by Stan Munslow on 11/02/15

When are you finished learning a piece? The answer to this question may seem obvious at first. You are finished when you can play it right. But there is more to it than that.

Part of the problem with answering this question is that it rings of impatience. It sounds a lot like the infamous “Are we there yet?” of our childhood car-trip days. Of course we want to finish the piece; we all look forward to that wonderful feeling of completion and accomplishment when we’ve mastered a song. So, as the days, weeks, and even months drag on, we become consumed by an overwhelming sense of urgency. We just want it over with, as if it were a trip to the dentist.

Why? Aren’t we supposed to enjoy the journey? If learning and working on a song is, in fact, enjoyable, why do we rush through the process at all? Why do we want the fun to be over? If you were at a party having a great time, would you want the party over with as soon as possible?

Learning a song should feel no different than attending a great party. Of course it must end at some point. But part of good musicianship is learning to enjoy the process, not just the goal.

That still doesn’t answer the question, however. When are you finished?

Our earlier answer: “When I can play it right,” falls short of the mark. Playing something “right” means that it is correct, that it is merely adequate, nothing more. There are, in fact, three steps involved in finishing a piece. Getting it “right” is only the first of the three.

You are finished with a piece when you can:

1. Play it correctly, three times in a row, just to make sure it isn’t luck that got you through it the first time.

2. Play it well, going beyond “correct” to where articulation, dynamics, phrasing, feel, and tone are on the mark as well.

3. Play it well, with ease. Playing something flawlessly in the privacy of your practice space does not mean you will be able to duplicate those results when the time comes for you to play it in front of an audience or a teacher, when you’re distracted and nervous, and in unfamiliar surroundings. Unless you can play the piece easily, that is.

Then ... you are finished.

And when you do find yourself there and you feel that rush of achievement at having mastered the song, I suggest that you bask in that wonderful feeling for a while. Play the song at least a few more times … just for you, just for pleasure, just for the feeling of pride you are sure to receive.

Take time to enjoy the results of your effort before rushing into your next challenge. Take time to feel really good about your accomplishment and I promise that, in doing so, you will play your next piece even better. Success, after all, begins with feeling good!

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