But, But, I Could Play it Perfectly at Home! How many times as teachers have we heard this, or as students believed this? There is actually meaning behind these words, but they need some translation. Here is what to look out for:
Did you know people will actually choose to relive a more painful experience than a lesser one given a choice if the end of the more painful experience is more pleasant?
(this type of thing is elaborated to the hilt in Daniel Kahnemen’s excellent book, Thinking, Fast and Slow)
With musicians this occurs when, at the end of practicing a particular piece, we play it over and over. Finally, by the tenth (or whatever) try we, in our fatigued, repetitive, just-want-to-get-it-done state we play it acceptably well, that is with a minimum of mistakes and avoiding some previous mistakes all together. When this happens it’s usually the case that we just got lucky on the last try, then, satisfied with our last effort, called it quits.
Then at our performance or lesson we wonder why we sound like 90% of the trials we played at home. Do we need a statistics lesson here? Oh, by the way, we will be way more anxious than we were at home, so that lucky one-out-of-ten try, has an even lesser chance than 10% of happening.
So no, you didn’t play it better at home.
Do we practice performing?
That is to say running a piece in its entirety without pause then looking back to see what could be better?
We may think we do, but what usually happens – little micro corrections just to be sure we could get that fingering, bowing, sticking pattern, whatever. You know what I mean, when you make a mistake and go back, sometimes just a fraction of a second, quickly get it right and move on. It really takes no appreciable time at all. It might add a few seconds to a five-minute piece. But guess what, you won’t be able to do that in performance which, if you’ve been doing what I just described, you have not practiced at all.
Playing all the way through without the option of taking a Mulligan feels as foreign to you as a lunar landscape.
And lucky you – you get to experience this in real time in front of an audience or teacher.
Yep, you could not play it better at home.
This refers to where you start. Before our lesson or concert we don’t practice, we warm-up, and this makes sense. When practicing performing, assuming we are not doing any of the things described above, we do so after much previous practice. We are warmed up like an idling racecar. Now add to that as many attempts as you wish until you get it right and you’ve got a recipe for disaster on performance day.
Why? Because you won’t be in the pole position at that time. You will typically perform a piece at your base level and not at the level of your best practice take. Therefore, the goal of practice should be to improve your base level to bring it as close as possible to perfection.”
It is pretty easy to find your base level: at the beginning of practice warm up as you would for a performance of just that piece (studio class or convocation type of thing), then run the piece ONCE, and then play it through. Unless you get lucky (see Peak End Rule) that is how it will sound when you perform. So, whatever that level is, that is what you can expect, and you’ll know how much practice you really need.
If you happen to pull off that one out of ten performance then more power to you, have fun. But know that your base level is what you always have to work with.
OK Mister Smarty Pants then What Should We Do?
Well, my kpants don’t feel any smarter, but here are some workable solutions. I encourage teachers to try this for just a couple of lessons here or there. That is all you should need.
There is no excuse nowadays for not recording parts of your practice.
Audio only is fine, but seeing things as well is more helpful. When it comes time to practice performing play the thing once then RECORD yourself playing the second attempt. Even better follow the ‘base level’ procedure above and record that.
Feel free to keep playing it as many times as you wish, but when you go to your lesson, and believe you could play it better at home watch that recording with your teacher. The teacher should be able to give you advice on how to proceed based on the recording and the performance you just gave.
But what if the recording actually is way better? What is a teacher to do? Well then, my friend, you are at that wonderful junction at the end of learning a piece. You just need to rep the performance over and over and over actively thinking about every move you are making while you are doing it.
The good news is you’ve got it right, the great news is that with more work you’ll be able to never get it wrong!
That is not some hokey philosophical statement, this exists and you can achieve it, all humans can with the right amount and type of work.
Remember when we were beginners and we just wanted to play through our pieces in practice remembering not to make the same mistakes the next time through? Remember how out teacher laboriously, over much time and repetition, taught us to stop, isolate, focus, slow down and rep small sections? Well guess what? It turns out the end of learning a piece is exactly like we wanted at the beginning. So now you get to do what you wanted to all along. How cool is that!
Now I’m not saying this is easy to do, in fact it is hard. Orienting selective attention is very tough for most human beings to do and is the single most important factor in determining whether one learns to do stuff really well or not.
Few will do it, and we have a word for those that do – gifted.
To put it another way, if you don’t pay very close attention to every aspect of what you are working on then don’t wonder why you don’t get a lot better at it. It takes longer in the beginning (pain), but gets you way farther in the long run(gain).
Go get ‘em.