A Listening Trick for Better Musical Performance – The Audience Perspective

When we can play a guitar piece well, we enjoy the feeling of familiarity. We can play it through easily. We may have memorized it.

And because we know it so well, it’s easy to fall into the trap of playing it the same way each time.

So if we want to revisit our piece, how can we bring a fresh approach to it?

If we’ve got an open mic coming up, or a concert, what’s a good way of making our piece more interesting for the audience?

Has Your Piece Lost its Sparkle?

If we’ve been playing a piece for a long time, it may have lost some of its original sparkle.

That’s not to say we’ve fallen out of love with it. But if we know a piece so well that we can play it by heart, we’ve often memorized more than just the notes.

Memorizing it to Death

So again, say we know our piece well. We’ve memorized the dynamics. We’ve memorized the tone changes. We’ve even memorized the ‘spontaneous’ moments.

We’ve fallen into the trap of playing our piece the same way each time.

So here’s a powerful way to practice a familiar piece so that it becomes more interesting. It’s a way of listening critically to ourselves and hearing our music as others would hear it.

It’s a way of shedding new light on comfortable repertoire.

Shed New Light on Your Piece

In his book, By Heart: The Art of Memorizing Music, Paul Cienniwa suggests that we can find a fresh approach to our music.

He asks us to visualize ourselves listening to our performance from the audience’s perspective.

So try this out. Pretend you are an audience member.

Sit in the Audience

If we imagine we are sitting in the audience when we’re playing, we hear the piece from a different perspective.

(There’s one proviso here. Don’t do this all the time.

It is important to focus all our full attention on our music most of the time. If we get into the habit of becoming disassociated from it, that’s counter-productive.

But when we want to polish a piece, this is a good exercise to have in the practice toolbox.)

Listen as an Audience Member

We know we can play our piece well. We are used to hearing ourselves play it. But how do others hear it?

Let’s visualize it.

Imagine listening as an audience member. Imagine listening to yourself playing your guitar. We can imagine listening with our eyes closed. Or we can look back at ourselves on stage. (That might be even more revealing!)

Remember, They’re Rooting for You.

An audience wants to have a good time. They are there because they want to hear some beautiful music.

They want us to enjoy it too. They’re rooting for us.

And they assume that everything we do on stage is intentional. They are not waiting for us to make a mistake. So in our visualization, let’s get over the nitty-gritty of note accuracy. Let’s listen to our guitar playing from their perspective.

Just how interesting is our performance?

What Do They Hear?

Let’s put ourselves in the position of the audience.

What do they hear? What do they see? How would our piece sound to them?

Is it fluid, or does it appear to be a struggle? Are we playing it at the right speed, or are we losing control of it just a tad? Perhaps it’s too slow, and sending them to sleep. Is the melody soaring, or is it drowned by the accompaniment?

Ask yourself questions about the way you play your piece. Get a new perspective on it.

Inform Your Playing and Adjust

When we’re listening critically to ourselves from someone else’s perspective, we can make adjustments.

We can then start to appreciate the audience’s mindset. We could think, ‘They’ll love this one!’ Or, ‘Actually, that’s a bit of a dirge.’ And we can adjust our playing accordingly.

Video Your Performance

We can take this approach further by videoing ourselves.

While playing, we need to focus our attention on our performance. But we can become the audience when we watch it back.

We should give ourselves a day’s grace before watching it, so we’re not quite so close. It’s good to have forgotten our original intentions.

Then we can watch it back. We’ve become a member of our audience.

Ask the same questions as we did during the visualization. Analyze what is good about this piece. Notice what could be better.

Check tone, dynamics, pulse, and rhythm. How did we come across? How could we improve your body language?

Think about how we could communicate better with our audience. And see what it reveals.

The Small Print

Remember, don’t do this exercise too much.

There’s no harm in videoing ourselves over and over. It’s great to get that feedback.

But don’t become the ‘audience’ too often. Remember that visualizing ourselves ‘outside’ the music is an occasional practice tool only. We want to focus our attention on our playing the rest of the time.

And another reminder. We should only visualize ourselves in the audience with pieces we can play well. We can use it to polish a piece from 98% to 100%.

But when we give this exercise a try, we’ll spot surprising ways to improve our playing.

And if we’ve got a performance coming up, we’ll be confident. We will know that our audience is about to enjoy a fresh, thoughtful interpretation of a piece we know and love.

So go ahead and put yourself in the audience.

And enjoy the fact you haven’t had to buy a ticket.

Allen Mathews

Hi, I’m Allen Mathews. 

I started as a folk guitarist, then fell in love with classical guitar in my 20’s. Despite a lot of practice and schooling, I still couldn’t get my music to flow well. I struggled with excess tension. My music sounded forced. And my hands and body were often sore. I got frustrated, and couldn’t see the way forward. Then, over the next decade, I studied with two other stellar teachers – one focused on the technical movements, and one on the musical (he was a concert pianist). In time, I came to discover a new set of formulas and movements. These brought new life and vitality to my practice. Now I help guitarists find more comfort and flow in their music, so they play more beautifully.
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