4

I think my question has been partially answered before:

I am happy to take it down if it is considered a duplicate.

I have been practising almost every day (I think I have missed out on a total of like 2 weeks) for at least 1 hour for a few years by now ("older" musician here, I am way beyond my teens), I am still making mistakes, even in short pieces that I've been playing for years (thankfully, I have patient neighbours), and it makes me feel like I am doing something wrong. I frequently go to my teacher's performances, and he often doesn't make a single mistake, even if his band plays for 3 hours or more! As for me, I can count the number of practice sessions where I haven't made a single mistake on the fingers of one hand, which is very disappointing after so many years of continuous work (not to mention my compositions are a lot shorter and easier).

I am updating my question to provide some additional data. I am playing (tenor/soprano) saxophone (and have just recently started flute), and I did not specify it initially, because I wanted the question to be helpful to all musicians, and because I do not think my problems have anything to do with the instrument I play.

It is also important to note that the mistakes I make are irregular, meaning I make mistakes in different places, so it's not a case of "learnt helplessness".

Since the very beginning, I have followed what is considered good practice hygiene by most:

  • Itemising (playing a new piece section by section, until you get it right)
  • Analysing a piece compositionally before and during play
  • Playing very slow in the beginning (to the point where my teacher would say I had remarkable patience) to avoid "learning to always play wrong"
  • Recording practice sessions and listening to them
  • Listening to professional musicians (excessively) perform the piece in question or recording electronic versions of it otherwise
  • Using a metronome
  • Keeping a practice diary

Despite all that and being able to play all basic (and some "advanced") scales from memory, I still make mistakes, even when playing said scales (the mistakes are physical, like "fingers slipping", I have no trouble recalling scales and chords from memory without looking at the print-outs). They do not seem to come from lack of sight-reading experience or proficiency with the instrument, I would describe most as "mind blanks", which I thankfully snap out of immediately upon hearing them. I either stop or run up/down the scale/arpeggios until getting back into the next section (depending on how OCD I feel on that day, but I am trying to get out of that habit of "covering up", because it feels psychotic and not helpful in learning to play intelligently).

So it seems like I am doing most things right, but it doesn't seem to produce perfect results. I do not play pieces from memory (my visual memory is virtually non-existent) or by ear. I do remember some sections kinesthetically (some people seem to believe such memory does not exist), and I think that's the only component that might be causing problems (because if you play something automatically, your conscious mind might go blank for the duration).

Am I expecting too much after less than 10 years of playing (I am discounting my experience in an orchestra when I was at school, because I stopped playing while being at university, and I played a different assortment of instruments at the time anyway), and should I just continue "sucking it up", or am I missing some crucial components? I have tried asking my teacher and some other professional musicians what to do, but most have been playing for decades and cannot remember or relate to what I am experiencing.

  • What instrument? – Tim Jan 27 at 8:03
  • 1
    You might find this useful. youtube.com/… – PeterJ Jan 27 at 11:25
  • Do you make, pay attention to rhythm/timing mistakes? – Michael Curtis Jan 28 at 22:09
  • @Tim, (tenor/soprano) saxophone and flute (albeit only a few months on the latter). – Pyromonk Feb 13 at 11:44
  • 1
    One way to practice is to forget the metronome and play the piece with no mistakes - even if it means playing one note per minute. . – PeterJ Feb 14 at 11:12
2

I have some ideas to share. These are intended as ideas for you to consider trying. One or more of these may help you.

  1. Memorize the piece or etude or whatever it is that is giving you trouble. This may be easier if you map it out for yourself, possibly pictorially. It can be helpful to make up a story that helps you remember what section you're in -- because often the trickiest part of memorization is when two sections start the same, but diverge at some point.

  2. Analyze the ergonomics. I don't know what your instrument is, but here is how I would do it for my instrument, cello. I consider the hand shapes, and how I will transition from one hand shape to another, with minimal tension. I consider the positions, and how I will need to prepare for the shift from one position to the other. I analyze the optimal bow technique -- what part of the bow do I need to use for this bit or that bit, how can I get the optimal sound, without pinching off the sound, or raising my shoulder (which could cause pain eventually)?

  3. Sing the phrase, to discover what phrasing you like.

  4. Conduct the phrase. Again, this helps you discover what phrasing you like, but also it helps you realize where rubato is called for, exactly how you would like to do any tempo changes there may be, etc.

  5. When I was my children's Suzuki coach, their teacher taught me a fun practice technique. I made a little stop sign with construction paper and a popsicle stick. One side was green and one side was red. If you are the practice coach, here's how you do it: first, identify the place in the score where the mistake has a tendency to occur. Then, as the student is playing the piece, hold up the stop sign with the green side facing the student. Flip it around suddenly (but without fanfare) about half a measure or a measure before the mistake place. When the student sees the red stop sign, he should stop playing, but not lift the bow from the string, or take his left hand down. During the frozen moment, the coach gives a brief verbal or physical reminder of the correction needed, and then flips the stop sign around again. This is the signal for the student to continue playing.

    What makes this technique so effective is that it allows the student to re-imprint, with the correct notes (or correct dynamics, or whatever) in place of the ingrained mistake.

  6. Dance to your piece.

  7. Imagine a ballet or modern dance choreography set to your piece.

  8. Visualize yourself playing your piece. I found it helpful to do this in bed before going to sleep. I did this with a piece I knew inside and out, getting ready for a recital. I would watch myself walk on stage, bow, sit down, start to play, and I saw myself play the whole piece beginning to end.

  9. Go to master classes at a university or conservatory near you. Any instrument will do. You'll get ideas, and perspective, too.

Something to think about: Do some of your mistakes come from too much adrenaline? It's good to have some adrenaline -- to avoid a dry, emotionless performance. But you need to strike a balance. With too much adrenaline things can run away from you and you lose the precise control of your fingers, and you lose track of your mental map of the piece.

Finally, I would like to make a comment about the remark in another answer, "To tell you the truth 1 hour a day is nothing. Pros and serious students are at it for 8 hours a day." The amount of time needed for a student to progress or meet his goals is very individual. I can say that in music school I practiced four hours a day most days. Later, playing professionally in an orchestra, I practiced less. I believe that quality is more important than quantity.

| improve this answer | |
  • Even though I do not play a string instrument and my visual memory is non-existent, I find this answer to be the most "complete" one that allows me personally and, in my opinion, other people having similar problems to develop a helpful routine of improving. You are also the only person who brought adrenaline up, which is something I failed to consider and now understand to be the main culprit behind my mistakes (hence their irregularity). I will update my question to reflect what instruments I play, I tried to make it general and potentially useful to anyone, not just me. – Pyromonk Feb 13 at 11:55
  • P.S. I fully agree that quality trumps quantity. I didn't go to music school (got interested in music too late to be taken in), but I attended a conservatorium as an adult, and I still see my teacher every now and then despite years of regular practice. – Pyromonk Feb 13 at 11:57
3

Perhaps the most valuable single bit of advice I ever got from a teacher is this:

Don't practice until you get it right: practice until you can't get it wrong.

The reason you are making mistakes may be largely psychological at this point, but don't underestimate how hard it is to get rid of bad habits (i.e. wrong notes or rhythms). Play the passage carefully, slowly, until you get it right. Then play it again. Then again. If you can't play it at least 5X in a row correctly, and preferably 10X, then you haven't purged the errors from your system. Keep going at it. And don't expect to succeed in a single practice session. Neurons take time to develop new connections, so do the passage again the next day, and the day after that.

| improve this answer | |
  • Thank you, I should've mentioned in my question that I make mistakes in different places, not the same ones... I will update my question to reflect it. – Pyromonk Feb 13 at 11:51
  • 1
    I think a problem some have is that unless they play something the same every time, it's not 'learned'. If music was actually like that, it would get very tedious. I can only actually say I 'know' something when I can stretch it, squash it, mess about with the timing, dynamics, etc., etc. Not merely regurgitate it like a robot. +1. – Tim Feb 13 at 12:44
  • @Tim, that's a very good point, thank you, sir. – Pyromonk Feb 13 at 22:33
1

Are you being honest with yourself?

You have provided a laundry list of things to do and they should work. You need to critique yourself and if you haven't already you should take lessons with a professional music teacher (musician). They can help you identify what you are doing wrong.

For example did you follow a traditional path of learning your instrument or are you self taught? Self taught players can achieve a lot but often suffer from missing some basics that they cannot see objectively.

To tell you the truth 1 hour a day is nothing. Pros and serious students are at it for 8 hours a day (it's their job), and they still make mistakes! So what you are experiencing may just be normal. I recently saw a video of Pepe Romero (one of my favorite classical guitarists and a brilliant musician). He stated that he would spend close to 4 hours every day going over simple chromatic and diatonic exercises on the guitar. And this is just the stuff we learn in lesson 1, 1-2-3-4 up the neck and across the strings with every picking combo. The basics need drilling every day to make advanced playing possible.

As for memorizing, music does not need visual memory. Can you recall a tune in your head? Can you sing the Dorian mode for one octave? This is more basic than fingering. The fingers need a lot of attention to learn to do their job correctly but music has to be in the ear. So if you are not hearing it perhaps spend some time doing different exercise. Use a program like Ear Master Pro and spend 20 min a day doing exercises without your instrument. This will help you develop musical skills that transcend the fingering issue. Many players will tell you that if you can sing something you will be able to play it.

How do you know your teacher doesn't make mistakes? I find this hard to believe. It is important to not practice mistakes but we all make them until we get familiar with a piece. If you think you can do what you are attempting to practice but keep getting it wrong you may not be taking an objective approach to your basic technique development. I can draw on a personal example I'm going through. I have arranged a Weiniawski violin piece for guitar. I can play most of it at 150-160 bpm which I'm very proud of. However one section kills me every time. For a while I just tried playing through it at tempo hoping it would clear up. That was never going to work. After some analysis I realized that the issue was turning around (changing direction) and transitioning from an alternate pick sequence to a sweep at the turning point. This is a very specific detail. So I had to isolate this 3 note segment and drill it with the m-nome for days, 2 beats up 1 beat down. Once I passed 130 bpm higher speeds were easy. I'm not saying this is your problem but each thing that's holding you back needs to be identified and rooted out and only you (and/or your teacher) can do that.

Based on all you've written I don't think you have been specific enough for anyone to isolate what you are experiencing. You mentioned that you are still making mistakes in scales but that it's not from sight reading. Are these physical errors? Like your fingers getting it wrong? Or memory errors like you start playing whole tone and run into major? This would help.

The kind of fluidity that pros demonstrate comes from decades of regular daily habitual practice. They make it look easy but it takes dedication.

| improve this answer | |
  • Good day. I thought it would be obvious from my question that I do have a teacher and practised properly from the start. I practise scales and arpeggios every day. 1 hour might indeed be nothing, but I am not a "professional" musician (no degree in music), and I have a full-time job to boot. I can recall even "complex" tunes, like this, but I do not play by ear (not enough experience). I think my teacher doesn't make mistakes, because I know their band's scores, and I spent a few sessions looking at them while they were playing. Thank you! – Pyromonk Jan 27 at 2:53
  • I have a day job too. Still get 4h in minimum. Then what exactly is the nature of you mistakes? – ggcg Jan 27 at 3:54
  • I am happy for you, but you play guitar, and I play tenor saxophone. I do not own a car, and I stop playing before 21:00 out of respect for my neighbours. The thing's so loud, my friend who plays harmonica has to stay in a different room when we jam with his speaker turned on to 100%. And no, saxophone mutes are not a thing - it's not a trumpet. I have updated my question. I now believe my problems came from being overexcited when playing, because the mistakes were irregular and accompanied by "mind blanks". I am not sure how to answer your question otherwise. – Pyromonk Feb 13 at 12:15
1

I know this has already been answered, and this isn’t an answer per se, but I think it will be super helpful for you.

Basically, get ahold of a copy of “Fundamentals of Piano Practice” by Chuan C. Chang as soon as you can. I’m 28 years old and started piano at age 4. I discovered this book last year after over two decades of piano playing and a couple years of teaching piano at a private college, and it completely changed how I view and teach piano practice.

There’s more in that book than I can discuss here; please read it! To sum up a couple high points that I think apply to you:

  1. A couple of your techniques are what the author calls “common sense” techniques, specifically starting slow and picking up speed. These “common sense” techniques are actually incorrect. In the instance of “start slow and gradually pick up tempo,” you should instead start by figuring out what fingering/positioning/execution/motions are required to play it extremely fast. This assures you that your technique is solid. It’s all about technique. If you start slow, your technique may be faulty and you wouldn’t even know it.

For example, if I finger a right hand C major scale 1-2-3-4-5-3-4-5 (an atrocious fingering!), but played it very slow, I still wouldn’t feel any tension until I tried speeding it up. When I played it fast, I’d hit what the author calls a “speed wall” - when your fingers can only play so fast and simply won’t move any faster. This will not change until I correct my technique, and the only way to know if my technique is right is to start by (once I’ve correctly read the notes) trying that small section (hands separate - see below) fast to see if it is loose and smooth. That’s an extreme example, but it demonstrates the idea. You stated that you start slow to make sure you don’t practice it the wrong way; however, you won’t ever know if your technique is wrong until you try it fast! This is why Mr. Chang recommends both fast AND slow practice from the get go. Use fast to figure out what is the most loose, free way of playing, then practice it slow that same exact way.

  1. Always, always, ALWAYS start hands separate. Never play hands together in the beginning, even on small sections, unless you can play it hands together flawlessly WAY above tempo. In order to properly work out technique as I described in (1.) above, you need to work it out hands separate, then drill it over and over hands separate, from memory.

I know this is lengthy, but honestly it’s just a taste of some of the gems you’ll find in Mr. Chang’s book. I think this will be a huge help to you because I’ve dealt with the exact same problems even after over two decades of playing a ton. Only when I found this book did I realize what I’d not been taught in lessons.

Bonus: I think there’s a free version of the entire text of the book available on readthedocs. Check it out!

Best of luck to you, my friend!

| improve this answer | |
  • Thank you so much! I am very grateful to you for taking the time to respond despite the question being marked as answered. Even though I am not a pianist, I do believe this book will help me greatly. In the worst case scenario, it's a good technique to try, and if it worked for you on the piano, it will most likely work on my keyed instrument. Except, perhaps, the hand separation technique, because it won't quite work on the saxophone and flute, unless it's just an exercise and not actual playing. – Pyromonk Feb 13 at 22:43
  • 1
    Ah I missed that you were not a pianist. Sorry. Some of the techniques still apply I would say. Especially when it comes to practice tempo and technique. The biggest thing to stress is absolute, 100% zoned in focus when you practice. If you accustom your brain to think about anything besides what you’re playing during the practice season, then when you’re playing for people, the music will be relegated to your subconscious while your conscious brain thinks about something else — namely, the “scary” people watching you! – Kevin H Feb 14 at 0:56
  • I think so too! And, as a musician, I have to have some level of playing piano (and I do, I just do not consider myself proficient enough). Like with the answer from the celloist, I think I can still rework more than 95% percent for my instruments. Your answer is extremely helpful, and it's a shame I cannot accept it as a second one. I've already started reading the book you suggested. – Pyromonk Feb 15 at 22:36

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

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