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 […]

Green Fingers

Over the past few weeks in my teaching, I have found myself repeating what I consider a truism about practising, so I thought it might be worth writing about. Not only will I get it off my chest, but I will also be able to direct students here, thereby freeing up lesson time for other activities. It is simply this: The various practice tools we use for learning a piece in the first place need to be repeated very regularly in the early stages of learning, and are often the same tools we need to use on an ongoing basis for maintenance and upkeep. Slow practice is a good example of this. There are some instances where a word of instruction can cause the playing to change immediately, but there are plenty of other occasions when we need to go into training to achieve a certain intended result. This is rather like a course of medication, one pill will probably not make that much difference – it is the cumulative effect of the whole course that counts. I also think of the parallel with an activity like Olympic hammer throwing, where the act of throwing the hammer itself is over in a flash but the training regime is all-encompassing, involving other activities than just throwing the hammer. I know this not from any personal prowess in this direction, but because the PE teacher at my old school went on to achieve fame doing this and we all got a sense of what was involved. Another analogy is that of a gardener. If I am planning a new garden, I will first need to have a vision of how I want the thing to look when […]

By |November 20th, 2011|Teaching|0 Comments

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 […]

The Study Editions of Alfred Cortot

I first heard Alfred Cortot when I was a boy. The magic of his recording of Chopin’s Étude op. 25 no. 1 made an indelible impression on me – it made me almost gasp. It wasn’t just the incredible beauty of his sound but also the flexibility of his timings – especially the way he stretched the melody line, and the personal stamp he brought to it. It makes me hopping mad when people go on about the numerous wrong notes in his recordings. Would that they could begin to hold a candle to playing of such genius, flawed as the results sometimes were. But these surface blemishes (which would not pass the censors nowadays, admittedly) detract from the playing not one iota – besides, he admitted he hardly had time to practise, busy as he was with his teaching, conducting, administrative duties and touring. In my student days, a teacher lent me Cortot’s edition of Chopin’s B flat minor Sonata, a work I had been studying for a while. After just one week of practising the exercises, my playing of the piece improved dramatically. I rushed out to buy his edition of the Sonatas, and both books of the Études, published by Salabert (and ferociously expensive they were too). I still use them all the time, not just for the exercises Cortot designs, but also for his fanciful and poetic running commentaries which illuminate the music wonderfully. The only drawback is that the score has been sloppily edited (I’m not sure who was at fault there) with quite a number of wrong notes, so it is not advisable to use these editions as the sole source, rather as a supplement to a more reliable Urtext edition (I […]

By |September 26th, 2011|General tips|5 Comments