Why You Aren’t Performance Ready (and how you can make it happen)

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Make It Happen on a blackboard with a clockThe date of the concert is getting closer. You’ve been working on this music for months. And yet it seems that you won’t have it ready in time. What’s gone wrong? Did you not practice enough? Did you try to do too much? Are you just someone who will never be able to finish a piece?

It’s likely that the answer to all those questions is “no.” I know you’re practicing. You don’t lack determination or discipline. The music really isn’t too hard for you, and you feel, or you used to feel, up to the challenge of performance. So what is the problem? Why can’t you seem to get a piece to performance-readiness in a comfortable time frame?

Almost certainly, the answer lies is how you are practicing, or rather how you AREN’T practicing. Let’s look at the different kinds of practice that we do.

Maintenance Mode practice is the practice we do merely to stay in shape technically or to review our repertoire.  In a relatively short practice session, we do a thorough technical warmup and play through a certain number of pieces, touching up anything that needs  little work. Maintenance Mode is useful for harpists who are touring and traveling, or for anyone who has a limited amount of time to practice on a given day.

Study Mode is the intensive work we do when we are learning a new piece. We take a lot of time to drill down deep into the inner workings of the piece to learn not only notes and fingering, but the form and character of the music as well. It’s difficult practice, but very rewarding, because the results are quickly evident. In a few days of this kind of practice, we attain a level of familiarity with the music, and over a longer time, we begin to “know” the piece and can consider performing it.

Most of the practice that we do falls into one of those two categories. But neither of those types of practice will prepare your piece for performance. Only  Performance Practice will do that. Performance Practice is designed to build on the work you have put into learning the piece (in Study Mode) and mold the components that you have been practicing – the notes, fingering, pedals or levers, dynamics, tone, etc. – into a cohesive whole. This is where you turn your hard work into music.

The mistake many musicians make is in thinking that the music just “happens” if you spend enough time playing and practicing the piece. Nothing could be further from the truth. You need to practice in the specific ways that will not merely help you to play the piece better, but will give you the big picture perspective of the entire piece, beginning to end.

If you have a performance coming up, try these seven steps to move your music out of Study Mode and get it to performance ready.

1. Consider the piece as a whole. Take a bird’s eye view. What is the mood of the piece? How does the piece progress from beginning to end? Does the tempo, tone, or dynamic change to help propel the “story” of the music? Play the piece all the way through each day to learn its pacing and flow.

2. Get it to tempo now. Don’t wait to grow into the tempo gradually. Practice each hand alone at tempo. Play it hands together at tempo, even if you can only play one measure at a time. Find out how the piece will feel at the right speed.

3. Know the ending. Practice the last few measures until they are the easiest measures in the piece. This will help you in performance, because the last measures will be totally comfortable. Nothing is worse than spoiling the effect with a rocky ending.

4. Use the difficult spots in the piece as a daily warmup. Play them repeatedly right at the beginning of your practice so you know you won’t skip working on them later.

5. Play the piece every day. Even if you only have time to play it through once, you will keep the piece fresh and in your fingers and ears.

6. Practice performing. One of the best ways is to play it through for your teacher. Tell your teacher that you want to play it from beginning to end and then get his/her opinion and advice. I don’t advise you to record yourself, unless you are fairly experienced, for this reason: it is very difficult to be objective about your own performance, and you are less likely to be able to evaluate what you hear.  A teacher can make those evaluations more accurately and give you the guidance you need to move forward.

7. Make the music. Get out of the notes. Play your piece with the most expression and musicality you can. Sometimes you need to ignore the note mistakes and just play. Think of it as painting with a broad brush. It may not be the neatest paint job, but it can still be artistic and a beautiful color.

One more thing: do this NOW. The biggest mistake we make is thinking that our music isn’t ready for this step. In truth, we are ready for this way sooner than we think. And if you make it a habit to push yourself to this phase faster, you will find that you will be able to learn more music faster and with more confidence.

How soon can you be performance-ready?

Do you want to learn to focus, finish and play the way you’ve always wanted? Let me show you the step-by-step way to energize your practice and love (yes, love!) your performances. Click the image below to find out how.

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  • rob stone

    Hi Anne:

    Great advice as usual! The analogy that comes to mind as I recall all of your tips through the years is “climbing a mountain”. You might not get to the top in one day. You might have to have a plan if you want to get there safely. And then once you’re on the top, what’s the next challenge?



  • Joe Wessels

    Your article’s timing could not be better ~ I’m learning several pieces for an upcoming ensemble recital and I couldn’t agree more with item 2 (tempo). Playing in a group immediately reveals if your tempo is off and just the thought of being the one who is off from the rest of the group is enough to make me make this a priority. Thank you for your continued support.


    • Anne Post author

      I’m with you on that, Joe. I prefer being prepared. It stems from my early days in youth orchestra when we had a rather terrifying conductor. I didn’t want any extra attention!


  • Sarah Williams

    This subject addresses my biggest problem as a harpist. I reach half tempo well, but struggle to reach performance level. Thank you for these wonderful tips!


  • Patricia Jaeger

    Dear Anne, these are very wise tips you have sent. In a nutshell, “to fail to prepare, is to prepare to fail”.


  • Anne

    So true, Patricia!


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