Practice with a Kick, an Arrow and a Glass of Water

news performing practicing Oct 26, 2015

Practice, practice, practice; the story of the musician’s life. And we hope that by devoting many hours to practice, we will be able to perform when it counts. But we should be able to do more than just hope.

Preparing for performance, whether it’s a lesson or a recital, is a matter of practicing in three very different ways, and these three vignettes about a kick, an arrow and a glass of water are perfect illustrations.

The Kick: Proper practice

Bruce Lee was an American martial artist and film and television actor. He is a legend among fans of martial arts films. He founded his own style of martial arts which emphasized practicality, flexibility, speed, and efficiency.

I fear not the man who has practiced 10,000 kicks once, but I fear the man who has practiced one kick 10,000 times. – Bruce Lee

If we are to play any piece of music well, we need to know it as thoroughly as the man that practiced one kick 10,000 times. Intimate and deep-rooted knowledge of all the ins and outs of a single piece leads to a well-founded confidence and security.

This kind of practice requires time and correct repetition, attention to details of musicality and technique, concentration and understanding. It requires complete focus on the task at hand; just “putting in the time” will not yield good results. You must practice in ways designed to fix and prevent errors, develop your technique so that your fingers are reliable and free, and bring your full attention to the task before you.

The Arrow: Practicing for Performance

My husband is an avid outdoorsman. Camping, hiking, fishing, hunting – it all makes him happy as long as he is in the woods. When he can’t be outdoors, he will be watching the outdoors on television. Often he will watch programs to help him improve his archery and rifle skills, and one particular technique he learned caught my attention.

The master archer on television advised practicing target shooting with only one arrow per day. This may sound like a time-saving technique, but his point was this: when you are hunting, you only have one shot, one chance to get it right. So you should practice making your first shot your very best shot. By making each practice shot your best shot (and your only shot), you were simulating the conditions of the hunt.

This seems in direct opposition to the practice philosophy we musicians are used to, until you realize that this isn’t a practice philosophy. This is a performance practice strategy.

You can’t prepare for a performance just by practicing. This is why we stage “mock” performances, dress rehearsals and preview concerts. We need to accustom ourselves to performing our repertoire in a situation that simulates a real performance. And just as there are techniques for daily practice, there are practice techniques for performance too. Those techniques help us prepare for our “one shot” so that we can perform our music as well as we practice it. (If you want to read more on this topic, here’s a link to a previous post.)

The Glass of Water: Proper Focus

Dale Carnegie went from being the son of a poor Missouri farmer to being a world-wide authority on public speaking, salesmanship and self-improvement. His first book, The Art of Public Speaking, was published in 1915 and was the very beginning of his life’s work: helping people develop self-confidence.

In helping people overcome their fears of speaking in public, he often used the analogy of an empty glass. The glass looks empty, because it is filled with nervousness and irrational fear. But as soon as you pour some water in the glass, you drive out the air and fill it with life-giving liquid. What did he urge people to fill their “glass” with? Absorption in their subject.

If you feel deeply about your subject you will be able to think of little else. Concentration is a process of distraction from less important matters. It is too late to think about the cut of your coat when once you are upon the platform, so centre your interest on what you are about to say—fill your mind with your speech-material and, like the infilling water in the glass, it will drive out your unsubstantial fears. – Dale Carnegie

So what should be the center of our focus? The music itself.

Music performance isn’t about the performer; it’s about the music. It’s about the creation of the composer, being translated through a performer to a listener, with the intent being to create a mood, a feeling, or an experience for the listener. There is truly no room in that experience for self-consciousness or fear.

There is lots of advice about how to get rid of performance jitters; feel free to adopt whatever techniques seem to be most comfortable for you. But Dale Carnegie’s image of filling the glass with good things brings a very positive outlook to what can feel very negative and intimidating. You can read my own positive spin on the subject here.

When our focus is truly ON and IN the music, we don’t have time or energy to waste on nerves. We aren’t thinking about the wrong note we just played or the hard part that is coming up. We are completely in the present, in the space between idea and sound, written note and sounding note.

And it’s a great place to be!



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