14. Preparing for Performances and Recitals

a. Benefits and Pitfalls of Performances/Recitals

The benefits and pitfalls of performing determine our daily piano learning programs. For the amateur pianist, the benefits of performances, even casual ones, are immeasurable. The most important benefit is that technique is never really acquired until it is demonstrated in a performance. For young students, the benefits are even more fundamental. They learn what it means to complete a real task, and they learn what “making music” means. Most youngsters (who don’t take music lessons) don’t learn these skills until they go to college; piano students must learn them at their first recital, regardless of age. Students are never as self-motivated as when preparing for a recital. Teachers who have held recitals know those enormous benefits. Their students become focused, self-motivated, and results oriented; they listen intently to the teacher and really try to understand the meaning of the teachers’ instructions. The students become deadly serious about eliminating all errors and learning everything correctly – it is capitalism at its best, because it is their performance. Teachers without recitals often end up with students who practice maybe a few times just before lesson day.

Because the psychology and sociology of piano playing is not well developed, there are pitfalls that we must seriously consider. The most important one is nervousness and its impact on the mind, especially for the young. Nervousness can make recitals a frightful experience that requires careful attention in order to avoid not only unhappy experiences but also lasting psychological damage. At the very least, reducing nervousness will alleviate stress and fright. There is not enough attention paid to making recitals a pleasant experience and reducing the tension and stress, including the piano competitions. This whole subject will be treated more completely in the section on nervousness. The point here is that any discussions on performing must include a treatment of stage fright. Even great artists have stopped performing for long periods of time for one reason or another, and some of the reasons were undoubtedly related to stress. Therefore, although good piano teachers always hold recitals of their students and enter them into competitions, they have tended to be poor sociologists or psychologists, concentrating only on piano playing and ignoring nervousness. It is important for any person guiding youngsters through recitals and competitions to learn the fundamentals of what causes nervousness, how to deal with it, and its psychological consequences. When teachers fail, it is the job of the parents to look out for the social and psychological welfare of their children; therefore, the following section (15. Origin and Control of Nervousness) on nervousness is a necessary companion to this section.

There are numerous other psychological and sociological implications of recitals and competitions. The judging systems in music competitions are notoriously unfair, and judging is a difficult and thankless job. Thus students entered into competition must be informed of these shortcomings of the “system” so that they do not suffer mental damage from perceived unfairness and disappointment. It is difficult, but possible, for students to understand that the most important element of competitions is that they participate, not that they win. There is too much emphasis on technical difficulty and not enough on musicality. The system does not encourage communication among teachers to improve teaching methods. It is no wonder that there is a school of thought that favors eliminating competitions. There is no question that recitals and competitions are necessary; but the present system can certainly be improved. We discuss some ideas in section 15.

b. Basics of Flawless Performances

The basic requirements for a flawless performance are: technical preparation, musical interpretation, MP, and a good performance preparation routine. When all these elements come together, you can virtually guarantee a perfect performance.

Of course, there are plenty of excuses for not being able to perform. Knowing these excuses is one of the prerequisites for learning how to perform. Perhaps the most common excuse is that you are always learning new pieces so that there is insufficient time to really finish a piece or maintain the finished pieces in playable condition. We saw that learning a new piece is the best way to mess up old pieces. For those who have never performed, the second most important reason is that they probably never really finished anything. There is always that one difficult section you can’t quite manage in every “interesting” piece worth performing. Another excuse is that pieces that are easy for you are somehow always uninteresting. Note that the learning methods of this book are designed to counter every one of these excuses, mainly by accelerating the learning process and by mandating memorization, so that by the time you can play a piece well in your mind, none of these excuses will be valid. Thus all the necessary elements for flawless performances can be found in this book. We now discuss a few more ideas for learning how to perform.

c. Practicing for Performances

Most pianists use a special practice speed for preparing for performances, a speed slightly slower than the performance speed. This speed allows for accurate practice without picking up unexpected bad habits and creates a clear picture of the music in the mind. It also conditions the hand for playing with control at the faster performance speed and improves technique. This slower speed is not necessarily easier than the performance speed. The rationale for the two speeds is that, during a performance, it is easier to bring out the expression if you play slightly faster than the last time you played. If you play the same composition twice in a row (or on the same day) the music comes out flat the second time unless it is played faster than the first time because the slower play sounds less exciting and this feeling starts a negative feedback cycle, in addition to FPD. After such repeat performances (in fact, after every performance), play it slowly as soon as you can, in order to erase the FPD and “reset” the music in your mind. A similar process takes place in a computer: after continuous use, data fragmentation occurs and the main memory disk must be “defragged” to restore the data to their proper locations.

Inexperienced performers often play too fast for their skill level because of nervousness during the recital. Such inappropriate speeds can be easily detected by video recording. Therefore, during routine practice (not immediately before a performance), it is important to practice speeds faster than performance speed, just in case you make that mistake during a performance. Obviously, the performance speed must be slower than your fastest speed. Remember that the audience has not heard this piece innumerable times like you have during practice, and your “final speed” can be too fast for them. A piece played with careful attention to every note can sound faster than one played at a faster speed, but with indistinct notes. You need to “spoon feed” every note to the audience or they will not here it.

Practice recovering from mistakes. Attend student recitals and watch how they react to their mistakes; you will easily spot the right reactions and the inappropriate ones. A student showing frustration or shaking the head after a mistake is creating three mistakes out of one: the original mistake, an inappropriate reaction, and broadcasting to the audience that a mistake was made. More on this in the following section.

d. Practicing Musically

What does it mean to play musically? This question can only be answered by application of the myriad micro-rules that apply to specific passages of specific compositions; this is where a teacher can show you what to do. Incorporating all of the musical notations and markings into the music will build a sound foundation. There are some general rules for playing musically:

  1. Carefully connect each bar to the next bar (or measure, or phrase). These bars/measures do not stand alone; one logically flows into the other and they all support each other. They are connected rhythmically as well as conceptually. This point may appear to be trivially obvious; however, if performed consciously, you might be surprised by the improvement in your music.
  2. There must always be a conversation between the RH and LH. They don’t play independently. And they won’t talk to each other automatically even if they were timed perfectly. You must consciously create a conversation between the two hands, or voices.
  3. “Cresc.” means that most of the passage should be played softly; only the last few notes are loud, which means that it is important to start softly. Similarly, for other indications of this nature (rit., accel., dim., etc); make sure that you have reserved space for the action to take place and don’t start the action immediately, wait until the last moment. These “expression tools” should create mental illusions; for example, if you ramp up a cresc. gradually, it is like climbing up a slope, whereas if you wait till the last moment and increase it exponentially, it is like being thrown up in the air, which is more effective.
  4. Strive more for accuracy than expressive rubato; rubato is often too easy, incorrect, and not in tune with the audience. This is the time to use the metronome to check the timing and rhythm.
  5. When in doubt, start and end each musical phrase softly, with the louder notes near the middle. It is usually incorrect to have loud notes at the beginning; of course, you can also make music by breaking this rule.

Musicality has no limit – it can be improved no matter where you are on the musicality scale. The terrifying part of this is the flip side. If you do not pay attention, you can develop non-musical playing habits that can keep on destroying your musicality. This is why it is so important to focus on musicality and not only on technique; it can make the difference between becoming a performer and a non-performer.

Always listen to your own music (when practicing) and mentally lead the music using MP – that is the only way it is going to attract the audience’s attention. If a mistake occurs, don’t get depressed because the depression will make it harder to play well. On the other hand, if you get a good start, the audience will be drawn in, and the music will feed on itself and the performance becomes easier. Thus playing becomes a feedback cycle of leading the music using MP and listening to the actual music emanating from the piano, and they must reinforce each other.

Many students hate to practice when others are around to listen; some even think that intense piano practice is necessarily unpleasant and punishing to the ear. These are symptoms of common misconceptions resulting from inefficient practice methods, and a sign of weak mental stamina. With correct practice methods and musical play, there should be nothing unpleasant about piano practice sessions. The best criterion that you are practicing correctly is the reaction of others – if your practice sounds good to them, or at least it doesn’t bother them, then you are doing it right. Musical practice improves mental stamina because it requires so much concentration.

e. Casual Performances

Common types of casual performances are playing pieces for testing pianos in stores or playing for friends at parties, etc. These are different from formal recitals because of their greater freedom and reduced mental pressure. There is usually no set program, you can pick anything that is appropriate for the moment. It may be full of changes and interruptions. Nervousness is not even an issue, and is in fact one of the best ways to practice methods for avoiding nervousness. Even with these alleviating factors, this is not easy in the beginning. For an easy start, play little snippets (short segments from a composition). Start with simple ones; pick out the best sounding sections. If it doesn’t work out too well, start on another one. Same, if you get stuck. You can start and quit at any time. This is a great way to experiment and find out how you perform and which snippets work. Do you tend to play too fast? It is better to start too slow and speed up than the other way round. Can you play a beautiful legato, or is your tone harsh? Can you adjust to a different piano – especially one that is out of tune or difficult to play? Can you keep track of the audience reaction? Can you make the audience react to your playing? Can you pick the right types of snippets for the occasion? Can you put yourself in the right frame of mind to play? What is your level of nervousness, can you control it? Can you play and talk at the same time? Can you gloss over mistakes without being bothered by them? Another way to practice performing is to introduce youngsters, who have never had piano lessons, to the piano. Teach them how to play the C major scale, or Chopsticks or Happy Birthday.

Playing snippets has one interesting advantage which is that most audiences are very impressed by your ability to stop and start anywhere in the middle of a piece. Most people assume that all amateur pianists learn pieces by finger memory from beginning to end, and that the ability to play snippets requires special talent. Start with short snippets, then gradually try longer ones. Once you have done this type of casual snippet performance on 4 or 5 different occasions, you will have a good idea of your performance capabilities. Obviously, one of the routines you should practice “cold” are snippet playing routines.

There are a few rules for preparing for snippet performances. Don’t perform a piece you had newly learned. Let it stew for at least 6 months; preferably one year (practicing snipets during that time). If you had spent 2 weeks learning a difficult new piece, don’t expect to be able to play snippets that had not been played at all in those 2 weeks – be prepared for all kinds of surprises, such as blackouts. Don’t practice the snippets fast on the day on which you might be performing them. Practicing them very slowly will help. Can you still play them HS? You can break a lot of these rules for very short snippets. Above all, make sure that you can mentally play them (away from the piano) – that is the ultimate test of your readiness.

In general, don’t expect to perform anything well, casual or otherwise, unless you have performed that piece at least three times, and some claim, at least 5 times. Sections that you thought were simple may turn out to be difficult to perform, and vice versa. Thus the first order of business is to lower your expectations and start planning on how you are going to play this piece, especially when unexpected things happen. It is certainly not going to be like the best run you made during practice. Without this mental preparation, you can end up very disappointed after every attempt at performing and develop psychological problems.

A few mistakes or missed notes goes unnoticed in practice, and your assessment of how they sound during practice is probably much more optimistic than your own assessment if you had played exactly the same way for an audience. After a practice, you tend to remember only the good parts, but after a performance, you tend to remember only the mistakes. Usually, you are your worst critic; every slip sounds far worse to you than to the audience. Most audiences will miss half of the mistakes and forget most of what they do catch after a short period of time. Casual performances are more relaxed, and they provide an avenue for easing gradually into formal performing, in preparation for recitals.

Classical music is not always the best venue for casual performances. Thus every pianist should learn popular music, jazz, cocktail music, music from fake books, and improvisation. They provide some of the best ways to practice for formal recitals. See V. Jazz, Fake Books, and Improvisation.

f. Performance Preparation Routines

Even if a student can play perfectly during practice, s/he can make all kinds of mistakes and struggle with musicality during a recital if the preparation is incorrect. Most students intuitively practice hard and at full speed during the week preceding the recital, and especially on the day of the recital. In order to simulate the recital, they imagine an audience listening nearby and play their hearts out, playing the entire piece from beginning to end, many times. This practice method is the single biggest cause of mistakes and poor performance. The most telling remark I hear so often is, “Strange, I played so well all morning but during the recital, I made mistakes that I don’t make during practice!” To an experienced teacher, this is a student practicing out of control without any guidance about right and wrong methods of recital preparation.

Teachers who hold those recitals in which the students perform wonderfully keep a tight leash on their students and control their practice routines closely. Why all this fuss? Because during a recital, the most stressed element is the brain, not the playing mechanism. And this stress cannot be replicated in any kind of simulated performance. Thus the brain must be rested and fully charged for a one-time performance; it cannot be drained by playing your heart out. All mistakes originate in the brain. All the necessary information must be stored in an orderly manner in the brain, with no confusion. This is why improperly prepared students always play worse in a recital than during practice. When you practice at full speed, a large amount of confusion is introduced into the memory. The environment of the recital is different from that of the practice piano, and can be very distracting. Therefore, you must have a simple, mistake-free memory of the piece that can be retrieved in spite of all the added distractions. This is why it is difficult to perform the same piece twice on the same day, or even on successive days. The second performance is invariably worse than the first, although intuitively, you would expect the second performance to be better because you had one extra experience performing it. As elsewhere in this section, these types of remarks apply only to students. Professional musicians should be able to perform anything any number of times at any time; this skill comes from continuous exposure to performing, and honing the proper rules of preparation.

Through trial and error, experienced teachers have found practice routines that work. The most important rule is to limit the amount of practice on recital day, so as to keep the mind fresh. The brain is totally unreceptive on recital day. It can only become confused. Only a small minority of experienced pianists have sufficiently “strong” musical brains to assimilate something new on recital day. By the way, this also applies to tests and exams at school. Most of the time, you will score better in an exam by going to a movie the night before the exam than by cramming. A typical recommended piano practice routine for the recital day is to play nearly full speed once, then medium speed once and finally once slowly. That’s it! No more practice! Never play faster than recital speed. Notice how counter intuitive this is. Since parents and friends will always use intuitive methods, it is important for the teacher to make sure that any person associated with the student also knows these rules, especially for the younger students. Otherwise, in spite of anything the teacher says, the students will come to the recital having practiced all day at full speed, because their parents made them do it.

Of course, this is only the starting point. It can be altered to fit the circumstances. This routine is for the typical student and is not for professional performers who will have much more detailed routines that depend not only on the type of music being played, but also on the particular composer or particular piece to be played. Clearly, for this routine to work, the piece will have had to be ready for performance way ahead of time. However, even if the piece has not been perfected and can be improved with more practice, this is still the best routine for the recital day. If you make a mistake that is stubborn and which will almost certainly recur during the recital, fish out the few bars containing the mistake and practice those at the appropriate speeds (always ending with slow play), staying away from fast playing as much as possible. If you are not sure that the piece is completely memorized, play it very slowly several times. Again, the importance of secure MP must be emphasized – it is the ultimate test of memory and readiness to perform. Practice MP at any speed and as often as you want; it can also calm any nervous jitters.

Also, avoid extreme exertion, such as playing a football game or lifting or pushing something heavy (such as a concert grand!). This can suddenly change the response of your muscles to a signal from the brain and you can end up making totally unexpected mistakes when you play. Of course, mild warm-up exercises, stretching, calisthenics, Tai Chi, Yoga, etc., can be beneficial.

For the week preceding the recital, always play at medium speed, then slow speed, before quitting practice. You can substitute medium speed for slow speed if you are short of time, or the piece is particularly easy, or if you are a more experienced performer. Actually, this rule applies to any practice session, but is particularly critical before a recital. The slow play erases any bad habits that you might have picked up, and re-establishes relaxed playing. Therefore, during these medium/slow plays, concentrate on relaxation. There is no fixed number such as half speed, etc., to define medium and slow, although medium is generally about 3/4 speed, and slow is about half speed. More generally, medium speed is the speed at which you can play comfortably, relaxed, and with plenty of time to spare. Slow is the speed at which you need to pay attention to each note separately.

Up to the last day before the recital, you can work on improving the piece, especially musically. But within the last week, adding new material or making changes in the piece (such as fingering) is not recommended, although you might try it as a training experiment to see how far you can push yourself. Being able to add something new during the last week is a sign that you are a strong performer; in fact, purposely changing something at the last minute is good performance training. For working on long pieces such as Beethoven Sonatas, avoid playing the entire composition many times. It is best to chop it into short segments of a few pages at most and practice the segments. Practicing HS is also an excellent idea because no matter who you are, you can always improve technically. Although playing too fast is not recommended in the last week, you can practice at any speed HS. Avoid learning new pieces during this last week. That does not mean that you are limited to the recital pieces; you can still practice any piece that was previously learned. New pieces will often cause you to learn new skills that affect or alter how you play the recital piece. In general, you will not be aware that this happened until you play the recital piece and wonder how some new mistakes crept in.

Make a habit of playing your recital pieces “cold” (without any warming up) when you start any practice session. The hands will warm up after one or two pieces, so you may have to rotate the recital pieces with each practice session, if you are playing many pieces. Of course, “playing cold” has to be done within reason. If the fingers are totally sluggish from inaction, you cannot, and should not try to, play difficult material at full speed; it will lead to stress and even injury. Some pieces can only be played after the hands are completely limbered up, especially if you want to play it musically. However, the difficulty of playing musically must not be an excuse for not playing cold because the effort is more important than the result in this case. You need to find out which ones you can play cold at full speed, and which ones you should not. Slow down so that you can play with cold hands; you can always play at final speed after the hands have warmed up.

Practice the starting few bars, from several days prior to the recital. Whenever you have time, pretend that it is recital time and play those few starting bars. Choose the first 2 to 5 bars and practice a different number of bars each time. Don’t stop at the end of a bar, always end by playing the first note of the next bar.

g. During the Recital

Nervousness is usually worst just before you start to play. Once you start, you will be so busy with the playing that the nervousness will tend to be forgotten and will decrease. This knowledge can be quite reassuring, so there is nothing wrong with starting play as soon as you sit down at the piano for the recital. Some people will delay starting by adjusting the bench or some clothing item in order to have time to double check that the starting tempo, etc., are correct, using MP.

Do not assume that there won’t be any mistakes; that assumption can only invite more trouble because you will feel terrible when a mistake does occur. Be ready to react correctly with each mistake, or more importantly, anticipate an impending mistake that you may be able to avoid. It is amazing how often you can feel an impending mistake before it hits, especially if you are good at MP. The worst thing that most students do when they make a mistake or when they expect one is to get scared and start playing more slowly and softly. This can lead to disaster. Although hand memory is not something you want to depend on, this is one time you can take advantage of it. Hand memory depends on habit and stimuli – the habit of having practiced many times, and the stimuli of previous notes leading to succeeding notes. Therefore, in order to enhance hand memory, you must play slightly faster and louder, exactly the opposite of what an anxious person would do during a recital (another counter-intuitive situation!). The faster play makes better use of the playing habit, and leaves less time for moving some wrong muscle that might derail you from the habit. The firmer play increases the stimuli for the hand memory. Now playing faster and louder are scary things to do during a recital, so you should practice this at home just as you practice anything else. Learn to anticipate mistakes and to avoid them by using these avoidance methods. Another method of playing through mistakes is to make sure that the melodic line is not broken, even at the cost of missing some “accompaniment” notes. With practice, you will find that this is easier than it sounds; the best time to practice this is when you are sight reading. Another way to play through mistakes is to at least keep the rhythm. Of course, none of this would be needed if you have a really secure MP.

If you have a blackout, don’t try to restart from where you blacked out unless you know exactly how to restart. Restart from a preceding section or a following section that you know well (preferably a following section because mistakes usually cannot be corrected during the recital and you will probably repeat the same blackout). Secure MP will eliminate practically all blackouts. If you decide to replay the blackout part, play slightly faster and louder; not slower and softer because that will almost guarantee a repeat of the blackout.

In a concert hall with good acoustics, the sound of the piano will be absorbed by the hall and you will hear very little of the piano sound. It is obviously important to practice with the recital piano in the recital hall before the event. For a grand piano, if the music stand it up, you will hear even less sound from the piano; always make sure that the music stand is down. If you need to read music, place it flat over the tuning pin area.

h. That Unfamiliar Piano

Some students fret that the recital piano is a huge grand whereas they practice on a small upright. Fortunately, the larger pianos are easier to play than the smaller ones. Therefore the issue of a different piano is usually not something to worry about for the typical student recital. Larger pianos generally have better action, and both louder and softer sounds are easier to produce on them. In particular, grands are easier to play than uprights, especially for fast, difficult passages. Thus the only time you may have to be concerned about the piano is when the recital piano is decidedly inferior to your practice piano. The worst situation is the one in which your practice piano is a quality grand, but you must perform using a low quality upright. In that case, technically difficult pieces will be difficult to play on the inferior piano and you may need to make adjustments, for example, by playing at a slower tempo, or shortening or slowing down the trill, etc.

Another important factor is the tuning of the piano. A piano in tune is easier to play than one out of tune. Therefore, it is a good idea to tune the recital piano before the recital. Conversely, it is not a good idea to tune the practice piano just before the recital unless it is badly out of tune. If the recital piano is out of tune, it may be best to play slightly faster and louder than you intended.

i. After the Recital

Review the recital and evaluate your strengths and weaknesses so that the practice/preparation routines can be improved. A few students will be able to play consistently without audible mistakes. Most of the others will make several mistakes every time they play. Some will tend to bang on the piano while others are timid and play too softly. There is a cure for every problem. Those who make mistakes probably have not yet learned to play sufficiently musically and almost always cannot play in their minds. Those who tend to play flawlessly invariably have learned MP, whether they do it consciously or not.

As noted elsewhere, playing several recitals in succession is the hardest thing to do. But if you must, then you will need to recondition the recital pieces immediately following the recital. Play them with little or no expression, medium speed, then slow speed. If certain sections or pieces did not come out satisfactorily during the recital, work on them, but only in small segments. If you want to work on the expression at full speed, do this also in small segments.