How to practice?
Short notes by Roberto Prosseda

8. In praise of the mistake

All musicians inevitably have to constantly face the fear of mistakes: a wrong or badly played note, or a slip during the course of a performance. For most music students, a mistake is something entirely negative, that you look upon with dread, and try to avoid and exorcize in every possible way. In my opinion, though, each mistake is a “fortunate” event, as it may represent an important opportunity for growth. Let me explain better: in our daily piano practice it is these very errors that allow us to take stock of the details still to be perfected. It is precisely this wrong note that makes us realize that we haven't paid sufficient attention to a given passage, or that we haven't yet fully gathered the expressive climate of a given theme. In actual fact, mistakes almost always occur on details we haven't given enough importance to. On the contrary, it's rare to make mistake on a note or phrase that we want to play with a particular intensity and naturalness.

As the pianist Stephen Hough remarked in a recent blog in the Telegraph, the true cause of a mistake on the piano is, strictly speaking, due to the fact that our finger hasn't found the right key at the right moment. This may seem obvious, but it isn't: many pianists while practising don't pay particular attention to the position of the fingers on the keys, and how to plan the changes of position so that each finger will already be on the right key before actually playing it. If one's practice is fashioned in this way, that is to say planning and “engineering” the movements and the gaze, so as to guide the fingers on the key with the greatest economy of movements and with total muscle awareness, much of the work is already done. And the more one is conscious of one's own movements and of the musical tensions they are linked to, the more serene one becomes during the performance, so as to be able to dedicate oneself to the purely musical aspects without the unpleasant and frustrating “fear of making a mistake”.

And, whatever the case, it's well to remember that a mistake in itself may even pass unnoticed if it occurs in a context of great musical intensity. Vice versa, a cold and calculated performance in which the only aim is to avoid mistakes, will prove much more “wrong” than a spontaneous, profound and not faultless performance. After all, in music there is no such thing as faultless, and, as Murray Perahia once said about Alfred Cortot's piano playing, “his wrong notes were much more correct than my right notes”.


Roberto Prosseda

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