I played this piece perfectly at home, really!”
I believe you. There is nothing lacking in your effort, it’s something else.
Triumphant after many hours of practicing the student arrives at the lesson excited to show the teacher what has been gained. Then, after a few bars of music the enthusiasm collapses into a heap of wrong notes and missed rhythms. Several false starts and mistakes in the same places causes the student to be exasperated, declaring, “I played this piece perfectly at home, really!” I know. I believe you practiced.
Welll…. with some students it really is something lacking in their efforts. Of course, if you are not practicing enough you aren’t going to make much progress. However, If the student is practicing a lot, a possible cause of this common syndrome might be nerves stemming from playing in front of the teacher. If you are uncomfortable with your teacher it is a sign that it is time to talk it through with them. Neither party may be to blame for this situation, simply talking about it may solve a large part of the issue. Teachers are there to be kindly critical and most students know this and welcome the opportunity for improvement that correction offers. Most students get over the jitters of playing for the teacher after a few lessons.
So, once poor practicing habits or an uncomfortable personal dynamic with the teacher are ruled out as possible causes in the “I played it better at home” syndrome, then what? There is another culprit at play here that can be solved with an adjustment in mindset. I refer to this as getting into Artspace.
Artspace is a zone that happens when all other layers of thought besides the task at hand are muted. The musician (or dancer, or painter, etc.) is singularly focused on what they are doing and are not letting any other thoughts in. Time is suspended and the physical environment around them dissolves. Many people can get into Artspace when they practice, it is very invigorating and I believe, similar to the effects of meditating. While meditation emphasizes removing all thought, Artspace emphasizes focusing in on one thought stream to the exclusion of all others. The feeling of achieving Artspace can be quite satisfying, one of the many reasons people take music lessons that may not be obvious at first.
If you are not able to achieve Artspace in practicing you are asking your mind to multi-task. The idea that humans can multi-task has been disproven in recent years because it is simply not the way the brain works. Studies show that what actually happens when you are doing two different things at once that both demand attention, such as washing dishes and watching the news, you are not going to absorb as much information (or have as clean of dishes) as you would if you just focused on one of these. The brain switches rapidly back and forth between the tasks and therefore information is lost as your focus is only on one of them at a given time. For news watching and dishes this is probably a tolerable compromise. For practicing an instrument, distractions are a detraction. Children in the room, loud noises, not being comfortable in the room, etc., can all cause the mind to switch momentarily away from the task at hand. The solution may be to wait until the kids are in bed, wear headphones, be aware of being physically comfortable in the room, etc. I recognize these not always easy to pull off.
However, often the distraction is in the mind. You may begin your practice session with goals and focus but suddenly that work task, or that relationship problem, or the laundry that’s piling up in the bedroom all start jumping out in front of your attention. Suddenly your playing is relegated to the background while you are thinking of these things and your hands or voice are going through the motions with no brain attached to learn anything. While you are practicing you need to have complete engagement with everything you are doing, a meta conversation with yourself on what is happening with the music each and every moment. If your attention moves to something else you won’t remember what you did. The muscle memory aspect of playing is a part of practicing, but your thoughts need to stay engaged with it for it to stick. People who fall into muscle memory practicing don’t always know for sure what they are actually doing intellectually and if the muscle memory fails, the mind memory isn’t there to back it up. Often times a student will practice a long time like this and finally get the piece “right.” But when a new day arrives, much as been forgotten and the process begins again. This is especially true when the student is in a new environment, such as the teacher’s studio. Suddenly all the new distractions of being somewhere different are present and get in the way of being able to call out the muscle memory playing and the mind memory playing has not been present enough throughout the week to come to the rescue.
The student has practiced for hours but can’t recreate playing the piece as well in the lesson. “I had it perfect at home!!” I believe you, but the one or two times you got it perfect was after hours of non Artspace practicing, and it didn’t stick. Once again, the “work smarter not harder” message in the practicing blog post below applies. You will find yourself getting farther faster with working in Artspace because your efforts will imprint on your mind.
Now, some people like to think about other stuff and enjoy playing as a way of relaxing. No problem! Play through scales, stuff you know, or whatever you want after you have reached a goal or two with your Artspace practicing. For example, some finger exercises such as Hannon for the piano are repetitive and designed to sharpen muscle memory. Go ahead and fantasize about your dream vacation while doing these, your fingers will still get the benefits. But learning that passage that always confounds you, or memorizing your piece is going to require Artspace for full success.
Some people have no desire to perform for the public but would like to play for family or friends, and of course there is the need to play for the teacher in the lesson. The key to any performance is to recreate the same Artspace you had when you practiced. No longer are you in the teacher’s studio, or on the stage, you are in Artspace. You could be on space station on Mars and it wouldn’t matter. The other beings in the room, the sound of the old heating system whirring, the problems you thought about in the car on the way, are all gone. It’s just you and the music as you relive the mindful relationship you developed with it. Since you will be in the same Artspace when you practice as when you perform you can recreate your efforts more consistently. If part of performing for you does involve more than playing the music, such as if you are a lead singer and need to move around, incorporate that into your Artspace practicing so that you are not doing something different (and distracting) when you are on stage. Practice like you perform, perform like you practice.
Becoming proficient as a musician takes so much focus and work and many students who have dedication and excellent practicing techniques reap great personal satisfaction out of their efforts. Avoid the disappointment of slow progress and the nervousness of playing for others by taking your own personal vacation from life: Artspace!