Musical Stress Tests: Building Scaffolds for Performance

 By: Jonathan Ovalle | ©2020  

     A few summers ago, I was watching a stand-up comedy special on YouTube featuring four female comedians. Each unique in their material and style, the show featured a couple of names I had heard of, and a couple I hadn’t. I found one woman who I was not as familiar with particularly funny. Smart, witty, dry - her material and delivery were very much a brand of humor I enjoy. Interested in seeing other performances of hers, I quickly dove down the proverbial YouTube rabbit hole and found a video of her performing the same material from the special I had just viewed, but from a few years earlier and in a much smaller club. I watched it, but for some reason I did not find it nearly as funny. Not really funny at all, actually. Wait...WHAT? I found this intriguing, maybe even a little perplexing. It was exactly the same material - the same words for the set-ups, the same words for the punchlines, but remarkably, this time I wasn’t laughing. 


I was really struck by this difference so I tried to analyze what was different and why I found one version very funny and the other not, despite the physical material being virtually identical.  As I examined more closely, although the words were the same in both performances, I noticed the timing and delivery was different. Her overall tone was slightly different, there were pauses in different places, some ends of phrases went up where they previously went down and vice-versa, and sometimes her pace of speaking was different as well. In my opinion, these differences had a dramatic impact on the success of the same material. 

As I compared these two videos, I was quickly struck by a much larger thought about performance, practice, preparation, and process in this context. As a stand-up comedian, you don’t tell jokes to yourself in front of a mirror for months, then go out and do your set when you’re ready to present your best, well-rehearsed lines. Part of the growth process of any set of material is actively working out your presentation in a public setting - IN THE CLUB, IN FRONT OF PEOPLE - not under the shroud of secrecy alone in a room by yourself. For a comedian, that sometimes means getting few, or in some cases, no laughs when working through material in its early stages. When we see a high-profile performance by a comedian (on Netflix, YouTube, or cable television, for example), he or she has likely done that set numerous times (sometimes in the upwards of 100+ times) continuing to work and nuance the material into its prime-time-special form.    

For musicians, however, the idea of this public presentation of raw or unperfected material seems VERY TABOO. We live in our secluded practice rooms, working alone for days, weeks, sometimes even months. We then come out for performances, after what we’ve been working on is deemed to be refined enough and ready for public consumption. In the comedy video comparison, I was struck by the dramatic difference in performance quality of these two videos of the same material. As I kept thinking about this comedian and her evolution of the material she was presenting, I felt there was some wisdom we could glean from this process as musicians in how we develop (and ultimately present) our repertoire. This practice can be particularly valuable for students in school environments. 

     When we construct a piece for performance, we are acting as both the architect and the builder. We are the designer and the engineer. We start with a vision, make the plans, determine what the piece is going to be, what it will sound like, how we will perform it, etc. We then build it piece-by-piece, measure-by-measure, phrase-by-phrase to completion. In a non-musical context, when designers and engineers collaborate to build something, before they sign off on the final version, they engage in numerous “stress tests” to put the item being constructed under duress in order to find out where the weaknesses are. As a result, they are able to continue to refine and improve it. We’ve all seen commercials for household items being stretched, pulled, punched, or placed under extreme weight to prove their strength or durability. While this is somewhat of a commercial sales tactic, for most items sold to the public there are rigorous tests done to ensure their quality.  As musicians, we can take this concept (as well as the comedian working out their material in the club night after night) and apply it to our musical endeavors.  

The practice room is an artificial environment. It sounds nothing like a concert stage. There is no audience, no performance anxiety, or no need to project one’s sound, phrasing, or musical intentions. Additionally, every nuance, mistake, or imperfection is seemingly enhanced due to our proximal nature to the instrument. When preparing music, dedicated time in the practice room is a necessity and one must invest in that commitment, however, that should not be the ONLY manner in which one prepares for a big performance. Much in the same way we would want to test a chair so it does not falter before someone purchases it, performance opportunities (particularly smaller-scale ones) offer an opportunity to place a work under a sense of duress and see how it “holds”, if you will. Using the chair analogy, as an engineer, I would be nervous if I constructed a chair and never had anyone sit in it until it was placed at a table at a very important and expensive dinner party. I might find myself experiencing a bit of anxiety not knowing if my hard work in design and construction would stand up to the test of an actual person putting it to use.  

Much in the same way we build a piece of repertoire from the ground up, a single important performance, recital, or concert can create tremendous anxiety for a performer not knowing if their weeks or sometimes months of “engineering” of the piece will hold up without prior “testing.” By engaging works in public performances as part of a refining process, not as a result of one, a deeper feeling of confidence can develop and we are able to examine different parts of the piece as they are engaged (or stressed, if you will) during a performance. This can help us focus our efforts in the practice room on both a micro and macro scale.   

As students at universities or conservatories, the opportunity to perform works multiple times is a valuable tool in refining one’s process and performance capacity. These could take place in the form of studio class performances, performances off-campus at schools or local venues, or even casual performances for friends and colleagues. What’s important is engaging the material in a public setting. Much like the comedian example, there is tremendous value in presenting material publicly, even if it is not one's most polished efforts. (Read that last part again.) It is a barometer by which you can evaluate your practice process.  

Was I accurate? 

Did my memory hold? 

Was the phrasing and articulation I tried to impart in the work evident in this performance? 

How was my sound? 


Consistent, quality practice process should yield a quality product when put in performance. However, until we perform a piece, we cannot assess if our work in the practice room has been successfully engineered. Opportunities to analyze practice quality through public performances (particularly ones which carry less pressure) can be incredibly valuable tools for scaffolding a piece towards a larger performance goal (recording, degree recital, audition, etc.) over a longer period of time - particularly for students. Repeatedly performing a piece of repertoire publicly (in whatever manner) allows for a sense of musical growth and commitment of intentions not possible solely engineering a piece in the practice room alone. As a comedian, the audience will tell you if your jokes aren’t funny. That’s not something you can evaluate on your own. As musicians, performing for an audience - whether that is a small recital, a studio class performance, or a casual run-through for some friends and colleagues - will tell us what work we need to do in the practice room to continue to shape material into its prime-time-special form, in addition to building performance confidence on a larger scale. Work to be a practice room and performance room junkie. Both will serve to elevate one’s level of performance through a collaborative process of preparing, testing, evaluating, reshaping, and refining. 

Being funny doesn’t happen by accident - and neither do great performances.