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I am learning to play the piano on my own. When I play and I hear a mistake, I go back and play the correct note. Hearing the right note helps me find the next one. But I heard that you should ignore mistakes like playing the wrong key and not interrupt the rhythm. Is this true? Why would you not go back and play the right notes?

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    As my teacher used to say, mainly while improvising jazz. It is ok to play wrong notes as long as they are played intentionally. – user1391068 Dec 28 '15 at 11:19
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    Are you practicing or performing? If you are practicing, are you playing with a group or alone? – phoog Dec 28 '15 at 18:50
  • Please not that you can stop and correct bad note only if you play alone. If you play with a band, you just can't stop and go back a few bars without ruining other musicians' performance. – el.pescado Dec 30 '15 at 18:21
  • Right, the big concern here is that recovering when you screw up is a very difficult skill which every musician needs to have -- even if you're not playing with anyone else, most audiences will not appreciate a piece which stops abruptly, moves back in time several bars, and then keeps playing. (Though it would be fun to play with this as a composer.) Indeed, if they do not know the piece very well or otherwise are not paying careful attention they might not even notice the mistake the way the musician does, unless the musician pauses after the mistake and calls attention to it. – CR Drost Dec 31 '15 at 16:09

10 Answers 10

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My teacher instructed me to think of two different approaches to practice:

  1. "Stop" -- where you are trying to learn the piece, work out the fingering (or other technical aspects) etc. You're not too concerned with keeping time, and when you make a mistake you stop, go back (maybe to the beginning of the phrase) and fix it. This mode allows you to fix in your mind the whats and the hows of the piece.

  2. "Go" -- where you are trying to perform the piece through. Here you are trying to keep time and need to just blow by any mistakes that you make. This mode is what allows you to actually perform the piece.

As you work through a piece you need to switch back and forth between these two approaches: "stop" to initially learn the piece, "go" to get into the flow with it, back to "stop" when you identify sticking points etc.

Some additional notes:

  • "Go" is not "go until you make a mistake", the idea is to decide that for this practice session (or part thereof), "I'm working on this piece in 'go' mode".
  • "Go" is not necessarily "go fast"; often you'll want to be able to go through the piece at a slow pace (blowing through errors) as part of the process of getting it up to speed.

  • Sometimes sticking points are symptoms of insufficient "Stop" practice -- you haven't constructed a firm idea of the what and the how, and thus cannot execute it musically.

  • Though there may be some technical drills that are done exclusively in "Stop" mode, you need the "Go" practice in order to automatically recover from mistakes during actual performances.

Depending on where you are and what you are trying to do, you can/should apply whichever of these complementary approaches is most useful.

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    I practice both ways as well, depending on context and intent, and I really like these terms (which I hadn't heard before)! I think lots of folks end up deferring the "Go" approach - or at least switch approaches from Go to Stop as soon as they make a mistake - in the interest of trying to get perfection. The important thing about practicing Go is that it's the only way to learn how to recover from mistakes, and unless you're a robot, this is a skill that everybody needs. – Caleb Hines Dec 28 '15 at 3:02
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    And of course, the Go method is really the only way to handle performances. Most of the time, your audience is unlikely to notice you even made a mistake, especially if you're good enough at improvising a bit of connecting piece. Unless you make a mistake in something everyone knows by heart, but that's something you should be fairly confident in :) As a note, though, with the Stop method, I still prefer to go back a bar or two, rather than just replaying the "broken" note - it helps build up the muscle memory, and puts the correct note in context. – Luaan Dec 28 '15 at 11:30
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    I've seen the stop method used by a singer in a performance once with a cold stop happening and then taking it from the top of the verse. Never do that it's painful for everyone. – Dom Dec 28 '15 at 17:23
  • @Dom Mmmmm....sometimes it's better to just stop and back up a bit in a solo performance than to stumble through; even in competitions it's less frowned upon to restart the entire piece than to perform the whole thing poorly because you couldn't adequately recover from a stumble. – Kyle Strand Dec 28 '15 at 22:46
  • My main quibble is that there should be many more practice modes than "stop" and "go" as you've described them. Something like 60% to 90% of your practice time (at least for pieces with extensive technical difficulties) should be spent on small snippets of the piece (meaning a couple of chords or measures, not even entire phrases, let alone sections), but that does not mean that you're "not too concerned with keeping time." – Kyle Strand Dec 28 '15 at 22:48
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If you are practicing, then you need to correct wrong notes. HOWEVER. This does not mean that when you play the wrong note, you simply replace it with the right one and move on. That doesn't correct the wrong note: all it does is practice in the wrong note and the correction, and that will be what happens in your performance.

If you are practicing, and you play a wrong note, then stop, back up a few notes, and see if you can play it right this time. If you can't, then you need to go over the passage at a slower tempo, still backing up and playing it right when you get a wrong note. While you are doing this, remember to focus on the music as well as the notes. What does the music sound like in your mind? As that becomes clearer, the wrong notes have a way of resolving themselves.

If you can't seem to get it no matter what tempo, then drop it a while and come back to it with a fresh mind. You'll be surprised that something that simply would NOT come suddenly seems much easier if you let it go and come back to it.

That said, it's also a good idea to try to run through your music as if you were performing it (what Dave calls the "go" approach). This will avoid the "can't see the forest for the trees" problem. Don't overdo that, though. If you're playing handfuls of wrong notes, then wait a while. You don't want to practice in mistakes. It's easy to get excited about getting one part of the piece pretty well and go over and over it while neglecting the parts that still need work, going over and over wrong notes in those areas. Don't do that. That's worth repeating: don't do that.

Practicing is an art in its own right. Keep refining it and you will have a growing sense of mastery over it, just as you do with music itself.

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Differing opinion (Speaking as both a student and a teacher):

No, because correcting notes is one of the top bad habits that can 'sneak' into performances. The problem is that we get used to correcting notes, and then put too much focus on mistakes. It's also a really dirty way to learn a piece and can lead to learning notes wrong.

When learning a piece, play at a tempo that is comfortable enough that there are little to no mistakes, even if that's really, really slow. Alot of mistakes are fixed at a slow tempo, and this should improve your sight reading. Once you're familiar with it, then bring it up in tempo.

Solo performers tend to get away with correcting mistakes in practice.

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You have to be careful NOT to teach yourself "stops" in the music...i.e. places where you make errors and then just stop and reboot. That ultimately is not a terribly successful strategy during a performance.

You do need to not ignore wrong notes, but at the same time you have to teach yourself to play THROUGH the wrong/corrected notes so they don't become signposts for you.

When you practice something, you need to assemble things on "phrase boundaries," not on "mistake boundaries."

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    Your last sentence is a great way to explain that. – BobRodes Jan 7 '16 at 3:24
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I do not know about methods that other people employ, but normally you play passage by passage or even a bar by bar until you are comfortable enough. You play as slow as you can in order to avoid any mistake, it can be as slow as you like, but still in tempo. Sometimes for me it goes even 4-5 times slower than written. Once you have a slow (or very slow) version of each part at hand you start connecting all that as to finish a song from start to the end. Here you may have difficulties in linking two passages or bars, but that part you practice on its own again until you can play it all. You need to play in tempo of the slowest bar denominator, meaning you do not hurry when some part is simpler, you play in tempo, even if it has to be significantly slower than written.

Once you can play the entire part slower and without any error, you start speeding up and speeding up, until you reach your current technical abilities. Sometimes this could mean that you can play the part, but at the moment slower than optimal or written. That is ok, you are just not there yet. In time, as your technique progresses you'll get better. If you can play it slower but correctly that is the goal. Speed is another goal that is easier to achieve since you have covered all basics.

You have no frustration, nothing, just practicing the same part again and again and again, then the next part then the next, then start connecting them, all this at a slower tempo, then when all parts are at hand, you start increasing the tempo.

If you do this way, you have nothing to start and stop for. First if you did not practice one part sufficiently, you stop everything and concentrate on that part until you are ok with it.

When you decide to play the entire piece, you play everything without stopping and just mark the parts you need to practice more. Then you go back and practice each part you think you need to, and after that again you try to play from start to the end.

If you find that you are not fluent enough for playing everything and that you are making a lot of mistakes, you go back to playing part by part for some time and later try again. For me the fact that I am making a lot of mistakes just means that I have become overconfident, and made a bad judgment. Usually, I punish myself with more practice.

It is important to understand that when you start to practice a new piece you should not try to play it all at once. For me, unless it is within my technical abilities already, it takes even a month before I even consider trying to play it all together. All that time it is playing part by part, bar by bar, connecting them eventually and gradually becoming proficient.

Sometimes, I am totally ok if it takes 6 months or even a year before knowing by heart some longer and unfamiliar work. Of course, not all pieces are like that, but some of them requires some new technique or some additional work before I can close it in full.

You should always see progress never a lot of mistakes. Put yourself into the position of feeling what needs to be done more, not being frustrated about the things you cannot do yet. That is really a rookie mistake.

  • Good advice. I think you did a great job of articulating the need for slowing down to practice playing without mistakes - even if it's painstakingly slow in the beginning. – Rockin Cowboy Dec 30 '15 at 2:32
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The general answer is no- especially when you are practicing the entire piece through, performing (whether playing for an audience, your teacher, or something in between). If you frequently correct your mistakes during practice, you run the risk of transmuting this to performances (where even people who don't know the piece that well can tell you made a mistake because of the lapse in rhythm). Moreover, it's important to retain a "macro"/"global" view of music- it's not really the individual notes that count, it's more about how you shape them all together to form one coherent performance. In this view, a few missed notes here and there really don't matter. You can also notice a lot of the old greats like Rachmaninov, Horowitz, and Michelangeli, will have mistakes on their recordings- but again, small slips here and there haven't diminished their interpretations at all.

The main exception to this rule is when you are practicing the piece for the first few times. When practicing for the first few times, unless you are a superb sightreader, it is hard to not make any mistakes- even if you are, as people have suggested, playing very slowly. For example, I sometimes will forget key changes or harmonic naturals; or perhaps, I didn't prepare my fingering correctly to move into the next phrase with the least effort (or the fingering on the score was unsuitable for me). In these sorts of cases, it is definitely all right to stop, and go back and correct your mistake, and probably play that section a few more times to make sure the movements are committed to memory. Then, you can move on; rinse and repeat.

Once you are technically comfortable with the piece (see Note below)- even at a low speed- you should make it a priority to play the entire piece through when practicing, even if you make mistakes. As you are playing, try to remember your trouble spots and return to them in chunks. However, even if you are doing work on a particular section, you should NOT go back and correct your mistakes within that section, however tempting it may be.. even if that section is literally one measure.


Note: I realize this is kind of nebulous description.. "technically comfortable" is different for everyone. But I would characterize it as you are able to play the whole piece through without technical errors that compromise what the piece is supposed to sound like in the first place. For example, I wouldn't characterize myself as "technically comfortable" if I kept missing all the key changes and naturals.

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Think of it this way - everything is practice. So if you make a mistake and stop to correct it, that's what you are learning - making the mistake and stopping. Instead, take the location where you make a mistake and practice just that spot. Analyse what is causing the problem. Practice in a lot of ways - block the notes as chords, play it eyes closed, change the rhythm, change how you accent - until you feel very secure in that spot. Then work at incorporating that spot into that area of the piece.

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You need to practice at a tempo where you can hit all the right notes and get the right fingering, etc. That tempo may be dreadfully slow when you learn a piece. If you are making too may mistakes, slow the tempo down. Your focus should be on how you are playing the piece, not just playing the piece. After you practice the piece 500 times, you will naturally increase the tempo to where it should be, and with nary a mistake.

Google about the importance of practicing slowly.

E.g.,

http://www.bulletproofmusician.com/is-slow-practice-really-necessary/

http://fundamentals-of-piano-practice.readthedocs.org/en/latest/chapter1/ch1_procedures/II.17.html

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    please comment your downvote – broc.seib Dec 28 '15 at 16:29
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    We're still human and mistakes can happen even after countless hours of practice. This question is about what to do after the mistake is made not how not to make mistakes. – Dom Dec 28 '15 at 16:31
  • The OP is a self-taught beginner, and offering this perspective is still a valid answer for what the OP is experiencing. Were this answer completely off topic, of zero value, or egregious advice, I would then expect a downvote. Let the votes fall where they will. – broc.seib Dec 28 '15 at 16:58
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    Also, great respect to broc.seib for asking for downvote comments (I think they should be required, personally), and for "let the votes fall where they may". That's why there are votes. – Todd Wilcox Dec 28 '15 at 18:10
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    My "let votes fall where they will" comment is meant to be inclusive of downvotes. Getting a downvote is fine with me. I just disagree with this particular downvote; the answer falls within the purview of the OP's situation. I will upvote Victor's answer, which better articulates the sentiment of practicing at slower tempo to iron out your mistakes. That's all this answer was trying to say. – broc.seib Dec 28 '15 at 18:43
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I am just a self taught musician on piano so don't take my words to heart only as advisement. The answer to your question is, it depends. If you are at home and trying to learn a piece of music then I would stop and replay what I had messed up again. If you are performing and mess up just keep going. Funny thing is 80-90% of people listening to you won't even notice you messed up if you keep going and recover meaning, the mess up does cause you to mess up more.

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While you are still learning the piece, yes. You want to learn it the correct way. If you keep making mistakes then bad habits will start to form. But, if you are soon to perform, try to keep going. If correcting notes is a habit, this can be bad when performing. Going back and correcting notes during a performance, should, of course, be avoided.

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