Most Important Practice Principles

From helping students win their youth orchestra auditions to helping musicians win positions in multi-Grammy Award winning groups, practice habits have always been a huge factor. Now there are tons of good practice guides already so I will try to avoid as much repeated material as possible. Some are strategies that will last a lifetime, others will challenge the way you practice.

Success Percentage

For any technical, artistic, or performance goal, you  must aim for a 99% success rate.Aim for excellence, not perfection.

Analytical Mode vs Performance Mode  

If you’re in high school or above, you’re probably using your analytical side to identify what needs to be practiced. This is great as it will help you improve. However, do not neglect the performance side. We all know that performing is a different experience so let’s prepare for that.

Practice performing 

Speaking of getting into performance mode…practice performing. Get your piece to the public in the early stages so you condition your mind that this is a performance piece, not a practice piece. Also, test your practice progress under some pressure to identify what needs to be practiced next.

Don’t take mistakes personally 

If you are productive in a more positive state, then don’t take mistakes personally. See all the aspects you need to practice as data and as a to do list. Remember, if you make mistakes, it shouldn’t affect your self-worth.

Constantly adjust your practice strategy 

We actually have a ton of time to practice especially for the big and targeted auditions. However, don’t waste your time on something you have already developed. Identify if the task should be in maintenance mode (sustaining a level) or improvement mode (raising a level).  In order to put a technical obstacle in maintenance mode, test it under pressure.

Build in Safety Spots 

Similar to memory techniques, be able to perform your piece starting at different sections. This way if you make a mistake, you can easily get back on track.

10,000 hour rule 

Most importantly is how you spend your time, not so much about the amount of time spent.

Interval Practice 

Schedule breaks for peak focus. Make sure to sleep to solidify what you have learned.

Over practice for safety (at tempo) 

Reach automaticity- the point where you can be distracted or not feel great but still deliver a good performance. 

Stop procrastinating

If you have a target audition or performance that is crucial, you need to set up your practice plan immediately. Now the plan doesn’t necessarily require you to practice at this moment, but it does have to get you organized.  

Proven Memory Strategies

Here are the fundamental strategies and perspectives we use to help performers feel confident about their memory in pressure situations. Not all of them are common strategies so make sure to scan the bolded terms to see if any are new.  

Memorize by Chunking 

This is a popular and common way so I won’t spend too much time on it but it must be mentioned. Essentially you memorize smaller chunks and then put them together to form a larger chunk. For example, you memorize the first phrase, second phrase, and then put them together. If you need, break them down into half phrases, or you can even memorize note by note depending on what you need.

Memorize your performance Conceptually  

Examples of memorizing your performance conceptually is to memorize the basic theory like form, phrases, and knowing how to describe what you are trying to communicate artistically. Conceptual memorizing is great because it gives you a larger view than if you were memorizing note by note.

 Memorize your performance Physically 

Technical memorization is all about kinesthetic memory. What does it feel like to perform your piece technically? How is your posture, breath, movement, shifting, hand position, etc feel? 

Artistic Intention is all about  feeling the character of the music. How does it feel physically? Artistic intention is not conceptual where you describe what you are doing artistically. It is all about feeling.  We all know the best performances are when the performer is, for the majority, absorbed in their character and intention. You’re essentially memorizing your ultimate performance mode. 

Test your memory 

Typically you want to aim for a  99% success rate. That might sound insane but when the pressure is there, we must rely on our preparation. Essentially, that success percentage is a way to just aim for excellence.

When testing, you can also start from different sections. If you make a mistake during a performance, you have the conditioning to start and get back into the performance if you train this way. Depending on the amount of repertoire and time, you can choose to start from different sections, phrases, half phrases, and from each note. Starting from each note is a good strategy for excerpts since they are short. For concertos, it might get obsessive starting from every single note but you have the option.

Create Pressure when testing. It’s good to test in the comfort of the practice room. However, passing those tests aren’t guaranteeing you’ll succeed in pressure. We have to look for tests that can simulate the pressure such as studio class, mock auditions, or performing in front of a respected authority figure.

Remember it correctly from the beginning 

I’m guilty of the situation where I memorize a piece and then realize I have a couple wrong notes half way into cementing it into my head. Avoid bad habits and remember it correctly from the beginning by testing your memory early. If you do memorize something poorly, recondition your mind to play the right notes until you get that 99% success rate.

 Make sure you can memorize it 

Sometimes we are forced to memorize something like a solo Bach but sometimes we have the choice with excerpts, sonatas, or even solos in the orchestra part.

With this in mind, ask yourself if the performance or section is worth memorizing and consider how much time and how much reward you’ll get.

Trust your memory 

Now that you put in the work, there has to be a time where you feel and accept that you have it in your memory! For those that don’t trust their memory, just know that the more you practice memorizing, the faster you can memorize.

Be ok with making memory mistakes.  

When memory mistakes may happen, just get back on track. It’s not the end of the world. In all performances, there is the risk of mistakes, but that is also what makes it partly exciting for the audience.

Commit to long term memory 

In order to achieve long term memory…

•Memorize over time

•Memorize consistently 

•Memorize in different situations

•Sleep

See the long-term benefit to memorizing your performance

Performing by memory is a thousand times better than reading music, or having to think about what comes next in your performance. It is liberating and produces the best performance for the audience as well. It goes back to reinforcing the most important memory goal of having it physically in your body technically and artistically.

Anyway, I hope you gained a couple of tips to improve your efficiency and execution in memory.

Pre-Performance Routine Levels

The majority of the routines that exist are extremely structured which is both good but limiting in terms of reaching your peak performance. Therefore, I want to introduce the two general levels of pre-performance routines.

Before I describe these levels, let’s create some common goals for the pre-performance routines. For example, let’s develop a routine that brings you from your everyday life mental state into performance mode. The second is to have something reliable so you can consistently perform your best. Lastly, in a world of which you cannot control, it gives you structure and something to trust when the pressure gets high so you can succeed.  

 

A Level 1 pre-performance routine is all about helping you manage your performance.

Examples can include breathing and visualization techniques, unique rituals, or listening to a certain type of music. Each one has their strengths and different effects. Deep breathing through the stomach can reduce your heart rate, visualization can help you focus, and listening to a certain type of music can get you in the mood to perform. However, if these strategies, or any combination of these strategies is not getting you to the point of peak performance, there must be another level.  The best performers thrive on stage. This requires more than management techniques.  

Level 2 pre-performance routines are highly individualized strategies that boosts your self-efficacy (ability to complete the task), increase locus of control (environment), and also self-esteem (feeling like a rock star). 

Now if you have questions about any of those terms, check out the Liberated Performer Theory of audition and performance success for more information. But with that said, imagine a routine that arms you in this holistic way. That routine is on a completely different level than simple management techniques and something advanced performers should strive for.  

 

Also, the last part of level 2 routines is that they are guided by performance factors rather than a set process. For example, many routines are do this and do that every time. But that totally ignores the always changing performance factors such as repertoire difficulty, social setting, physical and cognitive manifestations of anxiety, timelines, etc. As you know, every performance situation is different and life is constantly changing. This is why we must have corresponding strategies for the different factors of performing as they change. When the social setting changes, we must use the appropriate strategies. When we are short in time, we must have different routines than if we have years to master the performance. With so many factors, you can now see how Level 1 pre-performance routines cannot fully realize your potential. Level 1 pre-performance routines lack the flexibility and strength that is needed to succeed consistently. 

Now a couple caveats about level 2 pre-performance routines. First is that with level 2 pre-performance routines, you still use level 1 pre-performance routines as it’s part of your arsenal to address certain performance factors. Also, there are plenty of amazing performers that have super simple pre-performance routines, yet they go on stage and perform at the highest level. What does that say about pre-performance routines? Some performers need a lot of preparation before they walk on stage, and others not much and everywhere in between. Even that is an example of a performance factor- your maturity and development level as a performer and person.

 So let me leave you with a couple of questions. What level is your pre-performance routine at right now? What strategies work most effectively? Are you able to get to that peak performance and if not, what part of level 2 strategies do you need to develop?  

To summarize, have the goal of building your own pre-performance routine. Arm yourself with a level 1 routine that helps you manage a performance. If you need help with that, check out Coach Tema’s video for detailed advice. After developing a level 1 pre-performance routine, look to evolve it to a level 2 to gain that peak performance and consistency in all environments. Level two takes time to build, but is worth the effort. Having a strong pre-performance routine gives you confidence even in the most stressful situations.

 Anyway, reach out if you need help managing the many factors that contribute to performance success so you can walk on stage knowing you did everything to succeed.  

How To Warm Up Properly

 If you have a great warm up system, pass on this article. However, if your warm up is not helping you perform your best, or you’re somewhere in between a half effective warm up routine and decent warm up routine, hopefully this article will give you some direction to fine tune it.

 The first concept is to know that every warm up routine should be highly customized towards your performance art. You cannot just copy and paste from other routines so in this article we will focus on the principles to guide your thinking.

Let’s start with warming up the category that is most neglected

 

Warm up your mind

Performance mode

We must get into performance mode. Performance mode is where we are focused on our task, our brain is sharp and active artistically, feeling confident to be vulnerable, and mentally ready for anything that happens on stage. This is far from just our normal state of mind in life where we are typically more passive, focused on other tasks besides performance, feeling neutral, and going with the flow. This is why we must make a clear transition from normal life mode to performance mode

 

Warm up your body 

Body warm ups can be divided up into two general categories- gross motor skills and fine motor skills.

Gross motor skills are your larger movements such as moving your legs and arms.

 1.     Arm twists can get the blood flowing to your hands, especially if nerves take over and you get cold hands. Also, it’s great if you don’t have a chance to warm up at all. The least you can do are some body warm ups.

2.     Michael Phelps arm flaps get the blood flowing as well. It’s also gold medal proven- lots of times.

3.     Stretches are good once you get the blood flowing. You can open up your body and partially counter any inward posture you may subconsciously make because of nerves.

4.     Massages are also good at this time. If you have tension, gently release the tension.

 

Fine motor skills  are intricate movements like moving your fingers.

This is what you already probably incorporate, but let us quickly go through them.

Warm up your Technique and Basics

Warm up aspects like articulations, tone, intonation, or different speeds of scales.

Question: For your art form, what technique and basics do you need to warm up? 


Target Practice 

Warm up any difficult technical passages. 

Question: In your repertoire, What difficult technical passages do you need to warm up? 

 

Warm up Artistic Ideas 

To warm up your artistic ideas, you can use mental practice to go through repertoire to hear phrasings and timings etc. You can also physically practice artistic ideas as well. If you are physically tired, it’s probably good to use mental practice instead of further tiring out your body.

Now the last way to warm up artistically is to combine technique and artistry. What I mean by this is that it is not enough to just warm up technique and artistic ideas on their own. We must strive to create the connection between both. For example, I would simultaneously warm up the phrasing but also see if I’m using technique to translate my idea. Once I warm up this connection, I’ll be ready to perform.

 ——

Lastly, we have already begun creating or fine tuning your pre-performance routine. Routines are great to provide consistency. If you need help with them, I introduce the two levels of pre-performance routines in other videos and articles. Another important point is to allow plenty of time to warm up if you have it. Lastly, from this article, I hope you can see that a focused warm up session is just as powerful as a focused practice session. The results should reinforce the importance of solidifying and adjusting your warm up routine.

Should I Take Beta-Blockers?

Most doctors who give musicians beta-blockers have no idea what it’s like to be a performer. Also, most musicians are not qualified to suggest beta-blockers to other musicians.  With those statements, let’s cover everything you need to know about beta-blockers so you can decide whether you should or should not use them for your performances.

We will answer questions like what are beta blockers? What are the pros and cons of using beta blockers? Lastly, I will share some stories of performers who have used beta blockers because it may not always be a yes or no answer. By the end of the article, you will have enough information to make a confident decision and to also educate your fellow peers. 

Disclaimer: if you are reading this article to understand the in-depth science of beta blockers, you’re better off reading another article because this is tailored towards what a performer needs to know.  

 What are beta-blockers? 

Beta-blockers are pills created to help prevent cardiac problems such as heart attacks by blocking your adrenaline. But why does a performer take a pill for cardiac problems? Well, when we get nervous, we can trigger an overwhelming adrenaline from our Fight or flight response which may cause trembling, cold hands, sweating, tense muscles. Therefore, the pill blocks the adrenaline and gives us more physical control over our performance. Great, so now we naturally flowed into the pros of taking beta blockers. 

 

Pros

a.     Blocks your adrenaline and gives you more physical control over your performance 

i.    No more shaking!

b.     Easy to use (reaches peak effect after 1.5 hours) 

i.    No matter how nervous you are, you can swallow a pill

c.      Affordable

i.    Price depends on insurance/drug store, but it should be pretty cheap

d.     Performance culture accepts the use of it

i.    You do not usually get shamed if you use them

 

That sounds pretty good, right? More physical control, easy, cheap, and my peers won’t criticize me for using it. Well, there are some cons and I think they are important to understand as well.

Cons

a.     Blocks your adrenaline

i.    Ironic that this is a pro to using them. However, if we are to reach peak level, we need some adrenaline.

b.     Creates a dependency on the pill to perform

i.    The more you take them for performances, the more reliant you are to perform with them. We should aim for being able to perform relying more on our self-efficacy and self-esteem. Note that it is a dependency, not an addiction.

c.      Need to increase dosage over time 

i.    To get the same effect, you must increase the amount of pills you take. This may not sound like a lot but if you’re going to the professional level, there could be an average of 4 concerts a week. That’s a lot of beta-blockers.

d.     Does not address negative thoughts 

i.    It may give you physical control, but you can still mentally psych yourself out and the self-doubt remains. What it reveals is that it’s not a holistic solution.

e.     May dampen your emotional response to music 

i.    Some musicians report that they cannot feel the characters of the music as much. If this happens to you, you’re robbing the audience for what they came for. You’re also robbing yourself of personal enjoyment while you perform.

f.       Blocks you from addressing the core causes of performance anxiety

i.    Is the core cause of your anxiety shaking and trembling or other physical manifestations? No, those are the effects. The core causes go deeper than that but beta-blockers only “cure” the physical effects (not the cognitive effects). It’s similar to the choice between losing weight with dieting pills or cultivating a healthy lifestyle. Most likely someone who develops a healthy lifestyle will be much happier than the person who is taking dieting pills but still living an unhealthy lifestyle. With beta-blockers, you can use them or you can develop the confidence, systems, and grit to fully express yourself on stage and communicate to the audience.

 Now that we have a good overview of beta blockers, let’s learn from real performers and their experiences.

 

Story 1:  

Bob had an audition for the concertmaster position in his symphony and reached out a week before his audition. He had been using beta-blockers for over 30 years and asked if he should use it. This was most likely his only shot at this position. I mentioned it may be a bit difficult to go in there with a lot of confidence, especially if he suddenly stopped taking beta blockers- so he decided to take them. We worked on other audition strategies and he played well but ultimately did not win the audition.  

 

Key Points

•We often battle the line between performance execution and how we feel.

•A week to overcome a strong dependency on beta blockers is a lot to ask for.

•You can get a highly respectable job and sustain that job using beta blockers your whole career.

 

Story 2

Now I want to introduce Sam, who is similar to Bob in that he too had been taking beta blockers for every performance for over 30 years. He came to the program wanting to stop taking beta blockers because he wanted to perform without them. With a regular performance schedule, he had many opportunities to slowly reduce his dependency on beta-blockers. At first, performances without beta blockers made him freak out so he continued using them. However, he slowly reduced his dosage and over practiced to compensate for the self-doubt. This allowed him to build small successful performances with less and less beta blockers. Eventually, he performed without beta blockers, managed his anxiety, and felt a self-esteem boost for conquering this feat. Imagine taking beta blockers for 30 years and being afraid to perform without them. Having that experience of just walking out there to perform is one of the most liberating feelings a performer can have. But it doesn’t stop there. Not only did he stop feeling the need to take beta blockers for every show, he was able to tap into a higher level of performing. He felt more engaged, energized, and forced himself to deal with his demons. While his professional career is nearing retirement, he couldn’t be more enthusiastic about performances.  

 

Key Points

•It will be an up and down battle with beta blockers but ultimately you can be free from them if you used them for a long time.

•Performing at the highest level is simply not possible with beta blockers.

 

Story 3

Now onto the final story of two performers who share the same outcome. Cindy, in high school applying for college, and Sarah who is applying for her doctoral degree both had the option of taking beta blockers for their auditions. I persuaded both to not take beta blockers because I had confidence they could perform well without them. We worked on anxiety management techniques, helped them face their fears, and created successful performance experiences. With this confidence, they were understandably shaky for the very first audition, but managed to play their best for the rest of the auditions. Not only did they get into their programs, but to this day, they still do not use beta blockers for performances as the pressure increases. 

 

Key Points

•If you have the option, don’t take beta blockers.
•What you think is a big performance now is often not a big performance over time.
•Beta blockers give you limited consistency, but limit your best performances. 

 

I hope these stories shed some light on your perspective of beta blockers. Ultimately, you have the power to choose whether or not to take them because remember, you are always in charge and responsible for your decisions.

 

If you decide to take them…

•Visit a doctor  
•Be aware of the cons  
•Be aware of the side effects listed on the medication 
•Short term use strategy

 

 If you decide NOT to take them…

Know that overcoming anxiety is not easy. It took a lot pushing my comfort levels, facing my fears, growing a sustainable and supportive environment, and persistence. However, after all that hard work, it left me with the belief I could perform my best on stage which was not only a huge boost to my performance confidence, but life. The lessons we are taught in the performing arts world translate beyond life. It teaches us to be honest with ourselves, to be present in the moment, and expose our weakest attributes to improve them. Essentially, it is intense but presents the opportunity for us to become our best selves.