A&HHE Special Issue August 2016AHHELogo-300x300

Developing an explicit approach to error management in instrumental music education

Silke Kruse-Weber and Cristina Marin
University of Music and Performing Arts Graz


Dealing with errors is a significant issue for musicians of all levels of proficiency throughout their career. How we deal with mistakes and how we learn from them has a powerful impact on the processes of instrumental music teaching, practising and performing. Whereas the benefits of risk and error management are widely accepted in other disciplines, in the context of musical performance the potential for error is still underestimated. This paper presents structured approaches to error management that have been developed in several disciplines and considers the application of such approaches in instrumental pedagogy. A more explicit, creative and differentiated approach to working with mistakes in the process of teaching, learning and performing music could help to change current attitudes towards error prevention in ways that would enhance music practice and music performance.


Error management, instrumental music education, error management training, risk management, metacognition, music performance, error friendliness, instrumental practice


Making mistakes is a basic feature of being human. No one is immune. However, mistakes can lead to severe and irreversible consequences in high-risk disciplines such as aviation and surgery. Not surprisingly, then, theories of risk and error management play an important role in organizational psychology and operational processes of such disciplines and have been widely researched (Helmreich, 2000; Keith and Frese, 2008; Koglbauer, 2009; Zapf et al., 1999).

Although the impact of errors in music performance cannot be compared with those that occur in hospitals and flights, there are some similarities. As in other disciplines, music performance involves a dynamic, complex system in which large amounts of data are processed quickly and mistakes can cause psychological distress. Errors in concerts and competitions, for example, may generate responses in a musician as extreme as a feeling that their career is over. When errors lead to such negative experiences, they are often generally considered from a destructive perspective, and fear of errors can induce state anxiety and stage fright, in turn affecting performance quality (Möller, 2004). A vicious circle can start to have a long term impact and damage musical careers (Kenny and Osborne, 2006).

In Instrumental pedagogy we are confronted with a striking lack of explicit and theoretical knowledge about error management, learning from errors and strategies for preparing performance skills (Kruse-Weber and Parncutt, 2014). Thus, one key aspect for a constructive way of learning from errors is the error competency of the teacher (Gewiese et al. 2011), but to date this aspect has received scarce attention in instrumental pedagogy  (Kruse-Weber, 2012a; Kruse-Weber and Parncutt, 2014; Mantel, 2003; Röbke, 2006; Spychiger, 1998).  Furthermore it is a widespread view that errors are attributed to too little practice:

Mrs. P.: I am playing a movement from a Mozart horn concerto. The teacher points out the rhythmical inaccuracies and the wrong notes. I play it again, the rhythm goes better, but wrong notes remain. The teacher points the wrong notes out again, but without suggesting what is causing the problems – [namely poor breath control -] or offering any help. The quality of the sound does not improve, although I try really hard. Then the teacher instructs me to practise the concerto better before the next lesson and moves on to the next piece (Kruse-Weber, 2012b).

The purpose of this paper is to introduce and analyse concepts of error management taken from other disciplines (Kruse-Weber and Parncutt, 2014), which we consider relevant and applicable to the musical context, and to discuss them from the perspective of learning theories and music education.

Different learning approaches and dealing with errors

A first issue to be considered before analysing error management is what are the causes that make errors more likely to appear. We can consider two main factors (Zapf et al., 1999). On the one hand, a lack of knowledge and skills to solve a task and on the other hand, setting inappropriate goals or inadequate planning, that is, a lack of metacognitive strategies. These strategies ­– which comprise setting aims, applying appropriate strategies and evaluating one’s own results – are seen as crucial factors to becoming an efficient and self-regulated learner, as well as to maintaining or increasing intrinsic motivation and self-efficacy regarding the task (McPherson, 2012; Zimmerman, 1990). Errors play an essential role in the development of metacognitive strategies. They offer the opportunity of reflecting on the appropriateness of the strategies taken to reach a concrete aim and, consequently, the possibility of selecting new ones that fit better, which may increase the chances of being successful at the task.

Research in music education does indicate a tendency to focus on unilateral error prevention rather than using errors to learn (Bautista et al., 2009; Bautista et al., 2012), and that musicians have a generally negative attitude towards errors, equating them with fear and doubts about the quality of their performance (Kenny and Osborne, 2006).

This way of dealing with errors has some connections with a traditional or “master-apprentice” approach to teaching and learning (Jørgensen, 2000; López-Íñiguez and Pozo, 2014; Sawyer, 2006), which has been identified in some studies with musicians (Bautista and Pérez-Echeverría, 2008; Bautista et al., 2009; Marín et al., 2013). This approach, which reflects the principles of the behaviorist theory of learning (Watson, 1924/1998; Winn, 1996), is mainly based on a linear understanding of causality between a stimulus (action) and a response (reaction) and assumes that the same cause generally leads to the same effect for every apprentice. Thus, individual needs in the learning process are mainly ignored. The teacher usually assumes the active part in the process, giving instructions to the student, hoping that this will produce a specific effect on the student’s behaviour (Jørgensen, 2000). The student, therefore, adopts mostly a passive role, which consists in trying to follow the teacher’s directions and producing what he/she expects. According to this perspective, errors are considered as something to be avoided, since they represent a deviation from the expected response. When teachers tend to focus unilaterally on naming deficits, students associate errors with fear because only a specific result is wanted by the teacher. We have named this approach to errors as “deficit oriented” (Kruse-Weber, 2012b). Some researchers (Frese et al., 1991; Jørgensen, 2000) argue that this kind of teaching prevents the development of students’ metacognitive strategies and, therefore, the development of their autonomy as learners.On the contrary, understanding learning from a constructivist perspective implies that the learner assumes the leading role in the learning process. He/she is constantly constructing new mental representations, that is, new knowledge, based upon relations between existing concepts, and giving meaning to them through social interactions (Bruner, 1960, 1961; Vygotsky, 1934/1986). Within that process of discovery, errors give students an opportunity to identify what went wrong by analysing their own process of learning, being a useful and positive source of information for further learning (Spychiger et al., 2006), as well as for applying new knowledge and developing expert levels of skill (Chi et al., 1994; Feltovich et al., 2006). Although constructivist approaches have been identified in some instrumental teachers (Bautista et al., 2009; López-Íniguez et al., 2014), the way they manage errors when teaching has not been explicitly mentioned.We have named this access to errors  “resource oriented” (Kruse-Weber, 2012b). In a lesson of this kind the student obtains constructive feedback and errors are seen as informative and as providing inspiration for the interaction between teacher and student. The teacher relies on the competence of the student, even when there is an ongoing problem. Managing errors is based on individualization, productivity, creativity and even having fun with errors (Kruse-Weber, 2012b). Here is an example from Mrs S.:

I attended a master class […] I was really uncomfortable about the students in the audience, who I intuitively believed were great pianists. I loved the piece I was playing very much, but I was so nervous that I made unnecessary errors in the most beautiful passages. When I got to the end, I expected that the teacher would make suggestions about better fingerings and how to cope with position changes. […] But I had grossly underestimated him as he apparently knew exactly what I needed. […] I tried out lots of exercises, which I would never have thought of myself. I played a few passages on my knees, others whilst I moved slowly across the keyboard and some I tapped out on the piano lid, which had been closed, whilst moving my head from left to right, and so on. The teacher was full of energy, he sang, conducted me and praised me wherever possible for my flexible approach. He obviously had fun, as did the audience and I was really enjoying myself. When I played the piece again at the end of the lesson, I felt free. […] Sometimes it works wonders if a teacher just creates a safe and comfortable feeling (Kruse-Weber, 2012b).

The relationship between errors and self-regulated learning has been explained by Dweck (2006, 2007) from the perspective of motivation. She defines two kinds of mindsets: fixed-mindset and growth-midset. Individuals with a fixed-mindset believe that their abilities are set and unchangeable. In learning contexts, they focus on how they can be judged, as being either smart or not smart. Students of this kind tend to seek learning activities in which their success is almost guaranteed, and reject tasks which involve more challenges, since they could lead to failure. By contrast, individuals with a growth mindset believe that abilities are malleable and can be developed through learning and effort. They tend to take on challenging tasks because they perceive errors as opportunities to learn. They know that becoming aware of errors and correcting them helps develop their abilities. Dweck established a relationship between the two mindsets and goal orientation. The growth mindset is connected with a learning goal and the fixed mindset with a performance goal orientation (Dweck, 2006; Zimmerman, 2011). Similar conclusions have recently been drawn in the field of neuroscience. Moser and colleagues (2011) identified an on-line neural mechanism that underlies the association between growth mindsets and adaptive responses to mistakes.

In the field of instrumental higher education, Nielsen (2012) analysed the relationship between the epistemic beliefs of music students (the beliefs that every individual hold about the nature of knowledge and learning) and their self-reported learning strategies when practicing their instrument. In line with the idea expressed by Dweck, the students who believed their musical abilities were fixed were less likely to use metacognitive and effort regulation strategies than those who believed that their ability to learn was malleable and based on hard work.

Dealing with errors in different situations

In general education fields, learning and performing have been identified as two different situations which imply different aims and where errors play a different role. This difference can be equally identifiable in music education. In learning situations, either when practising or during lessons, errors can easily be embraced as learning tools, considered and analyzed as positive sources of information and used to help acquire competencies in error management (Oser and Spychiger, 2005; Kruse-Weber, 2012b). When performing, however, errors are undesirable. The goal here, then, is to be able to manage any errors easily, so that they do not reduce the performance quality.

This difference, however, is not always immediately recognized by the teachers (Spychiger, 2012). The processes of learning (where errors can be informative) and performing (where errors may be judged) may not be sufficiently differentiated during lessons, as teachers tend to neglect the potential of learning from errors (Spychiger, 2012). Errors are often considered as unavoidable incidents rather than as helpful tools in a learning process. Oser and Spychiger (2005) demonstrated that students may simply avoid errors for fear of being judged and that the productive and creative potential of errors is often not used to full capacity. Lessons are often perceived as permanent judging situations, providing little space in which to encourage learning processes. In addition, learners frequently do not understand the reasons why they do not succeed at a particular task and they are criticized.They get ashamed and question their competence. Progress often fails due to the “true-false syndrome”, that is, the fear of making mistakes (Mantel, 2003).

Concepts of error management applied to instrumental music education

In the following part we present three prescriptive concepts of managing errors productively and apply them to musical education contexts. The concepts are:

  • Learning from errors, and specifically error management training, a metacognitive approach with activities that prompt learners to stop and think about the causes of mistakes and to experiment with different solutions (Keith and Frese, 2005);
  • Risk management, which is confronting the learner with the potential risks of a performance. The aim is to identify possible distractions and threats  that can disturb performance and to develop concrete strategies to make them less likely to occur;
  • The concept of error management, which refers to the specific way in which it is desirable to handle errors during performance situations and attempts to minimize the consequences of errors when they occur.

Error management training               

Regarding dealing with errors, we can find contradictory situations in instrumental pedagogy. On the one hand, beginners leave errors uncorrected because they do not have schemata in place for correcting them (Hallam, 2001; Hallam et al., 2012). On the other hand, there is a strong focus on avoidance of gross mistakes in teaching and learning with beginners (Ericsson, 2006). An error-friendly culture of learning that cultivates an optimistic, enlightened attitude toward errors could resolve this contradiction. Error friendliness is a way of offering students more opportunities to learn by reducing the negative impact of undesired outcomes (Spychiger, 2012).

Active learning approaches (Keith and Wolff, 2014), like error management training (Frese et al., 1991; Keith and Frese, 2005; 2008) use errors in a productive way during learning processes.  Error management training  was developed within the field of software design and training (Heimbeck et al., 2003). The tasks given to the participants are challenging from the beginning, which leads to a higher exposure to errors. The fundamental idea underlying this approach is that errors are a source of valuable information during training processes (Frese et al., 1991; Heimbeck et al., 2003), therefore learners are explicitly encouraged to make errors and they are informed about the advantages of making errors during learning. This is done using brief statements such as: ‘The more errors you make, the more you learn!’, ‘You have made an error? Great!, Because now you can learn something new!’, ‘Errors are a natural part of the learning process!’, ‘There is always a way out of an error situation!’ (Keith and Frese, 2005). Learners are provided with metacognitive instructions which lead them to think about their own process of learning, concretely by focusing on the particular learning goal and the strategies being used to achieve it. The researchers found however, that this training only works when the tasks are formulated very clearly.

Error management training promotes adaptive transfer more efficiently than error avoidance (Chillarege et al., 2003; Heimbeck et al., 2003; Keith and Frese, 2005), that is to say, using existing knowledge to change a learned procedure, as well as being able to generate a solution to a new problem (Ivancic and Hesketh, 2000). This is due to the fact that learners become accustomed to dealing with unexpected problems during training. The concept of error management training has also been identified as consistent (Chillarege et al., 2003) with the learning goal construct described by Elliot and Dweck (1988), which in turn reflects a growth-mindset, as has been explained above (Dweck 2006, Zimmerman, 2011).

The principles of error management training can be applied to the musical context. Instrumental teachers can promote an error-friendly atmosphere by explicitly analysing and using errors as a tool to develop metacognitive abilities in their students. They can guide the student as an active learner through his or her own process, allowing errors and asking about their causes and the process and aims of learning.

Error management training can also help students when practising individually. Being able to transfer knowledge in order to solve new learning problems is highly desirable in instrumental learning. Students learn to explore their learning, reflect on their errors and monitor their skill development, as well as plan new aims and strategies for the next session. In this sense, error management training is aimed at fostering self-regulated learning. We can assume that musicians who are used to exploring the musical learning process and who are used to handling errors probably have more competencies in managing errors creatively on stage (Kruse-Weber, 2012b).

Risk management            

Taking risks is an essential part of learning processes and music performances. When risks are taken in a deliberate, appropriate, and systematic manner, the results can be dynamic: success and failure together create the potential for innovation and increased success (Maher, 2012).

Risk management is frequently used in industrial and organizational psychology, surgery and aviation, being known in the latter discipline as threat and error management (Helmreich et al., 1999). This approach is used to evaluate both the performance of individual pilots and the environment in which they work (Koglbauer, 2009). It is an attempt to mitigate risk factors and facilitate the avoidance of incidents and accidents (Langeroodi et al., 2011).  Furthermore the aim of these training programmes is to avoid errors in subsequent performance by anticipating potential risk factors, developing appropriate response strategies to them and practicing the corresponding skills in advance (Kallus, 2012). The first step is to identify potential risks or vulnerabilities and to analyse them. Analysis includes the evaluation of scenarios according to criteria of probability and consequence potential, as well as the analysis of causes of failures. The next step is to plan possible responses to the risk in order to identify ways to reduce negative outcomes and to prevent errors or mitigate their effects (Helmreich, 2000).

Through simulation and anticipation of risk situations in practice, one can monitor whether new skills are implemented correctly. At the same time that risk management can positively impact performance quality.

In the instrumental music learning and teaching contexts the underlying risks of performance situations are often ignored and underestimated, which can lead to stress and unrealistic expectations described as the Rumpelstiltsken effect (Fuchs, 2008; Kruse-Weber and Parncutt, 2014), which is illustrated in the following example of the violinist Mrs. W.: “My audition was unsuccessful. I continually made mistakes. The reasons are that the accompanist played too fast, I met a colleague briefly before the audition who is very hostile towards me and the judging panel disturbed me with their loud noises!” (Kruse-Weber, 2012b). Mrs. W. was irritated at the moment of the performance, as she did not set up error competent behavior in dealing with unexpected disruptions. On the contrary, the active engagement with the non-successful audition could initiate a learning process from errors, bringing more benefits as those lost by the failure. Musicians need training to achieve situational awareness and skills for coping with threatening situations.

   Risk management corresponds to pre-performance preparation strategies, according to which anticipating and simulating the performance disruptions can help to relieve anxiety (Kenny, 2011).

In the context of teaching instructors can help the student to follow the process, i.e. by identifying possible risks and together finding strategies of practice in order to manage them, that is, again, fostering the development of students’ metacognitive abilities (Keith and Wolff, 2014).

We will now illustrate the process of risk management presented above by laying out the general steps and giving some examples within the context of musical learning and teaching. First, in order to identify potential risks, students could generate a list of possible factors that would lead to a failure in the performance. These factors can be various in nature, as has been explained elsewhere (Kruse-Weber and Parncutt, 2014). After that, the students can search for appropriate strategies to manage the anticipated incidents and to practice them during rehearsal.

Threats can be of many different kinds and vary from one learner to another, so the task of teachers and students is to find the best strategies for each one through an open and creative process.. For example, if the audience at a concert or the jury at a competition is identified as a potential distraction or as a trigger of anxiety by a student, one possible strategy could be to conceive a plan in order to get used to this factor, by establishing different levels of exposure to the threatening situation in order to take control of it. He/she could start performing in front of a friend, followed by subsequent public performances with an increasing and less familiar number of listeners. Another possible threat is ignorance of the acoustics of the concert hall in which the student is to perform. In this case it would be appropriate to practise in as many different rooms with as many different acoustics as possible, so that this factor can be minimised.

Taking risks and challenges while practising – for example playing with closed eyes, with a raised pulse after sport, in an uncomfortable acoustic room, performing with errors and blackouts, performing while standing on one leg (see e.g., Norris, 2009) – also creates the possibility of enjoying the task and having the feeling that the performance is not difficult but effortless. This can contribute to eliminating a fear-based mindset, which is the main culprit of state anxiety (Werner, 1996).

Error management

As stated above making mistakes is human. However, musicians often do not distinghish between errors and the consequences of errors. “An on-stage error can’t become a failure unless a musician turns it into one” (Klickstein, 2009, p.192).

Zapf et al. (1999), Flossmann, Goebl and Widmer (2011), and Maidhof (2013) found that expertise does not generally lead to a reduction in performance errors. Instead, highly trained musicians manage and correct errors faster and more easily: they learn to create an impression of accuracy in a performance that is actually far from faithful to the score (Chi, 2006; Sloboda, 1985; Ward. et al., 2006). Barenboim (2012) remarked that ‘The art of performance is not to not play out of tune. The art is to play out of tune and yet make it sound right.’

Error management refers to the process of dealing with errors in performance situations by handling on-stage slips. This happens specifically while and after the error takes place The process is directed to the development of a flexible and emotionally relaxed attitude toward errors. Good error management allows the performer, first, to minimize the consequences of errors as much as possible or even to prevent them from developing; second, to correct them quickly and quietly; and third, to avoid subsequent errors. The problem is not the error itrself, but its consequences (Frese et al, 1991).

We need strategies to deal with errors on stage to prevent error cascades or the dreaded “millipede effect”: performers experience stress dealing with errors on stage when they change from an automatic routine to a conscious awareness of the task and when the complexity and pressure of the situation are very high. In such cases attention on the task decreases and it is directed to past errors (Dorschel et al., 2012; Frese, 1991). Experts solve this problem by attaining higher levels of control of their performance and therefore remaining within the “cognitive” phase as explained by Ericsson (2006).

The most important strategy for performance is to “practise performing!” (Norris, 2009, p.24).  Practising performing and developing good error management needs an extension of the usual range of solutions and creative or challenging physical or mental coordination exercises (Westney, 2006), like those described in the previous section (risk management). “You have to practise performing, juggle any goofs, and then review your reactions. The aim is to instill a reflex that enables you to engage errors musically while releasing tension and worry” (Klickstein, 2009, p.196).

Table 1 illustrates the approaches to error management presented in this paper, and summarises the situations (when), most important objectives and issues (what for) and methods (how) corresponding to each approach.

Table 1. Concepts of error management in instrumental music education (adapted from Kruse-Weber and Parncutt, 2014).

When Practice  Performance 


What Error Management Training Risk and Threat Management Error Management
What for Learning from errors and managing them by generating emotionally stress-free attitudes To implement error avoidance behaviour To minimize the negative consequences of errors
How Developing metacognitive and task- orientated strategies Asking ‘What could go wrong?’

Having realistic expectations

Using the creative potential of errors


In this paper we have discussed the role of errors in the context of musical learning, performing and teaching, and in addition, reviewed error management concepts. We have rethought unilateral negative attitudes towards errors in traditional teaching and learning theories, and illustrated the fundamental role of positive approaches.

Whereas risk management is referred to as the process of understanding and estimating errors and developing an error prevention behaviour, error management training presents a complete framework of how to include errors in the learning process as a tool for developing metacognitive strategies. Finally, we have discussed error management, which takes place during performance situations and refers to the skill of managing errors with a flexible and emotionally relaxed attitude. We have illustrated the theoretical principles that may result on most adequate strategies for dealing with errors in music learning and performance.

As illustrated in this paper, research from different fields concurs in stating that exploration combined with metacognitive and task-orientated strategies, positive experiences of failure and error-friendly working conditions can promote successful learning and performing. We have applied and illustrated this within the field of instrumental music education. Further investigations will be needed to find more effective ways of teaching error competencies in instrumental music pedagogy. The concepts that we have described still need to be empirically tested to verify their possible benefits.

Further development of the perspective described in this paper includes broadening the scope in order to identify specific strategies for managing errors corresponding to different levels of musical expertise, as well as different stages of practising music. It would also be particularly relevant to analyse the impact of different kinds of error management on students’ motivation and how this connects with goal orientation and motivation theories (Heimbeck et al., 2003).

To conclude, the present work underlines the value of promoting analysis and discussion of errors during teaching, in order to strategically utilise them as potential learning opportunities. Adopting a constructivist attitude that acknowledges the active role of the student in generating her or his own knowledge in interaction with the teacher, as well as promoting metacognitive strategies in students, can lead to more independent learning and facilitate long-term success. It is desirable, we suggest, that instrumental teachers receive specific training in order to learn how to deal with errors in lessons, as well as how to help students develop their personal metacognitive strategies, so that the ideas expressed in this paper can be incorporated more into instrumental teaching and learning contexts.


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