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The Art of Practice Performing: Bringing Performance into the Practice Room

By Erica Ann Sipes

An earlier version of this article appeared on Beyond the Notes

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I don’t really know where I got the idea to start making practice performing a part of my regular routine but it’s now something I rely upon all the time and that I attribute to my comfort on the stage. So what is it, exactly?

Well, let’s start with what practice performing is to me.

Practice performing is a time in my practice sessions when I take off my “practice hat” and pretend like I am on stage performing in front of an audience: no stopping and no negative verbal commentary, with a focus on delivering a performance full of musicality. Those are the basic facets.

Practice performing can be done at any point after I’ve learned the notes of a particular section, movement, or piece, and when I can play it at a tempo that is somewhere in the ballpark of what I’d ultimately like to perform it at.

What are the benefits of practice performing?

1. It helps to simulate live performance constraints.

Because I set the goal for myself to not stop no matter what and to say not-so-nice things to myself out loud during practice performing stints, it’s great practice for when I actually do perform. It takes practice to know what to do instead. If I really do a number on a passage and my brain starts dishing out lines like, “you should have practiced more” or “you’re not ready” I purposefully play a more productive, objective mental tape that I’ve prescribed like, “keep singing” or “where do I want to go with this phrase?”

Doing this in the practice room on a regular basis makes it much more likely that, in performances, I’ll choose more positive tapes and have a healthier attitude.

2. It’s a good assessment tool throughout the later stages of learning a piece.

So often it can feel like I’m never going to get it up to speed, or that a difficult passage won’t ever be comfortable. When I push myself past my comfort zone by asking myself to practice perform I often surprise myself in a good way. I realize that I can, in fact, make it through with some amount of grace and musicality in spite of missed notes or improvised passages. That’s an encouraging thing and worth a lot in terms of getting me back to the practice room, especially when I’m at that frustrating plateau stage.

3. Practice performing gives me a chance to switch from leaning on the analytical, left side of the brain to the more creative right side.

In the process of learning music and during most types of practicing, the left side is what I strive to be in touch with a majority of the time. That’s the side of the brain that helps solve problems and analyze the music. But that’s also the side that I’d rather not have come to the party when I walk on stage.

It’s the right side of the brain that brings music to life, that brings creativity and imagination to a performance. When it comes time to perform and nerves kick in, guess which side likes to present itself more? Yup, the nerdy, analytical side. That’s why I invite my creative side into the picture on a regular basis during these practice performing stints. It makes it more likely that I’ll be able to find it when I want it at performance time.

4. It’s an opportunity to record oneself and listen back objectively.

Often when I do practice performing I record myself so that I can listen back, not to listen for all the tiny mistakes or to allow for those annoying negative tapes to start playing, but rather to listen as if I’m an audience member. Some of the following questions tend to cross my mind during these listening sessions:

  • Does the music have a natural flow?
  • Does it have a good sense of architecture about it?
  • Are there highs and lows?
  • Does the phrasing sound natural?

Sometimes in listening back I hear hidden melodic lines I hadn’t noticed before or I’m moved by a harmony that I hadn’t yet noticed. It’s a way to encourage constructive feedback rather than self-defeating criticism. Self-defeating criticism will cripple a performance and can be felt by the audience. Constructive feedback will allow a performance to go on successfully and in a way that can be enjoyable, even for the performer.

5. Practice performing helps me to fall in love with the music all over again.

When I know that I’m going to do a practice performance of something later on in a practice session, it makes it much easier for me to focus on the disciplined work and problem solving that needs to happen beforehand. It also helps me get back in touch with why I study music and why I perform for others. I remember that it’s not about all the individual notes being in the right place at the right time; it’s about the music behind those notes.

Is practice performing fun?

I think at first most musicians would answer with an emphatic: “No!” We would rather not think about performing since it’s often fraught with a lot of anxiety. But just as we have to practice our music on a regular basis, I believe performing also needs to be practiced, with or without an audience.

So next time you’re in the practice room, take off that practice room hat and step onto the stage for a moment. You never know — you might find that performing can be pretty fun, especially when it’s just for yourself and your imaginary audience.

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Erica Sipes has spent most of her musical time as a piano collaborator, playing with and coaching musicians who play just about every instrument. Her passion is helping musicians at all stages discover how to approach music, practicing, and performing in a way that leaves them empowered to make their own musical decisions, encouraged, and excited to share their talents with others.

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