Updated: Feb 28, 2022
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.
3. Choose One Thing to Focus On
If anything, psychology of the mind comes into play more than anything when you are preparing to perform. With my students, I encourage them to pick one positive thought that they are going to use to stay focus prior to performing. Mistakes can and will happen, there’s no running away from it. It’s how we pick up the trail again and move on that really matters.
Before you play your piece, think of one thing you’re going to do well. For example, it can be as simple as:
"I’m going to sound the first note accurately."
"I’m going to play this first measure with accurate rhythm."
Having this simple mental note aids in giving yourself solid starting ground amidst all the nerves and negative thoughts that may be surfacing prior to your performance. Similarly, in your regular practice routine, excercises such as trying to write out the first measure or line of your piece from memory can help strengthen memory and confidence.
Variations include recalling the first few starting notes, or the last chord or cadence of the piece or section/theme. For young students, it is good practice to instill the habit of giving themselves one measure of count in before they begin.
Have you ever watched concert musicians set the stage before they play? Some may look up, close their eyes, taking a few seconds to prepare. What are they actually doing? Mentally focusing on the task at hand. Perhaps, listening in their minds, the first few notes of the music!
Challenges in music performance is never a lack of playing skills. Most musicians and students who practice regularly and diligently are already good at what they do. Taking it further on stage is all about understanding how to maintain focus, and the task at hand, especially when you feel pressured to do well.
This is one of the reasons why I encourage students to improvise and create because it is so helpful to buy some time in the event of a slip/mistake, and get back on track to continue the flow of music.