Four Things to Do at Your Lesson
to Make Your Playing Better

How many times have you thought to yourself or said to your teacher, "This went much better at home." There are a number of reasons why it goes better at home, and, luckily, there are some things you can do to make your pieces go better at your lesson.

Ok, why -does- it go better at home than at your lesson? Four main reasons. (1) At your lesson, you are playing an "unfamiliar" instrument; that is, one you play only once a week. (2) You -want- to do a good job. Murphy's Law strikes again! (3) Your teacher is there listening. This introduces a large element of stress because you think she is "listening for mistakes." (4) Any weak place is guaranteed to break down. Guaranteed...which is a good thing, actually, because now you know one area that needs a lot of work this week!

As I said, there are things you can do to ameliorate the above. If you incorporate only the first two suggestions, you'll see an immediate improvement. Naturally, I think you ought to do all four!

1. Start the piece in your head. Before you start with your fingers, "play" the first couple measures silently in your head. Then begin with your fingers.

Starting in your head has several advantages. (1) You "remember how this song goes." You have just been playing something else, and you need to switch gears. (2) You can set a tempo and "test it" before you commit to it with your hands. (3) You can remember where the hard spots are and think about how fast you should play them today at your lesson.

Play through the first couple measures silently. Then it is a fairly simple matter of allowing the music which is already going in your head to "flow" down your arms to your fingers.

If you don't believe me, try this once at your next lesson.

PS. When you see a concert artist on stage preparing to begin a piece, you see her sitting perfectly still. Guess what she's doing?

2. Play slowly. No big surprise, huh? You can solve 95% of your mistake problems if you will play the music more slowly. I know your teacher has told you this. Now, I'll do it! Please slow down. This gives you more time to read the notes, to read ahead, to direct your fingers to do what your eyes see is required, and to listen to what's coming out from your fingers.

At your lesson, when you make errors or get so scrambled that you decide to start over, you are filled with determination to "do it right this time." This resolve translates as an increase in speed, which is exactly what you -don't- want. Playing faster will just increase the number of errors! Though it takes practice (!) to do it, you -can- train yourself to stop and take a couple of breaths and remind yourself to start more slowly when you've made a jumble of things.

3. Don't do something different at your lesson than you do at home. Would your teacher ask you to ride a bicycle all week long and then expect you to ride a unicycle at your lesson? Of course not! So, don't do something at your lesson which you didn't do at home (exception: you certainly should play more slowly!! I'll bet you played too fast at home, too!). I guarantee you that your teacher has heard before every mistake you've ever made with a piece - - and some you have not made or even thought of making - - and is not going to be upset if she hears you make errors. Your teacher is there to help you, not to pass judgment. Remember that you and your teacher are batting on the same team!

As an aside, let's talk about practice tempo vs. performance tempo. Performance tempo is the -finished- tempo of the piece; this the speed you will play when you are playing this piece for others. Practice tempo is the speed at which you play when you are -learning- the piece. Nowhere near the same speed!!

Admittedly, practice tempos are pretty boring. The piece doesn't "flow" and you can hardly follow the melody at all. There's not much satisfaction in playing at practice tempo. But that's ok. You are -learning- the piece, not performing it. And you must learn it before you can perform it.

And I can't help but chide you on another topic: what are you doing playing your piece all the way through at practice tempo in the first place?? You should be working on small sections and improving those. You won't get anywhere roaring through your piece from start to finish.

We both know what happens: you start out pretty well because you know the beginning pretty well because you've played it a lot. Here's Howard Cosell with the color commentary: Hey! Sounds good, feels good. Uh-oh: that problem at the bottom of page one is coming. Drat. Hate that place. I bobble it each time. Darn it; did it again. Ok, now it's easy again until the middle of page two. Better slow down. All right; got through that place without too many errors. Turn the page to page three. *#@)$^*! Here's the development. I'll stumble through this as best I can. Too many counter melodies and that key change! Phew! Finally got through -that- part. Ah! Here's the recap; this part I know! I can punch up the speed to something reasonable. Gotta be careful, though: it's a littler different here after eight measures. Here comes the coda. A little tricky there. No, a -lot- tricky. Gee, I don't know this part very well at all. Ok, I'll just play the right hand for most of it, but I -can- get that final chord! Yippee! Got through it! Pretty good job! Yay, me!

Whom are you kidding? If you continue to practice like this, it will never be any better.

This brings me to another piece of advice: don't play your pieces faster than you can control the most difficult sections. Yes, that means there will be places that are downright soporific - - BUT there will be places where, at that same speed, you're plenty busy getting everything right.

Obviously, this leads back to #1 (starting the piece in your head): think of the most difficult section, decide how fast you can control that section, and start the piece at the same speed.

4. Don't fool yourself about your -true- level of preparation. I alluded to this above. At home, you play something right. "It went well," you tell yourself. "Ok, I've got that section learned." What you really you should be saying is, "It went well. I got lucky."

Therefore, when you play something correctly, stop and ask yourself whether it was good luck or whether you could do it again just like that whenever you wanted. I call this "chance or control?".

Be honest with yourself. Only you know the answer to this question, but I guarantee you that if you lie to yourself at home, -this- is the place that will fall apart when you play for your teacher. (Didn't your mom say that if you lie you might not get caught right away, but that some day that lie will catch up with you?!)

And this brings us around to the way to practice: work on short sections and clean them up. By "short," I mean one line or even one measure - NOT the entire development! After you've done some scut work, allow yourself -one- play-through at a tempo -at which you can control those difficult parts-.

NOW you'll play better at your lessons!

copyright 1998, Martha Beth Lewis, Ph.D.
Contact me for reprint permission.

Piano Home Page | Consumer Information | Home Page