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Practicing and Performing: A Seamless Concept

Jeff Crowell • Percussion • November 11, 2016

I live by a saying I have printed on my office wall – “I’m not lazy…I’m efficient.” When it comes to learning and performing music I believe that the more you work on only the things you need to, the better off you are in the long run and the higher level of success you’ll attain at any given performance.

I bet you agree with me, but are your percussionists really living by that saying? Chances are they want to but are probably doing many things that aren’t helping them streamline their learning process. The following thoughts should help them maximize their efforts, or at least remind them of the things they should be focusing (or not focusing) on while they travel down the path from the early stages to the concert.

Practicing

Be organized in your practicing. Even if it’s a 30-minute timeslot, have a plan. I find with my students and myself that in a purposeful 30-minute session you can accomplish more than when you just meander through say an hour. It’s ok to be inspired just before you go to practice, but once you start, know what you’d like to accomplish.

Another saying I have on my wall that I adhere to is “Well Begun Is Half Done.” I incorporate this in to my practice regimen by making sure I do everything I want to from the very first step. I want to get a great start on something in order to prevent from doing needless work down the road.

For example, I spend time with JUST the music (no instrument) investigating my part. I need to see what the piece is all about, setup considerations, overall musical form, musical decisions, sticking things I need to consider, etc. By doing this I save myself time later by having to go back and change something. I think of this going back as learning it “two” or possibly more ways. Yet I need to learn it only “one” way – the “right” way. Once I begin work at the instrument I then proceed with the knowledge that I’m starting with my best foot forward.

What all of this does is help program the piece into my muscles only one way – the way I want it to be. The more I guess, the more I train in various ways, the more I make my muscles do different things, then the less specific I am when I go to execute the piece during a performance. My motto is if I only know it the way I want to play it then I’m increasing my odds of doing it that way. If I have spent time learning a part without musical expression and without the “stickings” I actually want to use, when I go to play it, which version will I do? I don’t want to waste time. I could have avoided this by getting those decisions in from the get go and then used that practice to reinforce my intent to increase my odds for a good performance.

Performing

How does the above relate to performing? In every way! Remember, performing (to a large extent) is doing what you’ve been doing in the practice room but in likely a different environment and in front of others. That’s it. Yes, I know there’s more to it, but at its core that’s the big difference. If you practice the way you want to perform, then performing just means only those changes.

So do just that – practice how you’d like to perform. I’ll even practice in the clothing I’ll wear for a concert. I have to get used to the shoes I’ll be wearing as well as the shirt. Playing in dress shoes and a long sleeve shirt when you’ve been practicing in tennis shoes and a t-shirt is a noticeable difference. I also try to simulate the space I’ll be in, or at least move the instrument around in the room to get a different vantage point of performing. This helps me get used to performing from a changed visual and sonic perspective. As silly as it may seem, I find it very beneficial to even walk in, bow like I’m acknowledging clapping, approach the instrument, do only one run, then bow like I would afterwards, and leave the room – all in an effort to simulate exactly what it will be like when I perform. That way I’m decreasing the number of “differences” that will occur when I go to perform. Trust me, it works.

The idea of starting with practicing a piece or part the way you want to really pays off in performance by solidifying our muscle memory. This muscle memory is a big part of what we use and if we’ve done our training then that should help us if we might “space out” when we play. It’s happened. And I know it may happen again. But, if I do or make a mistake, my muscle memory will kick in take over. And if I’ve done only one version of a piece, then that muscle memory will deliver what I’d like it to. Ever have that talking in your head while you’re playing? That inner dialogue? It’s the worst. When that happens your muscles are taking over to help you play. A great way to quiet that voice and get back “in the moment” of the music is to remain calm and focus. If your muscle memory is letting you down, then it’s hard to stay calm and things go can from bad to worse. Muscles doing their job? Then it’s much easier to find your way back.

And guess what? You’re going to make a mistake. I know that going in. So it’s not a surprise if I do. Here’s the best advice – keep going. You can’t get it back, so move on and make the best of what’s left. The more you know this, the less mistakes you’ll make. If you’re super stressed over one little detail, then the minute your glitch you’ll shut down. You can’t. You can practice with the intent to be perfect, but you must also practice running things and trying to get through them. Michael Colgrass has a great article and it’s titled “You Goofed – So Ignore It.” Great words to live by.

Also, be confident. You know the music, so play it. I really believe this when I perform. If you’re not confident and you’re worried that you don’t know what you’re doing, then that can sabotage you from even before you start. Tell yourself you’ve got it and that if a mistake might come up, you’re ready for it and you’ll just keep going. This attitude alone can increase your end result. Remember being nervous is normal – many world-class musicians talk about being nervous every time they perform. I know I am. Accept nerves for being part of the process and calm yourself down by telling yourself the things above. Remember that you’ve also practiced as realistically close to the performance as possible. The more “confidence backups” you have, the more tools you can implement to keep yourself grounded and calm, the more you can remind yourself that it’ll be ok, then the more success you’ll have when performing. If you have ten backups, then there’s a strong chance you won’t need any because you know you’ve got yourself covered. Only one backup? That makes me nervous just thinking about it.

When you perform remember (and this goes for auditions, too) everyone wants to see you do your best – no one is out to get you, so don’t think that way! It’s a chance for you to share your work and musical intent with someone else and that’s a good thing.

This success in performance all relates back to being efficient (not lazy) with your time and practicing only what you need to from the very start. It’s hard to keep this in mind when we are just beginning something, but it’s key to the success at the end stages of our musical journey. If you do this, you’ll notice an increase in your ability to perform how you want to – and that’s the ultimate goal.

Remember, a good performance means we had the opportunity to effectively share our musical voice. Sharing this voice and musical moments with others are what all of this boils down to and makes the hard work worth it in the end. That’s a good thing. Happy practicing and performing.

Jeff Crowell, DMA, is the professor of Music – Percussion and Jazz at the University of Wisconsin – Eau Claire, department of Music & Theatre Arts.

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