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I am going to do a live performance soon. I'll have sheet music; no improvisation.

I have practiced my part fairly well at home, but I am sure I'll get confused and make mistakes during the performance, because it's in a different setting. Fortunately, my role will be accompaniment, so any mistakes will not stand out too much. I want to make sure I don't make major mistakes like stopping for a long period of time or losing track of what we are playing.

Should I just make myself super-confident about my musical part (e.g. by playing at greater speed than needed), and hope this would prevent any confusion during live performance? Or should I somehow get myself into problematic situations at home and practice recovery? If so, how?

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    You learn what you practice. If you practice failing, you will learn to fail. On a neurological level, each run-through will reinforce whatever happens during that run-through. That's why you should practice a new piece slowly at first. Getting it right is WAY more important than the speed at which it happens. Practice VERY slowly at first, and only increase the tempo to match your ability to nail it. If you're unable to consistently nail it at tempo, then you're not ready to perform it. That said, I know real life has deadlines and compromises and sometimes things go wrong. Do your best.
    – ibonyun
    Jun 16 at 19:34
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    Most of the answers seem to be focused on learning a piece of music, but no matter how well you know a piece of music mistakes are bound to happen from time to time. Obviously good strategies for learning reduce the likelihood of mistakes, but how do you practice to get better at handling mistakes that do occur in performance? To me, that seems to be what the question is asking.
    – user87182
    Jun 17 at 2:55
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    As an accompanist, your job is not just compensating for your own mistakes but also covering for any mistake the soloist make. Jun 17 at 10:18
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    @user87182 Learning to start the piece at any point is both for helping to keep track and also helps for mistake recovery and continuation. Jun 17 at 15:10
  • @ToddWilcox -- I agree, which is why I mentioned exactly that in my own answer.
    – user87182
    Jun 17 at 15:16

9 Answers 9

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I’m surprised I’m the first one to bring up an important practice point that three of my teachers have recommended. Practice starting from different points in the piece. Not only at the beginning a of phrases, but truly start from random measures and play through several measures or to the end.

If it’s not that long a piece, you can practice starting from every measure. If it’s longer then finding strategic starting points can be good.

Second thing all the pros I’ve talked to about practice do: don’t practice the whole piece when you practice it. Only practice the hardest parts. Multiple pros have told me that on some gigs, they have never even played every measure before the actual performance or recording. The first time they play the easiest measures is at the (first) gig. That’s not always the case, but they all agree that practicing the easy parts every day is a waste of time.

For the hardest passages, start right at the hardest two beats or hardest measure. Play it slowly three or more times. Then back up two beats or a measure and play through the hard bit three or more times. Then back up again and go three times, etc. Back up until you’re playing a bit you are fine with through the hard bit. Also mark the hard parts in the music so you can go right to them when you practice.

Final practice technique that I haven’t applied much but was helpful when I did: set a timer and only work on the same piece for five minutes. As soon as it goes off, stop, even if you’re in the middle of a note. Work on something else or even stop practice for a bit, then do another five minutes later. Figure out the best number of five minutes chunks to do each day, but as mentioned above, don’t go through the whole piece every day.

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    This is good advice. In addition, I'd suggest learning a new piece one beat/bar at a time, starting from the end. That way, 2 things happen. 1) You know how to restart the piece from literally anywhere because you've practiced picking it up from everywhere. 2) You'll get more confident as you play through it because you're always moving towards a section you've practiced more, rather than less confident which is what happens when you learn something from the beginning.
    – ibonyun
    Jun 16 at 19:42
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    @ibonyun Good thought! I’ve been turned on to learning one bar or phrase at a time but not the idea of starting at the end. I’ll try that with my next few pieces! Jun 16 at 19:44
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I'm surprised no-one else has highlighted what I think is the most important part of the question:

my role will be accompaniment

As I'm sure you know, accompanying other people is very different from playing alone or as a soloist. As an accompanist, your job isn't to shine; it's not even to sound good, as such — your job is to make the soloist sound good (or soloists, or choir, or whoever you're accompanying). They have to feel comfortable, supported, and able to concentrate on their own part without worrying about the rest.

So you don't just have to play in time; you have to play in their time, so that they never feel they're getting ahead or behind.

Similarly, you mustn't play loudly enough to drown them out, nor quietly enough that they feel alone; you have to play just strongly enough to support them.

And if your part isn't fixed (if you're improvising or vamping, or even just tweaking a written part), then you also have to judge how much to play, and in what style, following the approach and shape the soloist(s) give it.

To do this, you have to be able to listen while you're playing, and judge the right speed and level and style and feel on-the-fly from what the soloist's doing. If they speed up or pause or change volume or whatever, you must be able to follow them seamlessly — without sounding hesitant or unsure. (If you're in a group with a conductor or band-leader or similar, then much of this will be up to them: they will listen and judge what the group needs to do, so your job will be to do what they indicate. But even then, it never hurts to listen to the soloist.)

That's not an easy skill to master; it's not related to all the technical skills you have, and only indirectly to the musical ones — and, unfortunately, it's not a skill you can really practise on your own. Playing along to recordings might help a little, but there's no substitute for practising with others, so try to arrange that if possible. And that will probably give you enough experience of coping with momentary confusion, losing your place, and picking up again.

Of course, being able to play your own part reasonably well is a necessary prerequisite, as is being able to handle a range of speeds and levels — and those are things that you can practise on your own. But be prepared to put them in someone else's service on the night.

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  • All this is all very well, but if you don't know what you're playing inside out, you're never going to be in that happy position of following/accompanying the soloist with any compunction. Last week I did a gig where both the singer and I knew exactly what we were doing, rubato, but she couldn't hear me, and I couldn't hear her - due to hasty/bad p.a. set up. I think we managed, but unless we both knew what we were doing, it would have sounded disastrous!
    – Tim
    Jun 16 at 17:53
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    @Tim How do you know it didn't sound disasterous? Maybe it did. After all, you couldn't hear each other :P
    – DKNguyen
    Jun 16 at 22:34
  • @DKNguyen Lip-reading can help! Jun 17 at 4:05
  • @DKNguyen - the post mortem after decided it wasn't bad...
    – Tim
    Jun 17 at 5:25
  • @OldBrixtonian - I was at the back of 25 players, singer at the front - little chance, really...
    – Tim
    Jun 17 at 5:27
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It's often said that amateurs practise till they get it right, pros practise till they can't get it wrong. And it's fairly accurate, and a great tenet to live by.

Knowing your part 'inside out' will ensure even if you don't make a mistake but someone else does, that's not going to throw you either.

So, keep practising your part so that if the music falls off the stand, you can continue anyway.This may mean learning it verbatim, or at very least remembering the chord structure, or passages where everyone is playing tutti, or special bars where your part should shine through. Not forgetting (literally!) repeats DCs and codas. The conductor ought to know of your potential problem, and if the worst happens, be capable of helping you back on track. And, if the worst does happen, keep your eyes following the dots, so you can pick it back up at an appropriate place - the next section, etc. Good luck!

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Over-preparation is never a bad idea. As pianist Dick Hyman once told me, "If you want to play at 100%, you have to practice to 150%."

Maybe you already realize this—but practicing at steady tempi is essential. My dad always told his students, "You can play anything if you play it slowly enough." Playing with a steady beat—no matter how slowly you need to, to avoid mistakes—embeds the rhythm in your mind as well as the notes, and it's the pulse of rhythm that ultimately gives music its meaning and emotion. (When we were discussing practicing, a piano teacher once told me, "Imagine you're playing in a boat, and the music is the ocean, supporting you and moving you along. You don't have to control the ocean; just let it carry you.")

If you play something faster than you can, and you make mistakes, your unconscious mind remembers them and thinks that's how you want to play the piece—so before you can progress, you must go back and un-learn the mistakes, which takes twice as long. ;?) So ironically, the "fastest" way to learn anything is to play it slowly, then gradually build up speed, but never so much that you sacrifice accuracy.

You already have good ideas about conditioning yourself to avoid distraction (which I'm pretty sure is what you meant by "confusion"). Yes, you can try to play where there's ambient noise. Or you can invite a family member or friend to be in the room, doing other things, while you play.

But you're probably already better at this than you think. You can probably have a conversation with someone at a party, even though many other people are around talking and making noise, right? Music is just another kind of conversation (especially when you're an accompanist, "conversing" with the soloist; but you're always "conversing" with the audience, too).

It all returns to the same thing: being in the moment, staying in tempo, listening. Once you get a piece into your body at a steady tempo, accurately and with the feeling you want, you have a lot more than just the music at your disposal; you have an integrated experience.

It also helps me to remember that music is much bigger than just me. It's great being able to play music for myself and others. But I'm not "doing" it; I've just allowed myself to be a vehicle for it. That helps keep my ego at a proper level.

Finally, visualization is also huge. I once read an interview with a world-class athlete who was also a practicing lawyer. The interviewer asked her, "With a full-time law career, how do you possibly find time to practice your sport?" She replied, "I always schedule a few free minutes between clients. At those times, I sit back, close my eyes, and imagine myself playing exactly the way I want to."

So no matter how much time you spend actually playing your instrument, it's vital to spend time imagining yourself performing beautifully and effortlessly. Your unconscious can't tell the difference between fantasy and reality (which is also why people who imagine bad things often end up even less able to cope with reality). Imagining you're already successful convinces your mind you can do it, and that you can trust yourself.

Music comes from the unconscious mind. Our job is to learn it as well as we can, then get the heck out of the way and let our bodies do what we've taught them to do. When we're under pressure, our egotistical conscious minds think they must "take charge" on every level to guarantee our survival. But I don't even know how many muscles are in my arms, hands and fingers—so how could I possibly consciously control them? It's silly. (Even someone who's actually studied anatomy, and knows where all that stuff is, couldn't possibly coordinate its movements on such a scale, with such accuracy.)

In the long run, we must all find our own ways to prepare ourselves to play as well as we want to. Everyone's different, with different goals and expectations, so there are many approaches to success, both physical and mental. But ultimately it's all about conditioning yourself to trust yourself and let yourself do what you can do. The more you practice and visualize that way, the better you get at it, no matter how much else is going on or how many people are listening.

If you'd like to read more about the importance of mindfulness and trust in music, I can recommend Kenny Werner's excellent book "Effortless Mastery".

Hope this helps! Good luck!

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  • Great explanation of the instrument-less way of practicing. +1. Jun 19 at 8:07
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Fortunately, my role will be accompaniment, so any mistakes will not stand out too much.

I think you completely misjudge your role here. As an accompanist, your job is not just compensating for your own mistakes but also covering for any mistake the soloist might make.

An accompanist can thin out their part or play wrong notes when they are overwhelmed with it but they don't have the luxury of losing the harmonic or temporal context, so their mistakes have to be covered in a musical manner.

In short, you can mess up but not in a manner that makes the soloist miss a beat.

If you want to train for this kind of thing in general, getting your computer to play random 20-second stretches of the material in question (or insert random interruptions in which you'll do something else) and trying to pick up can be good practice for regaining your footing when something goes wrong: you cannot afford to be only able to play stuff when your fingers have played the preceding measure correctly.

If you are really really good, nobody will notice other than the soloist.

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I remember what it's like to get confused. Not with my main instrument -- I started with that such a long time ago that I don't have clear memories from the early years. But as a young adult I was once asked to assist someone who was going to be singing and playing the piano. I was supposed to come in about halfway through, and sing in duet for a few bars. Well, I enjoyed singing in ensembles, and for my own amusement, but I didn't have any experience performing as a soloist singer. Right before my entrance, I became confused, and missed my entrance. (Of course the audience didn't realize.)

I've also seen others get confused. I took a year of percussion lessons in grad school, for fun, and played in the wind ensemble. I didn't have the chops to be assigned anything more challenging than bass drum and cymbals. But I had the sang-froid that comes from having played many concerts and recitals on my main instrument, and I was good at counting extended bars of rests. I found, in rehearsals, that the young person who was playing snare had lovely technique -- rolls, etc. -- but didn't have much confidence for his entrances. Often, in rehearsals, he would miss an entrance after extended rests. So I started helping him, by counting his rests and helping him make his entrances (I was standing right next to him, after all). I'd be counting silently and discreetly, but right before his entrance I would count the measure out loud in a soft voice that only he could hear. Then I'd give his cue with my head for his entrance. After we collaborated that way a couple times in rehearsals, he came to trust that I would not let him down, and he became more confident. The concert went great.

After logging many performances, one is better able to keep one's place, stay with the conductor and/or soloist, and make entrances with confidence. So, that will come with time.

Since the more experience you have with performing, the better, it's a good idea to play a couple of practice concerts for a small audience. After the first one, sit down by yourself later, looking at your part, and try to remember any places in which you felt less solid, or made any sort of mistake, such as, forget to do a big crescendo, or a subito pianissimo. Then find yourself a mental cue you can use shortly before the crescendo, to remind yourself what's about to come. Maybe put a post-it at the end of the previous line, or draw a picture at the tricky spot. For example a fat snowman could mean "play with a big fat sound."

Other than that, and being well prepared, as you mentioned, it's mainly a matter of time -- gaining more experience performing over time.

If there's a conductor, do talk with them -- perhaps they can help you with a key entrance, or say something to help you find your place if you get lost. Make sure to glance at them often! Position your chair and music stand so that you can see the conductor well at a glance, without having to turn your head.

If there's no conductor, find a buddy who can help you with entrances and getting back on track if you do become confused. If your parts don't have rehearsal letters or measure numbers, put some in, in both your part and theirs. That way, if you get lost, your buddy can tell you a rehearsal letter in passing, while still playing.

One more true story. Three weeks after beginning to take viola lessons in college, my mother was recruited to join the orchestra. My mother said she had never studied music before, and it was too soon! She only knew how to play the open strings! But the person recruiting her explained that they were desperate for another violist (in those days, very few people were interested in playing viola), and as long as she showed up on time, in the right outfit (all black), mission accomplished, and they would be incredibly grateful. If she managed to play the occasional note at the right time, so much the better! So, my mother circled all the open strings in her part, and did her best to play those notes, at the right time. In that sense, it was a big success!

Keep in mind that adrenaline gives the music more zing, more oomph, more tenderness, more everything -- but it can also have unexpected physiological effects. This can even happen to big names who travel the world concertizing. I mention this so that if you have unexpected discomfort of one type or another, remember that that can happen to anyone, no matter how experienced they are, and you're in good company.

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If you're 'sure you'll make mistakes during the performance' then congratulations, you're well over half way there to mucking it up.

Going in to any gig convinced you're going to fall on your face means that any distraction or slightest mistake will be a self-fulfilling prophecy, your attention will wander to concentrate on that rather than on the job in hand, and you'll make #more# mistakes because that's what you've set yourself up to do.

Knowing your music inside out is only part of it. Know what you're going to wear, what your stage setup and environment will be, how you get on and off, what (if anything) you're going to say. Know and prepare every detail that you have control over and be confident in your ability to deliver those parts of the overall event that you have control over.

If then you do still make a mistake, move on immediately. You can't pull that moment back because it's gone - but you can move on and deliver every other moment. Unless you fell off the stage, caught on fire, or swore and slapped your forehead, chances are the majority of people didn't even notice.

Ultimately the only way to practice live performance is live performance, but if you go in prepared and with your head right you'll get through. And, if something does go wrong you've got a valuable lesson for next time.

Everyone, and I do mean everyone, even your biggest musical hero, makes mistakes in live performance - it's how they get past that mistake that is the key.

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    You open by criticising the OP for being sure they'll make a mistake in live performance, and end by saying that literally everyone makes mistakes in live performance – I take the point about self-confidence but that feels a little unfair.
    – dbmag9
    Jun 16 at 15:38
  • I fear you've missed my point. There's a huge and significant difference between making a mistake, which we all do, and going in thinking you're going to make a mistake, which is an unhelpful and self-fulfilling mindset. Jun 16 at 17:14
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    I go in to performances knowing I'll make a mistake. My old band director always said to expect a mistake per minute of music. You can still play confidently knowing you'll mess some things up.
    – Edward
    Jun 16 at 19:00
  • If believing you won’t make any mistakes actually prevented mistakes, then I could see some value in spending time on the psychology. As far as I can tell, not at all thinking about whether I will make a mistake has never helped me make fewer mistakes, it has only made me less prepared for dealing with a mistake. I have experienced being convinced I will make a mistake and then being pleasantly surprised that I didn’t. So I think your “self-fulfilling prophecy” concern would benefit from some citation. I don’t believe it’s real. Jun 17 at 15:23
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This probably depends a bit on what type of music you are playing. Here are some things that have helped me at one time or another, but YMMV.

At a minimum you should practice playing through the form without stopping even if mistakes are made. You don't even want to think about stopping; just let any mistakes go.

With, e.g., AABA forms I like to practice picking up from the beginning of each section, i.e., from the first A, the second A, the B, and the last A. Sometimes I'll also practice picking up from key phrases or changes within some of the sections.

It can be good (and sometimes a little demoralizing) to practice playing tunes in unfamiliar environments. You can practice at a friend's house or apartment, or outside on a porch, or in your basement or kitchen, or at the park, i.e., someplace different from your usual practice space. It's good to play through tunes in different spaces with different acoustics from what you are used to.

You can practice playing through tunes with some distractions present. Playing in unfamiliar spaces as mentioned above can supply distractions, and playing in front of friends at their homes can provide some helpful distraction in the form of conversation or pressure to perform. You can also turn on the television or a radio etc., or play while someone is cleaning up and clanking around in the kitchen so that there are some distracting sounds present while you try to focus playing through the tunes.

Sometimes when I am practicing a tune there is one spot where I might make a similar mistake on occasion; I like to practice recovering from that mistake (but I don't invent mistakes to recover from). I don't practice this so much that the mistake becomes a way that I play automatically, just enough that I have a strategy for recovering if the mistake happens when the red light is on. Then I go on to practice playing the right way, focusing on that section which is giving me problems.

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I'm not a good pianist ans a bad speaker too! But I've been always asked to accompany choirs or Soloists - and always "last minute". What helped me to cope? Writing a lead sheet with the harmony in the shape of a poem enables me to improvise like a partimento player, to be focussed at the choir, the soloist and the songster leader. Knowing the chord progression in and out, playing your own licks and tricks will help you get through difficult passages and to hide inexpected failures.

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