Why a pre-performance performance is a good idea

Having all the gear - like the guitarist's footstool - is part of the pre-performance performance

You’re ready for the performance. You’ve done your pre-performance checks. You have your recorders, music, stand; the really organised people have stands or blankets for resting instruments waiting to be played… But have you made sure you know which recorder to pick up at which time?

I have a clear memory of the last time my son played in the classical guitar classes at our local Festival. (By the way, entering Festivals is a great idea for learners, no matter what level you’ve reached – you get performance practice, you can trial new pieces, and you even get feedback from a professional. Bonus!) He was fine walking out to the stage area and setting up his music, footstool and guitar. He played beautifully. But then…

It took him ages to get offstage again. He had an expensive guitar, a footstool (awkward to hold), and a music book. Three things, but only two hands. It took him a while to work out how to hold them all in order to walk off!

It’s a classic illustration of the importance of doing run-throughs in performance conditions: you learn what little things you haven’t accounted for. A few years ago, I learned the hard way that one needs to practice drinking water from a bottle while running, if one is to avoid drenching oneself during the race! My son now understands the importance of doing a pre-performance performance, so that he can rehearse those little things like picking up a footstool.

Why a pre-performance performance is good

There are huge benefits to organising for yourself a pre-performance performance. You can:

  • pick up the little things that might trip you up (like a footstool)
  • test out playing under performance conditions. Having an audience, however small, forces you to play through any mistakes you make.
  • help yourself smooth over nerves for the actual day. You’ll prove to yourself that you can do the task of performing, and as FM knew, success builds confidence.
  • learn where you need to do more work. You’ll find the places where you need to think again, both musically and logistically.

Organising a pre-performance performance gives you a chance to use one of the key tools FM Alexander used to solve his vocal problems: you have the chance to analyse the conditions present. This was the first step in FM’s short protocol for working out how to best organise himself in any given activity. He would analyse the conditions present, then use that information to reason out the best means to achieve his goal, and then work on doing just those things.[1]

I was reminded of this recently because at a recent gig there was no time for a pre-performance run-through (through illness and injury we had to organise a fresh set less than 24 hours before the performance). My mind was so busy with doing the chat to the audience between pieces that I forgot what was coming next, and picked up the wrong recorder. It caused great hilarity, but I would have been happier not having it happen at all!

Giving a pre-performance performance helps you to analyse the specific set of conditions present in the actual performance, so that you have a better idea of how to approach it. You’ll be able to reason out a plan so as to give yourself the best chance of success. And that can only be good.

[1] FM Alexander, The Use of the Self, London, Orion Books, p.39.

Why we should all start practising long notes

What do you do when you start practising?

A long note - because practising long notes is a great warm-up.

Most people, if they’re honest, generally start their practice session by picking out a piece and starting to play. A few minutes in, and a number of mistakes in fingering and tonguing later, they pause, take stock, actually look at the music, and start thinking about what fingers and tongue really ought to be doing.

Of course, I would never start a practice session this way… *tries to look innocent*

Why do we avoid long notes and technical work?

Here are my best guesses:

  • We think we’re saving time
  • We prefer playing ‘real’ music over exercises
  • We think (secretly or otherwise) that working on scales and technical work is boring and difficult

The fallacy of this as a practice strategy has been brought home to me by watching my son work with his trumpet. He starts nearly every practice session by ‘buzzing’ with just the mouthpiece, and then by running through basic flexibilities – a series of exercises designed to work on breath pressure and finger control. Once he has done these, he turns to his pieces. And what I have noticed is that he plays the pieces so much more effectively and accurately after the flexibilities, far more than if he skips the flexibilities (which happens rarely).

Recorder flexibilities?

So I am wondering what would happen if we recorder players behaved a bit more like brass players in our attention to warming up. It seems likely to me that we would benefit from spending some time on thinking about breathing, breath pressure and co ordination with fingers before embarking on repertoire.

So let’s have a go at playing long notes at the start of a practice session. I’ve been experimenting with it, and have noticed the following:

  • I think more about how I am lifting the instrument, so experience less tension;
  • I think about my breathing;
  • I listen to the sound of the instrument I’m playing. Each note has its own timbre, and varies depending on dynamic;
  • Playing long notes gives me time to focus my attention on the activity I am about to do. I find myself thinking about playing recorder in the present moment, rather than the rest of the things on my to-do list.

My experience is that playing long notes helps my focus, breath control, and the efficiency of my playing, and all of these help me when I start to work on scales or pieces.

So… will you give it a go?

Divide and conquer: learn tonguing and notation independently to make practice easier

Imagine that you’re working on a new piece. It has a quaver or semi-quaver run in it, and you need to learn a new fingering pattern that you’re not used to. It also involves a particular pattern of tonguing and slurring that makes it trickier.

How would you work on this? What would be the best approach to make practice easier?

Slow down!

My first tip is to slow the passage right down. If I’m working on a new piece, I’ve been known to attempt new fingerings and note patterns at less than a quarter of the suggested metronome marking. Or slower: a musician that my son follows on YouTube, a bassist called Adam Neely, once emphasised the SLOW nature of slow practice by asking his viewers to play ‘glacially slow’.

We slow right down because pretty much all of us are tempted to try to be perfect immediately. We want to be able to play our shiny new piece at the suggested tempo – except we can’t. We haven’t done the work yet. I know that playing slowly can be frustrating, but not nearly as frustrating as trying to play quickly and failing. So keep it slow. Glacially slow.

Divide and conquer

Start off by deciding whether you want to get the notes under your fingers first, or feel comfortable with the tonguing. Once you’ve decided, spend some time on one, and then on the other.

Tonguing: put the recorder down, and say the tonguing pattern out loud, in the metre of the piece, at the nice slow speed you’ve picked. In the example below, remembering to tongue the E after the semiquaver slur might be tricky. If I was working on this passage, I would say the tonguing (written in over the notes) a number of times to make sure I was completely comfortable with it. Note that I’ve also chosen a particular articulation. It’s fairly samey, but it might look different if some of the notes were marked staccato.

Notation with tonguing

Notation: again, play the notes at the glacially slow speed you’ve chosen. Don’t even worry about what your tongue is doing for the moment – just make sure you have all the right fingerings. Do it a few times at that speed. You could try it a little faster and see if you can spot any ‘micro finger flails’ *- this tells you which parts of the passage you’re not comfy with thus far. Go back to the slow speed and work on it some more.

Adding them together

When you’re confident that each skill feels comfortable, try adding them together – at the glacially slow speed. Then gradually speed it up.

How long does this process take?

It depends! Sometimes it will be just a single bar that has you foxed, and you’ll fix it in a minute or two. Sometimes it will be sections of a longer run, and you’ll find yourself mouthing tonguing patterns as you wander around the supermarket. But in reality, the speed of success doesn’t really matter; what matters is that you get the passage under your control so that you feel confident when you play. That’s all that counts.

 

* Hat tip to Lynne Phillips (@teachypiano on Twitter) for this wonderful phrase.

Tennis lessons: what playing tennis has taught me about learning recorder

When I decided to take my Youngster out to buy him something as a reward for a really good school report, I didn’t expect him to choose a tennis racquet. But he did.

And then I didn’t expect his enthusiasm for it to last beyond a couple of days. But it did.

So a trip to a charity shop later, we have two racquets, and have been out to our local park every day to hit a tennis ball around. Every day. For at least an hour.

I was terrible at tennis at school – couldn’t even get the ball and racquet to connect – so was a bit apprehensive about playing, especially when the Youngster demonstrated that he was able to hit the ball very effectively from the off. But the outcome of nearly two weeks of going to the park has led me to a couple of surprising discoveries.

Firstly, tennis is good fun.

Second, I have learned some really good stuff about learning skills. Learning this new skill has reminded me that the principles that I believe to be true about learning in music are true for other areas too. Here are some of the ones that jump out most strongly.

  • In the beginning, you will almost certainly stink. You will play badly. Accept it. Enjoy it. There really is fun to be had in being joyfully bad at something.
  • If you enjoy doing something, you will want to do it more. That’s why the Youngster and I have been out playing every day. We’re poor players, but we’re having fun, and that’s what counts.
  • If you do something a lot, you will get better. At first, I was pleased if I could connect the racquet and ball. Then I started to do that reliably on the forehand, but with no directionality. Then I got directionality on the forehand, but couldn’t hit a backhand. Then I started connecting the backhand, but with no control. Then I started developing the beginnings of control on my backhand. Over two weeks, I have seen improvement.
  • There will come a point where you will need to think about technique. The Youngster and I have enquired about tennis lessons. We’ve both improved a lot, but we realise that our rate of improvement will start to tail off, because we don’t really know what we are doing. We need to learn about how to hold the racquet properly, how to properly play a forehand and backhand shot, how to gain accuracy in our hitting.
  • When you gain some technical knowledge, your ability, your enjoyment, and your fun will increase. A friend of mine recently had a piano lesson with a very accomplished teacher, and came away enthused with all the new ideas and technical things she had to experiment with.

Moral of the story?

Have fun. Practise. Play around. Then get some technical help, and play some more. It’s as true for recorder as it is for tennis. If you’re at the ‘get some technical help’ stage, find a local teacher, or contact me for a lesson via Skype. Get enthused, and get back out there to play some more!

 

Image by Suat Eman,  freedigitalphotos.net

Equipment matters: how a stand changed my practice routines

Jen's recorder stand

This is the story of how one simple piece of kit (apparatus, if you’e not English!) completely changed my practice regimes and helped to make me a better recorder player.

For my birthday, my lovely husband commissioned a local wood turner, Jonathan Rees, to make me a recorder stand. Initially the idea was that I would be able to take it along to quartet rehearsals and have my instruments all together, instead of them lying around on the floor all higgledy.

Actually, I haven’t used it for that at all.

One day, I began to think about all the little fragments of time that can get wasted during a day – waiting for the kettle to boil, waiting for an Alexander Technique student to arrive, and so one – and wondering how I could make better use of them. And then I looked at the recorder stand.

It suddenly occurred to me that, if Dame Nellie Melba is correct, and small parcels of practice time can be just as effective (if not more effective) than lengthy periods, that I could utilise these little scraps of time for recorder practice. And the best way to do that would be if I didn’t put my instruments away, but left them on the recorder stand, ready for use.

So I tried it out. I left the recorders on the stand, and left the music stand out and ready, too. And any time I had a few minutes lying spare, I would pick a recorder, pick a few bars of music, and play.

The result of this little experiment has been extraordinary.

  • I have practiced more. I am putting in more time than I ever have before, but in small pockets spread throughout the day.
  • I have become more proficient. Quite simply, I am playing better.
  • I have enjoyed myself. Practice has become a keener pleasure than I have ever experienced before. I find myself itching to pick up an instrument and play. It has become an extension of my thought processes.

So here are my tips for improving your practice:

  • Keep the instruments out! Get yourself a really nice stand so that you’ll be happy to keep them on display.
  • Be on the alert for those spare minutes when you can play.
  • In those spare minutes, pick one or two phrases, and work on those. Or just one scale.
  • Remember to look after your instruments. They will still need checking over, and the joints greasing, at the end of the day.

Try this, and let me know how it turns out!