The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music education: Practicing is the key to performing. NPR’s “Delayed Cadence” blog and British pianist Stephen Hough offer you inside looks and tips. | July 22, 2012

By Jacob Stockinger

For those of us who go to concerts, the performance seems the important thing, the ultimate thing.

But that performance is really just the end-product of a long process that centers on practicing, practicing and more practicing.

Two of my favorite websites offer some glimpses into and tips about practicing.

British pianist Stephen Hough long ago started a series of tips about how to practice the piano. It is filled with a lot of insightful “master classes” from a master pianist. They include where to sit on the bench and well as tips about fingering and warning about playing overly expressively, no matter what the score’s instruction is.

Here is a link to the page,, on which you can use the search engine and typo in “Hough Practice Tips” to look at all 19 “lessons”:

Here is a specific example from the 19 practicing tips that Hough — a wonderful pianist and, as I saw in a master class he gave at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, an outstanding teacher — has offered so far:

And NPR’s “Delayed Cadence” blog recently started a series of videos called “In Practice” that takes you inside the studios of important young artists.

The subjects include pianist Jeremy Denk (below) rehearing etudes of Ligeti (Denk also gave a great master class, below bottom, for young student at the Wisconsin Union Theater); the four-man singing group New York Polyphony; and pianist Jonathan Biss rehearsing an early Beethoven sonata for the first CD in his complete cycle of Beethoven’s 32 sonatas:

The NPR glimpses don’t really offer specific advice or tips, except to the degree they reinforce the importance of practicing for even the most talented and seasoned performers.

Check them out at:

The Ear bets there are many other websites with good tips about practicing all kinds of instruments and singing.

Maybe readers and listeners will post them with links in the COMMENTS section.

We amateurs could sure use all the help we can get from professionals!


  1. […] … what the score's instruction is. Here is a link to the page,, on which you can use the search engine and typo in “Hough Practice Tips” to look at all 19 “lessons”: Here is a specific example from the 19 practicing tips that Hough — a wonderful…  […]

    Pingback by Classical music education: Practicing is the key to performing. | Music Education All Over the World | — August 9, 2012 @ 4:00 am

  2. The Bulletproof Musician blog is an excellent source of accurate and up-to-date information on optimizing practice. Kageyama focuses more on the mental aspects of practice and performance than on the physical ones, but the two are so closely intertwined that his tips will help even those with already-effective mental habits.

    I would also recommend Burton Kaplan’s _Practicing for Artistic Success_, which breaks down effective practice into many components and can assist musicians in “diagnosing” which components deserve their closest attention.

    Kathryn Ananda-Owens

    Comment by Kathryn Ananda-Owens — July 22, 2012 @ 1:15 pm

    • Hi Kathy,
      Thank you for reading an deploying with the terrific link and remarks.
      I will check the site out.
      I hope to benefit from it personally, and perhaps also to pos something about it later to help readers.
      I will also try to check out the Burton Kaplan, which I assume is a book.
      Good practicing habits seem to be the key, and most of us can improve how we use them.
      Hope all is well.

      Comment by welltemperedear — July 23, 2012 @ 8:37 am

  3. I will surely be checking out Mr. Hough’s stuff. I have found that the experiential differences between practicing and performance are often ignored, or even pass unnoticed.
    Performing is no holds barred, no going back, in the zone, playing from the mind’s ear. Practicing is small sections, repeated until fully processed and rendered, physically and sonically, with attention to errors.
    I teach this distinction a lot, because so many of my students of all ages think that playing through a piece is practicing it. Wrong, folks.
    If you are not playing sections, and not taking note of the nature and content of errors in execution and interpretation, you are performing. If you are stopping to fix mistakes, or not playing from a clear mental and sonic imaging of the music at hand, you are practicing, or at least you should be!
    Playing at home for one’s own pleasure is performance, but it can be confusing for the student who takes the same approach when an audience is present. Stopping to fix any error is verboten in performances, although the Art of Covering and Recovering is an advanced performance skill, eh, what?

    Comment by Michael BB — July 22, 2012 @ 8:07 am

    • Hi Michael,
      As always, you bring insight to the issue and get to the heart of the matter right away.
      Thank you for summing up the differences between performing and practicing so succinctly and so clearly.
      Maintaining the distinctions is easier said than done, in my experience. That is probably because many amateurs — I include myself — also want to make music even as they practice music.
      But reminders like yours help.
      Somewhere, I think one can also find statistics about how many times a passage has to be practiced to be error-free and memorized — and then how any more times a passage that is learned wrong requires to be fixed of its errors and re-memorized.
      Keeping the two things — practicing and performing or playing — separate is hard emotionally. But it is of the key to successful — and satisfying — music-making.

      Comment by welltemperedear — July 22, 2012 @ 9:23 am

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