Practice vs Performance

02022-11-27 | Performance, Philosophy | 6 comments

While searching for something else I came across this old post from December of 2005, which I wrote while doing the Winter Rose Holiday Tour, with the added string quartet. I think it’s worth repeating.

When we practice we often concentrate on individual aspects or fragments of a performance. Fingering, sound-production, volume/dynamics, melody, rhythm are all aspects of a performance that can be practiced independently. Concentrating on one of these aspects will have wonderful results and is in fact essential for improving, but I think that concentration is not good for performing music.

When we concentrate on the flow of the melody, the rhythm will suffer and we might place notes too far in front of or behind the beat. When we concentrate on the rhythm we might place the notes exactly on the beat, but the melody will lack flow. When we concentrate on producing sound (right hand for most people), we might lose sight of the fingering (left hand). In other words, while fragmentation is a great way to isolate and practice a piece of music – or general aspects of posture, fingering, sound-production, volume/dynamics etc. – for a performance these fragments have to join to form one single element: the music.

In order for music to flow naturally, we have to allow the mind to flow and trust that it will bring attention to any single element that requires it. During a performance mind might flow like this:

the melody is a little behind the beat… nice, but don’t fall behind… the lights are hot in the back of my neck… right hand is a little sweaty… keep it steady – don’t listen to Davo (sounds like he’s doing sevens against the six)… ah, Jon is starting to improvise: don’t go back to the melody now… the second string sounds a little off – is it me or the violin… or both…

You see, concentrating on any one aspect of the performance would inhibit the flow of mind and that might get us stuck and when we get stuck even for a moment we won’t respond to the needs that are arising. Getting stuck is the worst that can happen in a performance. Two places we certainly do not want to get stuck in are: what I just played was so great AND what I just played really sucked! Both thoughts have the same result – the flow of music is impeded and the very next phrase will indeed suck…

By no means is this limited to music. When you cook and concentrate too much on one item, you’ll burn another… and I am sure we will find many more examples…


  1. Steve

    >When we practice we often concentrate on individual aspects or fragments of a performance

    Normally when I practice, I do so when no one else is home, but recently I was practicing Prelude 5 from the J.S. Bach ‘cello suites (The scale length of a ‘cello is ~695mm, my double bass is ~1060mm … the scale differential between the two is consequential)

    I was practicing the same 5 bar passage over and over and over trying to get the articulation and the position shifts the way I wanted. After about 50 minutes of this, a friend staying with us for the holiday season comes into my practice space and says, “Are you going to ever actually play this, or just do that one part over and over …” explaining exactly what you have written above was … tedious, but I tried. I think the concept of practice and how its done to a non-musician is completely strange … there is really no analogue in everyday life except maybe T’ai chi …

    • ottmar

      I can imagine both of your POVs and you are absolutely right, it is completely strange. It’s like you both speak English but your dialects are so heavy that you can’t understand each other. At all. LOL
      You describe a great example.
      I can spend a lot of time just working on the best fingering, especially now that I am older and I have to find the path of least physical resistance.

  2. JaneParham

    I sorely need to learn this. Thanks Ottmar and Steve.

    • ottmar

      I’d like to hear Steve’s opinion on this, but I find that not a lot of music teachers explain this – how to practice vs perform – to their students and as a result the students have to find out on their own or from other players. Well, there are a bunch of good books about the subject as well. I will see whether I can list a few.

      • Steve

        >I’d like to hear Steve’s opinion on this, but I find that not a lot of music teachers explain this – how to practice vs perform

        I was never taught efficient practice technique. I don’t think I had very good music teachers when I was in my formative stage. More charitably, I think they were overly focused on “housekeeping” aspects of playing, and not so much on preparation for performance.

        In fact I was … 5-10 years (!!!) into being a musician before I ended up in a serendipitous conversation with a fairly well known bassist and we got to talking about his practice and it was at this point that he that gave me the idea of playing it unbelievably slow .. almost to the point of farce … and gradually increase tempo: but only after playing it very slowly five or ten times perfectly, then increase tempo. I sure didn’t come up with this on my own. (I think that was a lack of self-introspection on my part)

        Prior to the aforementioned conversation, I used to practice things at performance tempo (I mean, that’s how you’re gonna play it right?) but that’s completely silly because if you make a specific mistake at tempo and keep practicing the passage at tempo and keep making the mistake, pretty soon you are actually rehearsing the mistake and giving it muscle memory. I interpreted this as, “well, you just need to practice more.” Kind of a brute force approach.

  3. JaneParham

    I have the terrible opinion that a music teacher is rare who actually teaches anything helpful and practical, much less one who is an original thinker and teaches from a scientific basis (especially voice teachers). Their key to success is choosing talented students that will make them look good.


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