The show must go on: looking back | Blogs
Taking the time to review your performance in the days that follow allows you to consider what went well and what didn’t, and how you can improve for future performance. These are often called retrospective reviews.
Reviewing past performance is standard practice. Companies organize retrospectives after the closure of a project; healthcare providers chatting with teammates after completing medical procedures; and music institutes hold structured listening events (eg, Tape & Listen from the Heifetz Institute). Retrospective examinations are invaluable in uncovering habits, thoughts, and feelings that we may not notice at the time.
You’re probably already doing some of this: review your performance, speak with a teacher during a lesson, or get feedback from a knowledgeable listener who attended your event. You probably have some eavesdropping going on, so let’s structure these efforts to get the most out of them.
To ensure a successful exam, you will need to put a few things in place:
● Start your retrospective review within one week of the performance.
● Identify a quiet, distraction-free place to do your exam.
● Find a tracking system to take notes. Try this pattern.
● Choose headphones—ideally a pair that records a full range of frequencies.
● Adopt a neutral but productive mindset: I will listen to my performance from beginning to end, many times, to learn as much as possible and to celebrate my accomplishments.
● Reach out to a trusted fellow musician or mentor who may be able to provide feedback (allow time for this) in the coming days.
Before moving on to the actual retrospective review, pause for this caveat: it’s nearly impossible to know everything about a performance of a single listening. When we rewatch movies, we notice details we didn’t catch before. The same goes for reviews of our own performance. Each “listen” will call for different attention.
Listen 1: A supportive parent or other audience member
I recently attended a recital by a talented university violinist. After the concert, I found myself chatting with his mother, as we watched the post-performance greetings and the warm exchanges between his son and the audience members. She was beaming at the sight of her son connecting with listeners and enjoying his milestone, and she also offered generous but truthful observations about his performance. His favorable the tone was different from how most of us view our own performances. There’s a lesson to be learned here: when first listening to your performance, focus on the good. Support yourself as you would someone else.
All the musicians miss entries and sometimes play wrong notes, but in search of the shines-the good stuff – in your performance is really important. If you recorded your impressions right after the performance, review them. How do they maintain now that there was some time between execution and retrospective review? Try to deal with any negative thoughts or reactions that arise during this first pass. Take a quick note of every negative thought that pops up, but be sure to focus mostly on the positives and write them down.
Listen 2: Wide Blows
On your second listen, start examining your playing on different levels. At this higher level, take a in broad strokes (pardon the pun): general observations about your bow characteristics, offsets, intonation, tension, notes on the C string, connection with your collaborators and audience, etc. You search themes rather than details for each feature. Themes will tell you more about where you need to make changes to your workout routine (eg technical work).
During this listening cycle, you can replay parts of the recording to focus on a feature. For example, you might need to listen to the cadence three times to (1) witness the bow, (2) focus on the dynamics, and (3) listen without the video. Each of these tasks may deserve its own listening.
Listen 3: Nitty Gritty
In this listen, run through your performance with a fine-toothed comb. When you spot a problem, review those few seconds and think about what caused it and whether it was a one-time issue or if it happened at other times. As you go through every detail, know when and if your observations match your in broad strokes review of Listen 2. A detailed analysis leads you to determine how you can improve specific elements of a song and your interpretation of it, which gives an overview of your playing.
The more retrospectives you do, the easier it becomes and the more beneficial each one becomes
Listen 4: Translational
If someone, like your teacher, gave you feedback right after the performance or in a lesson since then, record their points on your tracking sheet as well. I call this phase translational because sometimes comments are too broad and indescribable, you may need to phrase them in an actionable way.
For example, what do you think of “Your last Brahms movement seemed outdated”? You may know what this means, but how will you correct it when you are in the practice room? Translate this comment now so you can act on it later. You might have an observation from your previous listening cycles (Listening 1-3) that anchors an unclear comment, such as obsolescence. If not, add it to your list of questions to ask your instructor in the next lesson.
Listening 5: With a friend or colleague
It’s time to listen with a trusted friend or colleague. Set up a time when you can review observations and watch parts of the performance together, either in person or on a video chat platform. There are many ways to approach this, but here are some considerations:
● Prioritize what you want to review (specific song or movement; a characteristic of your playing).
● Set the agenda and pace: start with the big picture and get down to business.
● Let your friend or colleague do the talking while you listen and ask questions. You already have a hard copy of what you heard, saw, thought and felt. It’s also easy to agree with someone else’s analysis of our game, even when we disagree. But your job here is to record that person’s unfiltered observations, without influencing them in any way. Ask questions to get very clear on what they mean. Only then should you share your impressions.
● On your tracking sheet, note how their observations match or differ from yours.
● Show your appreciation for the time they spent with you. Buy them a coffee and make it clear that you would be honored to return the favor.
Listening 6: deferred listening
Come back to the show in a few weeks, a month or a year. Listen with fresh eyes and review your retrospective comments. Over time, we learn more about what we couldn’t hear or see at the time.
Summarize your findings
After Listen 6, you’ve accomplished a lot: zooming in and then rewinding your performance to find lessons learned. Write down every last observation (thought, feeling) in your tracking sheet. Leave nothing in memory. Create a takeaway list and record your thoughts on this exercise as well: What worked and what could improve this process in the future?
The more retrospectives you do, the easier it becomes and the more beneficial each one becomes. So keep going, even when they feel uncomfortable. Like every element of your playing, this one is essential to your growth as a master musician and performer.
Adam Hockman is a practice and performance consultant on the faculty of the Heifetz International Institute of Music. He applies his training in behavioral and learning sciences to the practice, performance and teaching of music. Learn more at adamhockman.com.