Practicing and Performing

Throughout my playing and practice career I have often consciously and unconsciously struggled with being 100% connected to what I was playing. Possessed by a faithful autopilot, my hands and body sometimes carry me through a performance or practice session. Without respecting this disconnect; we typically endlessly analyze our performances, learn new material, push ourselves in negative ways and use external motivation to improve.

I found that even though many of these methods are great in theory, they didn’t change my performing or playing experience. However, when I started involving the creative process in my practice my musical life began to evolve quickly.

One of the biggest revelations in my musical development came when I realized that I didn’t have to wait to sound good. I would often trudge through scales, arpeggios, technical exercises, theory books, repertoire and improv exercises so that “someday” I would sound good. I was so focused on sounding good “someday” that I got in the habit of mentally checking out when practicing. I was told by myself and others that I wasn’t ready to sound good.

By the time that “someday” came around, my bad practice habits came to the forefront as uninspired and stressful performances.

I couldn’t believe how I instantly sounded better when I decided to take what I had and make it sound good!

In sports we have coaches who drive us to practice harder, push our limits and increase our focus. We are typically supervised several times each week. Learning to play piano was one day with my teacher and six days unsupervised to “work it out.”

When practicing my instrument alone, I often would be unproductively hard on myself or just meander through things without being present. In my head I would bounce between vague memories of my teachers’ suggestions and what I was going to do when I finished practicing, repeat something until I could do it at a certain level of proficiency or master something so I could move on to the next thing. And so the disconnect was born and nourished.

Now when teaching, I’ll ask a student if they would pay $10 to attend a concert where someone played the way they just did. So far in 15 years no one has said “Yes.”

When I ask “Why?”

They typically respond in a robotic, monotonic voice that recites something like, “It didn’t have dynamics, my left hand was too loud, I had a lot of pauses and it sped up.”

And I say, “Wow! I’m surprised that you would go pay for a concert and be inspired by that list of things. That doesn’t sound like a fun way to experience music. Is that what you think when you go see your favorite rock band?”

Finally, the student comes to the simple conclusion that they would be bored by their performance. And if they are really aware and honest, they admit that they were bored when they were playing (and practicing at home). We’ve all been there and still go there.

It is fascinating how we can be bored when recreating music written by geniuses or creating our own improvisations or compositions. At times it can even seem like the norm.

With all the elements of a solid performance in place, a performance can still fall very short. We somehow assume that we can practice void of any energy and excitement and show up for the gig and rock the house.

When the stage lights come on we are thrown for a loop because our nerves and adrenaline tell us that this time is different. Our newly obtained superhero abilities of focus and concentration zoom in on every little detail around us. We don’t know what to do with the intensity and our performances rarely live up to our expectations or potential.

Then we say, “I could have done so much better.”

Or, “I sounded so much better at home!”

And we create a divide between the practice and performance… the lessons and home… rehearsal and the gig.

So… what do we do?

We practice more hours. We switch teachers. We choose pieces that are more fun. We no longer play in front of people – the performance anxiety is just too much!

After trying all of these things at various stages of my life, I think they just avoid the issue.

I believe we owe it to ourselves to learn to practice in a way that can continuously renew our musical experience. Each day we should be entertained and inspired by the music with which we practice. Ironically, I feel this has very little to do with the actual repertoire but how we approach our day-to-day practice.

At it’s base level, music is about expression and communication. To effectively communicate we do need to improve our abilities and do the hard work. But we don’t do this by putting our creative self on hold. Our creative self needs to be driving the motivation to practice and how we practice.

This process does not need to wait until you get to a certain level. It needs to happen before we practice void of energy, quit or let the autopilot permanently replace us.

We perform every single time we sit at our instrument. These are opportunities to express and entertain ourselves or our audience. In our mind and attitude, there can be no difference between practice and performing.

Through teaching and practice I have come up with a few practice techniques that have helped my students and myself. I will share them here so that you can experiment and expand upon them in ways that work for your personal experience.

I will touch on techniques for the following:

  • Scales, arpeggios and technique
  • Playing written music
  • Improvised Music
  • Performing
Part two can be read here…