On Teaching

October 1, 2014

Keeping It Going I

This month and next I shall muse in some detail about one transcendentally important aspect of practicing and some related matters. I say “muse” because this is largely about the psychology of the student and the teacher’s role in helping the student to do something important but difficult. Therefore, the question of how to work on it is unusually open-ended. I have been consolidating my own thoughts about it, and in so doing I have increasingly realized that the psychological and motivational dimensions are key, though there are also technical sides of it that need to be thought through. 

This aspect of practicing is keeping the playing going through any wrong notes or other problems or distractions. I have alluded to this in columns before, and it is something that is, stated simply, rather obviously necessary and good. However, continuing to play during practice (as opposed to performance, where it is also crucially important, but routinely recognized and considered obvious) seems to me to be of such great importance that I am tempted to describe it as being the most important thing about practicing—or the aspect of practicing that adds the most probability that the practicing will be effective. It is also not intuitively obvious to students that this makes a difference, and it is rather hard to do. I want to explore the reasons for this and to suggest strategies for helping students get comfortable implementing it. Not every student has a problem with this, so what I am writing applies to working with those who do.


Why this matters

The logical place to start is with a review of why and how this matters. First, although I mention “other problems or distractions” above, what I am really concerned with—the thing that has the potential to disrupt efficient learning—is the tendency to stop or hesitate upon perceiving a wrong note. Other distractions can be a problem, but they are easier to learn to ignore. In fact, as I will discuss next month, the ability to ignore other distractions can be cultivated as a help in learning to ignore one’s own wrong notes or other directly playing-related distractions. 

I want to start with some background. What is a wrong note? Why are we (and especially people who are learning or who are not yet secure about their abilities) so preoccupied with them? A wrong note is a note the pitch of which is wrong—different from what the printed music told us to play. (With keyboard instruments, we achieve this by pressing the wrong key—the matter of the pitch is categorical, no fudging.) Putting it this way is meant to highlight the following: that rhythm, sonority, timing, articulation, the role of the note in phrasing or the flow of a melody or the rhetoric of a passage can all be in place even if the “note” (pitch) is wrong. 

I recall my father telling me, a long time ago, probably when I was in high school, that Louis Armstrong—a hero of his—had once said “Play your wrong notes louder than your right notes.” To be honest, my attempts to do research about this have failed to find that quote or anything like it, from Armstrong or from anyone else who has come to the attention of search engines. At the time that I first heard it from my father, I assumed that it was a joke or meant to be sort of paradoxical or silly. Now I believe that it is quite serious, and should be taken to mean that if a note is “wrong” in some respect, probably pitch, but you are especially emphatic about making everything else about that note right, then the overall effect of that note can be surprisingly successful in spite of its “wrong”-ness. Indeed, it suggests that the main problem with wrong notes is that they induce timid, apologetic, or rhythmically inaccurate playing, not that they are themselves wrong. I think that this is extremely important, regardless of where that quote did or didn’t actually originate. Of course this is specifically  about the rhetoric of performance, not about practice.

The fact that a “wrong note” can be defined, detected, and measured is at least one principal reason that we as players (and perhaps as listeners) and our students place a strong value on them—albeit a negative one. If you play a piece and make no wrong notes, or three, or seven, or two hundred, then anyone can describe what was good or bad about the piece as to its wrong notes. Nothing else about performance, except tempo, can be measured as precisely. (And students are much less inclined to stop and go back because they hear their  articulation depart a little bit from what they intended, or that a mixture blends less well in the tenor register than they would like it to, or something else, than because they hear a wrong note. This kind of stopping happens, but it doesn’t happen very often.) 

It is probably this clarity that makes a wrong note during practice or during the moment when a student is playing a piece for the teacher so intrusive to the student’s concentration. Everything else is debatable; wrong notes are there on display. 

The main reasons that students give for stopping or hesitating at wrong notes are as follows:

1) I want you, the teacher, to know that I knew that that was wrong. Otherwise it’s  embarrassing.

2) The passage sounds better with the right notes (which it almost certainly does, of course) and I can’t stand not to hear it that way. 

3) I have just practiced it wrong, and I have to cancel out the negative effect of that by practicing it right, right away.

4) I actually can’t get to the next note correctly, because, as a consequence of    having played a wrong note, I am in the wrong position, or:

5) I simply don’t know where I am on the keyboard.

6) If I try to keep going I will make a string of further wrong notes. These are inexcusable, because I am making them knowingly.

And, not as a reason but as a sort of justification:

7) Of course I wouldn’t do that in a performance, but this is just a lesson run-through (or just practicing).

Each of these is inappropriate, though they are all psychologically very natural. Numbers 4, 5, and 7 are real technical points with which a teacher can help; the others are mental matters with which, I think, the teacher can also help.

First, as a matter of understanding and motivation, it is important to establish for a student why keeping the playing going is a good idea, or indeed a crucial practice. Part of this that is circular and experiential: it is a good idea because it makes practicing work better; if you start approaching your practicing and playing this way, you will learn your pieces more solidly and more quickly become a skillful and comfortable player. In other words, one practical effect of following this approach for long enough for it to start making a difference should be to convince the student that this approach is good. However, this is a sort of cart-before-the-horse motivation. It really amounts to saying “do this because I say to, and you’ll see later that it was a good idea.” There is often an element of this in teaching and learning, and that’s OK, but I wouldn’t want to rely on it too strongly.

The main way in which stopping on wrong notes and going back to repair them damages learning is that it takes focus away from what is coming up next. Some of the student’s concentration is always back on the last note, or the one before that, monitoring those notes for whether they were right or wrong, calculating whether or not to stop. This is not a small matter. I would say that for many students, more than half of their total attention at any given time is back on the last few notes of the passage. This can be enough that the student in effect just isn’t paying attention to the next bit: the bit that he or she should now be playing. Sometimes this is reflected in a student’s being unable to tell you what the next note was supposed to be. You can experiment with this: the next time that a student stops to go back to a wrong note (or hesitates substantially, or seems to be stopping to worry about a note that was just almost wrong), ask what the next note was supposed to be. The chances are the student won’t know. This can be a pretty compelling experience for the student. 


Focus and concentration

The notion that playing—practicing—requires full and genuine concentration is clear and convincing (in theory) to everyone. In fact, this is a sort of paradox that can be exploited fruitfully: students who are the most worried about and preoccupied with wrong notes are also likely to be those who are most convinced that what they are trying to do is hard and requires intense—even unrealistically intense—concentration. Simply pointing out and asking a student to notice and monitor how much focus is explicitly trained on what happened last and therefore lost to what should happen next can be powerful. Playing a passage with the conscious thought that “I am going to keep my eyes and mind focused on what is next” can feel very different from what the student is used to. It can feel dangerous, in a sense, as though walking a tight-rope. But it can also be liberating. (Of course, as an explicit thought held onto while playing, it is also potentially a distraction, so the hope is that it will become second nature.)

One way of describing the ideal location in time of a player’s focus is this: by the time the sound waves from the last notes have reached your ears, you are already so focused on what comes next that it would be impossible even to notice what happened with that last note. This is an exaggeration, of course, but still a useful image. There is also a good cautionary tale to be told. I have experienced more than one instance of a student’s stopping immediately after a note that was entirely correct because he or she had been expecting that note to be wrong, and had been in effect self-programmed to stop at that point. There can have been essentially no concentration on the next notes and on keeping the passage going.

A student who is convinced by this as a proposition will probably start to do it more of the time, and thus also begin to be convinced by the results. However, it is still important to deal with the specific concerns. This is some of what I say to a student about those concerns:

1) I will assume that you know that a wrong note was wrong, and in any case we can and will talk about it afterwards.

2) If you can’t stand to miss out on hearing a passage correctly, use that to motivate yourself to play as carefully and with as much attention as possible, so as to maximize the chance that you will hear yourself actually play it correctly. In fact, the sequence of making a wrong note, stopping, and playing a truncated version of what would have been correct is not the right thing anyway. 

3) For purposes of technical practicing, the wrong note–stop–play correct sequence is useless. The only way to counteract a passage that was off in some respect is to finish the passage and then, in an orderly way, practice it again. Practicing getting a note right must involve coming to that note from the place before it, where you would naturally be.

4) This is indeed a tricky one. If you have just played a wrong note, then the act of getting to the next note is different from what it should have been. On the other hand, it is actually impossible for it to be impossible. You may have to allow yourself to go on making wrong notes for a while, while you try to get back on track. You may very well have to change articulation and phrasing on the fly. If at all possible, try to judge by ear what the physical relationship is between the note that you should have played and the note that you actually heard yourself play and adjust accordingly. In a pinch, however, this is one situation in which glancing down at the hands can be the best solution. This should be done briefly—fleetingly—with proper attention to staying oriented on the printed music. 

5) If you feel completely at a loss as to where you are on the keyboard, then you  should certainly try to solve this by judicious looking. It is in general a good  idea not to look at the keyboard very much, and certainly not to become dependent on that for finding notes. However, in this case, it is clearly better than concluding that you have to stop.

6) As in #4 above, it is actually better to go on making a string of wrong notes than  to allow a wrong note to cause you to stop. It is actually a good practicing habit  in this situation to play any notes in the correct rhythm, keeping track of where you are supposed to be in the music, until you find a way back to the correct notes. In particular, this is much better than letting the initial wrong note derail you.

7) If you don’t practice keeping it going, you will not be able to keep it  going reliably in “real” performance!


To be continued . . . 

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