Practicing Performance

The time we spend practicing is probably the most critical time from a creative and professional standpoint. Part athletic conditioning, part meditation, and part artistic development, who we are on the concert stage depends largely on who we are in the practice room. If you’re not prepared for a concert, your nerves are going to be much worse than usual, and—unless the stars are looking kindly upon you—chances are you’re not going to have the most memorable night. Over the years I have found that there is a particular mindset that one can strive for when practicing, in order to obtain more reliable and, dare I say, flat-out better results as a performer.

Let’s assume you divide your practice time more or less equally between technical issues, learning new pieces, and the upkeep of pieces you already play or are currently programming. Every time you’re “running” one of these latter pieces, I suggest you do that as if you were onstage. Picture yourself in concert garb, hear the hollow reverberation of your steps on the wooden floor, see the dimly-lit figures in the scarcely attended hall…wait a second—since this is a visualization exercise, let’s be generous and give ourselves a standing-room only performance. With some practice, you should be able to recreate the experience, and hopefully the same pre-performance focus. If you’re doing it really well, you might even get a little nervous.

Now play. Unlike the saying, play as if someone is listening. Play outwards, project the sound to the back of the imaginary hall, project your musical thought and interpretations to the imaginary audience. Let your playing be bold and clear—own every note you play, and put all of yourself into every musical gesture. In other words, be deliberate, and practice being deliberate.

Granted, reading the above couple of paragraph might make the more pragmatic among you scream. But in all seriousness—shouldn’t we aim to recreate what happens in performance within the confines of the practice room? Isn’t one of the worst elements of stage fright that feeling of alienation, that eerie taste of strangeness that comes from realizing that you’ve never actually done that before? New hall, new program, new shiny suit—it even makes the guitar slip a little bit. All strange and unfamiliar. “Wouldn’t it be so much better,” you think, as you notice the pounding of your heart and the dryness of your mouth, “if I could just be back in the safety of my practice room? Then I could really play.“

What I’m suggesting is that you pre-empt that feeling of strangeness through the methodical employment of visualization techniques. As you prepare for a performance, you should try as much as possible to envision yourself in the act of playing. Do so without a guitar, perhaps with the score, or simply by closing your eyes. As you go through each piece on the program, hear the music in your head as you feel the movement of your hands on the guitar. Imagine the sound of your guitar in the hall, and if you lose your place—well, you have found a spot that requires a bit more attention. As you get better, you can do these exercises in places and situations quite remote from your usual practice schedule, effectively expanding and maximizing your actual practice time. Nothing wrong with visualizing your program as you go for a jog, or when you’re stuck in traffic (just don’t get in an accident).

Run-throughs, whether physical or imaginary, can help making your next performance an enjoyable and successful one. Don’t wait until it’s showtime to practice your performing—make every practice session more deliberate and expressive, and I guarantee you’ll be amazed at the results.

Posted on in Guitar Performance Tips


  • Mike Hudson

    I’m sure there are others that, like me, just ‘run’ through their standard pieces to keep the muscle memory in place. How much more effective it will be to slow down and make each ‘run through’ as close as possible to the excellence we would strive for in an actual performance. Thanks for the reminder !

  • Paul Schmitz

    Good article. And while this is all something we’ve heard before, I like to record that part of practice to help simulate the “all or nothing” feeling one has in a live performance. Whether with a video or audio recorder, it gives me wonderful feedback.

  • John Farraro
    John Farraro

    My instructor has told me when he was younger and trying to prepare himself for concerts, he would arrange chairs in his living room for an imaginary audience so he’d be playing somewhere different than his practice room. Then he would run – literally-around his house several times to get his heart rate up and palms to sweat – to simulate what will happen in a public performance – then he playes, visualizes and projects (much as you described). He says its a pretty good way to learn how to play with the physical symptoms of nerviousness – becasue even as an experienced performer they never go away completely. I’ve not tried it yet but its seems a good approach.