Music, like all art, is a practice of continually mastering techniques to the best of your current abilities. I like this view because it implies two things. First, that there is a way to perfect any skill to enhance your playing. Second, it implies that perfection is fleeting and only tied to your current skill set. As you get better, you’ll find better ways to do things you thought you had down perfect. A fun story to help illustrate that this consistent search for true perfection exists at all levels of playing
Pablo Casals, an amazing cellists was in part famous for beginning every day by playing all six Bach unaccompanied cello suites. When someone asked “Why do you insist on playing all six suites each day?” he responded with “Because I think I’m getting better.”
There’s all types of quotes just like that. It’s humbling and inspiring all at the same time.
That said, when practicing you’ll make mistakes. Those mistakes must be eliminated – not just glazed over in hopes someone won’t notice. To do that, there’s a few ideas.
1. Find the mistake. Seems obvious, but first thing you need to do is pin point the exact problem. Taking the example of learning a new chord like the G Chop (that’d be playing the 7th on the G, the 5th on D, the 2nd on A, and 3rd on E). Finger the chord like normal, and play each note until you hear the mistake.
2. Isolate the cause of the mistake. Once you’ve found where the issue lies, isolate the cause. Back to the chord example, say the issue was missing the note on the D string (the 5th fret on D) because the pinky is touching the D string and deadening it.
3. Start practicing the mistake only. You’d start by playing just the 7th fret on the G string with your pinky then, once that is solid, add the next note (5th fret on D) with your ring finger. Play both notes until they sound clean. Once they are clean, add the next (2nd fret on A) and again play each note as well as strumming the chord. If there’s no issues, add the next note (3rd fret on E) and repeat.
4. Understand the cause of the mistake. Once you’ve fixed the immediate issue (in this example, getting all the notes in a chord to sound clean), think about what really caused the problem and practice that too. In this example, the most likely cause is either a weak pinky or an awkward chord change. For the weak pinky, I’d do pinky exercises like playing scales in Running Thirds or peddling on the pinky. For the awkward changes, basically just practicing the chord prior to the mistake and the chord that caused the mistake. Ideally here you’ll be looking for ways to make the transition easier. I’ll dive more into those practices in a future article (or we can discuss at your lesson).
5. Practice the mistake and just before / after. Once you’ve figured out the mistake and found how to fix it, put it in practice. In the chord example, play the chord just before the mistake, then move to the chord that had the mistake slowly. Watch how your fingers transition and see if there’s anyway to improve that transition. Once you’ve gotten a clean transition in these two chords, add the chord after the mistake as well. Repeat the same process to have those three clean. Then move back to the beginning of the phrase (not the song) and get all the chord transitions clean. Once you have that, you should be able to play the whole piece cleanly.
Remember, you’ll always make mistakes. When practicing at home, your goal is eliminate those. When playing live, your goal is to make mistakes that slip through your practicing sound intended – a skill for another lesson.