Quite often people ask me about how long I have played guitar, how many hours a day I practice, and things of that nature.
I think the more important issue is “how” and “why” I practice. I’d like to convey to you a painful, but ultimately great – story from my past regarding practice and stage preparation.
Maybe this will resonate within you, and give you some ideas about what you need to be doing, practice wise.
I was 15 years old, and was a classical guitar student at the Bloomingdale House of Music in NYC. Each year, they had an end of year recital. I was an older advanced student, so other’s (and my) expectations of my playing were high.
I had been learning the Courante of Bach’s 3rd cello suite, and could play it pretty well – but only from reading the score.
So…I went out on stage thinking I knew it, and fell on my face. Had to stop playing after 3 bars.
My mind went blank.
My stomach sank.
Lather, rinse, repeat. I tried 2 more times, and fell on my face.
The piece just pooped out after 3 bars. Oh God!!!!
Parents were holding their hands over their faces in horror. It was the ultimate “knot in the stomach from humiliation” moment for everyone in the room. Horrible, thunderous silence. Zero humor.
The director of the school came onstage and put his hands on my shoulders.
“Now everyone,” he said “what do we do when this happens?” Oh great, now he was making an example of me. Was this supposed to make me feel better?
I wanted to die.
I then played a piece I knew “Adelita” by Tarrega…and…shuffled off.
Afterwards, everyone was telling me “No, really you were good. Don’t feel bad, that has happened to us all, and can happen to anyone.” Yeah right. They tried to make me feel better. It sucked – they knew it, and I did too.
This was the worst moment in my life up until that time….but little did I know the fantastic lesson contained therein.
Now, when I practice my arrangements, I repeat, repeat, over over over. I vowed that this would never happen again. And it hasn’t.
Sometimes at home I STILL practice pieces I have played 10,000 times, and I wonder if I am crazy by doing them once more…and then I realize….being “bulletproof” for stage is more important to me than being “creative” on stage. Creativity has a different place, for me.
I still practice “Superstition”, “Billie Jean” and all the songs I could play onstage years ago. Just to keep em in check.
And 2 nights ago I played a 1000 seat theater after a plane ride, car rental, hotel check in and a frozen TV dinner as my meal.
I was exhausted, but the performance was solid, bulletproof and the people loved it.
What do you think served me and the audience on stage?
What served me was the ability to slam dunk 2 bulletproof arrangements. This only comes from repetition, repetition, repetition.
By doing this repetition, the fingers and music are auto pilot – in a sense.
This way you have mental resources to deal with everything else: communication with the audience, nerves, exhaustion, a weird crackle in a patch cable, lights shining in your face and so on.
Now….get to work! 🙂
John Horne says
Yeah. My hands failed me last night. I was playing dinner music at an assisted living facility. Everything was great until one frail-looking woman nearly slammed into me and my gear with her walker. My feet held their ground, but my fingers freaked out! Fortunately I don’t think anyone noticed, but I was surprised and disappointed that my motor-memory didn’t pull through.
John, I wouldn’t sweat it! Being rammed physically doesn’t count in this case!!! 🙂
Jeffery Judkins says
You are a great guitar player , no doubt., but to my mind , playing that relies on replaying perfect renditions of highly arranged pieces lacks the emotional resonance that comes from some degree of spontaneity and improvisation. Playing what you feel in the moment can lead to ” mistakes”, but according to Miles Davis, there are no mistakes.. Maybe your style of playing is informed more by the Classical tradition rather than Jazz.
Jeff I played jazz and improvised solos for years. Played on Dr Lonnie Smiths band, Mike Longo, Alvin Queen….Bob Cranshaw is on my 2nd CD actually – so what I am doing is by choice and I am informed of the jazz side too. All the best – AR
Rex Eberle says
Adams middle name is Jazz. Enough said.
Charlie Correll says
I have a wonderful jazz singer friend who specializes in interpretation and improvised scat singing. She complained to me that her guitar player planned out his solos rather than improvising. Like, “If he doesn’t have anything to say….” I disagree with her. I do believe Lincoln wrote out the Gettysburg Address before delivering it. At the same time, I am not rejecting improvisation. There is room for all
Hey Jeffrey, I understand what you’re saying, but my view is exactly the opposite. When I’ve got a piece down cold is when I can relax in performance and focus on expression. You can’t practice expression, it depends on the surroundings and your state of mind at that moment. To apply expression to a piece, I can’t be thinking about the notes, they have to be in my fingers already. As long as I can play the notes on autopilot, I can express my state of mind in tempo, dynamics, attack of the notes, sustain, and, well.. . you know what I mean. If I have to guide my fingers to the notes, it breaks the artistic train of thought,
Slam Dunk! haha….like PAul Simon pulled on Kareem on SNL in ’76 🙂
Question re: teacher’s saying : “”Now everyone,” he said “what do we do when this happens?”
What is the answer?
1) Play something else that you know and bail on the attempted piece; or
2) Make sure it NEVER happens again (to the true best of your ability)
3) something else altogether.
Everyday hungry says
Thank you for sharing this. 🙂 It was only by chance that I came across your blog and I’m really thankful to have seen this post. I kinda messed up with my playing yesterday. It was my first time to play fingerstyle in front of an audience. Thankfully they were not so many! My fingers were really shaking out of nervousness. Since then, I’ve been thinking of a way to solve this problem and i think that your advice could really help me a lot! Thanks! 🙂
Adam Rafferty says
Welcome to the ranks of being a performing musician. We all go through this. Believe it or not, if you perform enough this will go away – just KEEP AT IT!!!! – Happy Holidays! Adam
Wow, I just experienced exactly this last night. I decided last minute to attach a song, that I hadn’t practiced as much, to the end of another song. Kind of like to make a medley. Real clever. I bombed soo bad I thought I should just completely stop in the middle of the song. I didn’t but I thought of quiting after that sad experience. I guess I’ll just take it as lessoned learned. Thanks Adam for the tips!
Thanks for more great tips on performing and playing….they have helped immensely! I think that another lesson contained in your early experience might be to practice a piece exactly like you are going to perform it.
Greg thanks for commenting! – AR
The same thing happened to me at an end-of-year recital at Berklee. In some sense, I am still trying to get over it 30 years later. For years I’ve played in bands because it was safe but my palms would immediately start sweating when anyone asked me to play solo. Now I am, as they say, confronting my fears, by playing only solo. I spend a great deal of time trying to bulletproof my arrangements but worry that I am sacrificing creativity by p[aying them the same way all the time.
Jack, sorry for the late reply. You can prepare and then “be in the NOW” when you play something you have practiced…All the best – AR
Guy Hart says
I find I can practice pieces endlessly and still not be able to remember them, even short ones. Consciously memorising where the notes are without the guitar so I can visualize them helps but I have never found a proper solution. Any tips?
Guy – understanding the theory will help you memorize more so than fingerings…all the best! I hope that makes sense 🙂
Jim Carlton says
The great Nato Lima told me to play everything as slowly as possible when first learning it. He said, “When you have it as slowly as you can play it, slow it down some more.” I play a very tricky arrangement of “Peter Gunn” and I still play it at a snail’s pace when practicing.
I have read this a couple ,or 3 times. I have some experience playing in all the countries Of Spain,islands included,and some international gigs,but like Sideman with Spanish Singers.
Now i want to make a living fingerpicking the guitar, i love to be in the stage,but when you got some arrangements with some technical issues,and someones with a very hard technical moments, you have to practice them as times as posible,i know that. And in the case of fingerpicking you must do this a lot more than other styles.
Now the thing is to play,over and over the songs and the arrangements to get them in good conditions. And this is hard , also when you are your own promotion `person ,in facebook,youtube,mailing lists,and share,comment,like,response,seen other players do the same you want to do,and go on.
Man, i am so tired,phisically,and mentally, and my second gig as fingerpicker in a several weeks, and i think i have to sleep,rest, and do some aerobical thing,between playing over,and over the songs.
I love your words,your videos,your music,and i want also to make my tribute to you,you are one of my references,like Tommy Emmanuel,Jerry Reed,Thom Bresh,John Knowles,and all of you Guys,doing it so well , the playing stage thing,and also the Social Media thing, i admire you.
And now i am going to work, ……. Also i am tired to tipying in the keyboard,so much, i think is not so much good when you fingerplay.
Just keep practicing, stage playing gets easier the more you do it!
Sometimes I practice my guitar pieces with my eyes closed. It really helps since your brain starts to visualize the actual notes & positions while your ears listen to the music.
Dave Williams says
Great advice, as always, Adam. No substitute for repetition, but I’m often left with the questions: How do you know when you’re really ready to perform a piece? Are you really sure? How can you test yourself? Maybe when these questions are still in my mind, I’m not ready?
Dave you never know, you just have to eventually jump in. I screw things up all the time 🙂
Rick Hansen says
Thanks for sharing that very personal story. I was cringing for you all the way through.
Great advice, from a great musician. Thank you.
Oh yea, 4 months ago I botched it really good.
I was on stage for the first time, started to play and got thru the first three bars and total brain freeze.
Started the song again and got thru two bars and again total freeze.
I threw my hands up in the air and took a couple of deep breaths then grabbed the mike and told the audiance,
OK folks 1st gears not working so let’s try starting in 2nd. I closed my eyes took another deep breath and played my next song without a glitch.
The breathing and talking to the audiance seemed to calm my nerves a little and helped regain my composure.
Last month I played in front of the same crowd and started with the same song I had botched before.
This time was different, I had practiced it so much that not only did it flow without effort that I actually sung it as I played it.
Practice over, and over, and over again.
Repetition, what your family will come to despise but what a guitarist so desperately needs…
Thanks Stan….you are right on!
so far i’ve learned few things .Whenever you start to play(home)
1. plug your guitar the same way as you think you like to sound on a stage
2.. Close your eyes
3 imagine the stage
4 find someone you want to play for
Paula Whitaker says
Thanks! This is probably my biggest challenge as a fingerstyle player right now. I can play flawlessy in my own music room, but when I get on stage at an open mic my fingers disown me. I end up sounding about half as good as I am capable. I’d do anything to make this “hand disowning” get better.
Paula, just learn the new environment. Sometimes I am nervous and when I get on stage I stop being nervous – because I am familiar with the environment. Totally different from being at home!
George Margo says
I was playing for an audience of 500 at a xmas gathering. Right in the middle of Romanza I had this tortuous itch on my nose the ones that can’t be ignored. I stopped playing and apologized to the audience and calmly attended to the itch. The audience gave hearty laughter and applause as I continued to finish the piece………….
Adam, sharing your music and knowledge makes the lives of others and the world better . Has to be one of the best gigs ever. I’d say don’t ever stray form this course…but then why would you?
Duane – Thanks 1000 times!!! Stay tuned for more…
bernie finch says
Thanks so much for this blog. I have a piece Ijust cannot seem to get through. I can do it barely looking at the score. Take away the score and I go completely blank. So I will practice it another 500 times! I am in great company! And I am close oh so close…..
Bernie – can you analyze the harmony? That may help you remember it, as opposed to “fingerings” – all the best! AR
jack beard says
Hello Adam, just like you,teaching is a big part of my guitar career.How many times have we had a personal epiphany teaching,a special moment where we solidify or confirm an important concept to ourselves that then improves are own playing.Now thats a “Win Win” ! Example: I show a student something,(a riff,technique,perhaps a “correct way” or fix a bad habit of the student……Then I say “Now do this 500 times.Literally.500 times.” Not all at once of course,but literally ,thats what it takes.And you know what ?The ones who love it have no problem understanding this,because guitar playing ,and learning guitar…..Man ,that feels really ,really good.Got to practice, ,excuse me.JACK BEARD
A world renowned jazz pianist was my neighbor years ago. She told me that 99% of what she plays live is from muscle memory. So what you’re saying here makes sense. There may be isolated musicians that don’t rely on that but for most of us mere mortals it’s all about practicing to the point of obsession. Thanks Adam for this poignant piece.
Theres a time for on the spot creation, but its still training. Mozart could improvise creatively becasue he had muscle memory combined with imagination! AR
Thomas Felty says
I was playing at a luthiers convention showcasing a couple of guitars I built. When I was playing I thought that my guitar went badly out of tune. I panic and stop playing. I grabbed the other guitar I had on stage with me and finished the song. The folks were so gratuitous they gave me a standing ovation. I later discovered I was so nervous that I was playing out of position. The two guitars had different scales and I practiced the song on a short scale guitar but grabbed the longer scaled guitar when I sat down to play. A couple o my buddies still laugh about even today.
I’ve been practicing a long time now and thought I’d share what works for me – after trying so many ways to remember songs “practicing correctly” is probably the trem people use…how do you do that ? No idea, everyone is different -if it works for you then in my opinion its correct.. for me -I find now, that when learning a new piece I start with bars 1 to 2 or a little more ..learn it cold, technique,picking,etc no rush….practicing very slowly, bars 1,2,3,4 ..listening to the notes, the sound I am trying to make with dynamics etc…changing the way I play bars 1- 4, like a smoother chord change, can i remove some string noise from that slide etc…all this time bars 1-4 are being repeated while your technique is improving….your repeating, repeating,repeating, like walking a road looking at a map,you suddenly find a path, it clicks…then move on next 4 bars…before you know it verse is done and you usually have a bridge and chorus left, same patern, start the chorus 1 or 2 bars, start the verse and add the first 2 bars of the chorus,repeat slowly, listening to small things- keep this up for a few days, then try it amplified, try it imagining a crowd – try running thru with no mistakes…by the time you can run thru it cleanly with no mistakes 20 times – add it to your daily playing list…meaning you play it every day cleanly..if you make ANY mistake, you dont stop ..play thru and then Start the piece again, never stop after a mistake try continue,… this is what works for me, some songs have twists and turns, and you make them your own, its your map – dont over complicate, your music playing isn’t to be judged, its to be enjoyed..like practice..enjoy the challenges and always -always play what you love..
Ruud Jansen says
thanks for your great blog; I dont know so many of these that are written by an amazing guitar player like you who is so open and honest to give away all his family jewels!…anyway, I read them with a lot of pleasure. About getting blocked during a show; I recognize this. Particulary when I know that there are other great guitar players in the audience, I feel a little uncomfortable and sometimes notice that I lost my focus because I think about how ‘they’ would find my play. Anyway, your blog is another drive for me to practise more to eliminate these weaknesses…. thanks again a lot for your messages!
ford giesbrecht says
the audience wants you to succeed. I’ve endured two major league melt downs – years apart, and a few less catastrophic. One time I completely lost a line in the middle of the song, so I sung “dum de dum dum” doing my best to mimic the melody, and carried on. (I am a finger-style guitarist) It got a laugh, since I was laughing through it. I played through the part and got it second time through. I just try not to take myself too seriously and find most people are pretty forgiving.
I hate brain-freeze. I try to close my eyes and breath!
Thanks Ford! Breathe baby, breathe!!! – AR
I agree with you, repetition, repetition, repetition is the key.
I expect you’ve heard the word about practice: You don’t just practice until you do it right. You practice until you can’t do it wrong!
Randy E Lee says
Now I don’t feel like I’m boring family or friends when I play something for the 10,000 time. I don’t play for a living but still find time for practice every day. It’s good to know what I’m doing has a reason.
I would add a caveat to your idea of practicing it 1000 times. When I do that, the performance is “burned in” exactly as I learned it, and there’s no room for improvement, or even correction. If I want to make it better (i.e. different than the last 100 times), I have to break the autopilot. If I fumble one spot and continue to practice it over and over, I’m just dialing in the fumble. Muscle memory is dangerous; your fingers don’t know if it’s good or bad, they just know how to play it the same way every time. I’ve started practicing differently. When a piece starts to get routine, I change it up and still try to play it perfetly. Allen Mathews has a great article on this: “50 Ways To Test Your Musical Memory” [ https://www.classicalguitarshed.com/musical-memory/ ]. Allen is a classical guitarist, so some of the 50 don’t work for me (play it backwards by bar, for example. I don’t play from written music so I have no sense of the measures). But before I can play it in a pressure situation, I do practice playing it backward by sections, adding the preceding and following phrases so it’s in context. I play it with the radio on or with someone talking to me. I play it as fast as my fingers will move. I play with a recording running at different speeds (70%, 80%, 90%, 100%, 110%, 120%). I deliberately introduce errors so I can practice recovering. In these circumstance, both brain and hands have to be fully engaged, and they’re learning it fresh on every run-through..