As musicians and instrumentalists we spend many hours alone in a practice room. Practicing is one of the most private aspects of our work as musicians. Most of us, if not all, prefer the lonely battle with our instrument. We can have the privacy to play with mistakes, buzzing notes, too fast for our fingers to catch up and too slow for anyone to stay awake… However, I have always wanted to witness someone else’s practice session and preparation, without their knowledge, of course. Whenever we hear a performance we see the finished product and when we ask each other “how do you practice?” rarely do we get an answer that is complete and completely honest. Most of the time we answer with what we try to do or what we should do in a practice session, but not with what actually happens behind those closed doors.
Our approach to preparing for a performance differs depending on our level of comfort with the repertoire. I personally like to have the entire repertoire memorized before I start working on perfecting each piece. Whenever something is not memorized I do not feel comfortable enough to work on the rest. That piece that is not yet memorized becomes a source of insecurity, panic, and fear that I will not have enough time to memorize it and perfect it before the date of the performance. Once I memorize everything and bring it up to a reasonable tempo I like to run the entire program. Though it might not be perfect and might have lots of mistakes, I like to get an idea of how the entire program sounds and feels under my fingers. This also gives me an idea of which pieces need more work. I start working on the pieces with which I am least comfortable and the ones that are most challenging. This helps me bring the program into a more balanced shape.
Once I decide which pieces I am going to work on first, based on its difficulty and my comfort level, I treat each piece as a separate entity. I work on the technical aspect of the piece first. Though it is important to work on the phrasing and the colors as early as possible, if the piece has too many technical difficulties making music with it becomes almost impossible. I break the piece into sections and work each section very slowly, building up the tempo with the metronome. If the piece does not have short enough sections, sometimes I just separate it by page, or even half a page. Once all the technical issues are worked out and I can play it at a reasonable tempo I begin working on the phrasing and musicality. I continue to build up the tempo until I can run the entire piece a tempo and with the metronome. I do not consider a piece to be ready until I can play it cleanly, musically and a tempo from the first try. Sometimes when we practice building up the tempo notch by notch on the metronome we can get to a certain tempo and it can sound really good, but if we can not play at that tempo from the first try (provided our hands are warmed up) then we do not own that tempo yet.
After each piece is worked on in the above mentioned manner and I am comfortable with the entire repertoire I run the whole program again just as in a performance. This gives me an idea how each piece feels after the previous one on the program. It is not enough to be able to play a piece perfectly by itself; we need to be able to play it perfectly in a program. Sometimes the challenges of one piece reflect on the next one. For example, a piece heavy with bars and stretches might hinder the hands’ ability to execute something light and fast by tiring out the left hand. I try to balance the program in a way so that two technically challenging pieces are not back to back. This can be very individual, because each of us has different strengths and weaknesses.
Once the program is balanced and each piece is perfected. The only thing left is to build up our endurance for the entire program; however, I do practice each piece individually to maintain all the work already done. Once it is two weeks or so before the performance I like to run the program as I would in a performance at least once a day, and more if the time allows. This gives my hands a chance to adjust to the order, build the endurance and for me to practice the changes between pieces such as tuning. If I have the luxury of an audience like friends or family I try to perform for them. If that is not possible, an audio or video recorder can also do the trick of intimidating us enough to make the run-through less casual and more like a performance.