How to stop overthinking: strategies for musicians

Many people (certainly musicians!) ask: how do I stop overthinking? We look at what "overthinking" is, and a few strategies for dealing with the problem.

Do you find that you simply can’t be satisfied with your performance, no matter how hard you work? Are you constantly obsessing over some deficiency of yours? Do you get overwhelmed easily while practicing?

Chances are, you have considered that “overthinking” might be inhibiting your ability to be efficient and productive. Furthermore, you may be wondering how to stop overthinking, once and for all.

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Hand independence in piano playing

Hand independence in piano playing can be a frustrating problem. Learn how to stop struggling and get both hands working together.

Hand independence is one of the most frustrating aspects of piano playing for beginners. Many students wonder how it will ever become easy to play the piano with two hands doing different things. Furthermore, even advanced students encounter these issues from time to time.

When you have trouble playing your hands independently, you may feel like:

  • One hand always seems to want to do whatever the other one is doing.
  • The two hands aren’t “lining up”.
  • One hand is more flexible and secure than the other one is.
  • You can play one hand at a time with no problem, but when you put them together, everything slows way down.
  • You are overwhelmed by reading hands together.

Fortunately, playing the piano with both hands at the same time does not need to feel so difficult.

Why you should fix it

The human body is built to have two hands. We are not supposed to get overwhelmed by using both of them. The fact that this happens when you play the piano is an indication that something is not quite right.

Developing hand independence is worth doing because it will lead to the following benefits:

  • Physically, it feels better when everything is working in a smooth and integrated way.
  • There is a smaller chance of injury when your body moves with itself, rather than against itself.
  • Mentally, it is less stressful.
  • You will be less distracted, and have more mental energy and attention available for other things.
  • Your technique will improve, since your body will become more mechanically efficient.
  • Listeners can hear when you are playing in a unified manner, and when you are fighting with yourself.

Wrong ways to fix it

You might be tempted to try improving your hand independence at the piano by using one of the following approaches:

  • Strengthening the fingers.
  • Stretching the fingers.
  • Pushing through it mentally.

These are totally understandable attempts at solving the problem. When the hands aren’t free to move independently, it can easily feel like the result of physical limitations. You may also feel like the problem is only that you aren’t trying hard enough.

However, the problem is not usually physical, but rather mental. And, you probably are already trying really hard. If you are feeling overwhelmed, you need to learn how to simplify things. The struggle is a result of the wrong way you are approaching this.

When great pianists play with independence, they are not struggling.

The root cause of hand independence issues

The fundamental issue is one of impatience. You want to do everything correctly, and you want to do it now. This is completely understandable. However, you aren’t willing to do it at the pace your body needs to go at. So, there’s a traffic jam in your brain.

What would it be like if you simply didn’t try to micromanage it?

Hand independence is not really the goal

Although it seems like pianists need to have both hands moving completely independently of each other, this is not necessarily the best way to look at it. I might even say that both hands actually always do the same thing.

As an example, consider the activity of walking. Both feet move “independently”, and yet the whole body is moving in one direction. It would be a big mistake to have your left foot moving in one direction and the right moving in another.

So it is in piano playing. The whole body is playing the whole piece of music. Both hands are moving to the same beat. The mistake is to strive for independence. What you really want is unification.

There needs to be a structure

Another example: Suppose you are walking and also texting on your phone at the same time. The movements that you use for texting will be dependent on what your feet are doing. Let this happen. Don’t try to fight it.

In piano playing, your hands can never be truly independent. They are connected to the rest of your body, after all. As a result, the hands are limited in their freedom of motion.

Set a priority

A final example: Suppose you are walking with a friend and you have an itch on your face. You will not stop walking to scratch the itch. You will keep walking, because you don’t want to get behind your friend, or make your friend wait for you. The walking is more important than the scratching. Because you have set your priorities, there is no problem doing both at the same time.

When you play the piano, don’t let a difficult spot in one hand throw off the entire rhythm of the music. This is why it feels difficult.

Set a priority for yourself which is as easy as walking, and you will find that the minor details will be much easier to handle.

How to solve your hand independence issues

Any piano piece can be made into an exercise to coordinate the left and right hand.

Your first task is to get both hands doing the same thing. Using a metronome, ensure that both hands are playing at the same time. The beat should be felt throughout your entire body.

Within that framework, work on differentiating the hands. If you ever feel stuck, or like your hands are not cooperating, go back to making sure that the beat is consistent between both hands.

Specific problems

Dynamics: how to play one hand louder than the other

Many students have a hard time playing different dynamic levels between the two hands. This is an essential skill, and if you struggle with it, you should make this a priority.

As always, the beat needs to be the same in both hands. This is usually the problem. The student has no unified sense of beat, and so they are micromanaging each hand independently, which overloads the brain.

So, first ensure that both hands can play together with no problem. That is, you are playing “LH + RH”. Now, experiment with “LH soft + RH loud”. This should be conceived of as a single action. If you find that doing this messes up your beat, you are not conceiving of it as a single action. Likewise, experiment with “LH loud + RH soft”.

Articulation: one hand legato and the other staccato

You should be able to easily play legato in one hand and staccato in the other. If you cannot, follow the instructions above for dynamics.

Both hands play together, but they do not need to follow each other after that initial moment. It is only the beat that needs to be synchronized.

Independence in polyrhythms

If you are playing a piece with polyrhythms, such as 3 against 2, or 11 against 7, or 25 against 8, or whatever, try the same exact strategy. If possible, do not attempt to mathematically calculate how the notes should line up. That is usually not what the composer had in mind.

Instead, decide where the beats are, and make sure that both hands are playing the beats at the same time. Let the other notes fall where they need to.

Let me emphasize that if one hand has 25 notes, and the other has 3, they are both playing at the same tempo! If you don’t see it that way, you will continue to struggle.

Explore the body

It can be very useful to explore the instincts you have about the relationship between your hands. Notice what it feels like to move your torso around, and how that affects what your hands are doing. Do things feel independent, or do they feel tightly wound up?

Play hands in parallel motion and contrary motion, and notice what happens. Play passages where one hand moves and the other doesn’t, and notice where you feel stuck or where you feel one hand trying to pull on the other.

In a passage where one hand is slower than the other, remember that neither is ever actually slower. Feel this energy balanced throughout the body. There must be an constant, internal pulse that governs both hands.

When you have developed this type of awareness, you can easily create your own exercises to help with hand independence at the piano.

Sight-reading both hands independently

It is very common to feel that sight-reading screws up the coordination between the hands. You may feel that you can read each hand independently with no problem, but putting them together causes everything to slow down. Many students feel more confident with one hand than with the other.

Remember that both hands must always move at the same time. You cannot let one hand get ahead of the other.

When you are reading, your brain must process each beat before playing it. Do not think of each hand separately. Do not move each hand separately. The entire beat (left hand plus right hand) is one action.

If you have a more difficult time reading bass clef than treble clef, then your right hand might become impatient waiting for your left hand. However, you must wait for both hands to be ready.

If this is making you impatient, you should ask yourself why that is. Where are you in a hurry to go?

Finally, set your priorities. Decide on which musical elements are the important ones, and let your whole body play those elements. Don’t get trapped into thinking that you need to play everything on the page. Remember that it must all fit into the structure of your body.

Finger independence

Finger independence is basically the same issue as hand independence. Here, the whole hand must be unified. Even if the five fingers are playing different things, the hand as a whole is moving in one direction.

You might try practicing Bach fugues and inventions. They will demand the type of independence that you need. They do not require flexible or strong fingers. The challenge is completely in your mind.


If you struggle with hand independence in your piano playing, this is absolutely a problem you can work on. Be patient with yourself, and with your body. When you let things happen as they must happen, the struggle will resolve itself.

How to improve your sight-reading

Many students find sight-reading frustrating and demotivating. However, you can certainly improve your sight-reading. Learn how to let go of difficulties.

You can sight-read anything

It is completely reasonable to want to improve your sight-reading quickly. Luckily, it is also completely doable. If you have an enjoyable, effective process, you will get results.

Your goal should be what I call “sight-read anything.” If you’d like to improve your sight-reading, ensuring that you can do this should be your first priority! What this means is:

  • You understand what all the symbols mean.
  • You can sight-read a piece at any tempo.
  • Sight-reading is physically comfortable.
  • The way you read the music is consistent with the structure of the music itself.

What is sight-reading?

I’m not sure there is a single agreed-upon definition of “sight-reading.” Some musicians will consider “sight-reading” to mean “playing music at first glance.” Others will define it as “playing from sheet music, even if you have played the piece before.”

Personally, I take a more inclusive approach, and consider sight-reading to be any performance of a piece that involves reading the score while you are playing.

Sight-reading vs. Playing from memory

Surprisingly, sight-reading is closely related to memory. Pieces that are similar to pieces you already know are easier to read. This is because reading is basically pattern recognition. Therefore, the more pieces you read, the better you will get at reading new pieces (especially those in the style of the music you are already familiar with). Furthermore, if you are not good at sight-reading, your priority must be reading lots and lots of music, so that your brain can collect a large number of patterns.

Whether you are sight-reading at first glance, reading a piece you already know, playing by ear, improvising, or playing from memory, your task at the piano is the same.

Why are some people bad at sight-reading?

Many students have trouble sight-reading with ease. They find that:

  • Looking at a score produces confusion and stress, rather than clarity and familiarity.
  • Sight-reading at an uncomfortable tempo (either too fast or too slow) leads to anxiety.
  • Physical symptoms such as pain and fatigue creep up while reading.
  • They are unable to really feel the music as they sight-read, and giving a convincing personal interpretation seems impossible.

What makes sight-reading so hard, anyway?

Our education system teaches us to view things in black and white terms. In order to get a passing grade, we learn to do what is right, and avoid what is wrong. When we take music lessons, we carry this attitude into our practicing. Through no fault of our own, we can end up viewing music reading in the same light as math or physics. This can have the effect of causing us to detach emotionally from the task, making things feel difficult and tiresome. Thus, for completely understandable reasons, many students totally ignore their musicality when reading.

Furthermore, sight-reading is hard! Sight-reading asks us to bring our complete selves to the table. Our minds and our bodies must work in harmony to allow us to function as a unified whole. Specifically, you must coordinate:

  • Your eyes
  • The parts of your body that are directly involved in playing the instrument
  • The rest of your body
  • The instrument itself
  • The page turns

What’s more, all of these must be coordinated with the beat, the musical intention, the conductor, the singer, etc.

Your sight-reading will not improve until you can come to terms with all of this.

How to read a score

What’s in a score

  • A visual representation of how the composer wants the music to sound. It’s more of a picture, or an outline, than a step-by-step recipe.
  • A description of the beats of music. (What pitches occur on each beat? How are the beats grouped into meter? What happens between the beats?)
  • An outline which marks the basic events occurring in the piece (repeats, phrases, accents, crescendos, fermatas, etc.)

The score is not the music. Rather, it is a two-dimensional picture. Additionally, It is not, strictly speaking, a set of instructions for how to play. But, it does contain some instructional information.

If you wish to improve your sight-reading, your task is to understand how to read a score, so that you can extract all of the relevant details. That is, you are learning how to connect to the composer’s intention by absorbing this picture. You want to be able to extract as many of them as you possibly can, in real-time. In the end, you want to be able to do this quickly, allowing the music to simply flow off of the page and through your body.

You decide what is important in the score

There must be a hierarchy to what appears in the score. What this means is that the elements higher up the hierarchy are more important than the ones further down. For this reason, a big part of your artistry is determining what you wish this hierarchy to be. However, it may vary from piece to piece. In general, I find something like the following works well:

  • Beats and measures
  • Phrase/section/cadence (I put harmony and dynamics in this category as well)
  • Rhythm of the beats themselves (do notes or rests fall on the beats?)
  • Articulation of the beats
  • Rhythm of the notes that fall off the beats
  • Pitch of the notes on the beats
  • Pitch of the notes off the beats
  • Articulation of the off-beats
  • Other elements
    • Counterpoint
    • Inner voices
    • Doublings
    • Texture, color, etc.

I do not follow this religiously. It is just an example of how I often think about music. There is space for individual variation and creativity. By focusing on these aspects of the music, you will be able to read a piece in a way that is meaningful to you.

This frees you to express music how you feel it. Like a painter bringing objects to the foreground or relegating them to the background, you create the sound world you envision. Your body is coordinated with the important elements of the music, so they come out your playing. You are absorbed in the task, enjoying the process, and the audience will be moved by your performance.

Why you must decide what’s important in the score

Your reading, and hence your playing, must conform to this hierarchy, for several reasons:

  1. You often do not have time to absorb all of the details on the page. What you do absorb should be more important than what you don’t absorb.
  2. Your entire physical state must give preference to the important elements. For example, if your body is not generally “moving to the beat”, you will find it difficult to articulate the fingers properly.
  3. Thinking hierarchically makes it easier to understand what you are reading. When you read text, it is useful to understand how the text is broken into paragraphs, words, sentences, chapters, etc., as this improves comprehension.
  4. With improved comprehension comes greater room for creativity. When you understand the basic building blocks in front of you, you can then assemble them in the order than makes the most sense to you.
  5. With creativity comes a more engaged performance. As a result, you will enjoy yourself more, and the audience will enjoy the performance more as well.

How to learn to sight-read anything

You may have tried working on sight-reading and found that trying to get every detail perfect was overwhelming. I would like to offer an approach that does not ask you for perfection.

Sight-reading strategies you may have tried

There are many strategies that are commonly used while sight-reading:

  • When there is a trouble spot, stop and figure it out before moving on. When things are easier, increase the tempo.
  • Choose a tempo that is slow enough that you can absorb and render every detail accurately, in tempo.
  • Deliberately decide what you will play and what you will leave out. For example, you may decide to play one hand at a time, or only the outer voices.
  • Read 1 or 2 measures ahead while playing.

You can decide for yourself whether or not these strategies are effective. When I learned to sight-read, I did not follow any formal strategies or use any “tricks”. Nonetheless, it took me less than a year after I began studying piano before I was what I would call “reasonably fluent” at reading both hands together. I am not saying this to brag, but to make the point that it is possible improve your sight-reading skills quickly, if you are interesting in doing it. I attribute my progress to the fact that I simply read a ton of music, without fear of making mistakes. Therefore, this approach is what I try to teach.

A basic approach to sight-reading

Let me offer this basic method:

  1. Decide what note gets the beat, and what basic physical action you will use to perform these beats.
  2. Choose a tempo and stick to it. Use a metronome.
  3. Decide on what is important, and what isn’t. When you play, prioritize what is important.
  4. Keeping your eyes on the music, play from the beginning to the end, without stopping. Try not to look at your hands (but it’s no big deal if you do).

Some variations

This is the basic formula, and you can vary it as needed. For example:

  • Change what you are prioritizing. For example, you may prioritize the bass line, or one of the inner voices.
  • Change which durations you are playing. You may decide only to play the notes that fall on the quarter note beat, for example. Alternatively, you might play just the downbeat of each measure.
  • Play easier music, or harder music.
  • Play faster, or slower.

Other suggestions

  • Let yourself feel the beat as you read.
  • Try to make music.
  • Play the piece as you feel it should sound, even if it doesn’t come out exactly right.
  • Even if you don’t know the piece very well, you have the right to your interpretation. Trust your inner self to know what to do.
  • Try playing both hands, or at a tempo that feels a little too fast for you. Try to ease into this difficulty, noticing how your body wants to react.
  • Do not write in the pitches.
  • Understanding music theory can be somewhat helpful, but it is not the most important thing. You will recognize chords mostly by their shapes, not as much by their harmonic functions. However, you should be comfortable playing scales in the key signature that the piece is in. If you are trying to read accidentals while sight-reading, this will generally throw a wrench in the works.

Some frequently asked questions about this approach to sight-reading

How exactly is this different from what I’m already doing?

Here are a few ways in which you may find this method of sight-reading different from what you have already tried doing. In this method:

  1. You do not stop, ever.
  2. You do not vary the tempo based on difficulty.
  3. You do not read ahead.
  4. You do not plan fingering.
  5. You do not concern yourself with mistakes.

What if I just simply cannot play in tempo?

Then, don’t play in tempo. For now, start by playing confidently and securely. Every beat that you play must be decisive and sure. Then, you go to the next beat, and play that one as confidently as the previous one. Over time, you can then work on lining up your beats in tempo. Whatever you do, do not “stutter“.

I can read notes just fine, but I have a problem sight-reading rhythm

Keep a steady beat. This is the most important thing, always.

The rhythms will come eventually, once you learn to recognize the patterns. However, you will never be perfect at recognizing rhythms at sight. Music notation can, at times, be too confusing for this to work.

Focus on getting the correct notes that fall on the beats. Do not worry about the notes that fall in between beats.

What can I do next?

To improve your sight-reading further, you can try:

  • Using the waterfall technique on a difficult piece of music.
  • Transposing. Learn to read in all seven clefs.
  • Playing music that is very difficult to sight-read, such as Bach fugues, or open choral scores.
  • Singing and playing. You can work on sight-singing, which will be very effective no matter what instrument you play. Sing on the words, and also on solfège syllables.

How much do I need to practice sight-reading to improve?

As far as practice goes, the more you practice, the easier sight-reading will become. However, if your experience practicing sight-reading is less than exciting and engaging, you will not be motivated to do it. Pay attention to what encourages you to practice, and also to what discourages you.

How to motivate yourself to practice sight-reading

What might get you to read a lot:

  • Reading music you enjoy listening to.
  • Setting a goal such as “read through all the Mozart sonatas this weekend”, and just plowing through it.Ignoring all of your mistakes (if you hate fixing mistakes).
  • Spending time diligently correcting all your mistakes (if you love fixing mistakes).
  • Focusing on physical sensation rather than correctness. Paying more attention to the feeling of the music, and the feeling of your body playing the instrument, rather than whether or not you are playing correctly.
  • Playing duets, chamber music, vocal music, etc.
  • Reading the easier parts and ignoring the harder parts.
  • Play with freedom like you did as a child. Ignore the hard parts!

Why you might find sight-reading practice frustrating

What might be stopping you from reading a lot:

  • Perfectionistic attitudes about correctness.
  • An approach to reading that causes physical discomfort.
  • A sense that you are “bad at this”, and have a huge deficiency to overcome.
  • Judgment from others about how good your reading is.
  • Reading music you dislike.
  • A busy schedule that limits practice time.
  • Tension and fatigue in your body.
  • A history of having difficulties in sight-reading, and either being hard on yourself, or being judged by others.

Generally, anything that gets you to read a lot is a good technique, and anything that prevents you from reading a lot is a hindrance.

Increase the conditions that lead to more sight-reading. Work on eradicating the hindrances. With practice, your sight-reading will improve. Practice everyday. Set a timer, if you need to. If you skip a day or two, do not beat yourself up about it.

If you find yourself getting discouraged, pay attention to what is causing the discouragement. Focus more on what you find motivating. Remember that practicing is about you.

What music should I use to improve my sight-reading?

You should play music that is of interest to you.

Play music that is too easy, and also music that is too hard. At the end of the day, the difficulty is not what is important here.

Play music that is contrapuntal. Bach is always great for sight-reading. You should always play music that has 4-part harmony, such as in a hymnal. Train yourself to focus on the parts individually while you play. Start with just one part at a time.

Play music that is in the style in which you want to improve your sight-reading.

You can try sight-reading exercises, but I don’t think they are necessary.


Anyone can learn to improve their sight-reading. There is no magic bullet here. Basically, you just need to read a lot. The machinery I have presented is designed to make it more fun and engaging for you to read, so that you will be more likely to do it, and pay attention while you are doing it.

Rights for piano students

Maybe you feel like playing is too difficult. What your teacher is asking you to do just doesn’t make sense. You might say “this is too hard!” or “I can’t get it” or “I’m just bad at this”. You may get angry with your teacher, and wonder “why are you making me do this!?”.

You can say something.

  1. You have the right to ask the teacher for an explanation of how working on this piece fits the goals that you have for yourself.

    Does it seem like your teacher is forcing you to play a piece you don’t like? Don’t just tolerate it. You have the right to talk to your teacher about your own goals.

    I am not saying that you should refuse to play what the teacher assigns. The teacher, as an expert, is supposed to give you assignments that are in your best interest. Maybe that means you won’t like some of those pieces, but the teacher should be able to explain why they are being assigned.

  2. If the teacher asks you to do something too hard, you have the right to ask: “How?”

    You don’t have to struggle by yourself. Your teacher should offer a solution to any problem you face. Sometimes that solution might be a way to eliminate the problem entirely, and sometimes it might be a way to help you accept that you can’t eliminate the problem. But, it is your teacher’s responsibility to ask you for things that are right for you. If it’s really too hard, this is not your problem.

  3. If you can’t get it, you have a right to wonder why.

    If you are trying really hard to master something, and it’s not working, there is a reason. It may be a simple reason, or it may be a complex reason, but there is a reason. Part of the excitement of music study comes from figuring out these reasons. So explore them!

  4. You have the right to ask the teacher why you aren’t getting the results you are expecting.

    You might be frustrated with your playing. You might be frustrated with your hands, which aren’t doing what you tell them to do. You might be frustrated with your brain, which can’t read notes fast enough. Or, you might be frustrated with the piano, which isn’t making the sound you want. You can complain about all of this.

  5. If it seems like you are just bad at this, you have a right to be given a path to improvement.

    And that path should not be just “practice harder.” Your teacher should be able to suggest concrete exercises which target the specific issues you have. The path may not be so obvious to you, and there’s no guarantee how long it will take to reach any specific point, but the teacher should be able to chart a course for you.

  6. You have the right to tell the teacher that you don’t feel at ease with the way you are sitting.

    Perhaps it hurts to sit at the piano. Maybe you are trying to sit up straight, but it’s just too tiring.

    Sitting should be reasonably comfortable. If it isn’t, it might be possible to change the way you are sitting. Don’t assume that you need to just deal with it.

  7. You have the right to let your mind wander to whatever you find most exciting in the moment.

    Maybe you are bored. You try focusing on what you are playing, but it’s just not happening. You don’t need to fight this. It’s how your mind works.

  8. If you aren’t practicing enough, but still want to improve, you have a right to be taken seriously.

    I assume you know that you can’t expect miraculous results without consistent practice. However, you should still expect some results even with minimal practice. If you practice for 5 minutes, you should get 5 minutes worth of results, which is still more than nothing!

    If you want to practice more, but can’t seem to motivate yourself to do so, your teacher should be able to help you to either find a way to incorporate more practice into your life, or help to accept whatever amount of practice you are doing.

    If you don’t want to practice more, and your teacher wants you to, you have the right to talk to your teacher about this, or look for a teacher whose goals for you are more in line with your own.

You can challenge yourself, too

This isn’t just your teacher’s problem.

If things hurt,
If they are no fun,
If you don’t understand,
If they aren’t working…

…don’t just deal with it!

You have more power than you realize to get what you want.

Playing the piano with confidence

When we don’t feel confident, playing the piano can seem very difficult. It can be hard to trust ourselves, hard to feel the music, and hard to get absorbed in the whole process. Paradoxically, it can seem impossible to actually progress, because it seems that confidence is the result of ability, but we also feel that we need confidence in order to practice well.

We tend to think that the feeling must come before the playing. Why do we think this? My guess is that it is a result of the common experience of trying to play confidently, and failing. However, just because this is a common experience does not mean that it has to be this way.

Is “confidence” in piano playing an attribute of the music, or of the one playing? If we don’t understand the difference, it is very easy to say “I can’t possibly play confidently, because I’m not confident.”

What does it mean to play confidently?

To start with, we would need to have a clear idea of what “playing confidently” means. If we don’t have a concept of this, how can we possibly know what we are trying to do? And, how will we know if we have failed at it?

I’m not sure there is one perfect definition of “confident playing” that would satisfy all purposes, but let’s examine a few characteristics of playing that generally indicate a certain level of confidence.

Confident playing involves clear intention

A confident pianist has a very simple idea of what the performance of a piece is. I like to compare this to reaching out for a glass of water. If we analyze this movement to the greatest degree possible, we can easily become overwhelmed by detail. Which muscles are involved? To what extent do they need to contract and relax? Exactly how much force is required to pick up the glass? What direction do I need to move my arm in, relative to my torso? What angle should I hold my forearm at, to prevent the water from spilling?

This is way too much to think about. It is far more practical to have an intention of simply “picking up the glass”. If I organize my actions around this intention, then over time, I will be able to see how to calibrate each of the individual variables.

You may object “I don’t have a clear intention yet, because I don’t know the piece well enough yet.” It can be difficult to commit to an intention when you are still worried about concrete details which you know are wrong. Nonetheless, this is what you need to do. Choosing a clear intention will serve to focus your mind, and make it easier for you to observe cause and effect relationships between your actions and the results you get.

Confident playing involves lack of correction

Many students will play a wrong note, and then immediately correct it before going on. This is not confident playing.

It’s true that correcting your mistake brings attention to it, and that the audience is less likely to notice a mistake if you simply brush it off (especially if they are unfamiliar with the piece). This is not, however, the main reason I suggest avoiding corrections.

Corrections feed distraction. They make it impossible to focus on big picture. They encourage you to worry about details. They prevent you from entering a state of real connection to what you are doing, because your brain is constantly scanning for potential mistakes to correct.

A common objection to this is “if I don’t correct myself, I will learn the piece wrong.” I am not arguing that you should turn a blind eye to mistakes. However, while you are playing, you cannot correct them. Go back later, figure out what happened, and practice accordingly. But, correcting in the middle of playing is (I’m guessing) not the type of intentional playing you wish to cultivate.

Confident playing involves lack of hesitation

Music has a beat. Don’t interrupt it. You can keep a steady beat even if you aren’t sure of the notes you are playing.

Don’t believe me? Try it. Find a piece that you don’t even know very well, turn on the metronome, and play from beginning to end. Allow yourself to play wrong notes. Work on this until you see clearly that there is no need to hesitate.

Similar to the objection raised in the previous section, I often hear, “if I don’t play carefully, I will make careless mistakes.” Well, you might consider that “playing carefully” is its own kind of mistake. Record your “careful” playing, and listen to it. Can you hear how careful it is? How, exactly, does that come across in the sound? Is that the intention of the composer?

Confident playing involves lack of apology

I think students are trained to look sheepishly at teachers whenever they make mistakes. Worse, they can be trained to really feel as if they have done something wrong, or that they are bad pianists/students/people as a result of it.

This is a distraction. You should be focusing on the music, and on your playing, not on the teacher, and not on your self-image. Notice how it affects your playing. This is always the key.

I’m not sure who would logically argue for the need to apologize after making a mistake. I would be curious to know if anyone defends this.

What will happen if you play confidently when you don’t feel confident?

Hopefully, we now have a clearer understanding of what “confident playing” involves. You may still object to playing confidently, as it may seem that certain negative consequences will arise from this. Perhaps you think:

  • It will be a sign of arrogance.
  • I will be embarassed if I play confidently and still screw up.
  • Others will be angry with me.
  • I haven’t yet earned the right to play with confidence, when I still have so many mistakes in my playing.
  • I’m only a beginner.

My suggestion is that you don’t try to argue with your mind. Instead, simply notice how all of this is affecting your playing. Give it a try in the practice room. Try it in a lesson. Try it for 5 minutes at a time, and see what happens.

This will help you play better

A final concern I hear frequently is: “I can play confidently once I learn to play well, so I should work towards that first.”

Many people reach high levels of achievement, and do not feel confident. Sometimes, they have learned to perform despite the lack of confidence. Often, confidence actually decreases as skill increases (you gain a better realization of how much you don’t know). I believe you should try to maintain a beginner’s mind. Try to make friends with your incompetence.

It can be challenging to approach things this way, because it is so different from the order society generally teaches us things must progress in. I find, however, that this will help you play better. You will be able to focus more on what you are doing, and less on yourself.

Why should I practice scales on the piano?

Do you hate practicing scales? Are you wondering why it is important for you to learn to play them well? Here are some points you should consider before ignoring these important exercises.

Many piano student hate practicing scales. It is a stereotypical element of a tedious, boring piano lesson. Everyone knows this. So, why does your teacher insist that you practice them? Do you actually have to practice scales? Continue reading

How do I relax at the piano?

It’s no fun playing the piano when you don’t feel at ease. Many of us are told to relax by teachers who can see how much of a toll the stress is taking on our playing. This may lead us to ask “how do I relax while playing?” or perhaps “will relaxing actually help me?”

Before trying to figure out how to relax, I would first ask the following question: “What are you trying to accomplish by relaxing?” Maybe you want to play better. Maybe you want to feel better while you play. Both of these are understandbly desirable.

I ask the question because I believe it is important to understand that “relaxation” is probably not your final, ultimate goal, but rather a means to an end. Is relaxation a worthy means to achieving a particular end? I would say it depends. You need to use your own experience as a guide here. “Relaxation” is just a word. What is more interesting to me is what happens when you try to relax.

Some common concerns

“I want to relax because it will help me play better.”

My suggestion is to:

  1. Have a clear idea of what you are trying to accomplish.
  2. Have a clear idea of what will accomplish it.
  3. Learn how to focus and concentrate on that.

Can you do these 3 things? Is anything else required? Perhaps “relaxation” is necessary in order to achieve them, or perhaps it isn’t. But, if you keep coming back to this list, you might have a better chance of staying on track.

“I have no idea how to avoid tensing up. It happens so suddenly that I can’t stop it.” Or, “The pain starts immediately after I begin playing.”

It can be extremely difficult to identify long-standing habits. Often, we are so used to them, and they are so much a part of us, that we just can’t imagine how we could possibly do anything differently.

You should keep in mind that if the pain appears immediately after you start playing, it is caused by something you are doing.

Does that mean your playing is causing it? Not necessarily. Perhaps you only notice it when you start playing. Or, maybe it is your playing itself. I have no idea. But, you are the one who is in a position to investigate this.

Make an exercise out of it. Take a few minutes to observe what happens as you start playing.

  • When does this shift happen?
  • How long does it take?
  • Is it an abrupt change, or does it have a soft border?
  • Is there any place you feel your attention being drawn to?
  • What physical sensations do you notice, throughout your whole body?

To do this kind of work, you must (at least temporarily) set aside the idea that you are going to fix this right now. We need to get more info first.

“The music I’m playing is just tense music. There’s no way I can relax.”

When we listen to music, it can be remarkable how much of an effect it has on us. When we play music, this effect can be even more pronounced. Most people who have learned a musical instrument can attest to how remarkable it is that a piece which promoted so much tranquility and ease suddenly makes us want to rip our hair out in frustration as we learn to play it.

So, I offer the following challenges:

  1. Listen to some emotionally evocative music and try to remain unaffected by it: Try to hear the music as sound, not music. How many notes can you hear? How many instruments? Can you hear harmonics? Sound effects such as breathing, hands thumping against the keys, distortions in the recording?
  2. Listen to some really boring music and try to make yourself react to it strongly: Notice what comes up in your mind as you listen, even if it is seemingly unrelated to the music. Let yourself go with it.
  3. Play a very difficult piece and refuse to struggle with it: What would this take? What would you have to give up in order to let go of the need to play it well?
  4. Play an easy piece and struggle with it: If your playing is easy and comfortable, raise your standards. Demand as much perfection as you possibly can, until you start struggling. If you can play perfectly by yourself, try in front of an audience. If you can play in tempo, trying increasing the tempo by 50%. If you can play while looking at the music, close the book and try again.

The point of these exercises is to learn to understand that your emotions are not due to the music, but rather due to the ways that you are interacting with the music. You can learn to do things differently, if you want to. You need to be the one to decide which way is most useful for you. But, don’t blame the music!

“Pianists who look tense clearly play with a harsh sound. So, it’s obvious that relaxation is better.”

Is the goal to satisfy your own (or someone else’s) subjective opinion of sound? Or, is it to achieve control over your playing, so that you can achieve whatever you set your mind to?

Also, looks can be deceiving. It can be quite difficult to understand someone’s internal state simply by observing their playing.

“I can relax when I play slowly but not when I play fast.”

You are probably doing something very different when you change tempo. Fast playing is not inherently more tension-producing than slow playing. Why is faster playing provoking you more? Are you trying harder to do something when you play faster? Is it possible that your concept of the piece at a fast tempo is just too complicated? Explore this.

You can force relaxation, if you want to…

Do you know the different between being relaxed and being tense? If so, why can’t you just…do it?

Is it not just a matter of setting priorities? For instance, you could decide to simply not play at all. Would this be relaxed enough for you? Or, instead of trying to play every single note, you could just focus on keeping a steady beat. Could you manage this in a relaxed manner? You know, like tapping your foot to the radio…

Of course, that is not what you are looking for. You want a way to play both relaxed and also correctly, right? That is completely understandable. I wish I had a magic bullet for this, but I don’t. I urge you to consider the possibility that you just don’t know how to play the correct notes in a way that works technically.

I don’t say this to discourage you. There can be something empowering in the realization that you just can’t figure out, that you are out of ideas. Sometimes, it is only when we reach the bottom of the barrel that we are willing to try something new, and often, trying something new is what leads to real progress.

“In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.” – Shunryu Suzuki

Should playing feel good?

When I play the piano, I strive to make it feel good. It is no fun for me to feel like I am struggling with my body while trying to play, and the music that results from that struggle is not something I would enjoy listening to.

I want to be clear that I am not suggesting that playing which feels good is automatically correct, or that making sure you are feeling good will somehow lead you to better playing. The point is to learn to pay attention to feelings, which is a useful skill for at least a few reasons:

  1. Feeling good has practical benefits: All else being equal, we want to be in a state where things feel better. When we are not in pain, and not stressed out, we are better able to pay attention, better able to learn, and more likely to be motivated to practice. This does not mean that the good feelings are what lead to improvement, but rather that they are a useful prerequisite for what does lead to improvement.

  2. Feelings point us to what we might be ignoring: Our senses provide us with valuable information which we need in order to learn. The more we pay attention to all of the varied aspects of our playing (how it feels, how it sounds, how it looks, etc.), the better we learn to discriminate between subtle differences. You want to notice what is actually happening, not just what you think should be happening.

  3. Properly calibrated feelings are a useful guide: In the long run, we actually do want good feelings to teach us what to do. We want the right way to simply “feel right”. So, if we can sense pain and tension as we are playing, and learn to notice the difference between how things feel when they are “correct” and when they are “incorrect”, we can find ways of playing which are both correct and which feel good, as the feelings themselves will reward us for playing correctly. Over time, this will train our intuition, and we will naturally gravitate toward playing correctly and easily.

To sum up: Learn the difference between what feels good and what feels bad.

So, is tension good or bad?

There is definitely a danger in believing that playing should always feel good. I discussed some common beliefs about tension in a previous article. To expand on that, let’s look at a few reasons why tension may not always be the evil monster it’s made out to be:

  1. Increased awareness leads to more discomfort: As you develop more awareness, things which used to feel good or neutral may start to feel bad. This doesn’t even necessarily mean you are doing anything different, only that you are noticing feelings you never noticed before. It is a sign of progress, but it can lead you to believe that you are doing the wrong thing, and you may even abandon whatever approach led you to this awareness, which is exactly the wrong thing to do.

  2. Growth requires leaving your comfort zone: If you assume that bad feelings mean you are going in the wrong direction, you may avoid territory which you need to confront in order to progress. In order to learn, you have to go outside of your comfort zone. Often, because we feel anxious or uncertain about our playing, we may tense up. If we don’t realize the psychological origin of the tension, we may end up blaming our technique.

  3. You might be jumping to conclusions: You may not be correct as to the cause of the feelings. This can cause you to change your approach prematurely. For example, you may believe that tension is caused by the way you are sitting, when actually it is caused by the fact that you aren’t feeling a steady beat as you play.

In this light, I would say it is often best to observe tension without trying to eliminate it, at least until you have a clear idea of what will actually eliminate it.

Is pain always a sign of injury or potential injury?

(Disclaimer: I am not a medical professional, so the following should not be understood as medical advice.)

My guess is that yes, pain probably means you are doing something wrong, which will probably lead to negative consequences down the road, if you keep doing it.

However, I also believe that pain at the piano is rarely an emergency. If you feel pain, what are you going to do about it? You may ask a teacher what to do, but what if the teacher can’t give you an answer which allows you to play without pain?

If you feel pain, do not try to push through it. There is no sense in that. Instead, bring an attitude of curiosity to it, without trying to make it go away, and see how many different aspects of it you can observe.

  • When does it happen? When doesn’t it happen?
  • Where do I feel it? Where don’t I feel it?
  • What else do I feel along with the pain?
  • Is it constant, or does it come and go?
  • Does it have a shape? A texture?

The point is not to arrive at “correct” answers to these questions. You may not know the answers, or the answers may seem to change. The point is to ask the questions, because they will get you to pay attention to what’s actually going on, and in the process you may learn something.

If you feel pressure to perform well (for a competition, audition, etc.), this will almost certainly interfere with your attempts to practice awareness. If you can’t look at your pain with an attitude of open curiosity, you should probably back off.

Analyzing music for performance

When your playing isn’t “right”, I believe it is important to distinguish between your analysis and your performance.

By “analysis”, I am referring to the way you understand the music. This may include a formal analysis, such as with Roman numerals or a Schenker graph. However, it may also include simple, common-sense answers to the basic question “what features do I notice in this piece?”

Analysis serves at least two purposes:

  1. To understand what the composer wrote.
  2. To understand what the piece means to you.

In my opinion, Purpose 1 is not about morality. As far as I am concerned, you are under no obligation to care about what the composer wrote. However, it may be of use, as it can help you understand the work as a whole.

Regarding Purpose 2, I generally try to follow a rule: “If it doesn’t mean anything to me, it’s not real.” If there is something in the score, I do not take it seriously until I can convince myself that it really should be there. Otherwise, I try to ignore it. There is no sense in insisting I play a passage forte if I don’t see what is motivating that forte. Otherwise, what will move me to play loudly?


Performing, in contrast to analysis, is not about understanding, but rather about doing.

I want to make a few points about performance.

  • Performance is always “correct.” Your performance is always a correct rendition of your analysis, in the sense that you are always playing the piece as you see it in the moment that you are playing.This is not just a philosophical point. You don’t need to play the analysis. You only need to perceive the features of the music, and then play. Before you perform, talk through the analysis if you want, but don’t try to play the analysis. If your analysis isn’t right, change it. If you can’t play the analysis you have written down on paper, the problem is with your focus or with your technique, not with your performance. This attitude will free you from trying to control things over which you have no control during a performance, and it will make it much easier to let go of past performances that did not go well.
  • Performance requires mindfulness. It does not matter how well you “know” the music, or how well you “can play”. What matters most is how present you are. This can vary day-to-day. Many problems which appear to be problems with understanding of the music, or with technical ability, could be better understood as problems of distraction or of lack of commitment to doing one thing at a time. That does not mean they are trivial; these problems are just as difficult to solve as are more conventional musical issues.
  • Performance requires acceptance. Just because a performance is always perfect does not mean you will always feel great about it. You will make mistakes. You will be uncertain about your analysis. You will misunderstand things in the score and your teacher may reprimand you for that. Performing music requires accepting these possibilities.

Example of analysis

OK, back to analysis. I’d like to illustrate some points about by taking a look at Bach’s Invention No. 1 in C major.

The analysis consists of observing features of the piece. I have given some diagrams which I hope will illustrate the features I have observed. Accompanying the written analysis is a sequence of videos in which I demonstrate the features I have observed.

Main idea: The point is not to be artistic. It’s to observe features and notice how they are implemented mechanically.

This connection between the musical and the mechanical is vitally important. I believe a practice should, overall, be much more mechanical than most teachers recommend. You must have a clear understanding of the physical movements you will use to execute your musical ideas.

This understanding, however, is not something you should pursue while performing. In the moment of performance, you rely on artistic impulse to carry you through, simply reacting to the moment. We practice mechanically so that we can react musically.

I am aware that the diagrams may look confusing at first. If you don’t understand, listen to the examples, and make sure you read the text. I want the diagrams to make things simple, not complicated. The point of the diagrams is not to introduce a formal system of notation. They are meant to be visual representations of my intuitive understanding of the music. The purpose is only to show how a piece of music can be understood as doing one thing at a time. Notice how they are all chains of events, one after the other.

So, let’s get started.


Perhaps the most basic kind of analysis is the analysis of beats. Let’s look at the first measure of the piece.

Score of measure 1

The time signature is 4/4, so let’s say a quarter note is one beat. This isn’t a final decision, and my aim is to remain as flexible as possible. But, let’s go with it for now.

Let me take that first measure (plus the downbeat of the next), and really visualize those 5 beats.

Measure 1 broken down into 4 beats

I have circled the notes that fall on the beats, and connected them with arrows showing the notes that lead into the beats. Each beat, therefore, consists of these two parts. By doing this, I can conceive of this measure of consisting of 10 actions, one leading into the next.

If I number the beats, we can simplify the visual representation even further.

4 beats in a row

This is one measure of music, plus the downbeat of the next. This is, in some sense, what I see in my mind’s eye when I hear one measure of this piece. It’s a complete object, something I can touch and manipulate. My understanding of the music is based on arranging these simple objects in the order in which I want them to be, and on clarifying the relationships between them. It’s not about sound. The sound is only an expression of this basic structure.

The diagram is only an illustration. The actual music is more complex than this, even in my mind. But, it will serve to demonstrate some points.

Now, suppose we wanted to consider the half note as one beat. Grouping every two quarter notes together, the diagram might look something like this:

This basic abstract figure could be made more concrete by putting the music notation back in place:

And it can be made even more abstract by removing the quarter note beats entirely:

Given that I am trying to be flexible with the beat, I’d also like to try playing with the eighth note as the beat, and the sixteenth note. The measure, represented as eighth notes, might look something like this:

The video below demonstrates several of these possibilities.

Depending on your purposes, any of these could already be an acceptable rendition of the piece. If you cannot play correct notes in tempo at this stage, it is vital that you work that out before going further. All other stages of analysis and interpretation depend on the fact that you have a clear concept of where the beats lie.

The purpose of this stage is to develop rhythmic flexibility. It is not to play expressively, or to understand any aspect of the music other than the beat, and how to play the right notes at the right time. If you have problems playing correctly, or in tempo, try the waterfall technique.

Musical interpretation is primarily a matter of arranging the beats how you want them.

It’s not about sound, it’s not about notes, it’s not about emotion, it’s not about articulation, it’s not about expression. If those concepts work for you, do them, but I believe a lot of extremely common problems are neatly avoided by looking at it in the way I’m suggesting.

I want to made a point regarding the selection of which note value gets the beat. I don’t believe there’s is any right or wrong here. I’m experimenting to see what I prefer. It is not essential that you try each and every one of these options. If you know what you want, just go for it. I’m trying all of these because I enjoy the creative process, and the hunt for new possibilities.


Now, I can play all the notes. And you may even say there’s some expression, but that is not my concern. The performance is perfect, as all performances are. If I want more, I can analyze further, and work to incorporate that analysis into my playing.

A next step may be to look for phrases, which are a larger unit than the beat or measure. Often, the easiest way to find phrases is to look for cadences, which serve as punctuation marks.

If you have taken a music theory class, you might be worried about misidentifying cadences and phrases. This is the danger in taking music theory classes. In practice, don’t concern yourself with this. Just notice what jumps out at you. If it’s wrong, you can always fix it later.

I notice cadences in measures 3, 7, 15, and 22. Let’s look at the phrases ending on measures 3 and 7. We could diagram them as follows.

Since the half note is the beat, each measure consists of two half notes, strung together with whatever material Bach has chosen.

Or, perhaps we don’t even want to consider the content of each measure, but simply observe how they flow together to create a whole phrase. Do you see how each phrase is a single object? How the measures are objects? How they are connected together?

I demonstrate some of this in the video. My task is to get a sense of the phrases as structures. I’m not trying to express anything. I am only trying to play with them, like a child playing with clay.


A study of Bach would not be complete without some mention of counterpoint. This could have been done earlier, but it doesn’t really matter. Counterpoint is complex, and requires immense focus to execute properly.

Don’t worry about understanding everything. Label what you observe. Notice how things fit together. Over time, your internal concept of the piece will crystalize. You are building a structure which has both simplicity of form, and also richness of detail. This doesn’t happen overnight, but as it happens, it becomes part of you.

First, I will look for motives: small fragments of melody that have their own integrity, often repeated throughout the piece. I’m not concerned about finding each one, just enough to keep me interested. Let me repeat myself in saying that I am not really looking hard for anything, but rather categorizing the features of the music that have already jumped out at me. This isn’t a music theory term paper.

In the first measure, I see two motives. Perhaps we could call them a “subject” and a “countersubject.” Or we could call them “Tom” and “Sue.” It’s totally immaterial, because these are only labels, and what I am really concerned with is seeing them as objects, anyway.

The first motive is two beats. Thus, we could diagram it simply as two beats:

This is a complete picture of the motive. What I play is not one note followed by the next, but rather one beat followed by the next. This is the structure which will be used to express my emotional reaction to the music.

Likewise, the second motive looks quite similar:

I also notice a couple instances of imitation.

I could diagram them as follows:

Do you see how “imitation” is simply one thing followed by another? First, you do the first thing. Then, you do the second, in response.

Sequences are rather similar. They are chains of events. Starting at measure 3, we see one, with each event outlined in red.

Thinking of the sequence as a chain of beat-structures, we could diagram it like this:

Starting at measure 9 is another sequence, which I have chosen to diagram as follows.

At the risk of repeating myself, there is no right or wrong here. I must emphasize that this is not intended to be a scholarly analysis of Bach’s music, but rather an explanation of how I saw it, in the moment that I made these diagrams and wrote this text.

Finally, the very end of the piece has some interesting implied voices I want to bring out. This is a 2-part invention, but I see four voices at the end. In truth, Bach’s 2-part music always has more than two voices, and if I go hunting, I’ll find more. This must also be understood in terms of beats, and the video illustrates how I do this. I want to point out that working this way completely eliminates any need to struggle with finger independence when playing Bach. You will develop complete and total control over all voices, limited only by your imagination.


My whole strategy is to start observing basic elements, and gradually look for refinements as I feel the need. In essence, I am only categorizing what I observe. Let me repeat that there is no right or wrong.

Let’s look deeper into harmony. Ideally, I would have an understanding of every single symbol on the page, and an understanding of every relationship between every symbol on the page. That’s a lot of information to process. We can start digging deeper by looking at accidentals, and getting a sense about why Bach wrote them. I go through each one, come up with a rationale, and play that passage, observing how it impacts the music.

My rationales are quick judgments. If I spent more time on them, they might reveal deeper patterns. It doesn’t really matter. What’s important is that your analysis is convincing to you. If you find that your analysis doesn’t work for some other purpose, you can always change it when you get to that point.

Let’s look at the accidentals, which will expose more interesting patterns in the harmony.

The harmonies are events, and they are regulated by beats, as all musical events are. My task is to see the music this way. If I look at the phrase starting at measure 3, I could diagram it as a sequence of harmonies. I use Roman numerals to designate the harmonies, but the notation is not important. What is important is that this phrase is a sequence of harmonic events, one leading into the next. I want to understand how that is organized, so that it makes sense intuitively.

I am now going to list several harmonic features I observe in the music. It is not so important that you understand each of these fully. I am listing them to show you the types of observations I make when looking at a score. Bear in mind that each of these must be understood in terms of beats.

  • In measure 4, we see one F# in the left hand, and another in the right hand. This suggests to me that we are going into the key of G. Notice how the key of G is reinforced a few times.
  • In measure 9, the F# goes back to an F natural, implying that we have gone back into the key of C. Because we are in the key of C, the F in the left hand resolves to an E in measure 10.
  • The C# in measure 10 indicates the key of D minor, as does the B-flat in the same measure. We can see the B-flat leading down to the F.
  • The B natural tells us that we are going back into C major, and we can see a V7 chord here.
  • Measure 12 has an F# and G# leading up to an A, and this, combined with the C natural, suggests the key of A minor.
  • In this case, the D in measure 13 is a suspension resolving to the C.
  • Whenever we see the G# in this section, it is the leading tone, and we should understand it as such.
  • In measure 15, the G# reverts back to G natural, and the C# here indicates the key of D minor.
  • The C natural in measure 16 suggests the key of C, and we see a V7 chord here.
  • Thus, the F in measure 17 is a suspension, resolving to the E in measure 18.
  • The B-flat in measure 18 is from the key of F, and suggests we have a new idea here, and we can see the progression vi6 to i6 over the next couple measures.
  • We go back to the key of C in measure 20 with the B natural, and this is reinforced by the melody in the right hand.
  • Measure 21 starts with the end of a progression ending on I6, but we quickly go back to the key of F with the B-flat.
  • The B natural indicates a return to the key of C.
  • We see a progression here of IV-V7-I.

In the video, I play through a couple of these phrases, setting the beat to various note values, so that I can observe the harmonic rhythm on different levels. Again, this is not about expression, and not about programming muscle memory to play dynamics properly. It is about observation.

Putting it all together

Having done all of this, I play through the piece twice. The video is intended to illustrate how my analytical understanding of the music comes through when I simply sit down and tell myself to play. If it doesn’t come through, chances are I am either not completely focusing on the music, or the ways in which my body expresses my musical ideas are not quite effective enough. These are topics which will have to be dealt with in another article.

This video is not meant to demonstrate a perfect performance of this piece. My focus here is on the process, not the outcome. If I want a more perfect performance, I would spend more time on this process, clarifying the musical ideas down to the smallest detail, if necessary (actually, I would probably leave that task to a performer who has more patience than I do), and I would spend more time challenging my focus levels, to ensure that I could concentrate on my musical concept no matter what else was going on.

Things I am not analyzing

  • Dynamics: I generally do not pay much attention to dynamics when analyzing music, unless I can see that the composer made a special point of indicating a specific dynamic marking. Dynamics are perhaps better understood as a feature of harmony. They are usually intimately related to the structure of the phrase, and when you understand the phrase, the dynamics happen automatically. Let yourself respond to the music. Rather than thinking in terms of “loud” and “soft”, it is better to think in terms of “tension”, “resolution”, and “energy”. But don’t plan it out. Understand the mechanics of the phrase, and the dynamics must happen.
  • Emotions: Your job is not to express emotion. You are expressing emotion, 24 hours a day. Your job is to understand the piece in a way that is coherent, and to stay focused while you perform the piece. Do not play your analysis. Just play. The emotions you experience while you play will come through. You can’t control them, or rely on the fact that they will come back next time. Simply play the music. You will react to it, based on your understanding of what you are reacting to, and the fact that you are a human being who responds to music.Your technical practice must be mechanical. Do not let emotion interfere with it. Players fall into one of two extremes here. Either they are too technical, or they are too emotional. Many teachers don’t understand the difference.Players who are too emotional have allowed their emotions to influence their practicing in a way that doesn’t work during performance. Often, they can play well when they are in a room alone, but onstage they experience so much anxiety that nothing works. Their playing may seem uninvolved, because they aren’t correctly executing the musical ideas, but really the problem is that they are too involved.Technical players have the opposite problem. Playing is too easy for them, and thus they can perform difficult works without having to understand the music. What they are lacking is analysis.

    Players can have both problems simultaneously. It is possible to have severe stage fright, and also not understand the music you are playing.

    Don’t let either of these stop you from practicing technically, or from investing in the moment. You need to understand the music mechanically, devoid of emotion, so that you are free to put true emotion into it in the moment of performance. It must be easy to play, so that you can react to it as an observer.

    Many teachers even encourage always practicing with extreme emotion, as it aids in memory. It does indeed aid in memory, and for this reason I believe it’s a mistake. The problem is that in a performance, you may not be in control of your emotions, and if a given emotional state is required to recall something from memory, you may be out of luck.


I hope you can see that my method of analysis always aims to be exceedingly simple. It does not require an extensive background in music theory, although the more knowledge you have, the better. Instead, it relies only on breaking the music down into the simplest possible pieces, and structuring them in a way that makes sense to you. When you perform, you will be delivering an interpretation that is uniquely yours, and thus hopefully satisfying to you. If you see less than I do, ignore the parts you don’t see. Maybe I’m imagining them, anyway!

Do not hold yourself accountable for that which you do not see. My analysis was done in a matter of minutes. If you want to spend hours, or weeks on it, go ahead. You will possibly see more than I saw, and your performance will reflect that. But, don’t insist you are playing it wrong because you just know there’s something you aren’t seeing, even if you can’t put your finger on what exactly it is. Make a decision, and play it. Your performance is always perfect, in that it is a direct result of both your current level of understanding, and exactly what you are doing in the moment.