One of the greatest pleasures and privileges of my career has been to work with dancers. For anyone interested in how to achieve excellence—perfection in dance being a platonic ideal strived for but never quite attained—a lot can be learned from time regularly spent in a dance studio.

The following idea I attribute to the glorious Valerie Aitken, although she may well have picked it up elsewhere. I heard it from her, so she can take the credit, and uncertain origins lessen neither its wisdom nor its enormous potential benefit to anyone striving for excellence in any field at all, although here I will explore specifically what it might mean for pianists. 

So, what is this insightful pearl? It is merely this:

“Only perfect practice makes perfect”

Clever, right? We’ve all heard, doubtless more often than not with the kindly intention of soothing our frustration, that “practice makes perfect”. Just keep at it, and eventually you’ll get it. But what if you keep keeping at it, and still don’t get it?

Practice makes how you practice. Imperfect practice, therefore, only makes imperfect. Only perfect practice makes perfect.

For anyone who, like me, is interested in practising as efficiently as possible, this must be the mantra. So often my efforts at the keyboard remind me of John Wanamaker—you know, he who said “half the money I spend on advertising is wasted; the trouble is I don’t know which half.” For money, read time; for advertising, read practice. Lucky indeed the pianist who has never felt that no matter what they do, or for how long, it’s just not getting better.

At this point, I should point out how important it is to recognise when this feeling is in fact because further improvement isn’t actually possible. “What!?” you may cry, for surely “you can always be better!” In high school I had a biology teacher who refused to give full marks. Answer ten questions out of ten correctly, he’d give you nine point five, because “something about your answers can always be better”. Well, actually, no. Sorry, but that’s just stupid. If you want better answers, ask better questions. Some things absolutely are ‘a-hundred-percent-able’, depending on the goal, the piece, the level of the player, and so on, of course. We can never stop striving for beautiful tone, for more variety of colour, technical ease, sure, but some things are absolute. The desired tempo can be reached and maintained; semiquavers can’t be more even than even; chords can’t be more together than together; hands can’t be more synchronised than synchronised. Yes, semiquaver passages can be shaped differently, more expressively, with different articulations; chords can be voiced in a myriad different ways, pedalling can be argued over for days. Here, perfection is, if it can be defined at all, a moveable feast at best. These are questions of nuance, which depend on taste and also to some extent personal preference, and are not only individual, but subject to variation on a regular basis. Nonetheless, in some matters, a hundred percent is attainable, and cannot be exceeded. Any teacher that tells you otherwise needs to grow up.

Leaving aside for a moment the matter of what makes practice ‘perfect’, let’s just appreciate the implications of this statement for our approach to what we do. For practice to lead towards ‘perfect’, we must understand what ‘perfect’ is—not in the abstract, but in the immediate context of our work. If it’s a practical issue—synchronising hands, training a fingering pattern, securing leaps, maintaining tempo, achieving fluent passagework, or whatever—we must be able to imagine what ‘perfection’ will sound like, and what it will feel like under our fingers. If you can’t imagine it, you won’t recognise it when it happens. The importance of ‘visualisation’ has long been appreciated, but I—and I doubt I’m alone—often find it’s easy to get caught up in the physical aspects of practice and forget the mental work that is at least as important, both for overcoming technical difficulties and for consolidating ideas about the music which will end up informing, at least for the time being, our sense of what ‘perfection’ means for the less concrete aspects of our playing. 

So, what is perfect practice? My understanding of this is primarily that the means should be appropriate to the desired outcome. If you want to play fluently, you must practise fluently. Hesitant practice leads to hesitant playing. Untidy practice leads to untidy playing. And so on. This all sounds obvious, doesn’t it? But there is, of course, an impediment: awareness, or rather, a lack of awareness. To practise perfectly, you must be a good diagnostician. Sometimes problems are not audible or palpable, their symptoms are; and it is easy to misdiagnose symptoms as problems. Here is where Mr Wanamaker comes in. 

As an example, let’s take a semiquaver passage from a Classical movement, some variation or rondo by Clementi or one of that lot. It’s uneven, sounds lumpy, your fingers feel too long or too short, the tempo suffers, notes go awry. It’s a total catastrophe. In such dire circumstances, the ‘athletic’ practiser will say “okay, this sucks, I need to practise more!” Kind of like training for a marathon, it’s just a case of running, and running some more, until you can run far enough without passing out. (I admit, there is almost definitely more to preparing for endurance events than that, but these people wouldn’t prepare for a marathon any better than they’d practise Clementi, so I stand by my analogy.)

This approach—slinging loads of mud at a wall until enough of it sticks—will likely lead to some improvement, simply because doing it more usually means eventually doing it better. But it will never be perfect and, in some cases, can be detrimental, even permanently injurious to practise ‘blindly’ and without sufficient awareness of what you’re doing. And at best, of course, it’s a waste of time.

Let’s treat the nasty semiquavers as a symptom, and think of some possible causes. Lack of familiarity with the notes or understanding of their patterns, mental uncertainty and hesitation. Poor fingering choice, or awkward positioning or shaping of the hand, which may or may not be related to the fingering. Uneven strength or control in fingers, poor alignment in the wrist, or poor seating position or posture. Tension from trying too hard; looseness from trying to relax. Accumulated tension because of any combination of any of the aforementioned issues… and yet more besides. Given this minefield, it’s little wonder so many people opt for the wall-mud-sling! approach.

But we’re aiming higher, so let’s persevere. Our hypothetical pianist’s wrist is starting to ache, so he takes a break. While he’s waiting for the coffee machine to heat up, he thinks “golly, every time I hit one of these extended semiquaver runs, it’s as if my fingers are made of wood… I need to practise more…” Without realising it, he’s diagnosed his issue. This passage isn’t unique: all his Classical runs suffer from the same problem, which is that his fingers “feel like they’re made of wood”. So, we haven’t hit the nail on the head, but we’re circling the right hardware store.

We might be able to rule out certain context-specific issues, such as unfamiliarity with the notes, or poor fingering. These might indeed be the cause of the same problems in other similar contexts, but those issues would likely cause more general faults because they are indicative of sloppy preparation. We’re more likely to be dealing with a general technical issue such as tension in the hand, itself possibly caused by trying to ‘squeeze out’ the fast passage (often the sign of an ‘athlete’). 

Let’s say, having had a lesson with an appropriately experienced teacher, our hypothetical semiquaver-mangler has been advised to free up his wrist, maybe by ‘shaking’ on each note, working in hand-groups at a slow tempo, to resist the urge to squeeze, and to do some conscious press-release practice to eliminate unnecessarily prolonged pressure through the finger. This is starting to work so, encouraged, our crash-test dummy tries to increase the tempo only to find that everything seizes up again. In desperation, he emails his teacher who explains that this is, in fact, progress, because it proves that the tension is a result of trying to achieve velocity in the wrong way, so the way forward is to work at the fastest tempo possible that doesn’t result in cramping. The teacher goes on to explain that the countless hours of practice have trained a reflex tightening that needs to be untrained by careful, focussed practice, before any such passage will be easy at the appropriate tempo. Reading this email, our pianist finally admits to himself “I shouldn’t have done so much practice”…

Before considering the possible failure of this first diagnosis, let’s just pause to think about what perfect practice would be, and what it would have been. Had our eager beaver spent all those hours ensuring his technical approach was appropriate, his fingerwork would probably have been sparkling by now. In such a case ‘perfect practice’ would be about musical shape, tone-colour, consistency. But given the ingrained nature of the problem, ‘perfect practice’ will look very different, because the goal has changed. It’s no longer about “getting through the passage as best I can at all costs”, but about “ensuring every note is played with only the correct amount of pressure and that the hand, wrist, and forearm remain as relaxed as possible, and only at a tempo at which this is achievable”.

‘Perfect practice’ requires that you know how you need/want to play, and how best to achieve this. In this way, the time you spend reinforces good musical intentions with good technical habits. And like perfection itself, therefore, perfect practice is constantly changing.

Let’s return now to our poor, bedraggled example, and consider the possibility that this newly-suggested practice approach doesn’t yield noticeable results, even at a slow tempo. The passagework is still ungainly and leads almost immediately to debilitating tension. (Of course, it may be that the solution is correct, but just that it will take more time to undo years of habituation to the wrong approach.) But let’s say it gets even worse. The cause of the problem is unlikely to be this tightening reflex after all, so it would then be necessary to explore other possible causes and try other solutions.

Here is another implication of our maxim, indeed possibly the most useful, and most easily disregarded: if practice is perfect, it works. So, if you’re practising and not improving (assuming you’re working towards other than ‘100%-able’ goals), your practice isn’t perfect. Whatever it is that you’re trying to achieve, what you’re currently doing won’t get you there. So stop doing it, and try doing something that better addresses the issue.

Considering this is not easy; nothing valuable ever is. To be a good self-diagnostician takes a great deal of understanding—of the body, of the piano, of music—and a level of self-awareness that requires years of experience and training to achieve. A teacher can help, in most cases, because an outside set of eyes and ears, ones not involved in the real-time mechanics of playing, often notices things that less advanced players themselves cannot. But even when a good teacher recommends practice approaches specifically to address those perceived problems, the pianist is ultimately the person who must learn that approach, understand the problem and why the chosen approach is a good solution, and apply it patiently and appropriately in their practice sessions.

Learning to practise is, essentially, learning a repertoire of possible solutions to potential problems that you’re likely to encounter regularly, and some perhaps less often, and learning when and how to apply those solutions as the problems arise. It is also a matter of learning to recognise the cause of the problem, to differentiate it from its symptoms; it is a matter of learning to listen and feel with the utmost awareness. Some of these solutions are of a general technical nature, others are thrown up by specific contexts, or particular composers, works, or styles. The most frustrating situation for any of us is to meet a problem that we can’t overcome, not matter what we try; a problem that unyieldingly exhausts all means of improvement known to us. This process of learning to practice lasts for as long as we play our instruments.

Ask yourself: how much of my practice-time is wasted? Do I know what problems and challenges I face in my playing? Do I have the approaches to tackle them effectively, safely, and in a time-efficient way? How focussed on solving my problems are my practice sessions?

Only perfect practice makes perfect. What that means for you will vary constantly, as your playing evolves, and as new repertoire comes along and presents new challenges. But please, take this mantra to heart. Repeat it to yourself each and every time you sit at the piano. After all, time is finite, and wasting years of it practising badly… well, that’s just sad.