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Practice with an Audience (Sometimes)

April 25, 2010

The second installment of Measured Passion.  This entry is probably blasphemy for professional musicians.  Lord knows they shouldn’t be taking advice from me anyway!

Practice with an Audience (Sometimes)

The Romans are sure of victory … for their exercises are battles without bloodshed, and their battles bloody exercises.

— Josephus (37 AD – 100 AD), Jewish historian

When my brother got married, I was living at home between semesters of college.  I was to play preludes before the wedding.

I didn’t intend for my practices at home to be judged as performances—they were brutal repetitions unfit for tone-deaf dogs.  My mom was naturally underwhelmed by my continual mutilations of Pachelbel et al—embellished as they were with impromptu stopping, repeating and cursing.  Mom didn’t say it, but she was clearly concerned that I would ruin the the family name, let alone the wedding.  I often heard, “I think you better play that again!” from across the house that summer.  We were ready to strangle each other on the day HMS Wedded Bliss was to set sail.

I knew, but couldn’t verbalize at the time, that I wouldn’t perform the way I was practicing.  I was trying to hammer out whole songs as they were written, knowing full well that I would hatchet them down at the eleventh hour to something I could play.  I always felt it was an underhanded compromise—that I was cheating the audience out of the real music that was beyond my abilities.

When more relatives found fiancés, I had a lot of weddings to play.  I realized my practices had to improve.  I needed to understand the performance while I was practicing.  To borrow theatre lingo, I needed to get the music on its feet.  In the process, I think I actually learned how to rehearse properly.

Here’s what I do now when I’m formally learning a piece of music (i.e. I will play the piece this day for these people):  During a practice I will start and end with a mock performance.  I sit down and put my watch on the music stand.  I imagine being at the performance site with the audience.  I place my hands in position.  I take a deep breath in my stomach, smile, and begin when the second hand hits 12.  Showtime.  No stopping for mistakes.  No correcting rough sections.  If it is a rhythmic piece I’ll sometimes use a metronome to keep the tempo.  If not, I mentally keep myself in the flow of the music.  Any errors are handled as I would while performing—smile and keep playing.

Starting with a mock performance, I hear, see and feel what needs work.  Afterwards I can review the sections slowly, play each hand separately, work out fingering, etc.  I also get to know where I’m taking shortcuts and decide earlier in the process whether the shortcut is acceptable or if I need to learn the real notes and rhythms.  Ending practice with a similar run-through lets me know if things are improving.

As a side effect, I’ve changed my opinion about compromising the music.  For the amateur musician, we don’t need to hit all the notes, use exact fingering and count the intervals with mathematical perfection in order for people to feel the music.  Rather, we need to make the piece flow in performance.  Practicing as a performance lets me feel the cues, stresses, high points and tender passages that connect the piece with me, and hopefully with the audience.

… strongly hit the downbeat here …

… let this measure “tumble” …

… accelerate for excitement here …

I don’t think I will ever be at ease when I perform.  I regularly rub sweat off my hands and remind myself to relax and breathe.  But I feel much better about it than I did in the past.  Performances are like surfing, balancing oneself just ahead of the cresting wave.  Rehearsing with no turning back puts us on the wave more often—mentally at least—and makes us more comfortable there.

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