This is a guest post by performance psychologist Dr. Noa Kageyama. Noa is on the faculty of The Juilliard School and teaches performing artists how to utilize sport psychology principles and more consistently perform up to their full abilities under pressure. For more tips on effective practicing, learning, and performing, visit his blog, The Bulletproof Musician.
In hindsight, I’m sure it was pretty cute, but in the moment, my mom was mortified and resolved to make sure I wouldn’t forget something so obvious the next time.
So, throughout my early formative years, the week leading up to every performance contained lots and lots of performance practice. Where I would put on my concert clothes, pretend to walk out on stage, smile, bow, tune, pretend to shake the conductor’s hand – the whole nine yards. No matter how seemingly trivial the detail, the idea was to make every step of the performance a deeply-ingrained habit that I didn’t have to think about, to ensure that when I walked out on stage, everything would go smoothly.
Indeed, things went swimmingly from then on, but as I grew older, I started taking on more of the responsibility for practicing and naturally drifted away from some of these mom-initiated strategies that I thought I had outgrown.
Division of practice time
Eventually I went off to college, and one day came across a dusty old book in the library (one of my favorite guilt-minimizing strategies for avoiding practicing), in which renowned violin pedagogue Ivan Galamian suggested that our practice time should be divided into thirds.
One third conceptual practice (figuring out what we want a phrase to sound like), one third technical practice (figuring out how to produce those sounds), and one third performance practice (figuring out how to put everything together from A to Z, and do it when it counts).
The inclusion of that third part surprised me. I knew performance practice was important, but didn’t know someone of Galamian’s stature would consider it to be that important. Given more time to prepare for a big performance, I would have spent more time in that second third – diligently continuing to iron out technical details.
Unfortunately, this is a trap, and Galamian said that we tend to put performance practice off until it’s too little, too late. Oops…guilty as charged…I guess Mom’s idea wasn’t just for little kids after all…
So why is performance practice so important? Why isn’t it better to just spend every possible moment working on technical details?
There are many reasons, but one of the key reasons relates to the stages of learning, and what this tells us about the mental demands of performing optimally under pressure.
The three stages of motor learning
Way back in 1967, a couple psychologists (Fits & Posner) proposed that motor learning happens in three stages.
The fist stage is the “cognitive” stage, where performance is pretty inconsistent, since your child is mostly just trying to figure out what the heck they’re supposed to do. There’s a ton to think about, and they can easily get overwhelmed with all the new information they’re having to attend to. Where does my thumb go? What finger do I need to use next? My elbow what? But because of the cognitively demanding nature of learning a new skill, it’s pretty easy to stay focused on the task at hand.
The “associative” stage is where they go from focusing on what to do, to how to do it. Playing still requires a good amount of conscious effort, as they work on improving their consistency. This is like when a piece is sort of in their fingers, but not to the point where they can play it in their sleep. So things aren’t on full autopilot quite yet, but getting close.
The “autonomous” stage is where awesome happens. This is the goal, of course, and is the stage when everything is so well learned, that your young musician doesn’t have to think, they just do. And since it’s no longer necessary to consciously process every single movement, everything is fluid and automatic – yet their mind is free to think about other things. This is how your child can (and probably will, if you’re not looking!) play a piece while watching TV, reading a book, or daydreaming about new pizza topping combinations.
On one hand this is great – they can focus on being more spontaneous and musically engaged.
However, since the cognitive demands on performing are much reduced, this leaves plenty of room for unhelpful thoughts to wander in. Like worrying about what the audience might be thinking. Wondering if they will have a memory slip or not. Dwelling on a squeak or squawk or crunched note.
I think this is why Galamian’s belief that we need to devote time to performance practice is so key.
Because as important as it is to practice the (physical) motor skills that are essential for producing the sounds we want, it is just as important to practice engaging in the most optimal (mental) thinking skills that will enable us to perform the way we know we can.
Performance practice can take many forms, but one of the key activities is simulated performances and run-throughs – and not while slouched in a chair, but with many of the same variables one would encounter in a real audition or performance.
From what we will wear, to creating a stage-like environment, to walking out with confidence and a smile, practicing one’s bow, increasing the pressure by having a real person listening or recording device set up, to playing with performance-like intensity, to thinking about the things that are most helpful to think about when playing, and so on.
After all, it’s only in the context of a performance simulation or practice run that we can really get a feel for what might happen in a real performance. Where are things less secure? Where do we tend to get physically fatigued or tight? Where is memory an issue?
Even the seemingly obvious things – like remembering to bow, smile, and tune – are worth practicing until they are habitual.
Performance practice doesn’t necessarily have to happen every single day, but it is worth prioritizing as your child gets closer to an actual performance. On a week-to-week basis, something as simple as running a movement at performance intensity, or taping a practice run of key repertoire before a rehearsal or lesson, can be an easy way of preparing for the unique challenges of a real performance.
Performance practice can even be turned into a fun and rewarding activity. My mom would often have me perform for the family pets and my favorite stuffed animals (they were better at sitting still). This was as much a part of practicing as scales or etudes were, and ultimately, made performing feel less stressful when the big day arrived.
And that’s a pretty nice feeling to go into a performance with, on top of knowing we’re better prepared to perform up to our full abilities when it really counts.