There isn’t a simple formula for how much practice you need to be an effective performer. Some people learn material very easily, and some don’t, and most of us get quicker over time as we get into the habit of using our memories. Here are some general pointers.
- Make it regular – at least a couple of times a week. Early on you’re better off doing a little and often. As you develop, practice means building up the amount of time you can play for.
- Get inside the material. Know it with your body so that you can make it your own. There is a huge qualitative difference between performing a piece from a place of it meaning something to you, and doing karaoke or a cover version.
- You can learn a piece in the short term for performance but then find it falls out of your head. If you want it to stick for the long term, you have to keep practicing it for the long term.
- Don’t just practice the piece. Think about what you might say to present the piece to an audience. Think about how you will sit, stand, move and breathe when performing. Imagine yourself in the space where you will perform. It all helps.
I tend to allow myself at least a month between picking up a new piece and taking it out in public. If the arrangement is more complex, I will allow myself longer. I like to really know a piece before I share it, so that I can perform from a place of confidence and insight.
Some of the things I sing, I’ve been singing since childhood. I still practice them every now and then. I’ve had phases of rapidly expanding my repertoire – usually to meet the needs of an event, or a new instrument. I haven’t always kept everything from those flurries. These days I eye up a piece for the long term. Is it a keeper? Is it something I want for the rest of my life? Do I want this song to be something I sing often enough that it becomes part of me?
Practicing your material as a bard is something that takes time. Professional musicians will play for hours every day. Serious musicians may practice for an hour every day. You should expect to put in an hour or two every week at least. That’s a lot of time and life, so the material you pour your life into really matters and needs taking seriously. Performance is a really important aspect of the bard path, but practice is the thing you’re going to live with, so it makes sense to do what you love, and what inspires you so that you can sustain the work of keeping the material alive inside you.
Without practice, we don’t have a relationship with the material, we don’t feed it and keep it alive. When you perform, you need the piece to be vital, alive and flowing through you. The other side of this is that if you practice in a way that bores you, makes the material seem banal, or you get complacent about it, you’ll lose the life in it. Practicing well is a process of finding your own balance points.