Cheating as a Practice Strategy

Edited: February 27, 2020, 11:12 AM · The following comes from my experience as an accompanist (pianist) for violin and cello students.

Let's say, for example, that I've got a week to put together the accompaniment for "The Swan." It's not super hard but there are a few bits that just require a little effort. The thing is, I might not have more than half an hour to practice it during that week, with everything else I have to do.

The "strategy" is to read through the part and spend 30 seconds or so exploring the parts I can't just sight-read. And if I can't work them out in that time, then my mind immediately turns to how I can change the notes or skip something so that it's easier. In other words, how to cheat on the sections that aren't immediately playable. And it's not that hard -- I don't even have to write down my cheats, I can memorize them all easily.

But then, as I am just playing through the piece a few times to smooth it out, I find that, one by one, I can reverse the cheats. "This is going pretty well, maybe I don't have to cheat that bit..." And eventually I can usually reverse almost all of my cheats. Once in a while there will still be something where I just have to reduce the part, and I am up-front with all my clients (in writing) that I will need to do this.

So ... why don't I just work those parts out from the beginning then? Because I've tried to do that, and it just doesn't work as well. I get frustrated or I can't integrate them into the piece, or whatever.

Recently I found myself using this strategy as I am trying to learn the Violin 1 part of the Mendelssohn E Flat Major Octet Op. 20. If we're being honest, then this music is basically too hard for me. But the play-in is a week off, and I was really honored to be invited. So here we go! Right out of the gate, in Bar 8 there is a Bb7 arpeggio starting from the high Ab. I realized I can play it very easily just by skipping the Bb at the end of the second beat. That gives me time to shift down and I'm all good. (And my stand mate is someone who has been playing this music for at least 50 years and she knows it cold -- her fingering, 4-3-2-1 down from the high Ab, just is not something I can make work in the time allotted, and she'll play the Bb so it'll be covered. No problem. What's one sixteenth note among friends?)

However, after practicing my cheat a few times, I realized I'm probably down-shifting fast enough to include the Bb, at first about 20% of the time, then half the time, now most of the time. And if I can't get the percentage up to 90% or better, then I still have the cheat (which is, by now, very smooth).

Does anyone else use cheating as a practice strategy?

Replies (13)

February 27, 2020, 12:46 PM · I definitely have, and I often recommend it to students. The hardest part for people is getting past the psychological component of "but I'm supposed to play all the notes!". Well, little Jimmy, I'd rather have you play every other note correctly and to cheat on one note, than to fumble through the whole passage. Then, when you are comfortable with the whole passage, sometimes you'll find that you have the extra resources to manage that one really hard note also.
February 27, 2020, 1:33 PM · If I had a hierarchy of acceptable shortcuts, then to me, maintaining the rhythm is more important than getting every note or ornamentation. It's not optimal, but sometimes you have to default to the practical when you're out there in the streets. I also tend to not like to perform stuff if it's outside of my sense of a proper tempo, but I've made sacrifices on that front too.

Just another aspect of balancing practical aspects of playing with the control-freak side.

On the other hand, sometimes this cheating can just be laziness and a way of baking-in mistakes when some concentrated practice could sort it out with a lesser total expenditure of time and energy.

February 27, 2020, 1:45 PM · Your word "cheating" , I would replace with "advanced-class-faking". It is a survival trait for busy orchestra musicians. Next week I get to play the 1st violin part for Dvorak S. # 7. It's harder than his #8,9. I will probably, accidently, not play two low notes that would pull me dangerously out of position for the more important high notes. After checking the score I noticed that the second violins have those notes covered.
Edited: February 27, 2020, 1:48 PM · Is this not just a variation on the variation method (pun intended)? I can never get a tricky passage under my fingers until I've learned it 10 different "wrong" ways—which may be simpler or more complex than the original.
February 27, 2020, 2:52 PM · I love the title! I do that often during practice; when I want to learn a piece that has parts too difficult for me, rather than skipping over them, I'll play a variation, then usually be able to figure out the "correct" way to play it.
February 27, 2020, 3:21 PM · Great responses so far! Glad I'm not alone in this.
February 27, 2020, 3:22 PM · I cheat on orchestra music when necessary. Getting the rhythm, hitting the important notes in the phrase especially when they are exposed, and not doing something that sounds messy, is preferable to hitting every single note.

I am more likely to prioritize practice time for sections that will go all right if I put in just a little bit of practice time, then sections that need a ton of woodshedding. Exposed parts, of course, just have to be nailed.

February 27, 2020, 4:15 PM · I definitely cheat when I am going to play viola (my 3rd instrument) in a chamber music session. I'll be going to play tomorrow morning and I haven't played viola for a month (switched back to violin then); we are scheduled to "read" the Ethyl Smyth quintet and Mendelssohn Op. 87 quintet. There is no way I will get all the notes in some of those passages, so some of those 6 note slurs in each eighth note beat (for example) I'm going to aim to start at the bottom, hit the top and back to the bottom. I'll see what my other fingers want to do at the same time - but it won't matter; everyone else will be too busy with their parts to notice and I'll likely never play either again just as I've never played them before. We get together about once a month and our first violinist wants to play something new to him every time. But I listened to parts of some recordings of these yesterday and no one will notice if the violist does this - certainly no one I play with.

Now, if there were a concert coming up, I'd get good and solid on all the notes - always have and always regret every note I mess up when playing for real.

Edited: February 27, 2020, 4:35 PM · The most important rule for me is to play the notes (or as many as I can) in the right order, whether they're right or wrong. Thank you Messrs Morecambe and Wise - not forgetting AndrĂ© Previn!

The other thing, if you have to cheat, do it looking full of confidence and obviously in control. Then no-one will notice.

February 27, 2020, 4:52 PM · Then there is "authorised cheating" where desk partners are asked to share certain crucial notes Wagner, where if every one played everything, it would sound like simultaneous green-room Sibelius-boasting!
February 27, 2020, 9:32 PM · Then there is what I call "temporal divisi"
February 28, 2020, 6:33 AM · Hi,
I found that 'Ride of the Valkyres' was the worst (1st violin part)
that I have had to cheat on.I was lucky to get the first and last note of each arpeggio!
February 28, 2020, 10:43 AM · Thinking of it as a practice strategy rather than a survival technique - I'm guessing that where it works, it works because you're getting your hand positions and shapes established, so it's easier to 'fill in' the notes afterwards.

Sevcik analytical studies are basically advanced cheating ;)

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