15

There is this one song I have to play for school but every time I try to play it, I make a mistake. I did this for 3 hours straight and I sent an email to my teacher and he gave me some advice but it didn't really help. I have no idea what I'm supposed to do. Any tips?

  • Answers should be posted in answers, not as comments. Comments don't have any of the quality assurance mechanisms (downvotes, editing, etc.) that answers do... And they can't be accepted. :) – V2Blast May 10 at 22:51
  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – Doktor Mayhem May 11 at 12:32

12 Answers 12

39

Three hours at one session! Unless you're the sort of person who can concentrate really well for that length of time, you've wasted at least some of it. Harsh, but realistic. Most of us cannot give 100% for that length of time!

If you can organise your time into (much) smaller chunks, the progress will usually be speeded up. Perhaps even 20 minutes at a time, with a couple of hours break. And in those 20 minutes, concentrate on maybe just two of the parts that need effort. Break each down into separate bars, and play each bar perhaps 10 times. Play with eyes closed once you can 'see' those notes that way. Play ridiculously slowly. Sing the notes. And before you finish that session, play through a part that you can play well. Every few days, try to play through the whole piece, just once, without stopping when something goes wrong. There's too much time wasted in practice sessions playing a known bit up to the mistake area, then stopping! If it's good till then, it doesn't need practising!

| improve this answer | |
  • 4
    And grab a metronome! If there's a portion of the song that you can't play at a particular bpm, keep slowing down the metronome until you can. Rinse, repeat. – John Doe May 8 at 21:35
  • 1
    Great advice all around. But lest the OP take that two-hour break of yours as gospel, I will say that 20 minutes at a time is a typical period of concentration for me, with at least 15 minutes to recharge. And sometimes two hours; if it isn't going well, especially, it's time to get up and do something else for a while. – BobRodes May 9 at 18:33
  • 1
    @BobRodes - at our (my) age, 20 mins max. Recovery time - several hours. Do whatever - gardening, tiling, clean car, etc. for as long as it takes - to forget what you practised! – Tim May 9 at 18:54
  • 2
    @Tim I'm 63, and age certainly has something to do with it. When I was in music school in my late teens and 20s, I couldn't concentrate as long as I can now, and I think that's true for most people. Nowadays, when I get on something, I find that the numbers that work well for me are 20/15, although I certainly can't keep that up for more than an hour or two. Then I have to go do something else for a while. (And none of the things you suggest! LOL) So, I guess my point is everyone is wired differently, and everyone has to take the general principle and find what works for themselves. – BobRodes May 9 at 19:05
  • 3
    @Haversine - please remove edits from my answer. As an English English speaker, I do not spell in any U.S. way. Nor have any desire to. And my phrasing is how I wanted it to be. Thank you. – Tim May 10 at 12:53
23

Point 1: practice slower. You don't want to practice mistakes, you want to practice right notes.

Point 2 is related to point 1: practice is food for your skills. It doesn't work without digestion. Practice is playing patterns into your brain's limited explicitly controlled memory. It's limited in that you just cannot focus on getting more than a few things right at the same time. Sleep then turns this explicitly controlled memory into skills that work semiautonomously.

Five days of practising 30 minutes are much more effective than one day of practising 3 hours because of that. Particularly if you only practice at the speed where you get things right: that gives your sleep the best material to work with.

| improve this answer | |
  • 3
    Important to add: Sleep matters. Brain needs sleep time to organize stuff. If you don't sleep enough, information gets lost. – yo' May 9 at 22:37
12

I suspect your teacher suggested that you play it at a slower tempo. When you say that it didn't really help, I would suggest that you practice it at an even slower tempo, and continue to slow it down until it does help.

Also, break the piece up into sections, and work on one section at a time. If you have trouble getting through a section without losing concentration, break it up into smaller sections. If you spend three hours working on just a few notes, you'll be surprised at how much you have learned the next time you go to practice. Funny thing about practicing is that your progress doesn't really show until your next practice session.

Edit: I also second Tim's advice about breaking that time period up into smaller intervals, as well. Think of it like wind sprints. Give your max concentration for a short period, take time to recover, keep doing that.

| improve this answer | |
  • 1
    This really is great advice, especially the suggestion to play it at an even slower tempo. Nothing ever improved my technique as much as slowing down the tempo way more than I had tried in the past. – jdjazz May 8 at 4:32
  • 3
    @jdjazz I'm reminded of being six years old, turning on the hot water in the bathroom, and finding that the water wasn't hot after waiting for, you know, forever. I went downstairs and told my father that the hot water wasn't coming out. He grinned and said "well, let it run a little longer." I said I did, and it still isn't hot. He grinned even more and said "well, let it run a little longer." After about five of these exchanges, I stamped back upstairs, and of course the water was hot. :) – BobRodes May 8 at 4:47
9

You have spent three hours training yourself to play it wrong. Play it RIGHT. This probably means playing it M-U-C-H M-O-R-E S-L-O-W-L-Y. Yes, REALLY slowly. At some point your hands have got into a position where playing the next right note is impossible. Or you've just got used to playing the wrong note. Sort this out. Then play that bit slowly, but right, 10 times over. Then another 10. Then, maybe, a bit quicker. But if you fumble, go back to slower and sort out why. Your hands have got very used to fumbling. You have to un-learn that.

| improve this answer | |
4

It sounds like you are taking the right steps (e.g. practicing and asking your teacher), but learning to play an instrument is not easy, even with the best advice. It takes a lot of work over a long period of time.

Great job practicing for three hours today! Practice for three hours more tomorrow. You will almost definitely play the piece better than you did the day before, but you still might make mistakes. That's part of learning.

In summary, here are two pieces of advice:

  1. Keep practicing
  2. Focus on improving your performance, not on being error-free
| improve this answer | |
4

Here are some tips I learned playing marimba in drum corps that have also served me well over my decades playing piano as well as teaching marching band:

  • When learning a challenging passage, practice it "backwards" -- that is, start by practicing the last bar first. If that's too much, just the last beat. Practice just that short part over and over until it becomes second nature. Use a metronome.

    As you get more confident in what you are playing, start adding on new material at the beginning. If you start flubbing the stuff you were doing well before, back off on how much new material you add.

    The advantage of this over learning the music "front to back" is that you are starting with your least confident parts and getting them out of the way. Going front to back, you will often play mind games with yourself worrying about new material yet to come, causing you to flub stuff you already know.

  • Work in very small segments -- as little as one beat if you have to. Rep them over and over with a metronome (we called it "woodshedding" the part in corps). Once you nail it, you aren't done. Beat it over and over until you are nailing it every time. Keep the metronome running and only leave enough beats between reps to reset.

  • If the instrument you are playing is conducive to it (mainly applies to percussion), break it down one hand at a time. Think of your hands independently. Focus on building muscle memory in one hand at a time. That means playing only one hand at a time for a while. While it's obvious on piano, it works on other percussion instruments just as well.

  • While I agree to an extent with other folks who are saying practice slower, you do want to make sure that you aren't going so slow as to alter any fundamental motions. (Again, this is somewhat a percussion-centric view, for example, different stick or mallet rebound behavior at different speeds, but it's important to note). Otherwise all that time you spend practicing slowly won't help you when you try to speed up. Go slow enough so that your brain can stay out ahead of your hands, but if you are still having trouble, you'll have a better time using the "small segments" technique.

| improve this answer | |
  • Tristan, I would think that your last point makes a lot of sense from a percussion standpoint, but it has less validity on a piano IMO. Also, your first point is interesting. I certainly, in a longer piece, tend to go after the most difficult parts first, but I'm not in the habit of starting them at the end. Rather, if I'm worrying about the new material to come, I simply work on less material, i.e. break it into smaller segments. But it's an interesting idea. I'll give it some thought to see if I can use it. – BobRodes May 12 at 6:24
  • @BobRodes I've discovered the "start at the end" works really well for drilling memorization in the marching band setting as well. Regarding the last point: one place it can come back to bite you is when the left hand does ragtime-style hops. With big jumps back and forth like that, yes, you need to practice slowly for accuracy's sake, but you also need to drill at near-speed because controlling the momentum of your arms over big hops is a much bigger deal when you're moving quickly, and practicing slowly doesn't let you work on that factor. – Tristan May 12 at 16:33
  • I suppose that might be a factor when you are still learning how to do large hops. Chopin has a lot of large hops of that type as well. Some are at slow tempos, such as in some of the Nocturnes, while some are at faster tempos, such as in the third Ballade. I'm thinking about whether I approach those differently in a technical sense, and I don't believe that I see my fundamental technique altering significantly based on tempo. (I suppose that rapid, repeated pianissimo leaps might be an extra challenge, though, because you can't use the depression of the key to stop your rapid motion so much.) – BobRodes May 12 at 21:22
4

My music teacher says "stop on the glitch". This works for me: If there is a part that I am doing wrong, I just stop at that point and re-do the part several times.

| improve this answer | |
  • I got the opposite advice in my lessons. Make the glitch your exercise. Drill it until everything else needs to catch up. – ggcg May 9 at 19:11
  • Music is any mistake made twice. If you keep breaking the natural flow, you'll never achieve it, and it's likely I'll hear the flub in your trouble note. Flub it twice and I'll just have to scratch my head. Play it enough times and you won't flub it anymore. The show must go on; no stopping. – Mazura May 9 at 19:31
  • In itself - not good advice. Do anything lots of times, and it tends to get learnt. That's why we repeat. So repeating that 'stop' will allow you to learn that stop. Take your teacher to task, and ask if that's what they really meant. And if you can play the part before well, why are you still playing it, then stopping? Doesn't make any sense! – Tim May 11 at 8:09
  • Not sure what alternative you guys are proposing, it's not like you're supposed to just blow past the mistake – Amalgovinus Jul 29 at 8:43
4

In addition to all the great answers here, I would like to add the following: sleep over it.

In the sense, it is great you have practiced for 3 hours straight today. Take a break and do it again tomorrow after a good night sleep. I frequently find that I play better the day after compared to the day itself (or after a long rest).

Don't give up!

| improve this answer | |
3

Good answers, +1 to each. One thing I would like to add is that the amount of time you practice is not as important as having a plan to make your practice more productive. Do you tend to make the same mistake or mistakes in the same places over and over? If so then you need to focus on those spots before you continue to play the piece from beginning to end. Can you improve your fingering to make them easier to play for example? Perhaps try memorizing those problem spots so you don’t have to read them. Take your time and play them several times and gradually bring them up to tempo.

If you spend 30 minutes on a piece but pay extra attention to improving the areas that are more difficult for you, you will get much more out of those 30 minutes than if you spend two hours playing it over and over making mistakes and hoping you’ll get it right the next time. You seem to have a lot of dedication, keep it up!

| improve this answer | |
2

There can be different reasons making mistakes:

a) Difficulty of reading, minding sharps and flats

b) Interpreting the rhythm

c) Finger settings

d) Phrasing and breathing

Solutions:

a) Notate the note names additional to the notes on the sheet, or separate in an exercise booklet (with notes or without notes) only the difficult passages and those causing mistakes. 1. copying 2. memorizing and singing by heart and notating, controlling whether you got it. (=> mental training, with and without instrument).

b) Sing and tap the difficult passages, if you find a performance on youtube sing along and clap the rhythm tapping the beat with your feet. Analyze carefully the rhythm, transcribe it in its elements counting and rewriting into the shortest values, notate the beats.

c) Fingering problems can be treated like the note names. You can make a drawing of a difficult finger pattern, or write just the number of the involved fingers which are struggling or which are changing.

d) Don’t underestimate the phrasing as cause for failures. Sing the whole song, with solfeggio or absolute names, mind the correct phrasing. If you are short of breath train your volume by walking, jogging, swimming. Sporting activity combined with mental training (memorizing a song, feeling the rhythm, counting the beat, minding the note names and fingerings) can be more fruitful than sitting in front of the sheet music with your instrument.

That you need more than 3 hours for all of this seems to be quite obvious. But it is thrilling experience to find out how learning works, sometimes more interesting than the song. You can also write a diary notating the mistake, its cause, your progresses.

When your advanced you can also combine your exercise writing the harmony (chords and chord progression). In classical music motifs and arpeggios usually contain chord notes and scale passages.

| improve this answer | |
1

Are there any particular places in the song that keeps tripping you up? If so, just concentrate practicing on those problematic areas first. Once you are no longer making mistakes in those parts, restart the song from the beginning and see if you could sail through those parts without any more problems. If you still have problems, rinse and repeat!

| improve this answer | |
1

If you have played it for 3 hours with the mistake then unfortunately what you have done is to become very good at that mistake. You have "programmed" yourself to play the mistake, and I would guess that you play it the same way each time unless the piece was is such bad shape that it had mistakes all over. Every time you repeat a mistake you are basically rewarding yourself and you learn that the mistake was correct. Though it sounds like a bad joke the saying "Perfect practice makes perfect" applies.

I do not know about flute technique but getting through rough patches is the same on any instrument. First of all since you are in school I would ask if you are taking private lessons or just playing through what you are give in class?

When I am working on a new piece for guitar I always read through it very slowly (as slow as I need to play it relatively smooth) and mark parts that seem like they'd be trouble. Then, especially if it's a long an complex piece, I will start committing sections to memory. Once I have part of it memorized then I will play it with the metronome and really push the tempo until I'm well past the required speed. I don't start off with the entire piece this way, just reasonable sections. Here is where you have to be critical about mistakes. Never play at a tempo where you feel uncomfortable. As you work through a section make note of spots where you think you'll have trouble and drill those by making an exercise of the problem phrase. This takes experience and you need to be able to understand if the phrase is giving you trouble because it requires a new or unfamiliar technique on your part. If that's the case then you really need to go back a step and look at doing some basic exercises for that technique. If you cannot even execute a technique that the piece requires then learning the piece is not the right way to get better at technique. But if this is note the issue I'd say that you might be trying too hard and getting anxious.

Before drilling the piece, or sections of it, with a metronome it helps to really know it. That's why I commit it to memory before wood shedding. This way my mind is not distracted. You need to be objective a critique your level of performance relative to your experience and the solution might be different for different issues. If, for example, the notes in the piece seem relatively easy but there is heavy syncopation causing you to lose track of where you are then you might want to put the instrument down and try tapping out phrase. This helps me a lot. If the issue is an awkward change in fingering, then take the one place where that occurs and very very slowly play the two notes back and forth until your body is not tense when executing that fingering. If it's in the lip, or air flow, again slow down and play over the rough patch so slowly that there is not tension in your body until you can execute it over and over with no problems. Then play past that rough patch in the larger section.

Without knowing more about the specific issue you are having one can only guess. 3 hours is NOT a long time to practice. But it is too long to practice a mistake. As a final point I'd say that your practice session is a success if you have played over a rough patch multiple times without a mistake at any speed. In other words, unless you have to play it today or tomorrow, don't make the unreasonable expectation that by the end of one practice session the entire piece will have been mastered. Just take a few baby steps and leave it at that. You will mentally and physically benefit from stopping the session on a high note (pun). When working on speed runs we sometimes push the speed with the metronome and, even if there are no mistakes, finish with a practice run at half speed just to reinforce the correct pattern. Regardless of how the session sent, always go back to something you did correct and repeat it as your final task.

| improve this answer | |
  • 1
    It is not necessarily true that the mistake is always the same everytime. In that case they are not reinforcing the mistake. – justhalf May 10 at 6:51
  • I dont know that. The op didn't give enough. I'm just trying to help them understand what's happening if that's true. – ggcg May 10 at 10:59
  • 1
    It's pretty clear from the context it's not the same mistake. From my experience, when you are already somewhat good at performing your song, you make a mistake every time, and it's always unpredictable where it will be. Sometimes in the simplest sections. Very irritating. – anatolyg May 10 at 16:53

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