Recording yourself in a mock performance, cycling through Pachelbel’s Canon, and having a long think can help you prepare for the stage

From the Winter 2016 issue of Classical Guitar | BY ANDY WHITEHEAD

When you practice, are you preparing for the stage or the practice room? Since how you practice is more important than the time you spend practicing, using these three methods will help you more effectively prepare you for actual performances. I encourage you to experiment with these by gradually incorporating them into your current practice routines.

MENTAL PRACTICE

First, I recommend that you develop your ability to create music without judging it. When you’re onstage, your performance should be about giving, as opposed to taking. To get there, you should be in a completely creative headspace, free from all self-editing and critiquing. Try to critique your playing in the practice room, not onstage. On the other hand, you don’t want to have only a critical mindset during your practice time. This is because the mindset you develop in the practice room will inevitably carry forward to the stage. So, what’s really needed is a balance of judgment and creativity in your practice.

So, how do you practice being creative?

There are many ways to be creative in your practice, but one is to play a song or multiple songs for a set amount of time, free from any judgment. Set an amount of time for you to play anything you want and be sure to record it. After playing, listen back to the recording. Identify and write down what you liked and didn’t like. Then, start your next practice session by looking at your notes, which will tell you what to repeat and what not to. You can also use this creative session to freely improvise, which will help you generate new ideas for compositions.

Eventually this creative mindset will become easier to enter into during your practices and, as a result, your performances.

Another effective method is to sing your part. You can do this along with a recording of your song or while following along in the sheet music. Start by just listening to the song you’re going to perform on “repeat” as much as possible. Try to soak in the feel and message of the song. Then, challenge yourself to sing every note along with the recording. Make sure to sing all the details, including accurate dynamics and articulation. Next, sing the song from memory without the recording. Similarly, you can sing your part as you read through the sheet music for it.

If you sing your part in these ways, you’ll have made an incredible foundation of becoming familiar with the song. This will give you a great mental guide for when you try to play it on guitar.

Another habit worth developing is learning to center yourself mentally and emotionally. This can make a very quick improvement on your overall performance. Begin by relaxing and taking a few deep breaths. Next, notice and relax any tension in your body, starting with your face and moving down to your toes. Think of how the song you are going to play begins. Think of the meaning and character of the music. Imagine how your relaxed hands, arms, and body will feel playing the song. Finally, without thinking about starting, let yourself simply begin the song. If you make this method a regular habit before you practice, it will easily carry over into a performance habit.

One last mental habit to form is to become accustomed to focusing on the big picture. To do this, focus on the overall flow and feel of the music, as opposed to each separate technique and movement. Think about the bigger rhythms, as opposed to the smaller ones. Try shaping the song as a whole, letting your imagination guide you.

When you are developing a new technique, spend as little time as possible playing it by itself. As soon as you become fairly comfortable with a technique, play it with a metronome and in the context of the song. It’s OK if that means playing the song at a slow tempo to accommodate the difficult technique. By doing this, you’ll be speeding up the time it takes to play the technique seamlessly.

INTERLEAVED METHOD

Now, I want to explain in detail a very effective method that delivers noticeable long-term results. It’s called the interleaved method and it mimics the demands of a real performance by forcing you to play a passage without having immediately played it before. I’ll break it down for you.

The first step in this method is to pick a few things to work on. Let’s say you want to improve these three things:
1. Canon in D by Pachelbel
2. C Major Scale
3. C Major Arpeggios

First, play Canon in D for only two to five minutes. Set a timer if you need help with limiting your time. Second, practice the C major scale for the same two to five minutes. Thirdly, practice C Major arpeggios for two to five minutes. This completes one set. Next, practice each task in the same order for the same amount of time to complete the second set. Lastly, repeat the same process to complete the third set. So, if you spend two minutes on each topic, then you end up with a very efficient and effective practice session in as little as 18 minutes!

Sounds too good to be true, doesn’t it? Fortunately, studies show that the interleaved method of learning is very effective in long-term retention of a subject. Not to mention, it adds variety and spontaneity to your practice session.

This method is effective because it makes you recall memories. You are forced to forget what you previously played by playing something new. Then, you are forced to remember what you previously played by returning to it. By repeating this process with three sets, you repeatedly recall the memory of a task, resulting in long-term retention.

Unfortunately, there is a downside to this method. That is, that you don’t allow yourself enough time to become comfortable with one passage. But, although you might feel frustrated with Canon in D during that day of practice, you’ll be pleased the next day when you’ve retained a good deal of it.

MOCK PERFORMANCES

Studies have shown that low-stakes test-taking improves learning significantly. Similarly, musicians can create low-stakes mock performances.

Before you begin a mock performance, set up an audio or video device to record your song or multiple songs. Then, begin your mock performance by recreating what you expect from the actual performance. You can do this by walking into your practice space exactly how you’ll walk onto the stage. You can bow or even wear your concert attire for the mock performance. Next, enter into a creative mindset. Center yourself as previously described above. Then, perform your song or set. If you’re just beginning to do mock performances, playing one song is great for now. Over time, you can work up to performing an entire set of songs. After your mock performance, listen back to the audio or watch the video. Then, identify and write down how well the music was played and how conducive your mindset was to performing. When you make mental observations, pay attention to when you might have started to judge your playing. Also, note when you might have begun to lose sight of the big picture or when you lost your overall focus. These notes will give you a point of reference for the next mock performance.

Make sure to schedule mock performances regularly so that you are running through songs or sets multiple times in one week. Also, seek out opportunities to play for a couple of friends or family members.
In addition to all of these practice methods, keep in mind that you can prepare effectively for a performance and still have your nerves creep up on you. A certain amount of stress and nervousness helps motivate you to perform at a higher level. When you do feel nervous, try channeling that energy into excitement to give a more dynamic and emotional performance. And above all, have fun!

Of course, you can customize your practice time to make these methods work best for you. If you do this, I’m positive you’ll be fully prepared for any performances.

Good luck and happy practicing!

Andy Whitehead is a guitarist, teacher, and writer based in Denver, Colorado. He received his Bachelor’s of Music in Jazz Guitar Performance from the University of Northern Colorado. 


This article originally appeared in the Winter 2016 issue of Classical Guitar.