing live, however there is something you can do to practice "covering up mistakes". Just play along to a recording of the song you're playing. If you make a mistake, don't stop. Try to continue along with the recording. It will force you to think on your feet and fudge something so that it appears you didn't make a mistake. Try it when you rehearse with your band as well. Don't stop to fix mistakes, just run through to the end of the song no matter what.

Here is an example of the thought process that I go through when I try to fudge it when making a mistake:

  • Recognize what I played wrong
    I'm playing the verse riff instead of the chorus riff. Whoops I forgot we were playing it twice.
  • Be aware of what the rest of the band is playing
    They're all playing the chorus and they're halfway through the riff already.
  • Fudge what I'm playing to make it sound ok
    I know I'm supposed to be playing a G chord, but I'm playing a C chord. Ok maybe I'll just play a G note because that's definitely in the C chord.
  • Know where I am in the context of the song so I can come back in smoothly
    The start of the chorus riff starts again in the next bar so I'll just hold this G note until then and then I'll be back in business.

The real skill is trying to do all of this without giving the appearance to the crowd that you screwed up (eg: not looking around at your band members, not cursing to yourself).

Even if you do practice "covering up mistakes", you're still going to make mistakes on stage. There is no substitute for being up on stage in front of people playing in a different environment. For me, the best form of practice to "covering up mistakes" is through experience playing live.

  • You mentioned something I'm interested in understanding better. Can you clarify what you mean by "think on your feet and fudge something"? Are you using the word "think" as a metaphor, or do you believe it's best to rectify a mistake by thinking about what to play next to make the mistake sound less like a mistake? If you're using "thinking" as a metaphor, then can you elaborate on what the process entails? If you're talking about playing by instinct, where does that instinct come from? – jdjazz Jul 3 '17 at 0:56
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    By thinking on your feet I mean being able to: - Recognize what you played wrong (I'm playing the verse riff instead of the chorus riff. Whoops I forgot we were playing it twice.) - Be aware of what the rest of the band is playing (They're all playing the chorus and they're halfway through the riff already) - Fudge what I'm playing to make it sound ok (I know I'm supposed to be playing a G chord, but I'm playing a C chord. Ok maybe I'll just play a G note because that's definitely in the C chord) – Craig Curtis Jul 3 '17 at 1:25
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    - Knowing where you are in the context of the song so you can come back in smoothly (The start of the chorus riff starts again in the next bar so I'll just hold this G note until then and then I'll be back in business) So do all of this without giving the physical appearance to the crowd that you screwed up (eg: not looking around at your band members, not cursing to yourself). It takes a long time to learn. :p – Craig Curtis Jul 3 '17 at 1:25
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    I was hoping someone would make this answer. At least one other answer implies that being able to recover from a mistake is pretty much innate--it isn't. It's no more innate than being able to keep the rhythm, or sing while playing, or any other of the skills that take practice for most of us. I'm glad you explained a method of practicing recovery--it's the same method that worked for me. – Wayne Conrad Jul 3 '17 at 3:55
  • @CraigCurtis, would you be willing to edit those examples into your post? I think they're a relevant and helpful part of the perspective you're sharing. – jdjazz Jul 3 '17 at 4:47
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In my experience, it is important to do both. Practicing for mastery is different practicing for performance. When you practice for mastery, you stop when you make a mistake. You rewind a few measures and try to pick out the reason you are faltering. If necessary you practice that sequence on its own for awhile. When you think you have a mastery, you try performing it. In this mode you imagine an audience. You 'perform' it (and I usually record myself doing this) as a whole and if you make a mistake you recover and keep going.

If you only practiced for mastery you might not recover gracefully from a mistake during performance. Your instinct would be to stop. (And there are many other benefits to practicing as if you are really performing)

But if you only practice performance you don't dig into the challenging sequences. You might learn a less-than-perfect execution of a sequence.

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It is definitely fine to make mistakes, however the aim should be to reduce them over time by practicing.

Practicing to recover from mistakes is mostly pointless, as given a modicum of existence, skill or talent you can get back to where you should be in a song. It's just annoying and/or embarrassing.

Practicing to avoid making those mistakes in the first place solves that problem.

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Of course you can only practice getting it right! But this isn't about the philosophy of practice. It's about management. You're pressuring the other band members, they're reacting with silly arguments. You won't win a fight. You might be able to coax them into playing better. Or maybe you need to find a better band.

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This is a heck of a question! Firstly, I'd say go your own separate way. Reason being, not everyone in this band is of the same mindset. You want perfection, they're happy with a lot less. Maybe they just can't remember everything, or aren't that bothered, or aren't that good players. Maybe you find it easier to learn and remember, but aren't adaptable enough to play on after a mistake. However, I'm not saying you're right and they're not.

After rehearsing and playing with literally hundreds of bands over the years, it seems to me that some players want everything to be spot on each time, and will strive for that in rehearsals. Then get to the gig, and someone has forgotten a chord sequence, the order of a song, a special stop/start, etc. At that point, it falls apart, mainly because, as you intimate in your great question, a spanner has been thrown in the works. That apart, just how boring is it to have to play each song exactly the same each gig? I can do it, but that isn't music - it's become a trick one can trot out. More later...

Yes, mistakes do happen, for all sorts of reasons. BUT, if a song is known well enough, each and every member playing should have the propensity to recover. I have a recording of one band I worked in, and listening back, realised the singer came in late for a chorus. All the others merely played an extra bit - as one - and picked up again. No-one was aware of it at the time, it happened spontaneously. Had it been practised? Had it heck! It's seasoned players listening and responding, just getting on with the job.

So, should you 'practise' mistakes and recovery? Certainly not. And above all, don't stop when there is a mistake. Keep playing, or at least keep listening - to those who didn't make the mistake, and pick it up again as soon as possible.

More! To me, music playing is more organic than organised. Unless you're all working from an orch., where it must be followed to a T, it ought to be possible to put in another chorus, solo, stop/start etc. Even playing with guys who haven't been met before (so no rehearsals) it is realistic. It involves listening - to yourself, others and the whole caboodle. So many don't seem to be able to do that. In their own little bubble is no place to be playing in a band. It's teamwork, and getting someone out of trouble should be second nature. Singer goes into chorus at the wrong time? Go with it - keep looking and listening, but go with the flow. No point in stopping. That's making the point that yes, we did cock up. Above all, play with folk who are of like mind - one way or the other.

And if all else fails - blame the bass player...often me...

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I think the old saying "Practice makes permanent" is most applicable here.

There are two really important things to consider, and then one more for a drummer.

First, most often, the only time someone will ever even know if you make a mistake is if they are "trained" to listen for it. A normal audience will never know if you make a mistake, unless you make a big deal about it. For that reason it is important to practice continuing even after a mistake. Wrong note, keep going, most people won't even notice.

Second, for someone that is "trained" no amount of recovery is going to make you not notice the mistake. I wrong note, a missed hit, the wrong volume, all of it will get noticed an logged. Making a "recovery" will just make it worse. Own up to your mistake by moving on. Again, the key is to practice moving on once you make a mistake.

Third, and this is for the drummer mostly, but is true for all members of a group. The drummer though, is the "heat beat" of the band. Everyone else's timing revolves around their ability to keep time. They are the "metronome" when you play. One of the first things you learn in a "classical" band is that tapping your toe or stumping your feet on stage is LOUD, so you have to watch the conductor, and LISTEN to the percussion section to the beat. If the drummer is making mistakes and then "recovering" in different ways, how in the world is the rest of the band supposed to know when to react.

It is important to "practice" "just keep swimming" when your making mistakes. But it's more important to practice not making the mistakes in the first place. A good analogy is "It's important to know what to do when you get in a car accident, but it's better to learn how to avoid the accident at all"

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Please note that I am using the English spelling of practise/practice here. The great Australian guitarist, Jim Kelly, will sometimes say to a student in a workshop, 'Ok, good, you've learned the song. You've learned it wrong, and now it's going to take you longer to unlearn it and learn it correctly, but credit where credit's due'. Music is an investment in time: time taken to learn it; time taken to perform it and time taken for the audience to listen to it. Professionals cannot afford to waste time, so they invest time in getting tunes right. What's more, professionals consider it disrespectful to come to a rehearsal unprepared. In jamming, musicians give each other permission to stretch their improvisatory chops, but jamming is not an efficient way to learn new material. If you are outnumbered by unprofessionals who are not committed to individual practice, then I'd suggest you are at a crossroads in your musical journey. Beware the 'social drummer'.

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I think there is truth in the fact that learning to recover from and cover up mistakes is really important. I have had many times in bands where i make the mistake of playing the wrong chord or something similar. In these performances I have always tried to be aware of what is happening and I have recovered from these mistakes. I have also had guitar strings break mid-song and have had to get other musicians to start songs afterwards. One thing I learnt from this is that checking my guitar beforehands and practicing in a way that I know songs well will usually mean less mistakes such as these are made. Isn't it quite obvious that practicing is so we get more skilled at our instruments and then through that we don't make mistakes? I thought the idea of practicing was to refine skills and learn new ones. Learning to recover from mistakes is simply practicing to have a good ear and then keep playing so the audience doesn't notice or forgets a mistake.

So I would say that practice is to refine your skills and communication as a band because this will, in turn, lead to less mistakes. If mistakes are made, the biggest tip given to me was to 'just keep playing' or in other words find the right chord progression/beat and continue with this.

Good luck in this band or any other you may choose to join. :)

  • Thanks for the response man :) Yeah, I would have thought when you are a "competent" player it goes without saying that you just keep playing! I mean, we're not 10 year old music students anymore and at the very least I'd have thought that was obvious to musicians of their calibre that you don't simply stop when you make a mistake.... – Ralphonz Oct 31 '17 at 21:43
  • @Ralphonz - Mistakes will happen-we are all human. If you listen carefully, maybe 75% of recordings, even by the best, will show a small mistake, and I can name famous recordings with big mistakes. But: The musicians are pros. That means two things 1) They know the music cold-so when a mistake does happen, nobody gets mixed up and loses their place-the music flows on and the mistake disappears into the past. 2) They don't get flummoxed by a mistake - they know mistakes happen, and when they do, it's taken in stride and everyone just moves on. (these points are related to one another) – Stinkfoot Oct 31 '17 at 21:57
  • Also what I was getting at in my original post was actually more related to structure, i.e after years of playing a piece someone still doesn't know part B comes again after part C because they simply can't be bothered to practice it and get it right and basically learn the song. I wasn't actually referring to small "mistakes" such as playing one wrong note in a fast run or small timing and groove nuances. I guess there are lots of different kinds of "mistakes" and it just depends where you draw the line. I have noticed some people draw the line much higher than others! – Ralphonz Nov 1 '17 at 8:28
  • Haha, true, I misunderstood. In performances I sometimes just find out the structure of the song and write down the order on a piece of paper. This worked specially well for my schools worship band. – Unknown Nov 1 '17 at 9:10
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Is it ok to practice for both?

When I play in a band, most of the practice for me is learning and understanding the music, so that even though I'm improvising, I understand where the song will go next. When I learn a song, I spend a lot of time learning its intricacies and quirks so that I anticipate them.

But I also end up better learning to cover up mistakes that I will inevitably make because I'm a flawed human being. Both of them are good, important things, aren't they?

As far as what you focus on, if you're playing with/for someone, your practice for that should focus on learning and understanding the song, but your own practice should include training on mistake recovery. Both of them are essential.

If you have the opportunity to practice for avoiding mistakes, ie you have access to the music beforehand to learn, there really is no excuse for not learning it. Not making a mistake is still preferable to recovering from one.

Mistake recovery is a skill that a musician should cultivate, just like impromptu skills are something a politician or salesman should cultivate. But you don't expect impromptu skills to replace being able to memorize or accurately convey a prepared speech, do you?

Also, upon reading your question again, I wonder: Do you guys only jam, or do you have access to songs beforehand? I want to be sure I'm answering the question correctly... ;-)

  • Yes we have luxury access to baking tracks of our album which I produced. For each band member I made separate mixes of the tracks without their parts in so they could practice the tracks and even expand upon them in their own time but not one of them has bothered to use them in the 6-7 months they've been available. I only get responses such as "I can't play on my own" or "it strange not playing with real people" when I am trying to encourage them to practice more. – Ralphonz Jul 3 '17 at 8:31
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    @ralphonz Then it's pretty clear that they're being extremely unprofessional. The basic expectation when you're playing in a group is that everyone will do their part to practice. Try playing in an orchestra! There's nothing weirder than playing an oddball third violin part by yourself of something you've never heard, but I've been doing it since I was 10. I understand you've had this discussion, but have you made it specifically clear that you feel you've been unequally yoked? I always feel that, even in these situations, people and relationships are more important than the craft. – General Nuisance Jul 3 '17 at 14:01
  • (Not at all that if it comes to it you shouldn't drop out, just make sure they know what's at stake here before you pull the rug. If you can extract yourself so that nobody gets hurt, it's always preferable to a firy breakup!) – General Nuisance Jul 3 '17 at 14:02
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    thanks for that advice. Obviously I want to be nice about it, after all they are my friends as well. It only seems fair to try to communicate whats at stake but it is also quite frustrating at times, especially when you know how good someone could be at something if only they'd put the work in! – Ralphonz Jul 3 '17 at 23:42
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This was given to me as a description, I sort of like it.

An amateur practices until he can play the piece. A true professional trains until he will never play the piece wrong.

Incidentally, I am still at the amateur level.

/Gunnar

protected by Dom May 11 '18 at 1:47

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