Playing the Right Notes at the Right Time

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right notes

J. S. Bach

Playing the right notes at the right time may be enough.

“There’s nothing remarkable about it. All one has to do is hit the right keys at the right time and the instrument plays itself.” – J. S. Bach

It’s quite a statement, whether Bach was indulging in some tongue-in-cheek modesty or absurdly reductionist thinking.

But what if it were – at least to some extent – true? What if “all” we had to do was to play the right notes at the right time? In other words, if we focused our efforts on simply playing the right notes at the right time, what would that free us from? What distractions, confusion and struggle would that eliminate?

Please understand that I am not going to set out a case for playing unmusically or without expression and subtlety. We’ve all heard players whose technically brilliant performance feels flat and uninspired, leaving us to say, “She really played all the notes, but…”

What I would like to suggest is that we can clear away some of the clutter in our practice by recognizing that when we make our first aim to play the right notes at the right time, we are setting for ourselves an appropriate and achievable goal.

Perhaps you are familiar with the “Pareto Principle,” commonly called the “80/20 rule.”

This derives from the observations of 19th century Italian economist Vilfredo Pareto. Pareto’s original finding was the 80% of Italy’s wealth was owned by 20% of the population. But sensing that the proportion had wider application, he was also able to note that 80% of the peas his garden produced were from only 20% of the pea pods.

In the 120 years since Pareto’s work, this proportion has been recognized and applied in almost every conceivable field, noting the efficiency in pursuing the 20% that will yield the 80%.

To return to our “right notes at the right time” scenario, surely the notes are only a small portion of what goes into making music. All the expressive elements and nuances, plus musical understanding, provide the intensity and connection that allow music to communicate powerfully. But that level of musical mastery is impossible to achieve unless the notes are fluent and correct.

So perhaps the right notes at the right time could be said to represent the 20% of the music that create 80% of the performance. Without the right notes played at the right time, the musical details are pointless.

How can you use this idea in your own practice?

  1. Get the right notes to the right tempo as soon as you can. Don’t spend too much time doing slow practice. While slow practice is helpful and important, many of the difficulties and decisions in any piece will be related to playing the piece at the right tempo. Don’t delay – get those notes going at the right speed as soon as you can.
  2. Solve any technical issues that will prevent those right notes from happening at the right time. Identify those problem spots and work them out in the early learning stages. Your technique is the foundation for your playing.
  3. Use a two-pronged approach to practice in the beginning stages of learning a piece by balancing your practice with some more “big picture” learning. Listen to recordings of the piece and gather ideas for musical interpretation. Research the piece or the composer; you don’t have to become a scholar, but a little information can help you connect to the piece and make expressive musical choices.

There is another 80/20 thought that might help you in your practice. You don’t have to make a piece perfect at any of its learning stages. Eighty percent is good enough to move on to the next step. For instance, 80% of the notes at one tempo is enough to begin challenging yourself with a faster one. Don’t get stuck waiting for that last 20%.

The right notes at the right time. The instrument may not play itself, as Bach asserted, but it’s a great place to start!

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  • Susan

    It makes a lot of sense. If you have adequately practiced a sufficient amount of time and don’t drop off any poignant parts, the other 20% eventually does fall into place while you return to your piece of music and perform it regularly. You just never want to miss notes in passages of great importance. For example, the repeating passage in Fur Elise. E, D#,E, D#,E BDCA. Octaves can be made shorter, chords smaller, skip harmonics if you get them wrong etc…I have to be honest, when I was a young student I would never consider myself done with a piece unless it was perfect. It is with age I’ve stressed out less about perfection and enjoyed playing more.

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  • Jill

    Wonderful. 80% vs. 20%. As an opera singer, for me, the correct notes (and rhythm and words) had to come first. One can sing through music with great feeling, but if you are ignoring what the composer put on the page, you are forming bad habits which will have to be corrected later. Thank you for this way of looking as things, Anne!

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  • Karen DeBraal

    I have spent too much time with that last 20%.

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  • Rose

    These words are Re-invigourating for me…I’ve been shrinking from taking some steps forward & feeling confident in my harp playing recently, since attempting some new pieces.
    These shared thoughts give me the momentum and boost to overcome my inner-critic & let the growth continue 🙂
    Rose 😍

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  • Rob Stone

    When I improvise on my saxophone, in a jazz group, I have to rely not on perfection, but the “outline” of the piece and my reflexes. It’s going by so fast or there are other musicians I’m performing with(so don’t think about stopping), it’s too late to think what I am doing, but I need to “react, to make adjustments, to get into the flow or jell with everyone. Once you start to “jell” as a group or as an individual playing a solo, you might get this sensation that Bach described as “the instrument playing itself”. I like to think of it as momentum, like catching a wave that brings you effortlessly to shore!

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