Should One Practice Very Much on the Day of a Concert?

Legendary musicians and pedagogues are not in the habit of going out for drinks with sport psychologists. But if they were, I think there would be much to talk about.

As I reflect on everything I learned from my lessons, coachings, and master classes over the years, and filter it all through the lens of sport psychology, I find it interesting and even a bit amusing, just how much overlap there is. Not complete agreement of course, but more than you might expect.

For instance, what would a great pedagogue and a sport psychologist say to the question “Should one practice very much on the day of a concert appearance?”

Here is how artist and teacher Louis Persinger (whose students included Yehudi Menuhin, Ruggiero Ricci, Isaac Stern, Camilla Wicks, Louise Behrend, Sylvia Rosenberg, Almita Vamos, and many others) responded:

“Generally speaking, it is better not to practice too much on such a day.  Too much work – long hours of it – would dull the freshness and enthusiasm needed for the actual performance.”

When pressed with the follow-up question “Should one play through his entire program in concert tempo the day of the appearance?”, Persinger maintains this position, replying:

“I would say no. But it might be advantageous to try out certain passages, etc. at the concert speed. I would certainly not advise anyone to play through the whole of his program with great intensity, etc. Too often one hears of very conscientious players burning themselves out in their practice and retaining too little in reserve for the highlights of the public performance.”

What do sport psychologists say?

The sport psychologist would agree, pointing to corroborating evidence in sports to back this position.

If you have ever been friends with a competitive endurance athlete, you’re probably familiar with tapering. Tapering refers to the process of strategically reducing one’s training volume and frequency (but not intensity) in the days or weeks before a big race. The research suggests that doing so allows the body to recover and optimize levels of muscle glycogen, enzymes, antioxidants, and hormones for the big day.

Quite a few studies show a significant, if not (occasionally) dramatic boost in performance on race day among those who tapered, while those who continued training like normal up until race day don’t enjoy these performance enhancements.

Psychological factors are also associated with tapering too. There is often a reduction in perceived effort, mood disturbances are reduced, vigor is increased, all that good stuff. Some athletes even seem to sleep better following a taper.

Take action

So when you are preparing for a big audition, competition, or recital, plan ahead so that you can use the last week or two to begin tapering instead of cramming. Keep the intensity of your practice high, but begin gradually reducing the total amount of grunt work you do, so that you aren’t burning yourself out. More run-throughs, spot-checks, and mock auditions, slow work to stay connected with your instrument, and less banging it out mindlessly over and over.

Of course, if you have to cram, you have to cram, but the goal is to plan ahead so it doesn’t come to that.

The one-sentence summary

“To go beyond is as wrong as to fall short.”  ~Confucius

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4 Responses

  1. I agree. I don’t practice at all on the day of my performance and I hope I shouldn’t need to! 2 hours before a performance, I like to pace the practice room, singing and conducting the music like an idiot as I mentally run it through. I might play a little when I walk past the piano, but only a fragment of where ever I’m up to in my mind.. and then I’ll hop off while the music continues in my head.. It helps me gets me into the essence and flow of the music (which I tell myself is the most important thing), and strengthens my confidence that I can pick up whenever should I have a mind blank. So it’s not ‘practice’, but more pre-performance ‘therapy’. I think it’s OK to practice the beginning of the piece quite a bit, but I never really run the entire piece through on the day in case something goes wrong and that sticks in my mind during the performance!

  2. I never practice the day of a gig. I consider that day’s performance to be yet another practice. I got that idea from a musician who told me if audience is attendance is low and he still collects his negotiated fee, then it’s a “paid practice.” (Apparently, that’s a joke among other musicians who’ve found harmonic series between them and crickets.)

    Actually, I developed this philosophy when in formal education. I’d never study the day of an exam. To me, the exam was yet another iteration, possibly with some inspirations like when I see a nice lady in the audience, a muscular guy to emulate, or think of some interesting news happening like the Instagram payout from Facebook and how that might fit in the current lines of questioning / playing. At least I get to live that private fantasy for my delight, and then deliver it as either test results or solos and accompaniments.

  3. If I practice at all, I try to specifically avoid pieces I intend to play during the performance. I want my playing during the gig to be slick and fluid, and sometimes practice can ruin that fluidity and make it more mechanical.

    I do run through a standard warmup at home prior to leaving home, I prefer upbeat tempo songs that are just fun to play, but that require some level of dexterity on my part, just to get me into the playing mode. As I said, I avoid pieces I’ll play during the performance. Usually, if I’m struggling to make a piece in my performance sound good and that’s worrying me, I’ll pull that piece out and play something else in it’s place, even I have to resort to just playing something straight out of improvisation for a few minutes to fill the gap. The day of the gig, hours before I’m under the lights, that’s not the time to start trying to polish the piece.

    On a side note, I find it helpful to, on a day when you’re playing well, record yourself playing pieces you want to use in a performance. Listening to those tapes in place of directed practice helps me keep the piece in mind without having the instrument in hand. Hearing the chord changes, the melody, the cadence, helps me recall the way I need to play the piece without burning me out on the instrument.

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