Most of us have had the experience of playing to “near perfection” in the practice room and then making plenty of mistakes while playing for others (including our teachers!). How is it possible that we can play so well in practice but make so many mistakes in our lessons or on stage?
There are certainly external factors, like a string breaking or a desperate need for TUMS, that can make performing quite challenging. But in general, these factors occur in isolated instances which are sometimes difficult (or impossible) to control. That said, if we focus only on what we can control, we’re left with one significant internal factor that can lead us to suboptimal performances and pretty awful feelings. That internal factor is anxiety 😰. Fortunately, there are some pretty cool strategies out there that can help us reign it in. But in order to use these strategies effectively we first need to find out what causes us to feel so anxious.
Whether it’s in a lesson or when performing for others, one of the biggest reasons most of us get anxious when performing is not feeling as prepared as we would like to be with our music. As a result, we worry about making mistakes which, of course, increases our probability of actually making one. Then when we do make a mistake, we become even more anxious and snowball into an inescapable, self-fulfilling, vicious cycle. (Been there…more than I’d like to admit!)
So how do we know that a piece is ready for the stage or our next lesson?
To begin with, when preparing a piece we need to focus on 3 primary goals: 1) mechanical improvement, 2) memorization, & 3) expression. But before I get into that I want to make a distinction between preparation for a performance and preparation for a lesson.
For our lessons, preparation comes down to two things: 1) doing our homework as consistently as possible and 2) making improvement rather than mastery, our main goal. This necessarily means that our piece will have mistakes — progressively fewer — for many lessons until it’s finally ready for performance. It's basically like improving a bunch of rough drafts until the final project is polished and ready to submit.
What our teachers want to do is help us get from the rough draft to the final, polished version. So next time you have a lesson, make sure not to hide any mistakes. Just do your best to make small and consistent improvements during practice at home and then, during the lesson, make sure all of your errors, challenges, and troubleshooting steps you tried at home are made clear to your teacher.
For a performance (i.e., for an audience) our goal shifts toward mastery of our piece with expression being our primary goal. And, of course, this will only occur if we've consistently worked on improvement first. Personally, I know that a piece is ready for the stage when I can play it from memory, with rhythmic accuracy, very expressively, and with no basic mechanical errors twice a day for about 7 days in a row.
That said, let's break down the first 3 goals we need to include in our practice when preparing a piece for performance.
Strategic Practice: Mechanics
Addressing mechanical errors requires problem-solving using a very specific method that we can creatively call Strategic Practice. It looks something like this:
Select a short phrase to work on (e.g., 1-4 measures).
WHAT: Identify & verbalize your exact challenge spot (CS) and stop playing as soon as it occurs. • Be as specific as possible (e.g., "The 4th finger missed the 4th fret on the 2nd string."). Write this down in your practice log. • Speaking and writing in the 3rd person can help problem-solve more effectively. • Do not move forward and do not make the same error twice before attempting a correction.
WHY: Identify a possible cause. • Be as specific as possible (e.g., The left elbow didn't swing inward enough, the 4th finger was too tense, the 4th finger didn't reach enough, etc.) • Again: Use the 3rd person. Verbalize and write it down in your log.
SOLUTION: Develop a possible solution or a few solutions. • Be specific (e.g., swing the left elbow in a bit more and relax the 4th finger). • Use the 3rd person to verbalize and write this down.
TEST: Try your solutions to see if they work. • Use the CS Sandwich Method: start no more than a few notes before the CS and end no more than a few notes after.
REFLECT: Did your solution work? • Get feedback from either yourself, an audio recording, your video camera, another musician, or a teacher. • Write down your results
DECIDE: Decide what path to take based on feedback: • If the solution didn’t work, go back to step 2. • If the solution did work, repeat your solution with variations (e.g., dynamics, tempo, rhythm, tone, etc.) more correct times than incorrect times. Then move on to the next CS.
INTERLEAVE: Use this approach for 3-5 different CSs in an interleaved manner for a maximum of 3 sets. (e.g., CS1, CS2, CS3 —> CS1, CS2, CS3 —> CS1, CS2, CS3).
Continue using this approach in every practice session until each CS has been solved and you can play through each section nearly every time for a week with no mechanical challenges.
REMEMBER: Don’t rush! Mastery is a result of small improvements made consistently over time.
A necessary supplement to Strategic Practice in the path to expertise is to add coaching to our practice. This is where an expert teacher gives you immediate feedback and suggestions for improvement during repetitions of the skill you want to master -- music in our case. The combination of strategic practice and coaching is what research psychologist, Anders Ericsson, Ph.D, called Deliberate Practice. And research has consistently shown that Deliberate Practice (i.e., strategic practice + coaching) is the key to expertise. So next time your teacher has you repeat a phrase several times to give you feedback (i.e., coaching), remember that this process -- although grueling at times -- is giving your practice and huge boost!
While you work on overcoming CSs, you also want to work on memorizing your piece. I find that the best approach is to use chunking and chaining in an additive manner. For example, memorize phrase A, then phrase B, and then play phrases A&B together from memory. Then memorize phrase C, play B & C from memory, and then play ABC from memory. Continue this approach for your entire piece. Personally, I feel confident that a piece is memorized when I can play it from memory at least once a day for an entire week. If I have any memory slips, I address those using Strategic Practice.
Musical expression is the most subjective part of music performance and is usually the most fun. This is where we can practice our piece with variations in volume (dynamics), tempo (speed), timbre, phrasing, and embellishments and really enjoy the music.
Despite its subjective nature, there is a wrong way to express our music which is to make it sound the same the whole way through a piece. Many musicians unconsciously sacrifice musical expression for technical mastery which makes the music sound very flat and uninteresting regardless of technical prowess.
In both practice and performance, we need to consciously play with an expressive variation that is clear and interesting. A great way to practice this is to pick one expressive technique (e.g., dynamics) and vary it on each phrase of your piece until you pick a dynamic shape for each phrase that you like. I find that exaggerating my expression helps me find new and interesting expressive shapes for my pieces. And if any shape sounds "bad," you can improve it using strategic practice and deliberate practice with your teacher. Once you can play your piece with a relatively consistent expressive shape for about a week, it’s ready for performance (sort of)!
Strategic and Deliberate practice only gets us about 50% prepared for the stage. In addition to that, we need to actually practice performing which I always find to be the most fun part of practice! In Part 2 of “How to Stop Making Mistakes in Performance,” we'll discuss Performance Practice strategies that will help you get even more prepared for the stage.
And if you missed my last post that introduced a few practice strategies to help you minimize error, you can check it our here!
Let me know in the comment section below if you have any questions or experience with these methods. I'd love to hear them!