Jen Cluff ~ Played it Perfectly

Canadian Flutist and Teacher

When a student says: But I played it PERFECTLY in the practice room!!

Dear Student Who Played it Perfectly before the Lesson but not IN the lesson,

In yesterday's lesson you mentioned, quite rightly, that when you play flute alone in a practice room, you play better than you do when you're under the pressure of having someone (like your teacher) watch you.

I bet you'd tense up just a little if ANYone were watching you right?

You're quite right in your observation about the practise room. We all play better (or think we do) when we're entirely alone, completely relaxed, and have no sense of tension. In fact we are so much more relaxed when practising alone, that we often don't listen that critically to ourselves either. :>)

For one thing, when you're completely relaxed and happy, your co-ordination is better. But another weird feature of being alone, and not being critical, is that when we play alone, we also don't have very high standards because we're in "discovery" mode, not "make it perfect over and over mode"  Many of us don't even hear ourselves correctly. We're so busy playing, that our heads are busy and we CAN'T really listen that closely.

I mean, have you ever recorded yourself to hear what you really sound like? We're all shocked when we hear what others must be hearing.

When we're just playing or singing on our own, we're so busy producing the sound, we're not truly listening 100%.
Then if we heard ourselves on a recording we'd say: YUCK!!! Oh I'm so embarrassed! Gosh!!! I really stink!!! (I've said that about my own playing when I first heard it on a recording!)

The only way to be truly happy with a recording of yourself, you'd have to really practise the piece(s) you're working on so when the record button is pushed your music comes out EXACTLY as you intend it to.

And you can only do that if you're practised it to come out just about 100% perfectly over and over and over again.

When it came out "Perfectly in the practise room" it only probably came out ONCE perfectly out of nine bad tries.

You want to know your music so well that it comes out perfectly ten out ten times, not one out of ten times.


Pursuing a career in music means that you can gradually become more and more adept at handling pressure and still play beautifully, and if anything sound BETTER under pressure, because of the excitement of communicating with the audience.

So in order to eventually be able to do that you must expose yourself over and over again to lessons, masterclasses, juries, performances and recitals where you learn to harness your excitement and play just WONDERFULLY and EXACTLY as you WANTED,  despite who's in the audience what's happening all around you (noise, distractions, woman in the front row with her wig on fire, etc. :>)

So go ahead and allow the first part of this to become part of your daily practise: Once a section of music sounds perfect; repeat it.

Then every time you practise it again, re-iterate that perfection until it's more likely to be perfect every single time you play it, instead of only right once or twice.

And for the future, here's another music career example to think about:

Let's say that you become a band teacher, and that you look at the band piece that you're going to conduct tomorrow, and you run through it a few times, and you make a few conducting mistakes, but you don't really notice them, and the next day you get up to conduct the piece in front of your band.

You make dozens more mistakes because your concentration is all skewed because there is so much going on at the same time. You're under pressure, you're listening to trumpets and clarinets blaring away on wrong notes, you've got flute players giggling and stealing eachother's music off the stands, the principle arrives and lurks in the doorway to see how good a conductor you are, and how the band is coming along......your cell phone goes off, and you try and turn off the ringer while still continuing to conduct because the guy who hired you is lurking in the doorway and you're so embarrassed.

How well prepared do you think you look? How good is your concentration? How focused can you stay on the music and conducting exactly right. What if the principle is a retired conductor and you know that?

So, think: How well prepared were you really? Should you have spent more time preparing exactly how to conduct that piece, and how to keep the class attentive and focused? How to keep your cool under fire?

You need to be so well prepared that your body automatically does all the musically correct things it needs to do whether your mind is wandering or not.

Let me repeat that:

***You need to be so well prepared that your body automatically does all the musically correct things it needs to do whether your mind is wandering or not.***

There's a famous quote from the first horn of the Chicago Symphony, Philip Farkas.
He said:
There are three qualities that a successful performer must have:
a) A technical command of their instrument
b) Good taste in using this technique musically and artistically
c) The COURAGE to do this in front of an audience.

He goes on to say:

Perhaps the major cause of nervousness is not knowing whether or not the performance will turn out well. Therefore, any study or practice
that will help to build accuracy and dependability prior to the performance is very important.

Your practice routine must include confidence-building and accuracy-achieving procedures. Namely: the repetition of flawless run-throughs of the piece of music to be performed. If you are assured that you can play the particular piece or its passages many times without error, and feel therefore that you are likely to perform the music yet again without chance of error, then your confidence will
improve considerably.

Consider the following:

"When finally that perfect run-through is accomplished, then and only then is the performer ready to start to practicing those passages. The previous run-throughs only demonstrated the many ways of how NOT to play the passage. Now, after achieving one perfect performance, the repetition process actually starts."

This repetition of a perfected passage builds technique and confidence and programs your internal computer to produce a flawless run-through for you, despite any interferences that occur on the day of the performance. Program your internal computer to repeat flawless run-throughs by doing them as many times as possible beforehand.

"Definitely there is no more potent cure for stage fright than the knowledge that you CAN do it, and the way to KNOW that you can do it is to know that you HAVE DONE IT ---perhaps hundreds of times. The more the better."

It is also important to avoid being careless in practice of a perfected passage, and say:

"Oh well, thank goodness no one heard THAT! I'll be more careful on the day of the performance,"

...because you're creating too wide a gap between your relaxed carelessness in the practice room, and the sudden carefulness and public-performance tension when on stage.

Our goal is to minimize the contrast between studio practice and public performance, and not to add carefulness ONLY at the concert. Therefore, in practice, pretend a thousand people are listening, and when on stage, see if you can relax, loosen tight muscles, and use 'positive thinking'.

"By using great diligence and care in the practice studio, and relaxing as much as possible while on stage, you can actually equalize the two attitudes so that practicing and public performance are more and more similar."

Reducing adrenalin flow:
Adrenalin enters the bloodstream whenever you face a dangerous or novel situation. This particular chemical causes "hyper-alertness" which can greatly add to a performance, but if present in excessive amounts can cause rapid pulse, dry mouth, sweaty hands, and trembling arms and legs. So to reduce the action of adrenalin we must reduce the sense of 'danger and novelty'.

Firstly, reduce the 'danger' of making mistakes by the repetition of flawless run-throughs as previously discussed. Reduce the 'novelty' of appearing in public by doing it so often that it becomes a regular occurrence in your life. Thus the novelty will wear off.
Seek out opportunities to perform in public; at schools, churches, clubs, homes, and social gatherings, and each succeeding performance will reduce the adrenalin just to the perfect amount -- when you feel excitedly expectant, alert and aware, and the excitement will give your performance an aliveness that will move the audience.

Realize that physically you must stay in good shape. In order to play your best in concert you'll need regular exercises, healthy food, good vitamin intake, lots of fresh air and sound sleep. This will allow your body to be in optimal physical condition and will give vitality to your performance. This will add further to your self-confidence, which in turn will create a better performance, thus boosting your confidence even more. A musical life demands a healthy, vigorous and vital musician. Strive to be such a person.

Calm your nerves with logic and reasoning: What's the worst that could happen? Some missed notes? Or perhaps a breakdown of the piece, forcing a re-start? These things happen to every performer at some point in their life, and are no big deal. People will love you and want to help you regardless of these occurances. "No one in the history of music has EVER given a perfect performance. But you can see if you can come as close to perfection as possible."

Our lives as musicians are ones of eternal learning. We are all students of music. Perfection is never obtained, it is just the shining star we follow. Never let a less-than-perfect performance discourage you. In the universe nothing is "perfect". The concert setting is NOT a life or death situation (unlike the work done everyday by a brain surgeon) so, put it into perspective. Learn and go forward.

Finally, spiritual strength in the form of faith, positive thinking, a sense of grace, and of "giving to the universe" and the idea that you are not up there on stage "unguided and alone" is all important to us. As humans, a sense of spiritual connectedness to all things in the universe gives us strength and makes us calm.
Above quote slightly modernized by J. Cluff
from: Philip Farkas from "The Art of Musicianship".

So I think I've conveyed this information as well as I can.

It's not that the private music teacher is there to tell you: "You are doing everything WRONG!". It can seem like that, but performing imperfectly is all part of the learning process.

Your teacher has only one hour a week to help you see exactly what you should be working on in order to improve at your fastest rate.
If the teacher just said: "Perfectly good enough! Don't worry about all those little're really very talented"......... well, then you'd go away feeling great for the first little while, but then you'd just stop perfecting your practising, perhaps thinking that you already knew everything there was to learn.

Then one day you'd go to a band festival, or flute concert, and see a 12 yr. old virtuoso playing 1000 times better than anyone you'd ever heard before and wonder: "What the heck am I doing with a teacher who can't help me sound like THAT?"

So keep up to the standard of truly good work, and consider the philosophy behind teaching the Arts:

Flute playing has been taught for centuries, (and singing, ballet, and piano, and conducting, and drama, and painting and all sorts of other arts), and there are some really quick routes to quick improvement that the teachers already know.

Every new student takes a moment or two to realize "Hey, the teacher really does know how to "fast track" me. All I have to do is practise the time-held routines until I've got them down perfectly."

But it's up to you to practise so slowly and carefully that you can truly listen, and then to repeat perfect renditions of your studies, making them better and better, until you're FREE of any tension in your playing. Play everything with soul, beauty and perfect notes, and  do so enough times per week, that your improvements really STICK, and become automatic.

Otherwise as soon as you are under pressure to do well, you will revert to how you used to play when you were a beginner---all discombobulated because there are too many things going on at the same time.

True for all of us.

Hope this helps paint the 'big picture'.
Jen Cluff

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© Jennifer Cluff