Performing does not just mean playing while a bunch of people watch. You’re performing a tune any time you try to play all the way through it. But this is nothing to shy away from or build up as bigger than it really is — a performance could be for your teacher, or in a session, or even playing along with a recording on fiddle-online.com.
Perfection is not an issue when performing; in fact, “perfection” should be off the table. The goal in performing a tune is to get through it in time. How well you actually play it is for you to judge afterwards. Once you know you can finish what you start, whether a tune, a part or even a phrase, you can practice, polish, hone, develop your musical ideas. If you know you can get through the tune in time, you can play it with and for others, enjoying their company, enjoying the music, and learning what you need to work on in order to play it better.
A big part of practicing is strategizing for how you plan to play through, or perform, a tune — regardless of how well you know the tune. Don’t wait for that elusive moment when you think you know it “well enough to perform,” that future time when you plan to have all the notes nailed down. You wouldn’t want to nail a bunch of wooden boards securely in place without an overall plan for where they actually fit.
To strategize for performance, start at the beginning. The beginning of a tune is the time to get the feel of how fast you want to go, physically internalize that beat, and start playing with the bow already dug into the string and ready to go. There’s no reason not to have a clean start. Strategize for it by thinking through where you want to place your bow, what the first beat note is, how to feel the tempo in your body before beginning, even how to take a calming breath (in time!) before you play.
After starting a tune, some learners hit a snag and make the mistake of going back to find the notes they missed, sometimes trying to play a passage several times before going on. If someone does this in a lesson, I have to use my imagination to figure out where they are! That’s not a performance, that’s practicing in front of a teacher. I’d rather they played less of the tune, but got through it from start to finish, so we can focus on how to play it better.
I don’t think these students intend to play that way, to practice in front of people. I just think they have never tried it any other way. Performance, even in front of a teacher, or by yourself with a recording, requires a different attitude than practicing. It’s about continuity, and is something you can aim for from the moment you start learning a tune.
Strategizing for performance means stripping the tune to the basics you’ll need to have under control when performing, so that you can keep the tune going through thick and thin. For example, if there’s a trouble spot, make sure you know the beat note you’re aiming for, so you can drop any uncertain notes and get to where you need to be. Know the structure of the tune — is the first phrase the same as the third phrase? If so, you can jump into the third phrase because it’s just a repeat of the first, even if your playing of the second phrase goes kaflooey. Is the ending of both parts of the tune the same? Get comfortable with them and their four beat notes so you can finish each part well even if you’re fingers bail on you in the mean time. Is there a spot that is always messy? Be sure you know which way your bow needs to go on the beats, so you can play through that spot with clarity and beat, even if some of the notes are left in the dust. If your bowing is consistent and organized, you’d be surprised how much easier it is to clean up a trouble spot!
Looking ahead is key. If you struggle with a few notes and distract yourself from where you’re headed, you can derail yourself for the next several notes or even measures. When I was 6 years old, my piano teacher used to write in a little picture of eyeglasses with the eyes looking ahead. He’d draw this a measure or two before a trouble spot so I remembered to think ahead. This is basic strategizing. Thinking ahead at the right moment can take you past a problem and keep you on track. When performing, never dwell on the notes you’re actually playing at the moment; it’s a recipe for distraction. Trust your ears, muscle memory, and practicing, and dare to plunge forward. Present the whole phrase to the listener, even if the listener is just yourself. Take the listener through to the next phrase and paint at least a sketch, if not a finished portrait, of how the tune goes. Evaluate afterward, and make a mental sticky note about the spots you want to learn better.
Practicing involves teaching your muscle memory; performing involves using it. When you practice, work on improving your playing, taking out a phrase or a technique and learning more about it. Your bow and fingers can learn relationships that make sense of the tune.
But always reserve time to strategize for performance. Push yourself to play without reading music, even if only for a phrase or two. Do this before you’re ready! Find out where things stand. If you have played the tune before, you’re likely to know it a little better than you think. Be sure to warm up to it and give your muscle memory some chances to recall what it needs to do.
If every time you hit a snag, you stop and go back to fix it, you will forever be practicing. Nobody wants to listen to someone practice! When you perform a tune, play it all the way through. The listener will just have to take it as it is, warts and all. Next time, it will be better!
When you have a strategy for performing a tune, you know you can play along with others or for a teacher. You can always strategize to have a clear beginning to a tune so that you can start it in a session, and enjoy playing with a group, even if you’re not clear on all parts of the tune.
Fun as it can be to work on your tunes and techniques, performing them is what it’s all about. When you practice, strategize for performing, and when you’re performing, go with the flow, and enjoy!
©2019 Ed Pearlman