I am reblogging this post from pianist Melanie Spanswick’s ClassicalMel blog as it contains some very helpful advice for anyone preparing for a performance (or exam), whether amateur or professional. It is related to my earlier post on performance anxiety.

Over the past few days I have had several requests from readers for a blog post dealing with stress and nerves associated with performance. I have written on this subject before but there is always plenty to write about.

Nerves can a big problem for many musicians; it really doesn’t matter whether pianists (or any instrumentalists for that matter) are amateur or professional. Sometimes professionals can get even more nervous because so much depends on the quality of their performances. I have frequently suffered from nerves during my career as a pianist so here are a few tips to implement in your daily practice regime to help combat this problem.

  1. Before feeling comfortable in front of an audience, you really need to know the piece or pieces that you are going to play inside out – literally. Practise them every day (both slowly and up to speed) and then make sure you play them through to yourself at least once at the end of the practise session. Whilst doing this don’t stop to correct mistakes – just keep going as though you are already playing to an audience. This will help you become accustomed to ‘giving a performance’.
  2. Once you have done the above, try to ‘talk’ yourself through your piece. We all have a little voice in our head that is often very uncooperative under pressure. Tame this voice! Tell yourself that you already play your piece very well and nothing is going to stop you sharing it with your audience. This technique can be amazingly effective. I have used it many times as you can probably tell.
  3. It can be useful to locate different points in the music (this is especially important if you play from memory) where you can ‘regroup’ in your head. It might be a favourite section or passage. It really doesn’t matter where or what it is in the score but thinking about it or acknowledging it at a certain point (or points) can give amazing confidence. I don’t know how that works but it does so try it!
  4. Cultivate the practice of ‘thinking’ under pressure; the ability to ignore your audience to a degree and concentrate fully on the music. This is why it’s so important to love what you are playing and lose yourself in the music. Points 2 & 3 will help with this but you can also focus on what you particularly enjoy about your piece. List all the elements or features that you love and then mark them on the score (your music). Again, this will keep your mind occupied during your performance; more time focused on the music is less time worrying about your audience and potential mistakes.
  5. One of the most effective ways of learning to perform is to arrange a little piano group (if the piano is your instrument). Even if you are taking Grades 1 or 2, you can still find a few others who are a similar level to yourself and play to them – preferably once a week. You may be able to persuade your teacher to arrange a group for you. After a few (probably wobbly) sessions you will gradually become much more confident. It may even cure your nerves completely.

One other point that I feel is important and often ignored; never play pieces that are too difficult for you at your present level. This will merely make you miserable when faced with the huge and stressful task of performing them. Pick easier works so you play them well and with confidence.

If you are taking a music exam or planning a public performance don’t leave it too late to prepare – if you leave it to the day of your performance you may be very nervous indeed and will not play your best. My book, So you want to play the piano? has many helpful hints about performing and is especially designed for beginners. It will be available as an ebook soon.

Who or what inspired you to take up composing, and make it your career?

My grandfather was a coal miner who loved music. He encouraged me to get involved. He and my mum talked music a lot, and I gradually began to find out about composers. From the first day I picked up an instrument I knew I wanted to be a composer, although at that stage I did not know what that would mean.

Who or what are the most important influences on your composing?

As a young boy it was Beethoven and Wagner. Later it was the great contrapuntalists like Palestrina and Bach who taught me about complexity. In the 20th century it was my fellow Catholic Messiaen.

What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?

I have never thought of it as a career. I have a wide range of interests, including politics, which sometime impinge directly on my work. Being a ‘public figure’ in Scotland can bring unwelcome aggression, and while it may have nothing to do with music, it can’t help interfere with my life and work sometimes.

Which compositions/recordings are you most proud of?

I am pleased with all the recordings I have made but I only regard them as a secondary activity to composing. I am usually most absorbed in the most recent works, which are a new orchestral work for Marin Alsop, a setting of the Credo for this year’s BBC Proms and a new work for the Edinburgh Festival.

Do you have a favourite concert venue?

The Concertgebouw, Amsterdam.

Who are your favourite musicians?

I have a special admiration for choirs, and especially those choirs which have children on the top line, producing music of the highest quality and complexity. Therefore some of the British ‘church’ choirs like Westminster Cathedral and King’s College Cambridge, who have sung my music recently, are near the top of my list.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

Conducting my St John Passion in Copenhagen, Brussels and Liverpool.

What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians/composers?

They should learn how to handle complexity – study Palestrina and Bach!

What are you working on at the moment?

I have just finished a brass band piece for Black Dyke Mills, and I have now embarked on a setting of the St Luke Passion.

What is your most treasured possession?

An actual relic of Blessed John Henry Newman.

What is your present state of mind?

Fulfilled and chilled!


James MacMillan is one of today’s most successful living composers and is also internationally active as a conductor. His musical language is flooded with influences from his Scottish heritage, Catholic faith, social conscience and close connection with Celtic folk music, blended with influences from Far Eastern, Scandinavian and Eastern European music. His major works include percussion concerto Veni, Veni, Emmanuel, which has received more than 400 performances, a cello concerto for Mstislav Rostropovich, large scale choral-orchestral work Quickening, and three symphonies. Recent major works include his St John Passion, co-commissioned by the London Symphony Orchestra, Concertgebouw Orchestra, Boston Symphony and Rundfunkchor Berlin, and his Violin Concerto, co-commissioned by the London Symphony Orchestra, Philadelphia Orchestra, Concertgebouw Zaterdag Matinee and the Ensemble Orchestral de Paris.

James MacMillan at Boosey & Hawkes

Who or what inspired you to take up the piano, and make it your career?
Growing up in a house where the piano was always being played by my mother and grandmother was very influential. I just wanted to join in all the time!

Who or what were the most important influences on your playing?
Mozart Concert Rondo for Piano and Orchestra K382. I played this with a chamber orchestra when I was 13. The expressive d minor variation has a 4 bar piano solo before the orchestra joins in; in the rehearsal I was suddenly aware of the orchestral sound swelling around me, carrying me with it, and hooking me for life.

And I was fortunate to have inspirational teachers, Roy Shepherd and Stephen MacIntyre, who had studied with legends such as Cortot and Michelangeli, and also to study with Ronald Smith.
What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?
Having moved around a lot, it has always been a challenge to retain former contacts and performance opportunities as well as forging new links in a new location. As part of the research before we move, I have always checked out what’s on where, and started to make contacts with likely promoters.

In this digital age the exciting challenge has been to use the internet and social networks as part of that process, without the limitations of physical geography.

Which performances/recordings are you most proud of?
I was delighted to mark 2011, Liszt’s Bicentenary, by recording his Annees de Pelerinage  – Italie on CD, by writing a blog about the music, and by performing his works in concerts in the UK and Australia.

In 2012, the year of the London Olympics, I will be performing in the world premiere and recording of ‘The Same Flame’, a song cycle of 5 songs based on the Olympic values of Courage, Inspiration, Excellence, Friendship, and Respect and Equality, for massed choirs and piano, with words by Matt Harvey and music by Thomas Hewitt Jones. And I’ve been the pianist on the soundtrack of 3 Olympic Mascots animated films featuring Wenlock and Mandeville, with a story by Michael Morpurgo. It’s always exciting to be involved in something new, fresh and contemporary.

Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in?
Anywhere with a good piano and a receptive audience!

Favourite pieces to perform? Listen to?
Liszt is always a favourite, and Chopin. I listen to a very wide range of music, often choral, orchestral and operatic, as it broadens my aural horizons and colours all that I play.

Who are your favourite musicians?
Musicians who serve the music they perform, and who make me think – ‘I must get the score and see what the composer wrote there.’  Even better if they are pianists, and if they make me think, ‘I have to learn that piece!’

What is your most memorable concert experience?
In 2009 I gave a charity recital in Mbabane in Swaziland. The local piano teacher’s upright piano could not be transported to the venue, so I played Moussorgsky’s ‘Pictures at an Exhibition’ on a Yamaha Clavinova. Whenever there was a silence in the music, the sounds of the African night floated in through the open windows – frogs and crickets.

What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?
Never give up – priceless advice from Churchill.

What are you working on at the moment?
I’m working on pieces by Debussy, whom I think of as being ‘The French Connection’ between Chopin and Liszt. I’m playing two of his studies, dedicated to the memory of Chopin, as well as Masques, and La Plus que Lente.

What is your most treasured possession?
A Maelzel metronome belonging to my grandmother. It set a musical pulse for her, for my mother, for me, and now for my children.


Christine Stevenson enjoys a distinguished career as a piano recitalist and concerto soloist throughout the UK and abroad. Winner of the prestigious Dom Polski Chopin competition, her wide experience extends from making the premiere recording of Alkan’s Rondo Brillant with members of the London Mozart Players, to being the pianist on the soundtrack of the latest animated film featuring the 2012 Olympic Mascots.

Recent projects in the UK and in Australia have included concerts and broadcasts celebrating Liszt’s bicentenary, and the release of Christine’s recording of ‘Années de Pèlerinage – II – Italie’  on CD and iTunes, which has received excellent reviews. Recitals this season explore ‘The French Connection’ – Debussy, his influences and contemporaries, and Christine is currently blogging her way through an ABC of Debussy’s piano music at notesfromapianist

In July 2012 Christine will be the pianist in the world premiere performance and recording of ‘The Same Flame’, a song cycle based on Olympic Values for massed choirs and piano, with words by Matt Harvey and music by Thomas Hewitt Jones.

An inspiring communicator, she is on the staff of the Junior Department of the Royal College of Music in London, and is a tutor at the annual Hereford Summer School for Pianists. She has given masterclasses at Morley College, Hindhead Music Centre, Jackdaws Music Education Trust and the City Lit.

Born in Melbourne, Christine graduated from the Victorian College of the Arts with distinction, being twice awarded the Gaitskell prize for the most outstanding student. She studied with pupils of Cortot, of Nadia Boulanger and of Michelangeli, and with the celebrated English pianist, Ronald Smith, also participating in masterclasses given by Sergei Dorensky, Aldo Ciccolini and Vlado Perlemuter.



The following works will all form part of my LTCL Diploma programme, one way or another. My intention is to learn more repertoire than I need for the exam (a recital lasting c40 minutes).

Bach – Concerto in D Minor after Marcello BWV 974

Debussy – Images Book 1: Hommage à Rameau

Mozart – Rondo in A minor, K511

Liszt – ‘Sonetto 104 del Petrarca’ from Années de pèlerinage, 2eme année: Italie

Rachmaninov – Études-Tableaux, Opus 33, No. 2 in C and No. 7 in E flat

Messiaen – Prelude No. 2: Chant d’extase dans paysage triste

Hear the pieces via Spotify


More on music Diplomas:

Trinity Guildhall Diplomas

Associated Board Diplomas

London College of Music Diplomas


I was fortunate to catch James Naughtie’s interview with pianist Piotr Andersweski on Radio Four’s Today programme on Saturday morning. Anderszewski has just won the coveted BBC Music Magazine Recording of the Year award, for his album Schumann Humoreske; Studies for the pedal piano; Gesänge der Frühe. Now in his mid-40s, the reclusive Anderszewski has received much critical acclaim for his performances and recordings, in particular those of his countrymen Chopin and Szymanowski. (I am listening to his recording of Chopin’s 4th Ballade as I write – it has a beautiful lucidity in the introductory section).

During the interview, Naughtie asked Anderszewski, who is famously self-critical (he walked off the stage during the semi-finals of the Leeds Piano Competition in 1990 because he wasn’t happy with his playing) about performance anxiety and the loneliness of the soloist. Anderszewski’s responses reminded me of some paragraphs I’d written on this subject some years ago in a novel I wrote (unpublished) in which the protagonist is a concert pianist:

It was like dying, this masochistic art: you did it entirely on your own and no one went with you. And all that went before, the practise and preparation, was undertaken in lonely isolation as well, closeted, hermit-like, with that great box of a piece a furniture, the machine that was the piano. The audience sat in a state of complacent anticipation, applauding loudly, hundreds of palms coming together to acknowledge him, demanding brilliance, ignorant of the hours and days and weeks of preparation that made up a recital lasting just under two hours.

And on performance anxiety:

There was a dry nausea at the back of his throat, and the ache in his gut was worse now, compounded by faint, but noticeable palpitations and a throbbing forehead. Soon these symptoms would be joined by others: cold, sweaty hands, tremulous fingers, a tightening in the chest. All part of the deal, he thought miserably, but no less difficult to cope with for that. It was irrational and uncontrollable and, as an adult, he knew he shouldn’t still be blown away by this experience. In this culture of emotional restraint, having to endure such an overwhelming onslaught of feelings seemed childish and immature. It wasn’t a life or death confrontation. The feelings were excessive compared to the risk involved. He was not about to perform delicate brain surgery, or disable an unexploded bomb, though what he was about to do represented a highly refined task of physical control in its own right. Yet body and mind seemed determined to react as if it was a huge gamble; the feelings were real and demanded to be confronted.

This may be from a work of fiction but the symptoms described are very real: I know, because I have experienced them, and I have met musicians who suffer from similar symptoms. Some suffer very badly – in a recent blog article pianist Stephen Hough described how Adele Marcus (one of his former teachers) actually vomited on the keyboard because she was so overcome with nerves. Some performers find their performance anxiety is so great that they simply cannot perform at all (Glenn Gould, for example). Another pianist, whom I met some years ago while researching my novel, said he was “usually too busy” ahead of a performance “worrying about sandwiches, tickets and things” to feel nervous, though he did acknowledge that the adrenaline rush of performance anxiety is useful as it can “lighten” one’s playing.

Anxiety affects each of us in different ways, and we all have strategies for coping with it. I recently had to undergo a series of long and involved dental treatments to have a crown fitted over a broken tooth. The treatment necessitated root canal work, which, in the bad old days, could be painful and laborious. I am fortunate that I have very good teeth and, until this year, rarely had to have any treatment beyond a routine check up and clean. Despite this, I harboured a very deep and totally irrational fear of the dentist. In the past, less sympathetic dentists (all male, I might add) laughed at my fear, but my current dentist, a very kind and sympathetic Swedish lady, allowed me time to understand and accept my fear. Thus, when I went for the root canal treatment I was able to rationalise the anxiety and cope with it. In the end, the procedure, though long, was absolutely painless – and by the fourth visit to the dentist, I felt no fear whatsoever.

There is a lesson in this anecdote, and one which Piotr Anderszewski highlighted in his interview with Radio Four: acceptance. Here’s what he said: “Accept that there is no recipe……….The best way to cope is to fully accept that there is no way to cope.” He also explained that while one may wish to try and recreate that marvellous recital at Carnegie Hall last week, it is, of course, impossible to replicate a performance – because each performance is unique (this is why live music is so exciting). “The best way to cope with the loneliness and stress and pressure is to fully accept who you are this evening…..say, 8pm 20 April 2015. This is how I am, I am not trying to make it nice…..”

People say to me, “how can you feel nervous? You’re so good, you play so well!” which is all very flattering, but no matter how good you are, a degree of anxiety is inevitable, and normal. The symptoms of anxiety are produced by the powerful hormone adrenaline, which is part of the body’s acute stress response system, also called the “fight or flight” response. Without it, our ancestors would not have stood a chance against that sabre-toothed tiger!

As a performer, if one accepts the symptoms as part and parcel of the experience one can then use them positively. I was surprised in my Diploma exam how the adrenaline kicked in to make my performance of Schubert’s Impromptu in E flat one of my best, despite the fact that the piece felt unstable and liable to run away at any moment when I was playing it. As my teacher said when we discussed the exam report, adrenaline can produce interesting effects on one’s playing, often allowing one to stand back slightly from the music and simply “let it go”.

My own strategies for coping with performance anxiety offer no “magic formula” but they work for me:

  • Ensure you are fully prepared. This was the most important lesson I drew from my Diploma experience. I was so well on top of the repertoire that small slips did not throw me or distract me during the recital exam. If you go into a performance situation – a concert, exam or competition – knowing you are under-prepared, you immediately set off negative feelings about yourself and your music.
  • In practice, get into the habit of “playing through” pieces without stopping to correct mistakes.
  • Learn how to concentrate. This may sound daft, but it is possible to train yourself to concentrate better. This will help enormously in a performance situation: audience noises, distractions such as a siren or other “noises off” won’t throw you off course.
  • Take every opportunity to perform your programme ahead of The Day. As I keep telling one of my adult students who failed her Grade 2 exam last summer because nerves got the better of her, the only way to overcome performance anxiety is to perform.
  • If you have been working on the repertoire for a long time, try to recall what excited you about it in the first place and what makes each piece special/important for you.
  • On the day: don’t practice too much, and whatever you do, do it slowly and quietly. Ensure body and mind are rested. Don’t eat too much. Allow plenty of time to get to the venue/exam centre etc.
  • Do deep-breathing (Pilates thoracic breathing) and some light exercises to loosen and warm up arms and fingers. Imagine the first few bars of the first piece, visualise playing them and hear them in your head.
  • At the piano: breathe in, exhale slowly and allow the fingers to float onto the keys for the opening notes. Keep breathing!

I also take Rescue Remedy ahead of a performance. It just takes the edge off my anxiety.

Remember – people come to concerts because they enjoy live music and they want to hear us play, not to spot mistakes and slips. Most people are amazed by and full of admiration for any of us who can get up on stage and just do it, at whatever level.

Hear the full interview with Piotr Anderszewski here

Stephen Hough on performance anxiety

The ‘Sonetto 123 del Petrarca’, from the second, Italian, Années de Pèlerinage, was my first serious foray into Liszt’s music, and formed part of my ATCL Diploma programme. While waiting for the Diploma results at the beginning of this year, too superstitious to start looking at LTCL repertoire, I dabbled with the ‘Sonetto 47’ (I will return to it and learn it properly at later date). Now I’m working on the middle, and most popular work of the triptych, the ‘Sonetto 104’.

Laura de Noves

The three ‘Petrarch Sonnets’ are often performed together, separately from the rest of the Italian Années. They are inspired by the poetry of Italian Renaissance poet Francesco Petrarca, and are all concerned with love, in one form or another, which links them, yet each is a meditation on love in itself, specifically the poet’s love for Laura de Noves. Originally conceived as songs for piano and high tenor voice, Liszt later recast them as solo piano works. His extreme sensitivity to Petrarch’s original text allows him to beautifully capture the atmosphere and sentiment of Petrarch’s words, though they do not take their cues directly from the text (a comparison with the scores of the original song versions is useful when studying these works). Rather, they reflect Liszt’s own response to the poetry in the same way as earlier pieces in the Italian Années, ‘Spozalizio’ and ‘Il penseroso’, convey the composer’s response to a painting and a sculpture by Raphael and Michelangelo respectively.

The ‘Sonetto 104’ is perhaps the most passionate, agitated and dramatic of the three, based on the Sonnet Pace non trovo (‘I find no peace…..’ Canzone CXXXIV; sometimes erroneously noted as Sonnet 47). In it, the poet ponders the confused state love has put him in. Enthralled to his lady, he feels imprisoned yet free, he burns with love, yet feels he is made of ice: in modern psychological parlance, a true state of ‘limerence’ (a life-altering and passionate love or infatuation for someone, often unrequited). Reading the original text, one has a sense of the protagonist caught in an emotional ‘trap’ of his own making: while wallowing in the contrasting and sometimes painful emotions, he is also enjoying them. Liszt achieves these rapid changes of mood – the ‘highs and lows’ of romantic (and possibly physical) love – with the use of contrasting sections, dramatic, often unexpected, harmonic shifts, declamations, ‘meaningful’ fermatas, and cadenza-like passages. There are moments of calm contemplation, shot through with soaring climaxes and intense agitation, the surprising harmonies emphasising the protagonist’s confused state of mind. The piece ends calmly, with a restatement of the recitative-like opening motif with a languorous coda and some uncertain harmonies before a prayer-like final cadence.

When studying this piece, it is worth having both the original text by Petrarch and a copy of the libretto to hand for reference (available to download from IMSLP). The beautifully expressive melodic line, from the song versions, is retained in all three ‘Sonetti’.

Recordings: I like Thomas Quasthoff in the song versions, and Wilhelm Kempff and Christine Stevenson in the Années de Pèlerinage. Lazar Berman’s recording of the complete Annees is very fine too. You can hear my version of the ‘Sonetto 123’ via my SoundCloud.

Francesco Petrarca CANZONE CXXXIV

Pace non trovo

Pace non trovo, e non ho da far guerra,

E temo, e spero, ed ardo, e son un ghiaccio:

E volo sopra ‘l cielo, e giaccio in terra;

E nulla stringo, e tutto ‘l mondo abbraccio.

Tal m’ha in priggion, che non m’apre, né serra,

Né per suo mi ritien, né scioglie il laccio,

E non m’uccide Amor, e non mi sferra;

Né mi vuol vivo, né mi trahe d’impaccio.

Veggio senz’occhi; e non ho lingua e grido;

E bramo di perir, e cheggio aita;

Ed ho in odio me stesso, ed amo altrui:

Pascomi di dolor; piangendo rido;

Egualmente mi spiace morte e vita.

In questo stato son, Donna, per Voi.

I find no peace, but for war am not inclined;  
I fear, yet hope; I burn, yet am turned to ice; 
I soar in the heavens, but lie upon the ground; 
I hold nothing, though I embrace the whole world. 

Love has me in a prison which he neither opens nor shuts fast; 
he neither claims me for his own nor loosens my halter; 
he neither slays nor unshackles me; 
he would not have me live, yet leaves me with my torment. 

Eyeless I gaze, and tongueless I cry out; 
I long to perish, yet plead for succour; 
I hate myself, but love another. 
I feed on grief, yet weeping, laugh; 
death and life alike repel me; 
and to this state I am come, my lady, because of you.