When, after a few weeks of practice, a piece arrives at the stage when the notes are learned, the hand movements are becoming automatic, and the tempo and dynamics are right it can feel the work is done for 95%. However, when playing the piece, a lot of the time I still make little mistakes. These mistakes don't always occur at the same spots, sometimes it goes wrong, sometimes it is perfect, and they increase when stress is a bit higher, for example when playing in front of a teacher.

So I'm realizing that in fact the work is not 95% done, but more like 50% or maybe even 20% done.

However, I am at a loss how I should practice beyond this point? I have the feeling that just daily repeating the piece doesn't get me much closer to my goal of total mastery. At least not in the most efficient way.

In addition, from an educational point of view, is there a lot to be gained from putting every piece through this last big step? Some pieces I don't care enough about to want to fully master, but I'm afraid that this attitude will make me sloppy.

(My instrument is the piano, but I suppose the question is instrument-agnostic.)

  • 8
    Be aware that you'll never get to the point where you play every piece of music perfectly every time. Mistakes just happen! The trick is being able to continue playing confidently, shrugging off mistakes as you play. When playing for an audience, if you make a few mistakes but act like everything's OK, virtually nobody will notice.
    – Kevin
    Jun 22, 2015 at 21:48
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    The phenomenon is often called the 90-90 rule: the first 90% of the work takes 90% of the time, and the other 10% of the work takes the other 90% of the time (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ninety-ninety_rule) Jun 22, 2015 at 23:19

9 Answers 9


I suspect that if you keep making random mistakes with a specific piece and you are not generally out of shape (as in, "I have been playing three hours a month for the past six months") you probably did an half-assed job at learning the piece in the first place.

What works for me in these situations is

  1. Taking out the metronome, setting it to davvero molto lentissimo (aka slow) and
  2. Starting to play the piece bar by bar making a conscious effort to read the score and be mindful of what I'm doing instead of relying on automatism.
  3. Paying close attention to the fingering (make sure your fingering is absolutely consistent and thought out - in particular, if you are making lots of mistakes you might be improvising some fingering in a different way every time)
  4. Doing some ad hoc excercises if there is a specific technical passage that I stumble upon, otherwise
  5. Raise the tempo only when I'm making exactly zero errors.
  6. Go back to step 1.

Of course, all the above implies a consistent practice regime.

  • This was very helpful, thank you. Especially the hard truth about doing a half assed job of learning it in the first place. I took a piece I've been having this problem with and tried to play it at 40 (it's meant to be played around 100), and it was awful. This give me so much to work with, thank you.
    – Nickolai
    Dec 25, 2018 at 21:14

I would suggest you take note of the parts you most commonly get wrong, and practice each of those parts as a mini "exercise". Write out the short section separately somewhere, and run through those parts in your practice routine. Once you've got them well practiced, make sure you can incorporate them smoothly into the surrounding sections.

Practicing isolated sections should help with the common memory problem where we know the beginning of a piece well because we've repeated it so many times, but mess up later in the piece because we're not so familiar with the later sections!

(By the way I'm only a beginner at piano, but I use the above for guitar and I guess it will apply to most other instruments.)

  • I use this kind of practicing a lot, it's excellent, but to me this kind of practice is the practice before the 'learned' stage. At some point I get all the notes right most of the time. After that mistakes are a lot less predictable. Some of them even occur for the first time only at perfomance time. How does one prepare for that?
    – Tim H
    Jun 22, 2015 at 12:24
  • Hmmm unanticipated errors during performance... in that case I can only say that there is bound to be a musician in the audience who saw it in considerable detail and will gladly give "advice" on how to avoid it, regardless of whether you want that advice! :)
    – Andy
    Jun 22, 2015 at 12:50
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    @TimH mistakes in performance happen. Here's a greatest hits of the great pianists' slip-ups: pianostreet.com/smf/index.php?topic=45688.0 Yes, that's Sviatoslav H. Tap-Dancing Richter screwing up majestically. If you have done your homework, though, your slip-ups have little chance of derailing your performance. If you are relying mostly on automatism and muscle memory, you might have a bigger problem recovering :) Jun 22, 2015 at 19:31
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    If I am practicing something new at home and I do a bum note, I stop and play those few bars over and over slowly, till they work, then faster, then resume playing till the next sticky part. This is why I practice in a soundproofed room, because it isn't fun to listen to.
    – RedSonja
    Jun 24, 2015 at 7:53

I can identify with your situation. I play guitar and sing primarily, and am constantly learning new songs to perform.

Some songs are very easy but others take more practice to learn to play proficiently. Invariably, on the songs that are more difficult to learn, the first time I perform it for a live audience, I experience the same thing you are experiencing.

I am sure it's a psychology issue where other thoughts pop into your brain that override the concentration needed to execute a flawless performance. When you are practicing and learning the piece, you are concentrating exclusively on proper execution. When performing for someone else, you start thinking about the fact that your performance will be judged - "what will they think of my performance?, am I going to mess it up? what if I forget how the bridge is supposed to go? If I mess up, what will they think of me? Are they really listening?".
Your brain starts processing all of these other thoughts during your performance and gets off track.

I have found three ways to cope with this situation.

1). I try to convince myself before I start to perform for an audience (of one or more) that I can and will concentrate on and focus on - performing the piece the way I know I am capable, and forget there is an audience. In other words, I make a conscious effort to block out the distracting thoughts. The trick is to take your ego out of the equation and try to deliver your best performance of the piece, for the sake of the piece itself. This is not always achievable.

2). Since #1 does not always work, the one thing that DOES work, is experience performing the piece for an audience. I have found that the more difficult pieces are only fully mastered after I have performed it several times in front of an audience. So often I will play it first for a friend (audience of one). Invariably I will mess it up. Usually I will play it a second time for the same friend and most of the time, the second time is 100% better. Then I will play it for a different friend and I find the first time is 50% better than the first time for the first friend and the second time for the second friend is almost flawless. Then I may play it live in a performance situation (with strangers in the audience), perhaps qualifying in advance that this is the first time I have played this song live. Invariably, I mess up at least part of the song but get through it.

It's the confidence gained by getting a little better each time I perform it live that eventually results in the elimination of the distracting thoughts and fear of messing up (which are what cause me to mess up). Eventually I become confident in my ability to perform that song live and I can then play it as good live (every time) as I can by myself in my living room.

So I know that the first time I perform it for an audience, I am going to mess it up. The second time will be a little better. Third time even better and eventually I know I will lose all fear of messing up (although I will never get anything absolutely perfect - but that's just a fact of life in my world). So I try to perform it first in situations that are not as crucial (like for friends or family). For me, that is the best way to master my ability to perform it.

3). If a live audience is not available before I must perform it in a crucial situation, I have occasionally resorted to performing it for a "world wide audience" by making a video to post on YouTube. I have found that the red recording light has a similar effect as a live audience (try it if you don't believe me). By the time I have messed up the first 25 attempts to get it good enough for posting on YouTube, I have become pretty good at performing the song. Just like for a live audience, each performance for the camera tends to get a little better than the previous one. Eventually I will get several that are acceptable candidates (again none will ever be perfect) and I will play back and compare several takes to determine which is the best before posting on YouTube.

If you try the YouTube route, you might want to disable comments until after you have performed in the crucial situation in order to avoid the possibility of a negative comment eroding your confidence.

One thing that I have learned is that - eventually I master live performance of any piece I am capable of playing. And the ones that were the most difficult to master in the beginning, become the ones I most enjoy performing once I have mastered the live performance of them.

Good luck!

  • 1
    It's good that you got it down to the first 25 attempts. Im still around the 50-60 mark haha. Great answer :-) Jun 23, 2015 at 13:59
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    @user2808054 Thanks. I have probably made a few videos with more than 25 takes as well. But one thing is for sure, by the time I finally get one that I'm willing to post for the world to see, I can perform the song blindfolded. Jun 26, 2015 at 3:22

It's hard to translate this into definite advice without one-to-one tuition, but I think the key is not to "learn pieces" but "learn to play your instrument". Learning pieces, especially if it involves lots of practice for one particular piece, is like "teaching to the test" in school, rather than teaching the subject.

Try keeping a list of your "random" mistakes. Then decide what are the technical problem(s) in those situations, and work on the technique(s), not on the specific pieces. It might seem a slower method in the short term, but there aren't many good short-cuts to learn an instrument anyway.

the hand movements are becoming automatic

That's a "red flag" to me. When you can really "play the instrument", they won't need to "become automatic". You want to get to the situation where you will hands do whatever your brain tells them to do, whether you have seen the music on the stand before or not.

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    Yes. Ease = good, automatism = bad. Jun 22, 2015 at 20:46
  • About the 'becoming automatic' (=muscular memory): I learn from your answer that it shouldn't become a crutch, and the only way I'm able to play a piece. On the other hand I disagree with the idea that you never should need muscular memory. I'm not yet convinced that it is possible to play an instrument wihout it. There are so many things to coordinate that it seems impossible never delegating some of it to your hands, sometimes.
    – Tim H
    Jun 23, 2015 at 7:04
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    @TimH: well, there's good automatism and bad automatism, I guess. The key is to be as mindful as reasonably possible, I think. (Also, can you play Twinkle Twinkle Little Star without delegating to muscle memory? Probably yes. Sviatoslav Richter could probably do the same with the Wandererfantasie.) Jun 23, 2015 at 7:31
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    +10 (if possible!)for 'learn to play your instrument'. Otherwise you actually only learn certain songs.
    – Tim
    Jun 25, 2015 at 11:30

Record yourself with a decent quality recording device (although these days even a smartphone mic is of decent quality) playing the piece all the way through. Don't stop for mistakes. When you are finished, sit down with the score and pencil in hand and put any phrase where you hear a mistake in parenthesis. If space is available, indicate the problem with the passage.

Practice each phrase you had circled until you can successfully play it 5 - 10 times in a row as desired. My teacher always put 5 pennies on my music stand and as I successfully completed each phrase, knocked one off the stand. That isn't necessary, but it does feel good to knock one off the stand! Then record yourself playing it that many times in a row correctly. If it isn't as good as you thought on the recording, rinse and repeat.

In doing so, you will more effectively use your time and not waste it playing parts of the piece you can already play. And while not relevant to piano, this is a great way for those of us who have to worry about intonation to practice that. Put on a drone of the key you're playing in and make sure every pitch locks in. For time, put a metronome to tick only on the first beat of the measure, or perhaps twice per measure depending on the speed of the piece. That keeps you honest, but doesn't do the work for you.

  • 1
    +1 . . I was going to suggest recording yourself, but for the reason that you get used to hearing what it sounds liie when YOU play it (as opposed to another recording). diup back into a pro recording now and then to check you're still on-track, but the thing you're really getting used to is the sound of your own performance Jun 23, 2015 at 14:03
  • That's a good point. I suppose I'm heavily influenced by the fact I play trombone, where the recording helps clarify what you really sound like since so much of the acoustic feedback comes through the jaw and doesn't reflect reality at all. A lot of times the tone quality sounds miserable unless you have nice equipment and a soundboard. There's even a recording of Jay Friedman (principal trombone of Chicago) doing an unaccompanied recording of a trombone concerto that frankly doesn't sound good. That was his point though, it's REALLY hard to get an accurate representation of tone on tbone!
    – mkingsbu
    Jun 23, 2015 at 14:15
  • Wow, I didn't know that about trombone! It's a bit like that with singing - the "voice in your head" isn't the same as what other people hear and it's usually a shock when people hear themselves on a recording. Sounds like more so with trombone. Jun 23, 2015 at 14:27
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    Yeah it's quite similar to voice in that regard. Also with woodwind instruments too, a significant amount of the feedback we get is through sympathetic vibrations in the jaw. And with trombone, we choose equipment a lot of times that sounds good to us through the sympathetic vibrations sometimes at the expense of the sound out in the hall! Another interesting thing to note is that when the human voice is recorded on high fidelity equipment and ran through a soundboard to optimize the voice, it comes much closer to - at least for me - how my minds eye evaluates my voice.
    – mkingsbu
    Jun 23, 2015 at 14:35
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    No, in fact us brass players ARE really that crazy ;)
    – mkingsbu
    Jun 24, 2015 at 14:55

Listen to the recordings of the piece played by professionals. Every time you feel like you plateau at a certain level, it's usually because you've already incorporated all the improvements that you feel are necessary, and you don't know how else to further improve/master the song.

But more often than not, actively listening to the song done by professionals will help you realize different ways to improve different parts of the song, how to get more dynamics into certain parts, more tone control, controlling energy/dynamics better, etc... Playing the piece is a completely different thing from listening to the piece. Also, since each player is unique, by listening to someone else, it's like getting a different view point and interpretation on the music piece.

That is not to say that you should be strictly copying their styles (although you could), but rather, you listen and identify parts where they play better than you do, and be inspired to play that part better yourself, maybe in your own style. And sometimes, you might even find that you've been playing some parts wrong all along.

Is the mastery worth it? If you are actively performing, I'd say yes, because that is the difference maker between you and the many others who might also be able to play the piece.

  • But OP is making mistakes, as in bum notes, he apparently has no problems with tone control, dynamics, etc. Jun 22, 2015 at 19:28
  • @SomeDudeOnTheInterwebs, you're right, I don't know how I misread the question and his context of 'mastery'
    – gitsitgo
    Jun 22, 2015 at 19:48
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    I recently heard a recording of J. Burns Moore playing Connecticut Halftime (a basic drum solo) and was amazed at how it came alive. So much to work on for a song I've known for over a decade. While maybe not applicable to the OP, it's great advice.
    – Josiah
    Jun 22, 2015 at 19:48
  • While not exactly answering my question, this is still useful. I'm learning from the diverse answers that a lot of my problems in this stage originate from a loss of focus. Deepening interpretation can help me to focus and keep the piece interesting.
    – Tim H
    Jun 23, 2015 at 7:21

I'm in a similar predicament, these are the steps I've decided to follow:


I can play most individuals sections (excluding more difficult passages) rapidly, but the piece itself falls apart unless played at a slower tempo:

I just reached the "learned" stages but am not sufficiently familiar with the piece. There are too many possible mistakes I must concentrate to avoid, and my mind cannot keep pace with tempo. Too many passages back-to-back blocks the pipe. For this, I practice slowly (and correctly) to gain familiarity. It is not "muscle memory" but "recognition memory".


Individual progressions become incomprehensibly error prone at greater velocities:

I'm a sight reader: I look at the music, not my hands. Yet my brain sometimes decides to subconsciously replace my predetermined fingering with one more appropriate (smoother) for a faster tempo. This causes a discontinuity between what I think I'm playing (or, which fingers I think I'm using) and what is actually done. This is a source of confusion that sometimes trips me up. Observe yourself play and marshal notation with reality.


Memorize the music:

Like I said, I'm a sight reader: never look at my hands. Usually not a problem, unless passages decide to employ rapid and unpredictable chord leaps (think waltz, contemporary style) beyond a hand-span. The only solution I have for this is to memorize the music. Unfortunately I find this is like starting from scratch: the "recognition memory" of sight-reading actually hinders playing while looking at my hands. My fingers want to do one thing while the brain yells "No! What are you thinking? Don't do that...". However memorization is worthwhile, providing tons more flexibility.


I disagree about being sloppy. Completion/perfection is one skill of many. The experience of focusing instead on a greater variety or repertoire can endow other useful strengths. Let the chips lie were they fall - you may want to obtain completion, but don't think of otherwise as sloppy.


With most pieces that you practice a lot you can get to a place where you can play it through whilst thinking about your grocery list but as soon your attention snaps back to what you are doing you start to make mistakes or you lose your place and can't remember what comes next.

At this point you're relying almost entirely on muscle memory.

I have found one way to get past this is to use all available senses by consciously observing myself play.

Think of the performer's chair as being the best seat in the audience. Listen to what you are playing, the phrasing and tone, is it a good performance? Use your familiarity with the piece to anticipate what comes next. Watch your hands working (and fumbling). Mentally name the notes being played and observe why a particular fingering is being used, like a knowledgeable and critical audience member would.

keep this same state of mind whether practicing or performing in front of an audience. Ensure your mind is fully occupied by the performance.


One of my music teachers told us that, before every concert, he always planned to improve his performance in some specific way - to use more expression during a particular phrase, for example. Then, his thinking was focused on making beautiful music and succeeding in that one improvement. He was a very nervous performer, and this worked for him.

I definitely agree with an earlier comment that advised us musicians to get our egos out of the way. It's about communicating the MUSIC not about showing people how talented we are. That has often helped me.

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