The Speed of No Mistakes

Piano practice. The one thing every piano teacher wishes their students would do, and the one thing that every piano student doesn’t want to do. But practice is important and necessary. After all, practice makes perfect, right? Well, I am here to tell you that practice does NOT make perfect. Perfect practice makes perfect.

“Sloppy practice ingrains mistakes that are seriously hard to get rid of later . . .It’s a bit like careless eating when you end up wearing your food – I don’t wish to contradict the detergent commercials, but those stubborn stains aren’t always so easy to shift." – Graham Fitch, Practising the Piano
If you continually practice something wrong, what are the chances that when you go to perform it you will magically play it right? I’ll tell you now, the odds are slim to none. “But what else can I do?” you might think. “I’m playing the piece at performance speed and trying my best! What else is there?” As any good piano teacher will tell you, you should NOT practice at performance speed UNLESS you can do it with NO MISTAKES. If you continually practice a mistake, you will make it when you go to perform. So how do you get rid of these mistakes? How do you get rid of your practice “stains”?

“The pianistic equivalent of baking soda to remove practice stains is slow, conscious work; but it is far better to avoid errors in the first place by spending some quality time during the note-learning stage at The Speed of No Mistakes. . . .I wish I had come up with this term, but it was in fact coined by my colleague Lucinda Mackworth-Young.  . . . 
Before I go on, I want to distinguish between accidental mistakes that happen in performance (and that might include a performance in a lesson situation), and mistakes that arise in our practice room from a careless and sloppy attitude. We are all human and therefore fallible, and because we are not robots errors are part of our story. Mistakes that happen when we perform or when we’re in the process of playing should not derail us . . . The kind of mistakes I am talking about may be unrecognized ones (we’re going so fast we can’t see, hear or feel them), or persistent errors where we haven’t bothered to stop to really figure out the notes in that chord – or to work out that awkward rhythm, or the passage where deep-down we know we have never really organized a workable fingering". - Graham Fitch, Practising the Piano
So what exactly counts as a mistake?

Some obvious answers:
-      Wrong notes
-      Wrong rhythms

If you aren’t playing the right notes, and you aren’t playing them to the correct rhythms, then are you even playing the song written? The obvious answer here is “no”. As one of the cardinal rules of piano playing at the very least you must get the correct notes and the correct rhythms.

However, there is much more to music than just correct notes and correct rhythms. A pianist who only gets correct notes and rhythms but doesn’t add any artistry or flare will be told they have “good technique”. And, just like in the fine art world, that isn’t a good thing. It is what is said when there is nothing else to compliment.

In order to make music that people call “moving”, “grand”, or “touching” there are several other things that need to be correct. Articulation, dynamics, and correct pedaling must also be added to correct notes and correct rhythm in order to make music “move”: in order to make music beautiful.

“So how does The Speed of No Mistakes work in our practice? Very simple! Choose a practice speed where it is not possible to make any errors at all (in a word, S – L – O – W – L – Y). We compute what we have to do before we do it, and focus all our attention on the task. We do it slowly enough that we can be fully confident that what we are going to play is going to be correct. If we can’t be sure, we don’t play it!  
The first phrase is taken by itself (or, if the work is especially difficult, even less than a complete phrase) and played so slowly that approximately three seconds might be counted between each successive note or chord… Students who have the necessary knowledge should reflect on the tonality and harmonic structure of the passage, noting modulations or characteristic features. Students who have not had an all-round musical education and lack of knowledge of harmony… can reflect on the chords and progressions even if they are not able to analyse their nature. At the same time one should watch every movement involved… (Tradition and Craft in Piano Playing by Tilly Fleischmann, p 21-22).
- Graham Fitch, Practising the Piano
 Three seconds per note is an awfully long time, but it is simply meant to make a point. This diagram from Practising the Piano is very helpful.

If you can work through that entire diagram for each note in less than three seconds, then, by all means, play faster! If you find that you are struggling at a certain speed, slow it down until things become easy for you.

“[We should] always keep checked in with our body. If we have played our phrase perfectly by all these criteria and yet our arms have been locked in tension, then perhaps we have made the biggest “mistake” of them all" - Graham Fitch, Practising the Piano

Playing the piano is so much more than just playing correct notes. There are so many things that need to work together simultaneously in order to produce beautiful and moving music. So the next time you are practicing the piano and find it a litter harder than you can handle, remember to slow it down and practice at the Speed of No Mistakes!


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