In a recent stint of adjudication work, I was struck by those who were able to steer themselves confidently through a performance on an unfamiliar piano in front of an audience, and those who let the sudden spike in adrenaline at an erratic moment get the better of them. The result might have been a stumble, or a total derailment or playing that just felt anxious and on edge.

Small slips and blemishes are a part of any performance. Our ability to recover from these (or rise above the voices in our head that can suddenly cause us to lose concentration or doubt ourselves when we play) comes down to a large extent on procedure in the practice room. Or, to put it another way, our training routine.

If we always allow ourselves the luxury of stopping and correcting an error when it happens in our practice, or stop when we don’t like the sound of something, we soon establish pretty strong reflexes for stopping. It is extremely unhelpful to have to inhibit these reflexes when we are in front of an audience, an examiner or adjudicator. At that moment we become well aware that we must keep going.

There are two fundamentally different types of practice that we do in our studio, by ourselves as part of our routine.

Practice Mode 1 allows us to stop whenever we need. This could be when we notice a wrong note, or when we hear our pedalling isn’t quite working, or when a passage feels clumsy and out of control. We address this by using certain practice tools, experiment with different speeds, finessing our sound until we get it the way we want it. This might mean repeating a passage over and over until we are happy with the result. Or, if you are like Georges Cziffra as he practises this Chopin E minor Waltz you might prefer to make your corrections and adjustments within the flow of playing, stopping hardly at all!

Practice Mode 2 is what I call practising a performance, where we make a firm and resolute decision to play from the beginning of our piece to the end with no stops whatsoever, regardless of what goes wrong. We replicate in our practice room these conditions under which we must play when we perform. Put another way, we develop the reflexes for what we need to do in performance. Despite meticulous and rigorous practice no performance can be planned out rigidly to the very last detail, and we must allow for a certain element of spontaneity and creativity. Supposing we start a little stronger, or slower than we planned, we have to be able to run with it and make it work. If something distracts us when we are performing, we will have trained ourselves to carry on regardless.

Stay in Practice Mode 1 until you are able to play your piece fluently, which might be several weeks. After that, make a decision before you start practising which practice mode you are engaging with at that moment – making sure to be in Mode 2 regularly in the run-up to a performance.

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