I have spoken before about the negative effects of playing pieces through prematurely, before the foundations have been laid. However, once the piece has been thoroughly learned, we will need to plan complete play-throughs. As we get closer to exams and recitals, I am more convinced than ever that devoting practice time to regular play-throughs is an essential part of the preparation. Playing a piece from beginning to end for the first time without stopping can be challenging and sometimes even demoralising for the perfectionists amongst you – you’ll want to stop and correct mistakes and you won’t be at all comfortable riding roughshod over passages you know you can play perfectly well when you play them in isolation. And yet how are we going to know how it feels to play a piece in its entirety until we do just that? The section after the double bar, completely manageable when played out of context, now feels quite different when placed therein. Those fast runs, normally comfortable, suddenly buckle for no apparent reason. Stamina, concentration, dynamic and tempo relationships, timings, etc., can only be fully developed in the context of the whole.

Very often, the results of serious practising show up a week or two later, which is why I recommend being completely ready for a performance three weeks ahead, if at all possible. Certainly the daily play-throughs need to be done a month or so ahead, and as the date approaches, it will be better to back off a bit so you don’t get over anxious, stale or exhausted. Then it will be easier to take it in your stride, and maybe even enjoy the occasion! (Remember, there is such a thing as over practising.)

As I have stressed before, careful practising (the nuts and bolts of building the piece) is only part of the story, and you will not know if all has fallen into place until you have your first warts-and-all run-through. The first is likely to be fraught with issues. Think of an army assault course or a hurdle race where getting from start to finish is the important thing, not how many scratches you receive or what gets knocked over. Don’t get disillusioned, recognise this as part of a process. Make a careful note of what didn’t work, go back to work fixing these areas and soon enough you will be ready for your second run-through.

The play-through has to be tempered with spot practising immediately afterwards, so that errors, blemishes and faulty judgments can be addressed and corrected. The idea is to work on what let us down so that we can strengthen these weak areas, and the next time we go for a play-through reintegrate these practised spots back into our performance. When we finish our run-through, the temptation will be to immediately go over these places but it is far better to delay this until we have had a chance to reflect on the performance as a whole. Move away from the piano, grab the score and a piece of paper and make a checklist of those places that need attention. I think it is as important to observe those things you did well, to keep a sense of proportion. Then, calmly and methodically, practise the spots. This process is extremely effective if repeated daily for about a week.

Here are some suggestions for practising a performance:

  • Try to get out of your comfort zone by playing on as many different pianos as possible.
  • Plan to play for other people whenever you can.
  • Occasionally record yourself (listening back is not always pleasant, but is always an ear opener).
  • Never stop to correct yourself, or to check the score (if you are playing from memory). Wait until afterwards for this.

For Younger Players

You may be familiar with a certain TV talent show called The X Factor. Each participant’s performance is subject to an (often brutal) critique by a panel of three “celebrity” judges, who then vote the act in or out.

I have my own take on this for younger players, a process they can do at home. They decide who they want as their judges, and after they play, they make their own critiques as though from these three different (internalised) characters. The rule is they have to say what they liked as well as what they didn’t like. I have found this very effective at engaging their critical faculties, so that the next time they play they will have something tangible to aim for (coming from them, not from some external source). This is a useful resource when they are ready to play through their piece each day (not before) in their practice time between lessons.