Performing music is sometimes compared to an Olympic sport. You not only have to perform at your best, but you have only one chance of getting it right at a specific place and time. Music students are often surprised by the fact that something they play ”perfectly” at home just did not come out right in a recital. During a concert, performers experience a kind of hyper-awareness state, or hyper-hearing, in which they became aware of even the smallest details of the performance and discover that they just don’t have enough information, or that their memory of the piece is not adequate, and it makes them nervous.
Practicing is viewed as different from performance. We can repeat the piece or a section multiple times, and we can go back and fix a mistake. Or can we? Are you practicing, or performing?
Falling into the trap of constantly going back and fixing things is one of the biggest problems in practicing. Are we really going back and making it right this time? Or, rather, are we interrupting the normal flow of the piece and confusing the memory? Every music teacher has seen this situation countless times: a student makes a mistake, then, without stopping goes back a measure or two and plays the passage again, only to make the same mistake. This action becomes a loop, with the student convinced each time that “this time” he or she will really get it right. All this loop accomplishes is to create a false pathway in the kinesthetic or muscle memory. The kinesthetic sense has no idea that they are going back into a loop. The muscle memory has no ability for discerning mistakes from flawless playing. It records whatever we repeat.
There is also an unspoken notion that practicing is just rehearsing, or is a somewhat less intense and less serious activity than performance. Many believe that it is ok for our minds to wander a little and not be completely focused, because we can always repeat again. But that lack of focus is precisely what creates the problems when we become hyper-aware during a performance. In the lessons following my studio recital, my students who had had problems in performance said that they didn’t understand how they could have made mistakes since they could play the piece perfectly at home. I asked them to demonstrate playing the piece. Most of them become conscious that there were some problems, while other students were not even aware that some of the small issues they were having threw them off balance and caused them to lose control in performance.
So we should practice the way we want to perform. If you practice a section or even a phrase, do not interrupt it until you finish. We should be completely aware of all the details, and if a mistake happens, we have to finish the phrase and then find out what caused it. There is nothing wrong with exploring the piece or playing around with it, provided we give ourselves plenty of ” performances,” when we play the piece or a section at home the way we would in a concert. Creating a little pressure for these performances is also good, like having a family member listen or, even better, recording audio or video and giving yourself only one chance at the time.
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