Is it possible to practice at the piano without making mistakes?
The answer is yes.
Some of the replies I’ve heard to my ridiculous answer include:
“But, how?! HOW, Ms. Regina? Is there some kind of secret sorcery I don’t know about the piano? Do I wave my magic wand and all of a sudden, my fingers know what to do?”
“NO. WAY. I don’t believe it. I refuse to believe it.”
“Why can’t I make mistakes? I won’t be able to LEARN if I don’t make mistakes!”
But here’s a serious question for you: why do we allow ourselves to make mistakes—really? Do we expect our children to fail their academic classes “a few times” before they learn from their mistakes and score good grades on their report cards? Do we learn how to drive a car by getting in the car and hoping for the best, rather than learning step-by-step how to properly drive it? And even if we do make mistakes, do we continue to repeat the mistake, or do we pinpoint the error and fix it immediately? If a child brings home a math test and it contains mistakes, would you expect the child to figure out what the mistakes are and fix it for next time? Or would you encourage him or her to just “do it again and try harder”? Is “trying harder” constructive feedback?
In the words of Craig Richey (MM Juilliard School of Music) and Mary Jo Pagano (DMA Manhattan School of Music), “Practicing is the act of forming habits. So imagine that practice is sacred time in which you are in control of whether or not you will foster good habits, which lead to great results, or bad habits, which lead to frustration, lack of productivity, and slow progress, if any. With every element of every passage (i.e.: notes, rhythms, phrasing, tone, dynamics, pedaling, expression, interpretation), the student is programming exactly what he or she wants.”
This is called practicing to perform. Rather than practicing “notes first”, or “rhythm first”, it is always a smart thing to learn everything together as a collective idea. The idea of processing every element of music all at once can be overwhelming; hence, we frequently practice difficult passages hands separately first, and then hands together. We also practice slowly in order to allow our brains to control our fingers, rather than our fingers playing by chance and hoping for the best. As Richey stated, “The magic secret to all of this is tempo.” It really is that simple! There is always a tempo at which you can accomplish successfully exactly what you are focusing on at the moment.
While practicing, students should practice with INTENTION. This means beginning a practice session knowing what he or she will practice—that is, which piece(s), which section(s), and what mistake(s). Be sure to set reasonable, achievable goals! Imagine throwing a ball into a waste basket five times in a row. If you stand next to the basket, you will easily make it in and quickly become bored. If you stand too far, you may only make it in once, or not at all. This becomes frustrating. The key is to find the spot between “boredom” and “frustration”—and that is the reasonable goal!
Specifically in piano playing, every intention during practice you have requires a specific “gesture.” Your level of awareness to the gesture coupled with deep listening will ultimately grant you the highest level and accuracy of playing. When we practice to perform, students avoid making mistakes, do not play a note until they are 100% certain the note will come out correctly, and pay careful attention to every detail in a piece. Therefore, this enables the possibility of a high-leveled performance. Rather than making a mistake and fixing it, it is better to play at a slow tempo and play correctly from the beginning.
Playing with “no mistakes” not only refers to playing the correct notes—it also refers to every element tied in with that note. Is the phrase played musically? Is the rhythm correct? Is the tempo at a reasonable speed? Are my dynamics shaping the line? Is my fingering accurate? These are some examples of things that can go “missing” while drilling for “no mistakes”—think beyond just the notes themselves!
While this information may sound like it could only apply to higher-leveled pieces (i.e.: students learning Schubert, Chopin, Bach, Beethoven, etc.), the “level of awareness” factor begins from the very first lesson; hence, I encourage all students to apply this method to their practice time—that includes students learning from Piano Adventures, Piano Town, Music for Little Mozarts, Music Tree, and more.
I encourage all students to step out of their comfort zone while practicing and attempt to make zero mistakes during their practice time. Even if the tempo he or she takes is slow, that is 100% fine! They will be actively learning and listening to the accuracy and sound quality that he or she creates. When a student plays a passage ten times, and fumbles the first nine times and finally gets it correct on the tenth time, he or she still has a 90% chance of making the same mistake the next time. Work for a practice section that is small enough (don’t go further than that section!) and slow enough (don’t play faster than the original practice tempo!) that is accurate 100% of the time. Try to NOT play a note until you know YOU WILL BE CORRECT.
And lastly—make sure you congratulate yourself when you have finally achieved accuracy to the point where you are confident that you will almost never fumble at that section!SUMMARY OF HOW TO PRACTICE:
1) Set reasonable goals! Concentrate on one problem at a time. Rather than “timing” practice sessions, set a number of goals (i.e.: three goals) and achieve them—that way, your practice session is done once you’ve completed those goals.
2) Practice at a tempo slow enough for your brain to communicate with your fingers on exactly which notes to play AND how to play them! When practicing, you learn:
a) VISUALLY (seeing sheet music, hands, keys)
b) AUDIBLY (hearing correct notes, shaping/phrasing, dissonance/consonance)
c) ANALYTICALLY (analyzing chords, patterns, fingering, dynamics, phrasing), and
d) KINESTHETICALLY (muscle memory)
*kinesthetic learning is one of the most important reasons on why not to make
mistakes while practicing—you could be teaching your muscles how to memorize
the WRONG thing!)
3) Be confident in your playing—when you are practicing a section, make sure you are honest with yourself: do you feel confident that you will always play that section accurately? If not, play again, slowly, and be confident while playing those passages.
4) Always actively listen to the sound quality that is produced. Breathing is totally encouraged!
5) Avoid making mistakes—if you’re making mistakes, your goals may not be concise enough, or you may be playing too quickly! Feel free to adjust or simplify your goals (slower? smaller section? just tap rhythm? just play intervals? etc.)
REMEMBER—practicing is brain training. If you can nail down practicing the piano, you will learn everything else in life with ease!
Best of luck!