Wouldn’t it be great if you never had to worry about making mistakes while playing the piano? Memory slips, wrong notes, and many other hazards constantly plague pianists, but there are solutions to these problems if you are willing to adopt a flexible mindset.
In this article, I will list several reasons why you are having trouble playing the piano without mistakes, and what to do about them.
And, I will show you why sometimes the best thing to do is nothing at all.
Before trying to fix mistakes:
I would first ask: “am I sure that this is a mistake?”
Sometimes, we assume we are doing things wrong, because we have an unpleasant feeling, or because someone told us it was wrong, or because we have been accustomed to making the mistake in the past.
If you know you are making a mistake, you could then ask: “am I sure I can fix this?”
If you know exactly how to fix it, great. Just do it, and stop reading here. On the other hand, if you know exactly how to fix it, but the fix doesn’t work, then I must hesitantly inform you that you don’t know how to fix it.
If you don’t know exactly how to fix it, the approach I would suggest is to try to understand exactly what is causing it, rather than trying to understand how to fix it.
OK, now let's get to the list:
1. You don’t understand the music
If you don’t understand the music itself, you are likely to make mistakes while playing the piano. If I asked you to navigate from one end of a foreign city to the other, without a map, how successful would you be?
Make sure you understand the music. That is, analyze the score, and try to understand why it’s written the way it is.
Do you understand the structure of the piece? How about the purpose of each note, each harmony? Can you describe where the phrases are? Are you following the counterpoint? Do you know where the beats are?
2. You don’t understand the movement
If you fully understand the music, are you expressing this understanding physically? If so, and it’s still not working, you need to look further into what exactly it is about the relationship between your body and the piano that you are not seeing. Unfortunately, repeating the wrong thing over and over will not fix it. Only understanding will. (However, repetition is often necessary to let the mind calm down to the point where understanding can present itself.)
Pay attention to any physical problems in your playing. If there are any moments where things feel awkward, tight, tense, or painful, you will have a greater chance of making a mistake. Be ruthless about this.
3. You’re distracted
Human beings are not robots. The mere fact that we told ourselves to complete a task is no guarantee that we will be directed toward that task without interruption. Distractions can come from the external world, in the form of unfamiliar pianos, noise from the audience, movements that catch our eye, etc. And they can come from the internal world as well, in the form of thoughts about our performance, our self-concept, what we had for dinner last night, how much we like this piece, or how much we are worried about the passage coming up, etc.
You need to practice in a way that takes distractions into account. Practice when you are tired or stressed out. Seek out unfamiliar pianos in unfamiliar environments, and practice on them.
4. You don’t practice long-term
If I wished to learn Chinese within the next ten years, I would practice very differently than if I had an upcoming trip to China next week. In the former case, I would immerse myself in the language, listening to spoken dialogue and reading texts that I comprehended very little. Eventually, I would understand more, and within 10 years, given enough practice, I would be fluent in Chinese. In the latter case, however, I would not have time for this, and would instead probably concentrate on memorizing specific phrases that I anticipate needing for my trip.
In music, the same thing happens. Ideally, I want my practicing to be oriented long-term. I want to get things to the point where mistakes simply don’t happen while playing piano because the correct way is completely obvious. In long-term mode, I would not care about a specific performance or a specific mistake.
However, if I need to learn a piece by next week, my priorities would change. In short-term mode, I would be more interested in fixing specific mistakes, so that a given performance is successful.
These are two very different ways of practicing. One does not lead to the other. However, it may be worthwhile to develop strategies for each.
In terms of long-term practicing, the following will reduce mistakes over time:
- Sight-reading a lot of music.
- Listening to a lot of music.
- Analyzing a lot of music.
- Paying close attention to your performance habits and working on eliminating the harmful ones, and increasing the helpful ones.
- Finding an approach to practicing that encourages you to face whatever you are consciously avoiding.
Changing your long-term practice strategies is the only way to figure out how to stop making mistakes on the piano.
5. You don’t practice short-term
When you have a performance coming up, the objective may not be only to “play well”, but also to “avoid playing badly”. This will require hunting down specific mistakes and taking steps to reduce the chances of their occurrence.
Let me stress that I don’t believe piano practice must
include this mindset. If you are not performing, is it necessary to spend time fixing mistakes that are of little interest, when that time might be better spent on working through a new piece? I have never “corrected” many of the mistakes I made in pieces I played as a beginner, but I guarantee I would not make those same mistakes again.
That said, if you want to hunt down specific mistakes, try the following strategy:
- Play through the piece. Do not stop when you make a mistake.
- After you have played the piece, make note of one mistake.
- Play again.
If the mistake is still present, great. What we want to do now is zoom in on it.We want to capture it so that we can study it more closely. We could:
- Reduce the size of the section you are playing so that it includes just the mistake.
- Slow down the tempo to a point where the mistake still occurs but you can understand it better.
The object here is not to eliminate the mistake. It is to find out what we need to do to make the mistake.
- If the mistake disappears, try to bring it back. For example, you could:
- Increase the tempo.
- Expand the section you are playing.
- Play for someone else, or record yourself.
If you aren’t sure if there was a mistake while playing the piano, assume there wasn’t. Always focus on that which you do see.
6. You think you fixed your mistake
The truth is, the mistake will never go away. Under the right conditions, it will come back. Your job is not to eliminate it, but rather to understand it so that you know exactly which conditions will cause it, and can adjust accordingly. Many pianists get frustrated when a mistake they had believed to have been eradicated suddenly reappears. If this happens, understand that it only means you don’t fully grasp the situation, not that you did anything “wrong”.
Remind yourself that mistakes are part of learning piano. Every mistake is an opportunity to learn more.
Then, when you play, adopt the attitude that mistakes are part of the experience of playing piano. They are not a sign of a problem. Do not stop.
When you work on fixing the mistake, do not be so eager to mark it as “done”. Understand that it is likely to return. Stress-test your fixes. If you can play correctly at a slow tempo, play faster. Try to prove to yourself that the mistake is still there, not that it’s gone.
7. You think you understand the mistake and don't need to fix it
You may think you understand the mistake and move on prematurely. You may recall your teacher saying “play that note with your 4th finger”, and assume that because you didn’t use your 4th finger, you “get” why the mistake happened. But, do you understand why you didn’t use the 4th finger? Is your teacher even right about this?
Stick around and watch the mistake until you see what’s going on. Only then will you have a chance at correcting it naturally. If you are relying on mental rules to tell you what to do, you don’t get it yet. It’s like reaching out for a glass of water. You don’t need to recall a teacher’s advice to know how far to reach. If it is not automatic, it’s not yet a part of you.
Make it a priority to observe mistakes while playing the piano. See how many times you can make the same mistake. If you know how to fix the mistake, but it’s still happening anyway, remind yourself that you don’t know how to fix it, and that this is great! This is why practicing is fun.
8. You're spending too much time trying to fix the mistake
You may wonder: how will mistakes be corrected if I don’t correct them?
True, if you don’t take the time to identify each of your mistakes and understand its cause, it will never be corrected.
On the other hand, if you correct your mistakes, you will be
constantly chasing yourself in circles, and never build a strong foundation upon which to base anything.
This is a paradox.
The way to resolve it is to commit to doing one thing at a time, observe the results dispassionately, and adjust your course as needed, based only on results, and not on your level of worry.
Ludwig van Beethoven
"To play a wrong note is insignificant; to play without passion is inexcusable."
Ferdinand Ries, a student of Beethoven's, tell a story about how the master prioritized mistakes:
"When I left out something in a passage, a note or a skip, which in many cases he wished to have specially emphasized, or struck a wrong key, he seldom said anything; yet when I was at fault with regard to the expression, the crescendi or matters of that kind, or in the character of the piece, he would grow angry. Mistakes of the other kind, he said, were due to chance; but these last resulted from want of knowledge, feeling, or attention. He himself often made mistakes of the first kind, even when playing in public."
You may try to correct the mistake. Do not try to correct it. Simply observe it. Get to know it in its natural habitat. If it doesn’t disappear, you probably haven’t gotten to know it well enough!
“Are you saying I should just ignore my mistakes?”
No, I’m saying you should work on one thing at a time. By all means, notice them. Write them down. But when you practice, work on one thing at a time.
Some of those mistakes will be fixed simply by noticing them.
Some, you will not know how to fix anytime soon.
“If I keep hitting wrong notes on the piano, won’t it become impossible to eliminate them?”
I will say a few things in response to this:
- If you don’t know exactly how to fix the mistake, you are already repeating whatever behaviors led to the mistake in the first place. Those behaviors may even be present in everything you play, whether the notes are right or wrong.
- Do you know why you are making the mistake? Do you know what reward you are getting from it? We don’t do things simply because we have repeated them, but rather because those things have been reinforced. Habits can be learned in a single repetition.
- As I mentioned above, you will never eliminate it from
your brain. Your only hope is to build something new.
- This may be something you have done thousands of times in the past. A few more will not make a difference.
- Do not worry about this problem. Worry only about understanding the mistake, not about eliminating it.
9. You don't want to fix the mistake
You may not truly attempt to bring the mistake back. It is natural not to want mistakes to occur, and to try to prevent them. This may, however, get in your way. I’m serious when I say you should try to bring the mistakes back. When you increase the tempo, don’t do it by one click. Double the tempo. If you play from memory, don’t stop when you aren’t sure of the next note. Let your hands play and watch what they do.
Many pianists will tell me: “What you are saying is obvious. Of course, you shouldn’t fixate on mistakes, but merely take steps to correct them. Why make a big deal out of this?”
This may seem obvious, but watching the way most musicians practice, you would never know it. We obsess over our mistakes in many subtle ways, and we continue to repeat strategies that have no hope of working.
As a result, fixing mistakes is simply not fun, and musicians try to avoid noticing mistakes because they don’t want to have to get dragged into trying to fix them.
Everyone does this. This is why I place so much emphasis on learning how to let go of things. When we are free of these traps, we have much more energy and time left over to pursue what we are actually interested in doing.
10. Your expectations about mistakes at the piano are too high
The danger in practicing for short-term performance is that we often tend to fixate on mistakes that we cannot possibly fix within the given time-frame. Thus, it is thus crucial to set realistic expectations. If instead of correcting mistakes, we can often increase our chances of success in other ways.
These options are often available to you, and often they are not. For example, you may not have control over what piece you are permitted to play, or how well you sleep, or how much time you have to practice. Always, it is better to focus on what you have control over and accept what you don’t.
Instead of trying to fix your mistakes, try some of the following options:
- Play a piece that is easy enough that you are likely to play without mistakes.
- Simplify the piece to the point where it is easier to play correctly.
- Learn how to make peace with any mistakes that you make during the performance, and the fact that you are a fallible human being.
- Reduce factors that are likely to lead to mistakes (get a good night’s sleep, spend time on the piano you will be performing on).
- Refuse to play altogether.
11. You’re trying to do something else entirely
Many pianists assume that if a mistake occurs, it must be
“corrected” immediately. There are, however, dangers in “correcting mistakes”.
It’s hard to fix things when you aren’t OK with them first. Work on accepting mistakes. Make friends with them and see them for what they are. Then, when you get to know them, you can decide if you want to keep them around.
It is natural not to want mistakes to occur, and to try to prevent them. This may, however, get in your way. I’m serious when I say you should try to bring the mistakes back. For example, when you increase the tempo, don’t do it by one click. Double the tempo. Or, if you play from memory, don’t stop when you aren’t sure of the next note. Instead, let your hands play and watch what they do.
Don't change course too quickly.
Is playing piano without mistakes even a worthwhile goal?
That’s for you to decide. Let me ask a few questions:
Ask yourself these questions and see what your mind tells you.
Many beginners wonder if professional pianists make mistakes. Of course, they do...all pianists make mistakes. That's just part of being human. So, is the goal of completely eliminating mistakes even possible?
Have you noticed any of these habits in your piano playing? Do they lead to mistakes? Leave a comment below and let me know!