This tutorial was originally written for our members at PianoCareerAcademy.com. After publishing it, however, I realized that this topic is too important be be kept behind ‘closed doors’ – so I decided to share it here on my free blog as well. Make sure you read it until the end – as it was designed to completely shift your perspective on our beautiful art!
To play a wrong note is insignificant;
to play without passion is inexcusable.
~ Ludwig van Beethoven
There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.
~ Leonard Cohen
Our beginners sometimes spot tiny ‘mistakes’ in my videos:
- a wrong note
- a longer rest
- an ‘incorrect’ finger
- a forgotten slur – or maybe a singing legato that continues after the slur has ended…
These ‘inaccuracies’ may confuse you:
Did she do this on purpose?
How can a teacher play something incorrectly?
What am I missing?
This confusion is normal: after all, you are doing your best to learn the piece correctly – and you want to make sure that you haven’t misread the text.
Therefore, you point out the ‘mistake’ and ask me why I ‘strayed’ from the score (and whether you should do the same).
Each time I get one of these questions, I write a detailed answer where I literally ‘go back to Adam’ and explain the bigger picture of how our art works. Otherwise, if I simply told you that ‘these errors do not matter’, you might think that I’m an irresponsible teacher who doesn’t know how to read a score.
Having to repeatedly write the same ‘saga’ is not very efficient, however – so I finally decided to publish an ‘official’ article where I address this concern once and for all.
Even more importantly, this will be a holistic investigation designed to shift (or at least deepen) your entire perspective on our art.
If you ever wondered:
How creative can I be when learning a classical piece?
What is set in stone, and what can be changed?
Where does flexibility end – and where does bad playing begin?…
Then this article will help you to understand the difference between ‘mistakes’ and that ‘performing freedom’ that transforms notes into music.
Hold on to your hats, as this is going to be quite a ride!
Most of my answers on this topic start with a simple statement:
Music is a flexible art, not a rigid science.
Music is also a meaningful and expressive method of communication – not a random collection of ‘correct sounds’.
Many beginners think that their ultimate goal is to reproduce what’s written in the score: every note, every symbol, every slur – you are doing your best to put each tiny detail in its place, and execute it flawlessly. If you come from a scientific background, this logical ‘left-brain’ approach is normal – being similar to how you would address an engineering, medical or even marketing project.
Arts do not work this way.
Don’t get me wrong: accuracy IS important, and you DO need to learn how to read a score correctly!
However, the symbols from the score are not your final destination. They are simply ‘signs’ that are pointing to the destination. A score is a map – not the territory. It is a flat cartographic projection of our planet – not the Earth itself.
Music came first. Long before writing was invented, people sang songs and played various instruments.
Musical notation appeared much later, as an attempt to ‘put music on paper’ (so that it can be transmitted and re-created by someone else). Yes, notation has evolved over the centuries and can be quite thorough. Still, those little black dots cannot capture sound in all its complexity.
After all, music is the art of sound – not the craft of pressing keys in a certain order.
A musical piece is literally an audible painting that exists in many dimensions: time, space, pitch, timbre, intensity, color, character… and this list has only started!
A score is just a bi-dimensional sheet of paper.
Can a black-and-white photograph capture the entire three-dimensional layout and infinite color palette of a beautiful summer landscape? No, of course not.
Similarly, a score cannot capture the entire ‘sound palette’ of a musical piece – or the countless combinations of ‘expressive variables’ that a performer can experiment with.
Music always appears as an idea in the composer’s mind. It comes in the form of sound – not as little black dots. Then, by using musical notation, composers do their best to write the idea down – so that we can re-create it many years later. In this process, the ‘magic’ and aliveness are inevitably lost. The colorful 3D landscape is transformed into a flat black-and-white photograph. The composer is aware of this, and he/she counts on your knowledge and insight to bring the real music back to life!
Therefore, the job of a performer is not the mechanical and blind ‘reproduction’ of all the symbols from the page. Reading the score correctly is just the beginning – it’s only a ‘hint’ of what’s possible! The real task is to go beyond the symbols, read between lines and re-create the expressive music that the composer had in mind.
In simple terms: a musical piece is so much more than ‘the sum of the symbols’ written on the page!
At this point, you might say: This all sounds good in theory – but how does it help me as a beginner? I can barely read those notes, so how can I possibly re-create some vague ‘musical painting’ that a dude dreamed up 200 years ago?
This is why you need a good teacher.
Many people nowadays think that music is something that anyone can learn by reading books and scores. This is not true. Music is a complex art that can only be transmitted directly, from master to apprentice, from teacher to student. The books and scores are helpful supplements, but they cannot replace real guidance. The most significant aspects of our art cannot be put on paper (or even explained with words) – that’s why real-life (or video) demonstrations are so vital!
The most important thing is not WHAT we do. It is HOW we do it.
~ Heinrich Neuhaus
The main role of the teacher is to show you what’s possible. Yes, we also teach you how to read notation, how to sit correctly, how to use your arms and fingers, how to phrase or voice – but at the end of the day, our job is to show you the destination.
Even if you don’t fully ‘understand’ this destination yet (and your vision is still ‘blurry’); even if you can’t comprehend what I mean when I talk about ‘character’ and ‘atmosphere’… still, frequent exposure to the ‘target’ will inevitably shape the way your mind & hearing work. This exposure works like a strong gravity field that literally ‘pulls’ you towards growth and progress (as compared to having to reach them by ‘jumping’ on your own). Having the ‘mountaintop in sight’ will also save you hundreds of hours of ‘blind wandering’ (including the frustration and bad habits you might acquire in the process). I describe how this works in my video about the immersion method.
You see, there are two main ways of learning a piece:
- From notes to [random] music.
You take the score and start to ‘decode’ it – note by note, rest by rest, finger by finger. You ‘fumble’ in the dark trying to combine sounds together, not knowing how the whole ‘contraption’ is supposed to sound. This feels like assembling a puzzle without ever looking at the ‘final picture’. Because you cannot see things in context, you treat each symbol as ‘letter of the law’, without understanding its meaning. You see each tree in lots of detail – but you don’t see how it fits in the forest. If you’re lucky, talented or very intuitive, you might eventually put together something that sounds nice.
This is sadly the approach that most beginners use nowadays (even those who study with a teacher).
- From clear vision – to mindful practice – to real music.
You begin by imagining the music as a whole – the ‘final’ audible painting that you wish to re-create. If you’re a beginner, you do so by listening to your teacher’s demonstration (or to a good recording). Yes, advanced players can simply look in the score and visualize the final result based on their extensive experience and well-developed musical intuition – but beginners and intermediates need a lot of guidance during their first years of study! [I explain why in this tutorial]. Then, when you decipher the score and practice, this vision shapes your every movement, and helps you to understand each note, rest and finger in context. Once this happens, it becomes obvious what is ‘set in stone’, what can be changed, what is a ‘mistake’ and what is an acceptable ‘creative license’.
This is the approach I always recommend – and that’s why most of my tutorials start with a demonstration (especially the ones addressed to beginners).
Of course, the two methods described above are not mutually exclusive – and it’s not always possible to imagine the music before practicing it. Sometimes we cannot find a good recording of the piece we wish to learn. Other times, we want to test our ability of learning a piece independently, without the help of a teacher or concert pianist (which you can do as an occasional exercise). And often we can only build that ‘final audible picture’ one step at a time: we listen, we read the score, we practice, we get teacher feedback, then we listen some more – and gradually, all of these ‘trees’ merge together into a beautiful ‘forest’. The forest was always there, but we were not ready to see it, and the practice process trained our ability to do so. With each new piece you learn, your ‘musical vision’ will become clearer, and the forest will ‘materialize’ much quicker!
And now let’s return to your question: why do I sometimes make ‘micro-adjustments’ to the text of a piece in my demonstrations? Why isn’t everything absolutely ‘perfect’?
First of all, please keep in mind that I never post demonstrations containing obvious mistakes. I always record several takes of the same piece – and then I select the ‘final’ result very carefully. If I spot any errors (such as a ‘silent’ note, an inappropriate accent, or my finger slipping from F# to F etc.) – that ‘faulty’ recording will not see the light of day! If I were a simple performer, I wouldn’t worry about such mistakes too much: they are natural and they happen to everyone, including the greatest concert pianists. However, as a teacher, my job is to offer you a good example to follow, a ‘complete map’ designed to guide your every step as you practice.
Therefore, if you do spot a ‘mistake’ in my recordings, it is there for a reason. More about this below.
Also, not all ‘score deviations’ are the same. Notes, rhythm, articulation, dynamics, fingering, pedal etc. – all these elements of the text do NOT have the same level of importance.
The symbols from the score can be conventionally grouped according to the following ‘hierarchy‘:
- Notes and rhythm are the foundation of a musical score.
[Please note – I wrote ‘the foundation of a musical score‘, not ‘the foundation of a musical piece‘! Don’t forget that the music and the score are not the same thing!]
For example, an Urtext edition of a Bach piece only contains the bare notes [which is normal for pre-classical and early classical music]. Intentionally changing the text of a pre-classical work is rightfully considered a ‘sacrilege’ – even though many editors have done it in the past. For example, Czerny took the liberty to cut out entire bars (or make additions to the existing text) in his edition of the Well-Tempered Clavier.
So, in 99.9% of the cases, we should do our best to play all the correct notes, and also not ‘collapse’ the ‘rhythmical skeleton‘ of the piece (unless extreme rubato is expressively justified). Keep in mind that rhythmical freedom depends on epoch, style and genre: the ‘older’ the music – the stricter our rhythm should be (without ever, ever being ‘robotic’ and calculated to the millisecond!).
- Tempo, character indications, articulation and dynamics come next.
Now we are entering the expressive realm – and here we have a bit more freedom. Most classical, romantic, post-romantic and modern academic composers write many of these details in the score. Editors often change them, however – or add to them.
Therefore, when learning a new piece, do your research: do these expressive indications belong to the composer or the editor? [Comparing several editions is the easiest way to find out]. If they were written by the composer, we should treat them with more ‘respect’, and do our best to understand them and obey them mindfully (keeping in mind that they are not as ‘set in stone’ as the notes). The editor’s indications are less important, but they also carry lots of value – especially if you are a beginner and you don’t have any better ideas. However, as you gain more experience, you will often come up with expressive solutions that sound better than the editor’s suggestions – so you should definitely ‘trust your feelings, Luke’ in such cases.
In this process, don’t forget that ALL expressive indications should be understood in context (not as separate elements). Every piece has an ‘artistic concept’ and a dramaturgy (or a ‘story’ behind the music). The tempo, characters, articulation and dynamics are inseparable parts of this dramaturgy, helping us to bring it out. So if you choose to ignore the editor’s recommendations (or even the composer’s own dynamics), you should know exactly WHY you do it, and how this fits into the ‘bigger picture’ that is clear in your mind.
You will notice that in most of my tutorials, I offer you several versions of dramaturgy to choose from (with corresponding dynamics, phrasing, tempo fluctuations, even articulation).
- Fingering, hand distribution, pedaling (and other technicalities designed to facilitate your execution of the piece).
This is the least ‘important’ layer of the text – and it’s ok to modify it according to your needs (and your ‘big picture’ understanding of the music).
Most composers don’t indicate the fingering in the score – so 90% of the time, fingering is added by the editor, and it is NOT ‘letter of the law’. Plus, most composers/editors from the past were men with big hands and long fingers (Rachmaninoff is a good example). Therefore, if you’re a woman with small hands, you won’t be able to use ‘Rachmaninoff-style fingering’ in all Rachmaninoff pieces.
So, as a beginner, you need to follow your teacher‘s fingering recommendations to the best of your abilities. As you acquire more experience (and understand the basic principles of ergonomic fingering), you will write your own fingering for every piece you learn. Yes, always try out the fingering from the score – but never use it blindly.
It’s also ok to change the hand distribution in certain spots, for example:
- you cannot reach a wide interval;
- there’s a difficult passage in the LH, but the RH is free at the moment;
- it feels more comfortable to play the middle voice with the RH thumb, rather than stretch the LH (which is also playing the bass).
Remember: what matters is how the music sounds – not what fingers you use, or what hand you play the melody with!
Pedaling is even more flexible: if you take a look at the pedaling indicated in a Beethoven Sonata (or a Chopin Nocturne), and try to follow it ‘to the letter’, you will be horrified by the result! Most composers/editors from the classical/romantic eras never indicated the delayed pedaling technique in the score – and there’s always a release at the end of the harmony (instead of a change on the next harmony)! Playing a romantic piece like this is a recipe for disaster – that’s why pedaling is learned from your teacher, in a practical manner, and it should always obey your hearing. I do like to indicate the pedaling in my edited scores for most beginner pieces (in a practical ‘actionable’ manner) – but this is a rare luxury and a PCA ‘perk’, not the ‘norm’.
And now – the main reasons behind my ‘free score interpretation’.
My ‘rebellious actions’ can be grouped into two main categories:
- intentional creative decisions;
- unintentional expressive ‘insights’ that originate in my subconscious and transcend my rational mind.
- Intentional modifications are usually explained in the tutorial (with rare exceptions that I either covered in a previous lesson, or simply did not mention because they felt obvious to me).
- Unintentional ‘insights’ are a bit more interesting. They usually happen spontaneously or unconsciously, being based on my experience, hearing, musical intuition and technical comfort. Some of them come from performing tradition.
These unintentional changes sound so good and organic, that I do not spot them during playing or editing. They are part of how I hear the piece as a whole, being in perfect tune with the concept and dramaturgy I have chosen.
They happen because the score is not my only guide. When I learn a piece, I don’t keep ‘staring’ at the text blindly (pun intended). Once the notes/rhythm/articulation are learned, I mostly practice and play from memory, guided by my vision, hearing and big picture understanding of the music. Yes, I do keep looking in the score – but only as a ‘reference point’ (to make sure I haven’t forgotten anything important). I do not rely on mechanical reading anymore – and I don’t keep ‘checking’ every little symbol each time I work on a phrase or fragment.
The results are usually wonderful – allowing me to play the piece comfortably, freely and expressively. The only downside is that sometimes, once in a blue moon, a tiny little detail might be ‘wrong’.
- If a melodic pattern appears many times throughout the piece, and in one phrase the composer changes one note (without an obvious expressive reason) – I might unconsciously keep using the main pattern (without noticing that one note is different). In fact, often that ‘different note’ might be a typographical error!
- Even when I play a ‘severe’ pre-classical or classical piece, my rhythm is natural, like the heartbeat of a living being (instead of being mechanical like a clock). I don’t make any purposeful rubato, but a scientifically-minded person can easily spot ‘rhythmical errors’ in my playing. Are they errors, though? They might be, if you only use your logic to analyze my performance. If you use your hearing, vision and insight – everything is just right. Obviously, if I also add rubato to the table, the rhythm will be even more ‘incorrect’.
- If I play a classical piece where the editor used lots of short slurs (as was the tradition of the time), I will often connect several little motifs into one uninterrupted legato phrase. I do this instinctively and naturally. My experience tells me when it is ok to ‘lengthen’ the slurs, and when this would go against the expressive purpose.
- And, of course, if we talk about dynamics, other articulation effects, fingering, hand distribution, pedaling – I make lots of intuitive changes that simply feel good (and help me to bring out my vision).
Please don’t forget: I will never post an ‘official demonstration’ containing obvious wrong notes or technical mistakes. All ‘errors’ that made it to the final ‘cut’ always sound appropriate, and fit within the harmonic/melodic/expressive context of the piece.
Of course, as a teacher (and in an ideal world) I should do both – be creative AND follow the text to the letter. However, we are all human and 100% perfection is not always possible – so I prefer to make a mechanical ‘reading’ mistake than a foundational musical/expressive one.
At the end of this article I will share several more important insights that came to me during writing:
- Practicing, teaching and performing are not the same.
Practicing is a ‘calculated’ step-by-step process (as I explain in too many tutorials to count). Teaching is even more mindful and exact – requiring thorough planning, research and attention to detail.
Real performing, however, can be compared to a ‘trance’. If practice is about control, performing is about letting go. This is the time to relax and allow the music to speak. This is when all your hard work pays off. A good performance often feels as if you are just a conduit for the music – not its source. This is when intuition, inspiration and other ‘subconscious’ functions come into play. These functions are the ‘cherry on the cake’, and they look great on top of the solid (and very accurate) foundation we built during practice. [Never forget that inspiration and intuition are not worth much without knowledge, skill and experience!].
Why do I say all this? Spoiler alert! As a video-recording teacher, I find performing quite difficult.
[Now I talk about recording the ‘final demonstrations’ – not the ‘normal’ tutorials where I explain things and show you how to practice; those feel quite effortless for me].
Unlike a one-time stage performance (where things are real, and everyone makes mistakes), my demonstrations are here to stay: you can watch them hundreds of times, you can slow them down, you can analyze them with the ‘magnifying glass’, and they ARE designed to be ‘official benchmarks’ for you guys. To make sure that everything is as ‘perfect’ as possible, and that my execution fully coincides with the score (AND matches my recommendations from the practice guide!), I need to keep my ‘conscious control’ engaged at all times.
Still, sometimes I find myself naturally ‘slipping’ into the enjoyable realm of ‘letting go’ and just playing. This is when those unintentional ‘errors’ seem to occur the most. Interestingly, those performances are also my best ones! They are the most alive and expressive, reminding me again of this amazing quote: There is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.
- A classical performer is also a creator – not just a ‘restoration expert’.
If you’ve been a PCA member for a while, you’ve heard me harp on about the importance of bringing out the vision of the composer: artistic concept, message, dramaturgy, style, genre – all these things need to be accurately studied and embodied in our playing.
Does this mean that we are just ‘restoration experts’ – destined to a life of boring, dry and lifeless ‘academic’ playing?
NO, of course not!
A good musician has ‘layers’ – and so does a good performance:
- Tradition, knowledge, the message of the composer – these form the bottom of the pyramid.
- Making your own creative decisions, ‘mixing and matching’ expressive variables, coming up with unexpected performing insights – these are the tip of the iceberg, and they bring magic and aliveness to your performance!
We DO create the music each time we play – whether it is our own composition, or a masterpiece by Beethoven. Music can only exist in the present moment, it can only exist through us. Without our heart, soul, knowledge, expertise, intuition and LOVE, a piece will forever remain on the dusty shelf, resigned to its bi-dimensional paper form.
Therefore, even when playing a very old ‘masterpiece’, we CAN and SHOULD bring new life to the old painting!
- Music is not math – but math is a part of music.
Pitch, rhythm and note durations, harmony, theory – so many elements of our art are highly ‘scientific’ and ‘mathematical’! Many beginners get so caught up in the ‘math’ part of music, that they forget about… well.. the music! It’s easy to ‘lose yourself’ in counting syncopes and dotted rhythms, or trying to understand a chord progression. The math of music is indeed fascinating! However, just like technique or fingering – math and theory are just a means to an end, not your final goal. Never lose sight of that.
- Music is not the notes. It’s how you interpret those notes.
Did you notice that everything in life depends on interpretation? If you’re a farmer hoping for a rich harvest, you rejoice if it rains. Your neighbor, on the other hand, was planning to go to the beach – so the rain makes him really angry! Why did the same rain trigger such opposite emotions? It’s because of your interpretation, of the meaning you assigned to this neutral weather phenomenon.
In a musical score, the text is always neutral (yes, even the words cantabile, sotto voce, giocoso, morendo etc.). The text becomes music only when you start interpreting it, when you relate to it, when you assign meaning and feeling to each note, hairpin or word.
Yes, this is a ‘subjective endeavor’ (not an objective science) – but that’s also what makes music so appealing and enjoying, that’s why it can reach your heart (not just your mind!).
Just like acting or painting, music is not an ‘absolute’ reflection of reality. It’s an image of reality processed by the human spirit, mind and emotions.
Being a musician is NOT about the perfect execution of every little symbol from the score.
It’s about the STORY you tell with those symbols.
Can a story be alive and captivating if one or two symbols are ‘incorrect’? You bet!
Can you reproduce all the right symbols without telling a story? Sadly, yes.
I learned this when I was about 7, from my first piano teacher. Each time I accidentally played a wrong note (which was very often!), she would say: It’s ok, wrong notes do not matter! On the other hand, she was ruthless when it came to knowledge, analysis and musicality. Eventually I got the deeper meaning of that statement – even though my ‘perfectionist’ logic was always too strong for my own good (even as a little child).
What about you?
Do you feel that you are a very logical and mathematically-minded person? Do you find yourself applying the ‘scientific approach’ to your piano practice?
This is not a bad place to start – but it’s just the beginning. With each piece you learn, your hearing, imagination and musical sensitivity will get ‘bolder’ and more ‘vivid’. Before you know it, you will be a wizard that can make REAL three-dimensional music emerge from the flat grey score.
Even the most ‘left-brained’ person can develop creativity, intuition and holistic perception. All you need is practice and perseverance. Simply keep going, keep immersing yourself in our art – and one day you will discover that you have wings, and you can fly! Music will become a language that you can speak freely and fluently – instead of reading it mechanically, symbol by symbol.
What we train grows stronger. What we neglect withers and dies.
This article is NOT a ‘license to kill’! ?
It’s not an excuse to tear down quality, tradition, style and knowledge. I’m not encouraging you to be a ‘sloppy’ player who doesn’t learn musical notation, doesn’t pay attention to detail, or doesn’t practice mindfully.
I’m simply describing the ‘exception that strengthens the rule’, the tiny ‘tip of the iceberg’, the magic that makes you rejoice when it rains…
Learn how to become a real musician by joining PianoCareerAcademy.com!
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It’s time to hear your playing come alive and shine!
Recommended free tutorials:
The 7 Most Dangerous Piano Myths – Debunked!
The Secrets of Efficient Piano Learning. How to Transform your Playing Through Immersion.
Developing a Brilliant Piano Technique – The Holistic Professional Approach.
J.S. Bach – Little Prelude in C Major, BWV 939. Piano Tutorial. Lesson No 96 for Beginners.
Chopin – Fantaisie-Impromptu in C sharp Minor, op. posth. 66. Detailed Piano Tutorial.
Recommended tutorials (available on PianoCareerAcademy.com):
How to Analyze and Understand a Piano Piece: Step-by-Step Guide.
Should We Listen to Recordings Before/While Practicing a Piece?
Aural Training: Developing our Objective Hearing.
The Power of Mental Practice.
My Re-Training Experience and The Mastery Mindset.
Have a very inspired practice,
P.S. Many new online piano lessons and video tutorials are coming soon on PianoCareer.com! Follow me on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn or Pinterest to get instant updates, support and motivation!
Hi Ilinca, thank you very much for this article. I foud it extremely useful, and phenomenally elaborated. It is evident that music is not the only medium in which you express yourself wonderfully 😉
Thank you so much for your appreciation, Daniel! 😉
This blog has been both an inspiration and revelation. Yes, I have/do get stuck on the score and so many times fail to break open the beauty of the music. I get hung up on mistakes instead of letting them add to the glory of the moment. As soon as I become financially able, I would like to reapply to Piano Career Academy. Would it be possible to take lessons from you? Right now I am trying to learn on my own and find myself getting stuck in the mud. Thank you so much for the great treasures of learning you have bestowed on me in the past that still guide me in the right direction.
Thank you so much, Esther! I’m really happy that you enjoyed this article – and we are looking forward to welcoming you to our program!
Due to my overloaded schedule, I don’t offer individual live lessons – but you can participate in our feedback project (and get feedback to your recordings from our teacher Yuko Farman). On top of our rich library of courses and tutorials (where I guide your every step in the practice process), this will offer you a well-rounded piano education :).
As always, more details about the functionality of our program can be found on our FAQ page.
Thank you very much, and have a very inspired practice this week! 😉