Bear with me with this non musical analogy:

I am a driving instructor and one of the things we look for is for a pupil to know they can drive by themselves.

One of the questions they will eventually ask is: “how do I know I am ready to drive by myself?”

My answer is with this question: “ when you drive, how do you feel?”

The answer we look for is: “ I feel I don’t know anything, yet I can still do it!”

That’s when I know that the skill has become theirs for life.

Back to piano playing.

I have studied classical artists from different eras and memorised several compositions which led me to being capable of improvising in those eras or artists.

I’d say I am a fairly skilled pianist......


I don’t feel I am in full control when I am playing an artist composition. In fact, it can be great one day and bad on another.... it’s not really bad but enough for me to make mistakes.

I practise these pieces regularly at different speed as well as practising different phrases which I can use when I improvise.

Mistakes or flubs do not happen when I improvise.

I have been playing for about 6 years.

I know these pieces well. I always play from my brain and not my fingers but sometimes I get “distracted”.

I’ve been thinking I cannot “perform” pieces. Maybe? Hence the problem?

PS: I recently started to work on jazz studies and I have very few problems, if any?!?

EDIT: I know my technique is fine. This seems to be psychological when I play pieces. All my scales and chord are very good too. In fact, I have spent a lot of time practicing these.... and not played as much music... Could there be a gap between the two?

  • Most of us have had the experience of driving automatically - you arrive but you don't remember the journey. This has a danger in music, especially when performing in front of people. There are stories of soloists playing one of Mozart's piano concertos and then waking up to find they have no idea what movement they are in or in the worst case started playing a different one. If you can play automatically but still focus 100% then you can listen to your own performance objectively and adjust the interpretation on the fly. I'm not sure of this answers the question but I think it's relevant. Commented Jul 1, 2020 at 23:05

7 Answers 7


Years ago I played in an ensemble in which the conductor got up to the podium, and from memory, rattled off errata in measure numbers for many instruments throughout the score, then proceeded to rehearse the piece from memory. He did this for every piece we rehearsed that day.

Another time, I went to a concert given by an almost 90-year old clarinetist who playing the instrument so comfortably that everything he did sounded like the easiest thing in the world (he was playing some stunningly complicated stuff).

What these two people had in common was that their knowledge and comfort were so intimate, what they did was a natural extension of themselves.

Your perception of “ownership” is much the same; you have an “easier” time and feel more connected to your improvisation because it is a natural extension of who you are. You are not a mistake so neither is your playing.

You’ve already pointed out your flaws and thus solutions: being in control and getting distracted. Your distraction leads to inconsistency which leads to feeling loss of control which leads to feeling loss of ownership. It is likely you don’t get distracted while improvising because you are wholly engaged in the act of creating.

Why are you getting distracted? How are you getting distracted? Where in the music does it happen? What are you thinking about when you do it?

Once you answer these questions you’ll be on a more true path. Indeed, I think the problem / solution here is conceptual rather than technical.

Hope that helps.


I'm not really seeing the question.

But it sounds kind of like imposter syndrome. I don't think many people ever feel totally in control or feel like they've mastered anything. Some surely have by most peoples standards. But from their perspective they still feel something is missing. The problem is that during your 6 years of improvement your standards of what's good enough and what's great have also been raised. You've gotten better but from your perspective you always see the same amount of room for improvement in front of you seemingly out of grasp.

It's kind of like how it's harder to see the effects of aging in yourself because you see yourself in the mirror every day.

As a test try recording yourself and listening back periodically. When you listen to something you did months or years ago and inevitably cringe at your mistakes or whatever, you'll know that it's because you've made progress since then.

In fact, it can be great one day and bad on another.... it’s not really bad but enough for me to make mistakes.

Everybody has off days. Everybody makes mistakes.

I know these pieces well. I always play from my brain and not my fingers but sometimes I get “distracted”.

I wonder, do you enjoy these pieces? As in maybe you're distracted because you'd rather be doing something else? (a different piece, genre, or instrument for example).

  • 1
    I think you are right on the money. I have looked at “imposter syndrome” and that’s it. That was only brought on by hard practice of the music: scales, chords... theory... I realise I have been learning hard with no fun! Which has tarnished my ability to play... for fun...
    – user33232
    Commented Nov 9, 2017 at 19:32

Overcoming these difficulties constituted a significant part of my training in music school. My teacher worked with me on these things specifically. I will outline the direct skills that would help you overcome this, but note that there are many indirect skills that support this as well.

  1. Map the piece in your mind. Anticipate the places where you might veer off into the wrong section. Figure out some memory tricks to prevent veering off.

  2. Analyze what you need to do technically to be able to reproduce your desired results with maximum fidelity. The adrenaline of a performance necessarily introduces some element of unpredictability; some unpredictability can also come from the environment (for example, very humid air might make your fingertips sticky; heat and a fly can make you miserable; a crying baby is a challenge to block out). So you need to figure out how you will use your technique to be 100% reliable in your practice sessions, so as to be 95% reliable in performances.

    Technique is all about working with your various body parts, to do things in the most natural, comfortable, reliable way possible.

    Point #2 is best worked on with a teacher -- the right teacher.

  3. Prepare for a performance that counts by playing some performances where the stakes are lower. Play your piece for a class in an elementary school. Play at a small church out in the country. Round up some neighbors and acquaintances and give them a mini-concert. Play in a nursing home or a hospital.

  4. While you are performing, plan to reserve 10% of your brain for the being-in-charge function. In other words, don't let yourself go completely. Your internal manager still needs to be engaged while you're performing. Your internal manager will say, "Keep this tempo steady or disaster will strike on the last page." When the emotions get too strong, the internal manager will say, "Easy. You don't have to throw yourself into each and every phrase as if your life depended on it. It's okay to be a bit detached, which makes it easier to stay in control.

An indirect thing: go to lots of chamber music and small group concerts. It might be helpful to keep a simple journal of these concert experiences.


It takes time. I can only speak for myself, but I started playing the guitar at the age of 5, and it took me about 10 or even more years feeling comfortable playing classical music, feeling in charge, and not overwhelmed when playing.

What really helps is memorizing the music in different ways.

  • Play it in your head. Don't use your hands.

  • Start anywhere in the piece, from memory. In my experience, not using sheet, but playing from your brain, will help with performing pieces, as you can focus on the music.

Also, it's a lot about experience. Playing just a few concerts, will not be enough.

Playing in front of people as often as you can, is the best way to get used to performing.

My last tip is just watching and listening to different interpretations of famous pianists. Then record yourself, listen to yourself. What can you improve? Rinse repeat.

Good luck! You can most definitely do it, just focus on improving, don't focus on becoming a good performer.


My thoughts:

  • I don't think I've ever performed a piece of (nontrivial) music absolutely flawlessly. Maybe this just means I'm not an absolutely world-class musician (duh, coulda told ya that :-) ), but as far as I'm concerned, mistakes are part of the game. I do what I can to make sure the audience never notices. ;-)
  • To me, I own a piece of music not when I can rattle off the notes perfectly, but when I've moved way beyond mastery of the notes and technical challenges to really understanding and bringing out the spirit of the composer – in phrasing, horizontality, dynamics, theme, tempo, even emotional content...
  • Consider that not being in full control of a performance can be a good thing! People talk about their performance having an "edge" to it that gets lost when they practice the piece too much. I encourage you to play with this edge, and put yourself in a position to take risks!
  • For that matter – if you're not making mistakes in jazz improvisation, could it be that you're playing it too safe there?
  • One of my favorite books growing up was Barry Green's Inner Game of Music, a derivative of Tim Gallwey's Inner Game of Tennis. It is about facing and mastering the mental blocks that get between you and a great musical performance. What you describe w.r.t. distraction is one of the things he touches on. I highly recommend it!
  • Interesting points you’re making!
    – user33232
    Commented Nov 9, 2017 at 19:26

I don’t feel I am in full control when I am playing an artist composition. In fact, it can be great one day and bad on another

Many if not most pianists use the wrong muscles or use muscles incorrectly when playing the piano. When a pianist has these technical flaws, the pianist makes mistakes, feels rusty, needs to practice each day, needs to warm up and stretch or doesn't feel they own the piece. It is always a crap shoot if a difficult arpeggio or scale will come out cleanly.

When muscles are used improperly, of course all the above is true because they are using slow, fatigable or weak muscles to play rather than the fast and strong muscles which don't need practice. In reality, we have all the muscle we need for strength, endurance and speed in piano playing.

It is like trying to build a house of cards while the ceiling fan is running full speed . . . it is fruitless.

So, discover proper and ergonomic technique and you'll discover speed, endurance and strength and you won't have to practice achieved technique anymore.

Often, abduction, radial or ulnar deviation, crossing the thumb under the palm, isolating a finger, dangling a thumb . . . . these force vectors get in the way of the hand trying to get where it wants to go and gives the illusion that the "fingers" are weak when in reality one of the answers is placing the hand where it needs to be using the arm. The fingers don't have any muscle, BTW. They are moved by the long flexor muscles in the forearm.

  • You point out some of the potential problems, but what are the actual solutions? Mentioning 'arm muscles' isn't clear enough.
    – Tim
    Commented Nov 7, 2017 at 11:32
  • It is complicated and yet, effortless. Often, many of us have a movement that gets in the way or one that is missing and that can't be addressed over email. Here is a video addressing issues of the arm many typists and pianists have: Commented Nov 8, 2017 at 13:42
  • Oops, ENTER does not equate "new paragraph.: youtu.be/pGytHIwDrms Commented Nov 8, 2017 at 13:43

Don't over-think this. You don't fluff while improvising because you are playing what comes easily, what is 'under your fingers'. Playing someone else's composition is not so easy. That's all. After 6 years you're a good enough player to recognise your limitations. Keep at it. They will never go away completely, but they will expand...

  • I see your point!
    – user33232
    Commented Nov 9, 2017 at 19:26

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.