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Some thoughts about health, self-preservation and effectiveness for performing musicians

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Summary of key things

  • Work on your mental and physical wellbeing and efficiency: don't wait till things start to go wrong!
  • Take breaks
  • Perform as often as you reasonably can, without overstretching yourself or not learning stuff properly.
  • As a performance approaches, practice in performance mode more, i.e. mimicing as much as possible the conditions of a performance, in particular not stopping when you don't like or want to check something you've just done!
  • Practice your stagecraft!
  • Think positively about a performance from the day you are booked for it
  • Think positively about your abilities and circumstances: if your circumstances don't seem ideal (!), adapt intelligently. Make friends with your here and now
  • Be realistic when you judge yourself: don't use your ideal as a yardstick!
  • Eat well
  • Try not to stint on sleep - when done for work reasons, it's always counter-productive
  • Alexander Technique (or similar) is really worth investing time in regularly
  • Use your whole body well: keep everything as free and fluent as possible: apply only as much force/tension as you need in order to make things happen. This is for everything you do, not just your music!
  • When practising:
    • - If you are getting achy, stop for a bit: use the physical rest time to try to work out what might be the problem:
    • - If feeling fine physically but are getting stuck - same mistake not coming right, for example: switch to pracitising a different passage. Come back to the sticky bit after a few minutes or longer perhaps.
  • Don't suffer in silence - there is support and goodwill out there
  • Take regular exercise (yes, I know...)

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The spirit in which these ideas are offered to you

When I first tried writing a version of this for my students, it started: "As a 40-something, or indeed of any other age, one is probably asking for trouble by trying to tell fit young people how their effectiveness as musicians can be influenced by the way they live, or even how they arrange their practising times, etc. However, I've seen a few things consistently enough over the years now to convince me to offer them as suggestions, to be taken or left on their own merits, but in the fervent hope that they will be of some use to some of you at least..."

I'm no longer a 40-something... I hope that by writing on this website, my potential audience has broadened, so perhaps the age/experience thing isn't really the question anyway: The important thing, whoever one is speaking to (the more so when you don't know who it might be!) is to guard against being patronising, or insensitive to what people are going to listen to and understand.

I really would like you to feel unconstrained by what I write; better still, liberated (because in the end we all have concerns of one sort or another). I would like to you realise that I don't pretend to be handing out ideal solutions, model answers etc. What I suggest is the result of long and diverse experience, but really it's the underlying whats and whys that I want you to understand: then, you might well then find better things than I have.

There are specific suggestions here: I do hope you might find them to be useful, and reliable starting points. Formulae, if you like to think of it that way. And yes, hopefully they are enough to see you through if you don't want to think or experiment much.

I am also hopeful that you can do better than me! And I'm realistic in being aware that some of my suggestions might not fit comfortably for you individually: we are all different.

So please do not take this as Gospel!!

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Reasons for writing about all this

Unfortunately, it's all too common for performing musicians to run into difficulties with their playing or singing: RSI, or other similar problems, mental or physical. It's never to early to think about how to prevent such things happening.

Equally, on the positive side, it's worth giving some thought, and action, to how you can work to your fullest potential. Lots of musicians don't do this, at least not until they start to have problems. It's best to make yourself more robust anyway, without waiting for something to go wrong!

This is particularly true if you're suddenly facing a very different sort of performance situation from what you've been used to before. It might be that you're performing in higher-profile situations, or solo instead of ensemble, for example. Or much harder pieces.

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Strength and prevention of problems

"Prevention is better than cure" - I think this applies us much to us performing musicians as anyone else.

In my experience, for many musicians, when something is going wrong with their ability to perform, or their perception of that ability, the problem often lies well away from the "symptom". Good habits on stage and in the practice room do of course make us much more robust, but our modus operandi away from both places can often have a major and somewhat hidden impact on our musical-making.

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Strength and prevention of problems: Lifestyle:

How you live can make a lot of difference to your work as a musician. You can make yourself quite robust against the ogres of RSI and a host of other problems, if you use your body and mind reasonably sensibly.

This is frightfully boring, but all the old-fashioned stuff about eating properly, getting exercise, sleeping well, and trying to maintain a positive outlook, really does work.

Don't work too hard. For many years now I've tried to have at least one non-playing day each week. Like most other advice in this area, this isn't an absolute rule to be obeyed regardless of anything else, but it's good to give it fairly high priority.

Don't practice too much in one day, nor for too long without a break. It's difficult to give definite guidelines for this, as some people can keep alert for longer than others. However, one good guideline is:

  • You are probably getting tired before you think you are.

For example, I rarely practice for much over an hour without a break of some sort, and even within the hour, will stop momentarily now and again to check things. That break may involve going off and doing something different, rather than doing nothing, but it's very helpful - some would say essential - to have complete breaks now and again as well.

Have you ever come across anybody who really practises for 12 hours a day? Perhaps they spend 12 hours a day in a practise room, but are the doing decent quality practise for all or even most of that time, and they really best players or singers that they could be?

There's a misguided sense of competitiveness in some quarters about this kind of thing. This can be made worse by pressure from above - teachers etc., some of whom might try to frighten their pupils into doing more and more work. In the worst case this can be to try protect their reputation as teachers: this isn't just a theoretical possibility - it does happen.

Alexander technique is closer to being part of a way of life, rather than a specific set of things that one does at a particular time: it can be applied in general to everything you do. I recommend it, but there are lots of similar techniques which basically achieve pretty similar ends: Pilates is popular and there are lots of people running classes on it. Feldenkrais is another one which has had a good press.

There are of course other things such as yoga, tai-chi, etc. These are no doubt beneficial, but they do lack something of the active element of Alexander technique.

In summary, some suggestions are:

  • Use your whole body well: keep everything as free and fluent as possible: apply only as much force/tension as you need in order to make the right things happen, to just the right extent and nuance of course. This should be a habitually monitored aspect of all your practise. And elsewhere in life...
  • Eat well
  • Sleep well when possible
  • Take regular exercise, but don't overdo it!
  • Take a day off each week
  • Don't over-practise! Take frequent mini-breaks (and longer ones)
  • If you're feeling down, try to think of something that's good in your life, or that you can look forward to
  • Be friendly to yourself - perfectionism and idealism are great until they induce a sense of frustration or failure, which can be often very soon if one's not careful

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Strength and prevention of problems: Realistic judgements

When a difficult corner hasn't gone as well as we hoped in performance, we tend to judge the performance by what we have done on that corner, out of context and with plenty of immediately-prior thinking time, in the practice room. This is obviously unrealistic!

Sorting out this and similar problems will help in all sorts of ways - to improve low self-esteem re. our performance in particular. It's a deeply engrained habit with many of us, so it won't happen overnight, but it's worth working on.

Closely related to this is being aware of the difference between detailed learning vs. performance modes of practice, and making sure we do them.

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Perspectives on good and bad details: yours compared with the audiences'

This isn't only a question of you being much more self-critical than your audience, and being much more aware of mistakes or anything else less-than-ideal than most audience members are (hopefully).

It's also worth remembering the role of acoustics in this. The ears of many performers (not all - e.g. organists), are only a few centimetres from the source of the sound they are making. The audience is usually at least a few metres away. Bearing in mind that in essence the magnitude of sound is inversely proportional to the square of the distance from the source, and the fact that things get conflated, the audience will often simply not pick up some of the tiny scratches and glitches that worry you as a performer.

The other side of this coin is that in general we need to work harder than we thing to get across to the audience the details and contrasts that we do want them to hear!

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Strength and prevention of problems: Warming up

Where possible, try to do some warming up exercises before you practice. However young and fit you are, muscles need some preparation before they can do the more strenuous things that you'll be demanding of them.

An ideal start might be:

  • (1) Walk, cycle (or, if you're really keen, run!?) at least part of the way to work or wherever your first engagement of the day is;
  • (2) In the practice room, do some warm-up exercises, perhaps starting away from the instrument/voice;
  • (3) Start your practice with something that isn't too strenuous.

If you can't do (1) or (2), try to do (3): it's usually possible to re-order your practice so you don't launch straight into a mad welter of notes.

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Strength and prevention of problems: Taking on the right amount of work

Finding the right balance is very difficult at first: this is because you can't know very accurately how much time a particular commitment will take, once you've added up the time for rehearsals, getting to and from the venue, any organisation that might be involved, practising, etc. etc.

It doesn't hurt to keep a rough note of such things sometimes, and set yourself some ground-rules, e.g. make sure you only fill, e.g. 3 evenings a week (or whatever you think you can manage) with actual rehearsals. This obviously depends on your workload during the day, and various other things.

The most important thing is that you give yourself space, and protect it quite strongly. This also means that, if you are suddenly asked to give a solo recital at the Wigmore Hall, you'll have a bit of spare time to do the requisite work... Well, interesting gigs can appear when you're not expecting them, so it's as well not to be so stretched that you have to turn them down.

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Strength and prevention of problems: Adapting and making the most of where and how you are:

  • When you hear people you think are good, and much better than you think you are: be inspired, not intimidated. What can you emulate or learn from how they do things?
  • Try not to get frustrated! You are where you are - there's nothing you can do about that fact, but you can do lots about how to progress from the here and now.
  • Less-than-ideal situations: work out how you can adapt to make the best of something. This applies to all sorts of things, e.g.:
    • (1) You haven't had enough time to practice! (Welcome to my world...)
    • (2) It's cold or drafty where you're performing (or conversely, too hot or stuffy);
    • (3) The physical setup isn't good, e.g. you can't adjust a chair to a comfortable height.
    • (4) You're tired and possibly not feeling very well
    • (5) You are having to practise in an inappropriate space
    • (6) You are having to practise on a limited or defective instrument.
    • (7) You are having to perform on a limited or defective instrument.
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Adapting: working with less-than-ideal instruments

Even the last of these things, (7) , can happen, particularly if you are a keyboard player. Without wishing to state the obvious - though actually so much of what we musicians need to do to optimise things is obvious when you think about it: adaptability is a key.

Two sides of the coin: For example, and it is just an example: if you are not a pianist, it might be worth considering this anyway, partly because you will get a bit of insight into how another group of musicians work - something we should all have a broad overview of I think. And partly because the principles are not much different for you.

one could say that a piano is never in ideal condition: The felts gradually harden with use: they harden at the points where the felt contacts the strings. This will happen at a different, hopefully slower, rate, where the felts hit the strings in the una corda position: that is what creates the difference in tone colour between "normal" and una corda positions.

Unless it's a top-class model from a top-class piano maker, a brand new piano will not have that difference between the two main positions. (The best pianos do have work done on this in the factory before they are handed over to the buyer). As the piano is played more, the normal positions will harden and the sound will harden as a result. The difference between the two positions (though in reality a continuum is possible), will also increase with more playing, provided the una corda is not overused.

If one has an specific set of tone colours in mind, it will probably never be matched exactly.

Or one can look at it the other way: you sit down at a piano and start seeing what sort of sounds you can get from it - we are always coaxing the best and most varied sounds we can out of our instrument or voice.

Keyboard players are usually performing on an instrument that they don't own: Make friends with it! It will make a huge difference if you can get comfortable with what it you can do with it, rather than disappointed at what you can't do with it. (Or worse, frustrated, or worse still, depressed).

(6) is a related, and equally common, problem for keyboard players and sometimes for others - particularly percussionists. For example, there are things you can do if you are a keyboard player or marimba player, having to work on an instrument that has a shorter range than the piece you are practising!

  • - Split things into chunks that work on the smaller instrument. e.g. where the passage goes over the limit, put a section of it down an octave. That way you'll at least cover round every possible join, even if you can't put the whole thing together as one unit.
  • - When practising such a passage, or a passage that lies wholly outside the range of the instrument, you can adjust the position you stand (or sit), to replicate the angle to the keys, and the physique generally, that you would have on a full-size instrument.
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Adapting: performance vs. practice venues

(5) is almost universal: these days, nearly all of us perform in spaces which are a lot bigger than those which we practise in.
  • Firstly, it helps to see it as part of the normal process of preparation, rather than a problem. In some ways, preparing for the space is not that different from thinking about any other aspect of interpretation of your music.
  • Most importantly: practice in performance mode sometimes. As well as doing through runs of long chunks or whole pieces, this means playing or singing as you would need to in the performance space.
  • Are there specific things you need to do, e.g.
    • - Avoid deafening any co-performers in the same small room
    • - Think about the direction of your instrument. For example, trombonists often point their instrument so it's not directly perpendicular to the audience, to take some of the edge off the sound. Conversely, violinists and violist often angle themselves sideways, i.e. with the tilt of the instrument, so that their sound projects directly. The layout of a concert stage is probably not reproducible in a practice room. But you can plan and visualise it, mentally preparing for it.
  • Acoustics are often the most material aspect of this:
    • Jazz players might sometimes perform in a cathedral - very different from the much drier acoustics of a jazz club
    • Many venues for classical music are also quite resonant - practice rooms rarely are
    • In practice, this means, for example:
      • - You might need to leave more time for silences, or particular changes of harmony, etc.
      • - Generally, details and contrasts can be harder to project in a resonant space
      • - Pianists, and vibraphonists, might well need to use the sustain pedal for shorter duration, and perhaps less frequently, when performing, than in a practice room.
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Adapting: physical conditions - us and our environs

How about (2)? can of course be mitigated with appropriate underlayers, at least to some extent. However, both (2) and (3) will be greatly aided by good use of your whole body and mind. Again, Alexander technique is a direct help here. Why does it help with (2)? Surely you can't control the temperature of the room you're in by good posture and muscular dynamics? No you can't, but you can improve your circulation, which in a cold place will make you feel warmer.

Good muscular freedom and good circulation will also help if it's too hot or airless: by getting more oxygen to your brain, they will increase your alertness and combat the natural tendency towards drowsiness in stuffy atmospheres.

This of course benefits (4) too. The other big thing to help you perform better when you're feeling under the weather or just plain tired, is not to overdo things in the run-up if at all possible.

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Adapting: inadequate practice time

How about (1)? This is probably the most pervasive problem facing professional musicians working in Britain. What can one do about it? Surely everything has to be right, and you haven't got time to make everything right!

  • Again, don't panic
  • Try to stay as fresh as possible
    • - If it's a stark choice between getting enough sleep, or getting enough practice, often sleep is the better option!
  • Practice efficiently. (Please see some of the practising tips in these notes).
  • Be prepared to prioritise things: not everything will be perfect. (Actually, if you look at it in enough detail and depth, no performance is perfect)
    • - What nuances or details can be passed over with the least effect on the experience of the audience, and perhaps with the least disruption to your co-performers if you have them? either by the audience or fellow performers?
    • - Try not to be too reserved in characterisation: playing safe (going into your shell) won't hide mistakes! That's as much a confidence thing as a practising/learning thing.
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Strength and prevention of problems: Self-confidence

There are few things more annoying than a cocky musician. But most of us tend more towards the opposite extreme: one could say that's more dangerous, in terms of our mental health.

Many of the things outlined in the opening summary of these notes are helpful in building a quiet self-confidence, particularly:

  • - Awareness of what is good about your situation, what you've done, and what you are planning to do...
  • - ...and the ability to separate this out from all the necessary self-analysis, constructive self-criticism etc. that we have to spend much of our time on in order to be better musicians.
  • - Trying not to worry about things you can do nothing about.
  • - Perhaps most of all; judging yourself sensibly, i.e not feeling disappointed if you fail to reach what you want your ideal performance to be like.


  • - Take notice of positive feedback from others, as well as constructive criticism. If someone says you performed well, even if you might not think you should rely on that comment as a universally sound opinion, don't dismiss it out of hand either, whoever it comes from.
  • - If promoters are booking you, you're probably doing something right!
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Practising: staying fresh

The most effective way to stay fresh is to pace yourself well, and don't practice for too long without a break!

But however good condition we keep ourselves in, it's still possible to become stale with a piece. It's not a problem I have to worry about often, because of the amount of music I have to perform compared with the preparation time I have: But when I do have time to practice something, I rarely practise it more than three days in a row, and even then I'll try to mix other repertoire in. This kind of approach helps to keep you fresh, and it also helps you get through more repertoire. It's a virtuous circle, in other words.

It's a good idea to vary repertoire you practice where possible. Practising only one piece for a whole day, or longer, may give you lots of intensity, and on the face of it, more efficiency: but there's a lot of benefit to mixing things a bit - otherwise it can become hard to keep your ears, eyes, imagination and analytical sides working well throughout a full day of practising, for example. Plus the rest of your system in good condition as well, of course.

So, if you are setting out on a detailed session of a very long and/or very challenging piece, which a full work through could easily occupy a whole day: it's worth asking if that's really the best thing to do, or instead not work on absolutely everything in the piece that day, and use some of the time to instead work on something completely different.

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Methods of Practising: efficiency/depth of learning

The first few items here are mainly just reminders of things to keep an eye on.

Often we focus on accuracy and refinement at the small scale, and often we are very much focussed on technical specifics. All these things are important, but are we balancing them with other, perhaps more fundamental things?

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Starting with a new piece

When you want to learn a work - something quite substantial and challenging: what do you you in your first practice session with it?

A lot of people start working through it in great detail. This might work out OK, but what happens if you subsequently lose some of the practice time you'd planned for the piece? Quite often a student has approached a first rehearsal, for example of a complex chamber piece, having not learnt the last few pages which might in fact include much of the hardest music in the piece. I've even had students who, a few days before their performance in a performance class, have asked if they can just do the first movement of something they'd committed to doing the whole of.

A suitable approach will vary according to how much time you have. For what it's worth, here's something of what I try to do:
  • If there's very little time:
    • Have a very quick look through the whole piece - literally a very few seconds per page can be enough to identify particularly tricky corners; (conversely to identify passages which will look after themselves)
    • Use what little practice time you have to secure those tricky corners
  • If there's quite a lot of time:
    • Then it's nice to get an overview of the piece first, with some more extensive sightreading practice thrown in for good measure, so:
    • Play through it from beginning to end, in order
    • At this stage, it's often better not to worry about consistency of tempo apart from in very small sections. Try to choose a tempo where you can get everything correct...
    • ...but not too refined or even too reliable now. That can come later. In other words, be alert, but not too picky - yet
    • Having done that, even the once, it's not too early to think about what parts are going to need the most work. Then the next stage can either:
      • - [i1] Work in detail through the whole piece, but spend more time on those harder parts. This is of course a continuum - time proportional to difficulty, or thereabouts...
      • - or... [i2] work a lot on those hard parts - leave the rest for now.
      • - or, [i3] perhaps more likely, something between the [i1] and [i2]
      • - Which of [i1], [i2] or [i3] you do, will perhaps depend on ds more likely, something between the [i1] and [i2] might depend on how long and complex the piece the piece is, and how much other rep. you need or would like to learn. This is to do with staying fresh as much as anything.
    • Ideally, do this first detailed practice session later the same day as your initial read-through. If that's not possible, the next day is fine. But try to plan things so that you can do one or the other, or anyway minimise the gap betweeen these two, and then...
    • Another detailed work-through the next day.
    • And perhaps the day after again
    • Then leave it for a week. You will likely find it has improved, without you doing any further work on it! (Though not without you continuing to work on other things, and having a day off at some point!)
    • After that, more rounds along the same lines; perhaps two or three consecutive days, then leave it for a bit - each round
    • As you go through and as progress allows, work in more performance-type practice. Please see the notes on this very fundamental aspect of our preparation.
  • If there's no time at all! Yes, it can happen to some of us (quite a lot if you're a repetiteur...) Obviously, you're about to sightread in performance... But there's always a tiny bit of time to have a very quick look and make a mental note of some essentials:
    • Things to look out for might be:
      • Moments where co-ordination could be difficult
      • Awkward leaps
      • Tricky changes of key
      • Complex/awkward enharmonics
      • Transitions from page to page (always potential danger points, as the eye doesn't have the usual continuity there)
      • ..and line to line, if you've time
      • etc.
    • When to look for them might be:
      • waiting to go on stage, i.e. in the green room or similar
      • once on stage, you can take a bit of time to position your music nicely: it can be an opportunity to glance at it, particularly if:
      • need, or have the opportunity to pretend to need without making the audience wait or feel awkward, to flatten the pages (a common problem for pianists), or make sure they don't stick together. Yes, in an ideal world, that would of course all be sorted before you get on stage. But even sometimes when you have done all that thoroughly, paper can misbehave sometimes...

Often our actual situations sit somewhere between one of these: and can change without warning if we suddenly find we have lost, or perhaps gained, some practice time.

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Developing interpretation alongside technique

Why is this small-scale, specific, technical accuracy mode such a prevalent way of working? When is it fine on its own and when not?

At some point, we need to build the bigger picture as well. Performance-mode practice, i.e. dry-running sections or whole pieces (or whole concerts), is part of this. But that is not just a technical matter.

When practising a short difficult phrase, it's never too early to play it musically. Nor to think about balance, rubato, dynamic shading, etc., in the light of a possible larger-scale interpretation.

"Possible", because as you get to know the piece better, your ideas will change: this might also change some of these details on the small scale.

There's little point in trying to give formulae for how that balance between practising for accuracy and developing interpretation should progress as you go through the learning process. Any ideal would vary for each piece, and indeed for each performer. Perhaps the guidelines could be something like:

  • Start thinking about the interpretation as soon as you reasonably can, but
  • Don't overstretch your multitasking abilities, particularly before a fair bit of good practice has been transferred to muscle memory
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Learning the whole music

Most musicians are not performing in isolation; of course no-one is, with regard to the audience. But with regard to either (1) other musicians, or if you are playing alone, (2) often there are implied elements of the music that are not part of the physical sound you make.

(1) is the more common situation. A soloist, e.g. singer, violinist, saxophonist, etc. working with piano, for example, (or orchestra, band, etc.) can't possibly make sense of what they are doing without knowing the context. This mean both the actual sound-context, i.e. sounds that other musicians are making alongside you, and also the context of the overall shape or story of the music. For example:

  • What harmonies are you part of?
  • What type of line do you have, e.g.
    • Main theme
    • Second subject
    • Countermelody
    • Texture more than melody
    • Special effect
    • etc.
  • Whereabouts in the musical structure are you
  • What is your significance at this point, in the immediate sense, e.g.
    • Building tension gradually
    • Surprise
    • Rhetorical development
    • etc.
  • Whereabouts in the narrative are you?
  • If you represent a specific person or characteristic, how has that developed to this point, and what will happen later?

In other words, you haven't learnt the music until you know all of it. This includes all of these that are relevant:

  • the "piano part", i.e. the full score or piano-reduction
  • orchestration
  • lead-sheet
  • plot (musical-theatre and opera)

Also useful are:

  • something about the history of why/when the piece was written
  • linguistic subtleties
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Difficult parts: securing good playing; thinking time in context

A very common mistake - at least in my view - happens when we're practising and something goes wrong. We often go back too far!

It's easiest to talk about the transition from one note to the next. That also covers so many cases! Suppose for example that you've missed a shift between two notes. Or your haven't quite adjusted your embouchure and the second note comes out at the wrong harmonic, or with a glitchy sound. Or you miss a leap between one note and the next. What do you do next?

A lot of people will "run into it" first. Sometimes that can work, but the likelihood isn't great. This approach might look very cumbersome, but it's actually very quick: it takes much more time to describe it than to do it!

  • Stop and think for a second. Then give yourself time to gracefully and accurately:
  • Play/sing the second note (i.e. the one that originally was wrong)
  • [Possibly do this again once or twice]
  • Again giving yourself enough time - and not worrying about the eventual tempo you'll be working at:
  • play the first note, then the second
  • [Again, perhaps do this a few times, provided of course that you're doing it well. If not, you need to stop immediately and work out why]
  • Go back a bit, perhaps just 5 or 10 notes' worth or 5 or 10 seconds' worth, whichever is the shorter. Play from there, as far as the "second" note.
  • [Again, perhaps consolidate by repetition]
  • Go back further, and perhaps continue beyond

With practice, it can be done very efficiently, and even more to the point, can be very effective.

What most people do is jump straight to the last element of that. I think this is often because they are too pressured, or insufficiently thoughtful/experienced, to consider a strategy for correcting a mistake: It's after all not a question of flicking a switch: you are not a formula or a computer!

Or they might be trying to save time by skipping the earlier stages. Whatever the reason, the key thing here is that the longer-run simply replicates the lack of thinking-time that you had the first time round, which caused you to make the mistake in the first place. And it doesn't change anything inbetween. So more often than not, the same mistake occurs again. Worse still, frustration can follow, and then other things can go downhill.

If at some previous point, not too long ago, you've been through that process already, had seemed to have fixed the mistake, i.e. done it correctly in context a few times, but the mistake returns, of course it can make sense to abbreviate the careful fixing process.

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Different types of memory

Be aware of what is going on as you gradually start to look at the music less, i.e. developing.

  • Muscle memory - your body just knows exactly what to do (or at least that's what seems to be going on)
  • Structural memory:
    • Harmony
    • Melodic development
    • Repetions
    • etc.
  • Visual memory - what does something look like on the page

The process of managing your gradual move away from the music can benefit from some conscious management. This is not only for when you are going to perform with no score or other visual aid in front of you. All learning involves some element of memory: one could say there's no point in doing it otherwise: [Of course, in an ideal world, you could sightread all technicalities of all pieces perfectly, and all our practice would be devoted to developing your interpretation. But in reality that is a rare luxury!]

Muscle memory, for example, includes the eyes! If you are memorising a piece, the points in the music at which you look away from the score, and then look at it again, will change as the learning process continues. You need to know where to look!

Otherwise, even after a lot of good work in the practice room, one can easily find oneself in a vulnerable area where you almost don't need the score, but the moments when you are unpredictable: you then might not be prepared for switching to exactly the right place, visually, and physically. That's why it really helps to keep conscious track of these things in the practice room as you go along. If you've kept track in the practice room, you're much more likely to keep track in performance.

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Effective ways of strengthening memory

This applies not only to full-on memorisation, where you play without a score or lead sheet or words or anything. Memory plays a role in the preparation of all performances: even in sightreading! The notes on difficult corners is also relevant to this.

Again, this isn't in any sense hard and fast in the exactness of the timing, but in general, try to plan things so that when you start learning a new piece, you can work on it again the next day, and probably the one after that. Then maybe leave it for a day or two, work on it again, then leave it for a week. Once it's consolidated in your memory, the timing of when you work on it becomes less important, until the point when you are going to perform it. Then you work backwards from the performance:

If you've had lots of time with the piece, and you know it very well, it can sometimes be good not to play it on the day at all, or even the day before.

If you don't know it so well, a shorter-term memory boost can be very helpful, so try to make provision for playing at least bits of it on the day.

Playing something late-ish the previous day can be a good move, provided that it's not sufficiently late for you to be tired.

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Memory: identifying pitfalls

Make a note of things that don't seem to come as easily as you think they should, and work on them more than other corners, of course:

  • Try to work out why you're getting stuck. Is it:
    • A physical problem: often this involves not anticipating/moving enough in advance, e.g. your handshape, or embouchure, etc.
    • A glitch in your muscle-memory that you hadn't noticed before
    • You're having trouble e.g. a complex chord, or you're tending to confuse it with a different (incorrect) one
    • etc.
  • Give yourself time to get everything right, i.e. think about and do the right things, immediately prior to attempting that chord or interval (or very short passage, etc.
  • Did it work - if so, your diagnosis was probably right. If not, think again: don't just keep trying the same approach when it's not working!. (But don't give up either...)
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A very common trap is when a phrase or longer section is almost an exact repeat of one from earlier in the piece, but not quite! These often need extra work to stop you doing the wrong one, and securing it can benefit from a slightly different approach than other details, for example:

  • Again, to start with don't just keep practising a whole chunk. (This much is similar to sorting out any other details). Instead, concentrate to start with on the "turning point", i.e. the first place in the second phrase/section/etc. where it's different from the first phrase/section/etc. (This too is similar to other things)
  • If the phrase/section has more than two almost-similar occurences, you need of course to be familiar with the differences between all of them.
  • Now however, practice switching between the the alternatives: there might be more than two of course. It can be good to start with to do them in order of occurence in the piece. That way, you might be able to internalise their relative numerical position: numbers are a useful form of structural memory for some people, though not everyone...
  • When you can do that fluently, give yourself random numbers from 1 to however many near-repetitions (a.k.a. here as almost-similar occurences), you should quickly be able to get to the stage of immediately playing/singing the right one out of context
  • Then put into context, as you would with any other phrase etc. that you've worked on.
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Traps for visual memory

Some of the obvious danger points are also things to keep an eye on in a very quick glance through a piece prior to sightreading it:

  • Page-turns - practising your eye movements. Also going from system to system
  • Similarly, if working with a many-staved score, eye movement within the score
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This isn't strictly to do with practising regimes, but obviously your sight-reading skills make a lot of difference to how quickly you can get on top of repertoire you've not seen before, or for a long time. I suggest that you regularly spend some time just reading through stuff you don't know, without being too perfectionist about it (as that might too much limit the amount you get through).

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Methods of Practising: preparing for performance

Another essential strand in your practice will be planning how and when to practice in performance mode. By this I mean that, for a given passage, or later on, a whole movement or a whole piece, you keep going in the same way you would as if it were a performance.

It is very helpful to understanding how to build this in as you progress through learning a piece. For a tricky corner, or point where you don't get everything how you want it, to start with you'll be not passing that point without getting it right, perhaps getting it right two or three times in a row. Then putting it into context, by going back a little bit and running into it, then perhaps going back a bit further, then moving on.

This is a great way to learn, but of course not something you can do in a performance. So we have to practice through-running a piece, without stopping. So often, people comment to me after a rehearsal or a performance disappointed that they went wrong on some detail or whatever, saying "But I can play that bit!" Often what they mean is that in the practice room, in isolation, they can play that bit. But the mental process is then "look at that bit, think of what I need to do for that bit, play/sing that bit". In a performance, you don't have that thinking time!

The other reason why it's good to practice in this way, is the longer the chunk you do that with, the more like a performance it will feel. It all helps to make the stage feel more like your natural habitat.

Ideally, in the run-up to a performance, you might even want to practice the whole package, including all the stagecraft stuff before and after the piece (coming on stage, engaging with the audience, acknowledging applause, speaking to the audience, etc. etc.).

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Discomfort when playing or singing

It's important to remember two things in diagnosing such problems:

  • (1) Technique is about the use of your whole body, not just the bits that are obviously used in producing the sound.
  • (2) Your mental attitude very much affects your physical actions.

The more you are aware of your physical and mental state, the better. This way you will:

  • Be better able to maintain a high degree of fluency and efficiency when you play or sing
  • Become aware of any problems sooner, so you can nip them in the bud.

In my experience, students who have serious problems with their progress with the singing or playing can as often as not trace them to factors outside their musical work.

Again, don't bottle up the problem: talk to people - your friends, your teacher, or anyone with a lot of performing experience.

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Physical problems

Of course, you must be careful not to repeat old mistakes, which could risk making the problem worse, or making it last for longer than it would.

However, it is better to do 10 minutes good practise a day, than to do none at all. If you are careful to keep everything working freely, this is often possible. Be aware of any incipient aches etc., and as soon as you feel anything like that, stop. If you can see what's causing it and sort it out, then try to do that, and do a little bit more playing.

If things go well, you may well find that you can increase the amount you do quite quickly. It's often best to increase it by doing e.g. two 10 minutes sessions rather than one in the day, then perhaps three, before you increase the length of each session.

Physiotherapy can be helpful in sorting out problems. Surgery for RSI and related things is possible but should really be viewed as a last resort.

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Confidence and other psychological problems

In some ways motivational or other mind-things can be more hidden than physical problems. However, it's worth remembering that the two can cause each other: sometimes, recognition of the link is enough to break the log-jam. A few other things might be worth thinking about:

  • (1) Are you worried that you are not progressing as well as you might? If so, is this because you are subconsciously comparing yourself with someone else, and in fact this is neither realistic, nor is it necessary for you at your current stage?
  • (2) Always judge your performances not against your ideal performance, but by uninterrupted run-throughs that you do in the rehearsal or practise room: This will show your performance ability in a much better light, and a more realistic one.
  • (3) If worries about a particular performance, or piece, are at the root of a general malaise with your playing or singing, you might be able to brighten things by practising, or performing, something unrelated: this can have a positive knock-on effect.
  • (4) Think positively about the performance right from the time you first start to learn the piece. If you do this enough, this will begin to build into real confidence on stage.

These are also key factors in overcoming performance anxiety in general, of course, even if you don't have any physical problems. Also:

  • (5) Remember that audiences are generally much more appreciative and less critical of your performances than you are.
  • (6) Past experiences can stay with you - this might include the negative ones, of course. In general, though, if you've progressed since a previous performance, either in general, or with that piece, then there's no reason why the future, or present, should resemble the past. However, it can take some effort to keep that progress in the front of your mind.
With regard to (5), the trick is to separate the ultra-perceptive, ultra-critical mode of listening and thinking that you need a lot of the time in the practice room, from what you feel about yourself, your performance. This is an ongoing process:
  • (7) Try to "catch" thoughts, whether they occur when you are practising, or even while you doing something completely unrelated. And with regard to how you do feel about your performances:
  • (8) To get more control over these two modes of thinking and working, (2) is again a big part of this: compare like with like, i.e. performance situation with performance situation, not performance situation with out-of-context, giving-yourself-immediate-prior-thinking-time, practice room situation, and:
  • (9) Make friends with yourself. If you think that even after you've been really dispassionate that things haven't gone well, try to work out why. Talk to a friend, musical or otherwise.
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Listening: inspiration vs. self-intimidation!

The more conscientious and caring you are, and the more self-critical you are, the more likely you are to listen to another performer and think:

  • They're good
  • I'm not
  • Why can't I play/sing like that?
  • Am I in the wrong business?

That's perhaps overdramatising it, but I've seen the essence of that so many times, and yes, felt it myself more often than I'd like to admit. It's often worse in a competitive environment, or when something particular is riding someone else's judgement of a forthcoming performance you are doing. (One could argue that something is riding on every performance you do - i.e. your reputation. But panic not: that's not only a pressure/negative thing: it's also a way good things happen, i.e. you get gigs!).

There's another way of looking at everything. Here - how about:

  • That's really inspiring
  • What can I learn from it?
  • I can try to emulate at least some of what I'm hearing

Musicians (divas aside) tend to magnify our own faults and diminish others: it's a good trend in many ways - you could even say it makes us better people. Again, in a competitive or other situation where you might be feeling extra pressure, these things can easily get out of perspective. When judging quality, being dispassionate can be difficult, but in reality the yawning gulf we perceive between ourselves and someone much starrier might not be quite as severe as we think.

The key point is that there's no point in worrying about it anyway. You can only do what you do: comparisons need to be made in an analytical way, and it might turn out that someone else is better than you at something, of course. But what can you do about it? Try to get better yourself! And no-one else's superiority to you (or perceived superiority), can diminish what you have already achieved.

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Taking stock in difficult times: to pause, retreat, or move on

Quite often, people who have performance anxiety, or general anxiety, naturally assume that performing will make it worse. Of course, this is a danger.

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Performance as a way forward?

But there is another side to the coin. Part of this hinges on the relationship between general anxiety and performance anxiety. Sometimes it's performance anxiety that really makes its presence felt starkly. But if other confidence problems or other worries are at the root of the performance anxiety, then sometimes performance can be a route to recovery.

Such a route is unlikely to have an easy start. If you decide to stick with it, pressing ahead with performing you might well be accepting inevitable discomfort performing for a while. But you will hopefully find that that the more you perform, the better at it you become: this gradually engenders confidence too.

That confidence can steadily work it's way into the rest of your life. This can happen with ongoing success in any activity - of course it doesn't have to be to do with being a musician on stage.

One has to be careful taking this line, of course: it's not risk-free approach. But I have seen it work well on many occasions when support and encouragement - and opportunities to perform - have been available.

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What to do if things go wrong

This section applies most to situations where there isn't a particular external thing that has made you stop playing or singing, e.g. an accident or illness. However, even in these cases, you can help yourself by:

Most importantly: if you think that you are in serious danger of being unable to honour a performing commitment: get in touch with the organiser as soon as possible!

This is a matter of courtesy to other people, but it's also a matter of your reputation. As soon as you think there's any chance that you might not be able to perform, or that your ability might be seriously affected, get in touch with the promoter (or whoever), so that they can help you, and make alternative arrangements for the performance if possible. It's possible that they might be able to assure you sufficiently for you to go through with it anyway, and you might gain some good advice along the way. But if you have to drop out of a performance, the more notice the promoter has, the better.

If you fail to get in touch, most people will assume that you are unreliable and can't be bothered. Obviously, if there is a real emergency, and people only find out after the event, that's obviously unavoidable and people will generally be fine with that.

Of course, there's no advantage in waiting till it's got sufficiently serious for you to have to cancel things, before you take any action.

As far as what you yourself can do is concerned:

  • (1) Try not to panic or get depressed:
    • If you are suffering physical problems that are making playing/singing difficult or impossible, try to think clearly about what is going wrong and why. This means looking at your whole life, not just your playing.
    • If you are having problems concentrating because of emotional stress, depression, or similar, try to make the best use you can of the physical side: this might mean e.g. playing stuff you enjoy, perhaps jamming with other musicians, etc., even if for the time being you need to sidestep the more intense and rigorous mental activities of practising. Again, look at your whole life: what is getting in the way? If it's things that you have no control over, can you use your music as a safe haven and so find some sort of route to enjoying it more?
    • If you are unable to do any music because e.g. a family member is very ill: you will of course be completely constrained in the short term, but in most cases there is some hope of light at the end of the tunnel. Although in life these situations can be the toughest, in terms of the effect on us as musicians, they can be less difficult than the other situations (depression, temporary physical problems etc. on our own account), simply because all our energy and emotion is channelled to someone else. The resulting musical problems may not even get much of a look-in.
  • (2) Again, try to keep in mind the positive sides of your life outside music, and things which you can look forward to when you start to recover.
  • (3) Doing what you can do is more productive than frustration about what you can't do! It's easy to sit and write that, of course, but reminding yourself can be very helpful:
  • (4) For example, if you are unable to play or sing because of a physical injury, or recent surgery: you might well still be able to:
    • Greatly help your learning of pieces by reading the score and hearing it in your head
    • Learn some of your music on a different practical medium: for example, if you are a singer who temporarily can't use your voice much or at all you can do a lot of valuable work at the piano.
    • Positive and clear thinking
    • Figuring out your detailed approach to practice and to performance;
    • Reading about and analysing the music, and other pieces - related or not.
    • Listening to recordings
    • Visualise your stagecraft - that will help you do the right things and feel more confident once you can practice it for real.
  • (5) Do as much practical work as you reasonably can:
    • Use at least some of the extra time that you can't practice normally in, to really focus on getting the fundamentals of your technique strong. Many of these don't involve singing or playing an instrument, for example:
      • Practice your stagecraft
      • Good use of all parts of the body which aren't encumbered by health problems, even perhaps to some extent those that are, particularly muscular freedom in the neck, back and shoulders, and in general:
      • Posture;
      • Breathing;
    • If you can do so without risk of damaging anything, or slowing your recovery, or degrading the fundamentals of your technique, it's better to play or sing for even just a very short time each day than not at all. This is a great help psychologically as well as physically.
  • (6) See and use the silver linings: these off-the-instrument-or-voice things are really important, but often in the life of a busy working musician, they can get squeezed out: situations which prevent you from practising normally can sometimes give you extra space to really address these fundamental things.
  • (7) Sometimes a complete break from your playing or singing is necessary. Doctors will advise about this, but it's worth bearing in mind that such advice might be based purely on physiological considerations. Yes, those might override all else, but it's not necessarily the case: the psychological advantages of getting back on it, if you can do so with complete physical safety, can be great.

In summary, do everything you can while some of the normal ways of musical life are unavailable. Think also about the psychological effect of time where you have to be completely away from your voice or instrument, before you can even start to make a recovery. The sooner you can start to make progress back to full operation, the better, in general.

This might mean, if it is safe, starting with just a few, very careful, minutes' practice each day, as well as all the away-from-the-instrument/voice work that you will be doing anyway in these situations. Proceed with caution, don't try to increase the amounts you do too quickly; always monitor how things are feeling. If things go well, you are likely to find your strength and stamina climbing steadily.

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