I’m no longer satisfied with the status quo.
I’m not playing enough, so I’m going to do something about it.
Are you a performer who’s not performing? Do you need more outputs? Do you feel your growth is stagnant? Is your practicing bottoming out? Maybe you can relate, in which case I hope the following is useful to you!
After we learn and memorize new music, we generally want to take that music and perform it for the rest of the world. The performance experience breathes new life into our music. Over time, bit-by-bit, piece-by-piece, the music evolves. We evolve and we grow.
Eventually we go back to the woodshed and apply our new personality to new music. The cycle continues. Input and output – we evolve, and we grow.
This cycle is disrupted when there are no outputs – when there is no performance experience.
Memories fade unless they’re accessed and utilized often. I can play Scott Joplin’s Maple Leaf Rag in my sleep. I’ve been playing it since I was a kid. It’s deeply rooted; I’ve accessed that memory many times. This also applies to many tunes I’ve played hundreds of times in a number of different contexts. They’re always there; I’ll never forget them.
Contrary to the Joplin, I once memorized all of Gershwin’s popular song arrangements. But because I had no outputs, I forgot them all. My growth is stagnant. How is it possible for a performer to grow when his/her memories are always fading?
Over the years, I’ve had number of personal frustrations as a performer. After much reflection, I’m convinced now that the dynamic I’ve described above is at the core of all these issues.
So this is what I’m doing to solve them:
I’m going to restructure the way I practice. My new goal is to reproduce the performance experience. For one hour a day, I’m going to practice performing. Here’s my one-year plan:
The First Day
I’ll start the first day with writing out a set list with 45-60mins of music – music that I’m comfortable with. Next, even though I’m in my home studio, I have to try to create a performance environment. The conditions have to nurture that feeling of being on stage and playing for an audience. I have to be inspired to find the zone.
So I’m going to record myself; I have the Zoom H2. The quality won’t be great, but I may even set up a Podcast. I don’t anticipate listeners to subscribe, but they could, and they’ll be my audience! The conditions aren’t ideal (yet!) but they should still inspire me to do my best and “put on” a performance.
For the sake of creating a performance environment, I’m also considering shining some lights on my face and dressing in a suit (seriously!!).
The Second Day
If I’ve appropriately mimicked the conditions of a performance – however slight or significant – the previous day’s “performance” will be fresh in my mind. Hopefully I’m nurturing an environment where I can improve and grow. What worked? What didn’t? How can I do better? I also have the recording to learn from.
On the second day, I’ll play the exact same set list. This achieves two things: 1) It further solidifies the repertoire in my memory and 2) it gives the repertoire an opportunity to evolve and grow.
The First Week
These performance-practice sessions will only last for 45-60 minutes. The rest of my practice session will be dedicated to learning new repertoire. Eventually, maybe the following week, I’ll create a 2nd set list with all new music.
Now I have two sets lists that I can alternate between. Since I’m getting more and more comfortable with my first set list, taking a one-day break from performing that music won’t weaken my memory or stifle its growth. In fact, it may even make it better!
I should note that conceiving new set lists will be easy at first because I already have a few up my sleeve. My sets are always well thought out and calculated in advance. New repertoire is learned and applied because it blends and balances with the other selections. I spend a lot of time thinking about them.
Eventually, creating brand new set lists will take longer and longer. It may take up to many weeks or many months before I’ve learned enough new music that fits into a set that I’m comfortable performing.
The First Month
After a month, I may have three or four sets of music that I’m alternating between. Maybe by this time I’ll only be playing my first, original set of music once a week as opposed to every day, or every other day.
I may also start mixing the music in my set lists to create new ones. I’m striving to be comfortable doing this in the moment, but this may take time. It requires being very comfortable with the music, the program and the performance environment.
I should mention that I don’t intend to be rigid with my timeline. This timeline is only a basic framework. It’s possible that after a month, I’ll only be comfortable with performing one set of music. If I don’t feel ready to move on, I’ll trust my intuition and adapt.
Six Months Later
This is where things get interesting.
Thus far, I’ve confined myself to my home studio; there’s a weakness in this: My memories and experiences are only being associated with one environment. I’m playing on the same piano, on the same chair, in the same room and with the same sensory perceptions. There are no variations and no challenges! I’m severely limiting myself if I want to be performing at a consistent level in a variety of performance venues.
So when I’m ready – presumably in six months or less – I’m going to take my show on the road!
I don’t mean: “book gigs” or “go on tour.” I mean: find another piano! My microphone will be coming too!
I’m thinking about using studios at the University of Toronto or maybe the piano at mom and dad’s house. Any practice studio with a piano will do. I’ll balance the pianos between pristine, great, playable and maybe horrible!
There will be periods of adjustments. In-the-moment adjustments will occur as I get used to the new pianos and environments. Long-term adjustments will occur because I’ll be playing these new pianos more than once. Just as I will have a few set lists to cycle through, I’ll also have a few pianos to choose from day-by-day.
One Year Later and Beyond
According to this plan, by this time next year I will have amassed at least 200 solo-piano performances (taking into consideration days off, other commitments etc.). I will also have developed a very extensive, ready-to-play repertoire. That’s a lot of music, and I will have recorded every performance!
What would happen if one year from now, I asked you, if you’d like to sit in and listen? How would that change things? To what extent would it change the performance environment?
I have a theory: The change would be insignificant; there would only be minor adjustments. But now I’d actually be performing, for an actual audience! This excites me.
The next day, I would ask a different person. Some time later, I would invite you to bring a friend. Maybe one day I’ll ask mom and dad if they’d like to host a house concert for their friends. And then I would ask their friends if they’d like to host a house concert for their friends.
I don’t want to get ahead of myself, but I think this plan has the potential to grow into something very special. Not just for me, but for you too.
This is easier for me to apply though; I’ve chosen solo piano as my focus. What if you lead a trio? Or a large ensemble? You’d have to find musicians who are as dedicated to the cause as you are. Maybe, instead of committing to practice performing every day, you and your band mates commit to once a week.
It would be a challenge, but your music depends on it; your growth depends on it. All it takes is practice!
World-class performers aren’t world-class because they possess abilities beyond our grasp. They’re world-class because they perform very frequently and consistently; they’ve had lots of practice. They nurture a healthy cycle of inputs and outputs.
It’s time that we get on that bandwagon!