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I've played the piano as a hobby on and off for over 20 years. While I did take lessons for several years as a child/young-teen, it was always quite casual. Now, as an adult, I realize that I've never really learned pieces to perfection (*see note below); I typically find a new piece, practice it for a few weeks until I can play through it at tempo (mostly) and move on to another.

My questions are:

  • What is the expected amount of work or amount of time required to take pieces from "I can play this" to "I can play this perfectly*"?
  • What does this process look like?
  • As a hobby pianist, is it worth it? What is gained from this process? (I feel bad asking this one, but I mean it as a serious question, so I'll put it out there anyway in hopes I won't be judged too harshly.)

EDIT Note* I've left the question as originally stated and added this note explaining what I intended by the word "perfect":

There has been lots of discussion already about what is meant by the word "perfect" here. Of course there is room for interpretation by others, but I think some have given me better words to convey my meaning: perhaps "performance ready" or "polished" would have been better choices instead of "perfect".

My intended meaning is something like the difference between "I can play this piece through mostly at tempo with some hiccups" and "I would be surprised if I made any mistakes (wrong notes, restarts, unplanned-pauses)". Maybe some wouldn't consider a piece in the first statement as "learned", but as a hobby pianist, this is often where I get.

Besides just the notes, to get to "polished" or "performance ready" surely includes work on more subjective aspects of music. I'm grateful for guidance on this aspect too, but this was not the intended meaning of my question.

Sorry for the confusion. Appreciate the comments/answers so far. Hopefully that helps :)

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    What do you mean by "perfect"? Sep 8 at 3:35
  • Yeah, the term "perfect" is subjective and that may get this question closed. What is perfect? Does it mean every note must be struck with the exact same amount of force down to the decibel? Does the tempo have to be in line with an atomic clock pulse? Does a missed note disqualify one from perfection, or is it only if the missed note is noticed? Great underlying question, but we will need it edited to a more objective phrasing. (Just an idea: what about "playable" versus "concert-ready"?)
    – user45266
    Sep 8 at 6:50
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    A criterion: if a piece can be played ten times in succession, with no hesitations or wrong notes, with correct dynamics, at the written tempo, then maybe, just maybe, it could be considered perfect. But there again...
    – Tim
    Sep 8 at 7:12
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    Does this answer your question? How should one practice a piece that is learned, but not fully mastered?
    – Tim H
    Sep 9 at 6:53
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You asked three questions:

  1. How long does it take to get to "perfect,"
  2. How do I, and
  3. Why should I?

Let's take them out of order, and first take some time to get a working definition of "perfect."

It's true, "perfect" isn't really a useful goal. It's as if astrophysicists ask "how long until we've learned everything we possibly can about the universe?" There's always something more. The saying "practice makes perfect" is absurd, as if you wake up one day and discover that you got your "Perfect Badge" and never need to practice again. Instead, we set ourselves a goal of playing at a certain level, and when we meet that we set a higher goal. E.g., Goal 1 is play all the notes correctly; Goal 2 might be to increase the interpretive and emotional nuance.

But there's nothing wrong with using the word "perfect" if this is in fact what we mean, "perfect enough for my current goal." Perhaps a useful definition for this discussion would be "good enough that I could play the piece for others and both they and I would enjoy it."


Ok, now that we've got a definition, let's start with the third question.

As a hobby pianist, is it worth it? What is gained from this process?

Presumably, you're playing "for fun," for your own enjoyment, not for money, for the congratulations of friends, or to accompany the school musical. Well, the only thing to be gained is new kinds and levels of enjoyment. (As to whether they're worth it, that's up to you.) If we take the analogy of visual art, there could be a certain enjoyment in making a quick charcoal sketch every day, and there's another enjoyment in spending weeks making a detailed oil painting with meticulous detail. Right now you're enjoying the "discovery" phase of learning a piece, and there's a lot to enjoy there. What you're missing is the satisfaction of "seeing" the finished product, as well as many secondary "discovery" phases in which you uncover new facets of a piece you thought you already new. There's also a heady thrill when you attempt something challenging and succeed. The first day you play completely through at performance speed is a bit like the moment from any superhero origin story in which a mild-mannered civilian discovers they have new powers. Young Clark Kent runs through the cornfield and catches air. Keanu Reeves opens his eyes and says "I know kung fu." And there's a related thrill, some time later, from being able to effortlessly kick the %$#@ of a piece that used to be impossible ("Puny god").


Second question:

What does this process look like?

Unfortunately, between "I know kung fu" and "We have a Hulk" comes a period of drudgery. This is the "practice" that makes "perfect" (if we allow generous scare-quotes). This is the portion that would be rendered as a training montage, but while we're rocking out to "Gonna Fly Now," Rocky still has to chug the raw eggs and run up the steps of the Philly art museum, and it takes him days and weeks rather than minutes. It's not all torture, though; this period is full of mini-milestones with mini-rewards.

For musicians, there's a familiar set of tools and techniques; see these Q/As and no doubt many other posts here about "how to practice." The metronome is your best friend. Start slow, build gradually. Isolate difficult bits, then recontextualize them. Turn off the metronome and work on expression. Record yourself and play it back.

Most of all, even if the only goal is personal fulfillment, you might want to create some informal performances. Performance for others is its own unique joy, and it provides a goal that motivates your work. It's often helpful to book some very small, low-stakes performances before a big one, as part of the learning process (e.g., before a recital, play in a coffeeshop, in a friend's living room, on the sidewalk for change).

And of course, if you're interested, the very best way to accelerate learning is to get lessons.


And finally, the first question:

What is the expected amount of work or amount of time required to take pieces from "I can play this" to "I can play this perfectly"?

Substituting "satisfactorily in a performance" for "perfectly"... well, as I'm sure you can guess, the answer is "It depends." Depends on how hard the piece is, whether you already have a head-start (is it one you played as a kid?), how long and often you practice, and on where you draw the line for "satisfactorily." If you've played for 20 years, you could probably play something out of a beginner piano book "perfectly" with hours if not minutes of practice. A Rachmaninoff concerto might be impossible to attain in a lifetime. But in general? Let's assume that you're at a level at which you play "real pieces," Bach inventions, Chopin etudes, etc. Let's assume that the piece in question is of only "medium" difficulty, and is around 5 minutes long. Let's assume you practice for about half an hour per day, 5 days a week. With those conditions, your experience might look something like:

  • First week: getting familiar with the notes. Can play most of the piece through, but have to slow down to muddle through some hard bits.
  • Next month or so (more if the piece is hard): Getting mastery over the hard bits. Can play through at a consistent tempo, sometimes without mistakes (if not always).
  • Next month: Success becomes more consistent. Start memorizing the piece. If you haven't already, perhaps you start attaining your goal tempo. In this period you pay a lot of attention to expression, nuance, and interpretation (though hopefully you've been working on them to some degree all along).
  • Last few weeks before "big performance": In this stage you are simply practicing performing; this is where you put the informal performances. Get used to stopping for nothing. Get used to the act of performing the piece. Get familiar with the patterns of what you think about in which moment, how you need to prepare for what comes next. Find out whether the dramatic and emotional gestures you want are actually coming through to your listeners.
  • "Big performance"
  • Weeks, months, and years later: Keep maintaining the piece by reviewing now and then. Play it for the sheer fun of being able to bust out something that you know cold. Keep it in your working memory so you have something to show off if called on. Keep discovering new secrets about it and new levels of mastery as the years go on.
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    Along with informal performance, you can record your self. That can be a real eye opener! Reviewing your recorded history can help track/encourage progress. Sep 8 at 16:14
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Perfect is unobtainable. I mean in the philosophical sense. In general use "perfect" means some very high level of performance.

As a hobby, amateur pianist (both of us, I'm an amateur too) I think it doesn't make sense to think about perfection. To play very well, yes. But, "perfection" seems contradictory to being an amateur. Realistically speaking, if we were approaching perfection, aren't we more than amateurs?

What is the expected amount of work or amount of time required to take pieces from "I can play this" to "I can play this perfectly"?

If you listen to the greatest pianists, they say it's a lifetime pursuit. But it's too broad a question. You need to consider the difficulty and length of the piece, your familiarity with the genre.

But, regarding time general, play daily and set weekly and monthly goals. Weekly goals could be the initial break down of learning a new piece, with a monthly goal of initially playing the full piece. Those are just suggestions, you can find other periods that work for you. The point is to set short/medium/long term goals. Work on your weak points. Make incremental improvements, then move on to the next practice goal. "Perfection" is most definitely not the focus with this approach. Identifying weaknesses and incremental improvement and the focus.

Thinking about your music library and repertoire would be good. Maybe to try to devote long term attention to a half dozen pieces while working up a decent performance of a new piece once a week. Then file the weekly pieces back into the library. Something like that strikes a nice balance between fresh material and a main repertoire. It's good to get time away from familiar material and then return to it. It can refresh and deepen your understanding of familiar stuff.

Sight reading should be part of daily practice.

What does this process look like?

I think you can approach this a few different ways. I won't get into basic technical practice, things like determining a fingering, practicing hands separately, etc. I assume of the mechanical and memorization stuff is something you know about. If not, perfection isn't even remotely the topic to think about.

Once past the mechanical/memory phase, I think a very good way to start "polishing" a performance (maybe that's a better word that "perfecting") is to play the piece in various tempos and articulations. Some styles like Baroque don't indicate much detail in tempo/articulation so there is a lot of freedom. In other score with lots of indications, you still have room for variety. The point is less about how to articulate whatever markings may be in the score and more about exercising your performance control in the piece. Are you just able to "get through" with the one performance manageable, or can you at will change your expressive playing?

Another thing to try is a sort of "rehearsal marking" practice. From memory can you start up the piece at any arbitrary phrase? Are you only able to play from start to finish? If you really know the piece, you should know all the phrases without the queues of playing from the start. This is more of a memory thing. But, the more solid your memory of the musical structure, the more concentration you can devote to expressive details.

Another thing I have tried, but can be challenging for large or complex works, it transposing to another key. The challenge is both about memory and structural understanding of the music, but also about technical flexibility and changing fingerings for different keys. This too is more a technical challenge, but with the eventual goal of overcoming the technical to be able to concentrate on the expressive.

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It's going to depend a lot on what your (or the piano player's) target is.

If it's to perform pieces at a concert in front of the public, if it's to be used in an examination situation, if it's just to experience a certain composer's style, if it's just to give the player a sense of satisfaction, etc.

'Perfect' in music is way too subjective. I might play a piece in several different ways, all of which could be deemed 'perfect' for those different situations. Solo, with one other muso, in an ensemble , for examples. Maybe you consider playing exactly as writ. is 'perfect'. If so, there are many concert pianists out there who are 'far from perfect' in their renditions!

'Interpretation' muddies that whole concept.

Answering the 1st question: just how long is that piece of string? How difficult is the piece? How much of an advanced player is playing? How quickly do you learn? Sorry, unanswerable.

Answering the 2nd question:the process can have many different looks. One may play through a few times and it's 'perfect', others may take 2 hrs a day and after 3 months it's still not learned well enough. Yet others may never reach that state with certain pieces. There are some that after 20 yrs, I still can't deliver well enough !

Answering the 3rd question: very dependent on what your aims actually are. Often, I use certain pieces to highlight a particular technique (a skill that needs honing). The fact that they're contained in a piece is by the by. It may/may not be interesting to learn or be able to play the whole piece well, but getting to grips with the technique is the target. If the rest of that piece is only 'o.k.', then that's good enough for me, as the teacher at that point.

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It depends 100% on the song you're trying to learn, your own skill, and your own perception of the word "perfect".

Take Chopin's Waltz in a minor. It is quite easy to learn, but harder to get "perfect". Compare this performance with this. The first one is played "perfectly", while the other one is just a computer playing. The computer plays exactly the right notes at the exact perfect tempo, but without all those little ritardandos, accelerandos, etc.

Another good example for this is Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata, 1st Movement. Extremely easy chords, but playing it "perfect" is a little harder.

On the contrary to this, there are other songs that have only little room for improvising and are for that reason easier to master. These songs are mostly modern songs, or just generally songs that have multiple instruments and/or vocals, for example Nothing Else Matters


TD;DR

It depends on the song, and your interpretation of it. You may master a song that's hard to learn in just 10 minutes, and an easy one in 10 days.

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