Practicing for a performance

//Practicing for a performance

Practicing for a performance

There are a number of goals we might be working towards when we practice on a daily basis, but none are more potent than an upcoming performance. As I right this, I am preparing to perform a new duet with Ben Verdery for the New York Classical Guitar Society International Artist Series (Jan 15th 2016) and also up at Yale (Jan 19th 2016).


Here is a clip from a recent rehearsal…


For this particular performance there were a couple of issues we had to deal with:

  • A brand new piece for both of us
  • A short time span to rehearse (one week from start to show)
  • A technically challenging piece

This project forced me to use my time effectively and it is amazing how much progress we can make when we focus in on what matters.


Here are some ways to practice effectively for an upcoming performance.

#1 Mapping out your practice time

Just as we can set goals and a timeline for our overall development as a musician, so can we map out the time leading up to a performance.

Start with the performance and work backwards…

  • When do you want to schedule a test run?
  • When do you want to be playing through the program in its entirety?
  • When do you want to play through specific pieces beginning to end?
  • When do you want to mark of specific sections or phrases as complete?
  • When do you want to start working on your program methodically?
  • What is your program?

If you have answered all these questions and mapped out a rough timeline, you are already doing well. You don’t have to hit everything on the mark exactly but it will be a far greater help than leaving everything up to chance!

#2 Memorize or read?

The choice of memorization or using the score on the stage will depend on the individual and the type of performance (solo recital/ensemble/long preparation time or short). However, there is one crucial mistake that you must not make…

Decide whether you are going to use the score or not and stick to that decision!

I can vouch from personal experience that it can be tempting at the last minute to change from memorization to reading or vice versa. The problem here is that while the last minute change may make sense to you in the moment, on the stage your mind and body rely heavily on what it has been familiar with up to this point.

So, even if you think you are being safer by putting the score in front of you for the performance you are actually making the process harder because you have not practiced the choreography needed to move your eyes from the score to your fingers and back again. It can be very disorienting!

I would say make a choice a week or more prior to the performance and stick with that choice. Otherwise you run the risk of sabotaging yourself.

#3 Getting your scores in order

Another aspect that can often be left to last minute changes is preparing your score. Whether you are taping sheets together, using an iPad and foot-pedal or having the music stand low vs. high these aspects all play a part in your performance.

If you are using a stand and score, tape the sheets early in the process and decide on a height that you can comfortably see while being as low as possible to give the guitar a chance to project.

My cringeworthy anecdote about this involves playing the arpeggione sonata by Schubert as a student and deciding on the day of the performance to cut out and stick my part together with glue and tape to save room… what I didn’t count on was glueing the little strips out of order…

#4 Changing strings at the right time

Even if you play every note in the right place at the right time, if you are out of tune… it just sounds bad.

We want our sound to be at its best when we perform so we will more than likely change our strings before a performance.

It is crucial that we take into account how long it takes our strings and our guitar to settle into a steady tuning.

It will depend on how much you play, what kind of strings you have and to a lesser extent your tuning machines.

In my case, I put on new trebles about four days ahead of the performance. Trebles take longer to settle as they are more slippery than the basses. I put on the basses two days ahead giving them time to settle into tuning and not lose their bright new sound from my sweaty fingers. I am what they call a “string killer”, so my basses “die” after a few days of solid playing.

It is also important to get used to playing on fresh strings because the sound will be different along with more string squeak on the basses. Don’t let yourself be surprised by new strings a day before performing!

#5 Detail work vs. Run Throughs

Focusing in on details is necessary to develop and explore the musical possibilities of a piece. Without detail work, we cannot really delve into the aspects that make a performance truly captivating to listen to.

When we have a performance, however, there comes a point we have to start committing to full run throughs of a piece.

There is a certain type of stamina and concentration needed to play a piece from beginning to end, and additionally to play a set of pieces beginning to end.

Make sure to be playing complete run throughs several weeks out from your performance so you will develop a fluency and focus that carries you through the performance.

Practicing the performance

You may have seen a common thread through these points, which involves getting your body and mind familiar with the experience that is going to occur on the stage.

This is all about practicing the performance.

The less you leave to chance, the less you don’t know what the final performance feels like, the more successful you will be in your final performance.

Let’s go!

As I have often said in my emails, and podcast, performing is perhaps one of the most powerful goals you can set for yourself and it does not have to be a big intimidating affair.

Go for it!



If you have your own preparation tips please feel free to share them in the comments below.


2016-10-24T00:19:49+00:005 Comments


  1. Aaron Willmon January 13, 2016 at 8:31 pm - Reply

    I also advise that when you practice the performance, and you make a mistake, you must react like you would on stage. Don’t flinch. Just keep going through the piece as if nothing is bothering you. You can’t stop everything and start over and you can’t curse your way out of it.

    • Simon January 13, 2016 at 8:50 pm - Reply

      Great point, Aaron. I totally agree on this. The habit of not self-admonishing has to start well before the performance.

  2. Joe Bazan January 31, 2016 at 4:18 pm - Reply

    I don’t have a whole lot of live performance experience, but a tactic I have used is to begin with a couple of pieces that I know very well and that I believe I can play without a whole lot of concentration.

    My reason is that it gives me a chance to mentally and emotionally settle down in front of the audience, so that by the time I get to a piece of music that I need to concentrate on, my stage fright and self-doubt are under control.

    • Dave Belcher February 2, 2016 at 2:31 am - Reply

      Hi Joe,

      I think that’s a really helpful way to structure your performances, especially if you suffer from stage fright (as so many of us do—yes, even the pro’s). Beginning with a piece that you feel really confident with or that doesn’t require too much in terms of technique can help settle your nerves, as you mention, and can also give you a needed confidence boost for your next set of pieces on the program (same goes for the second half after intermission if there is a break in the program). Great advice!

  3. 6Strings February 9, 2016 at 4:27 pm - Reply

    Failure is way overrated. Yes, plan and prepare for a performance. But in the end, not performing well is part of the journey.

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