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The Honest Truth: Thoughts on Practicing vs. Performing

Earlier this month, I shared a quote that I said to a student on my Facebook page:

"We perform too much when we practice and practice too much when we perform."

While I am well aware that this concept is not novel and it may seem glaringly obvious to many musicians, I shared it because the quote expresses, in a concise and succinct manner, my thoughts on the differences between practicing vs. performing. Nonetheless, I continue to be fascinated that many musicians (myself included) are guilty of this at times!

To elaborate on the quote: when we practice, we spend far too much time playing through the entire piece, or even large sections of it. One can easily detect this type of approach: hands together, practicing too much in the same tempo (usually performance tempo), and playing through large sections at a time. While utilizing this method can be helpful in moderation, it generally does not help one to understand the musical, physical, and emotional aspects of the piece. I would even contend that too much of this type of practice can even deteriorate the learning progress.

You know the saying that parents tell their kids when they want them to work hard: "practice makes perfect." Can we please make a slight addendum to it? Something like "practice makes permanent" or "perfect practice makes perfect." This way, it teaches them not only the value of hard work, but also the importance of discipline in doing things the right way.

What are the "right ways" to practice then? It is difficult for me to give you a simple, straight-forward answer because how I work varies wildly from piece-to-piece, or even within segments of the same work. To this end, practicing becomes highly personalized and contextualized—no situation calls for the same method of approach in problem solving. This is what makes practicing so fun and intellectually stimulating!

In any case, I shared some practice techniques in an earlier blog post, so do check it out as many of these concepts can apply in this current situation. In short, we must understand and accept the reality, no matter how gifted or skilled we are, that we need to dissect and take things apart in practice to have a more holistic understanding of our pieces: analyzing and scrutinizing every detail, part, texture, and phrase before putting all of the components back together. An effective practice process may also involve fluctuating back and forth between tempos, hands separately and together, and going back to reworking the details. This is a lengthy process that cannot be glossed over.

Let me briefly discuss the other side of the quote, which is just as important. I have heard countless of recitals where musicians (of wide-ranging skill levels) go back to correct their mistakes, particularly memory slips, as if they were in the practice room. Again, I like to reiterate that this concept of not fixing mistakes during performance is not new. This mantra has been ingrained relentlessly in our heads as students, but why does it still happen—even at the professional level?

Music performance, just like any other study, requires constant reinforcement of fundamentals. No matter if we have ten concerts in the upcoming season or one, we need to "practice" performing so that we do not revert to old habits. This entails playing frequently in a variety of settings and functions: from intimate house concerts for family and friends to outreach events. Regardless of performance type, we must constantly hone and sharpen our skills, so that we are completely prepared when an opportunity presents itself.

Additionally, try recording yourself so that you can be more critical during self feedback and reflection. Through my own personal experiences, this type of preparation is where I learned the most about improving myself as a musician. I always say to my students that just because we might be mentally aware of something, it does not mean that we will automatically execute the action flawlessly and comfortably. Awareness is only the first step to improvement.

Thanks for reading! If you found this post to be helpful, please subscribe here to receive monthly email updates on my performing activities and blogs on lesser-known works and teaching.

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