Category Archives: General

The Seven Deadly Performance Sins

 

7 deadly sins picAll sorts of things can go wrong in a performance. A cockroach can scuttle across your pedalling foot (this has happened to me). The music may fall off the stand (this has happened to me). A blood blister on your cuticle may burst during a glissando (you guessed it, this has happened to me).

But no matter what happens, as they say, ‘the show must go on’. What is the reason for this? Why do you have to keep going no matter what?

Because it’s not about you. It’s about the audience, and their enjoyment of the music you are playing. As a performer, it’s your job to make sure their enjoyment is not interrupted.

So here are, in my opinion, the Seven Deadly Performance Sins:

1.   Drawing attention to mistakes

If you say ‘oh sorry’ while you’re playing, or start again, or suddenly slow down during a performance, the audience gets distracted and it stops them enjoying the performance. No matter whether you play a wrong note, miss a dynamic, play a note out of tune (not easy to do on piano J) or forget to do a repeat, if you simply keep going, pretending it was all meant to be, 9 times out of 10 the audience will not know anything went wrong. Remember, we ignore mistakes in performance because a) it’s not practice time, and b) it’s not about you!

2.   Correcting wrong notes

This is a more specific version of Performance Sin no. 1. Fixing a mistake doesn’t make the audience think ‘ah, THAT’s how it was supposed to go, I’m so glad I’ve heard it the right way now!’ Correcting wrong notes disrupts the rhythmic flow. An audience will usually not recognise an incorrect pitch, but they will always notice a disruption in rhythm.

3.   Showing dissatisfaction

An audience can tell by your body language and facial expression if you are not happy with your performance, and it is very distracting! Don’t do things like frown, tut, slump your back, sigh or flop your arms/wrists in frustration. Have a poker face. All this counts both during AND after a performance. Be gracious. Do not apologise (especially to someone who is complimenting you on your playing). Better still, look like you are ENJOYING yourself!

4.   Breaking the spell

During your performance, everyone in the audience is looking at you. But you can’t look at them. If you do, you will ‘break the spell’ of their listening reverie. An audience is not really looking at you – they are watching your involvement in the music, and if you consciously glance at something or someone in the audience, whether it be because you made an error, or because someone in the audience made a noise, you are disrupting your own involvement with the music. Even a scuttling cockroach has to be ignored J. Doing anything from Performance Sins 1-3 will also break the spell!

5.   Starting too fast

Be aware of the power of adrenalin. I have witnessed many performers (myself included) derail themselves by starting too fast and finding the piece too difficult to play at that speed, which results in either slowing down (thus resulting in committing Performance Sin no. 1) or completely crashing! Create high-adrenalin situations for yourself during practice by performing for others in the house, or for your neighbours, or doing a ‘single take’ recording that you promise to send to your teacher. Practice the opening, and get used to controlling that adrenalin!

6.   Altering the conditions

It is a very Deadly Performance Sin to do something on the day of the performance that you have not simulated in practice. Here are three common scenarios:

  • Wearing high heels (if you only ever practise in flats)
  • Playing from memory (when you’ve always had the music in front of you at home)
  • Putting the music in front of you ‘just in case’ (if you’ve been used to playing it from memory)

Another way of committing this sin is to not have any performance run-throughs before the big day. If you are used to stopping and fixing, and taking long breaks between pieces, then during a performance you are ‘altering the conditions’ by making it the first time you don’t stop and fix and play the program right through. Part of performing is all about the way you handle mistakes, you have to practise handling them! This means creating lots of different performance opportunities, so that you get good at working through all the things that may go wrong.

It’s bad enough that we pianists don’t get to perform on our own instruments and sit on our own piano stools. We have to adjust instantly to the new playing conditions. Don’t create even more stress for yourself by altering anything else on the day!

7.   Not acknowledging audience

Your audience is there for you, and not acknowledging your listeners sets up a negative performance atmosphere. You should greet the audience with a smile or a nod, but most importantly and effectively with a bow. Bowing before and after a performance should be thought of as part of the performance itself (and should therefore be practiced!). Bowing is also polite; it is a performer’s way of saying ‘thank you for clapping for me’.

Your stage entrance is vital. Even if you don’t feel confident, it’s important to look as if you are! There was a recent study on the effect of confident stage entries on audiences. The results showed that people WANT to watch and listen to you more if you look confident! Engage the audience. Then thank them with a bow.

 

In conclusion: To be a good performer means to be able to communicate to an audience and carry them along a journey of musical enjoyment.

During practice time, the audience is not there. It is acceptable, in fact encouraged, to commit all of the above Performance Sins. That’s the idea of practice: we stop and fix, reflect, try again, go over (and over, and over!), analyse, criticise, slow down, correct… all with the goal in mind of being able to communicate flawlessly on the day.

Performing is the opposite! We must create, enjoy, trust, and above all keep going… even if we’re not quite communicating what we want, and it’s really not going so well at all.

Imagine you are an artist, and your painting is in a gallery. Imagine if, while someone was enjoying looking at it, you spotted a bit you didn’t like, and grabbed it off the wall in front of them and quickly scrubbed out and repainted a bit in the corner, and then put it back, expecting them to resume enjoying the painting as they were before. They wouldn’t be able to. Their enjoyment has been interrupted and now their attention will be drawn to the bit you scrubbed out. A better approach would be to let the person keep enjoying the painting… perhaps graciously accept their praise… and when they move on, decide how you want to make the painting better. You would then make those changes at home, not in the gallery 🙂 .

 

 

 

 

From the Court to the Concert Hall

Serving Up the Skills to Get Your Head in the ‘Game’

BY CAROLYN WORTHY

(Note from Samantha: This is a special guest post by the wonderful Carolyn Worthy)

The Inner Game of TennisI first encountered The Inner Game of Tennis when it appeared on the reading list for one of my piano teaching courses at university. Needless to say, I was curious how forehands, backhands and volleys would be relevant to my musical education. But after tracking down a copy for myself, I discovered that The Inner Game of Tennis is not just for Federer fanatics. The book serves as a guide to the mental side of peak performance, with strategies to improve concentration, perseverance and emotional control from the perspective of renowned sports psychologist W. Timothy Gallwey. So how is this information relevant for musicians?

In Chapter One, Gallwey lists some common problems that many tennis players – both amateur and professional – encounter on the court:

I play better in practice that during the match.

I know exactly what I’m doing wrong on my forehand, I just can’t seem to break the habit. Every time I get near match point against a good player, I get so nervous I lose my concentration.

I’m my own worst enemy; I usually beat myself.

And I couldn’t help but notice a few similarities to what I hear as a music teacher:

My piece always sounds better at home!

I know I’m playing a wrong note, but I just can’t seem to break the habit.

I get so nervous when I perform that I lose concentration and then I make a mistake. I’m not good enough to perform in front of other people.

Musicians need to know how to overcome nerves, negativity and self-­‐doubt just as athletes do. Many of us underestimate the importance of mental toughness and the part it plays when we practice and perform. It appears that we could learn a thing or two from our tennis counterparts, so here are a few key points that stood out as I read The Inner Game of Tennis…

THE TWO SELVES

I’m not afraid of anyone, but sometimes I’m afraid of myself.

Justine Henin, former world number one tennis player & winner of 7 Grand Slam singles titles.

The Two SelvesWe’ve all seen the way that tennis players communicate with themselves on the court. Whether it’s a high-­‐pitched shriek from Sharapova, a pumped up “COME ON!” from Hewitt or some racquet slamming from Serena, we all wonder what goes on inside the mind of a player during a match. In the quote above, Justine Henin admits that it’s not her opponent she fears on the court, but rather how her own thoughts, criticism and self-­‐doubt can affect her during a match. According to The Inner Game of Tennis, we each have two selves. Self 1, known as the teller, gives the instructions and Self 2, the doer, performs the action.

Self One is our ego mind. He cares about our self-­‐worth, our self-­‐esteem and how we appear to other people. Self Two controls our nervous system, which in turn helps all parts of the body to communicate with each other. More often than not when something isn’t going our way at the piano, Self One is quick to criticise. He starts to lose trust in Self Two (our natural ability) and fills our head with negative thoughts – I can’t play this piece! This is too hard! I keep making stupid mistakes! When we hear these comments often enough, we start to believe them. Before we even sit down at the piano, we expect that what we are about to play won’t be any good. Instead of making harsh judgements and getting fixated on what we did wrong, we should look to find the source of our mistake and focus on how to fix it.

Wrong NoteAcknowledging mistakes allows us to improve and get better, as opposed to dissolving into a negative thought spiral or completely ignoring the mistake. According to composer, professional performer and piano teacher Elissa Milne, a huge percentage of our ‘mistakes’ at the piano are the result of unsuitable fingering. Keep hitting a wrong note? Struggling to play a passage legato? Locking in secure fingering will always help to facilitate a confident performance. There are many other possible reasons why we make mistakes (two of which will be discussed further in this article), but it is important to remember that there is often a reasonable solution. Taking the time to find the cause of the error (in piano practice as in life) allows you to make a good decision as to how to create effective change*.

INSTRUCTION OVERLOAD: LESS IS MORE

The dumber you are on the court, the better you are going to play.

Jim Courier, former world number one tennis player and winner of 4 Grand Slam singles titles

Another speed bump on the road to successfully conquering our “inner game” is over-­‐ instruction. Whilst we shouldn’t take Jim Courier’s advice too literally, it is important not to become weighed down by continuous thoughts. Quite often when we are performing – either during our lesson, at home or on stage – Self One gives us a running commentary of things to remember – Remember the tempo is slow here, slow down, don’t make a mistake in that bit, keep the tempo steady, did I play that right? Don’t play loud, take the pedal off here, play smoothly, remember the G# here! G#! G#! – and the list goes on. These non-­‐stop verbal commands are not only distracting, but they interfere with our creativity and the expressive qualities of the music, as Gallwey explains:

“All this internal conversation actually triggers a stress system that causes you to tighten both physically and mentally, and go into a reaction that’s not creative…where you don’t trust yourself to respond to the reality of what’s going on.”

Instead of incessantly commenting on the music line by line, bar by bar, note by note, we should have a vision of what our performance should and could be. A ‘game plan’ if you will; for musicians, this is best achieved by thinking less and listening more:

“Images are better than words, showing is better than telling, and too much instruction is worse than none.”

When trying to see the “big picture” of a piece of music, it is imperative to listen to recordings. Hearing a finished, polished recording of the piece will be much more inspiring than just looking at notes on the page. And don’t stop at just one – listen to as many recordings as possible to find inspiration for how you want to play the piece, and then put your own creative spin on it afterwards. Recording yourself playing your pieces is also extremely beneficial as it gives you the opportunity to hear and/or see things that you may not normally notice.

CONCENTRATION: LEARNING TO FOCUS

I just try to concentrate on concentrating.

Martina Navratilova, former world number one tennis player and winner of 18 Grand Slam singles titles

Any time we sit down at the piano to practice, our head can be overflowing with several different thoughts – not all related to piano – that distract us from what we initially set out to accomplish. Gallwey believes that the art of concentration is crucial to our inner game. It allows Self One to quieten down and Self Two to be in control. In order to maintain concentration and stop our minds from racing away, we have to focus our attention in the present moment:

“Focus of attention in the present moment is at the heart of doing anything well…The greatest lapses in concentration come when we allow our minds to project what is about to happen or to dwell on what has happened already.”

practice-sessionWhen we let our minds race away with “what if’s” and “maybes” we start to get swept up in an imaginary reality – “What if I make a mistake at Bar 72? Then I’ll lose my place and I won’t know how to keep going and then I’ll stop in the middle of my piece in front of everyone!” Before we know it, you are barely aware of what you’re playing and panic mode ensues. So how do we achieve focus?

Focus does not mean staring hard at something, and it only becomes more difficult when we try to force it. Natural focus occurs when the mind is interested in what we are doing. Here are a few ways to help keep our mind focused when we perform:

  • BEFORE YOU PERFORM – To keep nerves at bay before you get up on stage, it helps to focus on your “Breathing is a very basic rhythm. When the mind is fastened to the rhythm of breathing, it tends to become absorbed and calm. Place your mind on your breathing process. Also, if you are using music, have the music open and imagine playing the piece through in your head.
  • ON STAGE – Before you start the piece it helps to hear the first bar in your head so you can imagine how you want the note to It also gives you that sense of rhythm right from the beginning of the performance. Also, position your body so that you are balanced and comfortable as soon as you sit at the piano. If you are moving or shuffling around on the seat and your feet are not stable, you will be very distracted and your technique will suffer as a result.
  • WHILE YOU PERFORM – Focusing on the rhythm of a piece of music can help musicians to maintain concentration and keep our full attention in the present Concentrating on the sense of rhythm gives our mind somewhere to focus and stops it from rushing away with worried or panicked thoughts. Having this type of focus is how we become a consistent performer.

FINAL THOUGHTS

“Focus of attention in the present moment is at the heart of doing anything well. Focus means not dwelling on the past, either on mistakes or glories; it means not being so caught up in the future, either its fears or its dreams, that my full attention is taken away from the present. The ability to focus the mind is the ability to not let it run away with you. It does not mean not to think – but to be the one who directs your own thinking.**

 

*(Milne, E., Piano Lessons for Life: Don’t Correct Mistakes, elissamilne.wordpress.com)

**(Gallwey, W. T., The Inner Game of Tennis, pg. 131)

ILLUSTRATIONS BY KERRIE MOSS (kerrie_moss@hotmail.com)

Three Strikes and You’re In

In the past 3 months I have done three separate one-hour piano recitals. I have not done this much performing since my school and university days. But it has been the most rewarding performing of my life.

These were recitals for the residents of aged care facilities. The average age of the audience was 87 and one could not wish for a more appreciative audience. Everyone was happy and excited to be there. This is very different to the performances of my youth, as there were no adjudicators, examiners or critics. No-one had paid money to come, therefore no-one was expecting to ‘get their money’s worth’. There was also no-one who had been dragged along (for example, my sister, made to sit through my piano eisteddfods), sitting impatiently until the end.

All of this made for an extremely pleasurable and relaxing atmosphere. I prepared a program full of all the ‘warhorses’ of the classical piano repertoire: Fur Elise, Rondo Alla Turca, Chopin Prelude in E flat… you get the idea. Whilst many of these were under my fingers or were re-hashed from my childhood, some I had to learn especially, since my teachers seemed to have steered me clear of them despite their popularity!

As a result, all my friends and family were shocked to discover that I was practising Fur Elise. It’s true, I had never learned it as a child and I usually ban most of my students from playing it. But I have discovered that it gets a bad rap, poor old Fur Elise. When it’s played well (which I must say I managed to do J), and when the tempo remains consistent (rather than completely changing for the B and C sections to accommodate the all-to-eager Section A tempo), and when it’s actually requested by the audience, it is really quite a beautiful piece to include in a recital.

Another piece that I had never played and that my parents assured me would be very well received in this demographic is Rachmaninoff’s Variation no. 18 on a theme by Paganini. Wow, this piece is quite hard. There are so many chords and so many accidentals to decipher. It’s not one to quickly sight-read through! I spent a lot of time on this piece and here is what I found:

Recital no. 1 (November): Leading up to this I practised madly, trying to memorise as many passages as I could, playing the chords in every which way possible. On the day most of it went ok.

Recital no. 2 (December): Less practice for this than for no. 1, mostly just keeping it in the fingers and working on the bits that slipped in recital no. 1. On the day it went MUCH BETTER than the first recital. I was pleased.

Recital no. 3: (February) With only a small amount of revision, I found myself thinking as I was playing it: ‘Wow, this piece is actually quite easy now’.

I have always known, just from my own experience, that pieces improve with performance more quickly than they do with practice only. I have always said to my students ‘there’s just something about playing it under pressure’. But now I’m going to tweak my advice to them; not only does performing a piece make it mature quickly into a better piece, this needs to happen more than once. I think that it really did take three performances before the pieces really settled into my fingers and I could enjoy the music, rather than be stressed about notes.

Performing in a venue is not anything like practising at home. The piano is completely different from the one you play on at home, as is the stool. You have adrenalin running through your veins. Your hands are the tiniest bit sweaty and you can’t help wondering if wiping them quickly on your nylon skirt will help or not. The lighting is different. The audience shifts and coughs (and sometimes, in the case of my recent recitals, state loudly in the middle of a very soft section ‘Oh this is a lovely concert’). But most of all, there is that little voice that suddenly switches on in your head, saying ‘you have to get this right’. No matter how relaxed the performing atmosphere is – and boy was this relaxed, I could have played a C major scale and they would have loved it – there is always that pressure one puts on oneself to play well, to try to play flawlessly.

That little voice was my undoing many times when I was younger. But as an adult and as a teacher who constantly touts this, I’ve learned to control it through deliberate practice. As Abe Cytrynowski wrote about in his marvellous blog about practice, if you start to question what is going on during a performance and you’ve never questioned it in practice, you’re pretty much done for. Stumbles, hesitations, memory lapses, the works. The trick is to get that voice to switch on during practice, so that when the performance day comes all the questioning and pressuring has already been done. This is a tough ask, and for me I think that performing these pieces three times enabled me to stamp out the voice and reach a new level of playing.

My mentor and now friend Barbara Macrae used to say to us, when she was principal of the Conservatorium High School: ‘If you want to give a magnificent performance, you have to practice giving a magnificent performance.’ I wish I had taken her a little more seriously at the time, but I really do get it now.

I have more recitals planned and I feel privileged to be able to play for these residents. It brings them such joy, and it is invigorating for me. A win-win situation! It’s also incredibly validating to have the advice I’ve been giving my students for so long reconfirmed by my own experience. I can say that I am indeed preaching what I practice!

I love practising!

(This is a special guest post by Mark Walton)

When I first started to play the clarinet I practised for three reasons.

Reason 1

–       I wanted to impress my teacher and make him happy.

Reason 2

–       I loved the sound of the clarinet and I couldn’t get enough of it.

Reason 3

–       My best friend played the clarinet and I didn’t want him to be better than me.

During the Christmas holidays when I was fourteen I decided that since I was no good at anything else I would practise the clarinet for six hours a day. On Christmas Day I took it easy and only practised for four hours so the next day I did an extra couple of hours to make up for my laziness.

The first lesson back after my herculean holiday effort didn’t go as planned. Nothing I played to my teacher went well – in fact it was a total disaster! I went home bitterly disappointed, frustrated and pretty close to tears.

From monumental disasters often great things can result. I reflected on what went wrong and quickly realised that all my hours of practice had been chaotically nonproductive and I had achieved nothing other than prove to myself that I was dedicated.

So from the ashes at the age of 14 I devised a practising system that I still use today and I think it is so brilliant I will explain it to you.

Step 1

I make a list of all the things I need to practise. Ie.

  1. All the major scales up to 3 flats and 3 sharps
  2. Study in Bb major
  3. Mozart Concerto third movement
  4. Arnold Fantasy for solo clarinet

Step 2

I make up a practising schedule breaking up the time slots to 5 and 10 minutes in length and then fill in the gaps always starting with something I like. I find starting practising is always the hard part. Here is a schedule for an hour of practising. I never do the same hour twice because I get bored very easilyJ

5 mins Mozart page 2 10 Mozart last two pages
10 Study Bb line 2,4, 6 & 8 5 Arnold Page 1 line 5- 9
5 F Bb and Eb major 5 G D and A major
5 Arnold Page 2 line 1- 5 5 Sight reading
5 Study Bb line 7,9, & 11 5 Study all

Step 3

Set my timer and tick off the tasks as they are completed.

Step 4 – this is the good bit!

Over a cup of tea I reflect on the success of the previous hour of my musical life. From these highly intelligent reflections I then plan the next hour of my musical quest for clarinet perfection. Some things will have fallen into place whilst other things will be no better than at the start of the practice so this is when skillful creative strategy comes into planning the next hour’s practice.

So there you have it.

Why it works for me is that I have split my brain in two. I have a very good manager who knows just how much work to set and what is possible to achieve. When I don’t live up to these expectations the manager doesn’t get cranky with me but instead devises a more effective schedule for my next practice.

The other half of my brain is the cheerful worker who knows exactly what needs to be done and is prepared to do some tasks hundreds of times until everything is schmick.

What a team!! By themselves they would achieve very little as I discovered when I was fourteen but together anything is possible.

You know if I had to choose between giving concerts, teaching students, recording, composing music, writing magazine articles, examining, travelling the world or practising I would always choose practising. Practising for me is all about creativity and problem solving .. in fact I am going to go and practise now.

Mark Walton

Preaching What You Practice

(This is a guest post by Avi Cytrynowski)

For some time now, my friend and colleague, Sam Coates, has been asking me to write a description about my recent forays into performing, and how this has impacted on me, what insights I have had about performing, and so on. Despite my 34 years of piano teaching and all the advice I have given to my students over the years about performing for exams, competitions and auditions, I have nevertheless had so many new revelations about performing in the recent past, that I feel it would be worthwhile to unpack these insights into an informal article so that I can share what I have discovered and learnt in the process.

I also suspect that many instrumental teachers reading this article may recognize more than a few common elements between their own experiences and my own musical journey. I am probably typical of many instrumental teachers who nostalgically remember how well they themselves could play when preparing for their performance degrees and teaching qualifications, and yet who now feel that the realities of teaching make it highly unrealistic that such high standards could ever be recaptured. This is not to say that teachers aren’t involved in general music-making, in accompanying and so on, but the formal recital type of performance is often considered a thing of the past for many teachers who are so caught up in the demands of full time work.

Since my own performance “heyday” when just a young man in my twenties (way back when dinosaurs roamed the earth) I have been involved in lots of music making: regular performances at nursing homes, background music at weddings, restaurants, birthday parties and so on. I haven’t stopped for a moment, but for all these years, I have always felt that this sort of playing does not quite cut the mustard – well, not in comparison to what I call “real” playing, ie. the refinement, discipline and precision required for a formal recital. I would often tell myself, well, at least I am still out there, playing piano, and performing at some level, but underneath I have always been saddened by a growing belief that a really demanding repertoire, played with flawless control, would now be totally beyond me.

Well I am here to tell all those who can connect with my story, that such assumptions are largely untrue and ultimately self-damaging. They promote defeatism and also encourage a type of musical stagnation where old favourites, that we could always play in the past, comprise the totality of our permanent and unchanging repertoire. I now sincerely believe that we can actually turn back the clock even after decades of safe, ‘Sunday afternoon’ piano playing, that we can in fact recapture that fabulous feeling of being a musician again – a pianist, a performer, sharing music of high quality in a performance atmosphere. It is possible to actually grow back into that person who was once capable of performing advanced pieces with dexterity and sensitivity. For me, this has been such an exciting revelation; it almost feels like a rebirth.

So how did this re-appraisal and change come about for me?

Due to an uncanny set of circumstances, in the last couple of years I have found myself playing solo in situations that have progressively become more formal and less of the ‘background music’ variety. As a result of surviving several such performances, I progressively started believing that maybe, just maybe I could get back into some serious piano work again. This led me to accept a request earlier this year from the Barwon Heads Fine Music Society to present a one hour, formal classical recital. The sort of recital where people pay for their tickets, get dressed up, take their seats and expect to hear quality music like Scarlatti, Mozart, Schubert, Chopin – a far cry from playing folksongs at nursing homes all gravitating round the cosy chords of Am, Dm and E7.

Having committed myself to this recital, there was no turning back, despite the many times when I would ask myself in total bewilderment: What the heck do you think you are doing ??? Why on earth did you say yes?

I chose the repertoire for my recital and began practising regularly and uncompromisingly. I hardly missed one day over a 6 month period of intense practice, no matter how busy I was during the day. I started off with about an hour a day, but progressively found the time or made the time to practice for up to 2 to 3 hours a day. In true obsessive manner I kept a register of every minute I spent at the keyboard. I tried to beat my daily total, my weekly total and so on, and in fact became totally obsessed with practising. At times it felt like a burden to be shackled to this practice regimen, but it was also exhilarating to feel myself knocking out problem after problem in my repertoire. I even started feeling somehow more honest and authentic in my role as piano teacher, given that I was now actually practising what I had always preached.

I methodically employed all the practice methods I have espoused to my students over the years, and which I have used for my own pieces in the past: special exercises for passage work, techniques to increase speed and fluency, the old “4 times right in a row” routine, playing with eyes closed, reducing whole bars to chord shapes, juxtaposing similar sections and so on – in essence, a lifetime’s teaching insights, but now applied rigorously to my own program.

The time came when I could finally do justice to my full recital program at home, but I knew this was just the beginning. I had to air these pieces in front of people, to see how I survived in a formal recital situation, which is so different to just playing background music.

I arranged at least 12 mini-recitals for myself as preparations for the “big one”. Some of these were in front of a group of friends; others were in front of three or four fellow teachers. Another was in front of 40 people at my cousin’s place. All my students heard me play the trickiest part of a particular Schubert Impromptu so many times that they could almost play it themselves. I kept a register of what pieces I played in front of what students, and systematically played everything for everyone!

Many of these performances were unmitigated disasters. One of the worst experiences occurred at an adult student’s place. She had arranged for about 10 people to be there, and from the very start, the “vibe” felt completely wrong and I became unhinged. Every piece I played suffered a memory blank or obvious pause somewhere. My passage work had knots and holes in it, I missed a couple of big leaps, I splashed notes and then did the unpardonable:  I addressed the audience mid-piece with a lengthy apology. The sort of crime I would almost kill one of my students for committing. I felt I barely survived the performance, and was so relieved to finally get back into my car and on my way home again.

But through such setbacks I developed a thick skin and simply told myself that if you want to perform, you have to be prepared to humiliate yourself all over Melbourne, if necessary, in order to get there. But it took many disasters both big and small for me to finally realise that blanks and stumbles were continually happening time after time in places that I had played perfectly well at home, and in sections that weren’t even difficult. I was already practising 2-3 hours a day for week after week – so what was causing the glitches, stumbles and blanks? I was definitely not suffering from performance nerves. Years of playing at weddings, nursing homes and so on had cured me of stage fright. So what was finally sabotaging me in these more formal recital situations?

Despite years of teaching and philosophising to students about correct practice techniques, I guess the surprising truth is that there was actually a huge divide between what I was preaching and what I was practising myself. Much soul-searching led me to discover (or re-discover) two vitally important home truths about practising:

  1. No ‘automatic pilot’. The importance of being aware, of being totally conscious of absolutely everything you are doing as you practice and as you perform – every leap, every chord, all the finger “choreography”. ’Automatic pilot”, ie. relying on muscle memory, is the absolute arch enemy in this mode of music making.
  1. The importance of focus. One has to actually practise the art of focusing while practising, silly as that sounds. That last sentence was not intended as a play on words, and probably deserves a re-read! Concentrated focus, on the immediate notes being played as well as the notes immediately ahead, cannot be allowed to slacken for even a nano-second, especially during performance. Focusing is a skill we need to practise and reinforce during our practice, in the same way that we practise the actual notes.

For me, the great insight and benefit of my return to serious playing after so many years of safe playing, has been the realisation of the above two truths, in the most profound way possible. I now practise in a fundamentally different manner, and it has been an epic awakening for me. But let me explain in more detail…

I am certainly not the first one to discover that ‘automatic pilot’ is a dangerous basis for reliable performance. The theory has been articulated time and again by musicians and educationalists at pedagogical conventions, lectures and in journals, The most recent, and convincing article that I have read on this subject is by the AMEB examiner, Dr. Mark McGee (Brain Training and Technique, VMTA journal: Music and the Teacher, April 2011).

Without even attempting to paraphrase McGee’s article, suffice it to say that when any set of movements at the keyboard becomes merely automatic and unconscious, disaster may befall at any moment. The playing could end up being perfectly successful too, but when one is in automatic pilot mode, anything can happen. It’s a 50-50 chance either way. A sudden noise, a movement, cough, a moment of doubt, a questioning of the last note you just played, and the whole house of cards can come tumbling down, since you’re not aware of what you’re doing anyway, and all of a sudden continuity has been broken, and disaster strikes. You have to suddenly “know” what you are doing in a way that you haven’t bothered with for weeks, or months, and you simply unravel on the spot. This is when you experience one of those ghastly moments when you want the earth to just open up and swallow you whole! And haven’t we all been there !!!

I gradually began to realise how at every point and turn I was all too ready to fool myself, to think that I really knew what I was doing. But I was taking a mental holiday during the easy parts, and really had no idea of exactly what I was doing in these sections. It was ironically in these places that disaster often struck during my trial performances. I had to suffer so many embarrassing public slips and blunders before I finally stopped and questioned the value of all those endless hours of practice. I realized there was no point to mindless repetition without the benefit of ‘consciousness’, of knowing for example that the left hand leap at the top of page 2, the easy bit, was meant to go to the lowest Ab, and that this would need a quick glance at the keyboard, each and every time I got to that section.

I actually found it very challenging to practise sections that I felt I could already play well, because I had to virtually re-learn such material in order to be fully conscious of what my fingers were really doing. It involved deconstructing the music, becoming aware of every pattern, every leap, every micro-movement. It took a huge amount of self-discipline to practise in this new way – often articulating out loud what I was actually doing with my fingers, while playing.

Magical changes, however, started occurring in my trial performances. The silly glitches started vanishing and my morale started growing. I even began to think that I might just be able to survive the 60 minute recital intact. A trip to Sweden where I would vanish incognito might not be necessary after all!

My second major revelation had to do with focusing. To be conscious of what I was doing and of what lay just ahead in the next bar or chord, necessitated a “strength” of focus, a sort of stamina behind the focus, so that the focus would not just wilt or dissipate after a few minutes. And this gave birth to my theory of The Shrinking Elastic Band. Not sure whether this theory would make it to a neurological journal, but here goes:

I always rather naively thought that I could sustain my mental focus indefinitely while practising, but the truth I discovered was very different. I became aware (very sadly indeed), that I had the concentration span of a gnat. I would try to look ahead on the score (or think ahead when playing a Chopin Polonaise from memory), and within mere moments I found the mental flexing would start to “shrink” back to the notes I was actually playing rather than to what lay directly ahead: a tricky chord, an accidental, or a huge leap. What jolted me into realising this was happening was the cold hard truth of sudden breaks in the flow, especially when performing, when the focus is even harder to discipline.

I wasn’t looking or thinking ahead at all! If I didn’t take charge and force the focus onwards, to thinking and looking ahead, then it would shrink or retract even more, just like an elastic band. Soon, I would not even be really present to the actual notes I was playing, let alone the notes in the next bar. I might be thinking of how rude the butcher was yesterday in serving that boisterous woman first, and what I should have said at the time, and why don’t I stand up for myself more these days anyway, and was I always like this as a child, and so on, until WHAM !!! Major blank at the keyboard hitting with the full force of an asteroid! But this is a slow, easy Scarlatti Sonata. How could I possibly lose it in this simple piece?

How could I not lose it, would be more to the point, given that my focus had shrunk to such an extent that it was already out of the piano room completely and doing battle with the bullies at the butcher shop. All this within the space of a few moments.

My focus needed stretching rather than retracting. I began to realise just how much work I needed to do to maintain a concentrated awareness of what was about to happen, rather than to let the focus shrink back to the notes I was merely playing at the moment, or even worse to emotional dramas and events totally irrelevant to the task at hand.

Success did not simply fall into my lap. At one point, when playing my program in front of an advanced student, I worked myself up into such a state over losing focus in a demonic section of a Chopin Etude, that I fell into a complete panic and hit rock bottom – the way kids do when it all gets too much for them! It all started feeling too much like a nightmare. I would never get this right. So many people I knew would be in the audience and they would all see me for the fake that I truly was, masquerading as a pianist. How would I ever live it down? I remember clasping my head in my hands and desperately wanting to cry, but I was too exhausted and overwhelmed even for tears! And that, in fact, was a turning point for me, because once you’ve actually hit rock-bottom, there is only one way to go, and it’s up – trite and clichéd as that may sound. The specific key to recovery for me that night, was the realisation that if I simply stopped the riot in my head and replaced it by focusing on what I was actually playing and what lay just ahead, I could ride out any rodeo with relative ease.

Well I am pleased to report that after all these trial performances which taught me so much about focusing, the final recital at Barwon Heads was a great success. Sitting at the piano before my first piece I felt relaxed, natural, and curiously peaceful yet also very switched on and focused too. One of those heavenly things occurred where things go so well that the music starts to pour out of you, and you find yourself expressing every phrase from some deep, deep place inside you.  Once you’ve reached that space, you can even take chances and say things freshly in a way that you have not done before.

Yes, there were little glitches here and there – but quite minor ones.  At the centre of it all, guiding me through the minefield of all the possible disasters that could have occurred, was my ability to focus and to think ahead.

My skill in keeping that elastic band from shrinking continues to improve. A few weeks ago, I was asked to perform a rather avant-garde composition at Melba Hall, a beautiful concert venue that was refurbished and restored to its former glory, some years ago. I felt rather dwarfed in the middle of the large stage, sitting behind a beautiful 9 foot grand piano.

The two guardian angels saving me from musical disintegration at the keyboard that night were the two hard-won insights I described above. I truly knew and understood every micro movement required by the piece. Moreover, my focus was also fully switched-on to what lay ahead and I did not let this waver for a moment. I was mentally anticipating all the time so nothing took me by surprise, and I kept forcing that focus to stay there, ahead and alert, until the final chord of the piece. Of course I haven’t even mentioned the work that went into the interpretation (what I call the good fun) but at least there was not one mistake in the playing (well… just one hardly audible, minuscule slip on the 11th page).

I feel this journey into formal performance has been a huge landmark in my life, because I have never considered myself especially talented or gifted at the keyboard. I was not the whizz kid who won the scholarships, nor was I ever ear-marked by the top lecturers to embark on a career in performance. My triumphs were far more garden-variety, yet I have discovered that through the right sort of practice, even at a ripe old age, unimaginable new frontiers can be attained.

My aim now is to keep the journey going by embracing every opportunity to perform. Apart from the pleasure it gives to others, it is so liberating and exciting to know that you have things you want to say musically and that you can actually say them in the public arena without being bludgeoned and deflated by endless mistakes and mental blanks that seem to come from absolutely nowhere. I have learned that performance security is about being totally conscious of everything I am doing at any given moment, and having the disciplined focus to be aware of what I am about to do at any given moment.

Thanks for giving me the opportunity to share!

Practice will only get you so far

The recital I did with my violinist friend was exactly one month ago. It went pretty well. He was not at all happy with his playing, even though it was superb… he’s that level of musician. I was only reasonably happy with my playing, and it was indeed reasonable playing, although the 80+ audience thought it was wonderful. However, I made some frustrating mistakes. I’ll come back to those a bit later.

I have not practised at all since then, which is a shame. I was in a nice habit of doing 1-2 hours each day, going through lots of technical work as well as the repertoire for the recital. And then, as soon as it was over and I thought ‘I’ll just have a couple of days off’, the practice routine faded into nothingness. True, it was school holidays and we went camping and then I spent a ridiculous amount of time organising a Hunger Games birthday party for my daughter… but essentially, just like exercising, it’s amazing how quickly you can get out of a practice habit and then somehow there’s just no time in the day anymore.

Lately I have been a feeling a mixture of guilt about not practising and curiosity as to what might have become of my playing, so I decided to do an experiment. I tried playing through the Franck accompaniment, up to speed. I had theorised that since I had not played piano at all during the past month (see lame excuses above), and this piece was only newly in my fingers (I had practised it for 3 months, from June to September), that I would not be able to play it at speed, if at all.

But, surprisingly, I could. My muscle memory took over in a lot of places. There was no way I was actually reading the music in front of me, it was still there in my fingers. It was extremely rough and had lots of mistakes, but I estimated that it would only take a couple of hours of intense work to polish it up.

It seems that either my practice was very effective which was why I could still play it, or muscle memory lasts longer than one month (or, if we use ratios, muscle memory lasts longer than 33% of the time you spent learning/playing the piece). Of course I can only speak for my own practice and my own muscle memory here; if I had the time or inclination I would do a PhD on it*.

So, if my practice was good and I could still play the piece 1 month later without too many problems, WHY DID I MAKE MISTAKES DURING THE RECITAL???

The mistakes were incredibly frustrating. Some of them were very tiny, some were a little more significant but nothing anyone but the most seasoned listener would notice, one of them was a whopper that I’m sure even the dementia patients in the audience would have picked up. However, NONE of the above was anything that had ever happened to me during practice.

The whopper mistake was surreal. It happened during my first solo passage in the first movement. Suddenly, with the music right there in front of me, I didn’t know where I was. I’d practiced that passage hundreds of times and somehow this bar, which wasn’t even a particularly difficult bar, disappeared and I couldn’t play it. It was only a fraction of a second before I recovered, so it wasn’t a total breakdown or anything, but this was enough to disrupt the flow and for it to be fairly obvious.

I can remember the moments just before the mistake. I was actually thinking things that I don’t normally think in practice, like ‘OMG this is it this is my solo now I really have to get this right NOW” and I started to question my fingers where I never have before. This, I am sure, was my undoing. My fingers knew what to do under normal practice conditions when I was concentrating, but I had totally changed the conditions by losing focus.

I used to be able to perform so easily when I was younger, but perhaps with [a fair bit of] age comes a degree of self-consciousness, and a fear of ‘getting it wrong’ that can destroy focus at the most inopportune time. Mental preparation is just as important as physical practice, and I am sure that this is where I was lacking.

A lot is made of the mental preparation required by athletes and professional sports players. Training is important but won’t get you all the way; the rest is all about focus and determination. There is a fabulous blog called The Bulletproof Musician, which draws analogies between the plight of elite musicians and elite athletes, and even extends to other high-pressure occupations such as surgery, where humans have to perform and only get one chance to get it right.

I certainly like the idea of being bulletproof, so I think I’m going to spend more time on this site. I’d love to be able to ensure that comments like ‘oh I hope I play this well’ don’t pop into my head at the exact moment I’m trying to play it well. But what it really comes down to is that if I’m going to bother practicing the piano, I also need to practice focusing, so I can be confident that in performance all the hours spent on the piano will actually pay off.

 

*Well actually maybe I’d just be the guinea pig for someone else’s PhD. If anyone would like to do one please feel free to contact me.

 

[Edited October 14 for spelling and hyperlinks]

Deciphering Cesar Franck

A couple of months ago I was asked to accompany a friend in a recital. My new-found excitement in going back to practice caused me to say yes, and amongst the music I was given was Cesar Franck’s Violin Sonata in A major. I was warned by the violinist that the accompaniment is ‘somewhat challenging’.

This turned out to be inaccurate. I would substitute ‘somewhat’ for a decidedly stronger adjective, one that I cannot write here. Suffice it to say I think it is really a piano concerto with violin accompaniment.

I began the slow process of learning the first and second movements. I had only committed to these two movements because the performance deadline was September 12, a mere 12 weeks away. It was to be a 40-minute recital at an aged care facility, which always provides the most appreciate of audiences.* The program would consist mostly of crowd-pleaser violin pieces such as Czardas, Hungarian Rhapsody and Meditation, and would finish with the Franck. So most of the recital would involve oom-cha oom-cha from me while the violinist performs huge virtuosic feats… and then in the Franck the tables are most definitely turned.**

I gave myself a deadline of being able to play this accompaniment note-perfect and up to speed by August 12, a month before the performance date. This would give me 31 days to devote to fine tuning everything in rehearsals with the soloist. Eight weeks to learn an accompaniment? Easy peasy!

Not so easy peasy. I have never read such an unsightreadable accompaniment. Pretty much every phrase had to be deciphered in some way: from complicated accidentals to inner melody lines to compensating with one hand or the other for the impossibly large chords (Cesar Franck’s hand span was seriously huge, and he didn’t stop to consider that the average person’s was not).

I thought to myself: I will never, EVER be able to play this up to speed. I could barely play accurately separate hands. I actually cried during some practices, when my fingers just would not, could not do it.

I persevered, the weight of commitment heavy on my heart. I forced myself to go straight to the ‘hot-spots’ as a pianist friend of mine calls them: the parts I was having real trouble with. (This takes more willpower than one would think; I can totally see why my students don’t do it. It’s so easy to think “I’ll just play from the beginning and when I get to that hard part I’ll stop and practice it”. This wastes a lot of time and more often than not the hot-spot doesn’t actually get practised at all.)

Despite needing to watch the score carefully because of the intricate writing, I found that there were some passages that just would not work unless I looked down at my fingers. For example, a fast semiquaver passage ending with the two notes A double-sharp – B sharp… this is really just B-C. Much easier when you think of it like that. I wrote ‘B-C’ above the notes on the score, but in the end it was better not looking at the score. Same with many of the huge leaps, which really need some major eyeballing in order to be accurate every single time. No-one expects you to play blindfolded… so there’s no sense in keeping your eyes glued to the page when you’re aiming for a note 2.5 octaves away from the one you’re currently playing.

The problem with memorising some passages and not all is that I would kind of lose my place when it was time to look up at the music again. It took only a split second to find the right spot but even this tiny glitch was enough to interrupt the flow of the music. So if the flow could be interrupted during practice at home, imagine what would happen during performance? I am experienced enough to know that any tiny mishap in the practice room is magnified a hundredfold on the stage.

So the half-memorising-half-reading thing has proved to be a challenge. I have had to really practice where I’m looking and at what stages. I would probably prefer to memorise the whole piece but it is not really an option to play an accompaniment from memory, primarily because this leaves no safety net should anything go slightly awry with the soloist’s part (or, horror of horrors, my part).

Once I had the notes in hand (pun absolutely intended) and knew which passages I was ‘reading’ and which I was memorising, I employed all the usual practice techniques including playing in rhythms, playing with accents, exaggerated finger movements, gradually increasing the speed using the metronome. Slowly (very slowly) but surely my fingers started to get the hang of it.

My teenage daughter, listening from another room, has commented many times over the past eight weeks ‘aren’t you totally sick of that?’ (grrr). That was actually one of her nicer comments. The others were more like ‘can’t you play that any faster yet?’ (more grrr) or ‘you keep making a mistake there’ (most grrrr). But then it so happened that she started learning Debussy’s ‘Girl with the Flaxen Hair’ etude in G flat major, which involves some ‘deciphering’ (especially for a teenager) because of the key signature and intricate fingering. She found some empathy for me. I found that the advice I gave her matched the strategy I was using for my own practice – that sometimes you have to bite the bullet and memorise a passage, because it’s just too complicated to keep looking at the page.

Just the other day I finally managed to play the second movement (consisting mostly of semiquavers) at crotchet = 120, without tension and with expression and with pretty much all the right notes, and a big accelerando at the end! Applause rang out from the next room, where my daughter was on the digital piano with headphones on, trying to practice but unable to hear herself due to the volume of my playing.

Practice is an amazing thing. Muscles are amazing things. They can achieve great things if you keep trying. The phrase ‘never say never’ is really quite accurate!

 

* Performing for this demographic also eases the pressure on the violinist, whose mistakes in the higher registers might easily go unheard.

** This is not to say that the violin part of the Cesar Franck is in any way the equivalent of ‘oom-cha oom-cha’ on the piano. But even my friend admits that it’s not particularly hard to play. Interestingly enough it has been transcribed for flute and is apparently very difficult, too difficult for my daughter to play just yet, so maybe we’ll wait a year or two. Lucky for me it is still in A major…

The trials and triumphs of professional practice

Recently I’ve started to practice the piano again. Real practice, as in proper, sustained practice, consisting of a lot of technical work and then some difficult repertoire. And… I have made quite a few discoveries about the way I approach practice versus the way I assume my students will approach practice.

The reason this all started was that last term I had the pleasure of accompanying my daughter for her flute exam. It’s something I’ve done every year for both of my kids since they were little; it’s always a privilege to be able to go into the exam room and hear how they play – something most parents don’t get the opportunity to do.

Anyway, this year it was just a teensy bit stressful. My daughter is now up to seventh grade, and the accompaniments are not just oom-cha oom-cha anymore. Up until now, I have been able to rely on my sight reading skills to be able to get through a few rehearsals, and then do just a quick brush up before the exam (of course, since I was not getting paid, I figured this was perfectly acceptable). But these accompaniments had octaves, great big crashing cluster chords, fast passages that were not based on scales, and a huge variety of key sig and time sig changes (my daughter quite likes avant garde music). Not only could I not get by just sight reading these accompaniments, I actually had to practice them a lot… and I wasn’t doing a very good job.

I came to the realisation that my piano technique had begun to fade somewhere in between getting married and having my first child. It then completely disappeared after having my second child and spending all my time writing BlitzBooks. Demonstrating pieces for a few students each week was not going to be sufficient to keep up any semblance of good playing.

So I found myself thinking: is this it? Am I going to be someone who used to play the piano? Or am I going to do something about it?

I decided I needed help, so I emailed my piano teacher from my Conservatorium days and asked if I might be able to come and have a lesson to try to resurrect my long lost piano technique.

She thought it was a lovely idea and over the next month I had three or four lessons. But more importantly, I actually did some practice in between the lessons (which, as anyone knows, is rather essential to make the actual lessons worthwhile).

Here are some basics I discovered:

  • If you don’t think you’re improving, you won’t practice
  • If you are worried you are not doing it right, you won’t practice
  • If you don’t like the material you’re playing, you won’t practice
  • If it’s a really nice sunny day, you’re unlikely to practice

My teacher had also asked me what repertoire I would like to play. At first I had thought it would be a terrific idea to learn some of the 48 Preludes and Fugues that I had never done. After five minutes of trying one of the Fugues I decided to revise this goal down to the two and three part Inventions.

The technique exercises I started on were primarily for working on and developing my cantabile sound using arm weight and finger/hand control. Exercises for finger strength and independence came next, with big block chords and finger lifting. Then there were the usual scales and arpeggios, which build endurance . I forced myself to keep doing these technical exercises even though I couldn’t feel myself improving as quickly as I would have liked. I kept my motivation up by reassuring myself that there’s no way I can be making my technique worse by practising…

The studies I started on (well actually I revised them from years ago) were from Clementi’s Gradus ad Parnassum, as well as a couple from Cramer’s selected studies. My teacher asked me to play these extremely slowly with exaggerated wrist movement and I have to say that after a while of doing this it really did work much better fast! It felt like a Karate Kid moment after doing ‘wax on, wax off’.

I thoroughly enjoyed doing all of these exercises and studies. It was relaxing in a way, being able to tune out of the higher mental complexities that come with sight reading, analysing and thinking while playing repertoire, and just tuning in to legato and endurance.

So I was on my way, and began to fall into a somewhat regular practice routine, consisting of technical work and Bach inventions. Here are some more things I discovered:

  • Playing a difficult passage three times in a row correctly is not enough. 5-10 times is effective.
  • Trying to memorise something you’ve spent a lot of time sight reading is extremely difficult. It takes active memorisation rather than memorising by ‘osmosis’ (i.e. gradually falling into a habit of playing from memory).
  • After spending much effort and nailing a particularly difficult passage on one day, the next day it can be completely gone again. Gone like it was never practiced. This is extremely frustrating. However, like all physical pursuits, the muscles need time to learn and adjust, and they can’t be ‘taught’ everything they need to know in just one session.

So all in all I realised that the advice I give to my students about practice, whilst accurate, is actually all rather simplified. Now I can really and truly empathise with them when trying to perfect or memorise something. It is like a doctor who becomes a patient and realises his bedside manner is all wrong!

The point of this article (and more like this to come) is that pianists discover things through practice that helps communicate things to students. This is why people should ‘preach what they practice’.