Thursday 12 August 2010

Play through your mistakes

I've talked about this before, but I was just emailing with Ryan G about it and I thought I've gotta bring it up again: play through your mistakes.

Our natural tendency as players is when we fluff it, to stop, go back and play the part again, or stop, or start again from scratch...sure, during the early days of learning a new song you need to practise little bits over and over to force it into your brain, but once it is in your brain, my rule is if you are going to play a song, play it from start to finish and play through any mistake.

Most guitarists will start as half-song playing guitarists and that's fine - but arguably we should move on from there. If you are playing just for yourself and the dog, or playing for a packed venue, I believe you need to play a song from start to finish. To do that, heh, you need to practise playing a song from start to finish :)

Once I realised that it doesn't matter how many times I practise a song I won't ever be able to play it perfectly every time, I had to focus on how to recover after making a mistake. If your first instinct when you make a mistake is to stop, then you won't ever learn how to play through your mistakes. Sounds pretty straight forward doesn't it.

Keeping on beat is everything. If you have made a mistake but haven't dropped a beat, you know, it's probably only you who is going to notice. If that's the first thing you achieve from practising playing through your mistakes, then that is half the battle won.

Linking back in - you've made a mistake somewhere, now you want to get back on track. What chord are you in? What is the next chord? If you just fall back to playing some notes or strumming in the chord, and link back in on the next chord change, you'll be fine. This requires you to actually _understand_ the music you are playing - not just a sequence of notes. I fall down a lot in this area, being a programmable guitar playing robot. But by paying a little bit more attention to the music - and practising playing through my mistakes - I've become more able to fumble my way through most of my repetoire.

I could keep going...and often do...but I'll cut this one short. As my regular readers will know (there are 14 now Roman!) I have a set of JAW's Laws that not everyone agrees with; playing through your mistakes forms part of it. Tracing the lineage of this law it goes something like this: Play the guitar for audiences - audiences want to hear full songs - practise playing full songs - you will make mistakes - practise playing through your mistakes.



  1. Good point. I'm definitely a programmable robot. Not a good one at that.

    In order to really focus on the music, not the rote learning ... I think one has to play stuff well within your technical ability. I've been trying to do that a little, learning how to strum and sing simple songs and more basics like scales.

  2. Hey Ol, yeah, I suspect there are a few of us programmable guitar playing robots out there.

    Because I'm lazy, or uninterested, or just stupid, my approach to _music_ is a bit top-down. Instead of the tried and true bottom-up, learn the basics, build up on your foundations and eventually become a great musician I'm cheating. I've learnt how to be a good guitar player, and grudgingly learnt a bit of the actual music behind it.

    Which means that I can play tricky stuff, dipping down with just enough of a clue as to what is really going on, how I can get myself out of trouble, and, shock horror, maybe even throw in the odd bit of improvisation!

    It will never last, one day I will have to tough it out and learn some theory :)

    How about this: How many times have you attempted to jump into a song you know really well, at some random place, and actually been able to play from there? How many times have you instead have to go back to the nearest datum - the start of a verse, chorus, or some other logical marker? The sign of a programmable guitar playing robot. Terrible isn't it :)


  3. Yeah. Just like trying to read the alphabet starting at 'f', in my mind it goes 'abcdef ... g' bingo.

    Same with improvisation - you need to be able to know the notes in your key without playing the scale again to find out.

  4. I do make mistakes like any other musician, but I personnally get very annoyed by mistakes, yes they are part of playing, I know that however much you practice you WILL make mistakes, and I completely agree with you, play through your mistakes, that's the best advice, however I still find it frustrating. Especially for fingerstyle guitar, where the melody is so important, you want every note to be perfect and clear, being able to carry on without dropping the beat is a priority I agree, but it doesn't prevent the frustration, if you fluff a melody note (or just don't play it the way it was supposed to be), there's something missing and your whole performance has lost something, lost some of its value, that's my opinion... then no wonder I haven't been able to record for Youtube yet!

  5. Ah Roman, you are such a perfectionist! Stop it! :)

    Correct, mistakes are frustrating, but we've got to forgive ourselves. To err is to be human. If you drop a note in the melody there are two options - forget about it, the listener either mentally inserted it for you or just didn't notice; - or play the note a beat or two later "I was just playing it off beat for effect :)" I've heard Naudo miss melody notes and then fub it in offbeat like it is totally what he meant to do - and it's only through many, many listenings I actually noticed it.

    When I look at the awful performance of Canon in D I recorded in 2006 for youtube, I cringe. And so many people who actually use it at their weddings; "but it's got so many errors, it's not good enough!?!" - the resounding response is that they consider the mistakes "humanises" the rendition. I don't know if I agree, but it was enough prompting to learn how to forgive myself, stop being such a perfectionist, and just play on, warts and all.

    In fact that is something I negleted to say in this blog - when you play through your mistakes, you stop being a perfectionist, you learn how to forgive yourself, you relax, the mistakes don't kill the joy - your ability to play improves and the chances of making mistakes is diminished!

  6. I'm starting to think about an article for my blog about not doing things as a result of being a perfectionist.
    Thanks Jaw, the things you say are very true, and it's not like I wasn't aware of it, but it's still good to hear it.

  7. Yes yes, one of the few things i remember from my school band days. If your gonna make mistakes, as we all will, we may as well get practice in making them seem graceful.
    I make mistakes all the time. I don't know if i have ever played an entire song "perfectly". It is frustrating when you seem to plateau, making only 1 or 2 noticeable mistakes in a given song. They seem to never just go away immediately, but their magnitude diminishes steadily. Its still funny to me how many more I make when I record.
    As for jumping into music, yeah, I need to start at a verse or the chorus unless its something i sing to. I think the additional associations your mind creates b/t the lyrics and the chord progression helps a lot.

    Ryan G

  8. You are right - the moment you have a camera on you, or have active listeners - the more mistake you'll make :) Although, under pressure I find that I concentrate harder and am less likely to make "fundamental" mistakes - like totally forgetting what comes next, it's more just the missed notes and fret buzz that happens due to not being relaxed. That's not so bad, the little mistakes are playable through, if you completely forget where you are, well, that's a bit annoying. There is one Naudo video where I'm quite sure he forgot what he was doing and abruptly did an improvised ending. I'm not certain, but I'm quite sure :)

    I think hacker musicians such as myself remember music in little packets of information, which is why it is very hard to jump in anywhere. It makes sense that your brain organises songs into pieces, there's a lot of things it needs to remember. I think to be able to remember hundreds of songs you actually need to understand the language of music - not just remembering lots of pieces that make up a song. Don't know. A good subject for a blog! :)


  9. That is true. Understanding the language of music is certainly the proper method of strengthening your ability to dive anywhere into any song. A more natural way for me to build up the entire structure of the song and/or memorize the notes is to sing while i play, even just softly to myself. Songs like Canon do not lend themselves to this, and they are much more difficult (550 notes in that piece, quite a lot if you ask me but I'm new to this). When i do relatively complex math in my head I find it easy to remember answers from the 1st few steps by assigning them a name. The additional association creates a much stronger ability to recall that information. I think that is true universally, albeit with a couple more variables of more or less equal impact. lol of course none of this is a proper replacement of the fundamentals.. one day!!
    Now I'm just rambling, sorry.

    I did read something interesting the other day, this falls into the theory of it all. Musical notes whose frequencies form simple numerical ratios sound harmonious to us (with a few cultural exceptions).

    Anyway, thanks again JAW,
    Ryan G

  10. great post. super relevant to me. I am in the situation, probably like many others, where I am trying to learn too many songs at once. I have ended up with a ton of fragments, but very few songs - but hey.. at least its a start! The goal now is to really concentrate on putting the pieces together. how many songs do you try to tackle learning at once?

  11. I think it is important when starting out to be gratified - the first time you rattle off the main riff to Smoke on the Water, Enter Sandman or Stairway to Heaven you get a great deal of satisfaction. If you can't get some satisfaction you are likely to give up the guitar altogether, after all, it is quite a hard instrument to pick up.

    At some stage you are (should be) no longer satisfied being a half song playing guitarist, and will concentrate of being able to play full songs - be it playing & singing, part of a band, or going it alone fingerstyle like me. But, we all needed the half songs to get us to the stage where we are a guitar-lifer :)

    I'll always poke fun at half song playing guitarists, but I'd rather see a keen half song playing guitarist than someone who gave up.

    How many songs do I have on the go at any one time? Normally two, sometimes one, sometimes three. One is not so good because you can't fall back on the other when you are all song one outted. Three, for the amount of time I get to work on a song (currently 4 hours a week max), is too much. If you have a few hours a day you can spend on playing - and love to spend on playing - then I'd say three, four, five...but don't get too carried away, the goal should still be to try and finish existing ones before picking up new ones!

    Out of interest my current in-progress songs are "Something" and "Happy Birthday" - there is a story behind the latter, I'll save that for a blog! :)


  12. Excellent advice Jaw. But you underrate yourself as a guitarist. That Pachelbels Canon has 2 million views for a reason. Your tabs have inspired many a beginner and amateur guitarist alike. Soak up the attention that you deserve !