How to Practice in the Recital Home Stretch

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boy playing violin to an empty theater

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It’s the last few weeks before recitals and chances are, you have a pretty nervous/excited student on your hands!

Courtesy of our teacher Adrienne Schroeder (and a few other other helpful sources!), here are some excellent tips for practicing in the recital home stretch, including advice on healthy performance and practice mindset, and dealing with nerves.

Please share with your student!

Three weeks before recital

Be well on your way toward memorizing your piece. Here are some memorization tips.

First, jump right in by trying to play the song without sheet music, from the very beginning. Frequently, students have much more memorized than they thought.

Next, try the “chunking” technique by separating out parts of the song. Play phrase by phrase first with the music, then without. Repeat playing with music, then without music, until you can execute the phrase well without the music

Another chunking technique is to give each section of the piece a name or assign it a mood, e.g. “the grumpy part”. You can use these identifiers to remember which part of the musical story comes next, which can keep you clear on the order.

Here are more tips for memorizing music, including some interesting points on the four types of memory and how they can be utilized in practice.

Two weeks before the recital.

Once the piece is well-memorized, focus on rhythm and expression, and note-reading shouldn’t be an issue. Check out these tips for working on rhythm and timing.

Rhythm and timing are two separate things. “Rhythm” means the regular succession of strong and weak beats, but “timing” is your ability to keep a beat by yourself, especially within a group (source: takelessons.com).

Similar to a canvas for a painter, time is the grid that all music functions within. If you can get your timing going in your mind before you start, you will be more successful in keeping it, and keeping it steady. It’s when we start with no sense of time that things get off, and we’re left guessing where the beat is instead of knowing.

Develop timing by making it a habit to start your grid/timing in your mind before you do *anything* on your instrument. Scales, etudes, daily dozen, sight reading, even just a whole note– everything should have solid timing with a solid grid setup.

Mentally, this would look like “1-2-3-4-play” if we were in 4/4 time. Start with at least one bar of your timing before you start. Rhythm is the second step. If there is not solid and steady timing, there is no place for the rhythm to be accurately played.

If it is a habit, then you will do it automatically when practicing. Here’s some advice on how to create good habits.

Tips for practicing expression

The best technique for developing expression is to exaggerate. Think of it like stage makeup. If you look at theater actors up close, it looks like way too much, but to the audience it comes across as normal. Same goes for musicians– if you want something to come across to the audience, exaggerate it!

When we don’t exaggerate, the expression isn’t heard by the audience, at least not the way you would like it to be heard. So exaggerate everything! Dynamics, phrasing, style, etc. To choose how you want to express or emote, decide what the music is doing. It is always either headed somewhere, arriving, or leaving to the next idea. Discover what’s happening and make your choices to compliment that framework.

One week before recital

Understand that you should play through your mistakes, and keep rhythm even if/when your piece is not note-perfect. Do this in front of other people!

One week before the recital is a great time to be playing in front of people. In other words, practice performing! Ideally, you will have at least one week of “locking it in”, which means you are no longer making changes to your music but are working on executing what you planned.

Playing for a family member, face-timing with someone, recording yourself — these should all be performances where you are not stopping no matter what happens. If you can get to recital day with 7-10 performances under your belt, you’ll be in great shape.

Day of recital

The most important rule is to limit the amount of practice on recital day, so as to keep the mind fresh. A typical recommended piano practice routine for the recital day is to play nearly full speed once, then medium speed once, and finally once slowly. That’s it! No more practice! (Source: Fundamentals of Piano Practice / Chaun C. Chang)

Why not drill the piece on recital day? Because it’s not productive. It’s mentally and physically taxing. The idea that you need to do last minute practice introduces the thought “I’m not ready” or “I can’t do this”, which can spiral into negative thinking. By recital day it’s too late to improve the quality of your playing. If you have done quality prep, you’ll be ready!

Best mindset for practice throughout the last few weeks (and in general)

View everything as information. Do not attach emotional meaning to it. So if something worked the way you wanted– great! Find out what it was, how you did it, and keep doing it.

If something didn’t work out, great! Find out what it was, how you did it, and try a new tactic. One cannot continue doing the same things and expect a different result, so if it’s not what you want, change something.

Think of it like a science experiment; the results are just information about what works and what doesn’t. In order to get this information, we have to pay attention to what is going on in our playing. Mindfulness while practicing is huge. Without this, we have no idea what’s going on, and therefore cannot make conscious improvements in our playing.

Best mindset for performance/ what to think when you’re really nervous!

Instead of focusing on what could go wrong, focus on what could go well. Replace the thought, “what if I mess up?” with “what if I nail it?” If you’re fixated on the negative, you’re likely to feel negative. Rather, focus on the positive. Play the way you planned and practiced. Joe Maddon mindset all the way.

Practice lots of positive self talk before your performance. Say things like: I can play this well!, What if I nail it?, They (the audience) want me to do well. These are all super great things to say to yourself to psyche yourself up!

Just focus on executing what you planned–if you’ve done your “locking in” this should be easy.

On performance day, don’t forget to breathe a lot and stay hydrated. Here are some more great day-of-performance tips.

What can parents do

10 Mistakes Parents Make About Music Lessons - blog header

Parents can promote a positive mindset with constant encouragement and kind words. This is huge. They can speak the positive self talk ideas listed above out loud to their kids. This will reinforce the ideas.

Parents should also hold their kids accountable for their preparation in a positive way. If they’re not held accountable, many kids don’t practice and then play poorly. Promoting good work ethic and taking pride in what they do is essential.

Writer Heidi Stevens offers great insight on how to help ease kids’ performance anxiety while also encouraging them to try their best.

Music is very personal and it is common for musicians to attach their worth to how well a performance goes. So how parents act after a performance is just as important; they should be positive and encouraging regardless of how it goes.

There is a big difference, though, between a student who has prepared well and does not play the way they planned, and a student who did not practice much and did not play well.

If it’s the latter, be loving and positive, but later ask the student if they put everything they could into their preparation. Hopefully they might start to ponder why the performance went the way it did. Not addressing this would be doing them a disservice.

Want more great tips on recitals? Check out 7 creative music recital tips for easing nerves & nailing it. Need more excellent advice on practicing from Adrienne? Read her great article on teaching music students how to practice.

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