Performance as Practice

Headed north up to do a gig with my quintet Swang and it got me thinking about how performance figures into practice. We’re doing some recordings tomorrow and I know that playing a gig the night before will help our playing a lot.

According to a lot of the folks I’ve interviewed, performance is considered a kind of practice. In fact, some, like tuba player Rex Martin and NY Phil trumpeter Ethan Bensdorf try to obliterate the line between “practice” and “performance” and make everything performance. Ethan mentioned that he sometimes will imagine Bud Herseth is in the room (a legend among orchestral trumpeters). It’s an approach Mr. Herseth encouraged. Rex Martin said that he learned from Herseth that you have to be careful about practice, because you start to practice how to practice, instead of practicing performing. All this stuff and much more is in The Practice of Practice.

Other players, like singer-songwriter Nicholas Barron, makes performance his sole means of practice. He spent about four years in the Chicago subways performing for commuters all day long as his practice. Others, like jazz guitarist Bobby Broom, has a sporadic relationship with practice and said that he sometimes uses the performance, playing really hard several times a week, as a kind of practice.

Performance is a way to bump your skills to a higher level, and the more you do it, the better. In schools, we have a kind of bizarre relationship to performance. In our ensembles, we work on a few pieces for several months, and then have a concert, maybe 3 or 4 times a year. If you want to get better faster, I recommend forming a small chamber group or jazz combo and perform as much as you possibly can. There’s an intensity of focus required for performance that you simply can’t get any other way.

Here’s Nicholas Barron demonstrating the kind of chops this approach might get you.

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