This post was prompted by a conversation over the weekend with a piano friend of mine: we were discussing ways in which students can free themselves from the constraints that prevent them from giving their all in a performance situation, and the expression “playing naked” came up, which I thought very appropriate. It refers not to a means of dealing with performance anxiety where one imagines that the entire audience is naked (an empowering way of turning the dynamic in a stressful situation), but to giving oneself permission to stand back from the music, to let go, and to play with passion and commitment.

If you are naked at the piano, whether literally or metaphorically, there is nowhere to hide, and you must do everything in your power to distract the audience from your “nakedness”. (Those of us who perform, and who suffer from the anxiety of performance, may well have had the dream/nightmare where we are in a performance situation without the protective carapace of clothes.), So, do you run screaming from the stage, or do you face up to the challenge?

Playing “naked” means:

  • Stripping away inhibitions, over interpretation, unnecessary gestures, and pretentions
  • Giving yourself up to the music
  • Playing with heart and soul
  • Believing completely in what you do
  • Fearless and focussed performance
  • Playing “for the love of music” (Rostropovich), with a vibrant sound and charismatic rhythm which radiates authority and emotion
  • Precise execution from well-honed technique
  • Crafting confidence and developing a positive response to stress
  • Finding meaning, desire and depth in your performance

This afternoon is my annual student concert. On one level, this is simply a happy gathering of children, parents, family and friends, and an opportunity for my students to share and show off the music they have been studying recently. The programme, as always, is selected by my students, resulting in an eclectic mix of music, and an indication of the wide variety of repertoire we study. Each performer has chosen pieces which reflect his or her particular tastes and skills – surely the basis for any musician’s selection of repertoire?

On another level, the concert is about sharing music. A professional pianist, who I interviewed some years ago, described performing as “a cultural gift”: a gift to oneself and a gift to those who love to hear the piano and its literature, a sharing of the music between soloist and audience. As a performer, one enjoys a huge responsibility, and privilege, rather like a conservator or curator, in presenting this wonderful music to others.

Performing is a very special experience, and one which I have come to relatively late in my musical career. As a pianist at school I was sidelined, encouraged to learn an orchestral instrument, and to recede into the relative anonymity of first desk clarinet. My then piano teacher never organised concerts for her students, and I only played one festival in my teens (an excruciatingly awful experience). At the last school concert before I left to go to university, I was allowed to play the first movement of a Mozart piano sonata. Apart from that, ‘performing’ was limited to taking piano exams. My current teacher gave me the confidence and self-belief to perform, starting with the informal concerts which she hosts at the end of her twice-yearly piano courses. While not as nerve-wracking as playing in a ‘proper’ concert hall, these concerts have their own special atmosphere and attendant anxieties, but the nicest part is the sense that the audience is there because they love to hear piano music, and at every concert I’ve played at Penelope’s house, I’ve felt this important communication between performer and audience.

Of course, performing is not just about playing pretty pieces to other people. To be a performer, one needs to hone a stage personality which is different from the personality which encourages disciplined, focused practising day in, day out, to prepare repertoire for the performance (pianist and teacher Graham Fitch has blogged about this in detail – read his post here). While one’s onstage personality should never obscure the music, one should be able to present oneself convincingly to the audience – and not just through the medium of the music.

There are all sorts of ‘rituals’ involved in performing: travelling to the venue – by car, train or taxi; the clothes one wears; waiting in the green room (whether an elegant space such as at Wigmore Hall, or a dreary municipal cubicle); then waiting to go on stage, behind a door, or a plush velvet curtain, just offstage, pulse racing, real fear now passed, only excited anticipation, and enough adrenaline coursing through the veins to propel one onto the stage. Then the door opens, the curtain swings back, and the adventure of the performance has already begun as one crosses the stage. Applause: the audience’s way of greeting one, and, in return, a bow, one’s way of acknowledging the audience. And now, isolated at the keyboard, the full nine feet of concert grand stretched before one, ready to begin, the brief moment before starting a work resembles nothing else. One has a sense of the awesome formality of the occasion, the responsibility, the knowledge that, once begun, the performance cannot be withdrawn. It identifies the music, singles it out for scrutiny: it is irrevocable. All these things combined are the ‘adventure’ of performing.

Whether my students will have a sense of this ‘adventure’ this afternoon I am not sure. I know some are very nervous: one of my students has never performed in one of my concerts before, and to help with her anxiety, I have placed her near the start in the running order, so she can play her piece and then sit back and enjoy the rest of the occasion. Others, who have been learning with me almost as long as I’ve been teaching, betray no nerves and seem to actively enjoy the chance to ‘show off’ to family and friends. Some play with real chutzpah and flair, others prefer to simply play the notes, but each and every performance will be unique, special and memorable. I should probably remember to take some tissues!

Normansfield Theatre, Teddington, where I hold my student concerts

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.

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

Another excellent three days in the company of other advanced pianists – some students, some piano teachers like me, and some professional pianists – on the piano course run by my teacher, Penelope Roskell. We enjoyed a wide range of repertoire, from Scarlatti to Stephen Montague, and discussed and practiced aspects of technique such as soft hands and forearms, ‘Mozartian’ staccato (what Penelope descibes as “detached legato”), ‘orchestrating’ sonatas and piano works by Haydn and Mozart, and how to achieve a beautiful cantabile sound in Schubert’s Impromptu in G flat (D899 No. 3) and Chopin’s ‘Aeolian Harp’ Etude (Opus 25, No. 1). And much more besides….. Our coffee and lunch breaks were full of interesting ‘piano chat’ and it was both instructive and enjoyable to exchange ideas with other pianists and teachers. The next course is on September – details at the end of the post.

Despite finding the first course (in April 2009) very daunting, because of the very high standard of the other participants, I have always gained a huge amount from these courses: they are instructional, inspiring, very supportive, and non-competitive. Everyone comes to the course with different needs and interests, from help with tension or performance anxiety, or simply a desire to play through some repertoire to other people in a relaxed setting. The course always ends with a concert, to which friends and family are welcome. The performance aspect of these courses has done wonders for my confidence and I have lost any shyness I had about performing, and now actively enjoy it. The 30 seconds of contemplative silence which greeted my performance of Chopin’s Nocturne in E, Opus 62, No. 2 was the ultimate compliment at the concert yesterday afternoon, and I was flattered and touched by some of the comments I received afterwards.

What we played during the course:

Debussy – Preludes Book I: ‘La fille aux cheveux de lin’

Villa-Lobos – Prole de bebe No. 1: ‘O Polochinello’

Bach – Prelude & Fugue in F minor, XII, WTC Book 2

Chopin – Nocturne in E, Op. 62, No. 2 (me)

Mendelssohn – Variations Serieuses, Op. 54

Chopin – Berceuse, Op. 57

Scriabin – Piano Sonata No. 4, in F sharp major, Op. 30

Mozart – Piano Sonata in A minor, K 310 (1st & 2nd movements)

Haydn – Piano Sonata in E flat, No. 59, Hob. XVI:49 (1st movement)

Mozart – Piano Sonata in D, K 576

Chopin – Waltz in E minor, No. 14

Beethoven – Piano Sonata in F major, Op. 10 No. 2

Mozart – Piano Concerto No. 5 (1st movement)

Dave Brubeck – ‘Dad Plays the Harmonica’

Henry Cowell – ‘Exultation’

Stephen Montague – ‘The Headless Horseman’

Bach – Concerto in D minor after Marcello BWV 974 (me)

Chopin – Etude, Opus 25 No. 1 ‘Aeolian Harp’

Mozart – Rondo in A minor, K511 (me)

Scarlatti – Sonata K.215

Martin Butler – ‘After Concord’

Joanna MacGregor – Lowside Blues

Diana Burrell – ‘Constellations’

Schubert – Impromptu in G flat, D899 no. 3

Chopin – Nocturne, Op. 48 No. 1

Bach – Prelude & Fugue in C-sharp major, WTC Book 2, III

Prokfiev – Piano Sonata No. 3 (1st movement)

Liszt – Concert Study: ‘Un Sospiro’

Charles Tebbs – ‘Moonlight from Sunlight’ (Charles is a pianist and composer who attended the course and performed some of his own pieces for us)

You can hear most of the pieces via this Spotify playlist

‘Moonlight from Sunlight’ by Charles Tebbs

More on piano courses here (includes details of Penelope Roskell’s September course)

Revisiting a work one learnt last month, last year, or 20 years ago can be a wonderful experience, like reacquainting oneself with an old friend, while also making a new friendship. Picking up a piece again after a long absence, as I have been with Mozart’s melancholy late work, his Rondo in A minor, K 511, often offers new insights into that work, and reveals layers and subtleties one may not have spotted the first time round.

My experience with my studies for my Performance Diploma taught me how to practice deeply, to the extent that I was on intimate terms with every note, every phrase, every nuance, every shading in all of my exam pieces. After I had performed the pieces for the exam, I might have considered them “finished”: certainly, on the morning of the exam, my thought was “I have done all I can. There is nothing more I can do”. But that was then, on 14th December 2011, and now, mid-February, picking up the Liszt Sonetto 123 del Petrarca again ready for Richmond Music Festival, the piece feels very familiar, yet certainly not “finished”. Of course, it needs some finessing for its next performance in just over two weeks’ time, and some reviewing in the light of the examiner’s comments, and, yes,  it is “all there”, in the fingers. But it has changed since I last played it: it’s more spacious and relaxed, gentler and more songful. It won’t be quite the same piece as before, when I play it in the festival.

The Mozart Rondo K 511 is multi-faceted: it prefigures Chopin in its rondo figure, a weary yet songful and at times highly ornamented melody, and harks back to Bach in its textural and chromatic B and C sections (a more detailed analysis of this work here). This is actually my second revisit of this work: I first learnt it before I started having lessons with my current teacher (about 5 years ago), and then revived it about two years ago. So, third time around, I am finding more subtleties in it, while also being struck at how cleverly Mozart manages to express his entire oeuvre in the microcosm of a piano miniature: there are arias, grand operatic gestures, Baroque arabesques and chromaticism, Chopinesque fiorituras, extremes of light and shade, sometimes within the space of a single bar. All the time when I am working on it, I find aspects which remind me why I picked it up in the first place, while also discovering new things about it.

A work can never truly be considered ‘finished’. Often a satisfying performance of a work to which one has devoted many hours of study can be said to put the work ‘to bed’, but only for the time being. The same is true of a recording: rather than a be-all-and-end-all record, maybe a recording is better regarded as a snapshot of one’s musical and creative life at that moment. As a pianist friend of mine once said “it’s always the way: you commit a work to a CD then discover all sorts of new things about it….”. American Pianist Bruce Brubaker, in his sensitive and thoughtful blog Piano Morphosis, describes this as a process of “continuing”. Thus, one performance informs another, and all one’s practising and playing is connected in one continuous stream of music-making.

Here is Mitsuko Uchida in Mozart’s Rondo in A minor, K 511. For me, this is a peerless interpretation of this work.

Mitsuko Uchida – Mozart: Rondo in A minor, K.511