“I swear I could play this at home when I was practicing by myself! I don’t know why I can’t do it in my lesson.”
Sound familiar? It’s common to practice hard all week, play well at home, and then fall apart at lessons. But you can avoid this pitfall! Read through these tips to help keep your cool in unfamiliar settings.
1. Establish solid muscle memory. Often, students practice a piece until they feel like they understand it mentally. Maybe they’ll play through it until they can “get it,” or make it through without mistakes. At that point, many people stop practicing for the day, assuming their work is done. But when you finally “get it”—make it through your tune the way that you want to—that’s when you should keep repeating it. Practice it over and over until you don’t have to think your way through it so much as feel it. I bet you didn’t expect to read a Bruce Lee quote here, but it was too relevant to pass up: “I fear not the man who has practiced 10,000 kicks once, but I fear the man who has practiced one kick 10,000 times.”
2. Slow your roll. When you play somewhere you’re unaccustomed to, whether it’s a lesson, a jam, or a contest, take as much time as you need to gather your thoughts. Give yourself time to find a comfortable position, tune, and settle down before you play. As you’re fiddling, keep this slowness and intention in everything you do, from placing your fingers to moving your bow to following the tune in your mind. By slowing your entire playing process down, from the time you pick up the instrument to when you put it down, you start from a place of calm and give yourself the best chance of success.
3. Use deep breaths. Breathing exercises are an old standby for focus and calm. My personal favorite is a technique called “box breathing:” breathe in for a count of four, hold your breath for four, breathe out for four, and hold the exhale for four. Repeat this, increasing the count if it feels comfortable for you.
4. One at a time. It’s hard to focus all at once on the many elements of technique that you may be working on in your practice, especially when you’re in a different setting. It’s okay to narrow your focus to one or two things while you’re playing; in fact, you’ll probably play better that way than if you tried to keep everything in your mind at once.
5. Clear your head. When you go to a lesson or a performance, it’s easy to become overwhelmed by intrusive thoughts. “Did I practice enough? Is she judging me? Oh man, here comes that spot I always mess up.” But these kinds of inner voices are only harmful. Instead, embrace positive thoughts and let go of perceived judgment. “I have worked really hard. I’m proud of myself. I love the music that I’m making!” These kinds of uplifting thoughts will bolster you and you’ll be amazed how much better you feel and play.
Next time you go to a lesson or get onstage, take these tips to heart and remember why you play in the first place: to enjoy it!