Never underestimate the value of performing for others. The ability to get up and do it represents an important life skill, something from which my students will benefit when they enter adulthood (even if they are no longer playing the piano). It breeds confidence and self-reliance.

As pianists, we spend an inordinate, almost unhealthy amount of time alone with our instrument, with only dead composers for companions, while other musicians belong to ensembles and orchestras, and have the opportunity to strike ideas off one another and have a laugh together. The life of the pianist has always been rather rarefied: even the way we perform is different. While other instrumentalists face the audience, the pianist does not, thus adding to the mystique. Pianists are also the only ones who are expected to memorise the music, and the amount of notes one is required to process is far, far greater than, say, a ‘cellist, or a clarinet player. The pressure is on, before we have even  sat down and played a single note!

We should never forget that music is for sharing, and between audience and performer and composer a wonderful continuous circle exists. Performing endorses what we do alone, the hours and hours, and days and days of solitary practise. It puts the music “out there”, validates it and singles it out for scrutiny, and as a performer, one has a sense of  the awesome responsibility of the occasion, and the knowledge that, once begun, a performance cannot be withdrawn. Unexpected things can happen during a performance – and this is one of the aspects of live music that make it exciting. The most wonderful frisson can occur when one feels one’s performance has actually melded with the composer’s original idea, and that the audience have sensed this too. Performing is also a “cultural gift”, to oneself, and to those who love to listen to the piano.

Performing is an adventure, and a heroic act, not least because of the amount of preparation that is required. It is the natural extension of our love of the instrument and its literature, and it is a huge privilege to share this with others. Nervousness is the price one pays for this privilege, and enduring it and turning it around into a positive experience, is an act of self-mastery, another fundamental life skill, which encourages self-dependence, and a total reliance on our inner resources.

Performing also adds to one’s credibility. Whether a professional or an amateur, it is important to prove that you can actually do it, and, for the amateur pianist, the benefits of performing are immeasurable: you never really demonstrate your technique properly until you can demonstrate it in a performance. Music and technique are inseparable, and if you perform successfully, it proves you have practised correctly and thoughtfully, instead of simply note-bashing. This works conversely too, for if you are properly prepared, you should have nothing to fear when you perform. The benefits for younger students are even greater: preparing music for performance teaches them to complete a real task and to understand what is meant by “music making”. It encourages students to “play through”, glossing over errors rather than being bothered by them, instead of stop-start playing which prevents proper flow. It also teaches students to communicate a sense of the music, to “tell the story”, and to understand what the composer is trying to say. And if you haven’t performed a piece, how can you say it is truly “finished”?

In the hours after a performance, a special kind of depression can set in, compounded by a profound tiredness. A vast amount of energy has been expended in the experience of the performance, and the exhilaration of the concert floods every moment in the hours leading up to it. Suddenly, it is all over. It is at this low point that we must let the music take charge: the inexhaustible repertoire can only revive the spirit. As Seymour Bernstein says, in his excellent book ‘With Your Own Two Hands’, “for true musicians, depression is temporary because their music is permanent”. The only cure is to keep working, and to look forward to the next performance.

This incredibly useful article comes from Graham Fitch’s Practising the Piano blog, which is full of sound advice and guidance for productive practising. This article chimed particularly with me, as this week I have been getting students, and myself, ready for our concert next weekend, and careful, attentive practice has been the watch word of my lessons recently.

We all have ‘black spots’ in music we are learning: sometimes these are not the most difficult passages, but such places need special attention to stop them becoming major problems, which can affect the overall continuity and flow of the music.

Read Graham’s excellent advice here

The mercurial and fiercely independent Russian pianist Elisabeth Leonskaja, friend and protégé of the late great Sviatoslav Richter, stamped her mark emphatically upon some of Schubert’s most well-loved works in a BBC Radio 3 lunchtime concert at London’s Wigmore Hall. Read my review for Bachtrack.com here

“Flow is a subjective state that people report when they are completely involved in something to the point of losing track of time and of being unaware of fatigue and of everything else but the activity itself.” I read this recently in a book entitled Talented Teenagers: The Roots of Success and Failure (quotes in this post are from this book). It’s a fascinating research report on how family, school, personality, education and motivation affect teenagers’ ability to become and remain talented in a field of endeavour such as music.

A state of flow is inherently productive for a musician. During a flow experience, musicians achieve their goals without even realising how hard the experience has been. Furthermore, it will have been enjoyable and satisfying and practice time will have flown by! Even more exciting is that the research shows that once a student has experienced a state of flow in their practice, they will want to repeat it, no matter how hard or how much concentration was required. That is, they will become intrinsically motivated to practice. Now wouldn’t that be nice?!

To quote the research, “…a deeply involving flow experience usually happens when there are clear goals and when the person receives immediate and unambiguous feedback on the activity”. Luckily in music, this “immediate and unambiguous feedback” is readily available: when you’re practicing an instrument, you can instantly hear when things don’t sound right and you immediately know when you can do something that you couldn’t do a few minutes earlier. But goal setting, particularly for children, is much harder.

The goal for teachers is helping students find the balance between the fun of finding new challenges in their music and/or technique and the hard work involved in skill building to surmount those challenges. “The pleasures associated with flow are highly desirable, but they are also intensive and energy demanding. You have to risk learning the limits of your present capacity.”

So what can we do to help out students achieve flow in their practice? Here are a few ideas which I hope will be just as relevant for musicians as their teachers:

  1. Flow comes from complete and utter concentration in one activity. It involves focusing on the present, so that all those irrelevant thoughts and worries can disappear. Flow is therefore a little like meditation. Students must setup their practice time and space so that they can practice without distraction. Teachers may need to give suggestions to parents about this as I’ve found that some just don’t realise how to structure their child’s practice time.
  2. Students must find what they are doing enjoyable in order for them to persevere long enough to achieve flow. Teachers therefore must, first and foremost, make learning enjoyable! A no-brainer, I hope, for most! This will be a product of a variety of things like repertoire choice, but really comes down to a positive and engaging teaching style. As the research says, “…flow most often happens when a person enjoys what he or she is doing for its own sake”.
  3. Set really clear and unambiguous goals for your students to achieve each week and break them down as much as required. Be specific! Philip Johnston’s book, The Practice Revolution, will challenge every teacher’s views on music teaching and is highly recommended in this regard. My post about how my teaching has changed as a result of this book is here – please read it for more detail on this vital aspect of flow.
  4. Set the right level of challenge. In another article I wrote based on this book entitled Too Easy or Too Hard – Finding the Right Challenge, I wrote about how important it is to find the right level of challenge for students to ensure they don’t get bored, but aren’t overwhelmed by insurmountable challenges (as so often happens when they bring in a piece of music they want to play that’s way beyond their skill level). Setting an appropriate level of challenge comes with experience which I believe is strongly supported by a teacher’s own endeavours to learn new, and increasing challenging, repertoire for themselves.

Our job as teachers must therefore be to set the stage for regular flow experiences for our students each week. According to the research, a student’s ability to achieve “flow” regularly in his/her practice time is directly related to how successful they will be in their talent area in the future: “…when students experience flow, the likelihood that they will keep on developing their gift increases significantly”. This week, take notice of any time during your own teaching or practice when you’ve felt a flow experience and time has disappeared. What happened? What did you achieve? How did you feel? What made it happen? And how can you help your students to have the same experience?

Good luck!

Tim Topham is a Melbourne based piano teacher, pianist and accompanist. He writes regularly on his blog about practice, teaching and repertoire and has a particular interest in helping other piano teachers work more successfully with boys. He has over 10 years’ teaching experience in a variety of fields and is currently studying performance with renowned concert pianist, Caroline Almonte and theory with Louise Robertson-Glasgow.