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Deliberate Practice Strategies — Part 4: Pre-Performance Routine by Sean Millman

Jun 29, 2021, 13:47 PM by Rhythm Scene Staff

The previous two installments of this series have focused largely on the “inner game” concept codified in Timothy Gallwey’s books, considering motivation and mental representation in how we, as performers, fuel our improvement in practice and preparation. The focus for this article is more practical, as we turn to the immediate seconds of time right before a repetition starts, with the pre-performance routine (PPR). 

Sports fans will recognize this concept from countless athletes across various sports, but it is likely most apparent in basketball before a player shoots free throws. Basketball coaches adjure their players to create and use a consistent physical routine before each foul shot, and this process has been proven effective. A study by Lonsdale and Tam of the 2006 NBA Western Conference Finals found a 12.43% improvement in free-throw percentage when players executed their free-throw routines correctly (Journal of Sports Sciences, 2008). This concept is particularly relevant for classical musicians in auditions, when there is a specific opportunity for mental resets between each excerpt of a round, but it can be applied toward musicians of any domain.

The concept of a PPR is fundamentally designed to create a pattern and habit that steers mental and physical action toward peak performance. The goal is to allow individuals to fully realize the skill they have developed and encoded through motor learning. Gallwey suggests that performance is potential minus interference; the PPR’s role is to minimize interference. A clear mental state unencumbered by superfluous analysis or self-criticism is crucial, as is psychological access to the correct version of the encoded motor skills. Performance science has shown us that short-term memory is more successful than long-term memory in correctly executing a skill, so the PPR is also valuable for making a performer access the memory before execution. In this way, the first physical execution of the task can be made to functionally be a second-time repetition, creating a higher percentage chance of success. 

Continuing our analogy of learning from basketball, consider the pre-shot routine of Steve Nash. Currently a coach, Nash was an all-time NBA great player who currently sits in second place in career free-throw percentage, behind only Steph Curry. Nash’s personal PPR for free throws was to mime his shot form in every detail, simply without the ball. I refer to this as a task-relevant physical motion: a movement of the body that is linked to the way the performer wants to execute the task. Nash would go so far as to throw the ball back to the official if he hadn’t had time to go through it yet. As noted, short-term memory is more effective than long-term; thus, Nash’s moved his free-throw skill into short-term memory so he could rely on the more effective version of it. Throughout organized basketball, second-shot free throws are well known for having a higher percentage than first-shot throws, but Nash’s difference was negligible. Since we know that short-term memory is more effective for execution of a skill, it seems likely that Nash’s routine was effective by moving the skill from his long-term into short-term memory, functionally turning his first attempt into a second shot.

So how can we percussionists use this? Do the same thing. Isolate the key motor skill to effective performance, and include a silent version of that motion before beginning a repetition. For example, consider a marimba solo with a tricky register shift including both footwork and accuracy challenges. We can physically go through that motion before beginning, or before taking the stage if such a motion is too visually “loud” for the player’s ideal stage presence. Whether used for the opening motions of the “Colas Breugnon” xylophone excerpt, “Pines of Rome” on glockenspiel, an intricate linear pattern behind the drums, or some complicated multi-percussion solo, this concept is simply using the motion before it actually matters.

Sports psychologist Don Greene has made a career of applying athletic concepts in music performance and has coached world-class performers in both domains. The process he is perhaps best known for is called “centering,” which is a series of three breaths with specific psychological focuses attached to each. The first breath is focused simply on breathing itself as an aid for relaxation and mental calm. The second is focused on the performer’s physical center of gravity, just slightly below and behind the navel. The final breath is most contextual to the task at hand as it focuses on a process cue or cue word. This is a word or phrase designed to reorient performers onto their mental representation of the ideal immediately before performance, accessing the skill from long-term memory and placing it into short-term for optimal execution.

Basketball analyst Jay Bilas wrote in his book Toughness about a story Nash told recalling a similar process. “In Houston early one season, I shot an absolutely perfect free throw. After that, every free throw I took that year, I would say, ‘Houston,’ before I shot it. I wanted to put that picture in my head, that feeling.” Once Nash had an ideal mental representation of the way he wanted to shoot, he created a word to remind himself of that image and used it consistently to create a routine. The process of determining a cue word relies on a well-honed mental representation of ideal performance. These reminders of the goal are most effective when they are removed from technique specifics and instead related to general statements describing the goal. Greene notes that an important element of an effective cue word is that it is general and related to the ideal of the performance, not overly focused on technique or details. In this way, the cue word focuses the player on the desired outcome and releases body and mind to simply act, rather than micromanaging muscle groups or positioning. This is a link to the external focus idea from the OPTIMAL theory discussed in the previous installments of this series. That concept is about focusing on a target rather than one's own body; this one is about focusing on the goal rather than the means.

The last point here is to combine each of these elements: task-relevant motion, breathing, and cue word. Since each player’s relationship with the music being prepared is unique, so too is each player’s PPR targeted for that music. Recognizing the most important element to move into short-term memory, and determining what the best cue for the ideal is falls to performers to take responsibility for their own process, in consultation with a teacher and/or peers. Greene’s process includes three breaths, focused sequentially on breathing itself, the player’s physical center of gravity, and the cue word. I suggest replacing the second focus with the memory-shifting task-relevant physical motion. Thus, a player can be creating routines that start with a breath for its own sake, then a breath tied to miming the most important motor skill, and lastly a breath linked to mentally repeating the cue word. This last breath can also be in time, as the prep breath before the first note. In this way, the PPR is not merely a ritual to be completed before playing, but is actually linked to the performance in time as a kind of countdown, creating consistency. 

Below is a table with just a few example routines that might be created for some commonly played music, from orchestral excerpts to solo and chamber music. This is not meant as a prescriptive guide for those preparing these pieces, but simply a demonstration of how one might use these ideas with examples of literature that is likely familiar. The process of deliberate practice is by its nature tailored to the individual; any two equally skilled and equally experienced players applying this method are likely to end up with vastly different routines and cue words, even with similar aesthetic choices of what constitutes an ideal performance.

 Music  Weak, Technical Cue  Strong, Ideal Cue  Task-Relevant Motion

Lieutenant Kijé
Snare Drum


“clean ruffs, low sticks”


“distant, martial”


Air-play grace note figures with correct finger pressure


Romeo and Juliet


“Clear crashes”




Play through the excerpt silently with empty hands, mime the muting


Sorcerer’s Apprentice 


“precise rhythms”
“tight grace notes”




Play the grace-note figure on leg, focus on width and grip pressure


Concerto for Orchestra (Bartok)


“pedal precision”
“slow strokes”


“clear pitch
“smooth lines”
“string bass”


Go through the excerpt pedaling sequence without playing, then reset to play


Yellow After the Rain


“interval changes”
“low wrists”




With mallets in hand, go through the spacing changes silently


Music for Pieces of Wood


“beating spot”
“lock rhythms and count”




Visualize the return to unison pattern at the end of the piece working flawlessly


Log Cabin Blues


“perfect double stops”


“light, moving”


Play the opening phrase with fingertips only

Sean MillmanSean Millman is a Ph.D. Candidate in Percussion Performance, ABD at NYU Steinhardt and a freelance drummer/percussionist in New York City. Learn more at This series examines and applies elements from the author's forthcoming dissertation, "A Deliberate Practice Loop for Music Performance.”

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