This is the final 20% of a piece. Most students can easily learn a piece to about 80% of competency, but it’s that final 20% that we’re going to be looking at today.
Just to be clear, not every piece you play is going to need this performance treatment. It’s good to keep a fresh rotation of new music, even if the music you’re putting away is only at the 80% level. However, there are going to be pieces you really like, or that you’re doing for an exam or performance, that you’re going to want to play closer to a 100% level.
A piece’s life cycle
There are three main phases in a piece’s life cycle:
I’m basing these entirely off Gerald Klickstein’s The Musician’s Way, which is a great read.
Getting pieces to performance level
Getting pieces to a performance level can take a very, very long time. Say it takes you a month to learn a piece start to finish, and to be able to play it reasonably well. Your tempo is accurate, you’re only making a few mistakes when you play it through, and you might even have it memorized. By the list above, you’d be able to put this piece in the “performing” category.
But that doesn’t mean it’s ready for performance! It means that it goes into “performance mode”. Just as you probably have your own methods for learning a brand new piece, and for developing it into something that sounds like music, you need a practice method for “performance mode” pieces.
Requirements for performance mode pieces
For a piece to get that sheen and polish necessary for performance, you’ll want to consider the following things (which we’ll talk about in turn):
A piece in performance mode needs…
- -time to marinate on the backburner
- -regular maintenance
- -practice in a variety of different ways to get to know it better, and to keep it fresh (ie HS, slow)
- -careful attention to details (ie no robotic playing)
- -section-by-section work (actual practice – do this more than play-throughs)
- -full run-throughs (important, but needs less time than section-by-section work)
- -diligence to practice without mistakes
A quick note before we dive into these topics – it’s important that your pieces be at a variety of learning stages so you don’t get overwhelmed. So if you’re trying to get one piece to performance level, maybe you have one piece you’re just starting, and one you’re developing. That way, your practice session utilizes multiple parts of your brain and you’re less likely to burn out.
Time to marinate on the backburner
I’m not super savvy with brain science, but something magical happens when you allow a piece to “settle”. If you learn something in a week, and then spend about a month returning to it and lightly maintaining it, you’ll find that you ease into the piece and become much more comfortable with it.
It’s like getting to know a person. At first you’ll be much more self-conscious, and you might hold back a little. But as you get to know them, you open up more and become freer around them. You’ll find the same happens with your music.
There’s no magic amount of time that a piece needs to marinate. Some take longer to “get to know” than others, and it depends on how difficult and involved they are. For myself, I usually feel good about a piece once it’s been sitting for 3-6 months. I can still play the piece reasonably well before it’s been sitting this long, but that’s how long it usually takes before I feel really comfortable with it.
Once a piece is officially switched into performance mode, it’s going to need regular maintenance. You can’t just stick it in performance mode and forget about it.
If I’m practicing, for, say, 1 hour, then I might devote 10 minutes or so to this maintenance. It gives me time to play it through a couple of times, as well as work on some of the other practice techniques we’ll be talking about in this video.
A performance mode piece isn’t necessarily going to need the same heavy mental focus that learning a new piece needs. That’s not to say you can just space out and play it a couple times, and then call it a day. But where learning a new piece might take a good 30 minutes per session, maintaining a piece generally takes much less time.
Keep your piano piece fresh
I’m going to make another comparison to meeting new people. When we first meet someone, the experience is novel and exciting. Then we get to know them better, and the feeling softens from excitement to relaxation. After a while, that relaxation might transform into lethargy or boredom. We might start craving newness again.
By all means, go out and make a new friend (or, in this case, make friends with a new piece)! But becoming a master of friend #1 is going to take some dedication, and that includes a dedication to not getting bored with them. (I’m going to drop the friend metaphor now, as it’s getting a little strange 😉 ).
So what can you do to avoid getting bored with your performance level piece?
Switch up the way you practice it! Get to know it in different ways!
For example, I memorize pieces very easily. But one interesting mental challenge for me is to try to play a memorized piece hands separately. Usually I’ve memorized all the motions hands together, but when I try to focus on just the right hand, I get lost.
This shows me that I’ve put a lot of stock into muscle memory, but not as much stock into memorizing the actual musical components.
So hands separate work is a great way to strengthen your memory and understanding of a piece. There are all kinds of other things you could do – try playing the piece very slowly. Try dividing the piece into parts, and then playing it backward (start with the ending, end with the intro). Try to master one tiny technical challenge (like a particularly tricky bar). Play with entirely different expression (ie loud when it says to play quiet).
No robots allowed!
Just because a piece has gone into performance mode doesn’t mean we get to shut our brain off and play on auto-pilot. Pay really close attention to the music when you play – is there more you could be doing? A dynamic you’re missing? A slur you’re interrupting? A staccato that isn’t very clean?
Carefully combing through the music as you play is a way to avoid robotic playing (as are the tips mentioned in the previous point). When we play on robot mode, we’re not really practicing at all. We’re just spitting out lines of code. We aren’t going to get better.
It might seem like learning a new piece from scratch contains more challenges than playing a piece you’ve already learned well, but if you’re practicing right, you should still find daily hurdles in even your most familiar pieces.
Performance level: section-by-section work
One mistake a lot of people make when they put their pieces on a performance level is only do full play-throughs. They play a piece start to finish a few times, then call it done. They put it away, and move on to their other newer (and more exciting) pieces.
We’re all guilty of this, I think. I have to catch myself from doing this – it’s just so tempting. But the problem is, we’re never going to iron out those kinks in a piece unless we really do some deep section-by-section work.
In order for a performance piece to get that polish – attention to detail, good accuracy, and so on – we need to continually refine it. It’s practically impossible to refine anything in a piece when you just play it through a couple times.
Divide up your music into logical parts. Maybe every 4 bars, maybe every line, maybe every half page – it depends on the music. Then dedicate yourself to fully working on one part in particular. Maybe in one practice session you only focus on one line of music – that’s okay. That line of music is going to get better. If we keep doing the same thing day after day, you’re going to find that your piece is much, much better even a couple weeks later.
Do full run-throughs
That’s not to say that full run-throughs are pointless – they’re very important! We don’t want to spend all this time focusing on the microcosm of our piece (like one line of music) and neglect to step back and see the macrocosm (the whole piece).
You want to balance your focused, section-by-section work with a couple deliberate play-throughs. Together, the two approaches will make a big difference in the polish of your performance piece.
Diligently practice without mistakes
The final point is to get really diligent about playing your piece without mistakes. Yes, mistakes are inevitable, and the quest for perfection is a doomed one.
That said, every time you make a mistake when you play, you’re essentially practicing the mistake. This becomes especially problematic when you’re making a consistent mistake – like every time you get to a certain bar, you hit the (same) wrong note each time. By doing this, you’re practicing the wrong note, not the right note.
If you find yourself in this situation, spend some time getting the right note. Even if you have to cut the tempo in half, even if you have to practice hands separate or simplify in other ways, start practicing getting that note right. We want the correct note to be practiced much more than the incorrect note.
Feel free to be a little brutal with this. If you hit a wrong note, practice hitting the right note at least 3 times, so that the right note outweighs the wrong note. Then keep playing as per normal.
If you hit the wrong note, and then go back and correct it only once, you’ve just practiced a 50/50 split – you’ve practiced the wrong note once, and the right note once. That’s not enough. We want to outweigh that wrong note so we’re much less likely to do it again in the future.
It’s a fine line between becoming mistake-phobic and being diligent, but it’s a really important point to consider in your practice.
If you enjoyed today’s discussion on how to bring a piece to performance level, you might enjoy the other 2-part series we did on performing, using famous piano performers as our examples (part 1 and part 2).
Catch you next time!