Chances are, if you’ve done much reading on teaching and skill development you’ve heard of myelin. Myelin, a mix of proteins and phospholipids, wraps around nerve fibers. Skill is built by myelin wrapping around neural pathways, like pavement being laid on a road, making it more durable and easier to travel. Every repetition lays another layer, strengthening that skill. Myelin is nondiscriminatory; it reinforces bad habits and good. For that reason, you have to make sure you have more correct repetitions than bad, so the correct neural pathway is easier to access (better paved.) This is capital-S Science, it is true, I am not going to argue with it.
My complaint is that I often see this knowledge of skill development misused. Parents and teachers stop their children playing when they see a mistake coming, they don’t allow a child to try to play a song they’ve heard a thousand times but not learned, sometimes they don’t even allow the violin to come out of the case without supervision from a parent or a teacher making sure that no mistakes happen. I think this fear of mistakes is in itself a mistake. This philosophy is, in my mind, based on a false assumption- that a child’s brain is a machine, and a simple one at that.
A child is a complex system. Their brain does not simply need a critical mass of correct repetitions. Yes, to be a good musician, a child needs to be able to play the right notes with beautiful tone. They also need a growth mindset, a healthy attitude towards mistakes, and a love of music. Treating a mistake or a failure like the big bad wolf coming to blow their house down, insures that their love of the instrument is like a house built out of hay. It will collapse at the slightest sneeze of the wolf. Mistakes should not be glossed over or ignored. They should be celebrated! Children should know that a mistake is a wonderful opportunity for growth. If they’re not hearing the mistake, what a wonderful time to work on listening skills. If they’re playing out of tune, what a wonderful time to work on intonation. If they accidentally play the repeat five times instead of two, what a wonderful time to learn more about mindful practice.
Children learn best through play. In my own experience as a former child and now as a mother, play involves lots of falling, skinned knees, and an occasional poke to the eye. Trying to keep your student from making a mistake, and thus paving the wrong myelin road, is the equivalent of a mother wrapping her child in bubble wrap before sending them to the playground. What fun is that? We should emphasize play in practice more than we emphasize the dreaded mistake. That may come in the form of practicing games, improvisation, or just making a silly face. But it does not come in the form of panic over failure.
My motto: I develop musicians, not machines.
How do you feel about mistakes? Please share your philosophy in the comments!