Polishing a Piece - Eliminating Flubs

There are 5 things we want to accomplish when polishing a "finished" piece: ensure good memory, eliminate flubs, make music, further develop technique, and prepare for performances. The first step is to ensure memory and we saw in III.6 that the best way is to play the entire piece in your mind, away from the piano. This guarantees that the memory is practically infallible. If some parts are slightly shaky, you can work on them at any time, even away from the piano. Playing in the mind is the most secure memory because it is pure mental memory: it is not dependent on aural, tactile, or visual stimuli for assistance. It also eliminates most flubs because flubs originate in the brain. Let's look at a few common causes of flubs. Blackouts occur because of too much dependence on hand memory. Stuttering is a habit formed by stopping whenever you make a mistake while practicing HT without sufficient HS practice. You hit wrong notes because the hands are not always feeling the keys and you lose track of where the keys are. Missing notes result from lack of relaxation and inadvertent lifting of the hands -- a habit that is usually acquired from too much slow HT practice. We have discussed solutions that eliminate all these sources of mistakes. Finally, playing musically and bringing out the "color" of the composition is the ultimate task in polishing. You can't just play the notes accurately and expect music and color to magically appear -- you must actively create them in your mind before you play the notes. If the fingers can't reproduce these mental images, perhaps the piece is too difficult for you technically. You will develop technique much faster by practicing only pieces that you can completely polish up. However, don't give up too easily because the cause of the difficulty may not lie with you but with some other factor, such as the quality or condition of your piano. Listening to recordings is an excellent way to get ideas on musical play and color.

A large part of polishing is attention to detail. The best way to ensure correct expression is to go back to the music and review every expression mark, staccato, rest, notes that are held down, lifting of the finger or pedal, etc. These will give you the most accurate picture of the logical construct of the music that is needed to bring out the proper expressions. The weaknesses of each individual are different, and are often not evident to that individual. A person whose timing is off usually cannot hear the incorrect timing. This is where teachers play key roles in detecting these weaknesses.

Making music is probably the most important part of polishing a piece. Some teachers emphasize this point by saying that you use 10% of your time learning technique and 90% of the time learning to make music. Most students use over 90% of their time struggling with technique in the mistaken belief that practicing what you can't play will develop technique. This mistake arises from the intuitive logic that if you practice anything you can't play, you should eventually be able to play it. But this is true only for material that is within your skill level. For material that is too difficult, you never know what is going to happen, and frequently such an attempt will lead to irreversible problems -- typically, stress and permanent speed walls. For example, if you want to increase speed, the fastest way is to play easy pieces that you have polished and to speed up that play. Once your finger speed increases, then you are ready to play more difficult material at faster speed. Thus the polishing time is also the best time for technical development, and it can be a lot of fun.

Of course, experience is the final teacher -- without experience you cannot find out your strengths and weaknesses under performance conditions. This is the reason behind the statement that you can't really perform anything unless it had been performed at least three times. For those who have not had sufficient experience or for a new piece you had never performed before, snippet playing (playing parts of a composition) is the easiest way to get started, in preparation for a performance. With snippet performance, you can stop at a mistake, skip a section that you are not confident with, etc., and nobody will know whether you blacked out or just decided to stop. Prepare all kinds of stories to tell at such pauses in the playing, and you can easily execute a satisfactory snippet performance. Every student should make it a policy to make snippet performances at every opportunity. Whenever there is a group, wherever there is a piano, just sit down and play for others. The real world is irrational and people often act diametrically opposite to what they should be doing - most piano students will refuse to play informally even after some coaxing. What opportunities they are missing!

Inexperienced performers often play too fast for their skill level because of the increased level of nervousness. There should be a practice speed (actually a range of speeds) and a performance speed. The performance speed is slower than the typical practice speed. The slower speed is not necessarily easier and the performance preparation routines discussed in III.14 are designed to guard against difficulties arising from this slower play. Remember that the audience has not heard this piece innumerable times like you have during practice, and your final speed can be too fast for them. A piece played with careful attention to every note can sound faster than one played at a faster speed, but with indistinct notes.

Most pianists have a practice speed they use for preparing for performances. This is a moderate speed that is slightly slower than the performance speed. This speed allows for accurate practice without picking up unexpected bad habits and for creating a clear picture of the music in the mind. It also conditions the hand for playing with control at the faster performance speed and improves technique. The rationale for the two speeds is that, during a performance, it is easier to bring out the expression if you play slightly faster than what you just played. If you play the same composition twice in a row (or in the same day) the music comes out flat the second time unless you play it faster than the first time because the slower play sounds less exciting and this feeling starts a negative feedback cycle.

Another common problem is that students are always learning new pieces with no time to polish pieces. This happens mostly to students using the intuitive learning methods. It takes such a long time to learn each piece that there is no time to polish them before you have to start another piece. The solution, of course, is better learning methods. Regardless of learning methods, every student must be given the opportunity to polish their pieces because this is the only way that they will be able to perform and to accelerate the development of technique. No one can be expected to perform well without a performance preparation routine, which is discussed in section 14 below.