Don’t practice for perfection!

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frustrated at practice

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If you are practicing for perfection, working to make a piece or an excerpt note-perfect, you may not be using your time wisely and you may be missing out on the real benefits of good practice. You may be frustrated, and even setting yourself up for failure.

A music student was telling me about his practice. He was discouraged; the things he was working on didn’t seem like they were getting any better, and it was taking too long to move on to the next thing. I could hear the frustration in his voice. His lack of progress was making him question whether he should even be studying music.

But as we talked a little more about the music he was working on and his specific goals in his practice, I realized that despite his best efforts, his practicing was all wrong. On the good side, he was practicing for hours and had particular areas of focus. But his overall focus was to “do it right,” which was setting him up for disappointment.

I advised him that instead of asking himself to practice for perfection, he should instead practice the techniques that lead to perfection.

When you are practicing for perfection, the second you make a mistake, you have failed and your mind registers this failure. What’s more, each time you make a mistake, your mind becomes more used to the failure and begins to expect it. You have made failure a habit.

Instead, try thinking of perfection as the natural end result of a learning process. As you learn and practice, you become accustomed to the particular demands of the piece. As you practice, you improve your technique and musicianship not just for this one piece, but for everything you play. And over the course of time, the new piece becomes an old friend. Like many old friends, it may have some idiosyncrasies, but you have become used to them. And you play the piece well, perhaps perfectly.

Here are some of the techniques you should be using in your practice leading toward perfection:

1. Play difficult passages with many different objectives. Rather than trying to make a passage perfect all at once, try practicing with a different emphasis each time. Maybe this time for speed, next time for legato and phrasing, this time for intonation, another time for rhythmic precision. Work on one aspect of the passage at a time.
2. Take the piece apart. Be sure not to just practice the piece front to back. Practice starting from various random points in the piece. It’s a little like reciting the alphabet starting with the letter “J;” it may feel a little awkward but it will really help you learn the piece.
3. Play the entire piece. There is another kind of knowledge you get from playing a piece start to finish. You get a feel for the pacing of the piece. And you will learn how to pace your energy as you play, a critical factor in a good performance.
4. Listen to others. Be sure to listen to a few good recordings of the piece you are studying. Not only can you benefit from hearing someone else’s interpretation, but you will begin to create a mental “pattern” on which to model your own performance.
5. Listen to yourself. I know it can be painful, but recording yourself and listening to the recording can be an eye-opening (or ear-opening) experience. You may find your dynamics or phrasing don’t come across as well as you thought, or you may adjust your ideas about tempo. Late in his career, the pianist Vladimir Horowitz made a monumental recording featuring pieces he had played his entire career. After hearing the initial recording of the opening movement of the “Moonlight” Sonata, he went back to re-record it at a slower tempo. If he can change his mind, you might too.
6. Play your mental CD. Try turning off your hyper-critical hearing and just play it the way you hear it. Let your performance be modeled after what you hear in your head. Don’t worry if it’s not coming out exactly right. The benefit here is in trying to match the ideal performance that you can hear inside.
7. Practice over time. Leave enough time to prepare. You need to be thoroughly comfortable with the piece before you can expect anything close to perfection. If you can, put it away for a week or two and then come back to it. Make it an old friend. Like any good friend, it will reward you for your loyalty.

One big disclaimer here. I don’t believe in a perfect performance. Music and life would be too dull if we could manage perfect performances routinely.  When we are trying for perfection then, we must understand that “perfection” really means as close as we can get. But that shouldn’t stop us from trying to close the gap between where we are now and where perfection lies.

Here are three good resource books:

The Inner Game of Music, by Barry Green with Timothy Gallwey

Talent is Overrated: What Really Separates World-Class Performers from Everybody Else, by Geoff Colvin

The War of Art: Break Through the Blocks and Win Your Inner Creative Battles, by Stephen Pressfield

How can you set yourself up for success in your practice?

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