Perfecting Your Repertoire: How to Practice Until You Can't Get It Wrong
“An amateur practices until he gets it right; a professional practices until he can’t get it wrong”
Most of us have heard this phrase in some context or other – in a music classroom, on a sports team, or in a motivational setting. Nearly all musicians – amateur or professional – would prefer that their songs sound great every time they play them. After all, it's no fun investing months in learning a piece, only to hit a wall and never be able to play it at the written tempo. Sometimes a piece sounds great when you're alone, but when you try to share it with friends, you have a memory lapse and it falls apart. This is disheartening, of course, and it often means that you’re not yet finished learning the piece. Perfecting a piece of music requires more effort and attention than you might think!
If you're having trouble getting a piece up to performance standards, it's possible that you chose a piece above your playing level, or that you didn't go about learning it properly (see the “New Music” section of this article on practice strategies). If your playing only falls apart when you play for an audience, it could be that nerves are getting in your way.
But even if you've done everything right until now, perfecting a song demands a lot of concentrated effort and a few learned skills. To perform a piece reliably, you need to understand it using several complementary kinds of musical memory. You should know how the piece sounds well enough to sing its parts (aural memory). You should have the physical motions automated so that your hands can execute them with minimal concentration (muscle memory). And you should understand the form and structure thoroughly so that you know your interpretive direction at any point in the piece (conceptual memory). In the polishing stage, focus on strengthening each of these memory areas and on bringing difficult passages up to performance standards. Use the tips and tricks detailed below to make the process more interesting and effective.
Play the piece at half speed. This feels very slow and will be difficult. It slows down your motions so much that you can no longer rely on momentum and muscle memory; you have to depend on your ear and conceptual understanding of the piece. Once you can play the entire song at half speed, increase the tempo ten clicks at a time until you arrive at the performance tempo. Better yet, work up to a speed that is a bit beyond performance tempo so that you'll be prepared for anything.
A variation of this approach is to take a difficult section and play it two times at half speed and one time at full speed. The full speed runs may not be perfectly clean at first, but alternating them with the slow and deliberate repetitions will reinforce the correct motions.
Change the rhythm of a section. For example, play a passage of eighth notes with a swing feel (long-short), or turn three triplets into one eighth-note plus two sixteenth notes. A variation on this is to change the accents. Normally when we play in 4/4 time, the strong beats are 1 and 3. Try accenting beats 2 and 4. If your piece is in 3/4, try accenting beats 2 and 3 instead of beat 1. Or try accenting only beat one of every other measure. Altering a musical idea ensures that you have a thorough grasp of it.
Play the whole piece very loudly, then very softly, and then somewhere in between. This helps improve your control of volume. Next, identify different dynamic levels in your piece. Play the sections out of order, starting with the quietest section and ending with the loudest. Play it again and see if you can make the quiet sections even more delicate, and the loud parts even stronger. Finally, play the piece in its proper order, and exaggerate the differences in dynamics as much as you possibly can. As performers, we often need to feel like we are over-exaggerating dynamics in order for the listeners to perceive the difference. This is especially true on the guitar, which is a quiet and subtle instrument.
Sculpture by Gert Germeraad
Experiment with various interpretations, even some extreme and silly ones. This is a really fun practice approach. You will exercise your technical control and all types of musical memory, and you may also inspire some new interpretive ideas. For example:
- Play all staccato parts smooth and ligado, and all ligado parts short and staccato.
- Reverse all the dynamic intentions of the piece – play the loud parts soft, the soft parts loud, and crescendos and decrescendos in the opposite directions.
- Play your piece sassily, flirtatiously, romantically, angrily, cheesily, despairingly, ecstatically, shyly, slyly, presumptuously, or meditatively. Choose a couple of these adverbs and really think about how they would alter the music. Give your piece a whole new attitude and have fun with it!
Work Backwards from the End
Start from the end and play the final phrase of the piece at performance tempo. When you can play it true to your intentions three times in a row, start one phrase earlier and play to the end. Keep adding one phrase at the time, working backwards, until you arrive at the beginning and play the whole song.
Work Outwards from a Difficult Spot
Choose a spot that frequently comes out below your performance ideals. Maybe it is a position shift, a high note that is difficult to arrive at cleanly, or an awkward chord change. Isolate two notes or chords and make the change between them perfectly smooth. Then back up to one note or chord before, and continue to include one note after. Add notes or chords two at a time (one before, and one after) until you can play the entire phrase cleanly.
Visually Represent Your Repetitions
Repeating passages over and over is not the most exciting part of being a musician. You can make this process just a bit more satisfying, and enforce that you stay true to your practice goals, by representing your repetitions visually. I use coins, but any small object that fits on your music stand will work. Line seven coins up on one side of the stand, and each time you succeed at playing the passage perfectly, move a coin to the right side. Once all seven coins have been moved to the other side, you’re ready to move on. The next step is to play the same passage five times in a row perfectly. In this variation, if you make a mistake once, you have to start the whole series again – that is, all the coins go back to the left side.
Stop and Go Practice
Play the piece one or two bars at a time, from memory, with a one or two beat rest in between each measure. During the rest, relax your hands slightly so that you don't build up tension. You'll find it quite awkward at first, but that means it is a useful exercise. This kind of practice can really save you if you have a memory slip during a performance. Instead of getting stuck in a repeating loop because you've forgotten what comes next, you can simply skip to the next measure and continue. If you're lucky, your listeners won't even notice!
Sing the Voices
Identify parts of the piece where you are playing multiple voices. Play just the bass line while you sing the melody. Then play just the melody while you sing the bass line. If there are middle voices, try singing them too. Keep the original left hand fingering as you do this, but play only one voice with your right hand.
Turn Small Details into Larger Concepts
Are there any scale runs in the piece? Think of a particular run as the 'scale run that goes to the high C' instead of as individual notes. Are there arpeggiated chords? Figure out the chord progression, and instead of thinking about each individual note, think of it as arpeggiating a series of chords. Once you're in the polishing stage of a piece, take advantage of any opportunity you can find to turn details into 'big picture' kinds of concepts.
Record In Sections
As you're moving from playing a song in sections to playing it as a whole, recording the song piece by piece will help you a lot. To create a seamless recording, you have to record a bit of overlap between each two sections. That is, continue recording a few measures beyond where one section ends, and then begin the following section a few measures early. Then you can edit the pieces together using crossfades (decrease the volume of the ending transition while increasing the volume of the beginning transition). Most recording and editing apps make this process pretty easy to figure out.
Conveniently, playing in front of a microphone can put you a bit on edge, which is good practice for stage nerves. If it takes you twenty attempts to get a clean take of a passage in a recording, you would probably have difficulties with it on stage, too. Learn from your recording difficulties and spend more time on your trouble spots.
Use your finished recording for insight on your current interpretation. Are you convinced by your interpretation? Is the mood and tone consistent throughout the piece? Are you doing enough to emphasize the dynamic and color changes of the piece?
This is a really silly exercise, but can it give you some valuable insight on weaknesses you may have overlooked. De-tune your guitar – make some strings very sharp, others very flat – and play your piece. It will sound ridiculously awful! But it will force you to rely on your muscle memory without the aid of your ear. Often, the technically challenging parts come out okay, because we've had to work on them more and they are more deeply ingrained in our muscle memory. It's in the easier parts, where we tend to rely on aural memory, where we get lost. This exercise will show you what parts need more attention from your muscle memory.
A Note on Perfection
Now that you have an arsenal of tools to navigate the final stages of learning a piece, here comes the contradiction. Ask any professional musician how many 'perfect' performances he or she has given. For most of us, it's zero. I've given plenty of really fun, well-prepared, energetic performances that both I and my listeners have thoroughly enjoyed. But perfection – no missed notes, no buzzed strings, no stray thoughts interfering with interpretive energy – is a lot to ask of a human being. The important thing is to aim for perfection in your practice. When you get to the performance – whether it’s a recital, a talent show, or a casual performance for your friends – just enjoy it. Your meticulous preparation has already paid off, and you've grown as a musician in the process. Always keep working towards perfection, but learn to be happy with a confident, focused, heartfelt performance.
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Editor's note: This article was originally published in 2016. The topic remains relevant, so we are bumping it to the top of our blog roll. Thanks again to Leah, who is still teaching great guitar lessons and can be contacted / booked here.