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?

For most of my life, I assumed that I wasn’t practicing enough. And that if I just put in the time, the nerves would eventually go away.

But in the same way that “practice, practice, practice” wasn’t the answer, “perform, perform, perform” wasn’t the answer either. In fact, simply performing more, without the tools to facilitate more positive performance experiences, just led to more bad performance experiences!

Eventually, I discovered that elite athletes are successful in shrinking the gap between practice and performance, because their practice looks fundamentally different. Specifically, their practice is not just about skill development – it’s about skill retrieval too.

This was a very different approach to practice, that not only made performing more fun (and successful), but practicing a more satisfying and positive experience too.

If you’ve been wanting to become more “bulletproof” on stage and get more out of your daily practice too, I’d love to share these research-based skills and strategies that can help you beat nerves and play more like yourself when it counts.

Click below to learn more about Beyond Practicing, and how to start making every day a good practice day. 😁


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).

  21. I am relatively new to performing (20 times) and can easily be fearful and lack confidence.
    My best performance ever was when I rebelled against those negative feelings and via an internal dialogue told myself: “Why do you play music?”…….”Why do you play in front of an audience?”………….
    My answer: “Because I absolutely LOVE it!!!!!!!”
    Then, instead of conveying to my audience all of my negative emotions and thoughts, I instead bombarded them with my love of music and took many risks, sometimes making a mistake but not dwelling on it (that’s a negative response) and moving on before the audience could even comprehend that I made a slight error. The result was an attentive, participatory audience that I fed on even more! Being as inexperienced as I was, sometimes I was overwhelmed by the mutual love and my mind wandered more than was practical, but I’m hoping that I can reign that in eventually and maintain my concentration!

  22. We find that the best technique for musical “freshness” is to focus on the audience. No matter how many times Ulises has repeated a piece in practice, there will someone in the audience who is hearing it for the first time in performance. Ulises says, “I want my audience to fall in love with my program, just like I did when I started working on it.” Dr. Smith agrees. “It’s not always easy to maintain that initial burst of inspiration through the process of repetition,” he says. “But if you can imagine your special listener, it helps.”

  23. No matter what instrument you play, think of how a singer would play your solo, and play it just like that. Actually, don’t limit yourself to just singers, for example when you’re practicing a solo, think of how any other instrument would play this solo. Like a brass player trying to play a solo like a violinist or a clarinetist would; try to recreate the musical tendencies found in these instruments(like bow strokes or extremely fluent airstream as notes change). Sometimes it may sound absolutely ridiculous to play a trumpet solo like a violinist, but you may like how you sound at certain parts. Do this with styles and composers too; practice your solo in the style of Mahler, Shostakovich, Mozart, Stravinsky, or Debussy and you may find something new to make a passage more interesting musically. It’s like playing a game: try to play a solo as many different ways as possible. Mix all of your favorite characteristics together, and you can find a new way to perform this one solo you’ve been playing the same way over and over again.

  24. One way that I always keep it fresh is by relating what I am playing at the time to something in life that I am recently very inspired by–a particular person, nature, etc..

    A more tedious-but-successful way that I’ve learned to keep a piece fresh was a way I was taught in a Masterclass. You step back and analyze each individual measure and determine what the most important note is in each measure. You observe and analyses the measures separately, and then when you piece it together, sing your part to make sure and rise and fall happens in the correct places. (My professor always said, “As violinists, we don’t use breath to naturally know where a phrase goes, so it is important to sing our parts out loud to get the natural climaxes in music.”)

  25. I had just finished polishing Liebestraum no. 3 by Liszt to perfection, and was preparing to play it at a festival in a couple of days. Falling sick was not part of my plan, but it was too late to cancel, so I went anyway, expecting nothing but a ‘participation’ certificate. Completely relaxed and certain of failure, I explored the piece anew, not really caring what people thought. I hadn’t obsessively dissected it in my head beforehand, so there was nothing to lose. I did quite well, surprisingly, but now I know never to cancel when I’m sick (unless it’s really bad), never to think about the piece beforehand, and to just jump in and see what happens.

  26. I actually go into a meditative state while remembering to “Breathe, Relax, Concentrate and Count”. Then, I seek out and connect with various members of the ensemble. I listen to them and what they are playing and then I answer with what I am playing – call and response. Then, I look for someone else in the group, always remembering to “Breathe, Relax, Concentrate and Count”.

  27. Because my mind often gets a little overwhelmed during a performance from trying to think about making everything sound good, I like to focus on something different at each performance. For example, I might primarily concentrate on the colour of my vibrato the first time I perform a piece, then the next time I perform it I might primarily concentrate on the use of my bow (technique- and/or musical-wise). Naturally, I also get different amounts of adrenaline rush at each performance so that helps too!

  28. When practicing a piece, I sometimes challenge myself to imagine that I am playing a soundtrack. The trick is, I also have to come up with a story for the piece to accompany. What makes it even more difficult is that I must imagine a different scenario for each play-through. Keeps me engaged and focused!

  29. For me, focusing on creating the sound image that I want to come out of my instrument helps me to stay mindful of the present moment. By doing that, I am actively listening to what is going on and constantly creating the imagery that I am hearing in my head. It may seem counter productive to try and imagine something while creating music, but I think it gives me a confident basis to go off of and gives me the feeling of liberty to do what I want in those playing moments.

  30. I always try to get my blood pumping before a show. Jumping jacks, running around the building once, anything to get my energy up! This really helps me wake up and be present right before a performance.

  31. I try and make each repetition (or each time you play it) different. For example:

    A few weeks ago I was in a promo video shoot and the one of the pieces we were playing was “Aquarium” arranged for two pianos from “Carnival of the Animals” by Saint-Saëns. It’s quite a repetitive piece with a simple structure and we had to play it over and over again whilst they took different shots (I had previously played it for a concert and so trust me, it had been played and hearsed MANY MANY times).

    I knew the danger was that by the umpteenth repetition, my concentration would turn off and memory lapses and carelessness would creep in. So each time I played it I tried to bring out a different voice, give a new character to a certain passage (e.g. the last chromatic passage at the end: I could it play it so it sounded eerie. Or how about playing it as if it was a memory or the last ripples in the water fading away? And more!), or alter the balance with the second piano. There was a million different ways of playing the piece and by the end of the shoot (I had seriously lost count how many times we played it), it was still has fresh and exciting as when I had first started learning the movement.

  32. Before Performances and in the Practice Room:

    Sometimes pieces can go stale before an important performance (from over practice) and I find what helps to revive it is to listen to excellent recordings/videos of the work or watch inspiring master classes by great musicians.

    I find having fun with the piece works as well. Different rhythms (e.g. Jazzy rhythms), setting the metronome to a slightly faster tempo or playing a passage with different characters (could be playing in it a jazz/samba style or playing it as a lullaby). In essence, you are kind of improvising on the piece and having fun!

    But sometimes, having a small break from it is really the answer (and spending time sight-reading other repertoire).

    And on that performance day, just let it go! WANT to play, want to share this incredible piece of music, want to move, to lift and to inspire others.

    Music is a gift that we can share. Isn’t that amazing!


  33. As a pianist, one of the greatest challenges is being able to acclimate to different pianos at every venue one performs in. This, in and of itself, creates the allure of the “unexpected”, and keeps my playing fresh. I become totally engrossed in the particular qualities of the instrument I am playing- action, tone, resonance- and this determines, to a certain extent, what I am able to do or not do with my basic interpretive ideas and intentions. Thus, a sluggish action may make it difficult to play some of my fastest repertoire at the tempo I prefer. In that case, I must instantly figure a way how to make a slightly slower tempo just as engaging, with more lilt, or rhythmic emphasis, or more varied dynamics or articulations, or more rubato.. A very dull or excessively bright piano can pose similar challenges in trying to achieve a certain type of sound for a piece. But, the harder one has to work to achieve this, the more “mindful” one is, and audiences definitely sense the level of focus and concentration a performer has. In this way, the performer can draw the listener into the the experience of a “new sound”.
    Some instruments do not have a very sensitive action making it difficult to play softly. In that case, one must adapt, and explore ways to vary the sound, perhaps with more or less pedalling, perhaps with more use of the una corda pedal.
    Thus, I do believe that pianists are a breed of musician like none other- we must learn to deal with so many vastly different instruments, and that makes each performance exciting, different, and spontaneous.
    In fact, I find it advisable for my most advanced students to actually have two different pianos to practice on, if they can afford it. That way they do not get “locked in” to one type of sound, one type of action, and therefore too much predictability and hence, boredom.
    When this is not possible, it is good to practice the piano with the lid down, half-stick or fully up, to appreciate different acoustical properties of the instrument.

    Of course, there will always be musicians who are mechanically inclined and who do not listen to themselves closely enough, who strive for note perfection, instead of communicative and emotional perfection. For these pianists or musicians, the change of the instrument or hall or weather or any other variable is not an issue at all, as they strive for consistency and accuracy above all and have nerves of steel to achieve their personal goals.

    In general, for all musicians, I believe that continually referencing the score of a work is essential to finding new elements and interpretations- even if one has the piece memorized. Utilizing or referencing multiple versions or editions of a score can also lead to increased understanding and creative, fresh interpretations. It’s funny how the layout of music on a page and it’s visual impression can change how one might expect to hear the piece!

    Lastly, I feel it is important that when learning a new piece, one should not listen to recordings initially. Thus , one does not allow someone else’s interpretation to creep into their own, until they have their interpretation fully formed in their own mind and imagination, and technically mastered.

  34. Hi Noa! I like your articles and find your site a great resource! When I play pieces that I’ve played many tunes before, I just get excited by the fact that it’s a new audience I’m playing the piece for and that I want to share my interpretation with them. I also try to think about the style of the piece and how I would make it my own…I play a lot of Romantic composers and like to bring out harmonies, sometimes inner voices and the melody, and think of it that the audience (or not everyone) has ever heard this piece and I want to make it as exciting as possible. Finally, sometimes, I listen to different performances of my repertoire online and get ideas from certain passages from things that stand out to me musically. I like how no two pianists can play a piece the same way and I try to play pieces my own way…not imitating anyone else completely!

  35. Since I tend to play more jazz and improvisational type music than classical – or through composed – it’s easy to keep things things fresh for me in performance. I have recently been learning tunes I have played for years in different keys. There are two reasons for this: One is to see how well I really KNOW the tune (the answer is sometimes not as well as I should!), and the other is to make them more “guitar specific”, which allows me to use certain attributes of the guitar (open strings voicings, etc) that aren’t always available in the tune’s original key. This can be a lot of work but it’s fun, and keep things interesting. I have also found that once I transpose a song into one or two new keys, then doing it in others is not as difficult. It also sheds a whole new light on a song that you have been playing for years, creating new possibilities.
    This past weekend I had a wine bar gig playing solo guitar (background music). One of things I played was a variation on “All the Things You Are”. The tune is originally in Ab major (actually F minor) w/ several modulations into other keys. I started it in E major and proceeded to take it through a couple of different keys, improvising both a theme or “head” and creating variations on that. I had never really done this before other than the few weeks before when I was practicing it. This was my first attempt “on the gig”. The result was certainly fresh and exciting for me!

  36. Something that is working for me (which was given to me by my teacher), is to start by singing the piece of music before I start playing, while playing try to use 10% more bow, and lastly always imagine that you are playing for someone who has never heard music before.

  37. I’m currently “reviving” a concerto that I’ve already performed twice over the course of this year. I took a month break from it and now I’m entering a concerto competition. I’ve spent countless hours on this piece, deconstructing it, listening to recordings, integrating my teachers’ advice, and playing it at impromptu performances for my family and friends. There was a stretch of two weeks in between the two performances a few months ago where I thought I had plateaued. Perhaps I just couldn’t get the piece to sound the way it did in my head. This, of course, came at the wrong time. I had a big performance looming over my head and I wasn’t ready to slack off, not yet. The performance approached without any sympathy for my crumbling practice regime and I went it with the mindset “I’ll try my best.” This actually turned out to be one of the best performances I’ve ever had, possibly *the* best. The second I sat down at my instrument in front of the orchestra, I felt like I was in complete control of the performance and that I wasn’t going to let my instrument carry me down just because of some bad practice sessions. I focused all of my attention into the music, trying to defy the laws of practice and prove that I could still give a kick-butt performance without that much preparation. This turned out to produce a focused spurt of energy where the words “food”, “sleep”, and “homework” never graced my mind for my nine minute concerto. I was engaged, interested, and actually had fun.
    This story isn’t just about plateauing, though; it’s about harnessing the power of performances to find that je ne sais quois that allows you to give and get the best performances. Remember, this was my second formal performance (with countless impromptu performances behind it) and I could play the piece backwards at this point. I was able to keep myself entertained by channeling all of concentration into the piece, focusing on every note, my tone, the length of each phrase. Even if you haven’t plateaued, you can use your performances as a way to practice concentrating. Thinking of each performance of the same piece as an exercise in concentration takes a banal experience and puts it into a different mold. With my audition on the horizon, I’m actually excited to perform (even if it’s for five judges) so I can practice giving a focused performance where there’s nothing on my mind other than the music I’m playing.

  38. I got this idea from a book I read some time ago. My student keeps playing the same piece for different occasions (such as for performances and competitions) and has got to a point where he was so familiar with the piece he played it all wrong (probably because he zoned out the minute he started playing). So I told him to imagine that the song was about a dark and scary forest. I then told him that the same song was about minions playing in a playground. He got so excited that, albeit playing most of the notes wrong, he got a kick out of it. When I finally told him to play it seriously as he would on stage, he did everything right. He even added a few different interpretations he did from the different renditions he did of the same piece. I told him to practice it that way whenever he started to feel bored.

  39. I try to think that the music I’m making is a color that covers the audience, the entire room, until everything is saturated. To me the colors are emotions that I’m painting over everyone. Each emotion/color is slowly changes with each note, emotion, and mood- maybe it just changes a shade, gets more saturated, or softens, but it is constantly changing.

  40. I always try to make an emotional contribution to the performance. When I am performing on my primary instruments, woodwinds, they are expressive through breath, and therefore I am always trying to push the limits of the sound, soft to loud, through breath. With piano, since I have mainly been playing in church, I tend to approach every song as if it were a Gospel song,, because I like the emotional fee of that music. Sometimes I have to be subtle, of course, and so the challenge is always to push the limits of the tone of the instruments, without going “over the top.”

  41. Wonderful article, Noa! As a harpist dealing with relatively limited repertoire, I often encounter the same pieces over and over again. One tactic I use to keep things fresh is to pretend that I’m hearing/experiencing the piece for the *first* time. This usually leads me to perform all the phrases and dynamics in a more exaggerated, dramatic way, which is always more fun and inspiring!

  42. My orchestra preformed a Mozart Divertimento about 12 times this year. Each time, we sat in a new configuration on stage. Sometimes sections were moved together; sometimes nobody would be next to someone in the same section as them. Every performance finding the sections you usually interacted with was a fun game. We made performing the piece about having fun playing with others and taking positive risks.
    Even when it was on a program with David Diamond Rounds, it was one of my favorite things to perform (cellist).

  43. Just giving a piece a rest helps me immensely. When I go back to it again later, I find (happily) that it is still in muscle memory, and that frees me up to think about things other than fingerings and intonations.

  44. Commenting primarily as an orchestral musician, I dress for a combination of the program’s aesthetic and my state of mind the day of the performance, even when “concert black” is required. When I am playing the same program as a repeat (or even three-peat), I will dress differently each night. (I understand this is often not possible for the professional men!! Socks, perhaps??) Perhaps it is more of an extrinsic motivator, but works for me in re-setting my internal focus and “new-ness.”

  45. I’ve played it a million times,but for that someone in the audience, it will be there first time. Play it for them

  46. As the leader of the “Pat Metheny Group Tribute” and also the lead guitarist of one Django Reinhardt Tribute band I might say:


    Great artists cannot be replicated so you can only win by “offering subtle new nuances to your performance”. Great article, Noa! Thanks a lot.

  47. I definitely work to stay completely in the moment, no matter what the moment is! I can add those emotions to my work and somehow, even if it’s a “negative” feeling, it always adds to the performance. Excited to check out the new app, as well!

  48. I always think and imagine how the composer of the piece would like it to played. Sometimes I try to imitate certain musicians too if I like their interpretations. At other times, I just close my eyes and try to imagine a scene that is befitting to the music.

  49. I find this study to be slightly misdirected.
    The goal of any artist, in the moment of creation, should be NOT to think. The music or painting or prose should come out of your BODY. This is when true transcendence happens. This requires thorough preparation and trust; trust in your fellow musicians, trust in the audience, trust in the space and most importantly – trust in YOURSELF! Many great artists in all mediums have talked about this. Kenny Werner, in his excellent book “Effortless Mastery,” (which should be a must read for any musician) talks at length about this. Perfection is not about playing something note perfect (a sure way to an uninspiring performance), it’s about finding honesty in THE MOMENT. It’s about truly revealing yourself, tempering your ego and fears, taking risks and perhaps most importantly – showing vulnerability! Being a great musician and being a great artist are not the same. Embrace who YOU are, embrace your imperfections, find the beauty – in all of it’s mystery – in the MOMENT.

  50. I found this especially interesting because I am getting really into Arabic traditional music at the moment, and in the Arabic tradition, improvisation is really important, so even composed pieces are played as semi-improvised, with embellishments of the melody, improvised instrumental solos, impromptu repeats of sections, etc.. One of the things people say when praising the greatest singers like Umm Kalthoum is that they never sang a line the same way twice. And there’s a real emphasis on musicians achieving a kind of flow state enabling them to ‘enchant’ the audience, which seems to be made possible by the improvisational nature of the performance.

  51. It’s curious to reflect upon the subtle forces and conditions that may have had a direct effect upon ones development and mindset. When I was growing up it was not uncommon to frequently eat the same meals. We were not technically poor, but often ate the same or similar meals frequently. Even though I’m a vegan today, I can eat, for instances, vegan spaghetti, sauce and pasta, nearly every day, and with complete satisfaction. Clothing plays a similar role. I can wear the ‘same’ type of clothing everyday. The examples abound, and can be traced to forces and condition at play when I was growing up. As with the aforementioned, I can listen to the very same favorite musical section, or sections, of any LP, CD, MP3, or any other music format, to exhaustion. In previous decades, playing LP’s, anyone could readily see the wear impressed in those sections I found most compelling. In a like manner, I have been playing some of my own composition, largely unchanged, for decades. I must confess that is recent years I have greatly improved these compositions; specifically because I began to practice with another guitarist that encouraged my development.

    So, can ‘restricted’ meal options, and limited choices in other areas, at play during formative years, induce, or encourage, or otherwise establish a mindset that is more capable of drawing continue satisfaction from completely unrelated activities, like practicing or performing the same musical pieces, over and over again? I know, this does not approach the question of the article, “How to Keep Performances of the Same Piece from Getting Stale.” Or does it? If, in fact, other unrelated activities such as eating, and dressing can influence how one relates to practice and performance, then how can we extract practical understanding from this proposition?

    I nearly gave up on this theme until I realized its provisional status; to provoke intelligent reflection, if not further research. Do individual musicians, ‘raised’ in a similar manner as mine; having learned to be satisfied, and thankful to have the bare necessities, find is easier to stay with a piece; practiced and performed endlessly? I’m not suggesting this is the only or best way. I’m exploring a proposition, and asking if it sounds familiar to some. It makes sense to me that if one learns to be satisfied with limitations in vital choices, such as diet, clothing, toys, friends, opportunities, relationships, etc., than perhaps the same tendency would certainly apply to practice and performance. If we have learned to be satisfied with the bare minimums, does this directly relate to the ability to maintain freshness, and avoid staleness in practice or performance generally, and specifically as it relates to pieces frequented confronted. I offer these ideas for your consideration.

    “How to Keep Performances of the Same Piece from Getting Stale,” is the question. The way we have learned to approach our practice and performance determines, in part, the outcome, and the emotional response. If, as with me, practice and performance is a form of sustenance, not unlike food, this activity is always nourishing. In the same way that I never tire of eating certain food, I never tire of playing certain, if not all pieces. If the primary focus of music is to entertain an audience, perfectly fine as far as that goes, it is not likely a form of sustenance in the sense mentioned, and therefore not a source of personal enrichment, or nourishment. Therefore, from this perspective, the only way to maintain ‘freshness” in playing music is to cultivate a musical approach and attitude that feeds, and fuels the human spirit; emotional and psychological needs. I offer these thoughts for your consideration.

    1. Hi John,
      Your comment completely resonated with me. I’m only a beginning amateur guitarist (been at it for only a year and a half), but I can describe myself as taking pleasure in the repeated activities I do daily. I like wearing the same clothes, eating the same foods, meeting the same people. I enjoy my routine. I’ve seen this reflected in my practice time, as well. In this year and a half that I’ve been playing with my guitar, I’ve approached it by practising the lead guitar parts of a for 3-4 months to get it “performance ready” – which for me just means to not be ashamed to perform it in front of a camera. I can’t play more than 3 tunes (and those with the backing track!) but I’m having so much fun getting the lines “perfect” 😀
      To be fair, they’re the same lines on the same backing tracks, but I never play them the same way. My fingers always feel different and I sometimes I need to be careful and play them slowly, other times I feel them warmed up and I can go full speed.

      1. Perhaps it might have been useful to mention that I grew up in an environment where I didn’t have access to many things – my aunt had to mail me boots when I was 5 (in 1993) because you couldn’t find them in my home town. I suppose I learned to make do with little.

  52. As the director of Ring Pittsburgh, an auditioned handbell ensemble, I remind the ringers that although we have rehearsed and performed these pieces many times, it may be the first time this audience has heard it. This performance is your gift to them. Use the good wrapping paper!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You'll also receive other insider resources like the weekly newsletter and a special 6-day series on essential research-based practice strategies that will help you get more out of your daily practice and perform more optimally on stage. (You can unsubscribe anytime.)

Download a

PDF version

Enter your email below to download this article as a PDF

Click the link below to convert this article to a PDF and download to your device.

Download a

PDF version

All set!

Discover your mental strengths and weaknesses

If performances have been frustratingly inconsistent, try the 4-min Mental Skills Audit. It won't tell you what Harry Potter character you are, but it will point you in the direction of some new practice methods that could help you level up in the practice room and on stage.