It’s amazing what the human mind is capable of, when its resolve is strong enough. Sometimes playing accurately is just a matter of deciding not to play wrong notes. End of story.
A number of my students are preparing duet repertoire to perform in our local association’s annual Multi-Piano Concert in a few weeks. I LOVE this event. The repertoire is always fun, and the community environment puts students at ease. The event also challenges students to master their repertoire…. down to every last note, rhythm and tempo marking. For the ensemble to sound polished, there’s no room for any “creative” notes from individual performers.
To perform a piece with this kind of perfect accuracy, students have to learn to practice with perfect accuracy. We must train our students to focus and think as they play each and every note, and not just fumble half-minded through tricky passages in hopes that they will get better over time. Easier said than done, right?!
A simple little trick has been getting great results in my studio lately. When students come in with a passage that’s sloppy or uncoordinated, insist that they play it again for you… with no more than 2 mistakes. Be matter of fact about your request. Don’t try to point out what they did wrong, or offer suggestions for fingerings, etc. Simply ask them to play it again… and not make all the mistakes they did the last time.
Be sure to add this rule: the student is allowed to play the passage at any tempo, and pause before any tricky notes. They’re just not allowed to hit more than 2 wrong notes.
The first time you ask a student to do this, they’ll look at you like you’re crazy. They’ve probably practiced this section at home all week and never played it anywhere close to that level of accuracy. How on earth is it magically going to get better if they just play it one more time?
They’ll start to play, and probably make 2 mistakes right off the bat in the first measure. Point the mistakes out verbally – “that’s one… that’s two… oops! you’ve used up all of your mistakes… better not make any more!”
And then, 9 times out of 10, something magical will happen. The student will slow down, focus in a way they never have before, and play the rest of the notes right. Sure, there will be some pauses, and maybe even another mistake or two down the line, but you’ll both be surprised at how cleanly they’re able to play.
Once they can play with only two mistakes, make it harder. Insist that they only get one mistake the next time. I never go beyond one. Psychologically, there’s something comforting about knowing that you have one freebie… and it makes it more of a game.
When you’re through working on the passage, it’s time to lay on some serious praise. You want your student to walk out the door knowing that they’re prepared to practice at home… without those pesky mistakes and fumbles!