Practicing for Performance

When we are first learning a new work, we might spend many hours putting it together. We can easily spend days, weeks or even months working on small sections, phrases, passagework, navigating specific chord changes, or other musical and technical items in a piece. We do this not only to perfect individual sections and assure technical fluidity, but also in an attempt to produce a reasonable facsimile of the composition in a performance. If a work is particularly demanding, it may mean many long hours of practice before we reach the goal of giving our first moderately satisfactory performance in the practice room.

Once we have achieved this very significant goal, it can be tempting to think that we have done the bulk of our work. However, we have only just begun. Before we can rely on reproducing this same moderately satisfactory performance on stage, we still have a good deal of work to do. In fact, if we are striving to perform at a high level, all we have done thus far is to set the foundation for our upcoming performance preparation.

There is a substantial difference between being able to successfully navigate from point A to point B once or twice in the practice room, and having a piece performance-ready for the stage. Once you are capable of performing a piece in the practice room, you still need many, many repetitions to solidify it for the stage. This rule is not only limited to technically challenging material. Even simple pieces need multiple repetitions, particularly if there is memorization involved. Too many “bar bands” forget, or worse deny, this, and it shows when they do.

Experience will confirm that getting something performance-ready can be a “one step forward, two steps back” process. We may produce an excellent performance, only to flub something we have never missed before, the next time around. To make certain we give a good performance every time, we need many “run-throughs” or mock performances.

Each time you “run through” a work, you want to do it as if it were an actual performance: Give your full attention to phrasing, musicality, intonation, etc. You mustn’t, under any circumstances, stop, stutter, or go back and fix an error. There will be time for that later, if need be. Your mock performance should be just as it would be if you were on stage. Treat is exactly as you would a real performance.

As you are giving your mock performance, notice what’s not working and mentally catalogue it for later. When you are finished, perform the work again. After that, you might think about performing it again.

If you discover consistent errors that crop up every time you do your mock performance, then you still have some prep work to do. Isolate the problem areas and beat them into submission. You may find, however, that some problems only occur during your mock performances, and don’t happen if you isolate the passage. You may additionally find that your errors are different each time you perform the piece. If either of these is the case, then more mock performances are what are in order.

As you rack up your repetitions, the piece will begin to solidify, and you should feel better and better about your ability to replicate a good performance. After some time putting in mock performances, you may find that certain passages are still not to your liking. Isolate, repair, and work in detail. Then perform the piece again. Maybe, after that, you will want to perform the piece again. Then you might wish to perform the piece again.

There are many strategies to help you get your mock performance “reps” up, without going insane. It helps if you like the music you are playing. If you commit to a performance of something, you will probably live with it for a while. It’s even easier to get your reps in if you love it. Even if you love what you are playing, you might benefit by spacing the performances out, or doing them at different times of day, or putting them at the end of your practice session each day. Use whatever strategies work for you and keep you from burning out, or getting bored with a piece. You will need to execute many, many, many performances to flush out all of the cobwebs and glitches.

The goal is to be able to rely on a good performance every time, under any circumstances. Giving countless mock performances, preferably followed by a countless number of onstage performances, is the best scenario. Once you can play a piece from beginning to end, you not only need to continue solidifying isolated passages, but you still need hours and hours of performing the piece in the practice room. Disregard this fact at your own risk. Embrace it and thrive.

Dr. Donovan Stokes is on the faculty of Shenandoah University-Conservatory. Visit him online at and check out the Bass Coalition at

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  1. Hexbass

    This seems excessive. No, seriously.
    I’ve played and performed for 18 years, and in no working situation has practicing been like this. And yet, we had successful performances.
    To each his own, though.

  2. The difficulty and level of performance you are dealing with is also a factor. Obviously a Paganini caprice requires more work than a blues based tune.

  3. he difficulty and level of performance you are dealing with is also a factor. Obviously a Paganini caprice requires more work than a blues based tune. You’ve probably played the blues tune a hundred times before, under a different name.

  4. Hoz

    And THAT is what they call touche’.

    The problem arises when the blues band you just joined wants to grind the songs like they are Mozart sonatas. 5-6 times through with special work on the changes, MAN that gets old quick.

    THEN they practiced BOWING to the (imaginary) audience!

    Time for a new band…

  5. I think this site is biased!

    Good advice for any instrumentalist though!

  6. a bass by any other name...

    @Dustin: yup, biased towards bass.

    @Hexbass: depends on the piece, though i hear a lot of bar/festival/folk bands that really would benefit from at least some of this. sadly, they usually think that they sound great. worse, many of them post their aural assaults on Youtube.

  7. Marc

    The pitfall of over preparation is that it creates expectations of what will be appropriate and can limit/fetter musical expression.
    While reps can help with muscle memory it’s always equally important to intently listen to the other musicians on stage and then, while existing only in the immediate moment, play parts that are complimentary.
    Practice all you want, but don’t perform blinded by what you think should happen.

  8. I feel like that this is great advice for most players, however, as a hired gun I am often required to learn 40-60 songs in 2-3 weeks to be performed once, if that much time. How can I apply this to my own learning style? I am 55 and have been playing bass for almost 40 years, so I admit to having a hard time changing the way I work – and I love to play! Also open to suggestions.

  9. Great article. There is even more when you consider that in a live performance, distractions are usually rampant and can know you off your game even when you think it can be a flawless performance. It has to be practiced to where you are able to play it no matter what.

  10. kinda goes w/out saying, seems rather obvious to me,,