Preparing a Performance

Beverly Holt Guth
Submitted: Tue, May 21, 2013 - 1:37am EDT
The quality of a performance depends primarily on the way you've prepared. How to check your practice habits to build the strongest-possible performance.

There are way too many myths about making music for an audience! Most performers seem to think
that a profound performance came about by luck. I don't think so!
We should always plan adequate time to prepare for a recital. This starts with KNOWING YOURSELF: how long will it take me to get this piece to the top of my game? One reason great artists seem to be so consistently marvelous, is that they don't play before they're ready. They have learned to plan ahead and do not program works that are not thoroughly studied, memorized and mastered.
Frank Sinatra would never perform a song for anyone - not even a close friend - until he had sung it 100 times by memory. If you play your piece three times a day by memory, it will take a little over a month to reach this point. We now know that the brain wraps myelin around the nerve fibers that carry messages or encode skills. The more layers of memory, the more myelin, the more likely you will be able to play at your very best and communicate the true message of the the piece. We are talking about deep-memorizing - knowing the piece "inside-and-out". Frank probably didn't know about myelin, but he instinctively knew that he was a different performer when he really "owned" a piece.
Preparation obviously starts with the reading level - getting to know the notes, the melodies, the rhythms. But this is only Phase One of numerous phases of mastering a great work. I believe that a musician must research the piece, the composer, the period. In today's age it is so easy to learn about the music we are studying! There is really no reason why a person should be playing a mazurka and not know what a mazurka is, for example.
Listening to recordings can stimulate your imagination and help you to realize the possibilities with a piece. Dig in and know where your sections are, key changes, interludes. Take the time to do this very early in your study, and it will pay big dividends as your understanding grows.
How much do you sing as you practice? Singing the melody, the countermelody or the bass line will deepen your memory work significantly and quickly. When you have physically sung a section a number of times, it will be easy to "silently sing" as you play. Do play sections of various lengths, constantly tweaking and noticing details.
It certainly helps to have several "small" performances before a "big" one. Corral a friend, neighbor or family member and accustom yourself to playing this piece for others. For me, each piece needs a chance to "harden" under the fire of performance.
It also helps to think of a performance as a chance to share a marvelous work of art with others. Point your audience to the music, not to yourself. This view will help you to put self-consciousness at a minimum.
Once a piece is well-learned, play all the way through it at slowish-medium, medium, quick and full-tempo speeds daily. Your physical and mental reflexes develop and strengthen each time.
Just as you know your way around your house - even if you come in through the back door - you want to know your performance work so thoroughly that you can hear it, think it and create it coming from any direction. When you have mastered your piece technically, intellectually understand its makeup and have hardened it through many play-throughs, you will be able to go out and focus on your message. And your listeners will be able to ride with you through the experience! For that is what music is - an experience.

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