5 practice errors piano students make that undermine confidence
Today I wanted to write a little about an issue that comes up for nearly EVERY piano student but seems particularly detrimental to the continued enjoyment of adult learners.
After learning for 3 or 4 years, many students hit a roadblock. For some, it will come sooner, and for some a little later, but it’s quite a common phenomenon that students ‘hit a wall’ in their learning.
Does this sound familiar: you feel your progress has stalled. You used to notice your improvement, and now it may even feel like you’ve gone backwards. No matter how much you practise, you don’t seem to get any better at your pieces.
The first step to break through the wall is accepting that this is all part of the process.
It’s natural to hit plateaus as the learning becomes more complex. Intermediate skills take more time to form and consolidate.
Having said that, though, sometimes these plateaus happen because something is amiss in the practice room.
And while in the early years you can get away with a lot of bad habits, they will catch up with you when you hit the intermediate stages, where patience and diligence suddenly become much more critical.
In this blog post, I’d like to explore some common practice errors that might be making that plateau a little longer and little harder than it needs to be.
Here are the most commons errors I will write about today:
- Insufficient hand separate practice
- Not practising at the correct speed
- Working on too much at once
- Brushing off minor errors
- Not repeating things correctly – mindless practice
I would say these are probably the worst offenders in the intermediate years. So let’s dive in.
1. Insufficient hand separate practice
Oh boy, if I could get a penny for every student that doesn’t do this well, I’d be a wealthy woman.
There is a misconception among piano students that hands separate practice is only a requirement for the first 2 or 3 times you play through a piece. Once you’ve done that, you can start putting the hands together. I’ve even heard students mistakingly believe putting hands together as quickly as possible is a faster way to learn a piece.
Hey guys, I get it. You’re eager to play your piece. You want that satisfaction that comes from exploring the rich harmonies on the piano. But let’s be real. How often has this strategy worked out for you?
You have to spend sufficient time learning each hand individually. It’s simply not enough to only do that while reading through the piece.
Think of it this way: each of your hands is a musician that needs to learn its part before it can join the ensemble. By working on each hand individually, you have more brain space to work on correct movements and choreography, dynamics, articulation, phrasing, and all other musical details.
I generally recommend students to practise each hand until it can play its part just above intended end speed without errors. Only after that should the hands be combined.
When you try and play hands together too soon, all you’re doing is making things harder for yourself.
Hang on, but what about sightreading? You have to be able to play two hands at the same time there! So shouldn’t we be practising that skill?
Well yes, but remember that in the intermediate years, we usually sightread WELL below our technical level. For that reason, we prefer to work at this as a separate activity, not in your performance repertoire.
Hands separate practice is vital in the process of learning a piece deeply.
By focusing our attention on one hand at a time, we can focus on as much detail as possible while also making sure our technique is correct for creating the desired effects.
2. Not practising at the correct speed
How fast should you practise a new piece? The answer: probably slower than you think.
Slow practise is SO important in learning intermediate repertoire, and yet it’s almost always the thing students refuse to do.
They believe they can speed things up by pushing the limits, and in reality, this is probably the main reason they’re never confident enough to perform.
Go slow, very slow.
As slow as is required to avoid making mistakes.
When you first approach a piece, you want to train each hand how to move. Take your time, and teach them correctly from the first moment. Be consistent and patient. Speed will come.
3. Working on too much at once
It’s a well-known fact that our working memory can only hold about five pieces of new information at a time.
Have you ever experienced working a lot on a piece one day, only to come back the next and feel like you forgot everything you did the day before?
You may have been overloading your working memory! As a result, nothing was put into ‘storage’ in your long term memory. Oops.
The only way to avoid this kind of cognitive overload is by taking small bites out of your new piece, one at a time, so your brain has a limited amount of new information to process each time you practise.
Do NOT just play through a piece over and over again, starting from bar 1 and slowly, arduously, working your way through it multiple times in a row, hoping one day it will ‘click’.
That doesn’t work!
In fact, tt’s probably the worst way to practise I can imagine. Because what you’re doing is completely overloading your working memory, which means you’ll retain virtually nothing!
Here’s just a fraction of the new info your working memory has to process by trying to play it all at once:
- Read notes and identify patterns in the treble clef
- Read notes and identify patterns in the bass clef
- Transmit each note and pattern into the correct movement in fingers, hands and arms
- Judge any sounds produced against your intention
- Keep a steady beat while counting
- Count out and get a feeling for new rhythms
- Interpret articulation signs
- Interpret dynamics signs
- Interpret all other markings on the page
- Coordinating ALL OF THE ABOVE at the same time for each hand individually
- Coordinate ALL OF THE ABOVE at the same while coordinating the hands
Need I go on??
That is WAY too much to process.
If you start from the start and keep playing through errors and difficulties over and over again – BOOM, we’ve got the perfect recipe for slow progress, tedious practice, mental exhaustion and the sense you’ll never ever get confident with a piece.
What if instead, you only worked on small sections at a time, say 1 or 2 bars, and have a clearly outlined goal for each session?
Say you’ve been working on a piece hands separately, and are now confident your hands know their parts.
You’re going to work on putting them together. Choose a SMALL section to work on, 2 bars for instance. Set yourself a goal for this session, such as: I want to be able to play these 2 bars without note errors at a slow speed (65BPM) while phrasing the melody correctly.
Now, by going slow, by limiting your focus, your working memory has all the time and space required to help you learn and retain. As you continue to work on the small sections, they’ll stop being ‘new information’, and you can make the sections bigger without overloading your working memory.
4. Brushing off minor errors
When you’re practising, it’s very easy to brush off small, seemingly minor errors.
“Oops, wrong note. Oh well, I’ll hit it right next time.” But will you though?
And if you don’t, will you take that as a clue that something is not right?
Because you should! Small errors can break your confidence in performance because they often lead to bigger mistakes.
Now before we go on, I need to tell you something: you’ll ALWAYS make a mistake of some kind. There is no such thing as a flawless performance. But that doesn’t mean we should become complacent in our practice.
In your practice, aim for accuracy as much as you can. If you slip, make sure it WAS just a one-off slip. If you slip twice in a row, take that as a sign that something isn’t quite right yet.
Zoom in on that section of music, go slow, go mindful and work at it. Don’t brush it off as an ‘oopsie’.
5. Not repeating things correctly – mindless practising
We learn our pieces well by repeating them and building ‘muscle memory’. But it’s not enough to sit there and do the same thing ten times in a row.
Just playing something over and over for the sake of repetition is a fool’s errand.
You need to have in your mind a very clear aural image for what you’re trying to accomplish BEFORE you play anything on the piano. And this is true for EACH repetition.
Are you working on moving your fingers equally through a passage?
Well, then every repetition should be followed by a mental check: was that even? Yes = repeat so you can learn the movement more deeply. No = go slower/analyse/check your posture/some other action.
NEVER repeat something after an error without thinking it through.
Mindless repetition is a big mistake students make when it comes to practising. You actually speed things up if you take a little bit more time to think between each repeat.
It will also stop you from making an error multiple times in a row. If you repeat a mistake five times, you’re going to have to play the correct way at least 20 times to ensure your fingers remember the right way (and not the wrong notes you just played 5 times in a row!)
Do you have time for that? Or patience?
Instead, aim for not playing mistakes in the first place, by using the techniques we discussed so far: slow practice, small sections, don’t force the hands together too quickly.
If you do have to repeat something, always, ALWAYS, have a clear goal in mind, imagine the sound in your head – think, play, think.
Remember that at the end of the day, there is no one in the practice room with you to tell you whether you have played something correctly or not. There’s just you. So you need to make sure you are focused and keep your attention on what you’re doing.
Keep your mind on the task at hand, eliminate distractions, and always have a plan.
I feel that for the sake of completeness, I should add here that while these tips are true in 99% of all cases, there is repertoire and activities out there that will require a different approach. For instance, some pieces should be learned with both hands at the same time, and some technical passages need fast practice early on to get them smooth.
However, since they are the exception and not the rule, my advice is to trust your teacher’s guidance on the pieces you’re learning, even if they tell you the opposite of what you just read.
In the vast majority of cases, though, if you are an intermediate pianist, you need to remember this rule:
Go Slow, Work Separately, Take Small Bites and Always Repeat Mindfully
See you in my next post!