We all want to be better musicians.
But how do we know whether we’re working on the right things?
When I was preparing for my junior trumpet recital in college, I practiced tirelessly. I could perform any section of my music flawlessly. I had worked out all the transitions, planned and practiced my phrasing, and I was looking forward to performing for my friends and family.
When it came to the actual recital, though, it completely sucked. Nerves, dry mouth, lip fatigue…it was like I had barely practiced at all!
For years, the same thing happened with auditions, with solos, even sometimes when I was performing as part of a section. It was happening with my singing, too. It was like my voice just wouldn’t cooperate. As you can imagine, I was incredibly frustrated, and I thought seriously about quitting music altogether.
I knew about choking under pressure, but seemed like I was helpless to stop it or to understand the reasons why I was choking. I tried all sorts of strategies to become a better performer, but none of them seemed to work.
It wasn’t until many years later that I finally found the beginnings of a solution in some of the psychology books I was reading. It wasn’t an “Aha!” moment as much as a gradual realization and a series of connections. It had to do with my mental strategies during practice. I had always thought that a performance problem needed a performance solution, but it turned out, it needed a practice solution. Once I realized what direction I was headed, I started to read and research as much I could about the psychology and beliefs of peak performers, and a clearer picture started to emerge of what makes the top musicians different.
I organized all the information I was getting into what I call the Three Pillars of Performance: Direct Practice, Domain Knowledge, and Self-Management. Today I’ll give you an overview of all three, and in later blogs I’ll go into more detail about how to make sure you’re getting the most out of each pillar.
Most musicians already know a little about direct practice, although it is commonly misapplied in the practice room. For the most part, it is the process of creating the right connections in the brain by practicing the skills that you want to perform. The keywords here are focus and repetition. You’re probably doing repetition just fine. If you really want to get better at direct practice, you’ll want to improve your focus. That’s because each repetition creates a connection in the brain—even the repetitions you do wrong!
Direct practice includes four types of practice:
1) The practice that you do to create consistency on a musical line
2) The practice you do to create critical skills that are transferable to different contexts (for example, scales)
3) The physical conditioning you do to ensure you have the power and stamina to finish a performance in peak form (Brass players and vocalists are especially familiar with this, but it’s important for woodwinds, strings, and keyboardists as well)
4) Comparison practice, where you imitate master performers to increase your awareness of subtle distinctions in sound and develop your musical intuition.
Have you ever wondered how a tennis player can read an opponent’s serve and start moving before the racket has even hit the ball? Or how a chess master can play multiple games blindfolded and still win? It’s because they both have created vast stores of knowledge about the game and have efficient methods of organizing it in their head so they can recognize important information and discard the rest. A chess master doesn’t remember the location of every single piece, they remember the way that the pieces relate to one another. This is called “chunking.” When we practice our scales, we are reinforcing the chunk of a scale pattern so that we don’t have to think about it when we’re sight-reading or playing a fast passage. It’s true for bigger systems, too, like how well we understand form, and even how quickly we can recognize and adjust our playing to different styles of music.
One of the main differences between masters and amateurs is in the complexity of their chunking systems.
Domain Knowledge also has four parts:
1) System Knowledge—a mental model of how all the parts fit together and why.
examples: music theory, knowledge of historical style periods, basic forms
2) Situational Knowledge—a large volume of strategies and solutions for specific situations.
examples: tuning tendencies of specific notes, the style or phrasing of a specific excerpt.
3) Perceptual Skills—perceiving nuance, filtering through large amounts of information
examples: tuning, internal pulse, identifying the causes of errors.
4) Political Knowledge—knowledge of current trends and influential people, social intelligence skills, network
examples: compliance with standards of professionalism, making positive connections with leaders and peers, staying up-to-date with changing trends.
Domain Knowledge is often developed slowly, as a by-product of experience, but you can accelerate it by setting aside a little time each day to improve it. Increasing your domain knowledge in these four areas will accelerate your growth as a musician, and will open up new opportunities for you to grow and enjoy your skills.
The final pillar, and in many ways the most important, is self-management. The best-known example of a self-management problem is performance anxiety, or “stage fright”, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Here are the principles of good self-management:
1) Planning is the practice of setting goals to direct your focus and attention.
2) Metacognition is the practice of observing and actively selecting your thoughts and emotions during practice, rehearsals, and performances.
3) Self-evaluation is the practice of reflecting on your specific goals.
4) Improving your underlying beliefs and mental processes: we’ll use the catch-all term Psychology.
Strengthening your pillars
A weakness in any of the three areas will hamper a performance or even an entire career. I think we all know skilled musicians who choke under pressure, or seem to make strange tempo choices, or annoy their fellow musicians by dragging down rehearsals with questions. You may already recognize a few areas where you need to work to strengthen your pillars. I highly recommend that you write those down somewhere (If you already own your own Practice Habit journal, you can use the goal worksheets found in the back of the journal. As we flesh out the different strategies over the coming weeks, you can refine the “process” and “first actions” sections of those worksheets).
The good news is that there are strategies to strengthen all three pillars that will help you fix your weaknesses and improve faster. It’s the whole reason I created The Practice Habit—I wanted a practice journal that helped me and my students spend time on the important things and not just making improvements by trial and error. Over the next few blogs, I’ll flesh out each of the pillars in more detail. I’ll also show you strategies to target weaknesses and improve the different aspects of your three pillars.
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We all want to be better musicians.