There is a practiced occurrence among students that is incompatible with live performance. That is the habit of stopping during a particular piece or movement of music because either one made a mistake or one was dissatisfied with a particular aspect of one’s performance. Naturally we all need to stop and fix a whole host of things while practicing. We are listening for imperfections of pitch, sound, articulation, dynamics, etc. This stopping, fixing, and starting are good and normal methods of correction. However, we often forget what our goal is, which is a complete and seamless rendering of our repertoire. Since we live in a digital age, splicing and dubbing are normal parts our experience of recorded music. The art of live performance, which is what we train to do at the conservatory level, requires us to always be reminded that our end goal is a performance without interruption. Make sure that this end result is not forgotten or left to the last part of our preparation. This will require then the uncomfortable activity of playing even while there are mistakes being made. Keep going don’t stop! During live performance, important skills to be employed are covering for errors,continuing, maybe even improvisation at some points. Of course, depth of practice on details must remain punctilious, but don’t forget the big picture. If you stop and start regularly during your practice, you have practiced stopping and starting during your performance!
Often when I start a new relationship with a student, I ask them what their ultimate goal in music is. This is what my teacher Karen Tuttle asked me at my first lesson. At the time I answered her that my ultimate goal was to go to the Curtis Institute. She responded that that was a goal, but didn’t sound like an ultimate goal. I dug deeper and told her my dream which was even hard to articulate at the time for fear of incredulousness or mockery. I said that I wanted to play in the Philadelphia Orchestra.
She met that pronouncement not with a “reality check” or other some such lecture on how hard or impossible that was, and said, “Ok let’s get to it!” Every choice and decision I made after that point, including where I was going to spend my summers, how much I was going to practice and what I was going to sacrifice to make it possible, was directed to achieving that goal. I gave up free weekends, alot of late night socializing, and plentiful excuses. The responsibility was mine to make this happened and she as my teacher was going to help me make the journey by showing me how to practice , play better, and make good choices that would affect my future.
Now that I sit in the teacher’s chair I have wonderful perspective of knowing what it feels like to be a student and feel, afraid, overwhelmed, stressed, frustrated and disappointed. I also know that our goals must be long term. It is not about the small triumphs. It is really all about perseverance. The students who make the sacrifices and stick with it until they get where they want to go. Good fortune and a supportive network of people are also crucial of course.
Your career dream and goal should be your motivation. If you can think it then you can do it. Take responsibility for your goals, your practice, and your perseverance.
Concentration is an oft forgotten skill which is required during performance AND practice. One cannot expect to be able to concentrate or focus fully while performing if one’s practice has been erratic and lacking in mental discipline and purpose. We all have those voices in our heads that interrupt our serenity and confidence. It is the ability to return constantly to the task at hand which is what we need to achieve. Some people use meditation outside of the musical work which is helpful to quiet these distractions.
I advise students to have a performance ritual so that every time one begins to play whether in a practice room or performance, one uses the same “mental entrance” into our task at hand. What’s the charater of the piece of music? How’s my posture? What part of the bow am I in? Am I breathing?
The complexity of playing our instrument and delivering a moving thoughtful performance requires us to be monitoring what we just played, hearing what we are currently performing, and shaping the future phrases and sonority. Being able to remain primarily in the present is the real challenge and offers the most benefits.
Spending practice time not just working on the notes, fingerings, bowings, dynamics, is crucial. Mental practice will address all of these elements and improve concentration. Practice without ones instrument in hand can be a beneficial supplement. Mental run throughs are draining and difficult but can offer great dividends. Practice letting go of the chatter of your own doubts and insecurities. This can free up your ability to concentrate. Accomplishing this in the practice room first is a major step in reducing mental clutter on stage!