I spoke to a former student today, who had attended both of my Bach concerts, and she made a remark about my performance: How do you get such a high level of note accuracy? I didn’t hear any wrong notes! Oh, I told her, there were a couple. Actually, at the time of the performance, I thought there were more than a couple, but today when I heard the CD, there was definitely one wrong note, and one note of omission! (That means I didn’t play one of the pedal notes, but skipped it inadvertently.)
I often tell my students it’s a matter of “practice means playing perfectly,” as my teacher Joan Lippincott used to say, and never letting yourself make a mistake, even in practice. Playing music is not like hitting a baseball, in which a .400 batting average is considered superlative. That means only hitting the ball 4 times out of 10. If you played only 40% of the right notes in a piece of music, people would say that you’re terrible! In fact, even if you play only 10% of the notes wrong, people would still say that you need to keep practicing!
Lippincott used to say that the worst thing anyone could say during a lesson was “I always make a mistake there!” because it meant that you were not practicing correctly.
I found a piano forum which addressed the question: How important is note accuracy? and I’d like to paraphrase one of the posts: … it depends on the piece, composer and era. The earlier you are, the more important hitting all the notes are. The later you are, the more you can get away with it. You play Messiaen or Dupré and if you miss a chord, nobody cares. BUT if you play Bach and you a miss a SINGLE NOTE then EVERYONE hears it!
Student playing Messiaen: “Oops, missed a chord.”
Teacher: “What? I didn’t hear anything.”
Student playing Bach: “Uh oh, I hope he didn’t hear that!”
*world stops spinning*
Teacher: “WHAT?!?!!? What the heck are you doing?!”
Student: “Dude, what are you talking about?”
Teacher: “Measure 13, page 3, left hand, note 876, you played a D and a D# instead of just the D#!! What the freaking heck is wrong with you!”
Student: “How did you hear that?”
Teacher: “This is Bach, for God’s sake! Bach is supposed to be played note perfect!”
Student: “So what, it’s just one note!”
Teacher: “You don’t understand the gravity of your actions! You could have ended the world!”
Someone else wrote:
Everything depends on the occasion and your goal. If you play in churches for old people, all you have to do is show up. But if you play in a music school, for other musicians, or even pianists, it’s different. Once or twice obvious wrong notes is (sic) okay, but not more. no hitting d+d#, even in Rachmaninov.
But for a normal audience in a normal concert hall, it’s less important than you think. I’ve seen pianists win van Cliburn and QE, and getting serious slips, more than once. I’ve also seen real starts screw up an entire concerto, and still getting standing ovations. The audience is, generally, not filled with musicians. They listen differently, and most of them will be amazed as long as we don’t screw up too bad.
I also tell my students that many years ago I worked in a CPA office and had to type nothing but numbers for eight hours a day. In those days we did not use computers but used typewriters and erasable paper. BUT — I had to make six carbon copies simultaneously, so every time I made a mistake, it meant using a cardboard “shield” to individually erase each copy. Consequently, my typing numbers became extremely accurate, because I didn’t want to have to correct all those copies!
The same can be said for playing music: Don’t let yourself make mistakes and keep your concentration on the music.
There’s a famous quote attributed to Bach, in which he said: “Da gibt es kein Geheimnis. Man muss nur zur rechten Zeit die rechten Tasten mit der rechten Stärke drücken, dann gibt die Orgel ganz von selber die allerschönste Musik.” [“There’s nothing to it. You just have to press the right keys with the right force at the right time, and the organ will produce the nicest music all by itself.”]