We all know the importance of early training in shaping a pianist, with correct musical and technical development right at the top of the list.
There is another vital ingredient in the mix that is sometimes overlooked, the responsibility of the teacher to nurture a healthy psychological outlook in the student. Lessons should always be positive experiences even when faults need to be corrected or discipline meted out. This is why teachers should balance positive feedback on the playing and the week’s work with constructive comments and instructions that are delivered in a manner that is always respectful and empowering – never shaming. It is also the teacher’s responsibility not to put their student in for competitions before they are ready, and to prepare them fully for all performances. This way the student develops a healthy self-esteem with regard to their playing – a positive mental attitude.
I am very pleased to announce that Part 4 of my e-book series, Practising the Piano has just rolled off the end of the production line and will be launched next week. I will tell you more about the contents of the publication in next week’s post but first I want to talk a little further about the importance of cultivating a positive mental attitude as a ploy to counter performance anxiety.
In conjunction with writing and researching the book, I decided to run a short, informal and anonymous survey, Performance Anxiety Among Pianists. I was delighted by the response, well over 1,000 took the trouble to complete it and I have included some of the stats in my book.
It is no secret that many of the world’s greatest concert pianists have at some stage in their careers suffered from performance anxiety. Vladimir Horowitz was forced to retire from the concert stage for long periods because of debilitating nerves, and there are many wonderful pianists who turn to jelly as soon as they walk onto the stage. One of the most celebrated teachers of the 20th century, Adele Marcus, apparently vomited over the keyboard at the start of the Schumann concerto because of nerves and was unable to give the performance.
There is no substitute for experience when it comes to performance – getting out there and doing it regularly and routinely is what seasons a pianist. Take a break for a few months and it feels like you have somehow lost the knack of handling the adrenaline and of controlling your playing in front of an audience. I do much less playing now than I used to, and when I do play a recital I am aware that an awful lot of time in the practice room is devoted to bolstering up my memory and to knowing the music upside down, backwards and sideways. Anything to avoid that horrible feeling of insecurity on the stage.
It seems that the slightest distraction can put us off our stride in performance – coughing, mobile phones going off, someone walking around in the auditorium – but more usually it is what is going on in our own head. When we perform, we can be our own worst enemy.
I would like to share two personal experiences of performing that I hope will be empowering. I want to preface this by stressing the importance of being fully prepared pianistically, this is the number 1 priority. No amount of positive self-talk or inner game work is going to save the day without thorough preparation. With this in place, the difference between a successful performance and a sub-standard one is all in our head.
A Lesson at the Royal College of Music
When we perform, we call on a different part of ourselves from when we practise or play for ourselves, because these are completely opposite activities. In performance we need a feeling of abandon and spontaneity, of creativity and going with the punches, whereas practising relies on thoughtful, analytic procedures where we constantly evaluate, repeating and refining our results until we are satisfied they are correct.
When I was an undergraduate student at the Royal College of Music in London, I experienced these two opposite states of mind in a lesson – in the first instance the careful practiser and secondly the carefree performer. My piano professor had assigned me Debussy’s L’isle joyeuse and had given me two weeks to learn it. Anxious to show him how much I had practised and how well I had prepared the piece, I was (unconsciously) reluctant to surrender control in my lesson. When I played it through to him it was full of errors caused by anxiety and tension, not by lack of time or effort in the practice room. As we all know, mental tension translates immediately into physical tension and I ended up playing with a different sense of my muscles – sluggish, restricted and uncooperative.
My teacher, being very wise, immediately asked me to play the piece again, this time trying to play as many wrong notes and to make as many mistakes as possible. This somewhat unusual permission was enough to flip a switch in my mind, and the difference between the two performances was chalk and cheese. I remember being startled by this, since the two play-throughs were back to back without any detailed instruction or in-between practice. It was the Jekyll-and-Hyde change of mindset that was solely responsible for the difference between a stiff, awkward, and therefore inaccurate and disappointing version, and a free, creative one that felt exhilarating and on target.
Here is Marcelle Meyer playing Debussy’s L’isle joyeuse.
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In the Green Room
Many years later I was in the green room waiting to go onstage and play a recital at the Australasian Piano Pedagogy Conference. Sitting around waiting to go onstage is usually the most anxious part of a performance for me, when I entertain thoughts such as: “Why am I putting myself through this? Why didn’t I choose a proper job?”… and so on. The butterflies in my stomach were worse than usual because the audience was made up of professional pianists, professors of piano, piano teachers and piano students. What torture!
Just before I had to set foot on the stage I found I was able to alter my thoughts, and walked out confidently. So what had changed? Instead of fear and self doubt, I realised that they would all be experiencing exactly the same fears if any one of them were in my shoes. After all, who would want to play for a hall full of colleagues and peers? Also, they would be bound to be sympathetic to any shakes or nervousness. But the most important thought was: “They know this music and will immediately hear all the nuances I bring to it, so they will appreciate my playing all the more!”
In my mind, I had already won them over before I had even played a note. I walked out and played confidently, and really enjoyed myself.
Practising the Piano Part 4
In Part 4 of Practising the Piano, I explore various ways we can improve our positive self-talk and banish the critical inner voices that can undermine us so powerfully. I also offer in-depth information on how to develop performance skills in your studio as part of the practice process, and of course cover the important subject of memorisation.
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Click here to purchase a gift voucher for the publication – a perfect stocking filler for the holiday season.