This week I gave a concert for my local music society, based at the National Physical Laboratory in Teddington. The Musical Society has been in existence since 1951 and is run by NPL staff for existing and former staff, offering a busy and varied programme of concerts throughout the year, with well-known and up and coming artists. This season I have heard excellent performances by Alice Pinto, Helen Burford, Nadav Herztka (premiering a new work by Freya Waley-Cohen) and Joseph Tong. The Society has a very nice 1911 Steinway and the audience is always very supportive and committed.
I have come late to performing. I did very little when I was at school – being a pianist meant I tended to be sidelined and one was encouraged to take up a second instrument in order to join the orchestra and, such is the way at school, be part of a team. Much as I enjoyed ensemble playing, the piano has always been my first love. After a long absence from the piano in my 20s and 30s, coming back to it seriously has been quite hard and I have had to “learn” how to be a performer.
I have learnt a great deal about performing from my own experience, having completed two Performance Diplomas in fairly quick succession, by observing performers at work in concerts, and through my many interviews and encounters with musicians. I think in order to be a successful performer one has to be clear that the performance is always going to be a completely different experience to playing at home. This may sound facile, but too many people think they can practise successfully at home and then simply step up to perform. The pianist Stephen Hough has written an interesting article on the importance of differentiating between the practice of practising and performing, both mentally and physically (read the full article here).
I believe performing is crucial for all musicians, at whatever level, and I actively encourage my students to perform – in concerts which I arrange for them, and at more informal performance platforms in my home. At one level, performing reminds us that music was created to be shared. At another, if we can perform successfully, it shows we have practised properly, thoughtfully and deeply, and learnt how to handle our anxiety. Students need to understand the difference between practising and performing so that they can “perform” in exams, festivals and competitions, as well as in concerts.
Never assume that a piece that goes well in the comfort of your own home or studio will go equally well, or better, in a concert environment. Therefore, it is important to practise performing by playing the pieces/s or complete programme through several times before that important performance. Many performers swear by the “three times” rule, and will often schedule several performances at regional venues and music societies before playing at a big London venue such as the Wigmore Hall or Southbank Centre. Even organising an informal concert at home (as I did ahead of my NPL Concert), or playing for a few piano friends, is useful. Doing these “dry runs” allows one to see how the progamme works and how the pieces fit together, gauge audience reactions, check for any insecurities and make adjustments in practise, Mistakes should not be regarded as disasters and should be used positively to make improvements/changes for the next performance. Complete play-throughs at home, alone, remain useful in advance of concert day.
One of the best pieces of advice I was given by a pianist friend ahead of my first diploma recital was to allow the brain and body to be rested. Don’t thrash through the practising the day before the concert, but practise quietly and slowly, or play other pieces. On the day of the concert, do not allow silly maxims such as “you’re only as good as your last performance” to cloud your perspective: remain positive and focussed, and look forward to sharing your music with the audience. In fact, the majority of people who attend concerts are there because they simply enjoy music: wrong notes and memory slips are not what stay in the listeners’ minds after the event. We all have something worthwhile to say through our music and that is what matters, ultimately.
After the concert enjoy the feedback from the audience and don’t “post-mortem” your performance too closely: what is done is done, and the best cure for negative thoughts or a post-concert flatness is to get back to the piano, start practising, and look forward to the next performance.
Excerpts from my NPL Concert on 26th November 2013