Stop Practicing That Mistake! – Advice for working through difficult passages

Stop Practicing That Mistake! – Advice for working through difficult passages

Everyday, our bodies use this cool thing called muscle memory. It’s the automatic reaction that your body learns after doing something so many times (like always grabbing your toothbrush with your right hand and the toothpaste with your left). Half the time you probably don’t even realize that your muscles have learned this little trick, but it’s very blatant once you try to perform the learned pattern differently.

When you are practicing the piano, muscle memory is incredibly useful and helpful – unless you use it wrong. Example: Say you’re playing Fur Elise. Frankly you play fantastically, however at the beginning of the third line is an impossible jumble of notes and accidentals that you can never quite get right. Being the perfectionist that you are you immediately stop and replay that chord until you finally get it aaaaaand continue with your masterpiece! Voila! Fantastic! If you continue this pattern you surely will get that nasty chord the first time eventually…right? Wrong! See even though your brain eventually will learn those note names perfectly, your muscles have memorized the pattern of stopping and replaying, stopping and replaying. Thus you’re actually practicing messing up even while you’re trying to fix messing up!

I had one very vocal student (not a singer, mind you, just vocal) who had unfortunately practiced a loud and distracting habit. Each time she messed up she exclaimed loudly and waved her hands in the air. Imagine if she were playing at a recital and by habit did that! Obviously this is an extreme case but can you imagine if every time Beethoven missed a note he stopped and replayed the same section multiple times until he got it right? (okay, he probably would only need one redo, but even that would be noticeable). People, everyone messes up, but the truly great performers have practiced disguising their mistakes and as a result nobody notices! So just how do we go about “disguising” our blurbs?

Well, my first piece of advice is to stop practicing that mistake! How, you ask? By not immediately stopping (laughing, exclaiming, apologizing, etc.) if you mess up. I completely understand the strong urge to immediately fix that ugly sound that you just made but it will go much better if you…

1. continue playing at least three more measures (or even to the end of the song! It doesn’t matter how far you go just so long as you don’t make a habit of stopping in the same place each time), then you …

2. may stop and take a close look at why you messed up, play that one section only slowly (and correctly, of course) several times.

3. Now, you may go to the beginning of the song and play with confidence!

Now, you might not get that hard part down perfectly the first, second or even third time you play your piece through like this. But the important part is to not let your muscles memorize the same exact “wrong” action (whether audible or visual) every time.


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