This article is part of the Psychology section.
We actually don’t need to choose between these two concepts, because both are completely necessary. The only question we have to answer is “when” do we prioritise one or the other? And this “when?” is a very interesting question because it leads us to discover that, in fact, each of these two vital ingredients (components) of musical performance has its own appropriate moment, and that ideally, these moments do not coincide. The cliché “there is a time and a place for everything” is perfectly applicable here.
Preparation (practice) is what allows spontaneity. Practice is a prerequisite for spontaneity. If we are not sufficiently prepared, then we will feel uncomfortable, will struggle, and the music and our instrument will seem difficult. Under these conditions, the opportunities for spontaneity (and pleasure) are seriously limited.
While spontaneity needs preparation, too much conscious control during our actual music-making can be the enemy of spontaneity. That is why, whenever possible, we will prepare so well beforehand that, in performance, we can just let go, switch off our conscious mind, “go with the flow” and dedicate all of our attention to the emotional and communicative aspects of the music (see Think-Feel). As though responding to a switch, we change worlds between “preparation mode” (study – practice – think) and “spontaneous mode” (performance – intuition – feeling – improvisation).
Musicians with great ability may not need to use the “preparation mode” much: they are often naturally in the more “spontaneous mode”. Those of us who have to work harder may, on the contrary, have trouble getting out of “preparation mode”, especially when a lack of confidence has led to “over-preparedness” (see Trying Too Hard and Practice).
A famous tightrope walker once had this to say: “life is when I’m walking the wire, everything else is just waiting”. This illustrates well these two different mindsets: the “performance” mindset (on the wire) in which spontaneity is primordial, and the “waiting/preparation” mindset. It also shows why this tightrope walker was famous: he was obviously totally well-prepared and just couldn’t wait to get out on the wire! Anybody less well-prepared would not have this unshakeable confidence and would be happy to have more time to prepare for such a death-defying feat.
But imagine if that same highwire artist had to perform in synchrony with other colleagues. Working in a group requires giving attention to what the others are doing, and limits the possibilities of spontaneity. There are limits to our mind-reading and body-reading abilities, and the time delay involved in following someone else means that too much spontaneity, especially in larger groups can lead to chaos. The more people who are playing, the fewer possibilities there will be for spontaneity and the more we must use our thinking-brain while playing. This is one of the factors that makes Orchestral Playing such tiring work: our conscious brain has to work hard to stay together with all the other players and can seldom just “let go”.
This article about “Preparation or Spontaneity?” could have been equally well titled “Practice or Perform?”