Let me start today by asking you a question: What is the purpose of practice?
I suppose the obvious answer to this is to improve our playing. After all, none of us would ever become decent musicians if we just left the instrument in its case all the time. By practising we accustom our bodies to the admittedly bizarre demands we make of them as instrumentalists, and gradually become better players as a result.
But I would suggest that there is another answer to my question which is just as important but often forgotten. That is, the purpose of practice is to ready us for performance. So that when we find ourselves standing up and playing in front of an audience, with one chance to play the pieces to the best of our ability, we are not going in unprepared. Because we have played the piece many times before and refined it during our practice sessions, we simply have to replicate a familiar action in front of unfamiliar faces.
Of course, not everybody wants to perform. For some the pleasure of learning the instrument itself is enough and they have no desire to showcase their talents to the world. That seems fair enough to me, but those people will probably not find this blog post as useful as others.
For those of us who do practise with the intent of performing, it goes without saying that our actual practice conditions are crucial to the success of our recital. But it is human nature to develop a fixed routine when it comes to practice, whether we are working towards a performance or not. Every day we tend to play in the same room, with the music at the same height. Perhaps we always practise standing up, or with a glass of water on hand. And we get into the habit of doing the same sort of thing independent of what we are preparing for, be it an orchestral concert, a solo recital or a place in a marching band.
Herein lies the problem. When you actually come to perform, the setup will be completely different. Where you practised standing up, you now have to play sitting down; where you practised on one reed, you now need to play on another; where you practised everything on the B flat clarinet, you now have to play half of it on an A. And with these changes in playing conditions you suddenly encounter a whole range of extra little challenges which you had never anticipated and which serve only to distract you from playing, and detract from your performance.
So how can this unfortunate situation be prevented? Well, I would suggest that you should ensure that, when you are practising in the lead-up to a performance, your practice conditions should emulate the performance conditions as precisely as possible. To do this you must consider a number of different factors.
For instance, will you be standing or sitting to perform? You may think that it makes no real difference, but I can tell you from experience that each one makes completely different demands on your breathing apparatus. When I first started playing bassoon, I always played it standing up – I would stand up to practise, I would stand up to play in my lessons, and I would even play standing up in the wind ensemble I was in. Then when I was first required to play seated, I suddenly found (to my great surprise) that for some reason I was struggling and couldn’t play as well as usual. Don’t let that happen to you!
Will you be using a music stand, or will you be using a lyre? If you’re in a marching band, you may well be playing from the latter, and if you’ve always practised with your music safe and secure on a full stand then you will be faced with the challenge of trying to read the music at what might be an unusual angle and proximity.
Which leads me on to my next point: Will you be static, or will you be walking as you play? Again, this is one that mainly applies to the marching bands. It would be an awful shame if you practised standing still, then found yourself tripping over every obstacle in sight and walking indiscriminately into lampposts when you were called on to perform in public.
How about your reed? This is another one that I’ve been guilty of in the past, particularly on bassoon. There have been times when I’ve used old reeds in all the rehearsals (including the ‘dress’ rehearsal on the day) with the aim of preserving my best reed for the performance. Then when it actually comes to performing I’ve found that I’m unaccustomed to using my best reed, and my playing suffers as a result.
If you are playing in the orchestra pit for a musical, you may find yourself having to juggle three or four different instruments. So practise in exactly the same way. Plan the layout of the instruments so that you can make quick changes without knocking the whole assortment over. Practise those changes so that you’re not taken by surprise when you have to do them in a performance. Don’t fall into the trap of practising all the clarinet bits one day, then all the saxophone bits another day and all the flute bits another day. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Practise as you intend to perform.
Clothing is another factor that can affect your performance. I confess that in many cases this is a minor concern, but it is still something that should be considered, particularly if you play using a harness and have to work out how it will interact with your concert wardrobe.
There is one last thing I’d like to mention, which seems to be particularly prevalent among clarinettists, and that is the habit of practising on one instrument with the intention of performing on another entirely. Just because the B flat, A, E flat and bass clarinets all have the same fingerings, it does not make them the same instrument. Players are often told, when having to play on an A for the first time, that “You’ll be fine – it’s exactly the same as the B flat”. No. The fingerings are the same. The instrument itself is similar. But it is not the same, and if you try to treat it as such then it will repay your disrespect – with interest – when you come to perform on it.
I think I’ve made my point clear. To finish, I would like to show that this isn’t just a pet peeve of mine, by quoting the words of James Galway, the eminent flautist, from his book ‘Flute’:
“A generalization I am willing to risk is that practice should as far as possible reproduce the circumstances of performance. If you are required to stand for twenty minutes or a couple of hours – playing beautifully all the while – your muscles have to be accustomed to it. It follows that orchestral players, who must sit out a concert, should sit to practise.”