by Jenny Leigh Hodgins
If you’ve been following my piano practice blog series, you know my strategy for how to spend time at piano for the most effective progress.
If you missed those, check out: My Best Tips On How To Practice Piano Part 1, My Best Tips On How To Practice Piano Part 2 & My Best Tips On How To Practice Piano Part 3, where I walk you through my effective piano practice strategy in detail.
Continuing in your piano practice routine, you should practice each goal in this manner (as described in previous blogs above) for as long as you are able to muster full effort. Repeat the same practice process with your next goal, aiming to successfully play through several times in a row.
Stop if you make a mistake, or when you lose mental concentration. Remind yourself of your selected goal and reset back to the start. If you’re unable to keep your mind on things after awhile, or continue making the same mistakes, it may be time for a change. This brings us to decide What To Do If You Keep Messing Up At The Piano!
Starting anew without success after multiple attempts means you’re either doing something to block your progress, or you simply need a break to refresh yourself. If you simply didn’t achieve your goal, in addition to stopping and returning to the beginning, you must change your approach.
Take A Closer Look At The Problem
When I’ve chosen a specific practice goal, but continue having problems getting through the music successfully, I take a step back. By that I mean to take a closer look at the problem section. Analyze the trouble spot, looking for clues about what’s tripping you up. This often reveals a less obvious practice goal that you must focus on first, before moving on to your previously selected goal. In other words, you’ve taken on too much at once. Bite off only what you can chew, one morsel at a time.
How do you find the trouble to know what to practice? Ask yourself questions relevant to your music and piano playing level. If you’re a beginner, you may ask;
If you’re more advanced, you must ask questions relative to your level, too.
Troubleshooting As A Target
These are simply examples of questions. You must look at your music specifically to break things down, one issue or item at a time, deducing where, within the music, you are completely confident you’ve mastered each aspect of your analysis. When you find a point where you are struggling to focus or answer a question, you’ve found a trouble spot!
An effective piano practice routine constantly involves this kind of reflection, and then zeroing in to practice only that section or areas that cause any issues. The way to accomplish more at your piano is determined by how much mental energy you’ve spent during your time at the piano. When you push yourself to be more conscientious of each moment and every phrase of your musical assignments, you will reap huge rewards with advancement as a musician.
But what if you’ve gone through this intense effort and you’re still having issues? I know how frustrating that may be, but there are two solutions that usually resolve any trouble areas.
Play It Slower, Sam
Most commonly, the solution to the problem is a slower tempo. Your next best step would be to stay focused on the originally selected goal, but play through your musical section at a much reduced speed. Playing music at a slower than usual tempo is often the most challenging kind of practice. Quite the opposite of most people’s impression that fast is impressive. (Though it can be, often piano players of fast passages easily find themselves relying on physical muscle memory, which, as mentioned earlier, is like a fragile house of cards!)
Sometimes we’ve made the mistake of relying solely on our muscle memory to play through musical passages. When the tempo is slowed down, that kind of false scaffolding is stripped away, leaving us to use our cognitive skills and tune in to refine our kinesthetic senses. This can feel like having the training wheels of a bicycle removed. We start off wobbly and lacking confidence or balance.
But when you slow the tempo, you allow yourself enough space in your brain to be fully mindful of each practice goal, whether it’s the notes, rhythm, fingering, dynamics or all these combined. If you’re able to play slowly enough to completely master each aspect of the music (whichever goals you’ve chosen to practice), you will gradually come away from piano practice with a deeper grasp of the music, both internally and physically.
But playing music that is familiar to us at a deliberately slower tempo can also cause us to trip up. This is even more basis for the argument to slow your playing enough to thoroughly choose and focus on one practice goal at a time until it is mastered.
Underwater Slow Motion Effect
One of the biggest problems with slowing down is that we’ve developed bad habits of playing at a tempo too fast. This tempo is stuck in our aural memory as well as our physical muscles. This makes for a tougher barrier to get through.
What I suggest is to look at your music through a new lens. Go to the extreme with your imagination. Pretend you’re playing through the musical phrase as if you are in an underwater film scene using a slow motion effect. Yes. That slow. Be intentionally and dramatically slower than the slowest tempo you can feel.
If it’s hard to keep the beat at that new tempo, set the metronome at the most ridiculously slowest tempo you can feel. Play the music along with the metronome. If necessary, count aloud before you play, clapping out or tapping the rhythm on your legs first. Then play through with this tempo using the metronome.
Once you’re able to sense the steady beat of this willfully chosen slow speed, go back through the passage following your effective piano practice routine. Stop if you make a mistake or lose mental concentration. Aim again to play at this slow tempo correctly three times in a row.
Discovering Your Musical Weaknesses
Typically, playing slowly in this manner will reveal problem areas you hadn’t discovered while playing at the faster tempo. Even better, playing slowly will allow you to more deeply and clearly master previously chosen practice goals. This kind of practice brings you much more quickly to the kind of cognitive engagement necessary for lasting piano progress.
Why? Because you’re finally going slow enough to allow yourself to fully think consciously and consistently toward your chosen practice goals. You may have thought you’d already surpassed this level of practice at your faster tempo. But the majority of the time, slower practice will take you further and, ironically, faster in piano progress.
What Should You Do If You Keep Messing Up At The Piano?
If you’re unable to keep your mind on things after awhile, it may be time for a break. This kind of prolonged, intensely concentrated effort cannot be sustained for long. Especially if you’ve just begun using this piano practice technique.
It’s perfectly normal and advisable to take a break when you’ve hit a plateau, lost your ability to pay attention to your set goals, or make mistakes repeatedly. Our brains need a moment to refresh.
You could choose to play through something without concentrating, just for the enjoyment of it. Choose something at a much easier sight-reading level, a previously mastered piece, or improvise for the sheer fun of it.
Play It Again, Sam
Once you’ve taken a short break, try again with renewed determination. You may find a burst of energy that helps you continue your intentional, slow tempo practice. You may notice already, a degree of improvement, fluency, muscle recall, or musicality emerging. This is a wonderful experience, bringing a joyful sense of accomplishment and newfound confidence as a piano player.
Enjoy that! It will keep happening again and again, each time you challenge yourself to give your all mentally to your piano practice sessions.
If you’re experiencing the opposite, unable to play without mistakes, or just can no longer focus at the practice goal with a slow tempo, you may need to leave the piano completely for a change of pace, scenery, a meal, drink, or even rest.
Celebrate and acknowledge your efforts no matter what! Each day, each hour, each moment that you’re forging your complete focus on piano practice in the way I’ve described in this series is an incredible accomplishment. You’re making progress step by step, sometimes without realizing it until you look back and see how far you’ve come in your musical skills!
I’d love to hear from you. It means a lot to me that my content is helpful. Please take a moment to join the conversation below to let me know if this blog is helpful to you, or if you have questions or suggestions!
If you’re a piano teacher, feel free to leave one of your favorite piano practice tips in the comment section!
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