9. Polishing a Piece - Eliminating Flubs¶
There are 5 things we want to accomplish when polishing a “finished” piece: ensure good memory, eliminate flubs, make music, further develop technique, and prepare for performances. The first step is to ensure memory and we saw in 6. Memorizing that the best way is to play the entire piece in your mind, away from the piano. Mental play (MP) guarantees that the memory is practically infallible. If some parts are slightly shaky, you can work on them at any time, even away from the piano. MP is the most secure memory because it is pure mental memory: it is not dependent on aural, tactile, or visual stimuli. It also eliminates most flubs because flubs originate in the brain. Let’s look at a few common causes of flubs. Blackouts occur because of too much dependence on hand memory. Stuttering is a habit formed by stopping at every mistake while practicing HT without sufficient HS practice. You hit wrong notes because the hands are not always feeling the keys and you lose track of where the keys are. Missing notes result from lack of relaxation and inadvertent lifting of the hands – a habit that is usually acquired from too much slow HT practice. We have discussed solutions that eliminate all these sources of mistakes. Finally, playing musically and bringing out the “color” of the composition is the ultimate task in polishing. You can’t just play the notes accurately and expect music and color to magically appear – you must actively create them in your mind before playing the notes – MP allows you to do all this. If the fingers can’t reproduce these mental images, perhaps the piece is too difficult. You will develop technique faster by practicing pieces that you can polish to perfection. However, don’t give up too easily because the cause of the difficulty may not lie with you but with some other factor, such as the quality or condition of the piano.
A large part of polishing is attention to detail. The best way to ensure correct expression is to go back to the music and review every expression mark, staccato, rest, notes that are held down, lifting of the finger or pedal, etc. These will give you the most accurate picture of the logical construct of the music that is needed to bring out the proper expressions. The weaknesses of each individual are different, and are often not evident to that individual. A person whose timing is off usually cannot hear the incorrect timing. This is where teachers play key roles in detecting these weaknesses.
Making music is the most important part of polishing a piece. Some teachers emphasize this point by saying that you use 10% of your time learning technique and 90% of the time learning to make music. Most students use over 90% of their time struggling with technique in the mistaken belief that practicing what you can’t play will develop technique. This mistake arises from the intuitive logic that if you practice anything you can’t play, you should eventually be able to play it. But this is true only for material that is within your skill level. For material that is too difficult, you never know what is going to happen, and frequently such an attempt will lead to irreversible problems such as stress and speed walls. For example, if you want to increase speed, the fastest way is to play easy pieces that you have polished and to speed up that play. Once the finger speed increases, then you are ready to play more difficult material at faster speed. Thus the polishing time is also the best time for technical development, and it can be a lot of fun.
Perfecting your performance skills is part of polishing; this will be discussed in section 14 below. Many pianists experience the following strange phenomenon. There are times when they can do no wrong and can play their hearts out with no mistakes or difficulties. At other times, any piece becomes difficult and they make mistakes where they normally have no problems. What causes these ups and downs? Not knowing which one you will experience can be a terrifying thought that can cause nervousness. Obviously, there are many factors, such as FPD and judicious use of slow play, etc. However, the most important factor is mental play (MP). All pianists use some MP whether they consciously do it or not. The performance often hinges on the quality of that MP. Unless you conduct MP consciously, you never know what condition it is in. For example, practicing a new piece will confuse the MP of another piece. This is why it is so important to know what MP is, establish good MP, and know when to review/maintain it. If your MP had deteriorated for some reason, reviewing it before a performance will alert you to the impending danger and give you a chance to repair the damage.
A common problem is that students are always learning new pieces with no time to polish pieces. This happens mostly to students using the intuitive learning methods. It takes such a long time to learn each piece that there is no time to polish them before you have to start another piece. The solution, of course, is better learning methods.
In summary, solid mental play is the first requisite for polishing a piece and preparing it for performances. Advanced technique is acquired not only by practicing new skills, but also by playing finished pieces. In fact practicing new skills all the time is counter productive and will lead to speed walls, stress, and non-musical play.