What do you do when your piano piece has ONE hard part that you have trouble playing well?
The easy answer is: practice 🙂
Well, yes, we all know that, but what if your about to play the piece in a recital that starts in 5 minutes and you don’t have time to practice enough to play it correctly? I think this has happened to us all. Instead of “freaking out,” or stumbling through those 2 measures or whatever, let’s come up with some effective strategies to help us give a good performance.
First of all, I do suggest that when you’re beginning to learn a new piece, you need to identify the hard parts. There’s usually one or two musical passages that are harder to play than the rest of the piece. Perhaps the left hand plays 16th notes during a section. Or the 2nd page is in an unfamiliar key. Or there are tricky rhythms near the end. Or, maybe your piece is like the one a young piano student of mine performed this morning at her school. It’s a fairly simple arrangement of a Japanese pop song, but the very end contains a sudden flourish, which is technically much harder than the rest of the piece.
Once you’ve identified the hard parts, you can start practicing them, right away. Don’t simply learn the piece “in order.” Yes, start at the beginning, but also begin practicing the passages you’ve selected. This will give you a little head start in learning them in time for your performance. Practice them with hands separately, and with hands together. Slowly, fast, staccato, legato; any way you can play it that will keep your interest and let you have fun. Play one measure 50 times in a row. Play that phrase for your family members, even before it’s perfect. Get used to playing for others. Invent your own ways to practice it. Anything you can do to increase your odds of eventually playing it correctly.
As you get closer to the performance date, you need to evaluate whether you’re going to play it correctly (or close to correctly) at the performance. Bear in mind that nobody plays perfectly every time, but you do need to feel confident that you’ve learned the piece as well as you can and that you can play it effectively, even if there may be a few “fluffs.” (A few wrong notes don’t matter as much as you may think they do. The important thing is to feel musically confident and keep going.)
But if the performance is nearing and you don’t have enough time to learn those short passages correctly, you need a “plan B.” An alternative. In the case of my young piano student and her pop song, I suggested that she simply slow the ending down. We listened to it slower a few times and realized that it sounded almost as good like that. It certainly sounded better slowly than if she stumbled through it at the faster tempo. So during her performance, she played the main part of the song at a lively pop tempo and the confidently ended her performance with the big flourish, played slowly and strongly. The audience loved it!
Now I’m not saying that if you’re in a heavy classical musical program you can simply slow down when you get to that hard part of Chopin’s “Revolutionary Etude.” You have to do what your teacher wants you to do. But in general, look at the big picture. Who is in the audience? What type of piece is it? Mozart himself said he’d prefer to hear pianists play his music slower and correctly than faster and sloppy.
Find a tempo that you’re comfortable with and go from there. And if need be, find a way to alter a tough passage if you don’t have the necessary time to learn it well. Simplify the left hand rhythms. In the case of my student, I told her that it would be OK to eliminate the written ending altogether and play a few final chords with confidence. It’s a song that nobody in the audience knew and frankly, a chordal ending would have been perfectly fine. Maybe even just as good as the original. But I wouldn’t do this with a famous classical piece like “The Moonlight Sonata,” for instance. But I have suggested that some students simplify some of Beethoven’s chords to fit their hands better.
BTW, professionals do this all the time. Opera accompanists simplify the orchestral reductions they play. Or slightly change the written arpeggios, which sound great on harp but don’t lay well under a pianists’ hands. Broadway rehearsal pianists play a lot of their music in the way that fits their personal style the best. Don’t feel like my advice here is just for “beginners.” We ALL do it!
To sum this up: Do what you can. Yes, prepare. Practice (a lot). But when the day of the performance arrives, do what you need to do in order to feel good about your performance. Mozart would have done the same.
Get my free ebook: Left Hand Techniques for Jazz Piano
You’ll also get my weekly jazz newsletter with practice tips and inspiration