There is a hypothetical test to find out how accurately a pianist responds to the expressive details in a piece of music. Someone with an acute ear sits with a special copy of the score – one that has had all the dynamics, articulations and other marks of expression removed. As the pianist plays, the listener has to fill in all this information from what they hear by dictation – distinguishing between a forte and a mezzo forte, a tenuto and another type of accent, noting precisely where a diminuendo begins, and so on.

When you’ve been practising a piece for a while (especially from memory), it is easy to let the focus slip here and there. What about those syncopated accents after the double bar – are you really making them clear and meaningful, or do they now exist only in your imagination? Is it possible that you’ve forgotten about them altogether?  How can we be absolutely sure that how we imagine we are playing is actually what comes across to the listener, and that what we are doing matches the composer’s text?

Before I go on, I would like to distinguish between honest mistakes or omissions and careless ones. I have written about this in a recent blog post – follow this link to The Speed of No Mistakes. It is careless mistakes that I speak of below.

Not executing the expressive details is one thing, but suppose the next level down on our downward spiral to impending mediocrity is to turn a blind eye to slips and stumbles as they happen in our practice. I am not only thinking of notes and rhythm but also other parameters such as fingering, pedalling, etc.:

  • I smudged that passage but it’ll be OK tomorrow, it’s not really that difficult.
  • I think I may have paused for a moment before the big chord in bar 6 to make sure my hand was over all the notes – I know how it’s supposed to sound, though.
  • I played a wrong note at the top of that run, but since I corrected it immediately after I’m OK.
  • I felt that my thumb didn’t quite get there in that last arpeggio but that’s because I’m not yet warmed up enough.
  • I sensed my pedalling wasn’t quite right but I’m sure it’ll all fall into place eventually.
  • So what if I needed three or four restarts? I’ve only been playing this piece a couple of weeks and I can’t be expected to get everything right yet.

When we practise it is a dangerous habit to gloss over such slips. It sends our subconscious mind a message that sloppy is OK. After a while we risk becoming immune to our faults as we adopt a mañana attitude to dealing with them, and – worse still – having all sorts of below-par playing slip under the radar. Before very long, you won’t even notice you’re taking two or three stabs that passage when you practise, it’ll all be so normal. If you do notice, the chances are you are past caring.

It might pull us up a bit if we could see how we played, notated exactly as it sounded (worst-case scenario, of course).

One of the most challenging things is to develop the ability to self-diagnose accurately as we practise. What went according to plan and what did not? If we are too strict we can lapse into perfectionism; if we are not strict enough our standards, motivation and self-worth can plummet and we stagnate.

Recording ourselves from time to time is an obvious way of keeping a check, but that’s not always going to be ideal during day-to-day practice. By far the best tool for this job is to learn to use the feedback loop and make a point of maintaining the highest standards of quality in everything we do at the piano. Each and every repetition has to be done well, with full attention and mindfulness. I think my post The Quality Control Inspector will clarify how this works. Happy (and productive) practising!

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