18 things musicians do that can help you improve your performance…at anything. PART TWO


9. KNOW WHEN YOU’RE COLD.  Don’t judge your performance until you have warmed up.  You are nowhere near your best until this happens.  Avoid critical assessment in the first 15 to 30 minutes of playing.  Sometimes, a warm-up routine that is suitable for your instrument and style can be helpful.  Long sustained notes of various dynamic levels are good for wind players, as they have to warm up an instrument up as well.  Scales and arpeggios that require some stretching while playing are good.  Warm up your mind.  Allow your thoughts to settle into what you are doing, especially if you have just been in traffic on the way to rehearsal.

10. GIVE YOUR CHOPS A BREAK.  Instead of playing, try to visualize the music on your instrument.  Close your eyes and watch the instrument play the notes.  Do the same with the printed score if you are playing from sheet music.  This technique has the added benefit of offering relief from the occasional bout of insomnia when done at bedtime.  As you visualize, don’t skip details.  If you can’t visualize all of the notes, you probably need more time studying before performing.  Can you hear the entire piece in your head?  Try to hear each and every note from start to finish without interruption.  This will test your memorization of the music and strengthen your ability to concentrate on the performance.  Any weak points in memory or execution will become apparent. 

11. GIVE YOURSELF A BREAK.  Make time for the things that keep you happy and healthy.  Allow your mind to reflect not only on music, but all other aspects of daily life.  Take a walk, or spend a few minutes daydreaming over a cup of tea.  Get plenty of rest.  Stay well hydrated.  Eat what’s good for you.  Enjoy the company of a friend or fellow musician.  Spend some time with a good book, but not TV, unless that’s really your thing.  Your mind is still processing all of the hard work from your practice session in the background as you rest and focus on other things, so, technically, doing this is also part of a good practice regimen.   

12. TIMING IS EVERYTHING.  Keep it honest: use a metronome.  Practicing without one allows for the possibility of cheats in the performance.  Do you unknowingly slow down for the harder parts?  Sometimes, ironically, we speed up during difficult passages and create even more mistakes!  Be aware of the timing of the whole piece, even the easier parts.  I refer to a metronome after I’ve been working with a piece for a while, but you can use one throughout the process as well.  As the proper tempo is practiced, the groove should reveal itself.  It is a powerful force that will carry you like the unrelenting waves of the ocean, but it is easily spooked, and will certainly vanish if you disregard the timing of the piece. 

13. MAKE TIME.  Don’t skimp.  30-60 minutes a day or every other day is not unreasonable when learning a new skill, especially one that takes your playing to the next level.  Be careful to avoid practicing for big chunks of time sporadically.  While this is better than nothing, it will leave you short of your goals if you are working on something that involves a lot of memorization and unfamiliar techniques.  A routine is best, such as every day after breakfast, or a specific time in the evening.  If the requirements of a piece exceed your routine, or it is difficult for you to establish one, schedule time for yourself in a day planner.  Treat it just like any other appointment that you can’t miss.  Tracking your rehearsals with a calendar will also provide written proof of your accomplishment, which will provide additional motivation while giving you a good sense of how much time is required to study a piece of similar difficulty in the future. 

14. KNOW THAT PRACTICE IS CUMULATIVE.  The work you put in to learn a skill for a new song will be established when it occurs in future studies.  Even if it becomes a little rusty before it is needed again, the time required to get it back will be shorter than learning it from scratch.  This is obvious to a beginner who might learn a new note in one piece and is prepared for it when it arrives more frequently as etudes advance.  A string player might encounter an arpeggio with a unique turn or fingering that will be approached with confidence in the future.  Composers treat each session of writing as a valuable experience even if a new work is discarded: the next one will be crafted with that experience in mind.  Consider each new technique that is developed for a particular piece to also be preparation for music you haven’t even thought of performing yet.  From this mindset, each moment spent in the practice room is an investment in your lifetime of playing in addition to reaching more immediate goals.  

15. PREPARE TO PERFORM.  The ultimate goal of most rehearsal is usually a performance of some kind.  Regardless of whether that performance will be for a teacher, an audience, or even just yourself, preparing for that performance is a valuable part of the rehearsal process.   When you are beginning to feel that you have a new piece of music down, see if you can play it all the way through and be satisfied with the results.  Once you are, make a video of yourself and watch the performance critically.  The red light on the video recorder has a way of bringing potential pitfalls out of hiding.  Work out any problem areas you may encounter.  Once you’ve done that, perform the piece for an audience of one, such as a family member or friend.  The act of playing music for for someone may reveal issues that the camera’s red light missed.  Head back to the rehearsal room work on those areas.  Finally, play the piece for someone who is not a family member or close friend in a setting that is not your house or studio.  Try to get two or three people in your audience if possible.  The comfort and familiarity of your private rehearsal space can sometimes give you false feedback about your performance.  Beyond these steps, you could go one more step and try a larger audience and less comfortable surroundings such as an open mic or performer’s workshop.  Ideally, your test audiences should give you their full attention throughout the performance, so be sure to ask for it in advance, but don’t ask for feedback.  In this exercise, the performance critique will come from you.  If you absolutely cannot resist asking for a critique, be sure the question is something very specific such as, “Did that fast passage of notes sound like it flowed into the next part?  Here, I’ll play it again for you.”  Never ask, “What did you think?”  Most audience members feel put on the spot when asked this question, so try to avoid it.  For the purposes detailed here, we really just require a few moments of time and nothing else.  

16. REST.  Let it breath for a couple of days.  Burn out often creates a forest and trees situation where you get so caught up in working on specifics that more general performance issues get lost.  The ultimate goal is to play music, and at the end of all of the time spent in the rehearsal studio, that’s what it should sound like you are doing.  Taking a short break from a piece also allows for free “practice” where your mind can process the advances you have made and work out any problems in the background.  When you return to the piece, you will be able to tackle challenges with a better understanding than you might have had without the break.  Periods of rest can be applied within rehearsals as well.  If a passage has really got you bogged down, take a moment and stretch, or get a glass of water.  Sometimes, a short break will reset your perspective allowing you to use your time more effectively. 

17. LISTEN.  Keep your thoughts and ears focused on the end result: the sound coming out of the instrument.  Difficult passages of music can take brain power away from listening as you make the necessary calculations to mechanically recreate the music.  Practice these areas with this in mind so that they can be performed as evenly as the others with your complete attention to the sounds you are making.  The easier moments in a piece can also lead to lapses in attentive listening, as we mistakenly take advantage of the reduced demands on brainpower to think about a hard part coming up or, at these moments, simply just loose focus.  Follow all of the details of the less demanding passages with the same focus and enthusiasm that you would have for a difficult passage.  Be vigilant during rehearsals to remove any bad habits that interfere with hearing every note that is played.     

18.  HAVE FUN.  Don’t lose sight of why you play music in the first place.  Make every moment that you are playing an opportunity to express yourself through the art you create and enjoy yourself as you celebrate your talent and hard work.

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