Guest post by Samantha Ege

“Remember it’s about connection not perfection.”

Those were the words of my coach and mentor Deborah Torres Patel. I had just told her about one of my first international lecture-recitals. The lecture had gone well, but the recital had been an absolute disaster. Actually, that wasn’t true—it wasn’t a disaster at all. Yes, my playing had been more nervous than usual, but “disaster” was definitely an exaggeration. I had received sincere compliments, encouragement and gratitude for my scholarly and pianistic contributions. But in my post-performance ritual of dramatizing the worst, re-imagining all the ways in which I could and should have played perfectly, and re-living all of the ways in which I did not, it was an absolute disaster.

About a year after this experience, a video surfaced. It was the trailer for the 2018 Women Composers Festival of Hartford where my lecture-recital had taken place. The trailer contained a short excerpt from my recital that cut to the lyrical second theme of Florence Price’s Sonata in E minor (first movement). It wasn’t bad! Festival Director Penny Brandt showed me the yet to be released full film that featured more of my playing. There was no sign of the disastrous performance I thought I had delivered. In fact, I heard my playing quite differently to how I had experienced it in the moment. Time had allowed me to zoom out and actually appreciate what I brought to the music in that performance. But I wished I could have felt this appreciation back then, and not just in retrospect.

I thought about Deborah’s words again. “Connection not perfection.” What kind of anticipation might I have built pre-performance if I had truly prioritized communication over self-consciousness? What kind of delivery might have unfolded if I had centred my connection to the music over the perfection of the notes. How might I have experienced the immediate aftermath of the recital if I had fully absorbed the audience’s response rather than becoming entangled in a web of personal disappointment? The idea of connection bore so many implications and in this moment of reflection, I was inspired to dig deeper and explore its many layers.

As a pianist-scholar who champions music by women, it is my goal to do the music justice and leave a lasting impression upon the listener. As much as I enjoy the academic side of writing and research, I feel that my work is not complete until I bring the music to life through performance. In those moments, I hope to perform in a way that captures how I felt when I first heard Althea Waites play Florence Price, or Virginia Eskin play Vítězslava Kaprálová because it was connection rather than perfection that drew me in and inspired me to make this repertoire my own.

As I look back on past performances, I try to apply what I wish I had known or felt then to the present. There is something so daunting, yet so liberating about playing repertoire that doesn’t carry the weight of heavily scrutinized performance histories. Indeed, the daunting side always seems so readily present while the liberating side requires a lot more pursuit. Still, they go hand in hand: the repertoire is daunting exactly because it is liberating. In championing under-represented composers, I have found incredible freedom as a pianist; oftentimes, my performances present first-time listening experiences for many, and even world premières—no pressure! But I know that this freedom will not transpire in the moment of performance unless I remember “it’s about connection not perfection.”


Samantha-16Samantha Ege is a British scholar, pianist and educator. Her PhD (University of York) centres on the African-American composer Florence Price. As a concert pianist, Ege’s focus on women composers has led to performances in Singapore, Australia, the UK and the US Ege has also championed Florence Price’s repertoire alongside violinist Er-Gene Kahng with duo recitals in Singapore, Hong Kong and the US.

Ege released her debut album in May 2018 with Wave Theory Records, entitled Four Women: Music for solo piano by Florence Price, Vítězslava Kaprálová, Ethel Bilsland and Margaret Bonds. The album featured the world première recording of Bilsland’s The Birthday Party, which led to Ege preparing an edition of the suite, now published by Faber Music. Four Women has been described as “an impressive collection…performed with virtuosic assurance.” Ege has also been commended “for her goal to bring the music of these composers to greater public awareness.”

Website: www.musicherstories.com

Guest post by Simon Danell

Memorizing has, for years, been very fascinating to me. I think that’s partly due to the fact that it was such a struggle for me in the beginning, whereas now it seems like a very natural thing to do. It’s something most of us haven’t really been taught, but expected to figure out by ourselves – if we don’t learn the piece by heart, we’re usually just told to practice more.

I find it interesting how such a crucial part is just left for fate do decide.

When starting to play piano, memorizing is usually not such a big problem. The songs or pieces are short enough to learn just by playing them through a couple of times per day. But once we enter even slightly more advanced repertoire, that way of learning is suddenly of no use, and we tend to find ourselves fiddling around on the keys with an increased heart rate, and with the words “Oh, sh*t” repeating in our heads.

I was no different. I easily came through the harmonically simple and motorically repetitive pieces without any difficulty, and putting my head on auto pilot was my idea of a perfect concert – I’d get up on stage, bow, sit down and start to play. Things would then turn black, and I would come out of the darkness a few minutes later once the last note is played. “How did it go? Oh, just amazing, I didn’t even have to think!” Then it came….. I went up on stage, bowed, sat down and things turned black. “But what was that note again?“, and it all changed. I came out of the darkness, but I wasn’t even half -way through the piece. Desperately I tried to find the right notes to play, my heart rate increased and “Oh, sh*t!” was on repeat in my mind.

Luckily, it was on a sort of bad piano, and the audience was a bunch of classmates who just wanted to go home. They were probably coughing and yawning a lot, so it was surely because of that, and nothing I had done wrong. All I had to do was to practice some more and just focus a bit more next time.

The next concert came – I went up, bowed, sat down.. all just routine by now. The only difference was that this time, I’d be Focused! “Focus, focus focus focus… fo.. f…. oh, sh*t!

These slips went on. I could play the music perfectly at home, and almost as good in the lesson room, but once on stage, it all just fell apart. I went on to practice 8-10 hours per day, but still with the same result in concert.

I got some tricks from my teacher, like “Think of the harmonies” or “Practice more slowly, and with separate hands!“, but that rarely made any actual difference.

The real difference came when I started studying at actual music school, when I was about 18, where other students also had to practice. The rooms quite quickly became full, and there was a lot of time spent just waiting. As the pieces had to be learned anyway, I started by just reading the score, and tried to imagine what it looked like. I read a line, or a phrase, closed my eyes, and tried to play it in my head. Not only was I unable to remember the notes, I barely remembered what it sounded like! It was such an epiphany that I knew it would change my musical life. I finally started thinking about practicing. How would I ever be able to play anything if I had no idea what I was actually playing? From then on I started practicing away from the instruments at least an hour every day. I tried to not allow myself to practice at a piano before I had a very clear idea in my mind of how it was going to sound once I started playing.

It became clear to me that the motoric memory (or muscle memory, as some call it), the thing I had used for so long, was actually very unsafe and unstable. I found that the other senses have an impact on our memory too – the aural and visual, and the intellectual part – and how they, unlike the motoric memory, really needed to be worked on properly and won’t just come by themselves.

I started analyzing my performances, and what I was thinking during my playing. As it turned out, I was thinking almost exactly the same things when I was performing as when I was practicing, and once the muscle memory turned off, I had no safety-net since I didn’t make one when I was practicing. In some aspects, practicing shouldn’t really be that different from performing.

Once I started practicing everything I had to know on the stage, all the memory slips disappeared almost over night. I finally realized not only to focus, but on what I should focus. If I noticed that my mind was drifting on a certain spot, I practiced to know what to think on that spot (the notes, the character, to sing the melody…) to train myself to think about the same thing during the performance. Or if I noticed that I worried about remembering the notes in a certain phrase, I practiced every voice carefully in my mind, both the notes and the music, before I played them, and followed each of them very attentively when I played. Then I would have created a safety net, in case I would need it in public.

I practiced very attentively like this for some time, to make sure I would cover the full piece – I remember once when I was performing the Symphonic Etudes by Schumann and, with full focus, was able to follow everything, down to pretty much every single note – but then got into the next problem….

You. Can’t. Make. Music. If. It. Never. Ever. Flows. … Which is what happens if you think on a note-to-note basis.

It was an obvious improvement from being neither detailed nor attentive, but it was a few steps too far. I tried to alternate between being in constant control, with often playing through to put everything in a certain perspective.

Now I feel that I can be both while performing. If I feel I am under control, I can let go and let the music flow by itself, and can just as easily go back to regain my focus if it’s starting to fall apart.

This article first appeared on the website of pianist Simon Danell.

Inspired by a guest post on performance anxiety written by a friend from my piano Meetup group, I am launching a new occasional series of guest posts called Advice to Myself.

The articles are aimed at pianists and musicians in general and will offer practical, supportive and inspiring advice on aspects such as managing anxiety, preparing for performance, practising, repertoire, teaching, music exams, avoiding injury and more. The advice of others based on their experience of similar issues and challenges can be very helpful, and I hope these articles will also create a forum for discussion of the many issues which face musicians, amateur and professional.

Articles can include images, links, video and sound clips.

If you would like to contribute to the series, please contact me