Self-Evaluation: The Key to Artful Practice

January 9, 2012, 1:36 PM ·

“The single most important goal for performing artists
is to see how they are doing.”
–Itzhak Perlman (The Musician’s Way, p. 202)

Suppose that we’re practicing a new piece. How do we know that one portion is learned securely enough for us to tackle another?

Later on, how do we determine that the music is concert-ready?

Then, following a performance, what enables us to pinpoint the aspects of our execution that need polishing?

The answer, of course, is accurate self-evaluation.

We musicians display our knack for self-assessment with every phrase that we play. Our performances inescapably reveal whether we truly hear ourselves and perceive the impact of our delivery.

But how do we become expert self-evaluators?

Very gradually, it seems.

Photo of Itzhak PerlmanSelf-assessment involves constellations of skills, and all of those abilities mature incrementally over time.

Wouldn’t it be ideal, though, if we could speed up the maturation process?

Given that musicians who lack self-evaluation skills are hamstrung by their obliviousness, I’ve been striving for decades to discover ways in which I can help aspiring artists perceive their work honestly.

Here are 6 tried-and-true strategies.

1. Practice Accessible Music
Only manageable music leaves us with the mental bandwidth we need to sense every aspect of our execution.

In the words of Robert Schumann, “Endeavour to play easy pieces well and with elegance; that is better than to play difficult pieces badly.”

2. Record Yourself
Both in practice and performance, we should regularly employ audio and video recorders, and then evaluate our recordings in targeted ways.

With an audio recording of a solo, for instance, we might listen once to a section and assess our rhythm; for a second appraisal we could focus on intonation; on a third pass we might weigh our dynamics, vibrato, articulation, tone, or other expressive effects.

When reviewing a video, we should gauge our stage presence and look for any mannerisms that we might unconsciously display (e.g., raised shoulders, stiffness, grimaces, inordinate movements).

3. Assess for Excellence
As we practice, we continually need to sense whether our actions vibrate with habits of excellence: ease, expressiveness, accuracy, rhythmic vitality, beautiful tone, focused attention, and positive attitude.

For example, as we play or sing, we should insist on ease, and never let ourselves push through difficulties or execute phrases at uncontrollable tempos.

4. Treat Errors as Crucial Information
Errors alert us to faults in our preparation; they provide us with crucial feedback. We mustn’t fear or loathe them. Instead, in response to errors, we should isolate and solve the problems that cause us to misstep.

Musicians who become upset by mistakes tend not to notice many glitches because, unconsciously, they want to avoid suffering. So they’ll heedlessly distort their music rather than refurbish clumsy phrases.

5. Seek Feedback
We learn the most at the edges of our knowledge. And all of us filter what we perceive, so we often can’t evaluate with untarnished objectivity. Other viewpoints, therefore, are crucial to our growth.

When I assess my own work, for instance, I assume that I might be missing something. For that reason, I ask others to read my writing, listen to my playing, critique my concert programming ideas, and so forth.

When a colleague points out something that I’ve overlooked, I rejoice, because I recognize that my awareness has been expanded.

6. Assess with Detachment
We’re passionate about music, but we must evaluate our work somewhat dispassionately, almost as if it weren’t coming from us.

What I mean is that, when we size up our playing of a phrase, we should ask things like, “How was the timing in that melody?” Not how was my timing but how was the timing.

Similarly, if we’re using a mirror to help with a technical problem, we should examine the actions of our hands as just hands. Not our hands. Then we can ask whether what we see reflects what we desire.

See pages 112-113 & 204-205 of The Musician’s Way for tables containing dozens of questions that musicians can use to evaluate their practice and performance habits.

A version of this article first appeared on The Musician's Way Blog, where you'll find related posts under the Music Practice category.


January 9, 2012 at 08:44 PM · I refer to your book constantly. This blog

is a nice summation and more than useful.


January 9, 2012 at 08:44 PM · Wise advice. Thank you for this excellent blog. Unfortunately, young people, like I once was, must become old before they recognize the truth of this.

January 9, 2012 at 08:54 PM · Thanks Ray and Corwin - I appreciate your support!

January 10, 2012 at 01:43 AM · Corwin, I'm 22 and I think this is a fantastic blog. Being young has absolutely positively nothing to do with me seeing the excellence of these suggestions. Just sayin'. :)

Thank you for this blog.

January 10, 2012 at 03:34 AM · Good for you Emily. I certainly may have agreed with you at 22 but you would never have guessed it from observing me practice.

January 10, 2012 at 02:30 PM · I was in my 20's before I understood the point of playing accessible music. Before that I made the common error of playing pieces that were too hard for me because I thought that was what was expected--I was supposed to "make progress" at some defined rate and it looked bad if I was "behind."

When I was a student, I was also impatient and got bored spending too long on any one piece, which I think was the bigger problem. I got bogged down somewhere during the Bruch G-minor concerto in my teens and haven't really looked at that again in 25 years, except that playing the opening to the first movement turned out to be a really good way to test out violins when shopping for a new one.

One of the big reasons I love being an amateur now is that I can choose the music I want to work on, and that increases my chances of choosing pieces that are the right amount of challenge but not too much so that I suffer from all the problems that you write about. And, I'm able to enjoy spending the amount of time on them that is necessary to get them to performance standard. I have found it such a relief and a joy to put the concerto death march aside and concentrate on shorter, more accessible pieces such as movements of sonatas and suites, fiddle tunes, miniatures, and orchestra and chamber music.

January 10, 2012 at 02:44 PM · Thanks, Karen, for the insightful, heartwarming comment.

I think that many young players find themselves in corresponding competitive settings that impede there ability to look inside themselves and do the creative work that matters to them and to their long-term development.

I hope that my work helps empower musicians of all ages to align their creativity with their authentic needs and interests.

January 10, 2012 at 03:57 PM · Gerald - as always, thanks for posting such an informative blog. We v.commers are very lucky to have insightful professionals like you posting on our site. As an amateur, after having studied and played, albeit probably not all that well, the pieces I truly cared about having played - the Beethoven concerto and the complete Bach S&Ps -- my approach with my teachers, when they ask me what I want to work on next, is "what will help me the most to achieve better technique and interpretation?"

January 10, 2012 at 04:12 PM · The problem with accessible music is just how inaccessible it turns out to be. The notes of many Kreisler encores are not so hard but making these gems artistic is close to impossible. Listening to Kreisler or Thibaud play these drives one to despair.

But having said that, better one hour on Sicillienne and Rigadoun than ten hours on the Tchaikovsky concerto.

January 11, 2012 at 02:18 AM · Thanks for the kind words, Tom - it's a pleasure for me to contribute.

Corwin: I agree that the true challenges are artistic ones. For me, the fact that even simple pieces can offer endless possibilities for creative exploration contributes to the ongoing satisfaction that I derive from making, teaching, and sharing music.

January 11, 2012 at 02:39 AM · Corwin, I think I know what you are saying. To make music, what are required of us sometimes seem so open-ended, forever chasing a moving target. But, is a dream unattainable a dream inaccessible? Arguably not.

Idle thoughts.

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