Playing Your Best: When It Counts

By Moore, Bill | American Music Teacher, June-July 2011 | Go to article overview

Playing Your Best: When It Counts


Moore, Bill, American Music Teacher


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My best performances are when I am focused totally on the expression of the music, not the technical elements of performing the music. I feel totally entranced in sharing the music, with connecting to the audience.

When I'm playing my best I am releasing all of my emotion and passion into my cello creating new ideas and great music to share with the audience. I'm calm and relaxed, I feel fully engaged in performing music, but not actively thinking about the technical aspects of my own playing.

During my best performances I'm having fun. I am enthusiastic, excited, and ready to take chances. I feel trust within myself and my musical partners. I am cool and confident. I understand the task at hand and how to accomplish it. I am sharing a musical experience with the audience. I feel like I'm listening to everything going on around me. I feel extremely confident. I am enjoying every minute of my time on stage.

How would you describe your best performance? Think back to your last great performance. What were the feelings and sensations you experienced? What image comes to mind when you visualize performing at your best? Take a moment and answer the question: "When I am at my best, I am like a -- ?" Reflect on this image and why it represents your best. For example, the image representing me at my best is a puppy dog. At my best I am free to express myself, inviting others to join the fun--open and spontaneous while having a very childlike attitude toward playing. What is your image, and why does it represent your best?

You may have experienced moments during your best performance when you felt totally focused, calm, confident and able to execute even the most difficult skills or phrases with ease--those moments in which time seemed to stand still and conscious effort was nonexistent. If you have had this experience you would likely do just about anything to have it more often. In this presentation we are going to dig deeper into understanding your best performances and how to help your students "get out" during performance what was "put in" during practice.

Athletes are players who practice, musicians are practicers who play.

Without a doubt, the most surprising difference between athletes and musicians is not the amount of time spent practicing, but the amount of time spent playing. Most competitive athletes have dozens of performance repetitions over the course of six months, while most musicians may have one or two. This has implications for the way musicians best transfer what is learned in practice to their performances. From a psychological perspective, practicing to perform is not the same as practicing to improve. The mental skills needed to be a great practicer are not the same mental skills needed to be a great performer. In fact, the mental skills necessary to develop and refine your technique will get in your way during performance. I am not implying becoming more technically or musically proficient will not make you a better performer. Rather, there are two separate and distinct "sets" of mental skills needed to reach your full performance potential. One set of skills for acquisition and another set for performance.

Music performance is the culmination of the mental, emotional, physical, technical and musical aspects developed in practice that all come together during performance. If you are to play your best when it counts, you must practice performance in its entirety. Although the mental skills discussed here make up just one part of the whole picture, they are often the part least understood and, yet, may be the most important in playing your best when it counts.

The Practice Mindset Is Necessary But Not Sufficient

Most musicians understand that if you truly want to get better you must develop certain mental skills necessary for skill acquisition. These skills are usually developed through a blocked practice format. …

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