Performance as Motivation for Practice

"A successful performance is the pinnacle of achievement in your musical development. In one sense, performing entails a synthesis of thought, feeling, and physical movement; but in a broader sense, it signifies a supreme act of giving1."
-Seymour Bernstein

A well organized, consistent and conscientious practice routine can be inspired by the realization that we have performances on the horizon. When I was pursuing my Master of Music degree in classical guitar performance at the Yale School of Music, my colleagues and I in the classical guitar program would frequently meet for the express purpose of performing for each other. These get togethers facilitated the experience of sharing our repertoire with each other before we gave public recitals. Time spent with trusted colleagues offering feedback was invaluable in learning to deal with anxiety, helping to prioritize goals and organize practice routines. Though my conservatory days are long past, I still find it extremely helpful to share music in a variety of formal and informal settings to focus my attention. In this blog entry, I will discuss how performing can be a primary motivating factor in practicing a musical instrument.

Defining Performance
Perusing the many old school versions (yes, I still love paper) of dictionaries on my bookshelf, I was struck by the various definitions of the word performance. Eventually, I settled on this from Webster's Dictionary: "To render, execute (a stage role, play, piece of music, dance,etc.) esp. before an audience.2"

What is an audience? In the broadest sense, an audience could consist of one or more other listeners (not including the performer). A musical performance could take place during a music lesson with a teacher, in a living room for friends and family, in a performance class at a conservatory, a masterclass, in a nightclub and of course in a concert hall. The imperative factor in any performance is that it focuses the attention of the performer on the act of sharing music.  

The benefits of performing aren't only for the professional musician either. As Seymour Bernstein discusses, and as I too have witnessed in my teaching, I am amazed at the busy adult amateur musicians who seriously devote much time to studying music. "To sustain themselves at peak performing levels, amateurs must often wage yet another kind of battle, which consists in the balancing their passion for expressing music with their responsibilities to their professions.3 “ Whether professional or amateur, we all struggle with busy lives and how to use our time efficiently (and hopefully joyfully). 

Setting Priorities
One of the first steps in a well organized practice routine involves setting priorities based on the repertoire we are learning. An intuitive question that I ask myself regularly is, "What am I playing at my next performance?" This leads me to the on going question, "What do I need to practice to be ready for my next performance?" (And if these questions don't occur during the days leading up to performances, a night of worried sleeplessness will help to motivate my ambitions.) I am also usually concurrently working on repertoire that I do not plan on performing at my next performance along with technique and improvisation. 

Getting Organized
Using multiple three ring binders to organize my sheet music, as the performance date/dates approach, I fill one of my binders with the music for my current concert program. (I have scanned music into my iPad, but still prefer using actual paper, primarily because I like the immediacy of being able to write notes on the score). Other binders contain repertoire that I am working on outside of my regular program material. I like to define my repertoire as being divided into two zones:

1. Short term zone - This includes only the repertoire for my next performances.
2. Long term zoneThis is a broad category and could include:
a.Reading material - Not to be confused with sight reading (this is a separate zone of learning), this includes repertoire that I am dedicated to learning. I am working out fingerings and interpretation. Again, this is material that I plan to perform sometime, just not at my next performance.
b. Review material - This includes material that I have played in the past, am revisiting and maintaining a connection to.

Using a concert program I have performed for recent concerts, I will illustrate an approach to organizing  practice time. The first step is to list the repertoire for the program. This goes into the short term goal zone:

Short Term Zone
Balletto by Manuel Ponce
Prelude y Danza by Jorge Morel
Garrotin,Soleares & Ráfaga by Joaquin Turina
Julia Florida & Waltz, Op. 8, No.3  by Agustin Barrios
El Choclo by Angel Villoldo
Colorado Trail by Eduardo Sainz de LaMaza
The Easy Winners by Scott Joplin
CelloSuite No. 4, BWV 1010 by J.S.Bach:
(Prelude, Alemande, Sarabande, Courante, Bourrées, Gigue)
Take Five by Paul Desmond
Song for My Father by Horace Silver
Jongo by Paulo Bellinati   

Working on new music not included in my next performance helps to keep me fresh and inspired. It is important for me to leave some time in my weekly practice sessions to look at new material. Following is an example of some pieces I might eventually like to add to my repertoire. Remember, this could be music I have played before or is completely new: 

Long Term Zone
Maria Luisa, Seis Por Derecho, El Marabino by Antonio Lauro
Etudes 23, 25 & 26 (Book 6) by Julio Sagreras
Cello Suite # 6, BWV 1012 by J.S. Bach
La Maja de Goya by Enrique Granados
Agua de Beber by Antonio Carlos Jobim

Again, music in the short term zone is my priority. Based on the level of difficulty, some pieces of music might need less practice time than others. Having said this, it is still essential to regularly touch base with all the music in the short term zone. Even with familar music, there are often deeper musical levels to the music that can be studied - phrasing, dynamics and more.                                                                    
As priorities take shape, more specific categories will emerge from these two broad categories. At this stage, I am only concerned with the long view on the horizon. There are many strategies and tips for practicing repertoire that are beyond the scope of this discussion. Here I am concerned with what to practice as much as how to practice.

In future blog entries I will discuss organizing material to be practiced over a six day work week, how to alternate routines, how to maintain repertoire versus learning new repertoire and more.

What do you think? Please share your comments below. 

Scott Sanchez is currently on the music faculty at Franklin Pierce University where he directs guitar ensemble, teaches classical guitar, jazz guitar and electric bass. He earned his Bachelor of Music degree at the University of Denver as a student of the Cuban classical guitarist, Ricardo Iznaola, and graduated with a Master of Music degree from Yale University where he was a student of the American classical guitarist, Benjamin Verdery. Visit him at:

1Seymour Bernstein, With Your Own Two Hands, G. Schirmer (New York, 1981) 201.

2The New Lexicon Webster's Dictionary, Lexicon Publications, Inc. (NewYork, 1988).

3Seymour Bernstein, With Your Own Two Hands, 202.