The Inspired Student: Performance Practice

39 - Creativity

Did you know that the areas of the brain activated while playing from memory are deactivated during improvisation? Playing a written melody and improvising a solo activates different regions of the brain.

We all have a Classical musician friend unable to improvise or a Jazz musician friend that can’t read scores properly. It turns out that both are developing different neurological circuits.

Conversely, and at times, you might feel natural and easier to play a previously transcribed solo from a recording, while on other occasions that naturalness flows effortlessly to the ability of improvising your own solo.

As a Jazz Musician I was always fascinated (and intrigued) by creativity. What is it? Where does it come from? How do we grow, strengthen and develop it? How does it work?

Practice improves “muscle memory” (the ability to play without physical effort and excessive thinking). On the other hand, too much of “self-monitoring” often results in choking under pressure.

We’ve all been there: Practice, hard work, nailing concepts or tricky passages, but when time comes… we mess up.

Turns out we might only be working half the brain we should.

The motor learning acquiring process is a balance between (1) elaborating on what and how to produce a desirable sound, phrase or musical effect (technical practice) and (2) putting all of those concepts together in a musical context (performance practice).

The technical practice stage is our struggle to manage contents, to understand them and to apply them in context. It’s the stage where we have to think before we do. It’s the analytical, theoretical and practical thinking and executing happening in practice mode.

But we also need to get the other part of the brain involved in the process. We need to turn off the focused thinking mode and go to defuse thinking mode to be able to make connections and actually start improvising like a world class jazz musician.

The performance practice stage, on the other hand, is the automatic, freed and fluid action of playing an instrument without the need of conscious control of every movement. Music just happens. We’re in the zone.

In Basketball, for instance, we might think about a player who goes through the motions, executing drills, perfecting shooting motor skills and technicalities without engaging in real game time situations were action is required without possibility of corrections or run-throughs.

How many times do we, the musicians, engage in technical practice, correcting and perfecting licks, solos and musical concepts, without engaging properly in musical performance contexts? In Jazz the Jam Session plays a vital part in one’s development since it favors real-time musical events happening in real life musical environments.

But we can go beyond by transforming our practice sessions to resemble (the best possible way) all variables of stage performance:

  • Preparation rituals;
  • Dressing accordingly;
  • Playing with some friends around;
  • Playing through noisy environments;
  • Recording;
  • Simulating stage equipment and volume levels;
  • Playing through the entire song;
  • Playing through the entire repertoire.

Simulating real life performance situations favors preparation and habit which, in time, results in naturalness and easiness to optimized performances. So, the next time you go into practice mode, lock in with the intensity inherent to an actual demanding performance. You will grow consistency with your playing, confidence in your abilities and the thrill to perform in a regular basis.


The Inspiring Teacher


38 - inspiring-quote-for-teachers.jpg

“The mediocre teacher tells.

The good teacher explains.

The superior teacher demonstrates.

The great teacher inspires.”

(William Arthur Ward)

The Center for Music Learning (in the University of Texas Austin’s) is at the forefront of tracking INSPIRATIONAL TEACHERS qualities and modus operandi.

Here’s the profile of these Masters. Have you ever meet one of these? Pay homage to your mentors by sharing this post with them 🙂

1 – The Repertoire

  1. The Inspiring Teacher challenges students with musical material within their current technical capabilities.
  2. Students prepare the repertoire beforehand by playing, sight-reading, interpreting, listening and experimenting the material.
  3. Physical, mental or sight-reading tensions are avoided to prevent student’s struggling.
  4. At the same time, the focus is on building superior technical execution.

2 – Clear Auditory Image

  1. The Inspiring Teacher has a vivid picture in mind about the piece.
  2. The goal is to lead the student to utilize the most appropriate musical tools to produce the desired character, interpretation and feel.

3 – Sound Quality

  1. Producing and preserving good tone, pitch and feel is indispensable.
  2. Technical pointers serve the goal of producing the best sound possible.

4 – Goal Selection

  1. Each lesson has a specific target to be accomplished.
  2. Relevance of the chosen subjects is based on effective expression of specific musical ideas and the general substantiation of the musical spectre.
  3. Goals are achievable in the present moment, auto corrections perceptible and improvement is immediate.

5 – Comparative Evolution

  1. The Inspiring Teacher describes student’s progress in detail.
  2. Negative feedback is brief and always constructive.

6 – Practice Equals Performance

  1. Pieces are executed from beginning to end with no interruptions.
  2. Lessons resemble public performances.
  3. Interruptions only occur when errors are made.
  4. Feedback is provided considering the perception of an audience.
  5. Every practice trial should be executed as if someone was listening to it.

7 – Errors Motivate Stopping and Correction

  1. Notes and rhythms must be prepared by the student beforehand and only will be corrected by the Inspiring Teacher if necessary.
  2. Errors are immediately corrected.

8 – Repetition Of Key Passages

  1. Accuracy is essential.
  2. Technique is fundamental.
  3. Physical movements are closely supervised (posture, breathing, presentation).
  4. The Inspiring Teacher never gives up on his student postponing a correction or addressing an important subject to be dealt by the student alone.

9 – Constant Feedback

  1. The Inspiring Teacher frequently interacts with his students.
  2. Feedback is short, concise and straight to the point.

10 – Demonstrations And Lectures

  1. Small breaks during the lesson favours mental and physical relaxation.
  2. Humour or inspirational insights are provided.

11 – Interpretation And Autonomy

  1. The Inspiring Teacher supports the identity and choices of each student.
  2. When dealing with a student’s inadequate solution, option or opinion, The Inspiring Teacher lead’s him to rethink and select more suitable alternatives.

12 – Fostering Discernment

  1. The Inspiring Teacher guides students in analytical thinking about their own performance.
  2. Tone production and musical expression are prioritized.
  3. Rhythm and dynamic variables are also incorporated.

13 – Physical Motion As A Means To Produce Sound

  1. Physical motion affects sound.
  2. Technique is the tool used to produce the desirable tone and sound effect.
  3. Attention to single notes, sense of line or phrase endings is a must.

14 – Negative Feedback

  1. The Inspiring Teacher is very specific, clear and succinct when addressing performance qualities in need of improvement.
  2. Clarity and directness facilitates the efficient correction of errors.

15 – Positive Feedback

  1. The Inspiring Teacher shows excitement towards great performances during sessions.
  2. The accomplishment of important goals or the creation of musical moments is worthy of empathetic expressions of pleasure.
  3. Repetition of compliments is not infrequent.

16 – Modelling

The Inspiring Teacher replicates students performance alternating from what he is already doing and what would be the most exquisite execution of the piece.

For more on the subject check the The University of Texas Austin’s Center for Music Learning at

Defensive Pessimism

37 - Pessimism

It’s Summertime!

“The livin’ is easy
Fish are jumpin’ and the cotton is high
Your daddy’s rich and your ma is good-lookin’
So hush little baby, Don’t you cry”

Sunny weather, drinking cocktails by the pool, bikini girls walking around, running, hiking and biking with friends and, of course, a late afternoon ball game followed by a little jam after dinner and gazing at the stars late night in the evening. Is there anything better?

Truth be told, sometimes is hard to appreciate the good things in life, especially if you’re a pessimistic person. Let’s dip right in from the top highest diving board, shall we?

Pessimism is a thought process where a mental picture of something going wrong is created in the mind.

Following an acute sense of pessimism one can see himself sabotaging or handicapping his chances of success by (1) postponing a certain action (procrastination), (2) failing preparation or (3) being busy with smaller duties.

But there’s a more moderate – kind of wiser – form of negative self-envisioning called Defensive Pessimism. Anxiety is still present and expectations are extremely low.

But here’s the catch: Defensive Pessimism is both a way of preparation and also self-protection in case things go wrong. It’s like a self-esteem shield and the necessary fuel one needs to work on correcting mistakes beforehand.

Having prepared mental cues of things going south may also alert the musician during performances. The defence mechanism of anticipating all possible bad outcomes endows him of more alertness when the stakes are high.

Defensive Pessimism is actually a refined form of visualization, but not the kind of visualization where you only create a perfect vision of the ideal performance. It’s a broader and realistic one, where there is space for correcting mistakes in practice and anticipate them when in performance mode.

Pessimism is related to the way we see ourselves, our actions and the world around. Since we tend to confirm what we believe in, we interpret things differently, according to our sense of self.

Lack of confidence, low self-esteem or depression may impair our judgment and make us believe failure or unsuccessful outcomes are inevitable. Negative and inaccurate self-thoughts prevent us from taking an exempted look at reality.

A negative or pessimistic approach builds anxiety, which makes us avoid practicing. Since without practice we can’t improve, our negative perspective is paving the way for an accented sense of impairment.

What to do then? Building a stronger self-esteem, confidence and trust in our abilities starts with a choice of words.

If you’re a pessimist start by reviewing Top Performers Strategies to grow mental resilience, and also ways to Strengthening Confidence.

In short:

  • Pay attention to your inner dialogue (thoughts and self talk);
  • Challenge yourself (try something new);
  • Surround yourself with uplifting people;
  • Visualize, prepare and build great experiences.

Remind that Defensive Pessimism is actually there to help you, protecting you from harm. Use it to your advantage. Don’t let your pessimism build self-fulfilling prophecies of impairment. Be smart. Visualize what could go wrong and act upon it.

Now get out there, be brave and enjoy the sunlight! Let’s enjoy our Summertime 🙂

The Need To Be Perfect

29 - Impostor Syndrome

Is the need to be perfect (or perform perfectly) the most polished way of showing (or disguising) solicitude, insecurity or the impostor syndrome?

The topic always reminds me one of my favourite movies of all time and the winning Oscar laureate Natalie Portman for her work on Black Swan.

Perfectionism involves a certain amount of both:

  1. High standards of performance (Perfectionist Strivings = associated with positive motivation, effort and satisfaction);
  2. Worry, frustration and disappointment over mistakes and falling short from our goals (Perfectionist Concerns = associated with negative stress, anxiety and depression).
Four combinations of personality traits are then possible:

1 – Healthy Perfectionism

  • Combines high strivings with low concerns.
  • Self-confidence prevails over anxiety.

2 – Non-Perfectionism

  • Combines both low strivings and concerns.
  • Expectations of success are low and there’s little care for results.

3 – Unhealthy Perfectionism

  • Combines both high strivings and concerns.
  • Higher standards of excellence are undermined by feelings of inadequacy.

4 – Evaluative Perfectionism

  • Combines low strivings with high concerns.
  • Focus on avoiding mistakes, fear of failure and experience anxiety.

The following question is how to take our character feats and use them the proper way. Engaging in a champions mind-set where overwhelming concerns does not injure boosted confidence in strivings seems to be the way.

In order to do so one should start by thinking less about “Perfection” per se and focus more on excellence and challenging towards self-improvement.

More importantly, one must ask about where do those high standards come from. Is it professional pride, dignity or honor? Is it the need for love and acceptance? Is it fear of losing a job or not being able to financially support a family? Is it the fame and glory? Is it the women? Is it the fans? Is it the prestige and worship? Is it pure joy? Is it the challenge? Is it a righteous self-consciousness? What are you trying to prove, to whom and why?

Bottom line is: know how to pick a worthy cause and shoot for the stars. After all, the definition of success lies in you.

Personally speaking, and over the last years, I’ve been looking at the definition of success as the final goal, the finish line, the product and the results achieved when all is set and done. Success allowed me to say: “Here is what I have to offer”.

But more recently I’ve been changing that goal-oriented perspective to a different approach. I find myself, nowadays, in bigger and better appreciation for the path towards mastery. It’s more about the road and walking the path, rather then reaching there.

Truth be told, when I look back at what I’ve accomplished, learned and grow by trailing the path that brought me here it’s chrystal clear to me that the greatest success of it all was the rich deep meaning and understanding I’ve achieved about myself and my surroundings. This is truly priceless and this is the reason why I work so hard – being a Master at everything.

What about you? Let me know more about your path in the comments bellow.

For more on the subject check Dr. Noa Kageyama’s Bulletproof Musician’s blog on