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I know this has been touched on before, but I'm interested in your experiences.

One approach is to keep working on the piece at every lesson until it's performance-ready on demand. That would seem to imply a lot of lesson time mastering the last 10% of perfectability, or am I wrong?

Another approach is to study the piece in lessons until student and teacher are convinced that all technical problems have been worked out, pending sufficient subsequent practice by the student, bringing the piece up to tempo, etc.

Another approach is to flog a too-difficult piece until student and teacher concur that they are past the point of diminishing returns and agree to set it aside until a later point in the student's development.

What is the process by which you and your teacher decide to move on from one piece in order to focus at lessons on other things?

Observations from both students and teachers are most welcome!


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I've asked myself, and the forum this same question. I think you have the options listed in your post. I've spent 5 weeks on my own learning Bach's Toccata In D Minor. Haven't played it for the teacher yet (took off from lessons for a month). I know the song and have completed 95% of getting the notes and fingering down. I anticipate that when I play it for the teacher, the corrections will start after the 2nd note. She strives for perfection which is above my ability. I always welcome corrections on wrong notes and glaringly incorrect rhythms but if I mis-time the difference between a 32nd, a 16th note and an eight note, or triplets, all of which I will never get right if I want to be able to play all the notes. Also, when I start to play it for the teach, I will be nervous in anticipation of when the first correction will come and said anticipation will cause me to not play it as well as I do at home by myself. Then the lesson goes downhill from that point. In answer to your question, for me, I think it is all about why you want to learn and play the song and for who or whom. If you are in competitions, or to meet the personal challenge of getting it perfect, don't stop until it is perfect. If you play for your own enjoyment and personal satisfaction, don't stop until you like and feel good about what your hear. I always question to sense of spending weeks and weeks trying to get something perfect for a song that I will move on from as soon as I master it, and probably never play or have to relearn again if I so desire. The only other reason to keep at it which you didn't list is the way I look at it, the more time you are tapping away at the keys and playing the music, the more the piano becomes a part of you so it is never time wasted if you do keep at any given song.

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I've only had a year of lessons and I have not yet perfected anything to performance level with my teacher. Playing in front of someone else makes me nervous and I avoid "performing" so maybe that's why. But I have done 2 and 3. Generally, it's up to the point where I master the technical difficulties and can play it musically but I might still make some errors from time to time.

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It really depends on your goals and on your teacher.

If you are preparing a piece for a competition, audition or performance, certainly work on it until it is as perfect as you can make it.

As a teen, I had the misfortune of having a teacher who let me move on to the next piece as soon as it was under my fingers, a month at most. I covered a lot of repertoire but I never added any depth to my interpretive skills or technique.

In my dotage, I have discovered that it takes a long time to really understand a piece of music. After I've reached a point where the piece is mostly memorized and I can free myself from the score, I start working on finding an interpretation that makes sense to me. This is a lengthy, ever evolving process and, for me, this is the hardest and most satisfying part of playing the piano. Sometimes it takes months and sometimes this doesn't happen until I set a piece aside and return to it months later.

My teacher, who is outstanding, encourages me to explore the depths of interpretation and improving my technique and we might spend many months or even a year on a piece. (I've had entire lessons on just 2 measures). I accept my teacher's input when making a decision to drop a piece or continue working on it, but ultimately the decision is mine. Generally, I work on a piece as long as I find it interesting and satisfying.


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Originally Posted by ClsscLib

One approach is to keep working on the piece at every lesson until it's performance-ready on demand. That would seem to imply a lot of lesson time mastering the last 10% of perfectability, or am I wrong?

I prefer to think of pieces as being in two stages: the "working" stage, when we are learning the piece, and the "old favorite" stage, when an already-performable piece is being improved, played through for fun or prepared for performance.

The working stage lasts until the piece can be performed in a way that an audience would enjoy, note accuracy very high, and something of the pianist's own energy and personality in it. (I really don't view this as the last 10% of the work. Maybe it's the first 10%. Or at most the first 50%.)

The old favorite stage can basically be infinite. Any time it gets picked up to be prepared for a performance, there is always more that can be done to make the performance better and better. Particularly if we have improved a lot as pianists since the last time we performed it. Also, the first performance of a new piece is always rough. Sometimes we have to perform a piece for an audience many times before we really get how we want to perform it.

And if the piece is a good piece and the teacher is a good teacher, there's always more the teacher will have to offer to make the piece sound better and better. I don't know that we ever really "move on" from a piece, but a workload with only one or two working pieces and a lot of old favorites is much easier to carry than vice versa, so I tend not to want pieces to languish in the working stage too long.

For beginning students, lessons are mostly about the working stage, though we do often go back and play old favorites.

The more advanced a student gets, the more of the working stage the student does on their own preparing the piece for lesson. Advanced students don't need a teacher to walk them through learning notes, understanding slurs and dynamics, planning fingerings. Lessons for advanced students are most productive if the student can already play the piece accurately and in an artistic manner. Then the real work can start.

Last edited by hreichgott; 01/03/16 04:22 PM.

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Originally Posted by ClsscLib


Another approach is to study the piece in lessons until student and teacher are convinced that all technical problems have been worked out, pending sufficient subsequent practice by the student, bringing the piece up to tempo, etc

This, along with brief exploration of bringing out personal emotion connected to the piece through dynamics, accents, rubato etc. Then it's left to me with an option to play it again at some future session with the teacher if I desire.

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Lessons generally follow this:
I work on new repertoire at home, including fingering, dynamics and phrasing
During the lesson, my questions are initially answered, followed by a complete playthrough of what I have worked on, with corrections-- this may mean a large amount of time on a very few measures
Any technical correction involves 'see one', 'do one' and maybe exercises to help with building
the needed skill. This playthrough and correction includes dynamics, phrasing, pedaling etc., which really can feel like too much at once. The good news is that working on the artistic interpretation begins at the very beginning.

The repertoire comes to lessons with a similar process until I know what is needed and how to get there...work is then continued at home. It is difficult to estimate the percentage of 'complete' when I am left alone. I am personally obsessive about continuing the work alone... probably at a higher level than what my teacher expects.

If I need a reality check, I bring it back to lessons for more questions or a status check. Unfortunately, there is no 'performance stage'... so I have to mentally create that level.



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Originally Posted by ClsscLib
What is the process by which you and your teacher decide to move on from one piece in order to focus at lessons on other things?


I haven't had a teacher for a few decades, but I remember how things worked with my first three teachers (working on the acquisition of skills while developing repertoire, and doing ABRSM grade exams), which was different with my last teacher (almost entirely on repertoire and interpretation).

So, for the first eight years, acquisition of pianistic and musical skills was the focus, and the repertoire my teachers selected was all geared towards that. Naturally, as my piano education was classical based, all the pieces I learnt were in their original form (once I was out of the beginner books). I never played recitals, so the only pieces I needed to polish to performance standard were the exam pieces. I'd probably spend two to three months on them prior to the exam, but not playing them exclusively.

All the other pieces were chosen by my teachers to improve my skills, develop new ones, and develop my musicianship; therefore once they were satisfactorily mastered (up to tempo, mistake-free and properly interpreted, but not necessarily completely polished), they were discarded. I normally had three or four pieces on the go at any one time, at various stages of completion - I'd be starting on a new piece about every two weeks, while I was still learning others, but they would be of different styles, and develop different skills. None of them would take me more than four to six weeks to master - my teachers never gave me anything to learn that was far beyond my ability.

I also learnt other pieces for myself all the while, which were often much more difficult technically (I was fascinated by technical challenges as a kid, and didn't have much patience for slow, intricate music grin - I was never attracted by the Chopin nocturnes, for instance), not to mention bombastic: none of which I ever told my teachers about, nor did I ask advice on. With them, I took as long as I wanted, and some took me a couple of years, as I frequently put them aside for long periods of time while developing the technical skills to play them.


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I'm still working on simple exercises and short pieces, so the teacher is the final judge of whether we move on. Generally, once a piece can be played through at tempo with no rhythmic mistakes (my teacher is very focused on exact timing) and minimal finger slips then we may move on or we may take another run through or two to try variations.

I'm always working on 5 or 6 exercises or short pieces at a time so a very small portion of the lesson is spent on any one piece. Generally the work in the lesson is to identify problem areas and focus on demonstrating practice routines which will overcome the problem. Once a potential solution has been identified then we move on and the results are reviewed in the next lesson.

Once a piece is done at a preliminary level, then the more interesting ones are noted in my lesson plan as part of a working repertoire. These pieces are memorized and played again for the teacher after 3 or 4 months.

As more difficult or interesting pieces are finished some of the simpler, older pieces are rolled off the list so there are always about 20 memorized (very short) pieces that can be reviewed at any future point.

Some pieces take months to master, some only a few hours. I expect the learning curve will get significantly longer as I move up from the beginner level and take on correspondingly more difficult material.

Last edited by scgrant; 01/03/16 10:24 PM. Reason: Expanded explanation

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For me pieces will fall into several categories:

1. I loved it at first now I hate it but learned something from it, time to move on.

2. I loved it at first now I hate it and I will die trying to get it right. However for my sanity it will have to be just practised at home to keep the notes under my fingers. I haven't been playing long enough to have many success's will this method but there has been a couple.

3. I loved it at first and now I really hate it (refer No 2). No matter what I do my technique is just not ready and time to stop flogging a dead horse.

4. I loved it at first then hated it and now I am playing it better I seem to be loving it again (funny that). How could I possibly have hated it and then the teacher says it's almost there, just needs the left hand to quieten down or the right hand to become more quiet. How hard could that be smirk I now love this piece so much I might pop it into the next PW recital and put it on my repertoire list.


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When I get a new piece, I go home with it and figure out the fingering, rhythm, etc, At my next lesson, I should be able to play it through, under tempo, and not too many mistakes. My teacher and I go over any sticky spots, or questions. We decide if I'm on the right track musically. Then I go home with it again and try to get it up to tempo and musical. It may take only another week, maybe 2. Then we move to a new piece. I don't perform, so I don't need to polish anything, but it needs to be at tempo, musical, and played with minimal mistakes.

I usually have an etude and another piece going. I also have a piece that's above my level that I'm chipping away at. I'm not sure when that one will be considered "done", but I have decided I really don't like pieces that are beyond my current level!

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Originally Posted by ClsscLib
One approach is to keep working on the piece at every lesson until it's performance-ready on demand. That would seem to imply a lot of lesson time mastering the last 10% of perfectability, or am I wrong?

Another approach is to study the piece in lessons until student and teacher are convinced that all technical problems have been worked out, pending sufficient subsequent practice by the student, bringing the piece up to tempo, etc.

Another approach is to flog a too-difficult piece until student and teacher concur that they are past the point of diminishing returns and agree to set it aside until a later point in the student's development.

What is the process by which you and your teacher decide to move on from one piece in order to focus at lessons on other things?


Let me start with what my teacher and I don't do. We do not flog a too difficult piece until we concur anything. If it is too difficult, it is just that. There is not enough to be gain by trying it. My teacher has a lot of experience teaching other adults who insist on learning some trophy pieces. It never works out. In the end, if you cannot play it half decently what have you really gained other than a certain amount of self-delusion?

As for your second approach, it is sensible except, you do have to bring up to tempo. Part of the technical challenge is the tempo, so by playing too slow, what you've done is made the piece easier, in which case, see above paragraph.

The first approach is basically what my teacher requires. Sure, ideally a piece should be performance ready at least once for one lesson before you put it away. Yes, there is a lot of time needed to get from 80% to 95%, in music like everything else, the little things really count. The last 10-15% is the difference between great and mediocre. Once you reach performance standard, very quickly it would not be performance ready the following week unless you keep playing it. This is not really a concern. The important part is knowing the standards and hitting it each time with a new piece. Also, this is the reason why playing something too difficult is senseless as you cannot possibly hit the standards. There is the approach of purposefully learning something harder as a tool to improve your technical skills for everything else you're doing that's easier. Even then, that hard piece should simply take longer to achieve rather than compromising standards.

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Originally Posted by ClsscLib
... One approach is to keep working ... until it's performance-ready...

... all technical problems have been worked out, pending sufficient subsequent practice by the student, bringing the piece up to tempo, etc. ...


Great question.

a) Performance Ready - when is that likely to ever happen. I think that no matter how well it is prepared, there will always be another 10% left, so you could go forever. Pieces eventually get to a stage where they probably won't advance any further, but will then mature over time.

b) I started Taubman retraining 7 months ago, and feel like I've got nowhere much with technique. Everytime I "perfect" something, the next lesson there is something else new to then incorporate. Fortunately, we dropped the first couple of pieces we were working on so I could have something at least a bit fresh to work with.

As for "flogging a too-difficult piece" - I'm thinking it could be beyond my lifetime when I get to start again on anything like a difficult piece again.

Last edited by backto_study_piano; 01/04/16 06:02 AM. Reason: forgot something

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Originally Posted by gooddog


My teacher, who is outstanding, encourages me to explore the depths of interpretation and improving my technique and we might spend many months or even a year on a piece. (I've had entire lessons on just 2 measures). I accept my teacher's input when making a decision to drop a piece or continue working on it, but ultimately the decision is mine. Generally, I work on a piece as long as I find it interesting and satisfying.


My experience is similar to this. Most of the work in lessons comes after I basically know the piece and can play through it. Generally I will keep working on a piece as long as it kind of calls to me--which might be many months (even though I play less complex stuff than gooddog, I think). If I love a piece and get comfortable with it I may prepare it for performance. With some other pieces I may decide to let it go sooner, either because I don't love it or feel I've taken it as far as I can for the time being.

Sometimes I'll think I'm pretty much done with a piece and my teacher will show me that I can do more. If I get to the point where he says it's beautiful, I know I've accomplished something.



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I never bring anything to performance ready at the "first round" of learning it.
At my current stage I'm trying to improve my skills as quickly as possible and when I'm able to play through a piece, at performance speed, musically and with minimal errors, I'm ready to move to the next one.
The few pieces that I brought up to performance level were already learned in the past, meaning It took about a week to bring back a whole Beethoven sonata in the fingers in the proper way at the correct speed... then took another couple of months to get it memorized, and work on the overall performance going to the whole balance of the piece to the tiny bits here and there.

I noticed that if I wait about one year before re-working on something, my skills usually have done a leap big enough that where I was feeling "uneasy" because I was borderline with my limits, now I feel more confident and I can concentrate more on the musical aspects.

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Originally Posted by 8 Octaves
My teacher has a lot of experience teaching other adults who insist on learning some trophy pieces. It never works out. In the end, if you cannot play it half decently what have you really gained other than a certain amount of self-delusion?

Experience. Some people will simply not accept that they can't achieve something until they try it and fail miserably.

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Originally Posted by Qazsedcft
Originally Posted by 8 Octaves
My teacher has a lot of experience teaching other adults who insist on learning some trophy pieces. It never works out. In the end, if you cannot play it half decently what have you really gained other than a certain amount of self-delusion?

Experience. Some people will simply not accept that they can't achieve something until they try it and fail miserably.


It's not always the student who takes on the piece! I'm on my second teacher, and both of them have assigned "challenge" pieces. I'm just moving from Level 1 to Level 2 (RCM) and my teacher assigned the first movement of Mozart's Sonata No.16 (K545). I'm doing the best I can with it, but I'm pushing back next time she wants to give me something that tough. It feels like one big set of technical exercises, so I guess it can't hurt me.

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Originally Posted by grace_note
It's not always the student who takes on the piece! I'm on my second teacher, and both of them have assigned "challenge" pieces. I'm just moving from Level 1 to Level 2 (RCM) and my teacher assigned the first movement of Mozart's Sonata No.16 (K545). I'm doing the best I can with it, but I'm pushing back next time she wants to give me something that tough. It feels like one big set of technical exercises, so I guess it can't hurt me.

I know how you feel. Look at the pieces my teacher assigned to me after just a year of lessons (see my sig). eek But combined with easier pieces to build technique I think I learn a lot from the challenge pieces too.

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Originally Posted by ClsscLib

What is the process by which you and your teacher decide to move on from one piece in order to focus at lessons on other things?!


* When I've performed it

* When I've soft-dropped it coz it isn't grabbing me

* When I sense he's given all his feedback and I've gotten it where I can get it given that

* When something more important pops up

It's never really a formal discussion. We just keep moving on to new things and occasionally picking up old things again.


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Originally Posted by Qazsedcft
Originally Posted by grace_note
It's not always the student who takes on the piece! I'm on my second teacher, and both of them have assigned "challenge" pieces. I'm just moving from Level 1 to Level 2 (RCM) and my teacher assigned the first movement of Mozart's Sonata No.16 (K545). I'm doing the best I can with it, but I'm pushing back next time she wants to give me something that tough. It feels like one big set of technical exercises, so I guess it can't hurt me.

I know how you feel. Look at the pieces my teacher assigned to me after just a year of lessons (see my sig). eek But combined with easier pieces to build technique I think I learn a lot from the challenge pieces too.

It's a major difference between european and american music education, for some reason in europe "we" are expected to get into important pieces in a short amount of time and man up. In the american system nobody is pushed, music in not done only out of passion but by some sort of social standards.
I grew up in Italy and all my "musical" friends were conservatory students, one doesn't study music "just because", one study music to became good at it and because you love it to the extremes.
Now teaching it in the US, is a completely different system, music is done because is a sort of social standard of so said "educated" people and is an extracurricular activity somehow forced upon kids.

Would be a long discussion, but at the end of the day, it is what it is and I'll do what my students want even if I think they are wasting a lot of time.

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