Insecurity and Mistakes

Question: I just want to say that I love your website. My name is Daniel. I’m Brazilian, 22 years old and I’ve been studying since I was 18, which is little time. I had the luck of being a student of one of most sought-after piano teachers in Brazil for the last 8 months (Joao Carlos Assis Brasil: I don’t know if you heard of him – he studied at Vienna as well, Paris and New York, but that was long ago; he’s 60+ years old now). He’s amazing and all I wish to be is a half pianist that he is, but unfortunately I can’t seem to make music go well.

For example: I’m studying Mozart’s Sonata No. 16 in C major, K. 545, all 3 movements, but no matter how hard I try, I still make mistakes, even in easy parts. How can I fix that? I tried studying slowly, but I can’t play the whole piece without making a mistake. The same thing is happening with every other piece and I started to feel that the problem is me, not the piece being too hard, because I know how to play it. The same happens with Bach’s two-part inventions and other pieces. Please help me.

Best regards,

– Daniel Avzaradel (Rio de Janeiro, Brazil)

Albert’s reply: There is one and only one solution to making mistakes, and it applies universally to every piece of music: Simplify.

Anytime you start making mistakes, it is because you’re attempting too much at once. “Too much” may mean trying to play with both hands, attempting multiple voices or rhythms simultaneously, or it may mean not comprehending the harmony.

The solution is always to simplify. The simplest way to simplify is to slow down. Practice the hands separately (which we should do everyday even if the music is not “too complex”). If that is still too complex, abstract from the piano keyboard altogether and practice only the rhythm, tapping a single voice as you count out loud.

If an accompaniment is too complex, practice it in block chords. If an ornament is tripping up your rhythmic sense, practice without the ornament. If an arpeggio is giving you trouble, stop and practice that arpeggio and its hand positions – or better yet, take some time to practice that arpeggio in all keys.

There’s always something you can do to simplify a passage. If nothing else, slow down! Remember that the reason we start making mistakes (beyond mental or physical fatigue, in which case we should take a long pause from practicing) is always because we’re trying to take in more information than we’re able to in that moment. Remind yourself to simplify and insecurity and mistakes will be a thing of the past.

As Josef Lhevinne wrote in his book Basic Principles of Pianoforte Playing, never try to play faster than you can, keep your mind upon the passage, and inaccuracy disappears. “That is the whole secret. There is no other.”

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