Practicing to Eliminate Mistakes

Question: Hi,

I want to know how to learn to play a piece without making mistakes.
I have tried practicing the piece over and over. And when I am at home alone I can seem to get through it with out making mistakes.
But when I get in front of the church or even in front of my family I simply cannot seem to play it without making mistakes. That frustrates me and then I cannot seem to get back into the piece where I left off and usually give up playing for them.

I am 54 years old. I started taking piano lessons 5 years ago. I took lessons for three years before I no longer had a teacher to take lessons from. I seem to have gotten stuck on the second year level before I lost my teacher.

Any comments or suggestions would be welcome.

Thank you,

– Rosa Smith (Buffalo, Texas, USA)

Albert’s reply: The first rule of piano practice to keep in mind is that we play how we practice. If you practice mistakes you will learn mistakes. If you practice accurately you will play accurately.

In the lesson on insecurity and mistakes I discussed the need to simplify anytime you make mistakes during practice. Some of the most basic ways to simplify are to practice slowly, practice hands separately, and to practice in small sections.

If you are making mistakes that are not primarily technical in nature – in other words, if your mistakes have to do with memory – they are an indication that you do not yet know the music well enough. The music must be absolutely clear in your mind in order for you to feel as secure as possible in any performance situation. Often, students learn the notes but fail to learn the underlying harmonies, or they are entirely unable to play one hand alone from memory without simultaneously moving the other hand on the keyboard. Students often only really know the melody and fail even to notice crucial inner or accompanimental voices. Such failure to study the score in detail invariably leads to mistakes. The slightest insecurity or uncertainty in learning becomes magnified tenfold in performance.

Your first task is therefore: Know the music! You write that you can “seem” to “get through” your piece at home without making mistakes. Your wording along is a clear sign of uncertainty in the learning process! A musician (I can’t recall who, nor could I find the exact quote) once stated that either we know a piece or we do not; practice is the process of going from one to the other. The piece has to be yours, it has to become a part of you. The only way to accomplish such thorough learning is via a proper technique and sound learning methodology that incorporates all aspects of musicianship, not just training the fingers to press the keys.

The more you can accomplish in your mind, without relying on touching the keyboard or even looking at it, the more you will know the music. The most crucial connection of all is the one between your ear and the keyboard, one that is properly reinforced by a thorough knowledge of music theory and harmony. These are invariably the aspects of musicianship that remain neglected by amateur musicians, and this deficiency will always reveal itself in performance situations. This is why your focus should be on solid ear training and music theory, for without them you can learn practically no piece well!

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