How do I play the piano without messing up?

The fear of messing up at the piano can easily stop us from pursuing other important goals. It is possible to learn to recognize and accept this fear.


It is very natural to want to play without messing up. Let me ask a different question, though: As a musician, how often do you take a stance of acceptance towards yourself?

I see in my students and colleagues (and certainly myself) constant battles, efforts at correcting or running away from our faults. What if those faults don’t need to be chased away? Could we even embrace them?

Can you accept “messing up”?

What exactly are we not accepting? While playing, we experience sensations, thoughts, feelings, and perceptions. Evaluations such as “this doesn’t feel right” or “this doesn’t sound right.” Thoughts like “I’m no good” or “this worked better last week.” Maybe we try to fix our technique, to match a sensation we remember from the past. Play in tune, with proper rhythm. Please the teacher, chase away our feelings of inadequacy.

Whether or not these are valid concerns, we still have the choice at any moment to either pursue them, or accept that things might not go perfectly.

Why would we accept “messing up” while playing? After all, isn’t our aim in practicing to eliminate what we don’t like, to present the audience with an enjoyable, polished product?

Perhaps, but do those goals interfere with our actual work while practicing and performing? Could our performance be based on qualities such as:

  • Aesthetics?
  • Physical comfort?
  • Athleticism?
  • Creativity?

If we base it instead on avoiding that which we fear, what room do we have for exploring those other qualities? If the goal of technical training is expanding our knowledge of the cause and effect relationships between our bodies and our instruments, is it possible that avoidance can have a limiting effect on this exploration?

How can we practice acceptance?

Well, we could move toward that which we fear. We could notice when we are avoiding, not so that we can slap ourselves on the wrist, but rather so that we can make a conscious decision to stop avoiding. Could we take an attitude of “yeah, it sounds bad, so sue me”?

Exercise: Choose a small passage of music or technical exercise and play it. Ask yourself “Did I feel at any point that my attention wandered away from my intention, toward something that needed to be fixed?” See if you can find what exactly it is you were afraid might happen. Play the passage again, reminding yourself that the idea is now to welcome whatever it was you were trying to keep at bay.

What thoughts does this bring up? Do you feel you might be compromising yourself as a musician, lowering your standards?

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