Performing

Q&A: Exam Preparation

A reader sent in the following question, to which I hope I have given an adequate response. Please feel free to leave comments and let’s start a discussion on the subject! ***   ***   *** Q. One subject I have always had conflicting feelings about is the preparation before an exam or performance – how do you handle the last week before the performance? The last morning before the performance? Do kids play ALL of their repertoire, or just the challenging parts? Or just warm up all morning with scales? It seems to be something that is an individual thing, but it is not something I can speak with much confidence about to my students. A. Thank you very much for the question, which I feel is an extremely good one. You are quite right when you say this is an individual thing, since no two people are alike. Therefore, I would not want to give a one-size-fits-all formula, but I think there is some general advice I can offer. From my experience, I believe we should all aim to be fully ready two to three weeks before the exam or concert, with everything. Last-minute panic learning is, for most of us, disastrous but then again there are those who seem to thrive on the adrenaline! I gave some of my best playing when I had to stand in for a colleague at very short notice, probably because I didn’t have time to get nervous, or maybe if things didn’t go according to plan I would have a very good reason. This only goes to show that, assuming we know what we are doing and have put in the work at some stage, a […]

The Monkey And The Typewriter

If you gave an infinite number of monkeys an infinite number of typewriters, would they eventually produce the complete works of Shakespeare? This favourite question of barstool philosophers seems relevant to us pianists when it comes to why we do what we do as we practise. Eavesdropping outside practice rooms (as I have been known to do), it seems that after countless repetitions an interpretation, or a solution to a problem, is supposed to emerge fully formed out of thin air. If I hack away at it for long enough, I’m bound to get there eventually… This week I was directed to a short video clip of Leon Fleisher. He is coaching a group of students, and quotes from his teacher, Artur Schnabel: “Hear before you play. If you play before you hear what you’re going for, it’s an accident, and everything is built then on an accident.” Leon Fleisher, Carnegie Hall YouTube Channel Liszt had a similar maxim: Think Ten Times, Play Once. The problem with embracing this in our practising is the mistaken belief that unless we are moving our fingers, training muscles and making sounds, we are not really practising. In reality, thinking ten times and playing once would mean pausing regularly in our practising, awakening our imagination, inwardly hearing how we want the phrase to sound, rehearsing this in our mind until it is vivid, and only then playing. Extremely challenging, enough to try the patience of a saint, surely? As a student, I recall lessons where my teacher would talk about a passage in my piece with such incredible insight, making the character and the meaning so vivid and real to me that the penny dropped and I would replay with […]

By |September 5th, 2012|Performing|4 Comments

Cavaliers and Roundheads: Developing Performance Skills

Last night I watched a fascinating documentary on the BBC about how English history was forever changed by the civil war. The characteristics of the two opposing forces (the puritanical, serious-minded, hard-working and religious Roundheads, and the devil-may-care, spontaneous, reckless and flashy Cavaliers) ended up contributing to the make-up of the national psyche, and we have each got a bit of the Roundhead and a bit of the Cavalier in us. You may be wondering what this has to do with the subject of developing piano performance, but actually there is a lot we can draw from it. “Practise like a Roundhead, perform like a Cavalier” would be my best advice. To practise effectively demands time, energy and discipline, a seriousness of purpose and an almost religious attitude to the work. But if we take this attitude on to the stage with us, we are likely to bore the pants off our audience. We need a sense of daring-do, spontaneity, bravado and display in its place. Perhaps we can leave our trusty Roundhead in the green room, and adopt a cavalier attitude when we walk onstage? Youngsters generally have no fear about public performance. This tends to be something we learn later, if we learn it at all (there are those who seem undaunted, but they are few and far between). There was one first-year college student I had who came in with new pieces each week, learned and memorised. All his performances were fluent and confident until one week, during a studio class, he had his first major memory slip which he could not recover from, and only then did I need to give him the tools so he could memorise consciously.  As I […]

Practising on Tour

I have been away for the past three weeks on a concert and teaching tour of Singapore and Australia, the focus of my work there was three performances of Bach’s Goldberg Variations. I thought it might be of interest – and hopefully of use – to talk about how I prepared this magnum opus for performance having not played it at all in about a decade, and how I approached the practice time I had while on the tour itself. Quite early on in the life of this blog I devoted a whole post to how I set about learning the Goldberg Variations in the first place, very much an obsession and a labour of love. Sometime last year, I was engaged by the Kawai Series at the Queensland Conservatorium in Brisbane to play the Goldberg this Easter; a piece eminently suitable in its grandeur and magnificence for such a Festival (especially given Bach’s own strong religious views). I played the Shigeru Kawai, the model EX concert grand, and wonderful it was too! From this engagement, I was also invited to play at the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory of Music in Singapore, and on the Team of Pianists’ series in Melbourne. In addition to my performances, I gave masterclasses and taught a fair number of individual lessons as well as giving a lecture for the Piano Pedagogy programme at the Queensland Con. I thoroughly enjoyed all of these experiences. I started to resurrect the Goldberg Variations just before Christmas, figuring that I would need four months to get the piece back into my fingers and into my head. This would also allow enough time for what I can only describe as the Olympian training component – regular […]

An Obstacle Course

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 […]

A Sound Investment

In a recent post, I suggested that performing (or playing through), can be compared to spending, whereas practising has its parallels with investing. Successful people in the business world will have struck a healthy balance between the two: too much of one and not enough of the other is a formula that can’t work, either way round. The pianist will constantly need to be juggling the act of playing through pieces (either to themselves or an audience) with practising, using the tools and processes I have been outlining in this blog. The trial by fire comes when you remove yourself from your cosy practice room and play for others. I have probably told this anecdote before, about one of Neuhaus’ students who, after an unsatisfactory performance in a lesson, declared it had gone perfectly well at home. “Well, my dear, then I suggest you go home and play it” was his retort. The romantic idea that concert pianists don’t have to practise, that the muse is forever on tap, is of course complete twaddle. Artists at the peak of their profession will have dedicated their lives to this activity and will have made numerous extremely costly sacrifices. Regular and routine practising is an absolute, a priority above all others. And the job will occupy their waking hours as much as that of any top executive. I am often asked how much time should be spent practising, and while this is a question that does need to be addressed, it is often not possible to say specifically. It depends SO much on the individual – their concentration span, what they are working towards, and their powers of organisation. One can spend hours at the piano and […]

Feeling an Interpretation

I would like to throw out some ideas that might help develop an interpretation during practising, always keeping in mind that the process of practising should move us ever nearer to our ideal of what the music means and how it should sound. Digital or muscular practice is inextricably linked with developing what Heinrich Neuhaus calls the “artistic image”, namely the message of the music as we see it. In a word, our interpretation! As a student, I noticed that my technical ability with a piece was in direct proportion to the sharpness of my artistic image, and conversely if I wasn’t sure about the tempo, character, moods and so on, then I seemed to struggle physically with it. I recall a class on scales I gave many years ago (not my idea – I was invited!) where a girl was really having difficulties. All the classic mistakes were present, and in the short time I had with her, I wondered how to make best use of this opportunity. I asked her if she knew Beethoven’s Third Concerto, and she said she did. I then asked her to imagine the beginning of it and then to play a scale of C minor in the style of this concerto when she had this clearly in her mind. I’ll never forget the reaction on her face (and in the room) when she played the scale in this way. She was no longer self conscious of what she was supposed to be doing with her thumbs, or where the elbows were meant to be. Rather she had a sound and a feeling in her head, and this was strong enough to command her physical apparatus to produce this. Now, […]

Practice v Performance

A colleague put this quotation up on his Facebook wall this week, and while these golden words are from one of the greatest violinists of the last century, they apply absolutely to us pianists. Practice like it means everything in the world to you. Perform like you don’t give a damn. (Jascha Heifetz) I am convinced we use different parts of our brains for practising and for performance, they are two quite different activities. In performance we need a feeling of abandon and spontaneity, of creativity and going with the punches (more of what is known as right-brained activity), whereas practising relies on thoughtful, analytic procedures where we are constantly evaluating, repeating and refining our results (left-brained activity). In performance, we need to leave our inner critic in the green room and go into another, “thoughtless” state of mind once we are on the stage. We probably all know an excellent pianist who is not able to make the transition from the one state of mind to the other, and while they may play wonderfully, they can’t put themselves through the torment of public performance. Letting go of our critic is easier for some than others, and the ability to do this (allied with natural talent and a capacity for hard work, obviously) is what makes a good performer. Some relish the act of showmanship – performance with all its theatre – but others shrink from it, seemingly unable to get out of their own way. When I was a student, I experienced two opposite states of mind in a lesson, the careful practiser and the carefree performer. Anxious to show my professor how much I had practised that week and how well I had […]

Taking Ownership

Some years ago, Dame Fanny Waterman gave a masterclass for the BBC (Beethoven Sonata, op. 2 no. 2 , I think it was) and had made some suggestions to the student who then proceeded to play it back, respectfully verbatim. Dame Fanny likened this to loaning the student a dress for a party, but that to prevent it from looking borrowed or passed on, the student would need to add a brooch, a belt or some other accessory to make it her own. The lesson, of course, being that aping someone else’s playing or ideas won’t end up sounding authentic no matter how well you do it. The first stage of taking ownership of a piece of music is to process all the information from the composer’s score. This is the explicit instruction (notes, rhythm, tempo modifiers, articulations, character descriptions, dynamic markings, etc.) as well as the implicit. Examples of the latter might be the implication of più forte when the composer doubles in octaves a bass line previously written in single notes, or diminuendo when the texture thins out. It may take a while to understand the meaning behind all this so that we come up with our own understanding of the composer’s message, but digest it we must. (Implicit directions are much more significant in baroque music, say, when the composer’s score is devoid of much else, but that’s probably a subject for another post.) I am sure we have all heard performances where all the notes were there, all the I’s dotted and T’s crossed, but you weren’t moved or stirred. There is nothing worse than a safe, boring, non-committal, grey, correct performance and obeying the composer’s instructions is only the first step – […]

A Make-Up Removal Tip

Someone once said to me “As long as you are trying to do something, you are not actually doing it”, and this resonated with me. When we first start working on a new piece, there is certainly an element of striving. We desperately want our fingers to obey our vision of  how we feel the music should go, to reproduce the ideal we have in our imagination. I would even go so far as to call this a yearning, and this is what spurs us on. But, if we have put in the slog, there has to come a time when we must let go of the reins and allow the music to take flight. OK, given that we are constantly striving for perfection, a piece will probably always feel like work in progress, but there has to be some mechanism where  in performance we let go of effort, and trust ourselves. For some this is much easier said than done. How often do we walk onto the concert platform feeling totally satisfied that we have put in enough practice hours, that we have covered all our bases (or should that be basses)? My first year of overseas study was at the Peabody Conservatory of Music in Baltimore, Maryland, and what happy memories I have of that short time! I made many lifelong friends and started to get to know a culture that was very different from the one I grew up in. My formal lessons were with the wonderful pianist Ann Schein, one of Artur Rubinstein’s very few protégés (I have quite a few of the maestro’s special – and rather cheaty! – fingerings for Chopin). I will never forget a recital she gave where we […]