“Our object is to minimize the contrast between studio practice and public performance.”
–Philip Farkas, hornist (The Musician’s Way, p. 149)

When you start practicing an unfamiliar piece, does your learning process go smoothly and then culminate in secure, expressive performances?

I’ve found that many young musicians run into unwelcome surprises when they debut new repertoire.

All too often, they find out under the spotlights that their control isn’t as solid as they thought. Performance-oriented practice, though, can ensure security on stage because it instills all the qualities we want in concerts.

Ease? Check. Expressiveness and accuracy? Check. Focused attention? You bet.

I distribute performance-oriented practice across three zones: New Material, Developing Material, and Performance Material. Each of these zones involves particular strategies, which I condense below. See Chapters 3 & 4 of The Musician’s Way for detailed guidelines.

New Material

  • Divide into sections. After I get an overview of a piece, I carve it into digestible sections that facilitate learning. Such sections can be as short as a phrase or as long as several phrases, depending on the complexity of the material.
  • Establish a provisional interpretive/technical plan. Next, I zero in on a section and make interpretive decisions, notating dynamics, articulations, fingerings and so forth on a score as needed.
  • Slow tempo. As we execute, it’s vital that we work with manageable chunks of music and at tempos that instill ease. Once we can play or sing an entire piece expressively at an easygoing tempo, it graduates to Developing status, and then we ratchet up the tempo.

Developing Material

  • Refine interpretation. To lift my interpretation of a piece to a higher level, I reconsider its compositional structure. I look for fresh ways to generate drama and bring out contrasts of dynamics, tone, and emotion.
  • Increase tempo. The problem-solving tactics in Chapter 3 of The Musician’s Way equip us to hike tempos and resolve difficulties – these tactics include working from the end of a passage, omitting then reinserting pitches, and modifying the rate of change. I also step up tempos by degrees as opposed to increasing them abruptly.
  • Memorize. As soon as I can execute a solo piece securely at a slow tempo, I begin to memorize it. Some musicians memorize earlier in the learning process; others opt to wait until a piece matures.

Performance Material

  • Practice performing. When we can easily execute a whole piece at its final tempo, it reaches the Performance material zone. Then, one of our principal tasks is to practice performing the music. I advocate three formats for doing so: 1. alone for a recorder; 2. in front of friends and peers; 3. in low-stakes public settings.
  • Maintain memory. Memorized music degrades in our minds unless we refresh our internal maps. Mental rehearsal and score study greatly help here.
  • Renew and innovate. To retain my mastery of a piece and elevate my interpretive ideas, I review passages in detail while considering new expressive possibilities. I also go over self-recordings.

In sum, expert performers can pick up unfamiliar music and proceed through a mastering process that consistently results in expressive public performance.

If your practice strategies don’t bring you comparable confidence, try the recommendations in The Musician’s Way, get feedback from teachers, and, most of all, enjoy the process of refining your practice.

Related posts
The Benefits of Accessible Music
The Four Stages of Memorization
Maintaining Repertoire
Practicing Performance
Self-Evaluation: The Key to Artful Practice

© 2010 Gerald Klickstein

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