Dirk Bertels

The greatest malfunction of spirit
is to believe things (Louis Pasteur)

Music Practice and Performance

Last updated 04 November 2012

A man must love a thing very much
if he not only practices it without any hope of fame or money,
but even practices it without any hope of doing it well.

G. K. Chesterton


Learning and Practicing Skilled Performance
Scheduling Practice Sessions
Steadiness, Tone and Phrasing
Practice and Performance Hints
Beyond Practicing

Learning and Practicing Skilled Performance

Learning and Practicing Skilled Performance written by Francis Mechner is a refreshing read. Its ninety or so A5-size double-linespaced pages are to the point and contain some 200 annotated references. It is scientifically well-researched and reveals many interesting ideas on practicing in general.

There are many more articles on learning that can be downloaded from the Mechner Foundation Website. I compiled some of the ideas and concepts into a few key points below. I suggest reading the book though, as it can make all the difference in how you approach your practice sessions.

Preliminary terminology
  • CNS: Central Nervous System
  • Overt behaviour: visible, manifested, external
  • Covert behaviour: invisible, hidden, internal
The Motor Program
  • Neurally encoded information stored in the CNS for executing specific movements.
  • The actual running of a Motor Program is referred to as Motor Routine.
  • Every performance consists of a weave of overt and covert routines.
CNS activity prior to Movement
  • Behaviour is initiated within the CNS before there is any movement or muscle enagagement.
  • Complex movements are normally preceeded by pauses during which covert activity is present, such as accessing of programs about to be executed and checking out previously experienced consequences that the 'about to be executed' movement has produced
Coordinative Structures
  • Most movements use dozens of muscles in coordinated and intricately phased relationship with each other.
  • The body uses many mechanical linkages that permit the contraction of only a few muscles.
  • Coordinate structures can be both mechanically linked physical structures as well as behaviour programs that are linked neurally
  • The challenge in learning and practicing a performance is to practice only valid movements and coordinations, and to avoid practicing invalid ones.
  • Errors that are immediately classified as such and receive immediate feedback are useful. Learning explicitly which is the right way and which is the wrong way may help the performer to avoid the wrong way.
Apply pauses instead of slowing down routines
  • Routines executed in slow motion tend to be invalid because the muscle tension levels and coordinations, as well as external physical forces are different. Slow movements create different motor programs.
  • Instead of practicing slowly, it is best to slow down a routine by executing it as a series of fast movements separated by pauses.
Avoid Plateaus
  • Plateaus, where students seem stuck at a particular level is often due to practice routines that produce quick results but later prove to be dead-ends.
  • Lay-offs for weeks or months can be useful for getting out of a rut. Durin lay-offs, previously-learned coordinations and internal models often become weaker, making it easier to replace them with new ones.
Using cues
  • The routines comprising a skilled performance are triggered by cues of external or internal origin.
  • A skilled performance is a fused chain of routines that were initially separate. As the performance takes shape, the performer gradually loses the capability to execute each individual routine.
  • Each separate component becomes dependent on the cues from the preceding components. To avoid getting 'stuck', the performer must practice in a way that will preserve the ability to start from any location, so he doesn't rely on these preceding cues.
Score reading and Following
  • When reading, we store each visual image of each string of printed characters in short-term memory, only for the few seconds it takes us to visually decode them. We then retreive the concepts with which the words are associated resulting in what we call comprehension.
  • Before we have completely finished that process, we are already looking for the next string of characters. This cycle keeps repeating as we read along.
  • This basic process is referred to as Following.
  • The cuing function can be important in triggering the performance routines, and the performer can be totally dependent on thoses non-informational visual cues from the score.
  • The great pedagogues of the past recommended first reading covertly, without trying to play while reading. The benefits of this are highly delayed but will manifest themselves greatly in the future
  • Monitoring are the programs used in discriminating cues during Following.
  • When we discriminate a cue during Following, that cue can trigger a series of programs that can result in overt action or entry of the image into longer-term storage thereby causing it to be remembered.

Francis Mechner - Learning and Practicing Skilled Performance

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Scheduling Practice Sessions

... and if I did, it's because it's music,
and music's based ooon ... re-pe-ti-tion.

John Hartford - 'Trying to do something to get your attention'

How to practice music without frustration is an excellent article that describes how musical pieces are learned over time. Following are some shortlists based on the above article.

Short term

  • Focus on a manageable section
  • Once learned by heart, focus on the next manageable section
  • Once learned, review the first section
  • Review the second section
  • Connect the 2 sections
  • Once learned, proceed to a new section
  • etc

Long term

  • Review newly learned (connected) sections every day until it is instantly accessible. This usually takes about a week
  • Once a piece can be played flawlessly upon first attempt, practice the tune half as often, every other day.
  • If you can play the piece flawlessly upon first attempt after 2 days, practice tune half as often, twice a week
  • etc

A teacher of mine once demonstrated how to practice using this method. He asked for a pupil to come forward, and then asked her to select a short passage of music she was having trouble with. He then took the passage apart into manageable pieces and demonstrated the short term method of practicing. She was able to play the passage flawlessly after 15 minutes or so!

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Steadiness, Tone and Phrasing

The Holy Trinity of performance. Once you learned the notes by heart, the real work starts - how to execute the notes. Attributes such as originality and inventiveness are nothing without these attributes. A musician is measured by this trinity, everything else is but a bonus. Good musicians can make impact with just a few notes. One good example is Miles Davis who on 'Going Home' starts his solo on one of the most dissonant intervals - but plays it so convincingly that it sounds great.

Steadiness is all about rhythm, the 'foundation slab' of music.

On instruments where tone can't be manipulated as freely, such as the piano, one has to phrase incredibly as Keith Jarrett once remarked.

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Practice and Performance Hints

  • Speed comes from accuracy. If you want to remember anything on this page, it should be this cardinal rule.
  • Don't get discouraged if progress seems slow. As a very general rule, it takes about 10 thousand hours of practice to master an instrument
  • Practice the difficult passages mainly. Don't waste time practicing what you already know.
  • When practicing with backup, always try to catch up with the tune after a mistake.
  • Don't let mistakes creep in - as in real life, mistakes are notoriously hard to undo.
  • String instrumentalists: Only press on the frets as hard as needed
  • Difficulty of passages vary at different speeds. Learn the correct fingering at the start - it has to work at the proper speed.
  • Keep a practice diary/notebook outlining practice schedule, difficult passages, etc.
  • Display a little attitude in your performance, it eases the audience.
  • Involve your whole body in the musical execution.
  • One of Bach's biographers described Bach's playing as ... playing each note with conviction. Each note should have its own place in time, no matter how fast the tempo.
  • Favour a note played a little too late (e.g. because of difficulty of execution) rather than too early.
  • Space is as much part of the music as are the notes
  • Applying swing, even in small barely noticable amounts, gives a tune 'drive' or 'momentum'.
  • When applying swing to a tune, be aware that the duration between the consecutive short note and long note is shorter. This affects the tempo, the faster the tempo the less swing you will be able to apply.
  • Experiment with various amounts of swing and phrasing (accentuation). e.g. I like playing around using different accentuation on Bach's music, i.e. changing a da di da di phrasing to a di da di da. It changes the overall feel of the tune considerably.
  • As regards tempo, in general it is ok to speed up a little during the execution of a piece, but slowing down is not.
  • Use sheetmusic only to learn the notes. Once remembered, avoid the sheetmusic if possible.
  • Learn the notes first, then the music.

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Beyond Practicing

The way you do one thing is generally
the way you do all things.

This chapter delves more into the philosophical aspects of practice - though I'm by no means an expert in this, I would like to throw some ideas into the ring ...

Each practice session is different, depending on your 'mode of operation' at the time. Some days you may prefer to work on balads in open D tuning - or play a different instrument - or a different style - or start a new tune - or an improvisation - or transcribe a new tune... There may be days when nothing structural is happening, the musical equivalent to idle contemplation, the stuff so vital to writers and painters.

All these different actions demand a different state of mind. Day by day, and indeed minute by minute, we drift into different states spurred on by psychological, social, environmental and biological interactions.

During a good practice session, time ceases - the sheer focus onto single minute actions brings the mind into a meditative state. While practicing difficult passages, by endless repetition, the mind tends to wander into all kinds of thoughts, like daydreams, to be immediately and incessently brought back into the reality of the practice.

One's constitution comes through in one's performance, in fact it is virtually impossible to hide your constitution as it is in your daily life. In deliberate practice, one is continuously confronted with one's own constitution; i.e. tension, emotion, clarity of thinking, etc. The onus is on you to observe these changes happening within and act accordingly without indulgement.

Aspire for a bodily well-being which only can be achieved through observation. Stay relaxed while performing even through difficult passages, especially during difficult passages. Aspire for a quitened mind - a clarity.

Your constitution also shows up in the way you practice, i.e. do you tend to move from one section to another without having completed the section?

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Links and references

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