How to Keep Performances of the Same Piece from Getting Stale

Earlier this year, I stumbled across a restaurant which serves the best chicken tikka masala ever. It was so good, that one day, I ate it for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

Of course, I quickly ruined things by eating it so frequently that it ceased to be the magical concoction of chicken and spices it started out as, and slowly turned into blah. Chunks of blah, garnished with julienned blah and finely chopped blah, in a sauce of blah.

We’ve all experienced something like this in our lives. Whether it’s your new all-electric car, buckwheat-filled wonder pillow, or piece you’ve started working on, at some point, everything loses the fresh, shiny luster of newness, and starts trending towards blahness.

Nobody wants to give a stale, uninspired performance of course. But when we have to perform the same piece over and over again, how can we keep things new and fresh so that we don’t bore the audience (or ourselves) to tears?

More engaged musicians

A trio of researchers (including conductor Timothy Russell) ran a study to see if a more mindful approach to performance would be a) more engaging and enjoyable to the musicians, and b) preferable (and noticeable) to listeners as well.

To test their hypothesis, they recruited 60 members of a college orchestra to perform the finale from Brahms’s Symphony No. 1 two times.

The first time, the conductor gave the orchestra the following instructions: “Think about the finest performance of this piece that you can remember, and play it that way.”

This was the control condition – where musicians were given an aspirational and presumably motivational goal, but a comparatively passive goal, geared more towards recreating a performance than creating it anew in the moment.

Before the second performance (the experimental condition), the musicians were instructed to “Play this piece in the finest manner you can, offering subtle new nuances to your performance.” The idea with these instructions was to get the musicians to be more present and mindful, to think more creatively and spontaneously in the moment, and be more improvisational in their performance.

To gauge the impact of these two sets of instructions on the performers’ level of engagement, the musicians were asked to rate their enjoyment of the performance after each run-through.

Not surprisingly, musicians rated the more mindful, improvisational performance as being more enjoyable. The results suggest that being more actively involved in creating something new is more engaging than striving to recreate something from the past.

Audience preferences

To see if there was a meaningful and discernible difference between the two versions of the finale from the listener’s perspective, the researchers played back the two recordings for an audience of 143 community choir members.

Lo and behold, a significant majority of the audience members (88%) expressed a preference for one recording over the other – suggesting that there was indeed a discernible difference between the two performances.

But would they prefer the “standard” version, or the more creative improvisational version?

Some listeners did prefer the “standard” version, but a significant majority (83%) preferred the more dynamic, improvisational performance.

Wait a minute…

You might be thinking that this is all well and good, but isn’t a performance often better the second time through?

To make sure these results weren’t due to the “it’s-always-better-the-second-time” phenomenon (a.k.a. “practice effects”), the researchers conducted a follow-up study with a few design tweaks to make sure this wasn’t the reason why the audience preferred take #2.

For the most part, the results were the same. As in the first study, the musicians enjoyed the mindful, improvisatory style of playing more. And once again, the majority of the audience members preferred the mindful version too.

Take action

Next time you have an opportunity to perform, try the mindful approach. See what happens when rather than trying to replicate a great performance, you shift your focus to creating cool moments and highlighting new nuances as you play.

Aside from being more appealing to the listener, you might find that this makes performing more fun and engaging for you, and also leaves you too busy to worry and get all anxious about the things that could go wrong.

A contest – enter to win and be the first to try the new Practice+ app!

The creators of the popular metronome app Metronome+ are working on a bigger and better new app for musicians called Practice+. In addition to a metronome, it includes a tuner function, recording and sharing capabilities, and more.

The app is still in private beta, but I have an invite to give away to one lucky reader. To enter the contest, leave a comment below with a technique or strategy you have used (or a relevant anecdote) to stay engaged and keep performances from getting stale in your own performing experience.

The contest ends Wednesday at midnight, so share your strategy or anecdote today before you forget!

Update: Congratulations to contest winner David Vaughn, who will be getting first crack at the new app Practice+. Thank you all for your great ideas on how to stay engaged in performances! Your suggestions will be a great resource for folks searching for ways to keep things fresh!

photo credit: (Mariam) via photopin cc

Ack! After Countless Hours of Practice...
Why Are Performances Still So Hit or Miss?

It’s not a talent issue. And that rush of adrenaline and emotional roller coaster you experience before performances is totally normal too.

Performing at the upper ranges of your ability under pressure is a unique skill – one that requires specific mental skills, and perhaps a few other tweaks in your approach to practicing too. Elite athletes have been learning these techniques for decades; if nerves and self-doubt have been recurring obstacles in your performances, I’d like to help you do the same.

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58 Responses

  1. playing the french horn never gets stale. if your brain goes for a split second, so does the note. There IS NO WAY to play the phrase exactly the same, two, three or four times. Each note has a beginning, middle & end as does each phrase. Every note goes somewhere as does the phrase and with all the possibilities of attack, sustaining & decreasing air flow and intesity, how can it possibly get stale?

    1. I think this is so true, and I’m a clarinet player. But I also do just like trying new things – I guess I also always assume that I can make the next performance better than the last by maybe making more of the dynamics, or change my rubato, or sometimes just not squeak on the stupid note… There’s always something to play with.

  2. If I consciously think about loving my audience, the music comes out better for them and for me.

  3. One technique that I have used with kids in ensemble is to have them perform the song in a different way, like playing all of the dynamics the opposite way (play all forte parts piano, all piano parts forte, etc.)

  4. To stay engaged and keep my performances from getting stale, I imagine that the composer is in the audience and that I want to show him (or her) how wonderful I think their composition is, by making my performance as beautiful and expressive as I can.
    I discover new subtleties with each performance that delight me and provide new layers of meaning to share in my interpretation.

  5. After countless performances of the warhorse “Asturias” by Albeniz, I decided to create a train-trip in my and the audiences mind by describing the piece as a trip on the Talgo, the famous train that runs from Andalucia to Madrid, through olive and orange groves and some beautiful country. I created a stop along the way at a gypsy encampment for the adagio section, and proceeded to play the piece just that way, starting slowly and building speed as a train does, rather than starting at top speed as so may performances do, and so on through the piece, utilizing the “mindfulness” of telling that story. the result was not only more fun for me, but absolutely wondrous audience response, including highly complimentary comments from other guitarists and pianists who played the piece. This is an approach IO have simce used on many pieces with similar results.

  6. I have a friend who is an internationally known concert artist and teacher of my instrument. He is a master of historical and regional styles, ornamentation, and improvisation, and he never plays anything the same way twice in a row. When I want to freshen up a performance of my own, I tell myself to “play it like — would.” It always helps!

  7. Hi Noa

    Great article! I have actually found myself using the method described. If I don’t , I begin to think about my laundry, the weather, my next vacation.. and the tune likely suffers. Instead, I try to see where I can focus on tweaking the expression. Can I hold the dots just a bit longer in some places? Cut the cuts, but not crush the notes? When I play the tune, I try to imagine that I am actually singing, or dancing with the tune now ( because I KNOW how to play the piece after all ), but how would I dance to it? Sometimes that helps put a little more life into the tune.

  8. What I try to do is pick out one member in the audience, and do my very best as I perform to make them react in a positive manner, which helps me create a more spontaneous performance for everyone!

  9. My strategy for a more creative and engaged performance, not stale? I have two. One is to pick someone in the audience and play the piece to them, as though they were the only person in the room and I wanted to give them this piece as a special gift. Of course, I don’t even pick someone I know — it’s all in my imagination. My second strategy is to “teach” the piece to the audience with my playing (in my “real life” teaching is a significant part of my work). I play to communicate and emphasize each nuance — mindfully make the fortes forte, the pianos piano, the transitions and articulations all clear in service of making the phrasing lucid and compelling.


  10. I have read my part from a full score (pocket size) while performing my bass clarinet part in an orchestra setting. Although there was a lot of page turning, it was fun to see my part in context gave me a sense of how my part contributed to the whole experience, and a challenge to take in so much data vertically and horizontally. I do this now because of an experience many years ago. This happened because we were playing “The Rite of Spring” and the second bass clarinetist’s horn was malfunctioning, so I had to cover both parts. In the first part, there are two bass clarinet parts exchanging lines. It was scary, but turned out okay-talk about staying in the moment!
    Thank you for your website; always look forward to reading it.

  11. I’ve been working on interleaving lately – trying to keep practice fresh by cycling through material, moving on, returning to it a few time within the same practice session, and going back to older repertoire. The idea is get repetition, but throw it off balance a bit. Seems to be helping…

  12. prior to performing, particularly if i’m not into it, i have a collection of ‘go to’ performers and performances that i listen to….this is generally music that oozes musicality and the performers engagement with it….(current faves are van morrrison and zac brown)…..doesn’t have to be even the same genre of what i getting ready for….revives my love of music and gets the fun back into it….

  13. I studied Alexander Technique over a few years and although most musicians think the focus of using Alexander is for the body, my teacher introduced me to using it to listen differently—-to be aware of where the sound is coming from and bouncing around and how it changes the way I listen…sound from behind me, beside me — can I hear the sound travelling off a wall 2 feet from me in a practice room, or 100 feet from each side of me? In performance, the easiest way for me to be mindful is to keep my ears “fresh” — listen to how the sound travels in my performance environment-as a singer, the connection to the audience is so immediate-the tendency is to focus on that communication (we’re staring at each other after all!) but when I focus on that volume of sound, how it fills up the room, and how my position on stage changes my listening experience, I give a more present performance that the audience connects with – after all, we’re both “audience” members when we’re both focused on listening, right?

    1. Like Gina, I have had the best results from Alexander Technique. When the body/mind is well-coordinated, awareness and focus improve. No fear of falling, for one thing, which means there is less physical bracing, making it easier to take some risks.Another thing my first AT teacher taught me was verbal action.
      Create a sentence that goes “I (fill in the blank) a person. It can be as simple as “I adore you.” Change up the verb, and you will change manyyaical decisions.

  14. Hi, Noa

    As a harpist, I play for a lot of weddings, and when you do weddings, you never know what’s going to happen. I’m pretty sure I’ve never played any song exactly the same in two performances. Partly it’s because I play the same songs quite often (Canon in D, anyone?). I have to keep them fresh or I would go out of my mind. Plus – stuff happens.

    Yesterday, a friendly little chipmunk decided that he would try to check out the soundhole of my harp while I was playing for the bride’s mother’s entrance. Talk about a challenge! I had to gently shoo him away while playing “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring”. I’m pretty sure I’ve never played it quite like that before, but I managed to stay in the tune, improvising around some fancy footwork on my part and some giggles from the assemblage. It reminded me of how important it is to always know where you are in the music, but be able to deviate if needed.

    Then the flower girl and ring bearer decided they weren’t going to come in, so I had to play “English Country Gardens” at least 20 times. I think I did 20 different variations while keeping an eye on where they were. Was I mindful of the music at all times? No – but experience helped me get through the repetitions without boring the guests.

  15. In reality it depends on what you are playing. The sheer complexity of great music demands awareness in the playing of it on the physical, emotional, and intellectual levels. Performance situations are never exactly the same either.

  16. As an Argentine tango dancer who rarely performs choreographed pieces, much less repeatedly, nevertheless I find that the concepts here apply, when it seems that you’ve done the same sequences to the same music with the same partners SO many times.

    As a former pilot I learned and understood the value of checklists. Early in my tango career a repetitive checklist scan of my body from top to bottom did two things for me. It kept the chattering monkey mind distracted, and it let me catch errors before they got too far out of whack.

    I still employ checklists to keep me mindful during practice and performance, though their content has evolved along with my experience and growth. Where in the beginning, for example, I was concerned with merely collecting my knees, today I keep mindful of the quality and timing of the movement to collect.

    I very much enjoyed this article and all the comments. The one by Steve Rauch to ‘teach’ a piece to the audience particularly caught my imagination.

  17. On a regular basis I perform many of the same pieces over and over again. A few years ago I was struggling with keeping old pieces sounding fresh. After trying many different approaches I’ve found ways for each piece to feel like it is constantly evolving. Some of my favourite things to do are: practice the piece in numerous different creative ways and pretend that you are learning it for the very first time by paying attention to details in the score and finding new inspiration from what the composer wrote. I also enjoy listening to a lot of other music from the same composer, e.g. Esp. their symphonies, chamber music (if you’re working on a solo piece). Reading about the composer and the context of when they wrote the piece can also provide a fresh outlook on an old piece, as well as looking at art work from that time period etc. There are endless amount of possibility to explore in any great piece of music and approaching all pieces with that mindset has been of great value to me.

  18. I try to find the story that the music is telling to me and try to express that story to the audience through the music. Once, my trio had performed the Tchaikovsky Piano Trio to the point that we were getting bored with it, but we still had many requests to keep playing it. In order to keep ourselves engaged and the audience still interested in our playing we came up with a ridiculous story about zombies chasing piano carpets through the piece. It worked, and we were much more engaged in the music when we had that story running through our heads as we played! The audience was never aware of that story but everyone always commented on how we looked like we were having so much fun in our performances.

  19. I think the best way to keep a performance fresh is to play with the audience in mind. The audience is always different and if you play to them then your experience and thus your performance should be fresh and different as well. If you can put yourself in their minds and pretend you’re hearing it for the first time like they are it really can be wonderful!

  20. I love to wear cowboy boots to auditions. At first, I wore them to auditions (usually further north) because they were the only cold weather shoes that I owned as a Floridian. But I soon realized that, not only were they comfortable, they also tended to give me an extra spring in my step, if you will. They just make me feel cool, and I’ve felt that little confidence boost translates into my playing. I even wore them to my last recital… I’m thinking about making it my trademark (even though I don’t really identify myself as a southerner).

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