Sounding Bad as a Daily Practice

Practicing and performing should not be that different from each other when it comes to our musical approach. I believe that standards for energy, emotion, execution and creativity shouldn’t change that much between our practice room repetitions and the stage. If someone were to eavesdrop on a practice sessions, they should feel like they’re hearing us perform. However, they shouldn’t hear us sounding perfect or even good.

One constant in my teaching over the years is my messaging about practice. I always tell my students that they should always strive to sound bad at home… This means they’re working on things they can’t do. If they sound good all the time, they’re simply playing around. Our mission when practicing should be to live in the uncomfortable areas. If something becomes comfortable it’s our job to change that and move on.

Over time, always sounding bad becomes less stressful for us and we start to get comfortable with being uncomfortable. When this happens, we begin to develop the ability to react on the fly and execute things beyond our grasp at a high level. My performance goal for all my students is for them to sound amazing even on their worst day.

This approach is typically a little more comfortable for people with jazz or pop music backgrounds. Jazz musicians will play the same piece their whole career and continue to change the melodies, the chords, the rhythms and obviously the improvisation from gig to gig and year to year. But I find that this approach is very helpful when learning to play classical or written music.

Here are a few ways this can be approached when we practice written music…

  • Start with a wide focus and before making it narrow: Don’t take what’s on the page too literally. Before you start working on the specific things written on the page, start exploring all of the alternatives. This way when you finally play what’s written, it feels fresh and it feels like something you arrived at after learning the piece several different ways – rather than mindlessly reproducing the composer’s original statement. Don’t put all of your energy into mastering what the composer wrote. Try to master all the musical elements the composer had to be aware of to write the piece in the first place. Take a journey through the options and then eventually play what they settled on. For example; I will have students play a passage all staccato, all legato, accent any note that lands on a strong beat, accent any note that lands on a weak beat, play everything pianissimo, play everything fortissimo, play one hand forte and the other hand piano – then do the opposite. And finally, play it like it is written. I often joke with the students after we work through all of these steps and ask, “After trying this piece these different ways, do you think Schumann made mostly good decisions when writing this piece?”
  • Change instruments: Have you ever showed up to gig only to find out that the piano was not very good? Has this ever affected your performance? If so, this is something you can practice. Practice on an old upright piano in a school, church or a friend’s house that is nearly impossible to sound good on – and learn to make music on it. Organs and keyboards are also great for this. Every now and then, play your biggest piano pieces on a digital piano or organ and force yourself to adapt and make music… Perform, don’t just give a half-hearted attempt – get creative and embrace the challenge.
  • Change keys: If you practice something four times in a row, only play what you’re working on in the original key the fourth time. It’s not going to be pretty at first. But you’ll get better at it and you will sound amazing when you get to the original key… Plus, your ears will become way better after doing this over time.
  • Change tempos gradually: Never play anything at the same tempo twice in a row. Instead of playing something three times in a row, change the tempo by something as small as 5 -7 bpms. It should not always get faster either. The tempo should go up one time, down another, down another, down another, up one time, up another time, etc.
  • Change tempos (extreme): Play your pieces or passages at extreme tempos and adjust so that it sounds good. If you normally play a piece at 124 bpm, perform it at 27 bpm one time. Then the next time perform it at 235 bpm. You’re not going to play it perfectly, but you will learn to play it in a way that effectively comes across to an audience in really tough situation.

Practice towards the vastness of music rather than just the execution of one piece or program. Treat everything you play as a device for expression and communication without limits or a finish line. Flexibility and fluidity create our personal artistry. Mastery is a moving target. Embrace these ideas and you will find a lot of joy in your practice and performances… Plus, you’ll sound a lot better once you learn to function at a high level through the chaos.

Click the links below to read the other posts in this series:

Part One: Rebounding from Bad Performances

Part Two: Perfection as a Way of Life