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I have played keyboard quite a while and now I'm starting to practice some classical musics like Fur Elise. When I see a live performance of any musical instrument, there seems to be no error at all. Perhaps I just can't notice them due to my lack of experience and knowledge.

So, whatever it is, what do I need to do so I don't make mistakes when playing a song (at least when you are performing)?

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How do you get to Carnegie Hall? –  yossarian May 5 '11 at 18:50
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LOL, I buy ticket to a show, and take a cab :P –  Phelios May 6 '11 at 2:32
    
Well i have been learning for more than 2 years now. i can learn piano easy , but then i cant read notes , but i can play by ear alittle now. but I still Make alot of mistakes even tho i play the same song every single day ? any Help ? with this ? –  user2769 Aug 18 '12 at 6:59
    
@AleeXiong Welcome to Music SE. If you have any specific questions (such as certain techniques etc.), feel free to ask a new question. –  American Luke Aug 18 '12 at 13:06
    
Off Topic, but... Why are all these old questions popping to the top of the list? An amateur does something until he gets it right. A professional does something until he cannot get it wrong. –  JimR May 29 '13 at 16:53

19 Answers 19

up vote 75 down vote accepted

You will always make mistakes, so the key is practicing in a way that eliminates mistakes.

"Practice makes perfect" is a Big Lie.

If you don't practice in a smart method you will never get that good -- so what is important is not just practice itself, but good practice technique.

When practicing a piece of music or song, there are really two modes I would practice in:

  1. Section mode. In this mode I practice in focused areas. I always try to hear internally and "mentally practice" each of these sections before I practice them. Also, key to section mode is to start slow, really slow, and only start to gradually speed it up once I get it (Don't be too conservative though or else you will never learn to play at speed).
  2. Run through mode. In this mode I run a piece through or larger sections. This is essentially practicing performance. I found it ideal to spend less time doing this than section practicing, but you still to need to make sure you are doing it.

With both of these the idea is practice makes permanent, not perfect. If you just keep hammering mindlessly away at a passage and playing it wrong, you get get better at playing it wrong. That is why you want to think before you play, and start slow. When you do this, you basically never or rarely actually play it wrong.

Remember this stuff takes time, playing the same section over and over and over again for an hour in one day is a waste of time. Play a section slowly maybe 2-5 times, then speed it up. When you hit your speed limit for the day, just move on to the next section. The reason is that these skills actually develop while you sleep, so you can't really force it.

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I totally agree with this. If you're making a lot of mistakes, you need to slow down; you've advanced before you were ready. Another thing to do is never stop practising after you get it right -- stop practising after you've played it more times correctly than incorrectly. Otherwise, your muscle memory will be of the incorrectly played version. –  Matthew Read May 5 '11 at 14:02
    
Very good answer! Practice doesn't mean trying 100 times in a row to play something at its original speed. –  Lagerbaer Jun 21 '11 at 17:45
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It's not a lie, it's just a lack of detail. (also, third sentence has a grammatical error, but I can't fix it (too short). –  naught101 Aug 28 '12 at 5:58
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very helpful advice. One more thing to add is to record and listen to yourself. Sometimes, you find some mistakes that are not easily noticed while you're playing. in my experience (guitar and piano), this is especially true for timing mistakes. –  Mel Dec 20 '12 at 13:44
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Another reason 'practice makes perfect' is a lie because you can't play something 'perfect'. Partly because music is very subjective; there is simply no 'right' way to play a piece, partly because we are humans (I hope). –  11684 Apr 23 '13 at 15:27

Practice makes perfect.

Really, there is no magic to it. Just keep practicing so that you won't make that mistake again.

Practice or practise (see spelling differences) is the act of rehearsing a behavior over and over, or engaging in an activity again and again, for the purpose of improving or mastering it, as in the phrase "practice makes perfect".

Wikipedia - Practice (learning method)

Or if you do make that mistake again by accident you'll know how to cover it up.

Unrelated to the piano, I've seen one of my favorite singers starting to sing the wrong verse live on stage. Halfway the first sentence, it was corrected by saying the other half of the right sentence. Nobody cared...

I guess you could do something similar for the piano after a lot of practice. :)

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I fully agree with that. And yes, every performer on any instrument will make a mistake some day; if you're good enough, you'll fix it by making it part of another musical phrase. If you can't, get over it, move on, what's done is done, nobody cares anymore. Whatever you do, don't interrupt your performance. –  Anthony Labarre May 5 '11 at 7:35
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As a side note, my method of using voting SE sites is not to down vote something unless it is wrong (as a matter of fact) or is just poorly written. Since this is neither, I personally wouldn't down vote this answer. –  Kyle Brandt May 5 '11 at 14:07
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I've cleaned up the comments here. Obviously everyone disagrees as to whether practice is fundamentally enough or if "practice makes perfect" is true. Let it rest there. –  Matthew Read May 20 '11 at 4:08

Two aphorisms:

"Perfect practice makes perfect permanent." - Me

"Don't practice until you get it right, practice until you can't get it wrong." - Lewis Carroll?

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+1 for the second quote! –  Michael May 6 '11 at 15:18
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The version I use: "Don't practice until you can get it right, practice until you can't get it wrong" –  Sergio Acosta May 12 '11 at 1:51

Start with small chunks and gradually add to them. I sometimes start at the end of the piece, learning the last 4 bars, then the last 8, last 12 and so on so when I come to perform the full piece, I'm always moving towards the more practised part of the piece.

After introducing your fingers to the chunk, play with a metronome as slowly as you need to to play the chunk perfectly (including the fingering). Don't increase the tempo until it's perfect and if you make a mistake, decrease the tempo until you get it right.

Be patient. If you practice for long enough, slowly, you'll be amazed how much more confident and automatic you'll become.

And I don't mean long as in a long session. Three 20-minute sessions, every day is better than a two-hour session every second day.

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I've used this technique in passage-work as well. It's a great psychological aid - makes you feel like you've going somewhere rather than bashing a wall. –  Michael May 6 '11 at 15:15

About practice the music itself to be able to play it perfect, refer to the already accepted answer from Kyle Brandt. This is a good answer!

About being able to play it perfect before an audience

This also requires something else: Self confidence and experience. The first time(s) you play before an audience, you will most likely make mistakes, even if you have rehearsed to the extent that you never make mistakes when playing by yourself.

So you will have to go through some performances where you don't play perfect, but in the beginning, you won't be playing at prestigious concerts like in Carnegie Hall anyway, so your audience will most likely not hear the mistakes you do (because they are not likely music experts).

Imortant rule of appearing perfect in front of an audience:

Do not make faces when you make a mistake!!!

Because your audience most likely will not notice small mistakes you do (even most of the audience at a concert in Carnegie Hall), it is important that you ignore any mistakes you do, and carry on as if it was supposed to be like that. If you make a funny face or something when you make a mistake, the audience will also notice it.

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I was writing a post that discussed the final point too. Even at a music camp with advanced players, they don't have the score in their laps, and they're unlikely to notice that you played a G instead of an F# on the third triplet in the 27th measure. Unless you make a face. The average person will certainly not notice minor mistakes - unless you make a face. Even if you do make a noticeable mistake, people will quickly forget about it, unless you do something to exacerbate it - such as make a face. Keep smiling and play like nothing happened. –  wadesworld Sep 8 '11 at 15:16
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"I totally meant to play it that way." –  Jeffrey Kemp Sep 10 '11 at 1:24
    
@JeffreyKemp: Yes indeed, it's called improvising . –  awe Aug 28 '12 at 6:59

After seeing this question, I decided to join music.SE and hopefully contribute something.

It's been a while since I read The Inner Game of Music, but the main concept stuck with me:

Performance = Potential - Interference

Most musicians (and performers of other kinds) only try to maximize their potential, usually by the methods listed above. Basically, just practice.

The idea in this book is to minimize the inner/mental things that hinder you from reaching your potential.

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1.) "Sing" the song in your head a second ahead of your fingers.

2.) Memorize your piece so that you can play it from memory. Start with a single measure and play it without the music in front of you.

3.) Practice Scales and Arpeggios. Do them for every key major and minor until you can do them (literally) blindfolded for the entire length of the keyboard (visualizing what your hands are doing may help).

4.) Your fingers will eventually learn what movements/keys accompany what sounds. Then you only need to memorize what it sounds like, a little fingering, and it should flow.This ability to play by ear naturally flows from the previous steps. (it takes a while)

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In a lot of performances (possibly excluding classical performances with known scores) you may never know there is a mistake. I know of many artists, myself included, who have a variety of ways to play particular pieces - I vary mine depending on the venue and audience mood, for example.

I excluded classical performances as for the majority, anyone who knows the score would be able to spot missing or incorrectly played notes.

Really - your only option is to put in the hours. Thousands of them :-)

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do you mean Thousands of them for every song? –  Phelios May 5 '11 at 11:01
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@Phelios - Not necessarily. Putting in thousands of hours of practice in general will just mean your body memory is far better; ie you will just put your fingers in the right place without needing to think about it. For each piece the more practice you put in, the easier it will be to play using your subconscious so you only need to really concentrate on the harder sections. –  Dr Mayhem May 5 '11 at 11:16
    
You wind up internalizing your motions/wind/lip positions. Then, as you play, you think more and more about the music, allowing your body to automatically translate to proper technique. This only comes from many, many years of practice though - long way for me still! –  Michael May 6 '11 at 15:17
    
You're not an experimental noise artist, are you? :D –  naught101 Aug 28 '12 at 6:05

I suspect it's probably different for different people. For me, it's discipline, discpline, discipline.

For a new piece, I start by learning each section on its own, and only play the entire piece through two or three times per session.

After that stage, I start practicing it as a performance piece. I'll start out a little slower than the intended final speed, learn it really well. Soon, I'll graduate to the actual final speed. I find I don't do too well if I try to go overfast, however (this may work for you, but not me).

When I'm practicing in performance mode, I'll impose the following rules on myself:

  1. Never stop for mistakes - continue playing to the end, don't slacken the pace.
  2. If I make any mistakes - any mistake at all - the next time I play it, I must play it slower.
  3. If I make another mistake when playing it slower, the next time through I must play it even slower. Much slower.
  4. I keep slowing it down each time (but never halfway through the piece) until I play it through without any mistakes.
  5. When I play it through without a mistake, the next time I'm allowed to speed up a little bit.
  6. Every time I play it without mistakes, I'm allowed to speed up again - until it's back up to the intended speed of the piece.

A side-effect of this regimen has meant that it I find it easy to play for congregational singing - I'm accustomed to never stop for mistakes - just keep playing, just keep playing.

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There are plenty of good answers here (in particular, the discussion of the major practicing pitfall around "practice makes perfect? No, practice makes permanent!"). But I'm a little surprised that no-one has yet really focused on the very big issue of what actually happens during a performance, when the mistakes we fear and hate still make their visits - this is clearly part of the question...

You may get to the point where you can play a piece flawlessly - the piece itself is within your capabilities, you've picked a good stable tempo, you've practiced thoughtfully and consistently - but when you go to perform it, surprising things happen. Performance is a very different space than Practice, for obvious reasons. It's a huge topic that has been a life-long interest, but to whet your curiosity, here are some things to watch out for:

  • The anxiety that can be part of performance. Buddhists say that "Fear of Public Speaking" is one of the Five Great Fears (Death, Illness, etc.), so you are not alone. Learn to channel that energy!
  • Being distracted by the newness of the performance situation. I remember hearing Itzhak Perlman talk about how he would hunker down in his kitchen, dressed in his tuxedo, and imagine the audience of thousands in his living room before going out, taking a bow, and running through his pieces.
  • Our tendency to play faster during a performance, because of the extra pressure and excitement. This all by itself can take a piece into mistake territory, and the likely thing is that you're not even aware that you are playing faster. Why not? Because a common mistake is to judge tempo by the physical sensations of playing, rather than by hearing the music as if you were sitting in the audience.
  • Our ability to surprise ourselves in performance - our natural creativity will break through, and we will come up with phrasing and inflections that we never imagined in the routine of the practice room. Look for these moments, and cherish them!

Of course, there's a lot more to be said about why, after all our careful and diligent practice, we still experience unwelcome surprises in front of people - strengthening your "performance muscles" (focus, composure, joy under pressure, etc.) is as important as the time you put into practice. In the end, though, making sure that you have fun in spite of it all is the best guideline.

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Actually, my answer does focus on what happens during a performance. You give additional insight to this important aspect, and I give you +1 for your answer. –  awe Aug 28 '12 at 7:12

Perform easier material.

You can probably play "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star" without any mistakes, right? Even in front of an audience?

Practice makes playing a piece easier. Someday, if you keep practicing, "Für Elise" will seem as easy as "Twinkle".

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I find the "T'ai Chi" method of practicing something as slowly as you can but focussing on the minute details of every movement really helpful and the difference it makes can be amazing. You need to be focussed tho and not just on the notes but the movement between the notes - everything should be smooth, fluid and gentle (even when playing loud). Your whole body should be relaxed and open all the time and if you find a movement difficult or awkward, its probably because you are doing something wrong.

The problem with this is that, for some bizarre reason, we all have this instinct that faster is better and how fast we can do something is a measure of how good we are at it, even when logically we know that that's a load of old nonsense. It's something that I still do to myself and I've been playing over 20 years.

Therefore one way I find to get round this is to repeat the piece as slow as I can focussing on all the details. Once that's under control, I try playing it properly (ie at the correct speed). Then right at the end of my practice (and when no-one is looking) have one quick go as fast as I want/can. It's something of a guilty pleasure but seems to work for me!! ;)

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In long pieces, the part you've known the longest has been practiced many, many more times than the "newer" sections. Therefore, it is important to know where you are in the piece, make your correction on the spot and continue on. Do NOT start at the beginning again, hoping that you'll magically make it through the spot where you made your error. There is a difference between a chronic mistake (a mistake in the same spot many times), and a mistake due to inattention. I suggest that chronic mistakes are handled in the same way you put something under a microscope. Fine tune it first. Start with the small section where the error occurred. Fix the error. Then gross tune it. Backtrack one measure. Try to lead into the "mistake measure" from the previous measure. Once you can do that successfully, go back a line or two and lead into the "mistake measure." Eventually, play the entire page, trying to make it successfully through the mistake measure. However, if you are making errors in different spots each time you play, it is because you have played the piece so many times, you are relying on your muscle memory to get you through sections. You must play in this order: see the note, play the note. Too many people's eyes have already moved onto new notes prematurely.

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This is a decent answer, but you may want to break it up into a few paragraphs. Also, are you sure that you're bringing up points that haven't already been covered in other answers to this question? –  Hannele Apr 10 '13 at 21:11

Don't sweat it. Horowitz made mistakes. Mind you he took huge risks too. But not making mistakes does not by itself make for an interesting performance.

The trouble with playing slow is it makes possible extraneous movements that prevent you playing fast. So you need to combine playing slowly and playing faster than you can really manage, mistakes and all. Play it fast to find the bits that trip you up the slow it down and get those sections right, then take it fast again, and repeat until done. When doing this you need to gradually expand how much you play at each attempt so that you also learn to connect the bits together - in particular its no good practicing a bit starting in a hand position that you won't be in when you are playing the entire piece.

Another useful technique, especially when you cannot quite get a rhythm right, is to "loop" a few bars and just play them over and over without stopping, gradually working up to tempo.

When attempting to play fast, it is important to avoid any tension. Its natural when trying to play fast to tense up and "try harder" but that is fatal. Play at a speeed where you can remain relaxed and then increase your speed slowly until you feel tension creeping in, then stop, relax and repeat.

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Ok, some out of order/different advice.

Something that I found works for me is to strengthen your forearm, and to stretch gently. Use light weights/high reps (you don't need bulky forearms! just toned ones), or get a Powerball gyroscopic exercise toy.

Also try soaking them in hot water (not so hot that you can't stand it! and not just lukewarm either) just before you play. Your hands will feel more limber and you will have more control.

What exercises do, I believe, is give you better control over your hands, so you can play better.

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If you want to practice efficiently: to make the best use of your practice time in order to conquer the difficulties that make you stuble, you should read this free book: Fundamentals of Piano Practice by Chuan C. Chang.

One technique I recall from the book is to objectively identify the difficulties in a piece. At some tempo, you can play the piece without making mistakes, or just with some rare blunder that could happen anywhere. As you gradually speed up the tempo, certain parts can be sped up easily, but some passages expose themselves as stress points. When you try to play these at the increased tempo, you stumble, miss notes, or turn the passages into gibberish.

Once you know where the stress points are, then just practice those stress points.

To discover the stress points properly, meter an exact tempo with a metronome. Your tempo has to be even because you might otherwise subconsciously slow down around the stress points. The metronome reveals everything in numbers: it tells you that you could still play the whole piece at 90 bpm, but at 110 bpm, you stumbled at bars 17 and 29.

Chang, by the way does not recommend continuous use of the metronome during practice, but rather as a tool for this kind of thing:

"Metronomes should not be overused. Long practice sessions with the metronome accompanying you are harmful to technique acquisition and leads to non-musical playing."

Chang argues like this: if the piece is five minutes long and has one stress point in it, you will only hit the stress point twelve times in one hour if you simply practice the piece by playing it over and over again. But if you practice just the stress point, you can hit it several hundred times in the same hour. Don't waste time practicing what you already know very well, in other words.

Always practice the stress point together with some notes before and after so that you're rehearsing the entry and exit transitions which connect it to the rest of the piece.

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I fully agree with Kyle's answer, but I'd like to add that not only should you speed up your practice as you get better for a given section (or the run-through), but in the end, practice it so you can play it faster than your target speed. That way, when you perform it live, you enter "Matrix Time", since you've rehearsed it faster, playing it at normal speed is a breeze.

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I like to read the notes and see what position the chord is in and use the least amount of movement when playing a piece.If i am having trouble remembering it most likely I'm in the wrong chord position,root or first or second invert.

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I can only repeat what I have heard Itzhak Perlman (and probably any good music teacher) say. Begin playing it slow, very slow, extremely slow.

Here is he explaining it.

Why is this the case. When you play slow you can manage to pay attention to every movement you need to play the music. Mistakes get magnified too, or at least don't risk being hidden by a fast tempo. So, you have the chance to catch them.

Playing fast hides mistakes. Doesn't let you focus on the proper musical expressions. For a reason, fast music needs to have more variation to not sound monotonous. The reason is the speed 'blurs' the little details.

There is also what Perlman was explaining. Slowly the brain have time to absorb what it is learning. It is interesting how the principle works the same for weight lifting.

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