How you practice is a direct reflection of how you perform. Even if your playing in the practice room sounds good, you need to practice and learn the piece in a manner robust enough to withstand the pressure of onstage performance. After all, with the stage, lights, excitement, and expectant audience, performing isn’t at all like the practice studio. Hans Sturm, assistant professor of double bass and jazz studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and professor emeritus at Ball State University, offers some ideas on how to practice, so your playing holds up in performance.
DON’T DIVE IN
Let’s say you’re learning a new piece. If you’re using sheet music, don’t just put the music on the stand and start sightreading. The problem with jumping in that way is that “you’ll make many mistakes and they’ll become part of your memory, strongly associated with that crucial first experience of the piece,” Sturm says. During the stress of a performance, you’re likely to make those early mistakes again even if you supposedly “unlearned” them.
You want to reduce the number of early mistakes, so you don’t have to undo them in the first place. Here’s how: First, listen to a good recording, and don’t even look at the music. Just close your eyes and listen, Sturm says. Internalize the piece, and sing along. Then, listen with the music in hand. Build an interpretation, and visualize yourself playing the work.
Then review the piece without the recording, singing it internally and imagining the physical requirements of playing it. Mark up the music, creating solutions to problems even before they crop up. Only then should you take up the instrument, since you now have a good impression in your mind of melodies and rhythms. If you play something wrong, you’ll notice immediately and can address it right away, so you’ll have less to unlearn and fewer early mistakes lurking in the back of your mind.
A common, but misguided way of practicing is starting at the beginning of the piece and “bulldozing” your way through until you make a mistake, repeating the offending measure a few times until the flub is “fixed,” looping back to the beginning, playing until another mistake is made and fixed, looping back, and so on. This practice “adds anxiety to a performance because you’re practicing stopping at each mistake,” Sturm says. You should “make each moment in practice a mini performance—always performing the work with a performance mentality, whether it is only two beats or four movements,” he adds.
Instead of bulldozing, try “framing.” Select a “frame size,” whether a few notes, a few bars, or an entire passage that you want to work on. Play it without stopping and ask yourself where the problems are only afterward. Then resize the frame to focus on the spot or spots where you had problems. “The key is not to stop—to complete the task,” says Sturm, noting that when you’re onstage, after all, you’re playing an entire piece without stopping. Focusing on one issue at a time within a frame will let you “hone in and refine issues in great detail, all while practicing performing.”
USE THE SHEET MUSIC—OR LOSE IT
Players might have a piece almost memorized and during practice look at the music only in passages where they think they need it. Then in the performance, they bring the sheet music out with them just in case, but if they glance at the music, they risk looking at the wrong place in the adrenaline of the moment and becoming startled, Sturm says. This is especially true for classical or jazz players. The best way to avoid being thrown off track by the music is to either use the score entirely or don’t use it at all. If you’re planning to use the music onstage, practice with it and read the entire page, he says. If you’re not going to use the music during the performance, don’t use it in practice, either.
QUIET THE JUDGE
Everyone has an internal judge who’s waiting to stop and berate you at every mistake. The negativity can wear you down and distract you in the practice room, so give your internal judge another role that’s more positive and helps you strengthen your performances. “Ask your judge to be a silent observer during the performance of a frame,” Sturm says. “After you have completed the frame, ask your judge to share a specific observation to help the level of performance improve. This gives the judge a positive role and helps to limit unproductive negative opinion. You are slowly changing the internal dialog to work for you rather than against you.”
During practice, choose the frame to work on and have your judge rate your performance on a scale from 1 to 5 before repeating the frame again. “Over time, your judge will evolve into a role more like a working partner and you will find that you will begin to have more control over the internal dialogue,” Sturm says.
“This is not to say that the overtly negative voice of the judge won’t ever return to haunt you, but you will have begun to engage the voice, and its power to disturb your focus will be diminished.”