Never practice your mistakes

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Things music taught me

Before I was anything else, I was a musician. My mother was a church organist and a choir director. Some of my earliest memories are of sitting on the end of a pipe organ bench looking up at all those pipes listening to my mother practice.

When I came of age I was given music lessons as a matter of course. I began to play in band. To me that meant practicing two to four hours a day. Because I wanted to be the best. I learned over time though that it wasn’t how much I practiced that made the difference, but how I practiced.

The “Secret” to effective practice

The “secret” is this. You must never practice a mistake. If you do, that mistake will come back to bite you at the most inopportune time. Like for example, while you are standing in front of a bunch of people performing. If I made a mistake I immediately corrected it and then played through that passage correctly until I could do it without thinking.

There were more than a few well meaning teachers (and my mother who had to listen to this incessant repetition) who encouraged me to just push through when I made a mistake. But somehow I realized early on that if I practiced a mistake, I would repeat that mistake under pressure. The government oddly enough validated and reinforced this to me later, as I was being trained in weapons and tactics. They drummed the following into me as fact. “You will do under pressure what you have practiced in training”. It will happen without any thought. Worse yet, under pressure it may not even be possible to consciously overcome it.

What does this have to do with woodworking?

Although I was young, I had stumbled on to an axiom of real value. Never practice a mistake. As I practiced those corrections were pushed into the realm of “muscle memory” by brute repetition. Later under pressure I rarely reverted to my previous errors. I think this concept turns out to be really important in woodworking as well.

Hand tool woodworking requires “feel” and an “eye”. Whether you are cutting dovetails or sharpening your chisels, you are doing most things by feel and by eye. But if we are not careful we can allow ourselves to practice mistakes that then become habits. This process of reinforcing bad habits makes certain tasks very frustrating. We will find ourselves seemingly programmed to make mistakes. Which is exactly what is happening. If we do not address this problem effectively we may even be tempted to quit. Misled by our bad habits into thinking that we do not possess the “knack” for woodworking.

The fact is, we are making many of these mistakes not because we lack the talent. Rather the mistakes we make are often practiced mistakes that we have committed to muscle memory through repetition. Those mistakes come back to haunt us at the worst possible times. Like when we are making a difficult cut in an expensive piece of wood. But those mistakes can be overcome with proper practice. We need to reprogram our muscle memory and in the process develop both our “feel” and our “eye”.  In time we will find ourselves doing the right thing by reflex.

Practical examples

Personally I have noticed this principle the most in sharpening and planing. To be sure there are many that subscribe to the notion that we should all just buy a collection of sharpening jigs and let the jigs do the work. I suspect this is the motivation behind those weird fences that have been designed over the years for planes as well. But I think skill is much more valuable than gadgets for the woodworker.

As I discipline myself in both of these areas to be consistent and careful, I find my sense of “feel” improving greatly. Often I will be planing an edge when I suddenly become convinced that it is off. I may not be able to see it but I know it. So I throw a square to the edge and sure enough, through careless body position or technique I have allowed either the near or far end to drift off of square.

I have two choices at this point. Make hasty corrections and move on(sometimes necessary). Or take the time to analyze what went wrong and practice cutting the edge exactly square with the right technique. While  we train it is insanely important to check what we are doing constantly so that each stroke is done accurately and with correct technique. The more often you practice the correct form and technique the more likely it is that you will use the correct form and technique next time without even thinking about it.

Sharpening

One of the issues I have with many instructional videos on sharpening is that they focus way too much on how fast their particular technique is. So students think doing it right will be really fast. This is very misleading. If their technique is actually fast it is only because they have taken the time to develop their technique to the point that there is no wasted effort. Nor are they exhausting themselves fixing mistaken bevel angles and the like. The best thing we can do for up and coming woodworkers in my opinion is to encourage them to practice well. Practicing well is every bit as important as practicing often. Speed will develop naturally as they do it correctly over and over and over.

Intentionally building technique

I have added several exercises to my woodworking life in order to develop my skills, though I am by no means new to woodworking. One is using salvage wood to develop my hand tool technique. Since most of this wood is pine it is both good exercise and good practice. With the added bonus of getting some nice wood to work with when you are done.

With my sharpening I have also had to learn discipline. I am usually in such a hurry to restore an edge that I tend to cheat and “lean into” the bevel a bit more than I should. This works once or twice but before long you have a real mess to clean up because your bevel has become too steep. Or if you are a micro bevel sort of guy your micro bevel easily becomes anything but micro. Now you have to spend a bunch of time correcting the problems you caused by being in too much of hurry. Net result? Bad habits and a net gain of no time.

To sum up:
  1. When doing hand tool tasks that require touch, NEVER use bad technique. It will become a habit.
  2. Intentionally find ways to develop your technique in your off time, so that you do not have to struggle with it when you are working.

Enjoy!