The Value of Low-Stakes Practice Performances

April 2, 2018, 4:35 PM · If I had to pick one thing that has made my musical journey more fulfilling now than when I was younger, it would be this: low-stakes performances. I was a shy child, and I regarded performance not as a reward for a job well done, but as an opportunity to be put on the spot. That I didn't perform much under such circumstances was probably a kindness. But it meant that any single performance was elevated to high stakes in my mind, ensuring that any anxieties and insecurities I had would be self-fulfilling.

When I started playing violin again, and viola, as an adult, I did a lot more performing. I started in church services and moved up to the Farmers' Market. I found a non-audition orchestra to play in and some chamber music partners. I played in recitals and in church talent shows. Performances were no longer singular events, squinted at and dreaded like Mount Doom in the distance. I started to have so many performances that I even stopped making my family come to all of them!

What changed? I'd like to say the change was all in my attitude, and much of it was. But there's also a positive feedback loop triggered when you have a good performance experience in a low-stakes venue. Even if you know you were in a wading pool, a friendly audience, positive comments and smiles, and an adrenaline rush that does not dissolve into a flood of cold hands and tears, are memories you can count on when you head into deeper, rougher waters.


So. I hear the rapids gathering downstream as May 11, the date of my Telemann solo, approaches. As of this writing I'm at day 70/108--quite a bit over halfway there--which is a little scary.  Where did the other 69 days go?? Sharing videos in Facebook groups is nice, but I could still use some real practice performances. Where do you find such opportunities, especially as an adult student?

On the advice of my teacher, I was able to schedule playing Telemann in two church services, one for movements 1 and 2, and another for movements 3 and 4. Movements 1 and 3 are slow and work for a meditation; movements 2 and 4 are cheerful and sprightly and work for an offertory or prelude. And none of them is too long. The service with movements 1 and 2 took place in mid-March.


In spite of feeling like I knew the piece pretty well in my practice room, when I got to the first rehearsal, it all flew out of my head. Libby, the church pianist, is a real pro, a teacher, and an experienced accompanist. She had some helpful suggestions that I just couldn't process the first time I heard them. Such as, "take your time, don't rush." What, was I rushing?  . . . it's hard to *not* do something that you weren't doing in the first place . . . But, when I listened to my recording the next day, sure enough, it did sound rushed after all. Perceptions of time and space, and even of sound, are more different in the moment, in different contexts, than I would have expected. This makes recording, and the ears of knowledgeable colleagues, even more valuable.

With Libby at church.

My goal is still to be able to play from memory, but I used the sheet music in the service. It went well, in spite of various logistical challenges that had the minister running around until the last minute. The guest speaker was quite interesting too and took my attention off myself while I was waiting to play. Although I played decently, I did muff a shift at the end of the 2nd movement and played an open D instead of an A for 3 notes, but I got back on track and nobody seemed to notice. It became clear that at least at a church service, nothing was primarily about me, and all the little things I worried about were just not that important.

Standing in front of the TACO orchestra during Harold in Italy

The following weekend, I played a movement of the Harold in Italy viola solo with a reading orchestra called TACO (the "Terrible Adult Chamber Orchestra"). One of my viola colleagues in the South Bay Philharmonic is the husband of the TACO conductor, and they organized a special session of TACO focusing on the viola. I couldn't play Telemann again with them because it's only for a string orchestra and TACO has winds and brass too. So I worked on the 3rd movement, the Serenade, in which a Mountaineer from the Abruzzi region sings to his mistress. This is a very pretty movement, but according to the program notes I read, Harold (as represented by the viola) is unsatisfied with what he sees and hears in the pastoral scene, and in the next movement he gets swept into an orgy of brigands.

This experience too was less about me than I might have feared. The afternoon opened with viola jokes and segued into birthday cake. The Harold in Italy movement was indeed challenging to put together in an afternoon, but it really didn't matter that I had decided to just play the upper note of some of the fingered-octave double stops rather than risk repetitive stress injury to my 4th finger. What mattered was meeting some new people, celebrating the viola as an instrument, and having a good time playing with people who love music and playing together. I also got a viola clef T-shirt, perfect for wearing to rehearsals!

With my alto clef T-shirt and TACO mug in the practice room.

Even as an adult, I have a complicated relationship with performance. A few years ago I blogged about the potential development of an unbalanced “performance self" of a child who feels his or her worth is founded only on ability and accomplishment. Psychologist Lisa Miller offers the "spiritual self" as a counter to this limited worldview.

Although I personally find playing in church very rewarding, I don't think a musician has to go to a place of worship to develop his or her spiritual self. It can be encouraged and fostered by steps such as meditation, prayer, or long walks in nature, and modeled by such traits as caring for others, empathy, and optimism. Practice performances like these give me a chance to give both selves, spiritual and performance, something they need. I think that the goal (probably a lifelong one) is to integrate the two and become a more complete musician.


April 3, 2018 at 12:26 PM · Karen - thanks so much for continuing to update us on this exciting and inspiring experience. Your idea of first getting used to performing the piece in less stressful contexts is definitely a good one, and certainly one from which all of us amateurs could benefit. I am sure you will do a great job on May 11! Good luck.

PS Love the alto clef shirt!

April 3, 2018 at 04:43 PM · The concert itself is not particularly high stakes. It's a volunteer community group, and part of the venue's regular concert series. That's what music is about for me--people coming together to play for the love of it. :-)

April 3, 2018 at 10:22 PM · That was interesting and fun reading, Karen. Thanks for sharing this aspect of your journey with us.

April 3, 2018 at 11:32 PM · An interesting read, Karen. As a shy person I too once dreaded performing solo in front of an attentive audience. Busking anonymously and regularly on a downtown street corner seems to have cured me of much stage fright. I can improvise to my heart's content, make mistakes and meet lots of nice, encouraging people at the same time. Somehow a combination of the outdoors and the approving smiles is almost always liberating.

April 4, 2018 at 01:02 AM · Thanks Karen for continuing to share your journey towards playing the Telemann viola concerto in the upcoming concert. We work to improve our skills and musicianship, but ultimately music should be a source of pleasure and renewal, not anxiety or stress. Thanks for describing some examples of how to keep music in that zone!

April 5, 2018 at 04:51 AM · Thanks, Karen. As I continued on my own Telemann journey tonight, I was wondering how you were progressing. I also liked your closing line about integrating the spiritual and performing self, and in doing so becoming a complete musician. I self-identify as a musician but I'm always wondering what aspects of that self are behind in their development.

April 5, 2018 at 05:44 AM · I'm progressing. It's moving along and I feel like I will be ready for the performance. I need to stop neglecting other pieces on the program, though!

The closest I've ever gotten to busking is playing at the Farmers' Market, and that's something that I haven't done since living in California. There are plenty of farmers' markets but they're more established and I'm not sure they'd be interested in having the likes of me performing there. There also isn't public transportation nearby the way there was in Boston/Cambridge.

The idea of integrating the spiritual and performance self is a new one for me. For a long time I didn't feel like I had much of a performance self and like I was a total introvert. But lately I've been getting in touch with a side of myself that is more extroverted and performance oriented. I think that is healthy; most of us have some of both.

April 5, 2018 at 04:17 PM · I can relate to getting more in touch with the side of myself that is more extroverted and performance oriented. You'll do great in the performance, Karen!

April 7, 2018 at 01:54 PM · I definitely connect with this kind of experience. I read your piece when it was new and wanted to respond then -- but had a heavy workload at the time. I am a combination of introvert/extrovert -- mostly introvert; but when playing music I've mastered and strongly identify with, then I really do want to share it.

I hesitate to use the word addictive, but that's what low-stakes performance is for me. Most of my venues have been quite offbeat -- garages, gym floors and church auditoriums in off-use hours, local parks. Wherever I can, I just keep performing as often as I can. Higher-stakes events, e.g., recitals, are off the table for now -- lack of time; but if I could fit them in every week, I'd gladly offer them, too.

April 7, 2018 at 02:40 PM · What I've found interesting is that getting more comfortable with low-stakes performances really does translate into also getting more comfortable with the higher stakes performances as well.

It comes down to your idea of *sharing* the music. When I was younger, I didn't think of performance as sharing. I thought of it as being judged and criticized. But now I get the sharing part.

My son's cello teacher holds events that she calls "cello parties." All her students at different levels get together and they play a short solo work and then they play cello chorales together, usually some Bach or Vivaldi or something else Baroque arranged for a lot of cellos. When the students play for each other they are encouraged to say something positive and specific about each others' performance (such as "you played really well in tune" or "I liked how the piece flowed"). Parents are encouraged to come too but to be quiet and let the students run the show.

It builds community among the students and it also teaches them how to listen and have something nice to say. I wish I'd had that kind of experience when I was growing up because I'm not very good at making positive, specific comments, but it's not too late to learn!

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