How to Practice . . .


As a kid, I used to think practice was, well . . . practice.  I played the clarinet in our high school orchestra (first clarinet mind you!) and in between homework, football practice, baseball practice and swimming, I would eek out a few hours a week to practice my music.  And I just practiced.  I would have the music in front of me, go over it slowly at first, then work up to normal speed, then work at memorizing long passages.  To be honest, I never really thought much about the “art of practicing” or even about “how to practice”.  I just, well . . .  practiced!

Now, many years later, I have a young daughter who is gifted musician and is preparing for several major international violin competitions.  So I’ve begun to think about “practicing” because she is putting in long hours with the violin and trying to cram in school work when she can.  And being somewhat of an expert on business performance improvement, I’ve begun to use my skills and experience in working with senior executive teams on culture change and performance improvement to rethink “how to practice”.

You may have already figured this out, so forgive me if this is old news, but it’s been enlightening to me and useful on a number of fronts.

First of all (and I will use the violin example, but I think the lessons are transferable) there are different kinds of practice.  I lump them into three major categories:  technical practice, music practice, and performance practice.  I’ll try to define them.

Technical Practice:  laying the foundation skills and developing accurate intonation (sound); understanding the proper fingering, practicing scales to develop the agility and habit patterns required, and doing all at various tempos and developing stamina for continuous playing. (If you are a football or rugby player, then think about all the skills of blocking, tackling, hand-offs, passes, physical fitness drills, etc.)

Music Practice: learning, starting slowly and working up to accuracy and speed on a particular piece of music, say Beethoven’s Romance in G major Op. 40 or Saint-Saëns’ Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso.  During this phase of practice there are the various dynamics to learn as well as getting to understand what the composer was trying to say, or express, with the music.  In other words, the intention and purpose of the music. This phase is all about memorizing the piece such that muscle memory begins to replace thinking about the notes, so that the playing flows and the musician is able to anticipate the upcoming passages in the music effortlessly. (Coming back to football or rugby, this is where we practice the “plays” and develop an understanding of the purpose of certain types of plays, learning where the other players are supposed to positioned, and repeating these plays over and over again until they are memorized and flow smoothly.)

Performance Practice: A performance, or game day, is very different from anything else.  Besides the technical and music skills that are needed, an important third dimension appears – mental!  How many times have you seen skilled musicians or athletes, who in normal practice are absolutely perfect, mess up during a performance orGreg-Norman_1378338c_display_image during a game?  We called it “choking” when I was playing sports.  A classic example is Greg Norman’s  “meltdown” on the final round of the 1996 Masters Golf Tournament. The mind seems to go into overdrive mode with concerns and fears and crowd out all the benefits of earlier practice.  That’s why Performance Practice is so important.

During a performance (or a game) you can’t stop and do it over if you make a mistake.  You can’t take a breather break if you are out of breath.  Play must go on and the performer needs to learn the skills of handling the mental and physical pressures of a performance.  So, they need to do Performance Practice.  In a solo music performance it means playing the piece “as if it were the real performance” over and over again, without stopping. It’s a “live” performance (practice).  This helps to replace the mind games and fears with “performance memory” or the “performance habit”.

Flawless music and effortless sport is simply a habit, built from three types of practice:  Technical, Music (Plays), and Performance practice.  Unfortunately, the least practiced of the three is Performance Practice, yet in my mind it is actually the most important.  And here is where most music and sport teachers miss out.  They rarely teach performance practice!  They leave the individual to struggle with the mental and endurance issues on their own.  But performance skills can be taught and developed, and they should form a natural part of the musician or athlete’s regimen.

This is my analytical way of describing the three types of practice:


A Business Application?

I have sat in on hundreds of senior executive team meetings for one purpose or another; regular staff meetings, program review meetings, strategy review meetings, etc.  And to me, and also to the participants, most are pretty poor performances.  It seems the technical skills are there (they understand their business), the specifics are understood (the program or strategy deck), but the performance is weak.  Issues drag on when they should be parked for another time, discussions get off track and waste time, some people choke and aren’t really able to defend their ideas or points of view, some people dominate the meeting to the extent that it becomes a one-person show, etc.  And I have rarely seen a meeting accomplish its entire agenda.

I believe there is a role for Performance Practice in business, as well as music and sport. I don’t infer to waste time “practicing the meeting”, but I do believe that understanding the dynamics of the performance (meeting) and mentally rehearsing how to deal with issues (and communicating the performance groundrules) would help business meetings be more productive and effective. And the leader of the meeting or the CEO needs to do some performance practice as well.

Tight Lines . . .

John R Childress

About johnrchildress

John Childress is a pioneer in the field of strategy execution, culture change, executive leadership and organization effectiveness, author of several books and numerous articles on leadership, an effective public speaker and workshop facilitator for Boards and senior executive teams. In 1978 John co-founded The Senn-Delaney Leadership Consulting Group, the first international consulting firm to focus exclusively on culture change, leadership development and senior team alignment. Between 1978 and 2000 he served as its President and CEO and guided the international expansion of the company. His work with senior leadership teams has included companies in crisis (GPU Nuclear – owner of the Three Mile Island Nuclear Plants following the accident), deregulated industries (natural gas pipelines, telecommunications and the breakup of The Bell Telephone Companies), mergers and acquisitions and classic business turnaround scenarios with global organizations from the Fortune 500 and FTSE 250 ranks. He has designed and conducted consulting engagements in the US, UK, Europe, Middle East, Africa, China and Asia. Currently John is an independent advisor to CEO’s, Boards, management teams and organisations on strategy execution, corporate culture, leadership team effectiveness, business performance and executive development. John was born in the Cascade Mountains of Oregon and eventually moved to Carmel Highlands, California during most of his business career. John is a Phi Beta Kappa scholar with a BA degree (Magna cum Laude) from the University of California, a Masters Degree from Harvard University and was a PhD candidate at the University of Hawaii before deciding on a career as a business entrepreneur in the mid-70s. In 1968-69 he attended the American University of Beirut and it was there that his interest in cultures, leadership and group dynamics began to take shape. John Childress resides in London and the south of France with his family and is an avid flyfisherman, with recent trips to Alaska, the Amazon River, Tierra del Fuego, and Kamchatka in the far east of Russia. He is a trustee for Young Virtuosi, a foundation to support talented young musicians. You can reach John at or
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4 Responses to How to Practice . . .

  1. It was the recorder for me in high school. I was horrible (and didn’t practice). John, it must be such a pleasure to have a daughter with this interest and aptitude.


  2. Steve Borek says:

    Never heard the phrase performance practice though I’ll be using it in the future. I usually request clients to visualize the outcome of whatever they’re facing. This means right from when they wake up in the morning. How they’ll feel. What they’ll wear. What they’ll have for breakfast. The route they’ll take the work. Right down to what they’ll look and feel like when they arrive the performance venue.


  3. Pingback: Tips on Preparing for a Performance

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