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You learn a song when you can play it right. You master it when you can't play it wrong.

Let's say a pianist can play a piece all the way through roughly 85% of the time with no mistakes, and mistakes made in the other 15% are minor ones. How might said pianist master this song so that it's correct playing becomes second nature?

For context: I am relatively new to piano (so my approaches are probably beginner ones), and generally really enjoy the process of mastering something. That being said, the piece I'd like to master is a beginner one (Minuet in G). Some things I've been doing to really ingrain its correct playing are:

  • Play with eyes closed; certain parts of the piece feel much more difficult without sight. This difficulty indicates areas where my muscle-memory and/or feel for distance between certain notes is not well honed enough.
  • Increase the speed of the metronome. If I can play the piece (or a part thereof) three times without mistakes at that speed, increase the speed again. See at what speed/where in the piece I have a difficult time playing.
  • Focus on the other hand. I have a tendency to focus on what my right hand is doing, but if I focus on the left hand, it becomes much more difficult to play without mistakes.
  • Play the song very slowly. Sometimes, when playing very slowly, it becomes much more difficult to remember the next note—as if the muscle-memory moving me to the next note relies on playing it a certain speed.
  • Play w/ everything shifted up or down an octave or play w/ the keyboard set to a different instrument. Even though it's the same song, sometimes the difference in sound trips me up in certain places.
  • Of course, play the piece over and over (though this feels as if it has diminishing returns).

These are all methods that, I think, help me isolate where in a piece I'm weakest. What other exercises, ways of thinking, research on the piece itself, etc. can one do to head towards mastering a song?

  • I’m in the same position as you. Closing my eyes makes it worse, however ;-) I think the answer really is practice practice practice. You, like me, are new to the instrument, these greats, these true true greats never picked it up in 15 minutes, they studied and studied and practiced and practiced. Long into the night. Keep going. We will get there and we will all look forward to hearing your masterpiece :-) – cmp May 17 at 21:36
  • I totally concur here that playing it very slowly at first is one of the best things you can do. I've seen so many students rush into playing things at a tempo that is still too fast for them and then get upset as to why they can't play the song. I would also extend this to your practice exercises (scales, arpeggios etc.), when learning these things for the first time, you will set yourself up with a much stronger base if you learn them slowly. oh, and use a metronome!!!!! – meganoob May 18 at 11:50
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That's a very good list. I would just add two other things, one of which is essential for me and the other very nice to have.

  1. To master a piece of music I need to have it in my mind's ear. To that end I need to listen to it as often as I can and the recordings need to be by musicians performing it well. Ideally the performances should be on my instrument, although a performance on another instrument is better than nothing. If I have the piece of music mapped out completely in my mind then I know where I'm going and I'm not just playing notes from a sheet of music.

  2. Something which I also find really useful, which can help me solve performance problems, is to watch videos of performers playing the piece where I can see what the musician's hands are doing, particularly at key points where I am having problems. A close-up of the performers ecstatic face is great for the fans but I want to see what their hands are doing. What is the secret of playing that tricky manoeuvre?

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    +1 for your point 2, although I often get a bit upset about the camera work. I would be absolutely happy if they picked a good view of the performer and keep it like that for the whole video. Instead, the camera does tons of effects and whenever there is a rough passage that I would like to see, it just happens to be circling the auditorium or something like that :--). – Ramillies May 18 at 19:44
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To really master a song (to the level it sounds like you are describing) in any sensible length of time, your starting point should be to have most of the basic skills and techniques to play that song already in place.

Most of the things you mention seem more relevant to learning a piece that is somewhat above your level. That's a worthwhile thing to do, as it is a route to learning new skills, but at that point you're likely to be a very long way from mastery of the piece. It brings to mind the phrase "you can't get there from here".

I'd say that the route to mastery would be

  • Learn the piece diligently
  • Learn more pieces that require similar skills
  • Once you've mastered all those skills through adding many pieces to your repertoire, step up a level and learn harder pieces and more skills
  • Return to the original piece now that its technical requirements are well within your limits. At this point, playing the piece without mistakes should present little problem; you should be able to focus your attention on playing the piece with the kind of expressiveness and nuance that you want, rather than the basics of just hitting the right notes.

I guess the practical advice is - when you come to a piece that's above your level, focus on learning the skills the piece wants to teach you rather than get distracted by wanting to get the piece perfect. A little while down the line, you can come back and revisit the piece and pay it back by play it with the flair it deserves. Assuming you still like it of course!

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Regarding your list of practice habits, some are good and some will work against you. I have some suggestions to improve the good habits, and some corrections to the bad habits

Good habits:

  • Play the piece over and over - This will work best when small sections of the piece are practiced, for instance working on 2-4 measures at a time. Build up the piece in these small sections, getting these phrases perfect, then combining with the next phrase to play all 8 bars perfectly.
  • Play the song very slowly - This is good overall. See link. A good article for slow practice from a great website
  • Play w/ everything shifted up or down an octave - This is good once you have perfected the phrase in its normal position. Another thing to try is alternating staccato and non-staccato notes. This will also challenge your mind. But, learn the phrase perfectly in the normal position first.
  • Focus on the other hand - If you are practicing with one hand only, this is a great way to practice. If you are practicing with both hands, you MUST give all attention to both hands AT THE SAME TIME. This is difficult to do, but you will improve over time.

Now onto the "not good" habits:

  • Play with eyes closed - do not do this. As a beginner, you will need to use all of your senses to learn the piano, and the distances. As an experienced pianist, when the eyes are closed, the mind still can picture the keys, from years of sitting with eyes open! However, if you do want to avoid looking at your hands, try sight-reading without looking down.
  • Increase the speed of the metronome - do not do this. The most sure way to practice mistakes is to increase speed. When you want to make the piece perfect, you must practice with a slow metronome, and make your notes exact in time. Really listening to both the metronome sound and the sound of the note will improve your skill dramatically. It is difficult to do, and requires much focus and stamina, but slowing the tempo when you cannot play perfectly, will result in much better practice.
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You are kind of asking three questions.

Technique is all in your head. If you developed bad habits or improper movements when your first started to learn to play, those errant movements are with you forever. Many people can overwrite them but they are still there forever. If there are technical issues you struggle with, you don't need more practice, talent or exercises, you need corrections and adjustments to your arm. Often, it is something we are doing wrong rather than needing to do something right. If your teacher tells you to practice slowly, practice more, prescribes exercises or doesn't make corrections to your arm, you need a new teacher. Your body is a machine and must obey the laws of physics. Belie them and you will struggle or go nowhere.

More direct to your question, everyone needs something to "sing" about. Or, "play." Consider some of your favorite artists or some of the greatest of the past three hundred years. They all had "something to sing about." Whether it was war and peace, nationalistic pride, sexual revolution, sexuality, drugs, love, revenge, they are ugly, racism . . . the best of the best sang, played or composed about something that moved, touched, haunted, angered or they hid.

There are many musicians who are very good, well trained or have dazzling techniques but it is at once very clear that they don't have "it." Something is lacking in their performance or maybe, they inject something into their playing that is insincere, fake or devoid of emotion. This doesn't pertain to anyone here but, I find many church musicians fit into this category. They may be good but there is a disconnect between technique and artistry. They may impress or are competent but you don't get goosebumps or forget to breathe or have a sense that you are in the presence of genius.

People who protested the Vietnam War, people of color who have battled racism, gay people in the closet, people addicted to drugs and alcohol, people born into poverty, people who are ashamed of their looks or weight or people living in countries ravaged by war . . . they all had something to sing about. More important than listening to your favorite artist or song is to know their biography and WHY they make music and why they made the ultimate sacrifice to look inward.

If you want to improve your musicianship, you need to find your voice. It is much more challenging in this age of quarantine but look for ways to feed the hungry, comfort the dying, heal the sick, clothe the naked, visit the imprisoned . . . Weekly visits to a nursing home will check all of those off. It is not enough to just do it. You must invest your heart and soul. You must be able to cry about it, get angry about it, rejoice in it. Then, you will have something to play about. To become a better musician, you must get off the bench and find a reason to sit back down. It can't be fame, fortune, attention, show off or because you are good at it or love it. It must be external from you. It is often called "the IT factor." Do you have "It?" History, literature and movies constantly revolve around the least of us who do the greatest things. They become great because they have nothing to start with or they give it all up. This is blatantly visible in religion with characters such as Buddha, Gandhi, Jesus, the disciples and moreso when they became apostles, St. Paul, St. Francis, anyone who face persecution for what they believed in. What are you willing to give up to ascend to that level?

If this you do, you will no longer sound "white." https://streamable.com/zp80s

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  • To what extent does mastering a piece require it to not sound soulless? I have a feeling the OP is happy with mastering a piece but playing only soulless renditions of it. – Dekkadeci May 18 at 13:37

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