When was the last time you felt like you really finished a piece of music you were learning?
Look at the music on your stand right now. I’m guessing that somewhere in that stack is a piece of music that you've been playing for longer than you care to think about. It’s a piece you love and really want to play. You started it in a burst of energy and worked through challenge after challenge: figuring out the notes, securing the fingerings and working it up toward the proper tempo.
But somehow it is still in limbo. You can’t seem to get it past the “not quite ready for prime time” stage. You practice it and practice it some more, but it seems to have reached a point where it just isn’t getting any better. You feel caught in an endless loop. It’s your Groundhog Day that you are doomed to repeat forever.
Maybe it’s not just one piece. Maybe you have a drawer or a shelf that is piled with pieces you started and practiced diligently but never got to the finish stage. I can’t think of anything that is more discouraging to a musician. And unfortunately, for some musicians not finishing can become a nearly unbreakable pattern.
What moves a piece all the way to the finish line? Let’s start by admitting what you already know: the kind of practice you’re used to doing doesn’t do it. But that doesn’t mean that you have to give up. It simply means that you need to change your approach.
The final stage of learning a piece is expressly focused on finishing a piece, on developing the skills and fluency that are necessary to play the piece well, that is, with musicality, flow and confidence. This stage is less detail-oriented - focused on the right notes and fingerings - and more about the big picture. The practice you do in this stage is designed to ensure the expression and continuity that makes music sound smooth and convincing and fun to play.
While there are many factors specific to a particular piece that you may need to conquer on your way to the finish, there are three common practice habits that will cause you to stay in that endless loop of “not ready yet.” And three quick fix tactics, simple ways to break those habits and stop the endless and fruitless repetition.
HABIT 1: CIRCULAR PRACTICING
If you’re working on the same spots or skills in the same way when you practice your piece, you are guilty of circular practicing. This type of practicing substitutes more time and more energy for results. Here’s what I mean: your piece isn’t coming together so you double down on your practice, working harder and maybe even putting in extra time. But since you’re doing the same kind of practice, your results won’t be significantly different.
QUICK FIX TACTIC: Try a completely different approach. For instance, if you’ve been doing concentrated practice on a trouble spot, try ignoring the issue and just play through it for a week or so. If you’ve been struggling to get to the end of a piece, try starting from the end and working your way back to the beginning.
HABIT 2: NOT MAKING MUSIC
This is so simple, it’s almost embarrassing: you need to make your practice musical. Drilling notes and fingering and all the other detail work is essential, but it’s not the ultimate goal. If you want to play music, as opposed to simply notes and fingering, then that’s what you must practice. Oddly enough, when you change your focus to the musical big picture, many of the note and fingering issues will resolve themselves. After all, the fingering must serve the music, not the other way around.
QUICK FIX TACTIC: Play through your piece three times each day keeping your intention on the music. Listen for the big picture and try to feel the overall sense of the music. You can still practice the details; just practice the music too.
HABIT 3: EXPECTING IT TO BECOME READY
A piece doesn’t become ready for performance by itself. There is no amount of slow careful practice that will turn it into the flowing piece of music you desire it to be. I don’t have to tell you this; you’ve learned this the hard way. Every piece needs “finish practice” or “performance practice” to give it polish, control and musical character. You need to practice playing the piece, not just fixing the piece.
QUICK FIX TACTIC: Create low-stakes performance opportunities to push your piece to the finish. Here are a few of my favorites: video your piece just for yourself; invite a neighbor in for a test run-through; play for your pet or an audience of stuffed animals; get dressed up and pretend you are giving a command performance for the queen. Have fun with this - your sense of fun will become part of your “real” performance.
I have a quick assignment to help you get this process started. Leave a comment below, telling me the piece you will commit to finish and the first step you will take to finish it. That’s the way to do it!