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 […]

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 […]

More On Stopping

In my quest to establish in the practice session as many of the reflexes we’re going to use in actual performance as possible, I have come to see that stopping for every mistake is troublesome. Surely the art of performance is to form an unerring arch from the first note to the last despite what may happen en route? And yet in our work, we cannot simply ignore the dings, faulty voicings, wrong notes and other blemishes that even the greats are susceptible to. In the last post, I suggested a process whereby one does very deliberately play through all these things, but with the proviso that we clock them as they go by and deal with them later (and by later, I mean ASAP, in the next breath). If  not stopping means we miss a couple of things and don’t get them all immediately, we can be sure that anything really dodgy will reappear and we can snuff it out then. It is possible to get students  to listen critically very early on, to ask them how they think they did and which parts need attention. I am always surprised at how much they notice. Perhaps it isn’t so surprising after all – our errors seem to stick in our consciousness like burrs, and stopping for each of them is a bit like pulling the emergency cord in the train when actually it can be dealt with more efficiently at the next station. So in general I am more in favour of planned stops rather than accidental ones, but it doesn’t always work out like this. Best, then, to have this as a motto than a millstone. LEARNING THE NOTES We will need to take […]

To Stop Or Not To Stop?

I recall an infuriating time with a house guest who found herself confined to the kitchen while I was practising in the living room. Every time she heard the playing stop, she came in to ask a question or otherwise pester me.  In the same way that the rests are as integral to a piece of music as the notes, so silence can also be a vital part of practising. That silence between bursts of sound is where our conscious mind steps in, where we figure out why we went wrong, or why we didn’t produce the sound we wanted. We also need to know precisely what we intend to do to change this. Am I repeating a phrase because I want to reinforce an intended result (to make this into a habit), or am I repeating a phrase in the hope that the right result will somehow leap out at me by magic? I don’t recommend this second approach – it reminds me of the monkey and the typewriter and the complete works of Shakespeare – but judging from my eavesdroppings outside institutional practice rooms, it is much favoured. When all is going well, performing can feel like surfing a wave (or as I imagine surfing a wave would feel). It is an exhilarating sense of doing virtually nothing, of just going along for the ride. But this state of mind is mystical, and we can never predict when it will be with us. Certainly we cannot conjure it up at will. Most times, we will probably feel more like the tightrope artiste who needs to concentrate, who might wobble and who might even fall off (why else is the circus such a spectacle […]