Did I play that “right?”

May 15, 2014

Sometimes my beginner students will play something for me, then ask, “Was that right?” What they generally seem to mean is something like, “Did I use the correct fingerings in the correct order?” A student who is slightly more advanced might ask the same question, but also wonder whether the rhythms were “correct.” A student farther along than that might take into consideration things like accurate observance of marked articulations and dynamics.

Setting aside creative concerns and looking only at technical matters, when is a student’s playing “right?”

I try to impress upon my advancing students that execution of musical passages isn’t really about “right” or “wrong,” but rather about degrees of rightness. To borrow an idea from manufacturing or engineering, we might think in terms of tolerances.

In other words, for a beginner, a half-note rhythm might be “right” if the half notes are roughly twice the length of quarter notes, and a pitch of “D” might be “right” if it is closer to D than it is to D-flat or D-sharp. For a somewhat more advanced student, it might not be “right” until the rhythms can be played without wandering too far afield of a metronome and the pitches trigger the “in tune” light on a cheap electric tuner. For an even more advanced student, those tolerances wouldn’t be fine enough—we might expect the rhythmic ratios to be accurate to within a few percent, and the pitches to be accurate within so many cents.

photo, Lewis Meyer
photo, Lewis Meyer

At the highest levels of musical technique, we question what tolerances are accurate enough for our audiences, or for someone with even more finely-tuned ears—a conductor, perhaps, or an audition panel, or collaborating musicians, or a record producer. Are my rhythms “right” when they are within a tolerance of a hundredth of a second? A thousandth? A ten-thousandth? Who will hear the difference if my pitches are within a tolerance of ten cents? Five cents? The more I think about it, the more I’m certain I can never really be satisfied, because as my execution gets more accurate, my ears get less tolerant.

If your ears are currently “tolerating” your level of accuracy when you play, it may be time to listen more closely and critically. Don’t be satisfied with “right”—go for more right.

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