Finding the Finish Line: When Is Your Music Done?

practice repertoire May 04, 2020

"If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?"

This famous philosophical poser can be a starting point for a fun debate. Is it a physical science question or a metaphysical one or both? However you consider it, there is an element of mystery that can spark your imagination.

Here is another question that is similarly difficult to answer: If a piece of music is never truly “finished,” how can you tell if it is “done?”

This is a dilemma every musician faces. When music is played, it exists only in that moment, and therein lies our joy and our frustration.  A superb performance vanishes into the ether just as quickly as a poor one. The piece we played so well yesterday is full of mistakes today. But unless we commit to playing it forever, how can we tell when we need to keep working on it or when it is ready to move to the repertoire review list?

The answer to this question may surprise you: the decision is yours. You are the one to decide when your piece is done. For most people - those who are not competing or performing professionally - a piece is “done” when they feel they have mastered it in a way that suits their own personal level of satisfaction.  In other words, “done” is when you think it is.

The finish line may be different for different pieces, too. You may decide that one piece is done when you can play it up to tempo, but another one may reach the finish line only when you have memorized it. You can choose if a piece is done when it is polished or fluent or expressive. Possibly you may only consider a piece finished when you have performed it somewhere. There is no single criterion for “done.”

Your own level of satisfaction is your ultimate measure. You won’t feel accomplished if you put a piece away before you have mastered it to a certain point, but you are the one to decide where that point is. But what if you aren’t sure? What if you aren’t confident in your ability to decide? Here are my ideas, ones I share with my students to help them make the call:

“Done” isn’t required to be:

  • 100% or even 90% correct.
  • Perfect or mistake-free.
  • Up to tempo.
  • Memorized.

Would you be proud if you achieved one (or more) of these:

  • Played your piece from the beginning to the end without stopping?
  • Maintained a steady tempo and a rhythmic flow?
  • Sustained a musical mood?
  • Conveyed the essence of the piece?

Don’t forget to mark the accomplishment. You can’t tape your finished piece to the refrigerator like a child’s art work. You don’t get a trophy you can display on your mantelpiece. 

But you could:

  • Put the “finished” date on your copy of the music.
  • Add it to your list of “Music I Have Learned This Year.”
  • Perform it - either live or send a video to a friend or family member.
  • Video or record it for your “archives.” Create your private unlisted YouTube channel with a folder of all the “finished” pieces you’ve done. In short order you will have a remarkable archive of your personal bests.
  • Put a gold star on it. I’m serious; give yourself a sticker! You deserve it!

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