In the final instalment of a four-part blog series, practice and performance consultant Adam Hockman reveals how assessing past performances is the key to objective practice
Every performance reveals information about one or more dimensions of your playing - how you dealt with nerves, recovered from a slipped shift, or used the bow distributions assigned during practice. The listening back portion of the post-performance process is essential for accessing that information, whereas not reflecting on lessons learned or conducting a retrospective review puts you at risk for losing sight of how to move your practice forward: Should you stay with what you’re doing, stop doing something, or change what you’re doing altogether?
The details of a performance can be compromised by the adrenaline and stress of that day. Time spent reviewing a performance, after being removed from it, can help you see those details, including subtleties you might easily overlook.
So, refer back to the results of your retrospective review - in particular, your list of takeaways and the summary you generated - and pull from those observations to look for some action steps you can add to your practice regimen. Let’s start with how different kinds of performances can provide different vantage points of your progress.
Educational researchers who study general academic performance across time gather data with the goal of informing what effective teaching might look like in a classroom. Some have developed a macro-meta-micro model that I’ve adapted here as a framework for musicians. Since that’s a mouthful, let me explain.
- At the top, we have macro-level snapshots, high-stake performances like degree recitals, competitions, and concerts with an orchestra. The conditions of these events vary significantly from your day-to-day practice - stage lights, audience members, temperature, and pianos differ with each venue and certainly from what you experience in practice. Depending on how active you are as a performer, you might get a macro data point every 3-6 months.
- Meta-level snapshots are lower-stake performances, and these happen more frequently (at least for students) than macro performances - lessons, masterclasses, studio classes, church services, and nursing home recitals, to name a few. The conditions of these more closely match those of daily practice. For example, your listeners might comment on your playing and you can pause after a movement or section to solicit that feedback.
- Finally, micro-level snapshots are the day-to-day performances that happen in practice. The stakes are very low because it’s just you and maybe your pianist. You can start and stop your playing and make mistakes - that’s the whole point of playing at the micro level.
All three levels are important and influence one another. What you learn from a macro performance directs the kinds of feedback you might seek at the meta level. And both macro- and meta-level performances must inform your micro-level (daily) practice, where you have the most control over what you do. You decide what, where, and how to practise, which you usually don’t get to decide at the meta and macro levels. Hence, the crucial importance of micro-level practice and performances.
Some performers come away empty-handed from performances where they encountered repertoire, technique, or performance anxiety challenges. They do not take in the feedback that a macro- or meta-level assessment provides and adjust their practice in response. Do better by thinking more broadly about, and applying, what you capture in the retrospective review.
Tip 1. Draw upon your tracking sheet to select some priorities (2–4 items) to tackle over the next few months. Consult your teacher or the trusted colleague who helped with the retrospective to see if they hit the mark. You will make the ultimate decision on how to proceed, but gathering feedback from others is a valuable check to determine if you’re on the right path.
Tip 2. Group similar technique problems and align them with a solution. After selecting priorities, look back at the broad strokes and nitty gritty listens of your retrospective and find patterns. Perhaps you noted issues in two movements of a sonata that stem from the same problem or cause. To tackle both, select or revisit a technique drill or étude that can effectively address this problem. Consolidating practice tasks is about efficiency, whereby you can reap the greatest rewards in the shortest amount of time possible.
Tip 3. Track your practice time and how it is distributed. Over the next few weeks, write down where your time goes. If you practice 20 hours a week, how is that time distributed? Is it appropriately spent in areas that will move you forward in your priorities? It’s easy to set priorities and then not carve out the time or space to achieve them. If only 10% of your time is going to technique work but three out of your four priorities are centered on technique improvements, you need to adjust your schedule. Tracking your time also highlights time spent on non-practice distractions like social media.
Tip 4. Start implementing the revised practice schedule based on what you’ve assembled in Tips 1–3. As you practice, keep track of how well you stick to the plan, and note any barriers that interfere with sticking to it. A two-column Planned vs. Actual tracker can yield a lot of information. In the left column, list what you plan to do; in the right, note what you actually did. How do the two columns stack up against each other?
Tip 5. Test out if your micro-level actions positively influence the meta level. If you’ve pledged a portion of practice time to one or more of your priorities, anchor them to a meta-level performance opportunity. For example, arrange an extra lesson with a teacher or virtual mock performance with friends where you play what you’re working on in practice. Such checkpoints (feedback) help you gauge whether you should stay with what you’re doing, stop what you’re doing, or change to something else. Too often, we might adjust our practice with an eye on the infrequent macro-level performance rather than on the meta-level ones that are easier to make happen.
Performance, at its simplest, is getting on stage and playing for an audience. If you approach each type of performance event as a learning and assessment opportunity, you can pinpoint your strengths, weaknesses, and needs, and pave new pathways to augment both your practice and performance.
Adam Hockman is a practice and performance consultant on the faculty of the Heifetz International Music Institute. He applies his training in behavioral and learning science to music practice, performance, and teaching. Learn more at adamhockman.com.
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