Sometimes I forget how many wonderful performances I have had in my life, but those performances where I made mistakes, those I never forget. Those are the ones I remember the most, and I have heard similar experiences from my own students.
If you want to learn how to teach piano students to play without mistakes, first, you need to understand how playing with mistakes can affect pianists and students alike. You need to understand the necessary process and the available teaching strategies you can use to teach students to play the piano without mistakes. These strategies include playing one hand at a time, not stopping, using reverse engineering, practice memorization, cleaning and improving technical skills, not making faces, starting with more accessible things, using the general to the particular approach, using games, making mental and written notes, practicing one section at a time, developing resilience, using metronome and recordings, practicing to make things permanent, recording your own practice, practicing at a slow tempo or at no tempo at all, simplify passages, increasing your batting average, writing detailed fingerings, practicing with eyes closed, using mental practice, not starting at the beginning of a piece every time, and playing for a public.
How does playing the piano with mistakes or wrong notes affect pianists and piano students?
Imagine that you or your student are playing in a piano recital or a concert with a large crowd. You are playing as you have never done before and suddenly, Fail! You press a key that you shouldn’t press and break the flow of the melody and the piece.
Instead of letting it go, the mistake makes you lose your rhythm and triggers a series of mistakes and even a memory lapse that leads to that wonderful night becoming the worst of your life.
While making a mistake can be terrible, worse for a teacher with years of experience, it’s actually not as bad as it sounds. There is no saying more accurate than saying that you learn from mistakes since making a mistake is generally an opportunity to improve.
No teacher wants to see their students have a bad experience caused by wrong notes.
Failure is painful. Yes, it is frustrating, exasperating, and can also be a low blow. Some people see a mistake as a sign of weakness. Although a mistake is a failure, it is also a learning opportunity since it offers the possibility of being better every day.
For some teachers, a mistake is an unacceptable situation, especially if we consider that this mistake can be replicated and even “considered normal” by students. That is why you are probably wondering how to teach piano students to play without mistakes or wrong notes.
It is essential to learn to accept mistakes, digest the feelings that a failure caused you, and use that impulse to be better. After all, it is possible to take those mistakes and turn them into strengths to become better pianists.
Playing with no mistakes is not the primary goal of creating music, but while you work on your interpretations, mistakes can actually get in the way of your playing.
Is it possible to play the piano without mistakes or wrong notes?
The short answer is yes, it is possible to play the piano without mistakes. Although, this is a process that takes practice.
I’ve had the privilege of watching Krystian Zimerman play in three different recitals in Kansas City. I could spend hours writing about his massive sonority, hypnotic performances, artistic musicality, and effortless technique. I could feel as if the audience was holding their breath throughout the entire performance in each recital. He really is such a hypnotic performer. I’ve only had a similar experience when I heard Evgeny Kissin play a recital in my hometown of Monterrey, Mexico. That was the only time Kissin has ever been to Mexico. I eventually got to hear him again in a recital also in Kansas City.
I have not been able to forget the time when Zimerman played Chopin’s Fantasy in F minor. If you are familiar with the piece, you will remember that it begins with an octave on the note F. On that occasion, Zimerman played the interval of a 7th instead of an octave. I felt a great sense of relief at that moment. If he could make that sort of mistake, then I was also allowed to make mistakes.
I was working on my master’s degree during that time, and I always felt so much pressure on giving note-perfect recitals. Hearing Zimerman making a mistake did not mean that I was allowed to become a sloppy player. It only meant that it was okay to feel guilty when I played wrong notes. It was not the end of the world.
I remember the great Sviatoslav Richter said in an interview that his teacher, Heinrich Neuhaus, once gave a Schumann recital. In the beginning, he played “like a pig,” Richter said, with wrong notes on every bar. Then a major transformation with the rest of the recital.
Am I saying that we should be complacent with wrong notes? Absolutely not. Are we allowed to play wrong notes without feeling guilty during a recital? You bet. Should we strive for perfection when we practice and during piano recitals? You’d better.
Just as Rome was not founded in a day, achieving perfect playing with an error rate of less than 0.0001% is not achieved overnight. It comes down to three words: Practice, practice, and practice.
To be able to play the piano without wrong notes or memory lapses and teach it to your students, you must refine your listening skills and technique, improve your mental agility, and, above all, have strength. A mistake can be a hard blow when you are not ready to face it. The best teachers accept mistakes, move on, and then analyze and correct.
The following 25 strategies will make the process of teaching your students to play the piano without mistakes or wrong notes a lot easier. A lot of these strategies are recommended by many other experienced teachers.
The 25 best strategies to play piano without mistakes.
1) One hand, then the other one
Many teachers make a widespread mistake by wanting their students to learn every piece with both hands simultaneously from the very start. A great way to teach piano students to play without mistakes is to start with one hand at a time.
Work on your skilled hand, focus, and perfect your notes. Then move on to your less-skilled hand and repeat the process. Once both hands have enough experience and skill, join both hands slowly and practice a lot.
Many Suzuki piano teachers make their students learn the entire book 1, but only the right hand. Once the student learns all the pieces, they will learn and integrate the left hand. If you are familiar with the Suzuki method, you know I am actually saying that the student will memorize the entire book without reading the notes. Students are usually introduced to music notation at a later time. This is a great way of developing auditory. Nowadays, you can find similar approaches in the Piano Safari and Music Moves methods.
If you are not familiar with rote teaching or teaching by imitation, you can read this article.
2) Don’t stop! Keep Going!
Music is comprised of many parts such as rhythm, notes, articulation, dynamics, and more. When you make a mistake and focus on it, you will lose concentration, which will lead to a memory lapse, miss beats, and tempo, miss more notes, miss articulations, etc. Do not stop. It is like slamming on the brakes of your vehicle on the highway! So, for no reason, do you slow down because your inspiration will go away, and you will lose the thread.
People won’t notice a missed note in a recital, but they will notice if you come to a complete stop or lose some beats. So, tell your students that if they play a wrong note, don’t stop. Keep going so as not to disrupt the flow of the piece.
3) Deconstruct your mistake
Suppose you are in a practice session playing your favorite piece and suddenly a mistake! You are wrong on a note. A good way to prevent future errors is to deconstruct said error, that is, to reverse engineer it to find out what led you to the wrong note.
Analyzing the rhythm, the score, and even its placement on the piano will help you know what caused you to make that mistake. Let’s say this strategy focuses on detecting the cause to prevent the error. Many teachers find this strategy complex and difficult as it is highly analytical, but it is also beneficial. Nowadays, it is very common to hear how reverse engineering can be more effective than always starting from the beginning of a piece.
4) Practice your memory
Inevitably, playing the piano involves having a good memory with the ability to go further. You must not only memorize rhythm, notes, and scores, but you must also have the ability to see what you are playing and what is coming in order to be prepared. Sometimes your memory might be visual, auditory, mental, or muscular.
Memorization exercises, mental agility, and brain gymnastics will improve cognitive capacity and faster-thinking speed. This applies to both teachers and students.
5) Clean and increase your technique
It goes without saying that having a clean and solid technique can make our lives better. For example, teaching our students to play major and minor scales, arpeggios, and chords can provide more spatial security. When a student is working on a piece, instead of seeing each note as an individual event, you can show how many things are actually fragments that came from a scale, an arpeggio, or a chord.
Mistakes are common when you or your students are playing pieces at the technical level of what you are capable of doing. Therefore, we should aim to have a higher level of technical ability than the required level found in the pieces we are working on.
In addition to working on scales, arpeggios, and chords, many pianists agree that playing baroque music is a good starting point for a clean sound. You can even teach students to just work on one hand at a time. We can thank Johann Sebastian Bach for giving us great pedagogical material. Depending on the student’s level, I would recommend being able to play at least 30% to 50% of the contents of the Anna Magdalena collection, the Little Preludes and Fugues, and the Inventions.
6) Do not make faces!
Being a piano teacher also means being an acting teacher. You don’t believe me? Imagine if one of the most famous pianists of our time, like Kissin, Argerich, or Arrau, after a mistake, made a face of failure, disappointment, or anger in the middle of the concert. They would lose the magic!
One of my young students once told me that his mom told him after a recital that if he hadn’t made “that face,” no one would have noticed his mistake.
Students sometimes don’t know how to act while they play the piano. It can be an awkward feeling during a recital. Therefore, I make my students practice while actually making faces. They make faces to represent that they are inspired, confident, angry, happy, sad, tired, excited, etc. We do this to create reference points, and I tell the students, “that’s the face you don’t want while you play this piece. Now, give me an inspired/motivated/energized face”. If the student doesn’t have a point of comparison, help him recreate various moods and feelings with his face while playing different pieces.
So, in addition to being a piano teacher, you will also have to be an acting teacher.
7) Easy things first
Since elementary school, this is one of the most basic yet effective strategies on how to teach piano students. Starting with the easiest makes the process more efficient.
Let’s say that of all the notes, 10 are difficult, and 20 are easy. Learning the easy ones will give you rhythm, help you gain experience, and improve your retention ability. Besides, you will make your time more efficient by concentrating on what you can and saving what requires more effort for last.
8) From the general to the particular
This method of deduction, general to particular, begins with practicing in interpretation mode. By practicing all the pieces like this, you will gain an overall feeling of rhythm, tempo, meter, and dynamics, learning the easiest and detecting your potential mistakes.
Once you have improved the basic rhythm and meter, you go on to practice in detail certain difficult pieces or passages that you previously detected. Finally, we go back to the interpretation mode, which allows us to reinforce what has been learned in the detailed practice. This is certainly a strategy you should follow when you are working on the overall interpretation.
9) The game of dice
Learning how to teach piano can also be a matter of games. A perfect example is the game of dice.
All you have to do is roll a pair of dice. The first die will indicate the piece to play while the other dice will indicate the number of times to repeat it. For example, if you drop 6/3, you will have to play piece number 6, 3 times. Make a list of pieces your student is playing and work on repetitions. Let the student roll the dice. Sometimes the mind and the muscles only need to put in the repetitions to solidify a piece. Turn those repetitions into a game.
10) Mental Notes
Returning to the example of a memory lapse in the middle of a piano concert or a lesson, you should never stop to verify the error. Rather, you should use this strategy which consists of using mental notes or “Post It.”
Make a mental note about the part where you played wrong notes or the notes you don’t know 100% and save it for when you finish practicing. This will help you identify the mistake and not overlook it but without missing a beat when playing. I recommend that, when you stop playing, you write down these mental notes on your sheet music, just in case. Record things that you can measure. Things that can be measured become things that you can control and improve.
11) One section at a time
Another fairly common mistake among teachers is wanting students to learn all sections of a score at once. By nature, our brain cannot process all information at once.
So, I recommend you go section by section or phrase by phrase. First, teach your students a section or a phrase. Practice it and then move on to the next one. In this way, they make the process much more efficient and accurate and avoid excess information, which can lead to mistakes due to lack of concentration.
12) Resilience and performance
You are playing a recital, and suddenly you miss a note! Ok, you have two options. The first is to defeat yourself and run off the stage with a face full of tears. The second is to keep your big smile on your face and continue with the concert.
As you teach your students how to play piano, you also need to develop strategies to instill in your students the ability to continue despite having a memory lapse. A good source of inspiration can be found in films of athletes where they continue to the finish line despite a slip or a blow. Appeal to the use of resilience and acting to show your students that, after a mistake, they should not stop and get up. They should just continue.
Have you seen those inspirational videos on YouTube where athletes show great resilience?
13) Metronome or recordings
Using a metronome or recordings of the piece will help you keep the beat when you are practicing. A good teacher must have a well-defined sense of rhythm to transmit this ability to his students.
Students will usually want to follow the metronome or the recording, which will make them continue despite the wrong notes so as not to lose the overall rhythm. This is how you can join two strategies, leaving mistakes for last and prioritizing the rhythm and pulse of the piece.
Many teachers and pianists do not like to practice with recordings because they are usually played at a regular performance tempo. That is not very helpful to a student who is just starting the piece. The good news is that nowadays, we have apps on our phones that can slow down a piece’s tempo without altering its pitch.
I have three apps I use with my students that allow me to slow down the tempo without altering a piece’s pitch. These apps are:
- The Amazing Slow Downer
14) Practice makes perfect
There is no truer saying than this. It applies both to teachers and students.
Practicing is the only way to become the best at whatever you do and avoid making mistakes that you have already made. Obviously, within a practice session, there are strategies, like those already mentioned, that help you make this process more efficient. Although take into account that perseverance is essential.
I will add a second component to the famous saying. Practice makes permanent, not just perfect.
15) Recordings of practice
For those with a good ear for music, recording practice sessions can be a good resource, especially to identify potential mistakes. The process is simple, place a microphone and a recorder. It can be your mobile or tablet. Just record your practice.
When you are done, listen carefully to each part to find out where the wrong notes are or where you hesitated. As if that were not enough, the recordings are also useful to improve your rhythm. How? Use strategy 13, metronome or recordings, and find out the excellent results these strategies can give you.
16) Use a pencil and make notes
You can make use of small pauses while you are playing. You play, and when you make a mistake, pause. I know this is contradictory to other strategies, but it works for some people. During these pauses, with the help of a pencil, you make notes or small reminders at that very moment. Just pause and immediately record the mistake.
This strategy is ideal for students who can pause the rhythm and resume it without problems or for those who have already mastered it to 100%. Also, making small notes is very useful when you decide to study your scores or practice. Keep in mind that this does not work for everyone.
17) Slow practice
It is common to get anxious when playing through difficult passages. Students can try to rush through a difficult part and start playing wrong notes.
Many people think that when we practice, we are always training our fingers. This is not always the case. Sometimes when we practice, we are not training our fingers at all. Instead, we are training our brains. I demonstrate this by telling the students to raise their hands and wiggle their fingers as fast as possible. Most people can do that without any problem.
A lot of the time we spend practicing is, in fact, time spent training our brains to think faster or in different ways, and also training our ears to listen in a way that we are not used to. Sometimes, it is not about the fingers. These different processes might require slow practice for a while.
18) No Rhythm. No Tempo
This is one of my most used strategies when I learn a new piece. Instead of trying to sight-read a piece with good rhythm at a slow tempo, I simply play the notes, either one hand at a time or hands together, at any rhythm and any tempo. The goal is just to play notes outside of time.
I tell my students I can play all the notes perfectly in any piece. I just don’t tell them that I can take whatever time I need between each note. My goal is to play the correct notes from the very beginning.
With my students, I turn this into a game. I tell them I want to hear the entire piece without any mistakes. The only rule is that if they make a mistake, they have to go back to the beginning of the piece. Students will immediately try to establish a tempo and a rhythm. They quickly stumble after a few notes or a few measures. I clarify once again that they can play any rhythm and any tempo. All they have to do is make one sound at a time. This is a great exercise because, from the start, the ears will listen to the correct notes regardless of the rhythm and the tempo. Once they get used to hearing the correct notes and are more comfortable with their fingerings and coordination of both hands, then the next step is to organize them in time.
This is the strategy I used to learn Rachmaninoff’s Concertos Nos. 2 and 3. My first goal was to play all the notes and write my fingerings without thinking about rhythm or tempo.
It is very common to play wrong notes when we feel overwhelmed with a complex passage. When this is the case, I simplify passages. I allow myself to remove notes. I look for the overall skeleton of a passage.
For example, if I am playing a waltz, I only play the right hand and the bass note on the left hand. I do not play the chords of the accompaniment. This allows me to focus on the right hand without worrying about the jumps required on the left hand. Then, I will play the right hand and only the chords on the left hand without playing the bass note. In this way, I make two simplified versions of the same passage. When I feel ready, I make the passage more complex by adding all the notes on the left hand as they were written.
I use a similar approach when I work on polyphonic pieces. I simplify passages in removing voices. When I am comfortable with different simplified versions of the same passage, I add the complexity of all the voices again.
20) Increase your Batting Average
Yes, in this section, I am talking about baseball. Playing the piano in a recital is like displaying the batting average of a baseball player. In baseball, the batting average is the number of hits divided by the number of at-bats. Well, in a performance, your batting average is the times you play a passage correctly divided by the total number of times you played that passage. The resulting percentage is your probability of playing that passage without mistakes. Let’s say you practice a passage 20 times, but you only played that passage 5 times without mistakes. Now, you are in a recital. What are the odds of playing that passage correctly? There is a 75% of probability that you will play that passage with wrong notes.
Your job is to increase your batting average. For this, use a timer.
You are not going to increase the batting average of the entire piece. You just need to increase it in those passages where you play wrong notes.
Set a timer for 2 minutes. Select a section in the piece that will give you about 5 – 15 seconds of playing material. When you are ready, put in the repetitions.
The most important thing about this strategy is that you should not let yourself go into autopilot. Each repetition must have the intention to do something better. Aim for better sound quality, or more technical efficiency, or physical ease.
You do not need to practice an entire piece like this. This strategy is only for focused practice on problematic passages.
Reading music and knowing all the names of the notes are great skills. However, you might discover that a problem with a passage could have nothing to do with the names of the notes. Wrong notes could be the result of bad or inconsistent fingering.
A lot of our playing or teaching repertoire comes with suggested fingering. Do not be afraid to write a fingering to every single note. There is nothing wrong with that. The main goal of taking piano lessons is not to be able to name every single note on the staff or to see who has the cleanest music score. Our main goal is to make music with our instrument. The music score is like a map. Writing fingerings is like planning a detailed route to the final destination. Go ahead and plan your detailed route on your map.
22) Eyes-closed practice
This practice strategy is mainly used after you have already memorized a piece. The goal is to improve your accuracy and become more confident as you play.
During my master’s degree, I remember my teacher was obsessed with making all the students play the piano without looking at the keys. We could look at the score, but we were not allowed to look at the keys. He even had a wooden board that he would place over the keyboard, and we would put our hands inside and play our pieces. The first benefit I received from this way of working is the fact that I developed better sight-reading skills. I eventually began to use this strategy with my memorized pieces, and it certainly gave me more confidence while performing.
The other advantage of this strategy is that students develop better auditory memory.
With this strategy, you really have to teach your students to feel the black keys. When I use this strategy with my young students, I first make them play short rote pieces using only the black keys. Being able to do this really enhances their sense of accomplishment and confidence.
23) Mental practice
Mental practice is a strategy that can be practiced with eyes opened or closed. I prefer doing it with my eyes closed.
Mental practice is just as it sounds. You practice this with your mind, not with your hands.
The goal is to visualize a passage, or an entire piece, completely in your mind. This is why I prefer doing it with my eyes closed. You can visualize one hand at a time or both.
I recommend placing both hands on a table. Close your eyes. Start running through the piece in your mind. Visualize the keyboard and your hands. Visualize your hand playing the correct white and black keys. Try doing it at a slow tempo. The purpose of this strategy is to be able to visualize yourself playing the entire piece. This is an excellent way of discovering weak spots in your memory.
24) Do not start at the beginning of a piece
There is a difference between practicing and performing. When you are performing, you are playing through the entire piece. Practicing includes dissecting motives, phrases, and sections.
Do not always start your practicing at the beginning of a piece. If you are going to start a practice session, try to identify the passages where you have the most wrong notes. Practice and review those passages first by using some of the strategies already mentioned. Then you can go on performing mode and play the entire piece.
25) Play for an audience, family, or friends
Many of us make mistakes simply because our nerves affect us when we play for a public. We spend so much time practicing alone, but when the time comes to play a piece in front of an audience, everything feels so different. Mistakes begin to appear. This is no surprise because the conditions we had during our practice session and a public performance are so different.
When you feel comfortable with a piece, it is time to play it in public so we know how the piece will react. Some things can only be done once you have an audience. You are in public, and you are “adrenalized.” It is a different experience, and you need to test the piece when there is a higher level of adrenaline in your body. Mistakes might appear in places you never expected before.
Sometimes all you need is to practice performing until you get used to it. You need to allow your brain and the rest of your body to learn the experience of playing the piano with higher levels of adrenaline. Don’t wait until a piece is perfect. Look for opportunities to play in front of others so that you train your body to be in a different state than the one you find while practicing alone.
We live in the age of social networks. Use them in your favor. Practice recording yourself on video, but only playing small passages. Then upload those passages to Instagram, TikTok, Snapchat, Twitter, or Facebook.
- Understand the fact that mistakes are a normal part of the learning process.
- Understand and explain the effects that playing the piano with mistakes can have on you and your students.
- It is possible to play and teach how to play the piano without mistakes.
- Remember that this is a process.
- Experiment with different practice strategies.
- Some strategies should be applied according to the student’s learning style.
- Always keep in mind that this process requires patience and perseverance.
- Strive for perfection during your practice sessions. During a performance, keep in mind that we are not perfect, and mistakes can happen.
Let me hear about your own thoughts and experiences with mistakes. Write a comment below.
What do you think is the main reason why people want to avoid playing without mistakes? What do you think is acceptable for your own playing? What about your students’ playing? How do you accept the fact that every once in a while, you or your students will make mistakes? What other strategies do you use with your students to teach them how to play piano without mistakes?
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