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Practice and performance: creating the right environment

Practice time as sacred

How can we best create the right environment for practice and performance? Can we allow our practice time to be a sacred environment where there is freedom and space to be creative? For me, finding that sacred practice environment starts with keeping it focused and undisturbed. Focus is an essential skill for all us musicians to learn. Encouraging professionals as well as students, to turn off their phone before practising is a common theme in my coaching. The bombardment of notifications, the feeling we need to answer emails or take a call creates a scattered energy, what the Buddhists call ‘monkey mind’ and that’s the opposite of what we need. Focusing is pulling our attention towards one main point, rather than glazing over or being caught up in what is going on in our peripheral vision.

Pianist on phone at the piano

When we have been totally absorbed by a great novel or film for example, our minds don’t chatter or get distracted, because they are totally involved and absorbed. If it is a good experience, we can feel alive, fascinated, intrigued, curious and fulfilled. These are exactly the qualities we need to engage in our practising, and because practice and performance are intricately connected, whatever we do in our practice feeds our performance.

What then are the different types of practice that we can mix and match once we give ourselves the freedom and the space to do that?

Pianist playing

Nuts and bolts practice: none of us can do without this type of practice. It’s putting together all the ingredients of a piece and building it towards a performance. Depending on our instrument, it might be sorting out the bowing, the intonation, working out fingerings, deciding when to breathe and of course, learning the notes. All these need to be built in both mentally and also into the muscle memory.

Letting go practice: at different stages of the nuts and bolts learning, it’s always good to test things out. Where have I got to? Can I manage this passage at a faster speed? Can I play this fluently and with accuracy? This is when we trust the work we’ve just done, we trust our fingers, our breath and our experience. It may fall flat, in which case we pick ourselves up, revise the nuts and bolts practice and then test it again. Over time, the letting go practice starts to replace the nuts and bolts practice so that as we near the performance, we’re only double checking the basics every now and again.

A bigger perspective: now we have been letting go more and more, we can move to the point where we have a bigger perspective on the music and our performance of it. This is when we’re involved in the arc of the music, not obsessing about tiny details. I sometimes imagine I am on top of a mountain with music as the view I am seeing all around me, and that helps me get a sense of the bigger picture.

Mindful and meditative practice: this is an ‘in the moment’ experience when we notice what we’re doing, the contact of the bow on the string, our fingers on the keys, our lips around the reed. We allow ourselves to be totally involved – it’s a form of meditation in a way. On the few occasions that I have meditated, I have found it so much easier to focus on one thing, a candle or flower for example, than to try to let my mind empty of chattering thoughts. A combination of the bigger perspective practice and this meditative practice is to my mind where practice meet performance – and with a good dose of focus!

Online presentation for Oberlin Conservatory of Music

I am delighted to have been invited by Jeff Scott of the Imani Wind Quintet to give my presentation on nerves to his French horn studio in Oberlin Conservatory of Music, Ohio. This was a first for me - I’ve never recorded myself giving a talk without audience on my own in my studio. Apart from two moments when I panicked that I wasn’t recording and lost my train of thought (I actually was but couldn’t see the record button!) it went as well as it could have done. The talk will be followed by a Q&A with videoed questions from the students, that I answer, put together as a recording. I wouldn’t want to lose the in-person classes that I love, but given the Covid restrictions this year, it’s wonderful to have technology that allows this kind of connection to students all over the world.


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