It’s inspiring to attend a guitar recital by a performer whom we perceive to be playing perfectly. Many guitarists, however, experience a mysterious gulf, dividing high-level players from those trying hard to reach that level.
With that in mind, I interviewed a few top performers about attaining that elusive goal of perfection in performance. Not surprisingly, they were united in stating that striving for “perfection” in performance is the wrong goal. Martha Masters, who once won first prize at the Guitar Foundation of America’s international solo competition (among other awards) and teaches at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles and at California State University Fullerton, doesn’t like to use the word perfection with her guitar students. “I am not a fan of the ‘P word,’” she says. “It prompts anxiety in a lot of people. If you play every note at the right time, is that a perfect performance? It depends on what happened musically.”
Stephen Robinson, a top-prize winner in five major international competitions and a guitar professor at Stetson University in Florida, says, “The final goal is to communicate art to the listener. The idea of perfection doesn’t count without that element. If you miss a note here or there, but give a very strong emotional performance, so be it. I’d much prefer to hear that than someone who was onstage just trying to get all the notes.”
My interview subjects stressed that there must be a deep level of commitment to the music for a high-level performance. “If you tell yourself that you are making a commitment to a piece and your goal is to present it to an audience, it changes the attitude toward the work that you have to do,” says Bill Kanengiser, also a winner of multiple major international competitions, a founding member of the Grammy-winning Los Angeles Guitar Quartet, and an assistant professor at the University of Southern California.
“Once I’ve made that commitment to a new piece, my first step is to discover the emotional or musical expression that the composer wants to get out,” Kanengiser says. “For me, it all starts with a musical perspective. All of the technical problems—being able to play fast enough, loud enough, or smoothly enough—are informed by what you want to do musically.” Kanengiser acknowledges, though, that just having a great musical idea in your head won’t automatically make it come out in your playing. Much diligent work is required.
Masters, Kanengiser, and Robinson were unanimous about the importance of proper practice habits. Practicing is a vast topic and countless articles and books have been written about it. Space permits sharing here only a sliver of the philosophy and methods of these three. “What constitutes ‘practicing’ is not talked about enough,” says Robinson. “It’s not just going into a room and attempting to play something again and again. If you’re playing the mistakes over and over hoping they get better, they won’t. You’re just getting good at making mistakes.”
In her preparation, Masters homes in on the difficult sections of each piece. “I do a lot of spot practicing,” she says. “First you need to understand intellectually where the challenges are. Are they in fingering, speed, or not understanding something musically? After identifying a problem, I do a lot of spot practicing at a tempo where I can play the passage accurately so that I am not drilling mistakes.” She advocates playing a difficult passage repeatedly to be sure technical problems are worked out. “I think playing a part ten times in a row correctly is good, as opposed to playing it 20 times with some messing up in between,” she says. But hitting that mark once doesn’t necessarily mean the problem spot is nailed down. “You have to be able to come back the next day and play it correctly ten times, too,” she says.
Kanengiser espouses a holistic approach to playing and believes that guitarists need to gain awareness of how they are reacting to the pressure that builds up inside while playing challenging material. “A lot of us build up severe tension in our bodies that has absolutely nothing to do with getting the musical effect we want,” he says. “We may clench the jaw, make our eyes squint forward, our torso might be tight, and our legs engaged as if we were going to attack something.”
Kanengiser has studied aspects of Alexander Technique, a discipline for improving your performance by observing how the body feels while playing. “You notice how your back, neck, and shoulders feel when they are loose,” he says. “If you start playing with that in your consciousness, you note when you have that loose feeling and when it starts to change as you play. Is it when you shift, increase the tempo, or try to play louder? When you feel that, ask yourself if tightening up is actually helping you to accomplish your musical goal. The answer is invariably no. If you find a way to play those things without tightening up, it’s easier and the phrase comes out better and is more dependable.”
Robinson has identified positive and negative approaches to practicing. “If you’re playing things too fast and [trying to learn the music] too quickly, you’ll spend the next three years working to take out all the mistakes you’ve learned,” he says. “That’s working in a negative direction. If you start with a positive practicing approach, there are no problem spots. You play only as many notes as you can play well at a tempo that you can manage. As you allow that to grow, you are always adding more notes, more expression, phrasing, articulation. You’re always adding to the piece and never having to take any junk out.”
As part of the commitment to a piece, many players utilize visualization techniques to thoroughly learn a work. “This process of visualization—where you are able to see your hands on the fingerboard in your mind and say the names of the notes under your fingers—is so important,” Robinson explains. “It’s like going over the piece with a fine-tooth comb. You’ll hit spots where things become fuzzy and you can’t figure out what comes next either aurally or visually. Those are the places that are potential memory slips. Once you get it all clarified, you’ll be amazed what it does for your confidence onstage.”
Robinson’s philosophy is that most guitarists are practicers more than performers because they spend the majority of their time practicing. “Realize that your job is to be a practicer,” he says. “When you sit down to practice, think of what you can do today to become a better practicer. If you work [consistently] to practice better, the end result is that you will become a better guitarist. I tell my students that whoever practices the best will play the best.”
But despite preparation beforehand, many players walk onstage with doubts, feeling that they could have done even more to prepare. “My mantra is that I’ve done as much work as I can up to that point,” says Kanengiser. “Whether it’s enough or not is out of my control once I go onstage. More important than playing perfectly, my goal is to communicate the emotional message of the piece to the audience. If something happens, most audience members will either not notice or not care if the continuity and emotional message of the piece are carried through. But if your only goal is to not make a mistake, then as soon as you do, you feel like a failure. Music unfolds in time and we can worry about what’s coming up or lament what’s just happened. Or we can just be in the moment expressing the piece. It’s human nature to worry about what’s coming up or curse ourselves if something didn’t go as we wanted. But the strategy for when something goes wrong is that you instantly go back to now. Think about the sound you are making and the expression. When you do that, there’s no room in your consciousness for what’s ahead and what just
FOUR MORE TIPS
Allow enough preparation time before debuting a new program for an important concert. Play it three times in advance before a friendly audience. —Masters
Using a mirror to observe your body posture and hand position is helpful. Be careful, though, not to stare at it if that causes you to turn your head and produce tension. Videotaping yourself instead solves that problem. —Kanengiser
Singing the melody, middle voice, or bass line of a work as you practice greatly deepens your knowledge of the piece. —Robinson
Consult the scores of pieces you’ve memorized frequently. Use the music for the first few times you play through a piece in practice sessions to be absolutely sure that you’re playing everything the composer put on the paper. —Robinson