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Professional tennis players talk about their struggles on court between what their game plans and their heads tell them to do. 

In his new book, Rafael Nadal elaborates.  From time to time after planning a point, he changes his mind at the last moment and sends a shot in a different direction, which can result in losing the point.

Taylor Dent, a retired professional player who is now a commentator and coach, talked about the same concept during the US Open.  He said you have a little angel on one shoulder and a little devil on the other.  One says, “Do it!” while the other says, “Don’t!”

Do musicians struggle in the same way on stage?

From time to time, perhaps they do.


A cellist I played recitals and competitions for took her performances to gut level, which had nothing in common with our rehearsals.  She sounded great!  So inspired.  But our collaboration suffered.

Sometimes when a singer is nervous or feels under the weather, her/his ability to sing long phrases will be compromised in a concert.  When a singer runs out of breath, s/he is going to breathe right there!  That changes the breathing scheme practiced in rehearsal, and the collaborating pianist needs to change as well.

How is that done?  When the pianist physically breathes with the singer, the pianist can tell when the singer is almost out of air.  Throw out the rehearsal plan and go with it!

How tennis matches and concerts are different

In tennis, the player’s opponent is trying to throw him/her off.  That should not be the case in chamber music!

In solo recitals, sometimes we can become “inspired” to try something new onstage.  For example, I have risked much faster tempi from time to time.  When a piece has been performed many times, it’s fun to take chances.

In general, though, we practice t0 eliminate technical issues and arrive at interpretations we know we can perform under pressure.  Some musicians may disagree.  But I have yet to hear an interview with a musician saying that s/he takes the stage without having made prior decisions.  If performance has nothing to do with rehearsal, then why rehearse?

When a tennis player says in a pregame interview that s/he will “do my best,” that is cause for concern.  Usually that is a less-experienced player, matched with someone like the phoenomenal Serena Williams.  In such cases, you would most likely be correct if you thought the player felt intimidated and didn’t have a game plan.

Concerts are different.  We rehearse to make our ensemble better.  When we practice on our own, we improve our skills.  We don’t spend the time dreaming up ways to throw surprises in the way of the other musicians sharing the stage!  Tossing variation in rubato across the stage from one performer to another is one thing.  That’s fun!  It keeps the music fresh and exciting.  But completely reversing rehearsal decisions doesn’t work.

Acoustics in the concert hall can have performers making changes in tempo, bow use, pedal, and articulation.  After playing a few concerts where changes like these are required, the situation presented by varying acoustics is something you expect and know how to handle.

Musicians and their own heads

Hopefully, we can deal with our fights with ourselves in our practice sessions.  In performances, it is crucial to leave inner conflict related to our non-musical lives (such as the store clerk who was rude 2 hours ago, whether we remembered to lock the door, what’s for dinner) outside the venue.  And if a musician wants to take chances during concerts, they would be well advised to let other performers in on the plan, or, if playing solo, be very well prepared.

What, as a musician, is your experience between you and your own head?  Please share your thoughts in the comment section below!


Learning a new piece? New program? Back in school? Looking for teaching ideas? Then this is the perfect time to read “Goal-oriented Practice: How to Avoid Traps and Become a Confident Performer!”

Goal-oriented Practice

August 2011 review by pianist Robert W. Oliver

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