Performance as Practice

When I asked Nicholas Barron about how he practices, he said, “I never practice.”

I was intrigued, because the dude plays guitar and sings really well, and he’s clearly spent a lot of time making music. Over the course of the next 90 minutes, he shared the details of what “I never practice” means to him. Performance-as-practice is a focus Nicholas shares with a lot of pop musicians. You can hear the whole interview here. Sometimes practice is seems a dirty word, as though too much practice might kill the authenticity of the music, as Erin McKeown mentioned.

Nicholas Barron is a soulful Chicago singer-songwriter who looks like Vince Vaughn (but funnier), and he sounds like the love-child of John Lee Hooker, John Hiatt, and Joni Mitchell. James Taylor called Nicholas “undeniable” at  New York Times’ Emerging Artists Series in 2007. Nicholas’s songs are playful, thoughtful, and heartfelt. Check out the vid of one of his more popular tunes, I’m Not Superman below.

Nicholas tried to use conventional types of practice in his quest. He studied at a couple different colleges, including the New England Conservatory, where he was on track to be part of Gunther Schuller’s Third Stream program. But Nicholas told me that sitting in a room working on scales made his brain hurt. He suffers from ADHD, and had a difficult time with what he called the linear approach of conventional kinds of practice.

At a master class given by the excellent trumpeter Pat Harbison, Nicholas said one piece of advice Harbison gave was to

“play everywhere you can, all the time. Play at McDonalds.” I took it to heart. I heard that. I didn’t hear the notes, I didn’t hear the ‘do this.’ They said play, play, play, and that’s what I remember.

The advice resonated with Nicholas and he began doing just that. He sat in with a killer jazz group a few nights a week while finishing up with school, playing with Hammond B3 player, Jimmy McGary (a guy who, according to Nicholas, “looks like Santa Claus and plays like Charlie Parker). Nicholas traveled to Europe, played in the Tube in London, and eventually ended up playing all day nearly every day for four years in the Chicago subways, at the southern stops, honing his chops. In fact, if you come to visit Chicago and enjoy any kind of street performance, you can thank Nicholas Barron for that. He was instrumental in fighting a ban on street performing, and through organizing and help from others, Nicholas got the city to allow street performers.

So here’s the thing. In school music, performance is a rarity. There are, generally, three major concerts a year. Three! All the rest of the time is spent in rehearsal. This doesn’t seem to be a good balance, though because I’ve had years of experience as a band teacher, I certainly understand the reason for it. Because a performance requires a kind of focus that is rarely present in the practice room, it’s a crucial experience for getting better. It’s one of the definitions of practice that often gets overlooked.

So how do you perform more? Go for simple. In school, the music to be performed is often at the pinnacle of the group’s ability, and this takes time to prepare. Learn something you think is easy and then go play it. Give yourself a week or two with it and then take it to an open mic, or play it for friends, families, or on the street for strangers. And don’t just perform it once, another common practice in school music. Perform the same tune dozens of times, if you can. Nicholas Barron has performed most of his songs, and those of many others thousands of times. That’s a kind of practice you can’t get in a practice room.

Get out there and perform.

Check out the Nicholas Barron discography (he’s also on the John Martyn tribute album singing Angeline). Here’s Nicholas performing I’m Not Superman live, and he explains a little bit why doing it live is so important. The introduction is one I’ve not heard before. Classic Nicholas Barron.

Want to learn more about the best ways to practice? Get an e-mail with a discount code when The Practice of Practice is published (June, 2014). To learn more about the book, check out a sample from The Practice of Practice.

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