Rule No. 3: If you have done it before, you can do it again

Confidence is having the experience of performing before you actually perform. This may sound like a Catch-22, but there are ways to create the background. Rule No. 3 is a mantra that I use regularly—and one that, along with relaxation and consistency, allows me to walk onstage and really have a great time. A big mistake that I used to make was not putting it all together: in other words, not “practicing performing.” Having done the aforementioned work is great, and completely necessary. But it’s like having all sorts of pretty patches, yet no quilt—you still have to sew it all together.

Obviously, it takes some getting used to.

Doing pieces in their entirety can seem scary and overwhelming, but is really just a broadening of the context. It is good to start with large sections and never go any faster than you can. Meaning, if a certain tricky passage is not quite up to snuff, then perform the section only at the speed at which you are able to do that passage—do not play the easier stuff up to tempo and then slow down when it gets hard. This can seem like fun at the time, but it’s a terrible habit. There is a lot of good to be gleaned from performing under tempo—it takes patience, but it’s worthwhile.

Day by day, put your sections together until you have entire movements. From there, the whole concerto or sonata is just a skip away. If it’s a piece you are learning, why, you’re pretty much there!

And now, once again, here’s one of my tricks to save yourself some practice time— you know how they always say that a picture is worth a thousand words? I think a performance is worth, if not a thousand hours of practice, well, probably about 20. Depending on how much you practice (I’ll get into that loaded subject forthwith), you’re going to save yourself five to ten days of it. So, it’s totally worth the effort.

Here’s what to do: get a relative, friend or colleague or two, sit them down, and play for them. Even if it’s a concerto movement without piano, it will still give you that little edge that you don’t have when alone. Although this is not quite the same as an audition or concert, it’s going to get you closer to that. If all goes well, then you’ve done it once, you can do it again. If some things go less than well, take a step back, figure out why, and repeat the process. And ask yourself: If some things did not go the way you wanted, were you relaxed at those points?

I would place a large bet on “nope.”

All of these things are helpful to grease the mechanical wheels of music making. You can have all sorts of great musical ideas, but if you can’t get them across to an audience, well, they are going to stay in your head.

I haven’t been nervous onstage for a very long time—this is partly because I’ve done it a lot (everything is easier the more experience you have), but also because I’ve adhered to these practices). That doesn’t mean that I don’t remember how nervousness feels, and I must say, it has to be one of the worst possible feelings—I would not wish it on anyone. I recall thinking once that I was never again going to put myself through such hell, and I considered quitting. Believe me, if you have felt this way, you’re not alone—everyone has gone through this at some point, and if they haven’t, they’re robot zombies!

These ideas were my solution long ago, they worked for me, and I hope they can be of some help to others.

And now, let’s talk about music!

Player Tip

The perennial question: “How many hours a day should I practice?” I think the optimum number is three. If you suddenly have a ton of repertoire to learn, you can tack on an hour or two for a little while, but I find that, mentally and physically, three hours a day is a pretty attainable amount of time for consistent concentration. Breaks are a good idea—I rarely work for more than 30 minutes at a time. I do believe that some folks are able to concentrate well for longer periods than I, and if that’s you, then, great! But when you find your mind wandering, go for a walk, feed your fish, take a shower, read a book.

Life is too short to waste time on mindless practicing.

If you don’t have time for those three-hour-a-day practice sessions, that’s probably because you’re getting a well-rounded education in sports, trigonometry, biology, drama, what have you. Just do what you can, keeping this in mind: one-third of your daily time should be devoted to raw technique (yes, I mean scales, arpeggios, double stops, sound exercises—our building blocks); one-third to applied technique (working on musical passages); and the last third to practicing performing. Even if you can only devote an hour a day to your instrument, it’s still good to keep this ratio in mind.

Further Resources

For the next step in becoming a better string player, read Pt. IV of Lara St. John’s article, “Questioning.”

*This article appeared in Strings August 2013

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