The performing teacher

I meet many piano teachers, at courses, workshops and masterclasses. It is always good to meet other piano teachers, to exchange ideas and discuss aspects of our work. Many of the teachers whom I meet are also performing musicians, professional or otherwise, and many regard performing as a necessary, indeed crucial, part of the job as a teacher.

I also meet many teachers who do not perform, for one reason or another. Some cite lack of time, others anxiety or lack of confidence. I actually met one teacher who claimed she was “too afraid” to perform for her students in case she made a mistake.

As teachers, performing is, in my opinion, a necessary part of the job. An exam is a performance, and we need to be able to guide and advise our students on how to present themselves in a “performance situation” (exam, festival, competition, audition), and to prepare them physically and emotionally for the experience. A whole new and different range of skills are required as a performer, and it is important to stress to students the difference between practising and performing. We also need to be able to offer support for issues such as nerves and performance anxiety, and to offer coping strategies to counteract the negative thoughts and feelings that can arise from anxiety. How can you train others to perform if you have never done it yourself?

A successful performance demonstrates that you have practised correctly, deeply and thoughtfully, instead of simply note-bashing. Preparing music for performance teaches us how to complete a real task and to understand what is meant by “music making”. It encourages us to “play through”, glossing over errors rather than being thrown off course by them, and eradicates “stop-start” playing which prevents proper flow. You never really demonstrate your technique properly until you can demonstrate it in a performance. Performing also teaches us how to communicate a sense of the music, to “tell the story”, and to understand what the composer is trying to say. It adds to our credibility and artistic integrity as musicians. And if you haven’t performed a piece, how can you say it is truly “finished”?

I always perform in my student concerts, not to show off, but to demonstrate to my students (and their parents, who pay my bills!) that I can actually do it, that I too am continuing my piano studies by preparing repertoire for performance, and that I have managed my performance anxiety properly. I also feel that by performing with my students, we transform our concerts into a shared music-making experience.

I hope that by hearing and watching me playing, my students can better grasp aspects of technique or interpretation we might have discussed in lessons, as well as enjoying the sheer pleasure of listening to piano music, and perhaps drawing inspiration from it. I also get ideas when I am performing which inform my teaching.

For the teacher who is nervous about performing, one can start in a very low-key way by hosting an informal concert at home, or by joining a piano group, which provides a supportive and friendly environment where people can perform for one another. Choose repertoire with which you feel comfortable, and practise performing it a few times (at least three) to friends, family and pets before putting it before an audience. I guarantee your students will be dead impressed by anything you can play as a teacher!

Resources

Music from the Inside Out by Charlotte Tomlinson. A clear and well-written book on coping with performance anxiety, with tried and trusted techniques for dealing with nerves and improving self-confidence.

6 thoughts on “The performing teacher”

  1. I wholeheartedly agree Fran. This is an important post for all teachers. As you know I, like you, have recently got back into more regular performing and completing diplomas etc. It’s a vital experience if you wish to teach students about it.

  2. I do not always read through all of your blogs and I have never replied one. On this occasion, however, I wanted to say how much I agree with you about teachers performing. As you said, if you cannot get over the difference between playing for yourself and playing for others, how can you teach your pupils to do so. Not all, indeed very few will pursue a career performing, the stage is pretty crowded. But the self confidence acquired will stand them in good stead whatever path they choose in life. Carry on the good work. Regards Graham Spark

  3. Fantastic article, Fran, and completely agree with you. Making mistakes is part of EVERY musician’s life, so we shouldn’t be afraid to make them in front of our students (to show them that it is OK). I especially love showing my students YouTube videos of the ‘greats’ playing live (Rubinstein, Richter, Horowitz, etc.): with their occasional wrong notes, memory lapses and discordant mishaps, it certainly helps my students keep a healthy perspective (and me too!) And, yes, successful performing is all about practise, practise, practise (in front of people)!

  4. So agree with you, Fran – this is a really good post on an interesting topic. My first teacher gave no evidence of performing in public at all and rarely played in my lessons. Later I had lessons in school from a teacher who was a very good practical pianist – the best accompanist we had – but was primarily a fantastic professional contralto. So I was very aware of her as a performer – but on the other hand, she found performing so natural that she wasn’t very good at empathising with nervous pupils. Our head of music was clearly a very unconfident performer herself and revealed her inadequacies very embarrassingly on a couple of occasions when her deputy wasn’t around and she was put on the spot – definitely not a good situation – but I found her more helpful and understanding when I was struggling with performance nerves.

    1. My piano teacher when I was in my teens never performed, never organised student concerts or entered us for festivals, and I was offered very few performance opportunities at school as a soloist. My current teacher is a professional concert pianist and a professor of piano at one of the top London conservatoires. She is well-versed in the art of performing, and is full of useful and practical advise on anxiety and confidence issues. People often forget that performing is not must a musical skill, but a “life skill” as well, and kids who are confident about performing in concerts/exams will gain confidence in other areas of their life.

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