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When practicing a piece, I find that making one mistake sometimes messes up my muscle memory and throws me completely off. This is especially true of memorized pieces.

This most often happens if, say, I hit a chord shifted by one key, but can happen with a variety of different mistakes including hitting the wrong chord inversion because the piece uses different inversions in different verses. And, it tends to happen in different places, not repeatedly in the same place.

Repetition to solidify muscle memory seems to be the only way to learn and memorize a piece which is too difficult to sight read. However, the down side is, if I get thrown out of muscle memory mode and into "active thinking mode", my active brain has no idea what the next chord or note is, and the piece falls apart.

Do high caliber musicians simply not make mistakes severe enough to throw off their muscle memory for the piece? Or do they have techniques for recovering? Either way, what practice techniques are helpful to reduce the risk of one mistake derailing the entire performance?

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You have to practice the skill of playing onwards after making a mistake. You might have to start by having the music in front of you, finding the place where you made the mistake in the music, and reading the next measure until you can get back into it. When practicing this, don't let yourself back up and play over the mistake notes correctly. Leave the mistake there and focus on what comes after it.

Another way is to practice starting pieces in the middle, at different points. Again, working with the sheet music will help with this. You might start off by playing from right after a key change or other major change in the piece, and then progress to starting at a random measure.

A related skill is being able to audiate (hear it in your mind) the whole piece while you play it. If you can imagine what the next notes are supposed to sound like, it should make it easier to pick up where you're supposed to be. You can practice this the same way you learn the piece with your fingers. Imagine from the beginning and go as far as you can, possibly humming at first if that helps you.

The ultimate challenge is having a metronome that plays a different sound on the first beat of each measure and you play along with that, keeping up with where you would be in the music if you never made a mistake. If you can completely stop playing, audiate along with the metronome and then come back in again where you would be if you had never stopped, you know you're ready for anything. Note that this last skill is pretty much required to play in an ensemble of any size.

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    A few tricks I picked up through playing piano and teaching percussion: 1) learn the tricky parts backwards -- start with the last measure and work your way to the first measure. This way you are less stressed out about what is coming up, and you can worry about what you are playing right now. 2) Play within an ensemble to force yourself to learn to carry on after you make a mistake. It could be as few as one other person, or you could play along with a recording if nothing else is available. The important aspect is the feeling of being on a train that will move along with or without you. – Tristan Feb 14 '18 at 16:01
  • Yes I had a choir director use that technique when we needed a piece memorized ASAP. I've tried it on piano but only page-by-page or verse by verse, not measure by measured. Learning a piece that way measure by measure sounds like a good way to practice being able to pick the piece up anywhere, as well. – Selvek Feb 14 '18 at 16:37
  • audiate +1. Doesn't muscle memory just tell you how to play cords and whatnot? You still need to know what it sounds like, especially if it's "too difficult to sight read". – Mazura Feb 14 '18 at 22:32
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You cannot 'unmake' a mistake. If and when you do make one, it's imperative you carry on, as if you haven't done that. If you can't, then the piece hasn't been learned well enough. Lots more practice is needed.

One strategy is to know the piece so well that you can pick it up from literally anywhere. But for this to happen, it's not enough just to play it mechanically. You'll need to know what's going on. 'Now you're playing the sub-dominant in 1st inversion, followed by the root with an octave left hand' sort of thing.

While there are still hiccups in the piece, slow it all down - with metronome if needed - so you can read through while continuing at the chosen tempo. If that can't be done - slow down some more!

Another idea is to play through, then purposely miss a bar or two, leaving the appropriate gap in playing, and pick it up again, in time. The missing bit will still be going through your head, it just won't be played. This will prove how well you actually know the piece.

Even when you can play something mechanically, your mind ought to be on the job - thinking ahead, but also thinking how you will play the next part - faster, rubato, louder, decrescendo, etc., so there's only an element of automatic about it.

And if you do play a different inversion of a chord, or stick an extra note in, or leave one out - just how really important is it? Certainly not worth stopping for! And, unless it's for an exam, does it really matter that much? Provided of course, every time, that it still sounds good.

  • Playing a different inversion of the chord isn't an issue by itself - it's only an issue because suddenly my hand is in a different place than I expect it to be and I get derailed. I will try practicing picking up from literally anywhere - I know i tend to start playing only from certain spots. – Selvek Feb 13 '18 at 22:45
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    One strategy is to know the piece so well that you can pick it up from literally anywhere - Exactly. You must be able to recover from any mistake by the start of the next bar, wherever you are in the tune. Good practice tactic: play along with something and then suddenly move it to a different, random point in the tune - quickly hit the forward or backward button, and wherever it happens to come out, you should be able to pick it up from that point without hesitation. – Stinkfoot Feb 13 '18 at 23:42
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I am pretty much a beginner and every time I sit down I play a few scales and then practice the pieces I am learning. I have played each one literally hundreds of times and just got to the point where I am starting to do it without the music in front of me. It's a good idea to read the music initially I find as it also begins to imprint on the mind. I can feel the muscle memory at work. To me it's just practice to the power of n.

Next stage is to set a background beat going and attempt to follow along with that.

PS I do find scanning the music as a PDF and then using the BT pedal to turn the pages in my iPad really useful. This also gives one the extra training in using a foot (pedal) at the same time as both hands.

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