Practice like Steph

Athletic excellence has always fascinated me. One of the most lasting sports memories I have is of Shawn Johnson winning gold medal on the beam in the 2008 Olympics. Doing ridiculous acrobatics on that little plank without falling off is impressive enough, but what stuck with me is that she felt terrible that day - headache, stomachache. I don't know about you, but when I have a stomachache, about all I'm up for is putting on a snuggie and listening to white noise.  

And yet she had to bring it, and she did. 

When I see such focus, consistency, and results, I think of our job as performers. The audience is there to be transported, to hear what we have to say, to experience something extraordinary. They don't care if we had a bad day, if we're having a headache, or if our left pinky nail is falling off. (This is part of the reason why I get annoyed when singers announce that they are under the weather ...). The challenge of bringing it, no matter what else is going on, is why performers have to train the way they do. 

Performance training in music, as in sports, has many components (all of which can and do fill entire blogs and books). There is foremost the mental game, which in music draws upon sports psychology. Noa Kageyama's blog is one of the best out there on this topic. 

Another very important component is preparation, that is, practice. And on this point, I recently saw something that reminded me of the relation between consistency in practice and on-stage: 


If you've never watched this man play on the court, let me tell you it is like dance and sports and a rabbit evading a fox all at once. The man is poetry in motion. He makes three-pointers while way behind the line, while three men are grabbing at him, while on the run, while the shotclock is on its last millisecond ... you name the non-ideal situation, he can nevertheless nail the shot. 

And this is how he practices - taking shots every day from every part of the three-point line. And he has developed an eerie consistency. 

Now music is not about hitting all the right notes - far from it. A performance that only does that is boring as hell. And no one pays or leaves the house to be bored to hell. 

BUT. What Steph shows me is that if we practice with consistency and deliberateness and intent, we build up the physical skills to adapt in the performance situation. That means practicing pieces in tiny chunks (like a four-bar phrase, or even a two-note slur) rather than running the whole piece repeatedly. That means, when something is not quite right in the practice room, figuring out why rather than playing it over and over until we like it better. Ultimately, this deliberate, conscious, deconstructed practicing can allow us to let go on stage and show more freedom, more artistry, more expression. And isn't that the whole point?