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Stop Making Mistakes in Performance: Part 2 🚀

Updated: Apr 1

Strategic & Deliberate Practice are key components of performance preparation but if we only spend all of our time in either or both of these, we're going to develop a bad habit of wanting to engage in these kinds of practices all the time. And that habit will inevitably want to make an appearance on stage which is not at all an appropriate setting for either strategic or deliberate practice.

In order to get used to playing our pieces without stopping and without wanting to fix every little mistake, we need to add Performance Practice into our routines. The way to do this is to actually practice performing in a controlled setting with 4 principal goals in mind: 1) using a pre-performance routine, 2) playing without stopping, 3) focusing on expression & enjoyment, & 4) getting post-performance feedback.

Pre-Performance Routine

Many top-level performers have a little routine they do just before going on stage. They do these routines religiously and almost always execute them using the same order of steps. Research shows that pre-performance routines like these help performers get centered, significantly reduce pre-performance jitters, and consequently improve performance.

As musicians, we should also develop and incorporate a pre-performance routine into our performance practice. Performance psychologist Don Greene, Ph.D., offers a pre-performance routine called Centering which I have tweaked a bit for my own practice. (Incidentally, I use this same exact method in my performance practice and as my pre-performance routine for concerts).

To practice this, make sure to do it at the beginning of your practice session immediately after warming up. All you need are about 5 minutes per practice session to do about 5 repetitions of this. And once you get the hang of it, the entire process only takes about 5-10 seconds to implement.

  1. Either close your eyes or look toward the back of the room where the wall and ceiling meet.

  2. Do a physiological sigh (i.e., inhale halfway, then complete the 2nd art of your inhale quickly, then exhale slowly). This helps lower stress! You can get nerdy (like me) and read all about it here or you can just watch a quick video by neuroscientist, Andrew Huberman, explaining how it works here.

  3. Smile, relax your body, and say to yourself, "I’m excited, I’m going to be very expressive, and I’m going to enjoy this.” Do this whether you believe it or not! Check out evidence-based reasons for why this trick may work here.

  4. As vividly as possible, think about how the first few notes of your piece are going to sound and imagine them projecting as far as possible despite their volume.

  5. Do another physiological sigh.

  6. Play only the first few notes of your piece without stopping. As you get closer to an actual performance, you’ll want to play more of your piece and eventually your entire setlist.

  7. Repeat this for a total of about 5 times for small excerpts and once or twice per day for long pieces.

As you get comfortable doing this, you will want to add a few more challenging steps like the ones I use here:

  1. Start with your guitar in hand just outside of your practice room.

  2. Imagine a setting and an audience right before you start the centering routine above. (NOTE: Start with a very small and familiar audience in a familiar setting. As you get better, you can start imagining larger audiences in larger settings).

  3. As you are completing your centering routine above, walk into your practice room.

  4. Bow to your imaginary audience, sit down — do your last physiological sigh here — and start playing.

This is a really fun part of practicing which takes little time. Please consider adding it to your routine.

On a side note, performance psychologist Noa Kageyama* has an amazing course dedicated to combating performance anxiety. Here’s Kageyama’s article on centering with a link to his course.

(*I have no affiliation with Noa Kageyama, but happily recommend his courses because I have gone through all of them and found them tremendously helpful. I also highly recommend reading his blog posts which will give you even more tools to help you improve your playing and performance).

Playing Without Stopping

In strategic & deliberate practice, our goals are to problem-solve. We isolate Challenge Spots (CS), figure out their causes, develop & implement solutions, and repeat our solution several times. It’s a very choppy process that does not resemble performance in any way. So to get our music closer to what it will look like on stage, we also need to practice playing our pieces, excerpts, exercises, or etudes expressively without stopping, regardless of any errors. If you don't have a lot of practice time, you can add this goal to your practice every other session.

To do this, all you need to do is pick a memorized piece or excerpt and play it without stopping. I recommend doing this at the start of your practice session, immediately after warming up. If you haven't done this before, it will be challenging, but really do your best to not stop for any reason. If necessary, slow down as much as needed in order to complete the piece or excerpt with minimal playing effort (MPE). By practicing this way, in addition to strategic & deliberate practice, you will inevitably develop a few “error escape plans” that will help you complete your piece and not freak out after each error.

Expression & Enjoyment

Another contrast to the problem-solving goals of strategic & deliberate practice is the nearly exclusive performance goal of expression and enjoyment. When you sit down to practice your pre-performance routine or play without stopping, do so with only these two goals in mind. Make it a point to enjoy the sound of the instrument and the sound of the music that you are playing. Become a listener in addition to a performer and add as much expression as you can to your music.