Why after practicing a piece and thinking I have it mastered do I still make mistakes when I am performing it?

by Carolyn Topliff
(New York)

I would like to know why after carefully practicing a piece of music and feeling that I have mastered it, I then find myself making mistakes in performance.

I am an advanced pianist, but must admit that this problem has plagued my playing for a long time. I would really like some help with this and would like to solve this very frustrating problem.

I'd greatly appreciate any suggestions you have to offer.

Thank you.


Maria's answer:
This is a good question that boils down to what we all hope to achieve as performers; a flawless performance.

First of all, it is important to understand that everybody makes mistakes. Even the best performers in the world make mistakes. That is just part of human nature.

By mistakes we usually mean playing the wrong notes.This may happen because of poor preparation, memory slips, performance anxiety, stress, lack of sleep and many other things.

Now, it is important to put wrong notes in the right perspective ;)

There is the rare occasion where a performance of a piece will be without any wrong notes, that's great - but- is a performance without a single wrong note automatically a great performance?

A performance without any expression, beauty or balance even with all the notes correct is hardly what we want, is it?

By putting all our focus on not playing any wrong notes, a performance will become truly uninspiring at the least. Thus
missing the point of performing music entirely.

The focus should be on after studying and learning the piece, then performing it to spread the beauty of that piece of art, the pianist being the interpreter and medium of a composers intentions from sometimes very long ago.

In this way blowing life into "black dots on paper" and giving a great gift of beauty and art to the audience. A masterly performance transports you to another dimension, and at its best transforms you.

To put it short: When performing, the focus needs to be on expression and interpretation, not on simply playing the notes correctly.

However, having -I hope- put aside the notion that a great performance does not equal a performance where all the notes are played correctly, all the work to be able to relax and
perform with beauty and mastery begins with preparation.

I tell my students; always practice without any mistakes. Be really hard on yourself and never, ever allow yourself to play wrong notes when practicing.

When performing however, focus on the musical gift you give to the audience. Mistakes might or might not happen, but that is not important at this point. Expression is all.

Other things to consider is to pick performance pieces that are a bit below your current level. Play at an advanced level, but perform pieces that are on an early advanced or late intermediate level.

Perform often for friends and relatives. Grab any opportunity to perform that you can, this gives you a routine and helps you not to see a performance as a single, huge, maybe terrifying event.

Performing music is in many ways also like an athlete performing in the Olympic games, you need to think like an athlete in preparation as well as an artist.

Preparation starts way in advance. You need to take care of both your body and soul.

I have written a page about stage fright and how to prepare yourself for a performance here:

Overcoming stage fright

Good luck!





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