Feedback, Listening, Attention

It is time to talk some more about Deliberate Practice, and I am going to start with the need for feedback. Unless you have continuous feedback then you do not have “Deliberate Practice”. For practice to qualify you have to be able to quickly find out how well you have done, so as to make adjustments before repetition makes your errors semi-permanent.

Most obviously you can hear what you are playing as you play it. And piano teachers are noted for telling their students to “listen to the sound they are making”. But it does not seem to have much effect. We think we are listening, but much of the time, especially with partly learned pieces, we play horribly and do not notice. There can be breaks in legato, split notes, chords not together, dynamic balance wrong, notes too loud, notes too soft, notes not sounding at all, confusing phrasing, random speeding up and slowing down … and we don’t notice any of it. In our heads we sound like Horowitz!

Why is this? What is going on here?

I have some ideas, and they seem to work out in practice, but what follows is not scientifically proven knowledge.

Your attention is elsewhere
When you are putting most of your attention and focus into controlling your movements there is not a lot left over to devote to listening accurately. As a piece becomes fluent you start to hear more and more of the sound that you are really making – rather than the sound you imagine you are making.

[An example of a common error is speeding up when there are few notes on the page, and slowing down when there are many. Often you just don’t notice this during practice – because our experience of the passage of time is different in each case. By the time you can play the piece on auto-pilot any wobbly tempo will become obvious.]

Your imagination gets in the way
While we are playing we consciously imagine the sound we are aiming for. We tend to “hear” what we intended, rather than what actually happens.

Once you are aware that there is a problem you can set about doing something about it. First you have to be convinced.

Using a Recorder
The quickest and easiest way to get an objective idea of how you sound is to record yourself and listen to the playback. In fact this is a sensible thing to do from time to time, and if you save the recordings it is very encouraging to play them back in a few months or a few years time and have solid evidence of how much you have improved. And it is easy nowadays. You don’t need expensive equipment. Even the recorder that is built into modern mobile phones will be good enough. Personally I use the Sony PCM D50, which you can see reviewed here: … But I digress …

The point of listening to a recording is that you can give it your full attention, and you are not “pre-imagining” the sound.

But be warned. you need to be strong-willed to do this and survive. The first time you hear a recording of yourself you will be shocked at how bad it sounds. Unless you are already playing to a high standard you won’t want to be listening to recordings of yourself several times at every practice session

Use a teacher
When you play for your teacher they listen objectively. And not only do they know what mistakes you are making, but they also know which are most important to fix, and what you need to do to fix them. Some children get supervised daily practice, either from teachers at a specialist music school, or from musical parents. For we adult beginners/improvers/returnees there is no such luxury. Our teacher will hear us only once a week or less. This is a valuable part of our overall studies, but not a solution to the problem of good feedback.

Learn to listen as you play
So we have no choice but to try to put the standard advice into practice. And it is not hopeless. There are several things we can do.

1. Simply by being conscious of the problem we go some way towards solving it. Once it has been demonstrated how different the real sound is from what you imagine then you will start to listen more objectively, without conscious effort.

2. Practice slowly. There are many good reasons for including lots of slow practice in your daily routine. One of them is that it frees up more of your attention to listen objectively.

3. Practice mostly short sections until you achieve good general accuracy and fluency. Likewise there are many good reasons for practicing this way, but in this context it helps because you quickly become very familiar with the section, and can rely more on playing it by autopilot. You are also more likely to be able to repeat a success with precision if you have not gone on to play hundreds more bars before you get around to repeating it.

4. Use a metronome. Perhaps not all the time, but some of the time. Definitely use it to set the tempo, and occasionally to check that you are sticking to it. Fluctuations of tempo are a serious problem in the early days of learning a piece, and there is a danger that some of the unevenness will remain even when the piece is well learned. By using a metronome to set the speed you avoid slowing down for the hard parts. Of course you must have the discipline to set a speed that is very, very easy for the less densely scored parts.

And hasten slowly. Do not be in too much of a hurry to speed up. When the notes are both understood intellectually, and the motor skills are burned in to the nervous system, then speed will be possible without it destroying your ability to listen properly.

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