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.
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.
Either close your eyes or look toward the back of the room where the wall and ceiling meet.
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.
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.
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.
Do another physiological sigh.
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.
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:
Start with your guitar in hand just outside of your practice room.
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).
As you are completing your centering routine above, walk into your practice room.
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.
Think about the shape of your dynamics, tone or timbre variations, tempo expression, embellishments, and improvisation. In other words, experiment, take risks, and have fun! Initially, you will make a lot of mistakes when doing this, but the more you practice expression and enjoyment, the fewer mistakes you will make. In fact, you’ll actually improve your technique without even thinking about it!
To practice this, start out with just a short musical phrase and play through it with only one (1) expressive technique in mind (i.e., dynamic variation). Repeat your phrase a few times and vary your dynamic shape every time. After you've worked on dynamics, work on varying just your tone on the same phrase (e.g., shift your hand toward the bridge, or toward the fretboard while playing). Eventually, you will want to have worked on all of your expressive techniques one at a time.
The last element of performance practice is getting feedback from your pre-performance routine and your performance (i.e., playing without stopping). My favorite thing to do for feedback is to audio or video record myself during these two practice methods. After you record yourself, listen to or watch the video with pen & paper in hand and write down all of the time stamps for anything you want to change concerning mechanics, memorization, and expression. Also, write down any positive notes about what you liked at any given moment.
If you have time in the same practice session, you can use this recording to direct your strategic practice session. If you don't have time, you can use this video for strategic practice in your next practice session. Or, better yet, ask your teacher to critique it for deliberate practice! Consider recording a few times a week right after you warm up and before you work on strategic practice. Make sure to record only one (1) pass of your piece or excerpt. You want to practice playing your best on the first try.
NOTE: I recommend recording an excerpt that is no more than 10 seconds long. Once you have used strategic practice to improve those 10 seconds, move on to the next 10 seconds of music. As you get better at this, you can lengthen your musical phrases and eventually record yourself playing for close family and friends as part of your practice strategy.
Now that we understand strategic, deliberate, and performance practice we have about 90% of the tools necessary for the stage. (What?! There’s more?! 😮) Yup!
The last 10% is psychological preparation and although it’s only 10% of everything we need, it’s just as crucial as our first two tools. In the next and final post (Part 3) on How to Stop Making Mistakes in Performance, I’ll talk about the importance of our perspective on errors, our purpose in performance, and our egos.
Please leave a comment below if you have any questions about performance practice or to share your thoughts. Thanks and happy practicing!