Following is a short chapter I wrote for The Brass Player's Cookbook (published by Meredith Music Publications), reprinted here with permission. For more information on the book, click HERE.


How to practice making music (not just creating perfection)

By Craig Knox

Ingredients: an impending performance or audition
                      adequate preparation time
                      a recording device (optional)

Serves:  any musician who wants to “get past the notes”


When preparing a piece of music for performance, it is easy to be consumed with producing a perfectly executed rendition of the work. This can be particularly true when preparing excerpts for an audition, since the “pieces” are disconnected from their true musical context, and are often extremely technically challenging to boot. If you find yourself going down this path, it is worthwhile to remind yourself what your purpose is as a musician. Remember that people do not go to a concert to witness the creation of perfection; they go to be moved. Your job is to express the joy, the excitement, the beauty of the music, and share it with the audience. If you adopt a protective stance in which your top priority is the preservation and re-creation of your “perfect” rendition, the result is likely to come across as stiff and overly engineered. No matter how clean and accurate your playing is, it is not likely to grab the listener unless you are willing to really take chances, even at the risk of imperfection.

While all of this may seem obvious when contemplating a recital performance, it may not seem as relevant to auditions. Auditions, after all, are competitions in which your playing is meticulously scrutinized and judged. However, audition panels are made up of actual people who are subject to the same influences as any other audience. While an audition committee will certainly be listening for details along the way, they will always be drawn to a player who plays with ease, fearlessness and inspired musicianship. Certainly, to be successful in an audition, you must be able to execute the excerpts; but the sooner you think of an audition committee as an audience with which to connect, the better.

Taking chances and prioritizing communication with your audience may sound like a great idea, but the next step is to have a practice strategy which develops that ability. If you want to develop your high register, you must practice the high register; if you want to develop a great legato, you must practice legato. If you want to develop the ability to get down to sharing your music, you must practice just that.

A typical practice session may include a lot of earnest hard work on a piece of music, followed by one or two run-throughs (perhaps with interruptions for corrections) to tie it all together. However, this has some unintended consequences. By the time you get around to running the complete piece of music (which is what you are preparing to do after all, right?), your head is filled with all sorts of details and objectives which you have identified and worked on during your session. It will be very difficult at this point to put the minutiae aside and focus on the “big picture” during a run-through. Even more importantly, your run-through has now become a “test” to see how many of the details you worked so hard on you will be able to duplicate, and that can lead to distracted and tentative playing. And, if you fail to ace all the spots you had worked on, you end up psychologically reinforcing the notion that despite a lot of hard work you still can’t play this piece and you’ll never be able to.

Consider this alternative (this is for a piece you have already essentially learned, and are now polishing for performance):

1.) Give some careful thought to establishing the overall character of the piece. What style and mood are you trying to convey to the listener? What excites or touches you about this music that you want to share with your audience? Formulate a picture or a scene in your mind, or an adjective or phrase which captures the spirit of the piece. Also be as clear in your mind as you can on the details of tempo, dynamics, articulation, phrasing, etc.

2.) Play through the piece IN ITS ENTIRETY, as a committed performance, focusing especially on bringing out the character of the music which you established in Step #1. Go for it, play with abandon, have fun and see what happens. Record the run-through if you wish. But, DO NOT STOP FOR ANY REASON. Do not stop and start over because you are unsatisfied with how it is going.  Do not stop to fix something or try something again. Playing the piece all the way through without interruptions has at least two benefits: first, because you have committed to play without stopping to fix things that go wrong, your concentration will tend to improve noticeably, in an effort to get it right the FIRST time. Second, you will gain experience playing the piece the way you will ultimately perform it in concert. Playing through without stopping may be very difficult at first. But the more you do it, the easier it will become, as your concentration improves and you have fewer and fewer reasons to want to stop!

3.) NOW fix the things you are not satisfied with. Consult your memory of the run-through or the recording you made, and identify the spots which need attention. Spend this important time using your metronome, tuner, and other practice methods (this is a subject for another chapter!) to really work the details and address the problems as completely as you can.

4.) LEAVE IT. This step may be as hard for you as Step #2. You may feel compelled at this point to run it through again (and again!) to see if you can do it better. But have TRUST in yourself that the progress you made in Step #3 will stay with you and still be there when you run the piece in tomorrow’s practice session. Having trust in oneself is perhaps the most important trait for a musician, and when developed allows you to really focus on the music when performing.

Performing for others is the best way to practice performing music. When preparing for a performance, find people to play for ahead of time, whether they be family members, classmates, friends, teachers or colleagues. Take it a step further, and seek out performance opportunities wherever you can find them. Play at a school, nursing home, hospital, church or community center. Performing in any of these settings will help you develop the confidence to play your best in other situations such as a recital, jury, competition or audition. Really, though, these sorts of “practice concerts” are more than a means to an end. Performing for other people – in any situation – is what it’s all about. Ideally you will realize that as a musician, your job is always the same: to share your most committed musical performance with your audience, no matter who they may be. 




Copyright 2005 Craig Knox