How to improve your performance skills

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Have you ever stopped to think about the fact that you can be a great musician but never play well in public? It’s true…

Here’s why: performance is an entirely different skill than music making. Some musicians are highly skilled in music but just not highly skilled in performance. The opposite is just as true too.

On top of that, there is another skill that often comes into play, especially for pianists: memorization. Memorization is considered necessary for certain genres and instruments and not for others. Pianists in particular are usually expected to memorize. I actually don’t quite think that is fair. I would like to see the skill of memorization taken out of the equation when it comes to performance. However, the truth is that unless you are David Foster (who I see using sheet music in even huge performances), pianists usually have to memorize.

Today, I want to give you some tips for memorization and performance. I have not written about this in a while even though it is a very requested topic.

Understand that perfection is unlikely if not impossible.
Keep in mind that I am writing from the perspective of a non-classical musician. If you are a classical pianist, I understand that you are required to replicate pieces of music note by note as accurately as possible, but the rest of us do not have to bear that heavy weight.

In general, you need to free yourself from the idea that you have to play a song exactly the same way that you practiced it or it is “wrong.” That is not going to happen nor in my opinion would it be ideal anyway. No one is interested in seeing how close your performances are to your recordings. They just want to see you perform and they expect variance from performance to performance.

Here is something else you need to understand: the standard of quality in a performance setting is much lower than a recording. While recording needs to be practically perfect these days, you can get away with all kinds of mistakes in a performance and only the most trained musicians are likely to notice.

The goal in performance is not perfection anyway; your goal is a great performance. 
Non-experienced performers are likely to fall into the trap of emphasizing things like technical perfection and forgetting about the overall effect of the performance. I am reminded of a quote from the great Kenny Rodgers. “Your goal is not to impress your audience. Your job is to make them cry.” If your only goal is to be technically flawless, you are setting the bar way too low.

Great performers make mistakes. Often they make lots of mistakes. But great performers know that ultimately, their job is to affect their audience on a deep level and that is their focus. When an audience finishes listening to your performance, they need to be feeling something.

Memorize at a macro rather than micro level.
Unless you absolutely have to, never try to memorize music note for note. It is unnecessary and puts way too much pressure on you. I tend to memorize only 4 things: the form of the song, the chord progressions, the melody, and the general textural ideas. That is a very manageable amount of things to memorize but is really all you need. In a performance, that becomes a roadmap.

You could also think about this concept as memorizing lead sheets or chord charts rather than elaborate written-out arrangements. Lead sheets and charts contain everything a musician needs to play a song about the same way every time but does not lock he/she in to the point where they cannot improvise a bit.

Practice technical material by itself, knowing that it will be performed at a lower level than you practiced it.
If you are going to play technical material, you just have to realize that unless you are nailing it consistently in practice, you have no hope of nailing it in performance. It is the same principle as shooting free throws. When I was younger, I could regularly shoot 100 free throws and average in the high 80% range but in a real game, my average was woefully less.

The inherent factors that come to play in a performance will always negatively affect your ability to be technically precise. What that means is that you have to practice your technical stuff to a level where it is far above what you hope to achieve in performance. If you can only play a tough run half the time in practice, I can promise you that in your performance, that run will fail you almost every time.

Focus on learning your theory so that you can adjust and compensate on the fly.
The best way to overcome memory slips is to know what is happening in the music on a theory level. If you tend to see music as a group of notes, when you start forgetting notes, things are going to fall apart very quickly. However, if you understand the music you are playing, you will likely know how to recover.

I like to say that I tend to be good at covering up mistakes because I have so much experience in making mistakes. That is actually pretty true. I make more than my share of mistakes but over time, I have learned how to cover them up. The biggest key to that is my understanding of theory.

Practice your performance skills
I cannot give performance tips without telling you the most obvious and important one: if you want to be good at performance, you have to practice performing. I am not talking about practicing more at home. I am not talking about scales. I am talking about finding ways to get in front of people with your music.

I know that some of you just can’t imagine getting to the point where performing becomes stress free but it is quite possible. There are times where I still get nervous but they are relatively rare. In general, I tend to suffer from the opposite problem: finding a way to get excited about performing (which is another issue itself). However, I can’t count how many thousands of performances it took for me to get to that point–concerts, church, recitals, etc.

The key is to performing well is to understand that performing is a skill that in itself needs to be developed just like you develop your music. Follow these tips and you will be well on your way.