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When I play any sheet music by memory, if I realize (by ear) that I play one wrong note, I always stop/get stuck and cannot continue playing. This is very bad in case I need to perform.

So how to play a wrong note without stopping? Or I should just keep trying to play a sheet perfectly before performing, and refuse to play a sheet that I'm not sure I can play perfectly?

I have been learning piano for a few months now.

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    Please consider making this question more specific. What piece? Where exactly is the problem spot (what measure? Which note(s) within that measure?)? Are you playing from memory? There are many different answers to questions like this, depending on the circumstance. Without knowing the specifics, this site can only offer generalizations that might have nothing to do with the real problem.
    – Aaron
    Aug 25 at 3:10
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    @Aaron It happen with sheets that I play from memory, and usually in hard part/ measure that I often forget after (long) time. How do I improve or accept/ keep up with it? Aug 25 at 3:25
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    Honestly, I wouldn't worry about it right now. You might just not be familiar enough with various muscle memories to keep going if it's only been a few months to power through errors. After you have some more muscle memory for certain frequently encountered things (or just super familiarity with the piece) you can just continue through the motion.
    – DKNguyen
    Aug 25 at 19:04
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    @BlaineWorkman and the question is, how do you manage to do that instead of stopping?
    – Zachiel
    Aug 26 at 23:38
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    That sounds like years to me. But there's nothing wrong with years of lessons. Most professional pianists will have had 15 or 20.
    – phoog
    Aug 27 at 3:51
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The source of the problem

The most common cause I've encountered for this kind or problem is practicing primarily from the beginning a piece.

The "mechanical" solution

Beginners tend to learn music by developing muscle memory that is associated with the sounds of that music. When the sound or the muscle memory is interrupted, the performer becomes lost. There are no other memory sources (e.g., knowing each individual note, the harmonies, being able to play by ear) to back things up. Thus, the music must be restarted from the very beginning.

It's similar to traveling to a familiar location when one always starts and end the trip from the same places. If there's a different starting place, or a wrong turn, or the familiar trip is somehow interrupted, one becomes lost unless there's good enough knowledge of what went wrong, the surrounding area, or some other cue to help get back on track.

The starting point to fixing this kind of problem is to practice starting from different places in the music — first with the sheet to help, then from memory.

Suppose a mistake occurs at measure X. First, practice measure X by itself. Then start one measure before. Then start at the beginning of the phrase. Try starting in the middle of a random spot near X. This will force your mind, ear, and fingers to learn to music from many different perspectives, and when done sufficiently, will carry you through even when mistakes are made.

The "complete" solution

In addition to the "mechanical" practice described above, there is also the musical/emotional meaning of the piece. Mistakes — and the difficultly in continuing past them — often stem from an incomplete connection with the feeling of the music.

When a mistake occurs, it is crucial, beyond just drilling the notes, to ask what those notes mean. What is happening in the phrase of which they're a part? Is it climactic? Tragic? Exciting? Is there a specific image or story involved? And what role does this note, chord, or passage play within that meaning? Is it the high point? A rest point? A passing-through point?

These kinds of emotional "through-lines" in music can carry us along even when "surface detail" (like notes, rhythms, dynamics, etc.) eludes us.

Consider that when you speak, you can forget a word, use the wrong word, stumble, forget what you were saying, and the person you're talking to still gets your meaning, because they have a feel for what you were saying. Music is the same. Capture the feel, and know "the story" of the music, and that will sustain you through missed notes.

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    Absolutely. In the past, I've been in bands that do exactly that. Mess up in verse 3, so we must start at the beginning again. Bonus is, sight-reading imroves as well, rather than memory. My usual analogy is - just finished cleaning a big window. Notice a speck of dirt in the middle. Need to clean it all again?
    – Tim
    Aug 25 at 7:47
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    fun fact: AI has this problem.
    – user253751
    Aug 26 at 15:03
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    Love the complete solution part. This was what I was missing in my early years of piano playing. Feel the music with emotion and you will find practice fun and less mistakes. Aug 27 at 2:55
  • Brilliant answer in many ways!
    – Theo Tiger
    Aug 27 at 6:20
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I've said that, if possible, you should play with people and in front of people. "With people" because you have a set of things you think are important, but when you play with others, your failing are clear and they will let you know. Most likely, it's time, intonation, dynamics, and listening to others, but it could be other things.

In your case, it's the mindset of playing in front of others that's important. Basically, "the show most go on". The song can't end and start over just because you threw clams. Good musicians in the practice room will give you room to get it right, but on the stage, you just need to acknowledge it to yourself, get over it, and move on.

There's a line that, when you play the wrong note, you should play it again, hard, so it sounds like you meant it. That might be a mindset to get into. If it's the same note at the same time, though, you should take that part slowly to get it under your fingers. Practice doesn't make perfect, it makes permanent, so if you keep practicing the wrong note, it'll always be there.

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    Playing the 'wrong' note several times works well in a jazz situation, but I doubt it'd work with pieces that are available on sheet music - thus are better known and also it's going to be difficult making the same 'mistake' if those tricky bars don't come round again.
    – Tim
    Aug 25 at 7:44
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    The other aspect of playing with other people, i.e., within an ensemble, is that you very quickly learn to keep rolling even after a few honkers, as the group will steamroll right over you and leave you playing catch-up if you stop or stutter.
    – Tristan
    Aug 25 at 14:28
  • They're less likely to steamroll in the practice room than on the stage, but yes, @Tristan Aug 26 at 18:07
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This answer is just based on my personal experience. I never had this problem, and I'm mostly a guitarist who plays rock music. When I first started I often played along with recordings. If I missed a note, the music went on without me and I had to catch up. So perhaps you should play along with recordings also. Having to figure out where you were when you mess up is an important skill if you're ever going to play with other musicians.

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    IMO, it would strengthen your answer if you didn't say "based on my personal experience" and "I never had this problem". :-)
    – Aaron
    Aug 25 at 4:49
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    True, though playing with an external aid is a good strategy to treat pausing involuntarily. Aug 25 at 12:55
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    @Aaron I meant along the lines of "I never had this problem, and perhaps this is why..."
    – Matt
    Aug 25 at 14:14
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    @Graham Can't ever work? You mean to tell me no solo artist ever made a recording worth playing along to? Would you be against practicing for solo pieces with a metronome, then? I agree with your point about it being harder to improve from a recording with timing variations, but if there are any good ways to learn expressiveness out there, surely replicating an expert must be one of them? Why shouldn't OP practice like that?
    – user45266
    Aug 26 at 9:30
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    @Graham I respectfully disagree (or agree with both sides, though less vehemently?). When I perform the 1st mvt of the Bach Gm solo violin sonata, I warp the subdivisions like Silly Putty. But when learning, parsing the 64ths and 128ths requires a metronome and a slide rule. Certainly, you must abandon the metronome to practice expression, but that's not the only kind of practice. I often play with recordings when practicing orchestral pieces (I know, not solo) since it helps strong-arm this reflex to stop for a mistake. I'd argue playing with a solo self-recording could serve the same purpose Aug 26 at 16:00
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You could simply be in the habit of stopping to correct mistakes. I advise my students that you practice in two ways (well, hopefully hundreds of ways, but at least these two): When first learning a piece you should never let a mistake go past without correcting it, and when preparing for a performance you should spend at least some time playing straight through without stopping for any reason. Perhaps you just need to spend more time in the second way of practicing. And it can be hard to "remember" not to stop, so many of the strategies already suggested here can be helpful: Book small, informal performances before "the big one": Play for friends, in a coffeeshop, on the sidewalk, for a video recording, etc. Play along with recordings.

You mention that you stop "usually in a hard part/measure that I often forget after (long) time.” This suggests two solutions:

  1. Practice the hard part extra! This is always good for simply getting better at hard parts; if one measure is twice as hard as those around it, shouldn't the surrounding measures need half the attention? It's also smart, when taking the measure out of context, to start in different places sometimes. If, say, m. 10 is hard, and you always practice it by starting in m. 9, then m. 9 becomes a weak point in your memory and you might have trouble going from 8 to 9.
  2. If there is a spot where your memory often fails you, there might be a musical reason. Sometimes one section of a piece is similar to another. I sometimes play from memory while recording myself, then play the recording back while watching the music to and see where I went wrong. It’s also helpful to analyze the form of the piece to understood why it takes these different turns. On a smaller scale, I've played Hindemith pieces and had trouble remembering certain very convoluted measures in which the notes seem almost "random," until sitting down and discerning the pattern that actually underlies them.

There are a few other reasons that one might stop when making a mistake:

  • The mistake simply interrupts you and distracts your memory from what comes next. This could be solved by performing from the music, or from various ways of strengthening one's memory of a piece (spending more time in the "from memory" part of preparing for a performance, making a "mental roadmap" of the piece, or analyzing the piece's structure). You suggest “refusing” to perform a piece until you can do so perfectly; I’m not sure I would go so far (would any of us ever perform, then?), but there’s no harm in making sure you’re well prepared.
  • You could be temporarily paralyzed by concern over having made a mistake. This would call for a change in the way you think about practice and performance, addressing your emotional responses to success or failure, and reducing the "stakes" of making a mistake. This could go deep; professional therapy can be an important part of a performing life.
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    I was about to write an answer all about the two ways of practicing, but you've basically covered what I would say. I think that part could be brought out (or highlighted) as an important concept for organizing one's practice sessions. hth. I think it's an excellent point but ended up buried in the middle of your text. Aug 25 at 22:33
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    +100 if I could. This is the only answer which is actually correct. All the others focus on "practise so you don't make a mistake". You've got the correct answer which is "practise playing on after a mistake" - and that's a skill which needs practise just as much as putting fingers on keys.
    – Graham
    Aug 26 at 8:17
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'Well, don't do that then' :-)

OK, that doesn't help much. Yes, a wrong note can be an obstacle. Particularly if you played the clunker because your hand was in the wrong position. And because a lot of our music reading isn't about individual notes, but about patterns. G,A,B is 'G then one up then one up again'.

I can only offer you the standard advice. Practice slowly enough to NOT play wrong notes. Four wrong attempts followed by one correct one isn't success, it's four practices of the wrong one! Play it right, then play it right 10 more times. 'An amateur practices until he gets it right, a professional practices until he couldn't get it wrong.'

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Just don't stop but keep going as if it didn't happen and don't worry about it, things will improve with time. A lot of musicians "train" themselves to stop and consequently don't play nice with others. Never ever stop. However, this is a good time to work on your ear training. Ear training should not be seen as a separate skill but something to amalgamate or crosspollinate with your existing skills.

Most of us learn scales by their letter names, learn them by their numeric names. Instead of seeing (and hearing) CDEFGABC, learn them as 12345678. Thus, MARY HAD A LITTLE LAMB, regardless of the key, is: 3212333 222 355 3212333322321.
Start on the third tone of any scale and play those numbers and poof, you can sight transpose. Don't be satisfied with merely matching dots to a key. Learn the vocabulary. So if you are not sure what that fifth tone is when you are playing, if you know what a fifth sounds like, you will never have to guess, your brain will just know. You will hear it in your head and . . . just know.

It is no different from spelling a word you don't know. You use your existing KNOWLEDGE of spelling rules and sounding out the syllables (spelling by ear/playing by ear). There is nothing hocus pocus about it, it is employing your brain and not guessing nor learning music merely by rote.

Secondarily, this is the beginning of honing your improvisational skills. Should you hit a wrong note, you'll be able to use it as a passing tone, neighbor tone or tension tone to make your piece more interesting. Don't be fooled into thinking a "classical" piece is a museum piece. I'm sure Bach or Chopin never played one of their own works the same way twice. They were improvisors who wrote out their music for students or profit. We don't have to be slaves to their notation.

So build your confidence, ear and brain by playing like nothing happened BUT MAKE NOTE OF IT and go back later to fix what your brain doesn't know yet. Just like spelling, mistakes are lack of knowledge, not talent. Just listen to all the "mistakes" this guy makes:

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  • "...improvisors who wrote out their music..." I think this is a really important point. I've only seen it in writing a few times, could be I need to read more, but it just seems to be a fact not well known. Aug 27 at 13:40
  • "we don't have to be slaves to their notation": there's a fascinating passage in Artur Rubenstein's autobiography where he describes the transition he had to make with the popularization of recordings. Where previously he had been able to play fast and loose with the music he performed, recordings (and the advent of "urtext" editions) brought about an expectation of note-perfect, "as notated" performances.
    – Aaron
    Aug 27 at 17:57
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It can be a bit jarring to keep playing when you know you've messed up. Feels like it messes with the whole rhythm.

Practice practice practice is the best thing to do. If you go through a piece and make a mistake, push it a couple more bars before stopping.

The main thing that got me through this issue when performing is knowing that nobody knows you've messed up. To you it seems like the end of the world but in reality if you keep playing nobody will know any different.

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    Great suggestion about stopping a short distance after the mistake. This provides the best of both worlds - keep going and don't let a mistake go without fixing it. This is exactly how experienced musicials practice. (They also do what @LaurencePayne says in his answer.)
    – Ian Goldby
    Aug 26 at 8:27
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I think an important thing to do is prioritize rhythmic integrity over pitch, or at least treat them as equal. From a listener's perspective I think a wrong pitch is fleeting, but stopping completely, going back even, is a complete collapse of the musical experience.

The way I look at it is this. The first "wrong note" or "mistake" that people recognize is a wrong pitch. For example, you hit an A instead of a B. When that happens, you stop, get frustrated, then start over probably from the exact point of the mistake.

What that does is take a mistake in pitch, and compounds it into a mistake in rhythm! It also trashes the sense that music is a series of coherent phrases, because you might start up again in the middle of a phrase. And let's make one thing very clear: music is a temporal art, no amount of going back and replaying something, in a performance, will "fix" anything. Once it's broken, it's broken... so keep playing.

...refuse to play a sheet that I'm not sure I can play perfectly?

That seems like circular thinking. How would you be able to play something perfectly without practicing it where surely you will make mistakes?

There is a Catch 22 here. You don't want to make mistakes while practicing, but part of the issue is how to avoid stopping when a mistake happens. You want to somehow create "opportunities for mistakes" so you can practice a not stopping reaction.

Potentially there are two different issue at hand. One is how to practice to overcome difficult passages where you make mistakes. The other is how to break the reflex of stopping when a mistake is made. Those are two different issues.

I think there are two main things to work on:

  • For trouble spots, break up practice into phrase based units and focus on the difficult sections. You can try various phrasing scopes depending on the situation. You could work on things around 4 to 8 bars, or break things down to smaller scopes even a small as two beats. In a sense this involves a deliberate start/stop approach, because you playing the whole piece.
  • To work on not stopping after a mistake, find material to practice where constant tempo and rhythm are the priority. I think you want spontaneity in this work. Sight reading is the obvious thing that comes to mind. Counting the beat out loud will be good too. Some things to try when you encounter those moments of hesitation: play what you can manage, maybe just the bass, or bass and treble, simplify dense of florid passages, at the very least if your hands stop, don't stop counting the beat, and get back to playing as soon as you can.

In both cases I think a good principle is taking some extra time, a "breather" to regain your composure, at a musical cadence point, is OK. That at least works within the natural start/stop structure of the music itself.

Overall, avoid stopping by focusing on the beat and rhythm.

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  • Just a style suggestion: Start the post with the "prioritize rhythmic integrity" sentence. As is, you're kind of burying the lead.
    – Aaron
    Aug 26 at 15:49
  • Thanks @Aaron, I made that change. Sometimes writing answer is more stream of consciousness, I can get lost in my own thoughts. Aug 26 at 16:02
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    re "refuse to play ... until I can play," I took it the OP meant "perform publicly"—in fact I see Aaron made that edit Aug 26 at 16:03
  • It's a really good perspective. (I'm kicking myself for not thinking of it.) And moving both sentences is really strong. I hope this answer will continue to get more attention.
    – Aaron
    Aug 26 at 16:05
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    @AndyBonner Yes, but it still seems wrong headed, as if you can practice away any chance of mistake, interruption, or hesitation. Aug 26 at 16:13

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