Do you remember a time when you had it all sorted in the practice room – but everything fell apart at the gig itself?
Maybe this happens a lot. You always get the material solid in practice – but, somehow, that doesn’t seem to be enough on stage.
And just spending more time practicing doesn’t seem to improve things.Fear not – it might only take a slight tweak in exactly HOW you practice to turn this situation around.
Why you need pressure in your practice
All musicians need to work on two things:
- Improving your general musical ability
- Developing the ability to deliver when it counts
It can seem that the first point covers everything. As you increase your musical ability, you can also deliver at a higher level in performance.
There’s a lot of truth in this. But it’s not the whole story.
Delivering when the pressure’s on is a different beast than delivering in practice. It places different demands on you.
And this is where a lot of people’s practice lets them down.
It’s great for training general musical ability. But it doesn’t recreate the conditions you’ll find in performance.
If you never come across pressure in the practice room, then you’ve only done half the preparation.
You’ve trained the physical movements you need to make. But you haven’t trained for the situation itself.
You’re trusting to luck.
Sometimes what you’ve been working on will hold up when you add in the pressure.
Sometimes it won’t.
You want to take as much of the guesswork out as possible. This means including pressure in some part of your practice time.
Recreate the pressures of performance
When you do this, you’re checking ahead of time whether your material is bulletproof. It also helps strengthen your ability to deal with pressure in general.
The first step is to recreate the intangible challenges as much as possible.
These are things which don’t have a direct physical impact on your playing – but they can affect your thoughts and emotions. Any negative impacts there will then cause real physical problems.
There are three main aspects of this that you’ll find in a real performance. Try using some, or all:
- Having an audience
- Removing the chance to try again
- Adding in consequences
You won’t be able to recreate performance conditions exactly, but that’s ok.
It turns out that adding in a bit of the right sort of pressure – even if it’s much less than in the real situation – is significantly more effective than practicing without any pressure at all.
When you know someone is listening to you, this automatically ups the pressure you feel. Even if it’s someone you know well.
When you practice, the chances are that you won’t have the option to bus in the same number of people who’d be at a gig. But having someone rather than no-one can make a big difference.
Invite a friend, family member, or other musician to listen to you “perform” something from time to time.
If you don’t have that option, commit to sharing a recording of the “performance” with others later. Just the sight of that red recording light flashing is often enough to increase the pressure you feel as you get ready to play.
You may need to get creative with this. When I lived in a ground floor flat, I used to practice in front of the living room window so that I could see people walking by on the street just outside. And I knew that they could see me.
No second chances
In a performance situation you never have the option of going back and doing it again. It’s another great pressure aspect that you can work into your practice.
If you’ve organised an audience of some sort, then this should happen naturally. If not, though, then try and add it in.
If you’re making a recording, then only allow yourself one take. If you’re doing a run-through of a piece, then do it once and that’s it.
No second attempts.
No going back afterwards to practice bits you didn’t get right.
[Remember that you're only looking to add pressure into a part of your practice. You definitely still want to have practice sessions where you deliberately DO go back and perfect the bits that you struggle with before moving on.]
Face the consequences
When you perform, you probably feel that there are consequences based on how well it goes. It might affect whether you’ll be invited back to perform again. Or your reputation as a musician.
Practice sessions usually don’t have these sorts of consequences – but you can always choose to add them in.
Maybe give yourself a forfeit for each mistake you make when you run through a piece. It could be 10 press-ups, or anything else which works for you.
Maybe decide that you don’t get to finish the practice session until you’ve played an exercise perfectly 5 times in a row.
I’m sure you can come up with your own ideas. Anything that attaches undesirable results to bad outcomes is going to increase the pressure on you to deliver.
Go further – make things REALLY difficult
Another way to increase the pressure on yourself is by deliberately making the physical conditions harder than they need to be.
This is partly just “overtraining” so that when you come across similar challenges in performance, they seem easier by comparison.
But there’s a mindset aspect here too.
When you deliberately make things harder for yourself, you get used to seeing obstacles as a challenge. In contrast, your current habit is probably to try and make things as easy for yourself as possible.
When things are always straightforward in practice then you can easily slip into wishing things were different when you come across more challenging conditions in performance. This can increase the pressure and anxiety you feel.
If you’re used to dealing with obstacles, though, then extra challenges become motivating instead. This is the warrior mindset.
Again, have a go at coming up with your own ideas. But try and make them relevant to conditions that you find you have to deal with on the gig.
If you often have to play on a cramped bandstand then maybe box yourself right into a corner so that you can barely move.
You might try playing in a room that’s uncomfortably hot. Or far too cold.
Get creative and see if you can enjoy overcoming the challenges that you set for yourself.
Put it into practice
The aim is not to practice this way the whole time.
You still definitely want to spend plenty of time without pressure – perfecting your technical ability and increasing your knowledge.
But don’t forget to ramp up the pressure from time to time and really test yourself.
Without that, you’re only really developing an academic skill. You know it’s fine in theory, but you’re not certain you can rely on when it counts.
You need to do the work that will take that potential ability and turn it into something robust that can survive – and even thrive – under the hot lights of performance.
This is something that most musicians neglect to do. If you make pressure a part of your practice routine, though, you’ll give yourself a big advantage
What creative ways have you invented to add some pressure to your practice? Let me know in the comments below.
Oh and before I go
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American basketball coach John Wooden said many years ago. Recognizing a champion. You are in the presence of a true competitor if you realise that he or she is gettig the most joy out of the most difficult circumstances. In moments of maximum pressure they want the ball.
That’s a great quote, Robert. Thanks for sharing it!
No surprise, though. John Wooden gave so much valuable advice – I always enjoy his thoughts.