My father was a basketball coach, and one thing he used to say that has remained with me is “Practice like you play.” When he said it, he usually meant that one should work as hard during a practice as during a game. But in the context of preparing for a musical performance, it takes on a slightly different meaning.
No matter how steel your nerves, or maybe, as with me, your years of performance have numbed you to the pressure of appearing in front of an audience, we all nonetheless play differently on stage than we do in our practice spaces. Nerves, adrenaline, stress from the arrival and setup, concern over the unrehearsed request…they all play a part in causing our brain to flake out, our muscles to tense.
So for us musicians, “Practice like you play” means to emulate the pressures of live performance in the practice room.
Creating a Performance-Like Environment in the Practice Studio
Since it is impractical to bring a large audience into our homes every time we want to test our mastery of a piece, we must find other ways to increase the stress of our environments.
In his article, How Can You Create the Feeling of Real Pressure in Practice Situations?, Dr. Noa Kageyama advises some techniques that at times border on masochistic, e.g. performing in hot or cold spaces, or late at night when tired.
When I took private saxophone lessons, my teacher would often help me prepare for a recital by attempting to disrupt my concentration during run-throughs: turning the lights on and off, whispering disparaging thoughts into my ear, rustling papers on his desk, etc.
Some of the best advice for private instructors who wish to boost their students’ readiness for a performance is in the book The Practice Revolution, by Philip Johnston. His techniques mostly involve “Pressure Games,” which both train and entertain. For example, to test the preparedness of a section of music, a student could play Tic-Tac-Toe with a family member, but they are only allowed to make a move after a successful run-through. Failure to play the section perfectly forfeits the move to their opponent.
For more examples of these techniques, pick up a copy of the book: