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 suggested in the last post, it is mostly fear of memory – of losing one’s way and not being able to find it again – that is at the root of most performance anxiety. The first time this happens (and happen it will), confidence takes a beating and the negative experience can remain in the back of the mind the next time. The trick is to be as over-prepared as possible for any performance – be 200% prepared because as soon as you walk onto the stage, you will lose 100%. Confidence rises with each positive and successful experience, and the secret of really successful performing, where nerves and adrenaline serve a useful purpose, is to be doing it all the time. Then you can really be on a roll.

Maria Spelterini at Suspension Bridge

To use the tightrope analogy from the last post, here are a few scenarios:

  • Practice Room: when you play through a piece in your practice room, the tightrope is so close to the ground that falling off has virtually no consequences. After a while you may not even notice you are doing it.
  • Playing for trusted friends and family: more is at stake here, but not too much. About a meter off the ground?
  • Playing for a supportive teacher: there are consequences, as the teacher knows what they are listening to. If things don’t go according to plan, your sense of having failed yourself as well as possibly disappointing your teacher (although this will be more in your own mind) can be destructive. If I had a pound for each time a student tells me it went much better at home…
  • Playing in a festival: the situation is competitive and you find out how you stack up against your peers. There will be people in the audience who will want to see you fail (I am convinced our antennae pick up on this energy on some level). We may find nerves getting the better of us (shaking, sweaty hands, stiff muscles, etc), but with some positive experiences we can learn to deal with this. About two meters…
  • Examinations: the adrenaline might really kick in here as we know we are going to get a mark, to which our self esteem may be inextricably linked. If things don’t go well, this can seriously affect our confidence.
  • Playing in a masterclass or for a teacher we don’t know: the tightrope is still higher. Falling off might be positively injurious.
  • Carnegie Hall: the Big Top, all safety nets removed, and to make matters worse the ringmaster forgot to lock away the lions.

Like most other things in life, the more we do something the easier and more familiar it becomes. Smart piano teachers have regular student concerts where everyone gets up and plays – they are all in it together. Exams and (more usefully) festivals or eisteddfods are wonderful ways of developing performance skills. You are usually playing in a largeish hall on a grand piano, to a built-in audience and a professional adjudicator. I love my work as adjudicator, because I feel I can really make a difference by supporting and (hopefully) inspiring young performers.

At the conservatory level, there will be many opportunities for performance. Concerts in front of teachers and peers, as well as higher profile events where there will be a public audience. Outside of formal exams, there will be a portfolio of in-house competitions one can enter, and there will be weekly performance classes where you test out your pieces. The very best way to learn performance skills is to perform! Use as many opportunities as are on offer to you, or you can generate.

For myself and my college students, I have a rule whereby a programme needs to be aired three times in safe, smallish situations before it is ready to be presented to a paying audience. This could be an invited audience in a private home, a lunchtime recital in a church, etc., and these run-throughs are themselves prefaced by a week of playing the programme through in its entirety daily as part of the practice regime. Only then is the programme properly seasoned and ready to be taken on the road.

But what about the amateur pianist who wants to perform? There are plenty of adults for whom the piano is essential in their lives, and who want a safe opportunity to perform when they have something ready to play.  I know of a couple of piano circles in London, where players meet on a regular basis in each other’s homes. The London Piano Meetup Group meets regularly at a venue with an elite piano, and socialises afterwards down the pub.

If you are interested in setting up something like this in your area, why not contact your local piano dealership? They will relish the opportunity to build bridges and develop relationships with pianists in the area, who are, after all, potential customers. It will be a win-win situation for all.

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If you enjoyed this blog post, then you may be interested in the following resources:

Practising the Piano eBook Series 

There are surprisingly few books that deal with the art of practising. This multimedia eBook series contains hundreds of videos, audio clips, music examples and downloadable worksheets to show you exactly what need to do in order to get the most out of your practice time. Click here for more information.

Practising the Piano Online Academy

Building on my blog posts and eBook series, the Online Academy takes my work to the next level with a comprehensive library of lessons, masterclasses and resources combined with insights from other leading experts. Aimed at piano teachers and pianists, it will transform the way you approach playing or teaching the piano!

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From the Ground Up

From the Ground Up is a series devoted to learning individual pieces using outlines and reduced scores that help you to practise more effectively, memorise more consciously, and interpret music more creatively. Each From the Ground Up edition starts with a reduced score or foundation which reveals the essential structure of the music. Detail is then added in layers through successive scores thus enabling learning a piece from the ground up rather than the top down. Please click here to find out more about From the Ground Up on the Online Academy or on one of the following links to view the first two editions: