How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice.
If that’s a cliché, it’s an undeniably true cliché. There is only one way to expand and deepen musical skills: Play, make mistakes, learn from them, and fix what caused them. It’s a cycle called practice.
Who doesn’t want to improve? Has anybody ever picked up an instrument with the intention of not learning how to play it well? The same goes for singers. There’s always another challenge. Don’t let good stand in the way of better.
There’s a process to making your performance experience more enjoyable. If you’re an amateur, maybe you’d like to sound better when playing with friends or simply challenge yourself to improve. If you’re a pro, upping your performance will add to your audience’s delight and likely bring in more revenue.
Regardless of your motivation, the first step to reaching your next goal is the same first step that performer who eventually made it to their version of Carnegie Hall took.
Not just when you feel like or whatever you feel like doing. Set a regular schedule for practice, set goals for each session and over longer periods of time. And you’re not going to get any better practicing the things you can already do. Challenge yourself.
It is crucial to mastering repertoire and song books. Not only will you be able refine and improve your current repertoire of songs or music, but practice enables you to try things you wouldn’t attempt during a performance, perhaps a more challenging piece.
If it gets to be a grind, shake it up. Try a different genre, or riff on an oldie to see where it goes. Soloists, practice with other performers. Who knows what you might learn.
The point is, musicians, from classic pianists to rock’n’roll lead guitarists, who practice regularly and push themselves get better.
The Kansas City Chiefs won the Superbowl, but that doesn’t mean they’re getting rid of their coaching and training staff.
Professionals reading this: Don’t pooh-pooh the idea of taking lessons. Success is never final, as Sir Winston Churchill famously intoned. Find a good teacher. Take your time interviewing potential candidates. Ask about their approach, methods, and expectations. Don’t be afraid if they sound demanding; in fact, welcome it! The goal is to improve so you’ll want to work with someone who will help you push past your comfort zone.
As for you beginners, you can learn a lot on your own when just starting out, but a coach or teacher can lead you into whole new world of performing.
Request referrals from other musicians or singers you respect. In fact, another performer could make a great teacher for you. Beware of hiring friends, though. They’re great to jam with but might feel awkward providing constructive criticism.
And be advised: Lessons are not a substitute for practice; they are a springboard into it.
Find a balance in assessing your skills development. Think Goldilocks: Not too hard, not too soft, just right. When you’re in that zone, you are in a great place to improve your performing skills.
Get started by recording yourself. You don’t have to be in a digital audio studio with unlimited processing power; the recording app on your cell phone will do just fine.
Record the same passage several times and take notes of the good, the bad, and the ugly when playing them back. When you identify the things you can’t do well, those are the things you want to practice. This is a great way to work out difficult or more challenging sections as well as improve your overall performance.
If you’ve never performed before, getting in front of people—even family and friends—can generate gallons of flop sweat. Keep telling yourself, though, the only way to learn how to perform is to perform.
That pre-performance anxiety comes from potential mistakes, flops, or forgetting what you’re playing. The Grateful Dead were notorious for that in the early days but eventually ranked No. 12 on Rolling Stone magazine’s 100 Best Rock Bands of All Time. Do like the Dead: Perform to the fullest of your abilities, and mistakes be damned!
Set your sights on venues that are appropriate to your skill level. Try a street corner; you might even pick up some spare change. Nursing homes are always looking for ways to entertain their residents, and elementary schools might set up as an open act on talent night.
Things are different for experienced performers. Those who typically play concert halls or arenas might benefit from performing in a more intimate venue. If variety is the spice of life, creativity and passion can always benefit from a little seasoning.
Regardless of where you are on the skills continuum, perform. Worried about hitting the wrong note? If you’re part of a larger group like an orchestra, the mistake will probably be diluted or drowned out. If it’s a smaller grouping or you’re solo—and there’s no mistaking that you made the mistake—acknowledge with a wince, a smile, or a shake of the head. That lets the audience know you know what they know, which can cover a multitude of sins.
Music performance is not competitive (unless it is, which is a conversation for another time) so keep in mind, you can’t do it wrong the first time. Learn from your mistakes, practice the parts you tripped over, and get back on the stage.
Make a Plan
What does an action plan for improving performing skills look like?
Many businesses use a SMART model to improve employee performance, and it can work for musicians. The acronym stands for:
- Specific goals
- Measurable progress
- Attainable results
- Relevant to performing
- Timely end-points for interim and long-range achievement
For practice, set up a SMART schedule. For example: M-F for an hour a day. You can adjust the time accordingly but start with a duration that’s both challenging and realistic. When you complete a practice session, put an “x” in the spreadsheet. Now your progress is in writing, so to speak. (Include lessons in your practice regimen; they are ideal for measuring progress.)
At the end of each month, evaluate your progress. Are you performing better? If not, let your instructor know. It may require a change in your curriculum. You also may need to practice more. Document these monthly assessments. You may not recognize progress day to day but by looking at your spreadsheet over time, you’re more likely to see and acknowledge your improvement.
What are some attainable goals, things you can reasonably expect to accomplish as your skills improve? Performing is one. As you get better, play for others more often. When you feel confident enough, you can also try your hand at open mic nights and even inquire about small paying gigs like coffee shops or parties.
Pro tip: Track your progress on a spreadsheet or notepad. If nothing else, it will hold you accountable to yourself and your ambition. It will make you acknowledge when you’re slacking, when your progresssuggests what you’re doing is too easy, or whether you’re in the sweet spot.
Within each of us is an innate drive to improve ourselves on all levels. While you may be perfectly content with your current level of playing or singing, you may also enjoy the process of improving your performance level to overcome your notion of self-imposed limits—and that can benefit all areas of your life!