Guest post by Howard Smith

Like many adult learners, Howard Smith found it surprising that he would suffer that most debilitating of all pianistic ailments: extreme performance anxiety. He explained to me that this came as a big surprise, having been a confident keynote speaker at many large events during his long career in the IT industry. Now semi-retired, Howard is working hard to lead a new creative life, focussed on the piano.

Members of the London Piano Meet Group (LPMG) guided the initial development of Howard’s collation of collective wisdom.


Confronting my fears and learning ways to reduce and manage them is empowering. I can become a more confident performer.

There are two kinds of performance anxiety:

  • Irrational anxiety: fear for no good reason!  If I am well-prepared, it should be possible to overcome irrational anxieties.
  • Rational anxiety: insufficient practice and preparation. Maybe I was just lucky playing at home in the practice room? Under the spotlight, things fell apart.

The combination of sufficient practice and building resilience under emotional stress can help to reduce performance anxieties.

Technical preparation is the bottom line. Stiffness, awkward movements and poor technique become completely dysfunctional during a live performance; my mind and muscles won’t be able to cope.

I must develop a narrative of success and avoid a narrative of failure. A series of poor performances can result in a vicious cycle of negativity. Avoid at all costs.

Consider using techniques from NLP and CBT to turn negative messages and the ‘toxic inner critic’ into positive affirmation and confidence-boosting messages.

1) Adopt the Right Mindset

Accept yourself for what you are. How well you perform is not a determiner of your self-worth.

Nobody is perfect. A few mistakes are OK. Most audiences won’t notice, and many are non-judgemental.

Accept that a degree of nervousness (butterflies) is healthy. It is natural and affects most everyone. If you are not nervous or are overconfident, something is wrong. Adrenaline can be useful but needs a channel.

To build a narrative of success, seek out a graduated series of low-threat performance opportunities. Start with a video camera or tape recorder. Treat this session as if it were a real performance. Stand up and address your imaginary audience. Keep going, even if you make mistakes. Try to maintain the tempo. Then move to the next level: a trusted friend or musical associate. Then a few more friends. Etc.

Each time you perform, think about what you found hard. Consider what new coping strategies may be required.

2) Choice of Music

A successful performance of any piece of music boosts your confidence and increases emotional resilience in readiness for your next performance.

Choose music safely within or below your grade: ‘easy for you’ pieces with which you are entirely comfortable. Hard to say, difficult to do.

Play at a tempo at which you can be confident.

Performing less well-known repertoire can be helpful. Familiar or iconic music can attract higher expectations from audiences, heightening your natural fear of being ‘under the spotlight’.

3) Prepare for the Performance

Be well prepared. Practice. Practice. Practice. Eliminate anything and everything that can go wrong. Practice until you cannot go wrong.

Tip: A few days before your performance, identify the one bar (one) that you find the most challenging. Experience shows that this simple, practical solution seems to ‘clinch’ the sense of confidence after all else is said and done.

Perform whenever and wherever you can. For example, find a piano in a public space. Play when your friends come round, whether they want to hear or not. Tell your ad-hoc audiences to accept your performance for it is: the practise of practice! Doing so will help you feel what it is like to be nervous. These ‘safe’ performances reveal whether you have sufficiently practised.

Also, practise in front of your teacher. Take their advice but ask them not to obsess about tiny details. It’s too late for that. Ask them for their input on the entire sweep of the performance.

Work on controlled breathing, and meditation. Relax. Find the mind tools to redirect thoughts when they turn negative.

Be healthy. Exercise. Eat properly.

4) The Day Before

Limit stimulants. Get adequate sleep.

Practise yes, but avoid over-practise. Focus on the big picture.

Take a walk, jump up and down, shake out muscles, or do whatever feels right to ease any anxious feelings. Repeat nearer the time.

5) At the Performance

If possible, warm up beforehand by playing a few scales.  At least try to feel the piano keyboard in advance. Play a few notes and chords. Don’t forget the pedals.

Remind yourself that you are well-prepared. Don’t over-think what could go wrong.

Foster a ‘safe space’ for yourself in which to perform. Get into ‘the zone’. Centre yourself.

Adopt an aura of confidence. Visualise your success. Face down your anxiety.

Think of the audience as your friends. Connect with them – smile, make eye contact.

Shift the focus from your vulnerabilities, towards the music itself. Close your eyes. Imagine your audience enjoying the music.

Aim not only to perform correctly but also to communicate the emotion of the music (sadness, joy, profound feelings).

As you start to play; play with confidence. The success of the first few bars is essential to your continued confidence throughout the performance.

Breathe. Don’t hold your breath. Relax your facial muscles.

Play with passion! Play joyfully. Play as if you are giving a GIFT to your audience, instead of focussing on what may go wrong or being over-critical of yourself. Perfection if not the same as beauty. Moreover, leave your ego at home!

As you play, listen but do not analyse. Focussing too closely on finger and hand movement is not going to help at this stage. Communicate the expression or ‘story’ of the music rather than its technical aspects.

Allow the music to flow through you, imagine yourself as a conduit for it, rather than deliverer or controller.

Be in the present. Play in the moment. Don’t anticipate difficult future bars or upcoming tricky passages.  Avoid thoughts such as ‘I must not get that tricky chord wrong’ or ‘I must not trip up at bar 25’. Avoid all such negative thoughts.

Tip: Imagine the music is a music roll ticker-tape, inexorably moving forward. Let the music carry you along. Declutter your thoughts from the mechanical details of performance.

Bring your mind and hands together as one, not as separate machinery. Concentrate as you play. Do not allow stray thoughts to enter your head. Chase them out.

If you make a mistake, pick up, recover and carry on – with the least amount of fuss. Keep going. Maintain tempo. Whatever happens, try not to re-start.

Have fun!

5) After the Performance

Don’t dwell on what happened during your performance, other than to learn from obvious mistakes.

Plan for your next performance, right away.

Postscript: Additional Thoughts

Minimise distractions. Find a fixed point in the distance. Focus on whatever makes you feel comfortable. This point could be your music stand, the keyboard, or somewhere beyond the piano itself. Wherever or whatever it is, ensure that your focal point is below eye level.

Be deliberate. When you step up to the piano, how exactly do you intend to sound? What, precisely, do you intend to communicate to your audience?

Build the appropriate mental image of the way you would ideally like to perform. Tell yourself that you are going to perform brilliantly, with passion and clear dynamics. Think about positive words such as light fingers, smooth playing, even shifts, fluid movements, strong chords, quiet, calm, ease. Breathe from the diaphragm.

Avoid shallow, rapid, chest breathing. Performance anxiety creates muscle tension. As you breathe, focus on each group of muscles, releasing tension as you exhale.


 

Howard Smith
instagram.com/howardneilsmith

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The piano summer school is now an established part of the year for many amateur pianists, and the recent launch of several new courses and summer schools is a mark of their continued popularity. Much more than a “piano holiday”, the piano summer school is an opportunity to study with leading pianist-teachers, observe others being taught, hone skills, enjoy concerts, and meet other pianists – this last factor being, for many, one of the chief attractions. Being a pianist can be a lonely activity, and while many of us enjoy the solitude, it can be helpful, supportive and inspiring to meet other pianists to discuss aspects such as practising, repertoire, and much more… Doing all of this in a beautiful location with luxury accommodation and fine food can only enhance the experience.

Concert pianist James Lisney has extensive experience teaching at piano summer schools and courses, including the long-standing Summer School for Pianists (which moves to Stowe School for 2019) and the Hindhead Piano Course. His supportive and inspiring approach empowers adult pianists to “take charge of their music, to give it priority within their busy lives and have the confidence and skills to explore as artists“, and fosters confident, independent musicianship.

James’s expertise and enthusiasm gives everyone the confidence to perform at the daily masterclasses and evening concerts, but it is at the individual sessions, where the magic really happens.

Based at Le Vert, a charming country house hotel in the Cahors region of SW France, James Lisney’s new summer piano courses continue this legacy, offering adult pianists tuition in the form of workshops and masterclasses, one-to-one lessons, and performance opportunities – all within a relaxed, entertaining and considerate environment. Participants can enjoy comfortable accommodation, gourmet food and a convivial atmosphere. In addition, James offers support via email and Skype throughout the year, and regular piano ‘meetups’ give participants valuable performance experience and opportunities to socialise and enhance connections and friendships made during the courses.

a nurturer and inspirer….. you’ll come away from his classes born again (musically) and raring to practise

– Conrad Williams, author of The Concert Pianist

Further information and prices

Meet the Artist interview with James Lisney

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I am continually impressed and inspired, and occasionally truly humbled, by the passion and commitment of adult amateur pianists, and in the last month this has been brought home to me powerfully yet again, first at Chetham’s (“Chets”) Summer School for Pianists (read more here) and then on Friday evening at the monthly gathering of the London Piano Meetup Group (LPMG).

Although I work in music, I do not regard myself as a “professional” pianist and I am also quite comfortable now with the title “amateur”. While some may think this means “cack-handed hobbyist” or “Sunday pianist”, I prefer the French definition of the word: “one who loves” because all the amateur pianists I know absolutely adore the piano, myself included.

I co-founded the LPMG in 2013, in part as an opportunity to meet other like-minded people. Playing the piano can be a lonely activity and while many of us enjoy the solitude, the special time with the instrument and its literature, it is also very helpful to meet and talk to other pianists. At the time, I had been playing seriously for about 6 years (having returned to the piano after an absence of 20 years), and had been taking lessons with a concert pianist and teacher in one of London’s leading conservatoires for 5 years. I didn’t know any other pianists, apart from the handful of people I encountered fleetingly through my teacher’s courses. The LPMG filled a big gap in my pianistic life – and I know it has done the same for many others whom I meet through the group. It has also inspired the formation of several other meetups and piano clubs in the UK and beyond: in 2015 our London group had a joint meetup with the Vienna piano meetup group in the city of Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert – a very special experience indeed.

Through the LPMG I have made a number very good friends and connections, while the activities of the group have extended to include workshops and events such as the annual Diploma Day with the very popular and highly skilled teacher Graham Fitch, all of which are designed to support and encourage adult pianists.

Now run by my piano friends Claire and Rob (whom I met through the group), the LPMG hosts monthly performance events for adult pianists in London venues with good grand pianos. Many amateur pianists aspire to own a really beautiful instrument but cannot afford to do so, or are constrained by space in their home. To have the opportunity to play a really splendid instrument, such as the two expertly-maintained Steinway Ds at Henry Wood Hall, where we met last Friday, is a real treat and a chance to experience the capabilities of a big piano.

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Marie playing music by Billy Mayerl at Henry Wood Hall (photo by Iain Gordon who looks after the two Steinways there)

LPMG performance platforms are social events too and always finish in a local pub or wine bar where much “piano chat” takes place – people congratulate one another on their performances, discuss repertoire and the exigencies of fitting practising into one’s working life, courses, concerts we have enjoyed, professional pianists we admire, and much much more…. We come from many different walks of life – the group includes several medics, a mathematician, an accountant, a video games designer – but we all have a common interest and we know that no one is going to roll their eyes or yawn if you start enthusing about Beethoven’s last sonatas or the beauties and intricacies of Chopin’s Fourth Ballade. This sense of a “piano community” with a shared passion is incredibly important.

When it comes to performing, which is primarily what the group is for, we have players of all ages and abilities. Some have had a formal musical training but chose a different career path, others are self-taught. Some have played all their life, others, like me, have returned to the piano after a break. None of that really matters – because we all adore the piano. I have met a number of professional pianists who envy the passion of the amateur – we can choose what we play and when, and we don’t have to make a living from it. It gives us great freedom, and hours and hours of pleasure.

Many LPMG participants are self-effacing and modest: uncertain of their abilities or anxious about playing for others, performances may be prefaced by self-deprecating comments or throwaway asides about what the audience can expect – “It’s work in progress”, “I haven’t been learning this very long”, “We only rehearsed this together yesterday afternoon!”, “It’ll probably all go wrong!”. Everyone at Meetup appreciates the feelings of inadequacy or exposure when playing for others – we all experience this to a greater or lesser degree, and playing to a roomful of other pianists can be both highly stressful and also extremely supportive. I tend towards the latter when I play at Meetups – we all understand how hard it is and appreciate the effort and hours required to bring the music to a certain standard.

After the performances, people are generous with their praise – “I loved your piece!”, “You played so well”, “I really enjoyed your Debussy!” – and this too is an important part of the group’s ethos.

To conclude, I’d like to offer some advice to anyone who feels anxious about performing in front of others:

  • Don’t pre-empt your performance with a negative comment, such as “It will probably all go wrong”. This immediately prompts a negative mindset, making you more vulnerable to nerves. It also makes the audience more anxious!
  • Instead, go to the piano and take a few moments to think yourself into the music. Hear the opening phrase in your head and imagine playing it. Don’t rush to begin. Remind yourself that you have done your practising and you are well-prepared – see below
  • Bring music to performance events which is well-learnt and about which you feel pretty confident. Good preparation through consistent, intelligent practise is more likely to lead to a successful performance, and if you are well prepared you are less likely to be derailed by errors or slips. The Russian pianist Vladimir Horowitz used to say, before a concert, “I know my pieces” meaning he had done the right kind of practising and preparation – it’s a good mantra to follow!
  • Remember these events are non-competitive and no one is judging you.
  • Above all, enjoy yourself!

Performance, like the piano itself, can – and should – be practised. The more times you perform, the “easier” it becomes, so take every opportunity you can to play for others, from a few family and friends at home to events like Meetups. Reaching a state of “acceptance” about performance anxiety can go a long way to relieving and coping with the symptoms. And remember that it’s a normal human response – the pros get it too!

 

 

 

I recently attended Chetham’s International Summer School and Festival for Pianists (or “Chets” as it is affectionately known) for the first time as an observer and concert reviewer (read my articles here). It was a fascinating and exhausting (in a good way!) glimpse inside Europe’s largest piano summer school, and it was easy to see why people get hooked on the Chets experience – the special atmosphere, the teaching, the wealth of music to enjoy, and much more – and return year after year.

There are many piano courses on offer, from one-day events to long weekends in a quiet corner of Somerset (Jackdaws), longer courses like Chets and the Summer School for Pianists in Walsall, or upmarket piano holidays in France where expert tuition by a leading concert pianist is combined with gourmet food and luxury accommodation. Of course, most people’s motivation for attending a piano course is, primarily, to improve their playing and have it critiqued by a skilled teacher. Additionally, courses offer opportunities to build confidence in performing, observe others being taught, and meet other pianists – this last factor being, for many, one of the chief attractions. Being a pianist can be a lonely occupation, and while many of us actively enjoy the solitude, it can be helpful, supportive and inspiring to meet other pianists. Everyone I spoke to at Chets talked about the benefit of being amongst so many other pianists, all of whom understand and appreciate what makes us “tick”. At a piano course, no one is going to roll their eyes or yawn if you start enthusing about Beethoven’s last sonatas or the beauties and intricacies of Chopin’s Fourth Ballade (or indeed the First, Second and Third Ballades!), and this sense of a “piano community” and shared passion is incredibly important.

Philip Fowke teaching at Chets
Philip Fowke teaching at Chets

I have been on enough piano courses myself to know why I attend them and what I want to get out of them, and I thought it would be helpful for those considering a piano course, especially one of the scale of Chets, to have some additional tips from people who are regular attendees on how to get the best out of a piano course.

Before you go on the course…..

  • If you are attending a big, busy course like Chets or the Summer School for Pianists in Walsall, both of which last nearly a week and offer a full programme of activities alongside the teaching, get plenty of sleep in advance. This may sound strange, but these courses can be very tiring, as they require large amounts of physical and mental energy, emotional labour, drive, motivation and social/partying skills.
  • It can be daunting playing for other people and a different teacher, and obviously you will have to play in order to have your playing critiqued. If you are nervous about playing in a masterclass or workshop situation, consider inviting a few friends round for music and drinks and play some of your pieces to them. Paradoxically, the more distracting and self-conscious you feel when performing to your friends, the more you will learn, the less stressful and more enjoyable it will be on the course, and the more secure your performance will be in lessons or other performance situations.
  • Repertoire: Plan and prepare in advance the music you want to play at the course and bring enough music at different stages of preparation, but not music you have only just started learning (unless you want some specific advice on technique, for example, from a teacher). Bringing repertoire which is comparatively familiar avoids over-attention to basic musical understanding. Settled pieces, which are reasonably well known, allow you to work with a teacher on the more enriching aspects of the experience such as expression, gesture, personal interpretation, and performance, and make the best use of everyone’s time and money – including yours.

When you are on the course…..

  • Pace yourself. You will want to go to everything, but this can sap energy, so be selective. Choose activities outside of the teaching and workshops which you feel will be most beneficial/interesting to you. Try new things too – if you’ve never played duets or accompanied another instrumentalist, why not have a go?
  • Be open-minded and accepting of the advice given by the teachers. If you take lessons with a regular teacher, feedback and critique from a different teacher can be very helpful, offering new insights into the music, context, technical issues, performance etc. When I played the Schubert Sonata on which I had been working for over three years to a different teacher on a course at Jackdaws last autumn, he helped me find a new energy and focus in the music. Critique from other teachers – and comments from fellow students – can reframe your attitude to playing pieces you think you already know well.
  • That said, do whatever works best for you: there is no one ‘right way’ to get the most out of a piano course – take from the tuition and workshops what you feel will really benefit you in developing your playing.
  • Take advantage of all the opportunities of learning from the tutors and your fellow participants. Courses like Chets operate an “open-door” policy so that every lesson and workshop is open to all – go and observe others being taught, and attend workshops: there is much to be gained from hearing others play and watching a skilled teacher in action.
  • Watch other students and observe as many teaching styles as possible. Don’t talk during these sessions unless invited. When you are listening you are learning; when talking you are merely repeating what you already know, and it’s disrespectful to other students and teachers.
  • Don’t assume you can have unlimited time to practise once you arrive on the course. Competition is often high for practise facilities, and these are often limited. Most courses are for learning and observation rather than practising.  By all means, practise to some extent, but don’t miss out on concerts, lectures, lesson observation etc just because you have locked yourself in a practise room.  
  • Be generous with other musicians – both professional and amateur, with praise when appropriate and encouragement when they feel vulnerable. Remember other people feel nervous too and be supportive towards your fellow students.
  • Don’t compare yourself to other people. If it’s an all-ability course there are bound to be people playing advanced pieces. Remember they are not “better” than you, just “more advanced”. Be prepared to be surprised by the level and variety of pieces that other people bring. Draw inspiration from others’ performances and enjoy hearing a wide range of repertoire. Courses are often one of the best ways to discover new repertoire (and at Chets, Forsyths music shop can order in new music for you while you are there!).
  • Don’t worry about being judged: teachers on piano courses are generally very encouraging and their feedback is given in a positive way. Remember that these things are not competitive.
  • Do take every opportunity to play for/with other people, whether pieces you’re working on or reading through duets.
  • Don’t fret if something (be it a recital, workshop or lesson) doesn’t live up to expectations or hasn’t gone as well as you hoped. Piano courses are often so jam-packed that there is always something else around the corner to enjoy.
  • Be prepared to play something silly or light-hearted – it breaks down both social and language barriers and reminds us that music is not just a profound expression of humanity!
  • Don’t be shy about approaching other people. Remember everyone is there for the same reason – a shared love of the piano. Participants, faculty and staff always have interesting stories, backgrounds and thoughts on music, and socialising is a chance to enjoy stimulating conversations and forge new friendships and connections.
  • Don’t drink too much, or stay up too late. It can be fun to remain chatting in the bar after the final concert of the evening, but teaching sessions often start at 9 or 10 am in the morning and tiredness really does impact on your playing.
  • Above all, enjoy yourself!

Thanks to my piano friends Marie, Claire and Douglas (all enthusiastic Chets regulars) for contributing their advice to this article – and for their company during my weekend at Chets.

 

Courses for Pianists

 

(picture: Philip Fowke teaching at Chetham’s Summer School for Pianists)

Today has been spent watching others play and being taught. Chets operates an “open door” policy which means you can go and observe other people’s lessons and attend workshops with any of the teaching faculty. From a teaching point of view, watching others being taught is highly informative; equally, as a player one gains useful insights from a teacher working with another student, and workshops/masterclasses like this are also a great way of discovering new repertoire. So, this morning I sat in on a workshop led by pianist and teacher Graham Caskie at which students played works by Liszt and Bach. While looking at the Aria and First Variation from Bach’s Goldbergs, we had an interesting discussion about reverence in music and how certain works are afforded a special elevated status (this is certainly true of the Goldbergs) which can make it harder for us to play them because we feel they must be treated in a particular way, when in fact we should simply take ownership of the music and make it ours. Graham also talked about breathing – both physical and metaphorical – in music. I enjoyed his commentary and advice to the students and found him a very thoughtful and considerate teacher.

After lunch I attended the daily Adult Amateur workshop. This runs every day for 2 hours and is led by Kathryn Page and Philip Fowke (whom I had hoped to see in action but he was rehearsing for the evening’s concerto concert). The Adult Amateur workshops give pianists of all levels an opportunity to play to an audience and receive feedback from the teacher. Kathryn is an enthusiastic, positive and highly supportive teacher who was able to give each participant some very useful nuggets of information with which to work when practising. There were some lovely performances of music by Janacek, Beethoven, Turina, Bach, and Sibelius. Once again, people’s love of the piano and its literature was really palpable.

Tonight’s concerts are all about concertos – four concertos in fact with pianists Seta Tanyel (Addinsell/Warsaw Concerto), Leslie Howard (Tchaikovsky 2), Dina Parakhina (Rachmaninoff/Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini) and Philip Fowke (Grieg Concerto in A). It promises to be a splendid evening and an excellent way to end my weekend at Chets.

I’m up in Manchester at Chetham’s International Summer School and Festival for Pianists – or “Chets” as it’s affectionately called – for the weekend. It’s my first visit, though I have of course known about the summer school for some years and certain piano friends of mine are regulars here, some returning year after year (one is on his tenth visit!). Said piano friends have been urging me to attend, so it was serendipitous when I received an invitation from Murray McLachlan, who with his wife Kathryn Page runs the two-week event, to attend, primarily to review the public concerts which take place each evening, but also to observe some teaching and general get a flavour of the Chet’s experience.

I have written before about the attraction of attending a piano course or piano summer school and the reasons why people keep returning to Chets were quite clear from my arrival: after 5 hours travelling up from my home on the Dorset coast, I was met by smiling friendly staff at the school and shown to my room in (attendees are accommodated within the school – it’s basic but you don’t spend a lot of time in your room!). In the atrium next to the magnificent Stoller Hall (which opened in 2017), there were groups of people – pianists – talking and laughing, friends greeted one another and there was a palpable sense of excited anticipation about the days to come: the teaching, the workshops, the concerts and the socialising. This is what people come to Chets for.

The rather confusing walk to the accommodation block, the staircases and long corridors reminded me of my first day at university, navigating my way around the hall of residence where I lived, but I suspect within 24 hours I’ll have got the hang of it and it will soon seem very familiar.

A quick change and it was down to Whiteley Hall for the first concert of the evening, a very interesting programme of music with electronics and live visuals, performed Canadian pianist Megumi Masaki with composer Keith Hamel and visual artist Sigi Torinus – a full review will be posted separately. As I was making my way to a seat, I met my friend Noriko and I must say it was good to see a familiar face in the crowd. Afterwards, she, her companions and I went to supper in the school dining hall, another place which brought a rather Proustian rush of memory from university days. By the time we had queued for food, I had got to know Murray, a first-timer who is here for the new piano teachers’ course. He’s never attended a piano course of any kind before, so he’s really jumping in at the deep end having signed up for two weeks!

After supper we made our way back to the Atrium/bar at Stoller Hall for pre-concert chat and drinks before a performance of the Goldberg Variations, then more drinks and socialising ahead of the final concert of the evening, a performance of music for two pianos with Bobby Chen and Douglas Finch. Prior to this concert, I took the opportunity to chat to various people – some were Chets regulars, others were newcomers. All mentioned the quality of the teaching here as a main motivation for attending, plus the convivial atmosphere (the teaching faculty mingle with participants and take their meals in the same dining hall).

Stoller Hall

The final concert was stunning – as was the venue, a modern “shoebox” hall much like King’s Place or Milton Court, designed by Stephenson STUDIO and the recipient of a national RIBA Award, with wonderful acoustics.

I’ve been here less than half a day and already it’s clear that the Chets experience is pretty full-on. Each day has a full programme of activities from teaching and workshops to public concerts, so now I’m off to bed as I’m rather “piano-d out”!