1. Use a metronome
The metronome. That pest that lives on your music stand, taunts you while you play and usually gets left out of your instrument case. If you think you’re ready to go with your exam pieces, try playing each of your pieces with the metronome at half speed. Typically when I play pieces at half speed I find strange mistakes, glitches or hesitations in my playing. Sometimes taking it at a slower pace can expose issues you didn’t even know were there. The metronome is also useful when practising technical work. Many students aren’t aware that their scales and arpeggios are not rhythmically secure. There may be a tendency to rush on the way down and to drag on the way up. Being able to present technical work at an even and consistent tempo is very important. So practise with the metronome!
2. Record yourself
I find recording myself one of the best ways to get into a ‘performance mindset’. Also, listening to yourself play helps you hear issues you may not even be aware of while you’re playing your instrument. Problems with intonation, tempo and articulation become abundantly clear when you hear yourself being played back. Sometimes what you hear can be really encouraging too – in those moments where you might not have been aware you were playing so well!
3. Skip the easy stuff
Let’s face it, we LOVE the easy parts. I love to hear myself fly through the passages I have down pat, only to slam on the brakes when it comes to a new or difficult section. Don’t waste time practising what you can already play well. Go right to the problem sections at the start of your practice time and sort them out first. Just playing the easy parts may be fun but it is not productive. Tackle the hard stuff first!
4. Take breaks, lots of breaks
This may seem obvious but how easily we forget. Practising can be physically demanding and often it’s easy to just keep going until you begin to physically tire. But practice also involves a lot of brain work and often we compromise our practice by not giving our brains time to absorb what we have accomplished physically. We’ve all become frustrated by particular sections of the works we’re practising that just don’t work. It’s very important to have regular breaks to refresh the mind. I remember one of my teachers saying that I should be having a break from practice every half hour! Go for a walk, have a snack, a cup of tea, or anything to let your brain rest from all that concentration. You’ll soon see that taking regular breaks makes a real difference to the effectiveness of your practice.
5. Practise without your instrument
Similar to number 4, more and more evidence supports the effectiveness of mental practice. Especially effective when you’re unable to access your instrument or need a physical break, try mentally practising by closing your eyes and in detail imagining playing your piece, note by note, phrase by phrase. Try repeating tricky passages, slow them down and really imagine the experience of performing the piece. One piano teacher I know suggested playing pieces on the piano lid, or on a coffee table to sharpen up mental focus. Some professional musicians can even learn entire pieces away from their instrument. Practise on your daily commute or in a quiet space of time in your day, you’ll see improvement!
6. Use a mirror
Playing any instrument requires a great deal of physicality. Our bodies often look for the easiest positions to hold, generally those that use the least energy but are not often the best for playing. I find practising in front of a mirror helps me check my stance, my hand positions and other key indicators that can prevent fatigue and injury over long periods of time. Singing teachers, for example, often recommend singing in front of a mirror to check posture and relaxation, tongue position, unnecessary movement etc.
Memorisation is a valuable skill and being able to play through a piece from memory gives you freedom and confidence in performance. The printed score can be a crutch and can hamper expression. Memorisation can also be very useful for confronting nerves: with the score gone there is no safety net, you have to get the notes right. Proving to yourself that you can play the piece without the score is definitely confidence boosting. When you are memorising music try to play through the piece in your head away from your instrument. If you’ve really properly memorised a piece you should be able to sit down with a piece of manuscript paper (or a software program like Sibelius) and write it out. Don’t just rely on finger memory because this is what tends to fail when you are under the pressure of a performance. Know the notes as well as the fingerings.
8. Play as much as you can
If you are doing an AMEB exam don’t just learn your list and extra list pieces. Study as many pieces as you can – even if you don’t learn every piece up to an exam standard of performance. This will increase your musical awareness and improve your sight-reading.
9. Make music with other musicians whenever you can
Get involved making music with other players whenever you can. If you are a pianist, play for a singer or with someone learning an orchestral instrument. If you are a string or wind player there are so many wonderful duets, trios and quartets you can play. Join a choir. You will learn ensemble skills, how to phrase and breathe with other players and singers, and gain a knowledge of how your part fits into the whole. Again, musical awareness and sight-reading can be developed significantly by making music with others.
10. Perform as much as you can
Everyone gets nervous performing. However, the more you do it the more your confidence develops. Over time, performing begins to feel like a very natural thing to do. Play to your family and friends. Grandparents are good because they never get tired of listening to you play! Look for opportunities to perform at school, in eisteddfods and competitions. Doing an exam can be daunting if you have very limited performance experience. And an exam should really be like a performance. Don’t just play to your teacher. The more you play for other people the more confident you will be when exam time comes around.