close up photo of cello bodyMany music students believe that if they can get through a piece in practice, they should necessarily be able to perform the piece on stage.

Then, when they become undermined by nervousness, they conclude that their performance problems must be caused by psychological issues unrelated to their practice.

Often, though, that’s a questionable conclusion.

Deep vs. Shallow Learning

I’ve learned that college and pre-college students rarely learn their music in ways that enable them to perform soulfully under pressure. Rather, when most students practice, they implant muscle memory and develop scant awareness of the inner workings of a piece.

But such automated, shallow learning depends on automated recall, which readily breaks down under stressful conditions.

When faced with high-stakes performance situations, shallow practicers rightfully become skittish because they can’t be sure that their control will hold up.

We veteran performers reject superficial learning schemes. We learn our music via mindful processes that enable us to perform securely no matter how high the pressure climbs.

I call this type of learning and preparation deep practice.The Musician's Way book cover

Features of Deep Practice

When we practice deeply, we absorb a composition in both micro and macro ways:

  • We divide a piece into sections, assimilate the ingredients, and then merge the parts
  • We grasp technical elements, relating them to the emotional arc of phrases
  • We solve problems instead of letting them fester
  • We image ahead to direct our music making with soulful awareness.

We create an interpretive-technical map of a composition that’s so clear that we can artfully navigate the musical landscape without fear of breakdown.

Practicing Performance Skills

Of course, our level of on-stage confidence is also affected by psychological and other components.

We have to possess inner strength, for instance, adopt positive attitudes toward performing, master backstage and on-stage techniques, and know how to channel fight-or-flight responses. I label these abilities ‘performance skills,’ and they need to be practiced too.

Ultimately, though, with our material deeply learned and our performance skills in place, the energy of performing can propel us to new heights of creativity.

See Parts I & II of The Musician’s Way for in-depth explorations of practice and performance. Related posts can be found in the Music Practice category.

Did your teachers guide you to practice deeply?

© 2009 Gerald Klickstein