Don't think about the notes.
In a recent lesson, a student played a Bach fugue that I hadn’t heard her play in several weeks.
When she finished, I asked her what she thought of her performance. She said that she missed too many notes. Interestingly, I hadn’t noticed many wrong notes at all!
If we can listen for the things we want to hear and not for the things we don’t want to hear, it will lead us to better results. What you focus on expands; what you don’t focus on is minimized. If you play a piece for the purpose of not missing any notes, you will be focused on the notes.
I asked my student to get off the bench and walk a few paces with me, as we talked through what actually transpires when you walk. Broken down, walking consists of the following actions:
Shift your weight to the right leg.
Lift your left foot (usually heel first, then the toe).
Swing your left leg forward.
Set your left heel on the ground, with enough impact to take the weight of your body, but not so hard that you hurt the bottom of your foot.
Shift your weight gradually from your right leg to your left heel.
Roll your left foot forward and increase your weight to balance the foot out.
Shift your entire body weight to the left leg.
Repeat on the other side.
It’s possible to do this without thinking about it! In fact, it’s so automatic that it takes a moment to even think of the component parts of taking a step.
Playing the piano can be a similar process. If we think throughout a performance about playing the right notes or give too much consideration to how we are executing it, the experience of playing the piano becomes about the physical process. We lose sight of the musical purpose of the physical actions we are taking.
Walking is like this, too. If we focus only on the execution of each step, we will not be able to enjoy the scenery. We have automated the process of walking; therefore, it is possible to walk and turn our attention toward what we are seeing, hearing, smelling, and otherwise experiencing the world as we walk past it.
At the piano, if we turn our attention to what we want to say, what we want a phrase to sound like, where the musical gesture leads, then we can often transcend the worry about the notes. Assuming we have done adequate preparatory work, our ear will direct our hands in order to execute its agenda.
In the case of my student, she was so concerned about the notes that her sound was not projecting, and her performance came across as somewhat timid. She knows the piece extremely well. She has taken it apart and become intimately familiar with the details. She chose fingering carefully and did plenty of slow practice in the learning process. But somehow she can’t stop worrying about making a mistake.
Once, when I was a student, I attended a Yo Yo Ma masterclass, where he told an anecdote that has stayed with me for these many years. He said that as a teenager he was intent on playing a note-perfect performance. He practiced and practiced in order to achieve note perfection and really make it the most pristine performance he had ever done in his life. And he succeeded! He said it was the most note-perfect performance he had ever given! But then after the performance, he felt let down, because it had lacked expression. He realized that there is no inherent meaning in playing correct notes as your main focus.
In another masterclass I was fortunate to attend, this one at a rambling estate on the coast of Cornwall, the great György Sebők pointed out that when you enjoy a book, you finish it and say, “What a good book! It had really wonderful characters, the plot was riveting, and I felt so moved by the ending.” You don’t say, “What a good book! There were no typographical errors or misspellings.”
Do the necessary work to shore up your note security, but once you have done that, in the end it is important to turn your attention to things other than notes. If you find yourself worrying about notes too much, spend time in your practice asking what the composer is trying to say. What is the character of this music? Where is a particular phrase going? Which voice is most important? Listen for these things and compare what is coming out of the instrument to the sound you have in your head.
The magic of this is that by shifting your attention away from the notes, you suddenly start playing with more accuracy. I believe this is because you are getting out of your own way and allowing yourself to play what you already know. Sometimes note errors happen because we worry at the last minute that we might not really know where our hand should go. We don’t trust ourselves. But taking the focus off of the notes and resting it on the music and setting a strong musical intention frees us up to play the right notes – with expression.