Practicing Performance

Suppose that you’re preparing to play in public. How do you bridge the gulf between personal practice and public performance? I’ve observed that many guitarists underperform because they omit a crucial element from their preparatory routines: practice performances.

Here are three ways that any musician can practice performing and thereby become masterful on stage. All of these concepts are expanded on in my new book, The Musician’s Way.

1. Assemble a performance-development group

The skills required to perform soulfully in public have to be practiced. All of us, therefore, need opportunities to try out our material, learn how to manage our nerves, and hone our stage presence. I’ve found that the ideal setting for doing so is in a performance-development group.

To form such a group, you need two or more soloists or bands of comparable ability and a defined space such as a living room, rec room, or church meeting hall. Next, each musician must embrace a mutually supportive attitude because your group should provide a nonjudgmental setting where you can experiment freely as a performer and grow from your experiences.

For instance, what if a rising guitarist wants to build his confidence on stage, test his memory, and explore ways to counter jitters? How does he do so without risking his reputation in a public setting? A performance-development group supplies him with what he needs: he can play fearlessly in front of his fellow musicians, and they’ll cheer him on in his quest for excellence.

To make your practice performances optimally concert-like, enlist concert protocol: enter to applause, perform complete compositions, and have listeners applaud afterward. In addition, use a recorder so that you can review your work later (information about personal recorders is posted on my blog).

I also recommend that participants comment on each other’s performances, but within strict boundaries:

  • Keep your comments brief.
  • Use courteous “I” statements.
  • Offer at least three positive remarks for every criticism.

Here’s an example of how one guitarist might comment on another’s performance:
“I really liked your choice of material and your stage presence. I also thought that your timing and memory were right on. Toward the beginning, though, I wondered how it would have sounded if you had stayed with a quieter volume for a while longer.”

2. Schedule private run-throughs

In a private run-through, you perform without an audience, other than your recorder and maybe the cat.

Commit to doing run-throughs at set times, and implement your standard pre-concert routines – arrange your meals and other preparations exactly as you would for a public event because pre-concert routines need practice, too.

When you perform a run-through, visualize an audience, and play your heart out. At the same time, rehearse specific skills: if you tend to stiffen on stage, for instance, practice releasing tension and transmitting warmth; to polish your stage presence, employ a video recorder and try out various gestures.

The benefit you derive from any practice performance will hinge on how honestly you evaluate your playing and the ways in which you practice in response. During your self-assessments, be objective and detached: treat glitches as helpful information and never as personal shortcomings.

For example, after you run a solo piece, you might go over your recording, jot down notes, and rehearse improvements. A few days later, following additional targeted practice and another run-through, you might opt to perform the music for your performance-development group.

3. Line up low-stress public shows

The above sorts of practice performances are invaluable, but public shows are going to be more intense, and we want them to be, but in positive ways.

Low-stress public shows give us the chance to present our music in actual performance situations, but where the stakes are low. So, although we take such performances seriously, we give ourselves permission to have fun on stage and not worry. As a result, we increase our confidence and artistic prowess. We’re then primed to excel at high-stakes concerts.

Representative sites for such performances include coffee shops and house parties as well as church or synagogue meeting halls, where we might invite congregants to hear us and donate to a charity. Such performances enable us to build an audience, serve our communities, and lift our playing and self-assurance to new heights.

When we integrate these three types of practice performances into our creative process, we can erase any disconnection between the practice studio and the stage. Of course, it takes time and effort for us to refine our craft, but let’s remember that performance, at its heart, is an act of beauty and generosity. In the words of singer-songwriter Dan Fogelberg, “I always try to give my songs as gifts.”

© 2009 Gerald Klickstein
All rights reserved