My students don’t believe me when I tell them there is a book called The Perfect Wrong Note. Nor do they believe me when I tell them that mistakes are good, that mistakes make us better musicians.

The desire for perfectionism is all around us in our modern society, from the need to produce a perfectly cut and edited film or CD, to the pressure to achieve the “perfect body” (whatever that is!). Very young children are immune to this pressure: they learn from mistakes, often made during play, and by doing so gain a huge amount of knowledge about the world around them before they have stepped foot inside a school environment. But from the moment they are in school, they are encouraged not to make mistakes, and through the demands placed upon them by teachers, peers and parents, they develop a certain moral judgement and become self-critical. They learn that not making mistakes wins praise, while making mistakes results in disapproval.

Being a musician, particularly a professional musician, is highly demanding, and the training required is extremely rigorous. Music students strive for mastery and perfection in their playing, because they know that being well-qualified in this respect will earn them merit and recognition, from teachers, peers, audiences and critics. As musicians, and teachers of musicians, it is important that we set ourselves high standards, but constantly striving for perfection can promote false or impossible standards.

As pianist and teacher Charlotte Tomlinson says in her excellent book Music from the Inside Out, people frequently – and wrongly – equate perfection with excellence. While perfectionism is negative and damaging, excellence is achievable and positive.

When I’m teaching students, and when I’m practising myself, I never see a wrong note as a mistake. Wrong notes and mistakes are instructive – and we can always learn from them. When an error occurs, we need to ask ourselves some key questions:

  • Do I know where the mistake happened?
  • Do I know why the mistake happened?
  • Do I know how to put the mistake right so it doesn’t happen again?

All mistakes happen for a reason and it’s important that we understand why a mistake happened and what we can do to prevent it re-occurring. Sometimes it may be something quite simple like a poor or awkward fingering scheme; but sometimes mistakes, particularly those that recur in the same places, may be the sign of a more deep-seated issue, technical, physical or psychological.

When students come to lessons with me, many of them play their pieces with slips and errors – and many of them stop to correct these errors, despite my saying “keep going!”. I try to encourage students to “play through”, to keep the flow of the piece going by not stopping to correct each and every mistake. Look at any exam report, for whatever grade, and you will see that “flow”, or rather lack of flow, is a constant gripe of music examiners. Constantly stopping to correct mistakes becomes ingrained in the muscle memory to the point where one will always stop at the same point, even if the mistake is no longer there.  I worry when students play blindly, not taking notice of what they are doing, not listening, because this is when mistakes get overlooked, and keep cropping up, week after week. Mistakes such as these are hard to correct and need careful, detailed practising to put right. Mistakes made from poor conception and understanding, lack of preparation or careless practising need consistent work to put them right. But mistakes made from off the cuff inspiration and insight can be wonderful and exciting.

Mistakes show we are human, and fallible, that it’s ok to have an off day when your playing and practising may not go as well as usual. Giving ourselves permission to make mistakes allows us to be fulfilled by our music and to feel positive about our practising. A willingness to make mistakes teaches us to be self-critical, but in a positive, productive way.

An excellent performance may not be a perfect performance – but the excellent performance will almost certainly be the one which conveys the meaning and emotion of the music, which tells the story, communicates with the audience and allows the listener to be carried away by the music, to the point that the performer almost becomes invisible. Some of the greatest pianists of all time made visible mistakes in their performances – Liszt, Anton Rubinstein, Paderewski, Cortot, Hofman, Moiseiwitsch, Horowitz, Richter, Gilels – but these people remain piano legends because of the beauty of their playing, their insight and communication, and interpretative skills. I have been to concerts by some of the top professional pianists in the world and have heard mistakes – split notes, a smeared run, a missed chord. I’ve even been party to a few memory lapses on occasion. Did these spoil the concert experience as a whole? Of course not, because the performer played with conviction, emotion, musical understanding, passion.

We need to learn how to free ourselves from the tyranny of perfectionism to become more fluent, confident, convincing and expressive musicians. We should strive for the “ideal” not the “perfect” version in our music. And as Charlotte Tomlinson says in Chapter 3 of her book, sometimes we just need a “f**k it switch”, to free us from stress and allow us to stand back and see the bigger picture.

Further reading:

Music from the Inside Out – Charlotte Tomlinson

The Perfect Wrong Note – William Westney

The Inner Game of Music – Barry Green

The Musician’s Way – Gerald Kilckstein

This article originally appeared on my sister blog Frances Wilson’s Piano Studio.

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.

I am posting a link to pianist Alisdair Hogarth’s excellent recent blog article in which he discusses concert preparation and overcoming performance anxiety. The article contains much useful food for thought, for both professional and amateur musicians, who may be preparing for a concert, exam or similar performance experience.

The title of Alisdair’s post comes from Barry Green’s acclaimed book The Inner Game of Music, in which the author offers helpful strategies, drawn from tennis coaching, to apply the “inner game” to learning and performing music.

Alisdair will feature in a forthcoming Meet the Artist interview.

The Inner Game of Music

“The more I play, the more I am convinced the pedal is the soul of the pianoforte!”

Arthur Rubinstein

“….abusing the pedal is only a means of covering up a lack of technique, and that making a lot of noise is a way to drown the music you’re slaughtering!”

Claude Debussy

Piano dampers and strings

Pedaling is an aspect of piano technique which is frequently misunderstood and abused. Ask a junior student what the right hand pedal is for and they will invariably reply “to make the piano louder”. The right hand pedal is often wrongly called “the loud pedal”, or is regarded as an “on-off switch”, which shows a complete lack of understanding of the purpose and uses of the “sustain” or “damper” pedal. Pedaling is hard to do well, and I regularly come across instances of sloppy, lazy or misjudged pedaling when I am reviewing at professional concerts.

The sustain pedal has two principal purposes:

1. Allowing the sound to continue even after we release the keys;

2. Changing the timbre of the sound, making it deeper, warmer, more intense, more ‘alive’.

In order to pedal well, it is important to understand what is happening, mechanically, inside the piano, and to engage the ears so that they are alert to all the subtle sounds and variations the pedal can produce. When the pedal is depressed, all the dampers are lifted off the strings so that they can continue to vibrate and sound after a note on the keyboard has been released. The effect of the vibrations is to create a fuller, warmer and more intense sound. When I demonstrate this to students, I play a C-major chord without the pedal, and then play the chord again with the pedal. A student who is listening carefully will notice the cloud or “bloom” of sound which seems to rise from the piano (as opposed to just saying “it sounds louder”). This bloom of sound is the result of ‘sympathetic vibrations’, and will mostly be pitches related to the principal note. Since the resonance of the entire instrument is called into play when the dampers are lifted off the strings, the chief effect of the damper pedal is a change in the sound quality of the piano. And this, I think, is the key point to remember – that the damper pedal is about quality of sound, rather than volume of sound

The point when the pedal is depressed can have a particular effect on the sound of the piano. For example, when the pedal is depressed before the note is struck, all strings are available to resonate, and the sound will have a richness from the beginning. While it is held down, the pedal accumulates sound with each additional note struck. This property can be used to create or enhance a crescendo, particularly in a context of more rapid notes where little pedal is being used. Conversely, by lifting the pedal slowly, there is a gradual decrease in the sound, which creates a diminuendo.

There are also degrees of pedal, such as half, quarter or even eighth pedal. This technique of pedaling is particularly useful in Mozart, or during runs and passagework, where it gives substance to the tone without blurring the sounds. For example, in Schubert’s E flat Impromptu from the D899 set, I use one-eighth pedal throughout the rapid triplet runs to provide depth without losing clarity: we want to hear every single note, but we don’t want the music to sound too dry.

Every piano is different and so it is important to experiment – and listen carefully: special colours and immediacy of effect can be achieved by synchronising pedal changes with finger attack, while pedaling before playing can soften the opening of a phrase. Pedal use is also determined by the size and location of the instrument.

Experienced pianists use the pedal instinctively. I often get ticked off by cheeky students for pedaling music which has no pedal markings. This usually prompts a discussion on the use of the pedal to create certain effects, and how pedal markings are written into the score. Good pedal technique is based on experience, careful listening, and thoughtful practice.

Legato pedal

Legato pedaling, in its simplest form, is the act of joining two otherwise unconnected notes or chords together. Logically this can only happen when the sound of the first note/chord stops and the sound of the second note/chord begins at the same time. To achieve this, the pedal must come up exactly at the point at which the next chord sounds. Where it then goes down is a matter of judgement to do with the type of musical context or the effect desired, speed of the passage etc.

Here is a simple but effective exercise, easily comprehensible for junior piano students, to practice good legato pedaling.

Practice this exercise by depressing the pedal on the 2nd beat of each bar and bringing it up exactly on the downbeat of the next new chord. Legato pedaling makes use of coordination opposites: in other words, the foot releases the pedal exactly when the hand goes down. The pedal then goes down again without being snatched and rushed at some point after the first beat.

(source: E-MusicMaestro)

And how not to do it:

(source: E-MusicMaestro)

Download the complete legato pedalling exercise

Pedal markings

Ped and * marks are often placed inaccurately, which can make interpretation of the composer’s intentions regarding pedaling confusing. For example, the Ped…….* pedal markings in Chopin are often misleading, and should not be interpreted literally: it is more likely that Chopin intended continuous use of the sustain pedal, and that this type of pedal marking would be more accurate: __/\_/\__ (etc.).

It is said that Chopin “used the pedals with marvelous discretion,” (Auguste Marmontel, Debussy’s teacher and a former student of Chopin), and Chopin himself declared that “The correct employment of the pedal remains a study for life.”

When writing a legato pedaling scheme onto music for both my students and myself, I tend to use this marking __/\_/\__, rather than the more traditional Ped…….*, simply because it’s clearer, the “peaks” indicating when the pedal should be lifted and depressed.

Direct, finger and “dirty” pedalling

Direct pedaling is where the pedal goes down exactly as the hands do. The style of the music will influence how the pedal is used: for example,  in classical repertoire, a direct pedal, corresponding with the hands, can often be applied to two-note slurs, sfzorzandi, and cadential chords without distorting articulation and phrasing. “Finger pedaling” should be considered with Alberti bass figures.

“Dirty” pedaling requires acute listening skills and is appropriate when a more misty sound and colour are desired, or when the texture needs to be thinned out gradually. Lift the pedal very slowly. I have found this technique particularly useful in Liszt when the composer designates a smorzando with a diminuendo.

Debussy and the sustain pedal

Pedaling was – and is! – very important in the playing of Debussy’s piano music, though Debussy almost never marked pedaling on the score. Where he does, it should be observed carefully. Too many pianists, professional and amateur, believe that the pedal in Debussy is used to create the famous “impressionistic blur” so often associated with his music. In fact, “he wanted the pedal used in long harmonic strokes, without breaks or confusion. Occasionally he allowed the pedal to encroach a tiny fraction from one harmony into the next………….. In any case, the blur should be used only for special effects, and with utmost discretion.” [Nichols]

Debussy’s works often imply the use of pedal, because he writes bass notes that cannot be sustained without the help of the pedal. At the same time there are often chord changes that require the pedal to be lifted in order to avoid blurring. Techniques such as half-pedal and “dirty” pedal can be used to create satisfying effects in his piano music.

by Madelaine Jones

We all know the feeling – you’re sat on the stool, anxious before a first rehearsal with a singer. Doubtless you’ll have practised the piece, sorted the fingerings, and on meeting the culprit of your hours of toil, you’ll find them to be a perfectly human, ordinary musical being with whom you can get on splendidly, and the rehearsal will go swimmingly. That is, before the seven words that would send a shiver of dread down any aspiring pianist’s spine: “Can you put that down a tone?”

Indeed, transposition is rapidly becoming the Atlantis of pianism, with seemingly very few pianists left in the musical stratosphere that have a grip on the elusive art – and to those who think I am preaching, I am most certainly not one of the few. Last summer, I decided to sit a diploma in accompaniment in which one of the requirements was sight-transposition, and I can honestly say I have never been so thoroughly vexed over such a small component of an exam before. On the day, after preparing for months with a hymn book at the recommendation of a teacher (six hymns up and down a tone every day – healthy work but proved to be a winner in the end), I found it was nowhere near as bad as I’d dreaded. I’m certainly no master transposer, and I wouldn’t dream of doing so in front of another human being again, but with significant practice and preparation, it was no more difficult to learn than any other piano skill I’ve acquired.

So why on earth are we so scared of it?

It seems to me that there is an obvious answer, staring us in the face: unfamiliarity. How many of our teachers drilled scales into us as a child? I’m guessing practically all of them. Sight-reading? The vast majority (and how thankful we are, even if we hated it at the time!). Transposition? I expect not a single hand in the room will have gone up.

I am not launching a tirade against teachers, since they already bear the blame for far too many things as it is; given such a small amount of contact time, teachers simply cannot cover all the bases, and something which does not feature on exam syllabuses or even yet exist to a young learner given its ‘advanced skill’ status is understandably going to be swept under the rug. But why is this considered such a niche skill in the first place, and why are exam boards not bringing this in at a far earlier stage than diploma level?  Why are we not encouraging young children to go away and try to transpose fragments of music? It improves knowledge of keys  – if you don’t know the scales and chords for the keys you’ve played in properly, you can’t possibly transpose into them. It improves memory – if you understand the relationship of the chords inside out, you’re far less likely to forget the notes than a learn-by-rote ‘A B C’ approach. It improves aural skills – transposition is, to a very high degree, dependent on aural awareness and the ability to hear and anticipate what is coming next.

To those of you who think I’m asking too much of young learners, try it. Give a young pupil a small fragment of melody, and then ask them to play it on a different note. Talk about the differences, any ‘black notes’ that may have appeared, and you will find they pick it up a lot more quickly and less painfully than you expect. What you’ve just taught someone is how to transpose on a very basic level. In fact, you do it all the time when you teach children to play scales. The problem, it seems to me, is that we’ve mystified transposition so much that people think it impossibly difficult, learners and teachers alike. Just as with any other skill, you have to start somewhere. If you pick a Chopin Etude you can barely play in the correct key and try to put it up or down a tritone, of course you’re going to struggle. If you take a simple hymn and move it to a related key, you’re going to find you make far better progress.

Naturally, with every other skill under the sun to practise, I doubt we (or our pupils) will now all fall to religiously practising our hymns in every key every day. But next time you’re frustrated with a piece and can’t understand the ins-and-outs of it properly, why not try popping it up or down a tone? If nothing else, it could become a neat party trick…

Madelaine Jones is currently a student at Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance, studying piano and harpsichord with Penelope Roskell and James Johnstone respectively. She was the winner of the Gladys Puttick Improvisation Competition 2012 with duo partner and dancer, Adam Russell. Her ensemble experience as a pianist has included working alongside the BBC Singers, the Medway Singers and the Walderslade Primary School Choir, and she has performed as a harpsichordist and chamber organist in the Greenwich International Early Music Festival alongside Trinity Laban’s various Early Music Ensembles. Madelaine is a previous recipient of an LCM London Music Schools and Teachers Award, and is also a keen writer in her spare time, reviewing for Bachtrack and posting on The Cross-Eyed Pianist blog. For more information, visit https://www.facebook.com/madelaineclarajones