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PracticeLabs

A research-informed practice and performance practice community

How it all began...

I started playing the violin at age 2 1/2, and from the outside, it probably seemed like I was doing pretty well.

There were radio and TV appearances, I performed as soloist with local orchestras, participated in national and international-level competitions, was accepted into the studios of highly-regarded teachers and attended prestigious schools and summer festivals.

But all the while, even as early as age 5, there were two things nobody knew.

Thing #1: Performance anxiety

One, was that I was much more nervous about performing than anyone realized.

Everyone always remarked on how calm and collected I appeared on stage, but the reality is that I was pretty anxious for every performance. Sometimes extremely so. My heart would pound, my hands would get cold and stiff, my bow would shake, and I was always very frustrated at how inconsistent my playing was from one performance to the next. Everything always sounded so much better at home, and I could never figure out why I sounded like just a shell of myself onstage.

Thing #2: Ineffective practice

Two – I had no idea how to practice.

I always just thought that “practice” was another word for repetition. And so I would simply play difficult passages over and over until they sounded better. But that was a really painful and boring process – and ultimately felt futile. Because even if I sounded better at the end of a practice session, when I came back to the practice room the next day, it often sounded like most of my progress had been wiped away overnight.

So for the better part of two decades, I dreaded and avoided practicing. Which certainly didn’t help with the nerves issue either.

Performance psychology…?

And then I stumbled into a class that changed everything. When I was doing my graduate studies at Juilliard, I saw that they were offering a class on performance psychology.

I didn’t even know such a field existed, but it was transformative.

What I learned changed how I practiced. It changed how I prepared for performances. And it began changing how I felt about practicing and performing too.

I began playing better and performing more consistently than ever before. It was all incredibly empowering. I wanted to learn more, so after finishing up at Juilliard, I went to Indiana University to pursue a PhD in psychology.

Coming full circle

Eleven years later, I returned to Juilliard – but this time as a member of the faculty, where I’ve been teaching students how to use sport psych principles to get more out of their daily practice, beat nerves, and perform more optimally under pressure.

If only…

These are skills that I wish I could have had when I was that 7-year old kid quietly freaking out backstage. So in recent years, I’ve begun teaching performance psychology principles and techniques to educators, so that they might pass them on to their students at an earlier age.

Because whether your child decides to go into music, or medicine, graphic design, sales, finance, or medieval literature, I’d love for them to have had a positive experience with music. Where they experience less of the nerves and frustrations, and more of the thrills and joys of performing well on stage.

Not just because this makes music more enjoyable, but because learning how to practice effectively and perform well under pressure are also really useful skills that will serve them well, wherever their path may lead.

So how exactly does one learn these skills?

The advice we used to give...

Once upon a time, the advice that was traditionally offered to students who asked how they could better manage nerves and performing closer to their potential under pressure, was much like the punch line to the joke “How do you get to Carnegie Hall?”

Perform, perform, perform!

But performing more is only one part of the equation. And by itself, could actually be counterproductive

The anxiety spiral

Because if you simply perform more without being given the right practice strategies, or without the mental skills that support effective performance under pressure, you’re likely to get more of the same negative performance experiences

Which will just make the nerves worse. Which will make the next performance even harder. Which will probably lead to yet another negative performance experience. Which will reduce confidence and increase your anxiety for the next one. And so on.

Practice that transfers to the stage

The key is to provide young musicians with the sort of practice strategies that lead to more reliable skills under pressure, not just the appearance of progress in the moment. And to also show students how to develop the mental skills that make it possible to manage nerves, focus past distractions, and get into the right headspace for performing effectively.

Tiny “doses” of performance practice

The other key is to integrate performance practice into weekly practice, in very tiny ways that almost guarantee positive experiences. Instead of the traditional approach, of practice, practice, practice, and then a sudden jolt of performance practice a few days before a performance.

We may not even need to do a huge amount of performance practice to see positive results. In a Dutch study of national-level basketball players for instance, the players who practiced just a few extra free throws every practice under pressure not only avoided a drop in performance under pressure, they actually performed better under pressure than they did in regular practice conditions!

And what would this approach to performance practice look like?

An easier way to do performance practice

Setting up performance practice opportunities can be a real challenge. Coordinating schedules and locations is difficult, given everyone’s busy schedules. But things have changed over the last few years, and the technology now exists to do asynchronous performance practice.

I’ve been teaching a live online performance psychology “essentials” class since 2020, where over 1000 learners of all ages and levels of ability have gone through a 4-week crash course process of learning new practice skills, recording their weekly progress, and sharing the recordings with the group to get feedback on how they’ve grown from one week to the next.

Learn a new skill, try it out, and reflect

It makes for a fun and intense month, but it can also be a lot to take in all at once, so I’ve created a more gradual version of this training specifically for private studios, where each week, your child’s teacher can help guide your child through the same skills – but via baby steps:

  • Each week there will be a specific practice strategy or technique for each student to focus on, with a short 5-min instructional video and printable worksheets to guide each student’s daily practice.
  • There will also be weekly at-home “before” and “after” micro-recording sessions of as little as 10 seconds of music.
  • These recordings can then be uploaded to a private group accessible only to students in the teacher’s studio, where students can listen and provide feedback to each other on what specific positive changes they notice in each others’ weekly recordings.

 

Building performance confidence in tiny steps

With each passing week, students will not only learn essential practice and performance skills in tiny, manageable, bite-sized pieces through their daily practice, but also start to become more comfortable with performing.

Students will even have access to an online studio-only virtual “practice room” where they can perform live for each other, or practice together while muted.

That way, when “bigger” performances do come around – whether it be a master class or studio recital or youth orchestra audition or competition, they’ll be able to approach the performance with more confidence, and perform more like the versions of themselves that they hear in the practice room each day.

What skills will we work on?

Skill #1: Goal-setting & follow-through

It’s great to have big juicy practice goals. But a lot of times goals and positive thinking don’t lead to consistent follow-through. Research suggests that a little negative thinking can actually do wonders, so you’ll learn how to use the WOOP process to overcome the obstacles that life will invariably throw in your path.

Skill #2: Self-recording

Our tendency is to avoid performance practice until it’s too little, too late. But traditional performance practice and recording is hard! So we’re going to make performance practice and recording smaller, easier, faster, and hopefully funner, so you’re less likely to put it off.

Skill #3: Listening

Recording is one thing – but listening back can be even harder! But we’ll work on this too, and hopefully make listening a more engaging, and much less painful process, using a “listening rubric” and a “solutions wishlist.”

Skill #4: Deliberate practice

Now that you have a “solutions wishlist,” you’ll learn a 3-step problem-solving process that will help grant you your wishes. And if there are any items on your list that have you stumped, you can just“show your work” and take it to your teacher for a bit of help.

Skill #5: Rubber ducky debugging

We’re often geniuses when it comes to solving our friends’ problems, but not quite so brilliant when it comes to our own. You’ll learn a quirky strategy that will help channel your inner problem-solving genius a little more consistently, and hopefully make practicing a wee bit more fun as well.

Skill #6: Random practice

It’s said that “practice, practice, practice” is how you get to Carnegie Hall, but too many repetitions during practice can actually be counterproductive. You’ll learn how to get things right on the first try more consistently, using a practice strategy known as “random practice.”

Skill #7: Variable practice

You’d think that it would be a good thing to practice playing something the same way, every time, as consistently as possible. But the research suggests that this actually leads to less consistency on stage, not more. In this week’s practice challenge, you’re going to learn how to perform more consistently by practicing playing things in very different ways, not by doing more of the same.

Skill #8: Imitation game

What kind of faces does your favorite musician make when they perform? What is their posture like? What kind of sound do they produce? How many wiggles of vibrato do they use? In this week’s challenge, you’re going to do your best impersonation of a favorite performer, and ask your studio to guess who it is.

How do I sign up?

Your child’s teacher is part of the first group of educators who have been selected to participate in the “beta” launch of this PracticeLabs program. If you’re interested in participating, they can send you a special link that will enable you to join the studio.

What will this cost?

It’s not yet clear what exactly the server costs, etc. will be, so official pricing is tentative, but when launched publicly, the anticipated monthly cost of the program will be $20 per month for students who wish to participate without any studio affiliation.

Meanwhile, the price for students enrolled through a private studio is expected to be $10, and during the beta period, the program will be $5 per month.

Your child’s teacher will bill you for the cost of PracticeLabs, as I’ll be billing their studio directly, but if you ever have any questions, feel free to send me an email HERE anytime.

There's an LIVE component too! (for educators)

If you’d like to explore some of the most essential skills and techniques in the course live, with a cohort of curious, thoughtful, supportive, and like-minded educators (and a few mildly irreverent or benevolently sarcastic folks mixed in to make sure we don’t get too serious), that’s also an option!

Starting Thursday, February 3rd, we’ll meet via Zoom once a week, and go through selected strategies related to effective practice, managing nerves, and achieving flow states under pressure. We’ll do some in-class playing experiments (don’t worry – you’ll be muted!), short weekly homework assignments, and small-group breakout sessions to help you integrate these new skills into your teaching.

This 6-week live course is normally $199, but is available at 50% off the regular cost when bundled with Beyond Practicing. For more details about the live course (and dates) CLICK HERE.