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I'm a great teacher... but my piano skills STINK!

I am just getting out of college, and while I've recieved great marks on all my teaching evaluations and compliments from several fellow choral conductors, I am greatly lacking in the piano playing area. I practice every day, but I just can't get my head and my hands to communicate. Obviously I will hire an accompanist for performances, but what about rehearsals? I recently directed a musical where I used Finale to teach parts and create a rehearsal track without voices. Is this acceptable? If not, what else can I do? 
Replies (28): Threaded | Chronological
on December 16, 2013 3:00pm
Practice, practice, practice. You'll have plateaus and periods of rapid growth, like with most learning. Assess your practice routines--get help from a good teacher. Don't give up. You WILL need those keyboard skills. Unless you have some kind of undiagnosed learning disability, you WILL get better.
Applauded by an audience of 1
on December 16, 2013 4:37pm
What Lisa said. I have heard too many times by the dreamy that your singers will learn to sight-sing...everything will be ok.  read between the letters:  B...S...  The singers will leave you in droves. EVERYBODY knows when a line of notes goes up or down and notation gives a good idea how long a note is. Help them out. This is an essential part of being a choral musician.  Practice, practice,practice. They will follow if you give your students something worth following. did someone say that this is not essential part of your training.? They FAILED YOU if they did. You might even mention this to them if they did. In the real world....we don't use recorded accompaniment tracts. YOU are the accompanist for, at least, rehearsing. You may hire a player for concerts but it is you job to rehearse. S
Applauded by an audience of 1
on December 16, 2013 6:43pm
Dear Kimberly:
Diligently practicing our piano skills will help most of us to a point, but then we also have to realize that pianists are like doctors... 50% of us are better than the rest... In rehearsal situations, I have come to the realization that while I can provide some assistance from the keyboard, I expend too much attention and energy attempting to play as best I can. For rehearsals, maybe a student with decent skills at the piano will suffice... allowing you to return to the podium where you can do more good...
Applauded by an audience of 2
on December 17, 2013 4:54am
I totally agree with the above: practice, and practice smart. I will add this: when I was doing my student teaching I had the opportunity to observe a wonderful teach. He has fabulous piano skills, but in rehearsal, uses the piano as little as possible. He often does make his students sight read, but he *can* play anything he needs to. He used some techniques that I adoped both because I thought they were good practice, and because I am a farily miserable pianist (though better than I was when I started teaching a few years ago). When I started, I could certainly play an vocal part individually, but get more than 2 together, and it got rough (more than one sometimes used to be a challenge). Here are a few techniques I use (I teach middle school, so I am often dealing w/ 2 part singing): I sing one part and play the other (it seems easier for the students to choose one instrument to follow, rather than distinguish notes on the piano). I often have the more confident section(s) hum/zzz/vvv their parts while struggling parts sing out until they gain the requisite confidence. One thing I was taught in school is the art of selective note playing. We mostly rehearse unaccompanied, but I can pick out important elements from the accompaniment to play so that they are not lamblasted when the accompanist arrives. My skills are SIGNIFICANTLY better than they were just 4 years ago. So much so that I find I can actually play the accompaniment sometimes, and 3 parts at once (this is a huge victory for me with dislexyia and tiny hands). You can do it!
Applauded by an audience of 4
on December 17, 2013 7:59am
Kimberly, while I agree that you must persevere to acquire piano as a tool, I particularly echo Ronald and Bridgit.  I just retired as an accomplished and honored choral conductor, and have never been able to do more than fumble about on the piano.  Money is aways tough, but many school .systems find a way to hire an accompanist.  Be creative.  By all means use capable students, particularly in high school, or seek volunteer adults for rehearsal help.  Regarding piano skills, I'm sure I gave up too soon, and I encourage you to keep at it.  But I know from my experience that some of us process information in a way that makes piano very difficult.  It is, however, one of the most fundamental tools you need to acquire.  Piano does not, however, help you to listen, discern and diagnose the issues that are necessary in developing a great choir.  Give youself time with the piano, and don't let your lack there draw your attention away from your singers.  Also, I support using any technical tools you can to accomplish your goals.  Good luck.  Keep working.  You can do it and build a great life for yourself and your singers.
Applauded by an audience of 3
on December 17, 2013 10:06am
Piano skills are extremely important. Now this is easy for me to say because I was a piano major in college so playing the piano in rehearsals is second nature to me. However, I just gave a clinic to other choir teachers, most of whom do not have decent piano skills. Again, like everyone else has said, practice, practice, practice, but... don't over do it practicing because you are just going to stress yourself out. Spend 10-30 minutes a day just playing through the music. (Doesn't have to be fast or up to tempo, just at a speed where you can read it accurately) Soon enough, you'll see your skills will start to improve. Start working on playing major scales. You'll be amazed at how well scales improve your overall playing ability. As far as using a rehearsal track, I think that is ok as long as your are not using that to teach parts to your kids. For instance, I teach all of the parts myself on the piano. Now, since I am a pianist, I mostly play the accompaniments however, when concert time gets closer, I record myself playing the accompaniment so that the students can get used to having me in front of them directing. Believe it or not, I also hire out an accompanist for most of my concerts as well because I like to be in front of my kiddos.
Hope this helps.
Chris :)  
Applauded by an audience of 3
on December 17, 2013 4:35pm
   Piano is an important skill to develop; it will make your work easier, expand your possibilities, and make you more valuable as a musician and teacher.  Then there's the real world--your piano skills are limited.  Where would our musical culture be today, if all the people without a piano (let alone the skills to play one) had just stopped making music?  Most musical people today and throughout history have not had pianos or known how to write and read music, yet they gave us great choral traditions from South Africa, the Balkans, Georgia, Russia, Europe and Black and White America.  Highly accomplished composers have written a cappella, and every choir from Chanticleer to your local college or school sings a cappella at times.
   Practice your piano, use rehearsal tracks and whatever aids will help, but don't let your situation get in the way of making music and introducing your students to the musical world.  Watch the YouTube video of the Nelson Mandela tribute Asimbonanga by the Soweto Gospel Choir, referenced on this website, or Christopher Keene's video Wade in the Water: 3 part harmony taught to an audience of non-musicians (or something like that) for examples of what can be done.
Applauded by an audience of 3
on December 17, 2013 6:03pm
Yes, Kimberly, it is acceptable to use a rehearsal track as long as you don't depend on the demo voices to rehearse your group of singers. A rehearsal accompanist works best, of course, but often department budgets don't allow for this. Maybe through fundraising efforts, a rehearsal accompanist could be affordable. If not, then a track will certainly work. Many directors use this and it can work and will allow you to be in front of your group and have better control of the rehearsal.
on December 18, 2013 3:23am
Hi Kimberly,
Just go A Cappella. Learn to sing all the parts.
I direct four A Cappella choirs and don't even have a keyboard at rehearsals!
Just a tuning fork.
Applauded by an audience of 4
on December 18, 2013 3:50am
You can total manage this issue.  The most important piece of the puzzle is to be able to play their singing parts.   So, practice those a lot!  I've taught for 22 years, and I worked to find ways to minimize the use of the piano during rehearsal because my skills are limited.  
My middle school rehearsals are about 70% acapella.   Singing acapella a lot has helped my students develop their ears very well.  They also follow my conducting better.
The piano can be used as a crutch.  It can block the energy exchanges between you and your students.
So, I would urge you to practice and improve the best you can, but not to let it make you crazy.  Admit your limitations to the kids.  Laugh at yourself when you screw it up...hire an accompanist for important events...and then find every way possible to limit the use of the piano and develop ways to make it a PLUS for you and your program.  It's totally possible.
Hang in there!
Dale Duncan
Applauded by an audience of 6
on December 18, 2013 9:04am
Many good points here!
I would add:  Find subtle-but-noticeable ways to tactfully draw attention to the other skills that you have [as any good conductor should have] for Choral Conducting; - for both your students and your school/community !
- being able to hear 4 parts at once, and know whether they're correct.
- solid, healthy vocal technique - communicating this well.
- ability to plan and execute an effective, efficient, and energetic rehearsal.
- skillfully weaving classroom management into all this, without them being fully aware of it.
- teaching them what to listen for (Are we blending timbre/vowel?  Are we improving each pitch as we go, esp. sustained passages?  Do our phrases sound supported by our breathing?)
-planning fun/effective ways to teach theory/ear-training/sight-singing.
- ability [ as you mention] to use technology to everyone's advantage.  [This "use of technology" is often required by systems, and tied to your evaluations! ] If you get a space with adjacent practice rooms, and you are at the point where the students can be trusted, you can hold sectionals during class by putting your most musically-competent soprano in charge, [with a cd, or mp3, Garage band or Finale track...whatever works... ] of his/her section (maybe altos too, if s/he's really good) ... while you work with the guys.  Next day, reverse it.
 - ability to teach the skill of sight-singing.  (As they progress, they'll depend less on piano-leadership :).
 - ability to share translations, traditions,  and pronunciations for songs from several geo-cultural areas.
In general, Colleagues, as I job-search, I hear many committees/individuals talk about "someone to play the piano" when, in truth , their needs  [though they may not realize it, ] are for a conductor, director, music minister, teacher,  or all of the above!  Is it time to publish a list of what makes an effective Choral Conductor?  It seems that the general public is  aware that we wave our arms, and not much else... ;/
I'm not sure about other areas, but here in Metro Atlanta, unfortunately, there seems to be almost too much association with the role of accompanying and choral conducting/music teaching/ministry. [ I totally affirm piano/keyboard work as co-artistry - I do both/and/either! ]   A sophomore student arrived in my class who had, years before, been in a Summer Arts production I music-directed. "I remember you - you played the piano for us!"  While glad to be remembered, I was a bit dissapointed that he did not recall all the vocal technique, expression, stage/character connection, etc.,  that I had shared.  I just smiled, but I wanted to say, "Yes, and I was your Music-Director, as I am for this class!"
If I were on a hiring committee, -particularly for a school situation - I would quite-likely hire someone with good credentials [ as you mention ] and evidence of the above skills, rather than a skilled pianist who happend to lack in the listed areas.  It's nice to have skills in both, and many keyboard artists do!  However, many choral-concentration folks have posted, on this thread, and others, that their lack of piano-dependence encourages accapella confidence.  I have seen great keyboard artists step away from organs, pianos, to "get in front" of the singers.  You might be inspired by some of Elise Witt's work.   She goes around the world teaching/motivating [from anyone who signs up that day] "An Impromptu Glorious Chorus".  There is rarely a piano in the room [purposely] for this type of event.
I agree with the posters who've said, 1. Get professional assessment as to your ability - is it physical/genetic, as in dyslexia, or a vision issue, or an unfortunate glitch in the way you absorbed your piano instruction (hopefully not the instruction itself ! ), or the way you practiced...?  (The method/routine can be more important than the total amount of time).
2. Be sure that the teacher you study with is compatible with you.
3. Meanwhile, don't pressure yourself.  Continue confidently in your work, using all the other skills/tools you have - including a committment to lots of acapella singing!  Good for you and the students!
Meanwhile, do keep studying piano and practicing.  It truly does "get better".
Best Wishes!
Applauded by an audience of 4
on December 30, 2014 5:10pm
I wouldn’t let it worry you too much. I would suggest setting an upper limit of how much brain power you let playing the keyboard take, for example 30%-40%. If it’s taking more than that, leave parts out, then leave notes out until you’re comfortable. Most of the time (especially with music before 1900), just playing the bass line is enough to keep the choir on track and not falling in pitch. If there are phrases you know they have problems with, play along or rehearse them separately. In 20th century music, play important chords so that people know what sound they’re aiming for. And I’ll plug renaissance music: not only was it the “golden age” of choral music (in my subjective opinion, but that’s another discussion), but using the keyboard too much in rehearsal inhibits proper tuning.
Keep practicing keyboard, but don’t get fixated on it. Being a good choral director is much more than giving them their notes.
Applauded by an audience of 1
on December 31, 2014 8:34am
My favorite strategy is to know all of the parts and be able to sing them. Piano is a great tool, but it is a tool, and only one of them. It is also a percussion instrument. I find that many of the singers that I work with have more difficulty translating the sound of the piano to their voice than matching another human. Play to your strengths and I am sure you have many. You might also consider preparing practice files for them, and encourage them to do more learning on their own. Since you are using Finale, you can share your files with them in Notepad, which is free to them. I make my students a disc every semester with practice files for both notes and diction in languages other than English. It helps a great deal. 
I think too often students believe that it is our job to teach them the notes, and that once they have the notes, the job is done. The more of a culture of personal responsibility you can create, the better your ensembles will get. 
Applauded by an audience of 2
on January 1, 2014 3:21am
Absolutely! Rehearsals are a relationship. Create a strong, healthy relationship and the kids won't care in the least.  My students -- I could lead them on kazoo . . . They follow me ANYWHERE.  Trust is key.
Applauded by an audience of 1
on January 1, 2014 7:07am
I've been teaching over 30 years. I have totally pathetic piano skills. I will say to you that it CAN be done. Find your STRENGTHS and work from them. It's a running joke in my classroom that I can't play. But I can SING. I learn and sing all of the parts. I have a small studio recorder that I can record multiple parts on and make rehearsal tracks. I use Finale, especially for ACAP material. It takes work and creativity, but it can be done. I wish I had the ability to play the piano. But I hear you when you say " but I just can't get my head and my hands to communicate." We all have weaknesses and that is one of mine. I quit beating myself up over it and began finding ways to accomplish my goals differently. A newer teacher friend is actually a trumpet player. When she began teaching at middle school, she would use the trumpet to demonstrate melodic and rhythmic passages because she was not a confident singer and has weak piano skills. Her students successfully learn their music and sing beautifully. So I echo Elizabeth's reply to you, find your strengths and use them. Don't beat yourself up over the negatives. Do keep practicing, if it is helping, but don't waste your time there. Help your students find the love of music and show them how to make music from their hearts. You don't need a piano for that.
Applauded by an audience of 3
on January 1, 2014 9:22am
Kimberly. These are all great suggestions, I think. Use any and all that help you.  You are in survival mode right now and need to get past that stage (which you will do). 
Remember that when we play the piano we are dealing with finger/eye coordination. That skill, like most other skills that may not come naturally to us, grows in little steps.  You won't be able to play complicated accompaniments or vocal parts right away such as those found in Baroque music, jazz or rock. So make it your goal to be (more?) successful with something easy- perhaps a folk song or patriotic tune or something else that has a really easy rhythm. Pick a simple and specific goal that you can accomplish with the time constraints you have and the skills you DO have and build from there.  Perhaps your goal for a 20 minute session will be "to be able to play each vocal part on the first page" or perhaps "to play the harmony of the refrain in block chords".  Kindly said, " I want to play the piano" is not a good goal;  there are not enough accomplishable goals along the way.  Every practice session will result in disappointment because you didn't achieve it. 
Some other suggestions: 
1) Pre-record the accompaniment and/or each vocal part and/or all the vocal parts played together.  (While "not ideal" we are talking "getting by" for a few years until you get better and you will.)
2) Hire an accompanist to make the recordings for you if you don't have time.
3) Get an accompanist for rehearsals. If there are no funds, have a fund raiser(s?) to pay them to come in twice minimum to play. "Selling stuff" is SO worth it (I've done it before and I can play piano). We are conductors and our number one tool is our ears. Getting away from the keyboard really lets one LISTEN rather than have to spend ones senses on "seeing and touching". 
Also, so you won't get too discouraged, know that every skill (e.g golf, reading words, speaking foreign languages, reading music, knitting, etc)  has a gradual and low learning curve.  The curve at the beginning is more of a 10-20 degree angle (or less) rather than a 45 degree angle or greater.  The angle increases SLOWLY but gradually. At one point there is a  moment when it suddenly shoots up because you are  doing it fluently (without much conscious effort).  That moment varies depending on the person and the amount of time invested. 
Again, keep your goals practical, short-termed and attainable.
Keep working at it and you WILL get better. There are thousands of us that have and that are.
Applauded by an audience of 1
on January 1, 2014 12:30pm
   Regarding suggestions 1 & 2, Kimberly: A digital piano has many features that may help you.  I don't play piano at all, and after two years teaching at the elementary level (2000), with the aid of an accompanist who was only occasionally available, and no money in the budget to tune our typical low quality school piano, I consulted a professional piano dealer and bought a "demo"  Yamaha Clavinova with my own money.  Most of our singing was and is a cappella, but when I have a piece with piano accompaniment, I want it to sound great.  A properly equipped digital piano has these advantages for school use:
1.  Can record and playback the music you or your accompanist plays, so your accompaniment is always available.
2.  Metronome feature allows changing the tempo of the playback without changing pitch.  You can play slowly, at your skill level, and playback a tempo.
3.  Transpose feature allows you to play or playback at a different pitch, so those beautiful arrangements from top children's choirs can be sung a third lower by our "regular" kids.  OR, start a third lower and move it up a half staff every few weeks.
4.   Loop feature lets you isolate a difficult section from the recording and rehearse it over and over.
5.   Different instrument timbres give you the sound of a harpsichord or organ when appropriate, or for variety.
6.   Always in tune, plus various historic and non-tempered tunings are available at the push of a button.
7.   Lightweight and easily portable (but buy the proper and recommended piano dolly).
   One of my non-music colleagues in upstate NY was shocked that I would spend a few thousand dollars to buy my own piano to use on the job, but I asked her, "How much extra did you spend on your 4WD SUV to ensure you can get to work safely in the winter?"  It was not my preferred solution, but we solve our problems as best we can, and purchasing the Clavinova made my life simpler and improved my concerts.
Applauded by an audience of 2
on January 2, 2014 12:09am
I second this heartily. I relied too much in my piano skills in my first four years (I'm a pianist that's learned how to sing), and truthfully, my students suffered! Since I've backed off the piano, my students are better music readers, they listen within their sections better, and the tuning is better. It's also been advantageous when we have been in performance situations where there was no piano but their accompanied pieces could be sung acapella. 
on January 2, 2014 7:16pm
Good point about the trumpet player - I sang in a choir at one point where the director was a violist. We rehearsed completely a cappella most of the time, but when she thought part of the choir needed more help, she played her viola - much more of a 'singing' tone, could model phrasing etc much better than the piano, much better for tuning, and the sound really cut through to help the section that needed it most.
on January 3, 2014 5:16pm
Hey Kimberly,
It's acceptable to use any tool you have at your disposal to teach.  Comparing finale tracks to keyboard skills, keyboard = faster and more musical.
Don't forget to work on their sight singing skills every day.  Then you're teaching for life and you don't have to rely on a keyboard as much!
on April 28, 2014 12:07pm
I was/am in the same situation.  I am a saxophone player.  MY keyboard skills from college sat dormant for many years until I left the high school drama classroom for the general music classroom.  I have comped my way through everything, but learning to PLAY has been important.  Not Beethoven and Bach, but to clump through the chords and run melodies and harmonies has been vital.  I use performance tracks for performance, which allows me to be in front of my students.
As a high school student, I joined a 40+ member men's barbershop chorus in our community.  We sang EVERYTHING acapella.  One pitchpipe.  EVERYTHING was TAUGHT acapella.  Our relative pitch was outstanding.  I teach my students like that for the majority.  I need to know EVERY part so I can sing it to them.  THEN I accompany and clean up parts.  But I still use tracks on some songs -- just like karaoke.  They give the kids an opportunity to sing with a professional band or orchestra.
Applauded by an audience of 3
on April 29, 2014 5:18am
I certainly empathize with your plight, but I encourage you to consider all your options. In 27 days I will retire at age 70 after many years of teaching choral music, and I can still play only simple warmup exercises and, with fair accuracy, single lines of notes. So I extablished and have maintained my focus on a cappella music. There are several reasons that I would urge you to consider this route. First, unaccompanied music is still on the upswing in our country and there is an abundance of literature out there that young people can sing and that they love. Second, when my choir goes out into the community to perform, we walk in with a pitch pipe and sing. People like that. No instruments, no risers, no drums, etc. Third, the human voice is the most interesting and versatile of all instruments and young people love the opportunity to experiment with different sounds and techniques. Just look at and listen to the several outstanding a cappella groups and let your imagination run wild. Fourth, check out the new world of A Cappella Pop as explained in the book by that title written by my long-time friend, Brody McDonald. Here is another off-shoot of a cappella singing that is growing quickly and captivating so many young folks. Finally, nothing is more demanding (or rewarding) on singers than being obliged to sing their part with no instrumental assistance. My choirs regularly work in quartets, and when I say "OK, quartets", they jump up enthusiastically, knowing that if they miss their part, it will be treated as a learning moment, and that the choir will be stronger when everyone can carry their weight in the ensemble. Without patting myself on the back, I will say that my choirs have become well known in our community and in our district for their excellent singing. This reputation is supported by Distinguished ratings in assessment festival in nine of the last ten years, including just last week when all four judges awarded them a Distinguished rating with 22 kids on stage singing in the Difficult category. It is a very viable and rewarding option and I again urge you to consider it.
Carl Taylor, Boyd County High School, Ashland, KY
Applauded by an audience of 6
on April 29, 2014 6:04am
A good way to develop piano skills: Get a hymn book of traditional hymns in 4-part harmony, not gospel songs or praise songs. A standard Anglican hymn book would be perfect. Just start working your way through the hymns, slowly at first, but your speed will pick up as you practise. Make yourself read and play all 4 notes of each chord. It will develop your ability to read bass and treble clef at the same time, play in 4-note chords and keep a tempo going. It will be painful at first, but the rewards are great :)
Applauded by an audience of 2
on April 30, 2014 3:38am
I'm finishing my third year as a middle school choir teacher. My choirs consistantly sing in four-part harmony. My piano skills are nothing to write home about.

My technique? A combination of two things: Solid vocal technique for melodic teaching and Kodaly literacy training for harmonic technique. I had a music education professor who was an amazing piano player but never used the piano for her classes. Everything was done with Kodaly. First we would sight-read the rhythm, speak solfa syllables, then break doown each line before lining up the chords. All you need to do is take the first two weeks of class and develop the aural culture. I spent 8 90 minute classes on 5 things: aural warm-ups with major and minor scales/arpeggi, melodic vocal technique so the students were comfortable singing any part melodically (whole group/men and women/sections) and then I built up harmony, starting with unison spirituals, partsongs, ostinati, canons, then finally two-part choral music bt READING it. By October they are reading confidently in parts with the help of section leaders.

I also have a great voice teacher. We spend 90% of the time on technique and philosophy and 10% of the time on "feeding the music". He breaks down the line into bite-sized sections and we slowly build the melody by echoing, then add words. We learn music totally a capella this way. He is also a choral director and uses the same techniques for his choirs. "Every vocal line is its own melody." So after each section gets the blueprint for their part, I take 20 minutes with each of the 4 sections and "feed the music" through echoing and internalizing the melody of their part. Then I try every single 2-part combination I can think of before slowly building a 4-part piece. I almost never touch the piano.

One last thing. I spend about 45 minutes of my planning period every day with the music. It's not like I score study constantly. But I sing every line, solfa it, play it on the piano, practice playing 2 parts at one, piddle with accompaniment, and figure out harmonic chords I can play (I-IV-V is normally all you need) just to internalize the music and have fun with it. I know these pieces so well that I COULD play if I needed to, even though I can't sight-read keyboard worth anything. So..even though I build my entire teaching technique around as little piano as possible, I've never tried to drop it.

Hope this gives you ideas!

Applauded by an audience of 3
on April 30, 2014 8:40am
Great description of your method, Andrew! Thanks.
on April 30, 2014 2:00pm
Hi, Kimberly
I know the pressure you must be feeling. I'm now in the middle of my DMA and I'm struggling daily to become a better pianist.
I believe you have a number of great advice in the previous comments. I only want to add that I worked with some books on sight reading at the keyboard that definitely made a huge difference on my skills.
The ones I loved the most were Ellen Burmeister's and Leonhard Deutsch's ones. But you can find much more good stuff with a simple research.
Ideas that came to me from those books were on how to connect my hands with my eyes, where to look for, what to look for, how to feel the keyboard and the space between my fingers, how to make my eyes buoyant and flexible through the score, and so on.
Those may be great resources.
Good luck.
Carlos Eduardo Vieira
GTA at The Univeristy of Alabama
on May 1, 2014 3:37am
I have had this same struggle and because of this I choose a lot of unaccompanied pieces. But recently I bought a Korg keyboard that allows me to record the vocal parts and accompaniment part and store it. This has been a useful tool during the beginning staged of learning a song. Once the students are more confident in there parts, I use it less and less to allow more freedom in the tempo and line of each phrase. 
Keep up the practice though. You will get better. The piano skills of a choral teacher are very different than a piano major. I find it much easier to read a classical piano piece than a choir score. As you practice more, you will begin to adjust to reading and playing several lines in a score. 
on July 19, 2014 12:21am
It could be your practice technique.  Play new stuff at turtle tempo so you can process.  Split hands up only as a last resort, but otherwise, turtle tempo so both hands can process.  If that doesn't work, super turtle tempo, and if that doesn't work, turtle snail sloth super slug slo-mo tempo. 
When you make a mistake while practicing, stop playing.  Isolate exactly where it was you biffed, think about it as a teacher for a second (is it the interval, the fingering, the confusing E#, the rhythm against the other hand.. what is the freakin' problem here Joseph?!)
Once you've isolated and identified the problem, repeat several times until it's like tying your shoes. 
Then back up a measure or so and lead into it to see if you can do it in context to the stuff just before.  If you crash, try it again at super turtle slo-mo and look ahead so you're thinking about shifting the tracks before the train comes. 
Then start from the beginning (slothman-style) and see if it's fixed. 
Once you've succeeded in playing through at ooze-drip speed, bump it up to a chocolate drizzle, then a little faster, to fo shizzle my nizzle.  That last part didn't mean anything, I just like rhyming and snoop dogg, but you get the idea.
Unless you have some sort of physical disability, which it sounds like you do not - YOU SOUND VERY SMART AND CAPABLE AND AWESOME - it's probably just your practice technique and how much time you spend practicing. 
Best of skill (vs. luck).
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