Self-evaluation and the keys to thoughtful practice

1. Practice within your scope of ability

In the words of Robert Schumann, “Endeavour to play easy pieces well and with elegance; that is better than to play difficult pieces badly.” In other words, know your limits and keep within them. You may want to learn the Mephisto Waltz, but if you are not technically, physically or intellectually ready for it, you will feel frustrated.

2. Record and film yourself.

Recording and filming practice and performance is a crucial tool in evaluating how we are progressing. Our music sounds different when heard away from the piano. Never listen to a recording as soon as you’ve made it: wait a few days and then listen. Be positively critical and assess what you like and dislike about your performance. Make notes on your recording in your score or practice diary, away from the piano.

Don’t just listen once. Use repeated listenings to evaluate aspects such as rhythm, intonation, tone quality, expression, dynamic range.

A video is helpful for checking posture (in particular stiff or raised shoulders), gestures and mannerisms, grimacing/smiling, and stage presence.

3. E is for Excellence

When we practice, whatever we are practising, we should aim for ease, expressiveness, accuracy, rhythmic vitality, beautiful tone quality, focused attention. Do not play forcefully through difficult passages or at a tempo which is beyond us.

4. Mistakes are helpful!

Errors highlight gaps in our preparation, providing crucial feedback. Remember – there is a ‘perfect wrong note’! Isolate the problems, understand why they happened, and strive to solve them so they do not occur again.

5. Ask others for feedback

The views of teachers, mentors, colleagues and friends are all useful. Get into the habit of playing for others and actively seek their feedback. What did they like or dislike about the performance? We should ask others to critique not just our playing but also programme notes, concert attire, stagecraft and presentation skills. Take on board all comments and do not be perturbed by negative feedback; rather, use it positively to improve the performance.

6. Don’t cloud the vision

Most of us engage in music because we care passionately about it and love what we do. However, when evaluating our work, it is important to retain a degree of detachment, to stand back from the music and view it dispassionately, as if reviewing someone else’s performance.

Consider what you liked and disliked about this or that phrase, the ornamentation, dynamic colour, expressiveness, phrasing, use of rubato, etc.