To Stop or not to Stop? Practicing for Continuity

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Traffic lightI remember when I was young playing the game “Red Light, Green Light.”  It’s a simple game; other people call it “Statues.” Everyone is allowed to move around however they want, until the leader calls, “Red light!” Then they have to freeze and not move until the leader calls, “Green light!” The leader tries to time the calls to confuse the others so that they move when they’re not supposed to, and are eliminated from the game. The confusion is part of the game.

But music lessons aren’t supposed to be confusing. Your teacher’s instruction is supposed to be clear and consistent, not switching back and forth. No “red light, green light.”

But last week, as I was teaching, I found myself doing exactly that. In the course of a single lesson, I admonished my student twice, once for not stopping to fix a mistake and another time because she stopped to fix a mistake.

As I heard myself tell her not to stop, after I had just told her to stop and fix a mistake earlier in the lesson, I realized that this was a teaching moment I needed to explore with her. I needed to explain why my two seemingly conflicting instructions were not really in conflict, but represented the appropriate practice techniques for two different problems.

To say it more simply, there are times when you ought to stop and fix mistakes and there are times when you shouldn’t. The trick is in knowing the difference.


There are two parts to music study: practice and performance. Many music students mistakenly believe that they are the same thing, that good practice naturally leads to good performance. This is true ONLY when your practice includes working on both the details and the big picture. You need to be focusing on the little”nitty-gritty” things essential to playing the music like correct notes, fingering, rhythms, dynamics, etc. And you also need to be practicing the larger musical landscape that those details create, and preparing yourself in your practice to communicate that landscape in a musically cohesive way.

Preparing, or practicing, music in those two ways requires two different practice approaches. And this is where my good advice to my student looked more inconsistent than it was. When you are practicing those musical details, it is necessary to stop and correct mistakes. When you are practicing the big picture, the whole piece, you must not stop to fix the mistakes, but practice playing through the errors, the same way you need to in a “real” performance.

You are practicing for the details when you are first learning a piece, or when you need to correct or improve things like the notes and fingering, or dynamics and phrasing. There may be problem spots that need extra work, or technical issues like clarity and evenness to resolve. These things require focused repetition. Stop and fix it!

Big picture practice, or “Continuity” practice,  develops skills like overall pacing of tempo and dynamics throughout the piece. You must also learn to pace your own mental and physical stamina so that you reach the end with energy to spare.  And of course, you will practice ignoring the errors that you make as you are playing. In other words, don’t stop – keep going!

Does that clear up the confusion?

Practicing for Continuity is something many musicians fail to do and it makes ALL the difference in performance. In my webinar this month, I will be sharing my F.I.R.S.T. to Last System which will show you exactly what you need to be doing to strengthen this area. If you have ever struggled to “keep going” in performance, or you just want help getting from the beginning to the end of the pieces you play, don’t miss this webinar, Tuesday, June 16th at 8:00 pm Eastern time. Register now, and get access to the replay and the PDF training guide.  (Ps. If you are a Harpmastery subscriber, you are automatically registered!) 

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  • rob stone

    If you can play a piece of well written music from beginning to end, you can get a similar sensation that the composer obtained- that is, having a journey from start to finish and experience the myriad emotions of human nature while performing it. This is then, an “experience”, that you can then “share” with listeners. This is what I believe motivates musicians. To continually have these great experiences, sometimes as soloists, or with a group. The act of creation is a building process, which we know is shared by all living things. We start out the process learning the composer’s intentions. Is it a sad or a happy piece? Is it perhaps based on a dance form? Does it have rhythmic challenges or melodic ones? The process of re-creating these moods is a challenge and if we have pride, we want our finished piece to be sharply delineated, precisely performed, with no mistakes, with real emotion, while presenting it to others, as well as ourselves. This requires dedication, over the course of our lives, to remain focused on why we perform music! The reward is in the experience!


  • Candace Larl

    I am definitely guilty of the same “red light green light” teaching at timea. This help me explain to my students why.


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