I was actually a little bummed that I bailed on my regular TCI gig this past Sunday (I had friends visiting, so it was a great reason) - I just realize how gratifying it's been, getting back to performing regularly. Before June, I hadn't really performed since my graduation recital in April (well, no, I guess there was Bach double in May, but that was pretty low key) so I was initially a bit jittery about getting out there. We musicians are usually holed up in practice rooms and, quite honestly, it's hard for many of us to be really driven in our practicing without the impending prospect of a public performance. As I feel I'm so often telling my students, practicing is not performing - and vice versa! So I've been needing to get clear and remind myself (and my flock!): what is the difference between practicing and performing?
Performing is easier and more fun imho, so let's deal with that first:
Performing is not obsessing about technique, but rather, having spent some time with the work and having a sense of what you and the composer want to say, trying to express the meaning of the work to an audience (or, for a variety of reasons, it may not help you to think of the audience in particular, so let's just say, trying to give birth to the work in its entirety, to put it out into the ether).
That's all well and good, but in the moment lots of things can arise (ego, frustration, tension, etc) and letting all of that go is part of what keeps you in the flow, creating continuous phrases. If you start beating yourself up about a gaffe, or admire that last shift you played, or your hand cramps up, the audience will feel that you're no longer present and they'll turn off as well.
Performing is also helpful because it shines a spotlight on what we've been neglecting in the practice room. Some things don't come as a surprise; I know my left hand can be sluggish, my vibrato inconsistent, but there are also those slippery little mistakes - the ones that went just fine in the practice room - but passages that, on stage, will not get under your fingers. And you won't know until you put yourself out there.
Practicing, on the other hand, is being a mindful detective. Staying absolutely present and noticing each note, assessing each phrase for technical errors, effective and musical phrasing, unnecessary physical tension. This can sometimes mean beginning your practice session with a play through to find the weak spots (and to practice performance - ie. physical and artistic endurance), but it most often involves dividing your piece into small chunks so that you can really break down your analysis into four distinct categories*:
(I would add a fifth, the awareness of one's body and the prevention of physical tension)
Basically all musical hindrances fall into one of these categories. And our brains and bodies focus most efficiently when we break problems down. So begin by grouping your piece into tiny phrases (later you should make longer ones - when you're truly working on phrasing). Play the small phrase with an ear to what aspect may not be most reliable. Figure out why (easier said than done! But this is really where the fun work lies. I think it was Dorothy Delay who once said that errors only lie between two notes, so try to isolate an issue to two notes max). Once you've come up with a solution, repeat it a few times - enough that it begins to feel more solid, but not so many times that you go into autopilot (that's something that only comes after several days of this kind of isolation and repetition). And move along to the next mini phrase! After you've done enough to make a long phrase, you can play it through for musicality and just cause that's the fun part - reaping the benefits of your hard work!
Many people have already written voluminously and compellingly about practicing, so please forgive any errors of omission, and please comment below if you'd like to add or disagree with anything!
Finally, on the subject of practicing, for a long time, I've been wanting to write about the different ways to practice (ie. exactly how to solve these errors once we've uncovered them). Michael O'Gieblyn's YouTube video about the 17 ways to practice is pretty awesome for advanced players, and I highly recommend watching it and putting it into practice. But I was thinking of something more encyclopedic and maybe organized into categories (eg. speed, shifts, intonation, etc). Please feel free to comment below about things you would like help practicing and/or practice techniques that you find helpful.
I love performing so much! Even my little gig here - where no one's really listening - makes me so very happy to send these notes out into the universe, so thinking this way really helps me - and I hope, you too!
copyright © cicely nelson 2016