Practicing is an art in and of itself, and it is not easy. If we want to see results, we have to know what to practice and how to do so.
Performing is an entirely different animal. We are supposed to see improvement in our performing by practicing a lot, however, if we are not practicing the right things we might not see results.
For this reason, the question I always ask when I take lessons is:
How do I practice and how can I practice to improve my performing?
Today I’m going to share with you some thoughts on practicing and performing which I’ve gathered by talking to professional, accomplished players.
The first thing we have to understand is that there are three elements in the equation of being a proficient musician. And they are:
1. Technical Proficiency (instrumental technique)
3. Performing Skills
Being aware of these three elements is imperative if we want to see progress in our playing. More often than not, I see players focusing on only one aspect or maybe two, but they are completely neglecting at least one. Usually, it’s the performing skills.
Locking yourself up in the practice room and just practicing scales, rudiments or any of the thousands of technical exercises available for your instruments is going to make you technically proficient. But you’re leaving out many aspects of music which don’t have to do with instrumental technique.
Being able to play scales at 300bpm is cool, and it means you have great facility on your instrument. However, it doesn’t mean you know how to use that musically or that you’re a good performer.
Sometimes, it can be the other way around. You have great ideas in your head, but you just can’t execute them. Your musicianship is at a higher level, so you come up with great ideas to play in the moment. But your fingers, hands or whatever you use to play your instrument can’t keep up.
Or maybe, you are one of those players who have the first two elements together. But when it comes to performing, you feel like you just can’t do it at the same level as you do in the practice room. Many of us fall into this category. And as I said before, performing skills usually is the most neglected area of practicing.
It happens to a lot of us, and it is incredibly frustrating.
On stage, we have to deal with the audience, crappy instruments, amps or sound systems. We also have to deal with band members; often musicians we have never played with before. There are thousands of other issues that can come up on a live gig.
These issues can affect our playing significantly, and they are not present in our practice room. We never take them into account, so most of the time we are not ready to deal with them. We don’t practice those things and they take a toll on our brain capacity and ability to perform.
Usually, when we practice we put all of our attention on what we’re doing and nothing else. Because the practice room is designed in a way that we have no distractions with good equipment and everything we need.
Our brain can be one hundred percent involved in whatever we are practicing at the moment and it gets used to it. But, when we get to the gig and face all of the environmental issues that come up in a real-life situation, our brain snaps, and our playing is seriously affected.
This is one of the main reasons we perform better in our practice space than at the gig.
All of those extra elements at the gig are factors we can’t control. However, we can learn how to deal with them or get around them.
So, what can we do?
Pro Tip: Practice Developing “Headroom”
The first and most logical tip I can give you is, go and play more, face your fears and get used to it. And yes, that works great. The more we play and put ourselves into real performing situations the more relaxed and comfortable we get dealing with those issues.
However, There is also one more thing we can do in our practice room to improve that, and it is to build up our brain capacity. Many pros and players I admire talk about this.
They call the concept “Headroom” and it refers to creating space in between what we can do and what it is required to do. The more space there is, the better we are going to perform, even in adverse conditions.
Let me give you an example. Imagine you get a chart with a complex rhythmic passage in the middle of it. The chart says it is going to be performed at 120bpm. So you start practicing the passage at a slower tempo, you get to the 120bpm goal and you master it. You feel you’re ready and stop practicing.
You get to the gig, you start playing the chart, and the drummer rushes like crazy. So when you get to the complex passage it is no longer 120bpm but 140bpm.
Also, you’re dealing with sound issues from the venues’ PA and the bass player is vibing you. Your brain already surpassed its maximum capacity, and you never practiced the passage at 140bpm. And let’s not even talk about headroom available for you to deal with the gig’s problems. You’re pretty much doomed to failure.
On the other hand, if you practiced having the Headroom concept in mind, you probably took into account all of these possible issues and practiced the chart up to 180bpm.
If you did so, and if the situation described above arises, you still have headroom to play with. Your brain still has the ability to perform, because 140bpm is piece of cake, and you can better deal with the external issues during the gig.
The main idea of this concept is to always practice pushing our boundaries. To prepare ourselves for the worst case scenario. To have the ability to play what it is required, but have headroom in our brain to deal with the external problems most gigs have.
It is hard to single out one specific exercise for this, and it changes depending on the instrument you play and the level of your playing. However, here are some tips to incorporate the Headroom concept into your routine and build your brain capacity to the max, so you can perform even in the worst conditions.
Practicing the Headroom Concept:
1. Practice things on a wide range of dynamics.
2. Practice things on a wide range of tempos.
3. Learn ideas in all 12 keys.
4. Practice ideas in a variety of styles and time signatures.
5. Add layers of difficulty to things you can already play in the practice room.
For instance, when I practice comping pattern on the drums, I add a layer of polyrhythmic coordination to it.
Let’s say, instead of keeping the hi-hat on 2 and 4, I play it every fifth 8th note. By doing so, I push my limits and increase my level of concentration and brain capacity. When I remove the layer and play the comping pattern as it is, it feels so much easier and it is almost impossible for me to mess it up.
Coordination challenges are great to use as an extra layer for things you can already play. If you’re a piano player, you can add a polyrhythmic ostinato in your left hand while playing a standard tune. Or you can do the same on your left foot or both feet if you are a horn player. Those extra layers of difficulty will ultimately increase your ability to concentrate and your brain capacity. Once you take those layers out, performing the tune in a regular way becomes so much easier.
Another way to practice this is by multitasking.
Back in college, I had a teacher who would make me read an article while I was trading 4s with him. After the trading, he would ask me what the article was about. At first, I was pretty incredulous about the technique, but after a while, I saw the results.
My ability to trade 4s, keep the form and have the capacity to plan and come up with ideas in the moment were greatly improved when I was playing without reading. My brain capacity widened and I was able to deal with more.
The main goal of this exercise is to have the capacity to perform what it is required with ease because we have prepared ourselves to play under the worst conditions.
Our brain is challenged every single day in the practice room, so it gets used to dealing with more than it would normally by just performing. It has the capacity to face the issues which might arise at the gig.
As a final thought, when planning ahead for your practice routine make sure it’s a balanced, well thought out one which addresses the three main elements discussed above. As musicians, we need to have those three elements working together in harmony. If one of them is neglected, the other two are going to be affected as well.
Bad technique affects your musicianship and performance. Poor musicianship affects your performance and the way you use your technique. And finally, bad performances affect your mood and motivation. You get frustrated and practice less.
They are all connected, so plan your practice routines well and make sure you are giving yourself time to address all three elements.