But I Can Play It Perfectly Well At Home!

Of all the comments students make in lessons, the assertion that they can play it perfectly well at home has to be among the most common. I would guess that this is probably universal, and even though I don’t think the statement is a lie I am not sure I always buy it. I think what they mean is there was nobody at home to judge, or that stopping somewhere in the piece, making a sly correction and restarting were either not noticed even by the players themselves or if they were, these errors had no obvious consequences.

Surely the whole point is the (vast) difference between playing in the comforts of your living room, and the stresses and strains of performance where other people are listening. What felt easy and natural when we were alone suddenly becomes treacherous and untrustworthy when in the presence of others. And it doesn’t seem to matter much whether the audience is knowledgable about music or not.

There is a virtual reality game called Walk the Plank. In reality you simply walk across a plank placed flat on the floor, in virtual reality you walk the plank over a vast cityscape. The experience is made to feel real by the headset that provides the experience of reality – even though the mind knows you are perfectly safe and at ground level, the brain and body is tricked and terror ensues.

When we perform, we need to be responding on many different levels – emotionally, physically, even viscerally. We need to get into character and fully live the music on stage, there is room for spontaneity and magic here! Heaven forbid that when onstage, we are thinking about what notes come next, the position of our elbow in bar 6, or remembering to voice a chord in a particular way. If we have done our work in the practice room, we have earned the right to walk onto the stage and allow it all to happen. The trick is to trust ourselves, to let go of fear or self-consciousness and fully embrace the occasion. This is not always easy!

To practise effectively demands time, energy and discipline, a seriousness of purpose and an almost religious attitude to the work. But if we take this attitude on to the stage with us, we are likely to bore the pants off our audience. We need a sense of daring-do, spontaneity, bravado and display in its place.

Practising v. Performing

We will want to use a wide dynamic range (for most music) and the full gamut of expression. In order to project the music outwards to an audience, we need to exaggerate all of this slightly. We need a true pianissimo and a huge fortissimo, and everything in between. During our practising, however, we will very often not want to play at performance speeds with the full range of dynamics and emotional involvement. In our practising, when we are concerned with other issues, we need to go through the motions thoughtfully, cool-headedly and with an air of detachment rather than impulsively. As soon as we begin a performance, we make the commitment to complete the whole journey no matter what might happen. We create an unerring arch from beginning to end, and in order to perform successfully we need to leave our inner judges in the green room along with our critical mind.

Here is a short list of the opposite states of mind involved in practising and performing, the most obvious ones. I am sure you can add your own.

The Solution

There is an additional part of the practising v. performing dichotomy, an essential part of concert or exam preparation. I call it practising a performance.  It is the conscious decision to build into our work routine opportunities to practise playing the piece or even the entire programme through in its entirety as though an audience were present. I have written extensively about this before, so I won’t repeat myself other than to suggest that during this process we stop for nothing. We play through our slips and memory lapses like the hurdler who carries on forwards to the finishing line no matter how many hurdles get knocked over.

I have warned before about premature run-throughs. We will simply be ingraining those habits that already exist, good as well as bad, and after a while it will be quite impossible to correct them. And yet there is a paradox here! No amount of slow or careful practice is going to establish the reflexes we need for performance, or to hone our artistic vision of the piece. When you feel you are ready, have a stretch of several days where you alternate practising a performance with spot practising (spot practising is simply homing in on very specific areas that need attention because they have not withstood the pressures of a performance). Run through, take a break and then do the spot practice. Repeat this process for several days.

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