What's So Special About the Third Time?

Many times my students will come to me in a lesson with a piece of music they think they are ready to perform.  They get very upset when it falls apart.  “I was able to play it perfectly at home,” they say.


I have the same problem: inaccurate self-assessment in the practice room.  That’s when I pull out my tried and true method for making sure something is going to go well in performance:  The “three times” game.


I tell them that if I can play a piece three times correctly in the space of a single practice session, it’s probably ready for performance.  If I can play it correctly three times in a row, it’s definitely ready for performance.  What’s so special about three times?


When I play the first or even the second time, I am usually focused on what I’m doing, how to play the piece, the artistic or physical expression necessary to pull it off.  The third time I’m starting to get distracted.  I often find myself thinking instead about what other people will think of me after I play it correctly, or what I’ll think of myself.


It’s a wonderfully nefarious idea, that if I’m able to do it correctly I must be wonderful.  It’s incorrect, of course.  Playing it correctly just means I played it correctly.


Obviously if I played it correctly, that’s a reflection of the work I’ve done, and I can be proud of that, and even expect other people to be impressed.  But this kind of thinking during a performance does something very dangerous to me.  It brings me out of the act of performing.


If I’m driving a car, the worst thing I can do is stop thinking about my job as a driver.  The result of not being present in a performance is less dangerous, but certainly may be disastrous to my self-esteem or even my reputation.  Playing that third time (or performing for the first time) requires me to put aside the results of my work and focus entirely on doing my job, going through the process of playing. 


Now it’s very nice when I know a piece so well that I can actually enjoy my own performance.  That’s not the same thing however as fantasizing about how much other people out there are loving me.  The two are so similar that it’s hard to distinguish between them, but one involves reacting to my good work and the other involves forgetting that I’m working.


In fact, sometimes I’ll get the little voice in my head while I’m performing that says, “Boy, you’re really good!”  I’ve learned to take that as a warning that something, perhaps a mistake I’ve chosen to ignore, has disrupted my concentration, and I’m heading for a fall in the midst of my euphoria!  In this way, the parasitic thought can serve as a useful early warning to get back on track.


Not every performer has these issues.  But enough of my students do that I find it helpful to teach them the “Third time’s the charm” trick.  Do you find anything about this resonates for you?

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