How To Prepare A Song For Performance

“I Played It Better At Home”:  Social Facilitation & The Ledger System

I hear this flustered defense on a near-daily basis.  A student, after practicing their assignment into a virtuosic show-stopper at home, now can’t seem to produce the same results in their lesson.  Something about playing in front of me makes them nervous, they explain.  I had always accepted this plea half-heartedly (unsure of whether to be flattered or insulted), until I experienced the phenomenon for myself.  When I began taking piano lessons as an adult, my teacher’s studio was located about 400 meters from my house.  Each week I maintained a conscientious daily practice schedule and spent the last hour prior to each lesson drilling my homework until it was perfect.  Two minutes before my lesson began, I would pick up the music from the piano and walk the half-block to my lesson.  Then I’d sit down at my teacher’s piano and proceed to play like I had spent the last hour doing tequila shots.  What gives?  “I played it better at home,” I’d protest.

Why is it that simply adding one observer can alter our playing so much?  There are two factors influencing this phenomenon.  The first is practical:  When you perform a piece at home, you can complete infinite trials.  You can play it over and over, improving each time until it goes from a train wreck to a masterpiece.   But in a lesson you only have one opportunity to perform (maybe two or three if you have a particularly patient teacher).  And while you may get the opportunity to warm-up, your lesson performance will still be your first attempt, not the last of the comfortable hundred you did at home.  You’ll be coming off the street cold, perhaps distracted by a tough day at work or the hassle of traffic, unable to refocus on a new activity.  This is not a recipe for an immaculate production.

But that doesn’t explain why we might go from performing flawlessly alone to faltering as soon as a family member walks into the room.  Or why, during the COVID-19 restrictions, my students would execute their homework precisely, then turn on their webcam for a lesson only to fumble over and over, having not even moved from their chair!  The psychology of “social facilitation” shed some light on this conundrum. 

When being observed by others, we experience “evaluation apprehension,” a fear of judgement which increases psychological arousal.  Social psychologist Robert Zajonc, applying Yerkes-Dodson law, theorized that this aroused state facilitates dominant responses, meaning whichever result is most likely.  So activities in which you are likely to succeed while alone, you are even more likely to succeed in when in front of people.  But activities which you are likely to fail at alone, you are even more likely to fail at with an audience.  Indeed, this theory has withstood nearly 300 studies on almost 25,000 people.  One particularly pertinent study found that pool players who make 71% of their shots while alone  improve to 80% with an audience, while those who shoot 36% alone fall to 25% while observed.  Simply put, if you are likely to make a mistake on a piece when alone, you are even more likely to make it front of your teacher.

Now this conclusion may seem obvious, even banal.  You are probably saying to yourself “Oh, really? Playing in front of people makes you nervous? And that makes you play worse? Well, duh!” But this finding also suggests a solution to the problem: To perform a piece correctly in a lesson, you need to be more likely than not to play it correctly alone.  How do we ensure this?  By using a practice technique called “The Ledger System” developed by piano teacher and author Philip Johnston.

This ingeniously simple method involves keeping a record of your practice attempts on a piece of paper.  As you imagine your pedantic instructor standing over your shoulder, record a check mark for each correct attempt and an “x” for each faulty one.  The twist is you will not stop practicing until you have registered six more correct renditions than incorrect renditions.  This means your practice session may only include six perfect trials.  It might also include one million and six correct ones and one million incorrect ones!  However, at the end you are certain that you are more likely than not to play the piece accurately.  If you had 16 correct attempts and 10 incorrect, for instance, that entails a 62% rate of success, a result that should improve in front of an audience.  The Ledger System also carries the added benefit of incentivizing attention during practice (something many people struggle with) as fewer mistakes results in fewer tries.

If you are skeptical about the effectiveness of The Ledger System, I can personally attest to its validity.  I have tried it myself and been amazed by the results.  As matter of fact, it became the only way I could be certain to perform reliably in my piano lessons.  It can be applied to any assignment, whether it be a short exercise, an excerpt from a solo, or a full song.  Capping off a week of practice with The Ledger System is an excellent way to assure you are ready for your lesson.   So next time you really want to impress your teacher, use The Ledger System to prepare, and leave your mistakes at home.

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