9 Section 5.1: Practice, Application, and Performance
It can be easy to become overwhelmed by everything a musician has to remember in order to properly perform a musical work, especially if they did not write it. However, it is possible to use all the building blocks of music together. It just takes time and practice until one feels comfortable looking at sheet music and deciphering the meaning of all the symbols and rules shown to you in this book. To that end, one must practice daily each component of music by itself in order to truly grasp what it does and how it functions within large musical environments.
It is the author’s opinion that practice should contain some form of isolation of a specific topic or technique which is studied vigorously until mastery is obtained. This ensures that you can divert more brainpower to new techniques or practices within music performance without becoming panicked or overwhelmed. Honestly, all of us have felt this discomfort at some point in our musical journey, and it is quite natural for the beginning musician. It takes a great amount of time before one can truly “feel comfortable” writing, arranging, composing, or transmitting music to others, either in written notation or during a performance.
Each study session the student should focus on one area of music theory with which they feel uncomfortable. This is how true growth occurs intellectually and physically. The student who only does what they can already do during their practice time only inhibits themselves from growing as a musician. If the desire is to one day become a professional musician, then it is absolutely necessary for the student to attack their weaknesses in the practice room. Take a mental inventory of the things that you wish to be better at during music performance. That inventory then informs you of what to focus on and how to proceed during practice time.
In order to achieve musical goals, practice must happen every single day. For best results, the student should set aside the same time every day or create a repeating rotation of time in which to practice. This conditions the brain to become more receptive to certain types of information and the tasks we are asking it to complete. By assigning a time every day to practice the brain is trained to only “look” for a specific type of information during that time of the day. This in turn allows the student to retain a greater percentage of the information, thus growing at a measurable rate each practice session. The brain is a cyclical organ that functions much like a muscle in that the first time one attempts a new task they have a difficult time and can get discouraged so deliberate repetition is a must. Life is hectic so one may need to use a schedule to ensure that daily practice happens.
Mistakes often occur during music performances, due to several reasons. One, there was no practice applied before said performance. Sometimes the student will practice a moderate amount, have some successes and come to a place where they truly believe they are ready. However, when the music begins a sense of dread sets in and renders the brain of the student temporarily incapacitated and many of us are not great actors which lets the audience know something happened. Then, there are moments professionally when we are thrown into the “deep end” so to speak in which we learn in a “trial by fire” approach in which the other professionals on stage guide us through the music but expect us to know it after that. Finally, there are some students who cannot break through certain practice walls that would allow for growth and evolution of skill set. This is not as common but still can have a very damaging impact on the psychology of the player.
The psychology of a musician who performs live for a living is complex and, depending on the personal experience, sometimes intense to handle. The ability to hold it together on stage or in a performance at a competition is just as important as the notes on the page. Even though a student may make a mistake during a performance, the listener will have a deeper appreciation for the performer if they recover elegantly and avoid allowing the mistake to have any effect on the rest of the song. One has to train for a long time to achieve this state but it is possible. First, one has to be aware that this mindset exists and accept that it is impossible to please everyone all the time. The ability to turn off the part of the brain that keeps track of approval is hard because as humans we are hardwired to want the approval of the ones we love and sometimes the ones we don’t even know yet. Intense focus and discipline are required because of the distractions that exist in the everyday world. Throwing off those distractions can be difficult if they involve loved ones and friends or even an activity the student thoroughly enjoys. So, if one desires professional-level ability, professional-level dedication is required. If, however, the student wishes to use music to enrich their personal life or as a hobby then they must move at their own pace.
It is the author’s opinion that performance is a fun activity. I genuinely love to see others having a good time because of the sounds I am making. That feeling can be intoxicating and when you encounter it you will want to replicate it. Musicians who are performing in front of an audience should have stages of practice they evolve through before playing in front of an audience. The first stage should be a thorough study of the sheet music, if obtained in time, to study the form, key centers, rhythmic requirements, and any other abrupt changes that occur over the course of performance. After thorough intellectual study, the student should move to their instrument and begin slowly. I cannot stress this enough: begin at a very slow tempo to allow your brain time to process the various operations that are necessary for music performance. One of the biggest mistakes a student can make is attempting to go faster than their brain and fingers will move because they still need more deliberate repetitions to polish off any blemishes. Next, isolate problem areas and attack them vigorously during practice time, and do not shy away from them because they seem daunting. When these things are in place the student may begin to speed up the metronome, but no more than 5 clicks at a time, staying at the new tempo until mastery is achieved. Advancing too fast can do lasting damage to the technique which will reveal itself during performance. Eventually, the student should be able to perform a technique or piece at tempo with the metronome on and off.
Turning off the metronome is an important step for the student to eventually take. While it is true that the student should always use a metronome for practice, it is just as important for them to turn the metronome off and play the technique or the piece confidently and with artistic mastery. In other words, allowing the performer to rise above recognizing daunting rhythms, harmonies, and scale identification to release the brain to focus on artistry. Eventually, the performer must learn to decide whether or not to speed up or slow down the pace of music due to an intuitive feeling from another performer in the group or the emotional environment of an audience.
All of this is required for a good performance. Knowing technique, theory, rhythm, harmony, form, and style. Soloists have it the hardest because they have to provide all of these elements. An entire ensemble that rehearses regularly can progressively sound better and better when the individuals are doing the work on their own. This takes the whole musical group higher and has a dramatic impact on the listener which in turn gets you more gigs and so forth.
Final thoughts: stay calm, be tenacious, be attentive, be sensitive, be detail-oriented and give yourself enough time to achieve these goals. Each achievement will surprise the student and when the student discovers something on their own that technique tends to stay with them longer and evolves into many usable licks or techniques that can be called on to fulfill a performance requirement. Whatever you do, do not give up.