Updated: Feb 28
I recall once, in my performance training, a wise teacher had said to me:
"Practice with intention. Even repetitions must have a goal in mind."
As with any new learning of a skill, repetitions are important to train muscle and aural memory at the instrument. With any piece, reading of a difficult section can be tackled with careful, focused repetition to learn what to do. So what else is there to do when you have learnt the notes, rhythm and structure of the musical piece?
Here's the tricky part. Practicing reading and playing a piece at home, is not the same as practicing performing a piece. Generally, for all levels, the initial stages of learning a piece involves sight reading, listening, working out the rhythms and tone production accurately. Once these are all secure, playing with expression (musically) and accurately is the next goal. At this point, the student is aurally aware of the piece at high level, and may already have memorized it.
Although, no matter how one has perfected learning a piece, it is never quite 100% on stage. We pianists do not have the privilege of carrying our own familiar instrument everywhere for performances. Pianists have the added challenge of working the sound acoustics and touch dynamics on the piano we have to use!
Practice at home is all sounding very good, even for the parents who have heard the same old piece of music being worked on many times. But what happens, when you perform it in a different environment? What happens if there is a small audience, which is not normally part of your routine?
There are nerves to deal with (totally normal). There may be other distracting background noises to work with. The most distracting of all is our own thoughts about the situation. Practicing performance is none other than practicing mental focus. That's probably one of the reasons why performing music is actually one of the most mentally challenging things to do.
While building confidence and comfort on stage gets better with lots of experience, not all of us have a chance to perform in front of audiences on a consistent basis. Here are three ways you can elevate your instrument practice at home:
1. Listening Away from the Instrument
This is a time and tried, true and tested method for solidifying aural awareness and gaining new insights into a musical piece. The mind is a very powerful sponge, and by varying ways to secure understanding of a piece is a very effective way to learn it inside out.
Reading along with the score as you listen to the music ingrains the overall visual imprint of the score in the mind. Additionally, listening to performances by other performers can open up new ideas for artistry, various ways of expressing a passage. Some variations include:
Humming along to the melody line
Moving fingers/arms in the air along with the music
Closing your eyes and imagining the score
All of the above also aid in memorization of a piece. While Youtube has a wealth of videos you can choose from to watch and listen, be sure to pick a performance that is of high quality so that you are listening to an accurate interpretation of the musical piece.
2. Practice in a Noisy Environment
If you're up for a challenge, I highly recommend trying to perform your piece from beginning to end in a more distracting environment than your usual practice routine. This can be anything from having the dishwasher or laundry door open, or perhaps if you have young children, have them play with their toys near you (they are never quiet!).
Have your spouse close doors in the house or drop items (safely) on the floor as mild distractions. See if you can stay in character all the way through! This silly but fun excercise can engage you and your family while still working on your practice. Be sure to set limits, for example, with children, tell them they can distract you from afar but no touching you or coming close to the keyboard.