WHAT?! 010: I’m a Musical Mess-Up

WHAT?! is Drooly Dog’s Advice Column for the Creative and Perplexed. In which I answer burning questions about the creative process and what might be holding up that brain of yours. Send your questions to: hellodroolydog@gmail.com.

Dear Drooly Dog: I play piano, and lately I’ve been trying to take on a few more difficult pieces. It’s going okay, except that I’ve got  weird things going on that are making it difficult and I’m not sure what to do.
There are some parts of the music that come easily, and I can play them almost right away. But then, inevitably, there are other parts that are more sticky and problematic.
I keep playing the passages over and over, thinking that this problem will work itself out and at some point the sticky parts will finally smooth out. I mean, I’ve read through the music it seems like a hundred times. But that’s not what’s happening! It seems like I just get into trouble over and over, and it doesn’t get any better. It’s driving me slowly insane. I wonder if I’ve just picked pieces that are too hard for me and I should go back to some basic Bach or something. What should I do?
– Sincerely, Wrong Notes

Dearest Notes,
Learning music is a wonderful experience. You are translating notes into playing, and that’s going to be unique to you.
However, there are some things about learning music that can be pretty universal. One of those is, the tendency to play passages you know better a tad bit faster, and then slow down when you get to the “hard” part.
So while your strong passages just keep getting better, the more difficult bits seem to fall farther and farther behind. You are not imagining this, it’s really happening.
You need to think of all the passages in the piece as part of the same thing instead of separate chunks. They have to flow together, that’s what the composer intended. So, you might need to get out the metronome.
Here’s what to do: Slow down the whole thing to a speed at which you can play the hard part correctly. Even if that’s like watching a glacier.  Play until this super-slow version comes off smoothly, all the way through the part you’re working on. Pretend like you are re-learning the whole piece even if you know parts of it well. This will sync up your play all the way through, and bring along the sticky parts until they match up. Only speed up when you can play it all, and even then don’t speed back up to what you were playing before. Keep everything at the same tempo. Soon the piece won’t have these hills and valleys in it any more, and your confidence at those difficult parts will increase, too. And, the piece will feel – all of a piece.
Keep on playing and trying newer and more difficult material! You’ll be so proud when you get all the way through the first time.
Sincerely, Drooly Dog

Drooly Dog offers creative advice only. Nothing legal or medical, please follow of your own accord. It’s up to you, man.

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