April 29, 2022

Article at The Strad

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The show must go on: conducting a retrospective review

In the third instalment of a four-part blog series, practice and performance consultant Adam Hockman examines how reviewing past performances can assist musicians in future endeavours

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Taking time to examine your performance in the days that follow it allows you to consider what went well and what didn’t go well, and how you can improve for future performances. These are often called retrospective reviews.

Reviewing past performance is a common practice. Businesses conduct retrospectives after the close of a project; healthcare providers debrief with teammates after finishing medical procedures; and music institutes have structured listening events (e.g., Heifetz Institute’s Tape & Listen). Retrospective reviews are invaluable for uncovering habits, thoughts, and feelings we can’t notice in the actual moment.

You probably do some of this already: rewatch your performance, speak with a teacher at a lesson, or get comments from an informed listener who attended your event. You likely have some amount of listening-back going on, so let’s structure those efforts in ways that can yield maximum benefits.

Getting Started

To ensure a successful review you’ll need to put in place a few things:

● Start your retrospective review within a week of the performance.

● Identify a quiet place, free of distraction, to do your review.

● Find a tracking system for taking notes. Try this template.

● Choose headphones—ideally, a pair that registers a full range of frequencies.

● Adopt a neutral but productive mindset: I will listen to my performance from start to finish, multiple times, to learn as much as I can and to celebrate my accomplishments.

● Contact a trusted music colleague or mentor who might be able to give you feedback (schedule time for that) in the coming days.

Before we move into the actual retrospective review, take a pause on this caveat: It’s nearly impossible to learn everything about a performance from a single listen. When we rewatch movies, we notice details we didn’t previously catch. The same is true of reviews of our own performance. Each ’listen’ will call for a different focus.

Listen 1: Supportive Relative or Other Audience Member

I recently attended the recital of a talented college violinist. After the concert, I found myself chatting with his mother, as we watched the post-performance greetings and warm exchanges between her son and audience members. She beamed at the sight of her son connecting with listeners and enjoying his milestone, and she also expressed generous but truthful observations about his performance. Her supportive tone was unlike how most of us regard our own performances. There’s a lesson to be learned here—on the first listen of your performance, focus on the good. Support yourself as you would someone else.

All musicians miss entrances and play wrong notes at times, but looking for the glows—the good stuff—in your performance is truly important. If you recorded your impressions right after the performance, refer back to them. How do they hold up now that there has been some time between performing and retrospective review? Try to manage negative thoughts or reactions that come up during this first pass. Make a quick note for each negative thought that comes up, but make sure to primarily focus on the positives and write them down.

Listen 2: Broad Strokes

In your second listen, start to examine your playing at different levels. At this top level, take a broad strokes (forgive pun) approach: general observations about the features of your bowing, shifts, intonation, tension, notes on the C string, connection with your collaborators and the audience, and so forth. You are looking for themes rather than details for each feature. Themes will tell you more about where you need to make changes in your practice routine (e.g., technique work).

During this round of listening, you might replay chunks of the recording to focus on one feature. For example, you may need to listen to the cadenza three times to (1) attend to the bowing, (2) focus on the dynamics, and (3) listen without the video. Each one of these tasks can merit its own listen.

Listen 3: Nitty Gritty

In this listen, tease through your performance with a fine-tooth comb. When you spot a problem, rewatch those few seconds and think about what caused it and whether it was a one-off or if it happened at other points. As you comb through each detail, be aware of when and if your observations align with your broad strokes review from Listen 2. Nitty-gritty analysis leads you to determine how you can improve specific elements of a piece and your performance of it, which informs the bigger picture of your playing.

The more you do retrospective reviews, the easier it gets, and the more beneficial each one becomes

Listen 4: Translational

If someone—like your teacher—gave you feedback right after the performance or at a lesson since then, carry their points over to your tracking sheet, too. I call this phase translational because sometimes the feedback is too broad and nondescript, so you might need to phrase it in ways that are actionable.

As an example, what are you to make of, “Your last movement of Brahms seemed stale”? You might know what this means, but how will you correct it when you’re in the practice room? Translate this comment now so that you can act on it later. You might have an observation in your previous rounds of listening (Listens 1-3) that anchors an unclear piece of feedback, like staleness. If not, add it to your list of questions to ask your instructor at the next lesson.

Listen 5: With a Friend or Colleague

It’s time to do a listen with a trusted friend or colleague. Set up a time where you can review observations and watch portions of the performance together, either in person or in a video chat platform. There are several ways to approach this, but here are a few considerations:

● Prioritise what you wish to review (specific piece or movement; one feature of your playing).

● Set the agenda and pace—start with broad strokes and move to nitty gritty.

● Let your friend or colleague talk 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 playing, even when we don’t agree. 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, mark how their observations match or differ from your own.

● Show appreciation for the time they spent with you. Buy them a coffee and make it clear that you would be honored to return the favour.

Listen 6: Delayed Listen

Come back to the performance in a couple of weeks, a month, or a year. Listen with fresh eyes and review your retrospective comments. As time passes, we learn more about what we couldn’t hear or see in the moment.

Summarise your findings

After Listen 6, you’ve accomplished a lot: zooming in and then back out on your performance to find the lessons learned. Note every last observation (thought, feeling) in your tracking sheet. Leave nothing to memory. Create a list of takeaways, and also record your impressions of this exercise: What worked and what could make this process better in the future?

The more you do retrospective reviews, the easier it gets, and the more beneficial each one becomes. So keep at it, even when they feel uncomfortable. Like every component of your playing, this one is critical to your growth as a master musician and performer.

Read: The show must go on: post-performance glow starts at the very beginning

Adam Hockman is a practice and performance consultant on the faculty of the Heifetz International Music Institute. He applies his training in behavioral and learning science to music practice, performance, and teaching. Learn more at adamhockman.com.

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