For Students: Practice & Performance Tips

So your teacher has asked you to participate in a performance festival, or audition, or competition.  Not just one piece, but TWO! — AND you have to play in front of people — by MEMORY!!  OH NO!!  NOW WHAT?!

After the initial panic has passed, start planning now…even if the event is months or even a year away.  Since different events have different repertoire requirements, your teacher will help you select the appropriate literature. The program may be completely new pieces or may include reviving an old favorite.  Regardless, you must LOVE the pieces you will be playing as you’ll be living with them for a long time.

From here on out, most of the work will be ‘in your hands’ (pun intended!) since you’re the one who will ultimately be performing the pieces. So it’s important to practice regularly, consistently and thoroughly.

So….How do we practice? On the following pages you’ll find some “practice tips” to keep in mind as your begin your journey.  If you’re playing by memory, keep in mind — the memory process begins as soon as you start learning the piece. So be careful and don’t learn mistakes as they’ll be with you to the bitter end!



Consider all the things in our ‘musical toolbox’ and how we use them.  As you play, ask yourself:

  • Am I playing the correct notes?
  • Am I listening to what I play?
  • Am I counting and observing any tempo changes?
  • Are my fingers in the right spot?
  • Do I hear my dynamics?
  • Do I tell a story?
  • Can I play with a steady tempo and without stopping?
  • Record yourself and listen while watching the music.
  • Am I having FUN?!

Do you plan on playing by memory?  Here are some tips to help you memorize your music:

  • Begin playing slowly, playing through any mistakes.
  • Are you listening?  Can you sing your melody?
  • Can you begin playing at different spots in the music?
  • Does your music tell a story?
  • Play for others — family, friends, pets!
  • Play your pieces by memory many times before the actual performance event.

If you have questions, ask your teacher for help!


Learning a new piece of music is like putting together a puzzle — ALL the pieces must be present to create a complete picture.

  • BEGIN PLAYING CAREFULLY, observing not just notes and rhythms, but staccatos, legatos, phrasing, fingering, dynamics, accidentals — all the black marks on the page.
  • WHAT IS THE KEY? Can you play the scale, arpeggio and cadence for that key?  Does it modulate to other keys? Can you play those scales, etc?  What are some important harmonies or chords?
  • WHAT IS THE FORM of the piece? How may sections or themes are there? Do they change key or tempo? Are there variations of the main theme?  Can you sing the melody? Are there repetitions or sequences or patterns?
  • PLAY SLOWLY  (this is the hard part…).  Check your tempos with a metronome for a steady tempo.  Look for changes in tempo and listen to see if you are actually observing them.
  • SPOT PRACTICE those areas that are giving you problems.  Practice slowly or hands alone if necessary.
  • LISTEN to recordings of your pieces.  Or ask your teacher to play it for you.


When you can finally play through the piece from beginning to end, the next step is  “performance practice”…working towards the actual performance.

  • BEGIN PLAYING WITHOUT STOPPING.  Can you play without stutters, trips or pauses.  Remember to return to a slow tempo if you can’t.
  • VERY GRADUALLY work towards your final tempo. But remember to listen for details!! — phrasing, articulations, dynamics, balance…all that stuff you learned the first time you played it.
  • Can you play WITHOUT STOPPING OR PAUSING? Occasionally try to ‘play through’ the mistakes and maintain the tempo. Then go back later and fix any problem spots.
  • Are you playing MUSICALLY and EXPRESSIVELY?  Does your music tell a story or create a mood or feeling?

If you plan on performing by memory, continue reading “The Memory Zone” below.

Now we’re entering the MEMORY ZONE — which can be the scary part!  But it doesn’t have to be with patient preparation.  There are lots of ways to memorize and lots of tools or gimmicks to help the music STAY’ memorized.  Here are some things to try…

  • Play sections hands alone by memory.  Or “shadow” one hand.
  • Do ‘backwards chaining’…in other words, start at a spot towards the end of the piece and play…then start the phrase before that…then the phrase or section before that…etc.
  • Can you begin playing at random spots in the piece?
  • Can you keep going if you have a memory slip?
  • Can you WRITE out the opening phrase, or the melody or a particularly difficult spot?
  • Record yourself, then listen while watching the score.
  • Play the piece many, many, many times — not just two or three….more like ten or twelve times!  Repetition builds consistentcy.
  • Remember to engage more than just the fingers — muscle memory — when you play. Muscle memory is the first thing that disappears when we get nervous.   Keep your eyes, ears AND BRAIN actively involved in the process!

Once the music is memorized, play for others — parents, family, friends, pets — anyone who will listen.  The more times you perform the piece, the more sense of security and calm you’ll feel when you step onto that stage.  And remember to listen to what your teacher is telling you. Regularly review what comments or note made on the page at each lesson, and make sure you understand the instructions.  If you don’t, ASK!


Now for the question everyone whispers — WHAT IF I FORGET??  Even if you have a photogaphic memory, memory slips are a part of the process…and EVERYONE has them.  You’ll most likely have a memory slip every time you play a piece by memory, whether at home, in the studio, or in the actual performance.  And you’ll never know when it wll happen — the slips are like little bubbles that float around above us and drop in unexpectedly at any random spot in the piece.  (I call them ‘floating mistakes!’)

The key is to be able to KEEP GOING!  That’s where knowing the form of your piece (AB…ABA…ABCBA, etc.) will help — if you forget something and can’t ‘play through’ it, jump to the next section or “lifesaver” spot.  (That’s just a spot that you could play in your sleep you know it so well.)  But if you’ve actually used all the tools we’ve given you early in this article, you’ll be able to play successfully, musically.  Trust yourself and have a good time!

Good luck … and enjoy the journey!

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