…and how it relates to the performance of Western art music


Long read guest post by Dr Michael Low

 

I will never forget Tuesday 18th February 2020. In truth, there was nothing unremarkable about how the day itself unfolded: I woke up, went about my usual business of teaching, had lunch at my favourite coffee shop whilst browsing Premier League football news (yes, there was the small matter of Covid-19 that was making tidal waves in China and parts of Asia, but this has no interest to me. After all, “I live in Cape Town, and the damn thing probably needs a GPS or Google Maps to get here,” I reassured myself). The afternoon itself was equally uneventful: I did some grocery shopping in between teaching, practised for a few hours afterwards, then went home and ate the leftover dinner that my wife and I had cooked the previous day. It was after dinner that I received the phone call that changed my life forever, my beloved grandmother had passed away very suddenly, and in less than 48 hours I found myself in Changi Airport en route to Malaysia. I have visited Singapore many times in the last seven years, but I have never seen Changi airport so tranquil and serene, the exact opposite of its normal busy, bustling self. It was at this moment that I realised how potentially serious the Coronavirus was, and I prayed that it never finds its way to Cape Town.

Surely, but not slowly, the Coronavirus locked on to Google Maps and in under four weeks South Africa had her first infected case. Since then we have now been in lockdown for the best part of seven weeks and here I am writing to share my thoughts as the country ‘phases’ itself towards an economic recovery. However, before I proceed, I just want to be clear on the following points:

  • In regard to Covid-19, there is the narrative norm on one hand and the so-called ‘conspiracy theories’ on the other, as well as everything in between. The point of writing this article is not to promote any ‘school’ of thinking but rather try to be as neutral as is humanly possible.
  • The opinions (musical and otherwise) stated in this article are based on my experience as a human being, educator, musician and a pianist.

Here we go!

What I learn from the Coronavirus pandemic in relation to the performance of Western art music:

1. Be careful what you wish for…

Any die-hard fans of low budget, straight to video/DVD horror and slasher movies will no doubt be familiar with the above tagline as it was used use in Robert Kurtzman’s 1997 Wishmaster. In this film, an evil genie (known as the djinn) grants wishes to those who are willing to give up their souls. However, the wishes granted often contain a ‘catch’, or in other words, have an undesirable outcome for the wisher. For example (if my memory serves me correctly…), the djinn grants the wish of ‘eternal beauty’ to a female clerk by turning her into a mannequin! (Can you imagine wishing to play the Rachmaninoff 3rd Piano Concerto only to be turned into a CD player?) For those who are not so familiar with Wishmaster, doubtless you will remember the climax of Disney’s Aladdin, when the protagonist mocks Jafar for not being as powerful as the genie, all the while knowing that once Jafar wishes himself into a powerful genie, he will have ultimately made himself a prisoner to the lamp.

In fairness to András Schiff, having part of your upcoming book quoted in a national newspaper is not a bad marketing ploy. The only drawback is that the editor will always choose the section from the book which is the most – hmm, how can I put it – musically provocative? The internet is full of ‘clickbaits’ and I suspect the purpose behind quoting the more aggravating passages from Schiff’s writing is to generate not only attention but also as reaction. That is not to say that Schiff is wrong, but does it really matter that ‘the average’ audience who attends Classical music concerts cannot hear the difference between a German 6th and a Dominant 7th Chord? All of us start our musical journey somewhere: I was a self-confessed Richard Clayderman fan in my early childhood who dreamt of playing Francis Albert Lai’s ‘Love Story’ on my wedding day (Thank God I didn’t!), but as a result of attending live concerts, I developed a lifelong passion for Classical music and made it a big part of my life. I must also confess that I am no angel and have on a couple of occasions fallen asleep during live performances. It is my humble opinion that having an audience who is just (if not more) musically knowledgeable than the performer is akin to a patient who ends up diagnosing himself/herself in a medical consultation with a doctor. I have not read Schiff’s book, and there is every chance he is being quoted out of context. However, saying that modern audiences don’t know the difference between poor and outstanding performances is kind of like biting the hand that feeds you. And even if this is the case, what does it say about Schiff’s own standing as one of the most revered pianists of the twentieth century? (I must also confess that Schiff was one of my musical idols during my teenage years). On Schiff’s remark with regards to the ‘dos and don’ts’ of concert etiquette, I don’t think, even in his most surreal musical fantasies, that he envisages an age where the internet and social media would be the only platform available for live performance. If Schiff ever does a live stream, at least he won’t be giving death stares to certain audience members when they do cough or shuffle, and audience members will now be able to press pause for a bathroom break, especially when the encore is Schubert’s “Wanderer” Fantasy.

In fairness to Schiff, he has since apologised for what he had said. However, there is no denying that the pianist’s initial remark will continue to leave a lingering taste on the tongues of many Classical music critics and bloggers.

 

2. One size doesn’t necessarily fit all…

When the Chinese government took the decision to lock down Wuhan in January 2020, no one else in the world envisaged that this would be the beginning of a new world order. Indeed, the rest of Asia swiftly implemented the Chinese lockdown model, followed by most of Europe (apart from Sweden) and it was only a matter of time before countries on the African continent did the same. However, whereas the lockdown was dutifully observed in China and Germany, the entire practice has less of a desirable effect in countries such as the Britain and South Africa. This is not because the Chinese and the Germans are necessarily better than the British or the Africans, but because the collective mindset of citizens in every country is different. Sweeping statement perhaps, but China and Germany are known to be nations of extraordinary discipline (I say this with a small pinch of salt because there will always be exceptions to any argument: even in the most disciplined nations there will also be a handful of free-spirited beings. Conversely, in nations where freedom of expression and an easy-going way of life are encouraged, there will always be a handful of very disciplined people). In musical performance, the Chinese (and Orientals in general) are known for their peerless technique and poise, often the fruit of countless hours of practice. (I have been told that, in China, a piano student must ‘earn’ his/hers right to any musical repertoire by first completing at least all the Hanon Exercises as well as the first two books of Czerny’s School of Velocity!). Such precision of  technical execution, combined with extraordinary agility, is what gives the Chinese pianist the ‘WOW’ factor: think of Lang Lang and Yuja Wang, although a case can be made for Miss Wang that it is not only her playing that has the ‘WOW’ factor. Like their Chinese counterparts, the Germans are a nation of law-abiding citizens who enjoy a sense of order to their everyday live. (It is possible to argue that the Chinese’s respect for the authority comes from a place of fear, whereas the Germans actually seem to enjoy following rules). I will never forget listening to a discussion between two former housemates of mine, one German, the other Italian: the former could not understand why the latter is so keen on evading tax whereas the latter cannot understand why the former is keen on paying tax! Hence, a ‘Germanic’ musical performance can often translate into emphasis of the downbeat, as well as the awareness of the music’s symmetrical phrase length, thus giving the listener a sense of structure, of knowing where exactly you are in the music. In other words, German pianists have the tendency to play more ‘down the bar line’, and I name Wilhelm Backhaus and Artur Schnabel as two exponents of this school. I have always felt that one of the challenges of playing any musical repertoire at the highest level, be it German or otherwise, is to ‘unsquare’ the so-called ‘square’ phrases, but once again, I must remind you that I am merely making a generalisation about German performers and German music. There will always be exceptions to the rule; Walter Gieseking and Wilhelm Kempff spring to mind.

I cannot speak for Britain, but the reason lockdown doesn’t have the effect it was supposed to have in South Africa has much to do with the country’s unstable infrastructures and volatile economy (South Africa’s state-owned enterprises have been surviving on state bailouts for years and the country has recently taken the decision to liquidated its national airline, the SAA, after years of mismanagement). As a result, South Africans have become very self-sufficient whilst making the most of their entrepreneurial abilities. When the South African president, Cyril Ramaphosa, announced that the sale of tobacco and alcohol would be prohibited during the national lockdown from the end of March, many South Africans decided that this was unconstitutional and ‘made another plan’ (the South African phrase for ‘Plan B’). The resulted in many smokers getting their supply of cigarettes from ‘unofficial’ sources as well as a spike (actually more akin to a wedge) in pineapple and yeast sales, as people brewed their own version of homemade pineapple beer. At the same time, there was also a gentleman across social media who subsidised his own income by delivering wine using an arial drone! When there was a clamp-down on these ‘illicit’ activities, some resorted to looting and burgling liquor stores, on a couple of occasions with the help of selected members of the South African Police force, who were meant to be enforcing the lockdown in the first place!

Any instrumental teacher worth their pedagogical salt will tell you just how important it is to address the basics such as rhythm, the reading of musical notation, posture and technique. At the same time, no two students are the same, and I have always felt that one of the hallmarks of a great teacher is the ability to successfully convey the same information to different individuals to achieve the desired result. Despite their differing styles of pianism and musical interpretation, Ossip Gabrilowitsch, Benno Moisewitsch, and Artur Schnabel all studied with Theodor Leschetizky. And even though Emil Gilels, Radu Lupu and Sviatoslav Richter were the student of Heinrich Neuhaus, all three of them could not have been more different in terms of their musical temperament. However, all these great pianists have one thing in common (that is if we discount their massive technique and repertoire, which is taken for granted at the highest level), they are first and foremost, musicians of the highest order (I say this with a slight reservation, because some of Richter’s late performances can be slightly off the mark, to say the least). In short: Gilels, Lupu and Richter all put the composer before themselves. I have always got the impression while listening to Gilels and Lupu’s performances (of Beethoven and Brahms in particular) that this is what the composer themselves wanted to say, only now they are saying it through the performer, who acts as a kind of conduit. As we entered an age of remote teaching, one only has to look at the YouTube channel of Graham Fitch and Josh Wright, two outstanding pedagogues who often remind the viewers that there is no one way of playing the piano. Sweeping statement perhaps, but it is possible to say that the techniques introduced in both Fitch and Wright’s video tutorials have one primary function: the economy of physical movement through the release of tension, which make for more efficient interpretation of the musical score.

 

3. The narrative norm is not for everyone…

In general, there seems to be three school of thoughts on Covid-19. The mainstream narrative belongs to the billionaire philanthropists, politicians, national media and medical professionals on the front line fighting this ‘invisible enemy’. They will tell you how dangerous and easily transmittable the virus is and show you the ‘facts’: hospitals all over the world are over-crowded with Covid-19 patients, the virus completely annihilates the human respiratory system, and until a vaccine is found, we will have to keep our ‘social distance’. Finally, they will justify the world-wide lockdown by saying that human lives are much more important than the country’s economy. The second narrative seeks to challenge the first, these are put forward by investigative journalists, independent news broadcasters, regular doctors and medical professionals (who changed their practice from conventional medicine towards natural and alternative healing modalities commonly known as functional medicine). They will argue that Covid-19 is not as deadly as the media make it out to be. They will also argue that there is a difference between dying of Covid-19 and dying with Covid-19. They will point to a flaw in Professor Neil Ferguson’s model (which sparked the lockdown in the UK and the US) and question the merit of social distancing (especially when Ferguson himself was guilty of the violating the curfew during lockdown). Finally, they will argue against the world-wide lockdown as it is not only catastrophic to the country’s economy but also leads to long-term psychological and emotional impact on people. For those without a regular pay cheque (like the majority of South Africans), it is a matter of rolling the dice and going back to work or die of hunger, and many chose the former. Those who are in favour of the third and final narrative are often dubbed conspiracy theorists. Based on the argument put forward by the investigative journalists and independent news broadcasters, they believe that Covid-19 is manufactured in a science lab and that the current pandemic is in fact a ‘plandemic’ masterminded by the billionaire philanthropists and the World Health Organisation in their quest to depopulate and conquer the earth.

Regardless of what your views on Covid-19 are, one will always be able to find the sources to support one’s arguments. However, what I found disappointing is how dismissive certain individuals have become. Arguments from those who embraced the dominant narrative include ‘I would be wary of anyone who doesn’t think Covid-19 is serious’, or ‘You obviously have not seen what I have seen’ (an unassailable medical argument), and ‘It is against the law to promote fake news about the epidemic, you should only get your information from trusted sources such as the national media’. Whereas the ‘conspiracy theorists’ will respond with answers such as, ‘There are far too many coincidences for this to be a pandemic’ (often quoting Event 201 and the Rockefeller ‘Lockstep’ document), and ‘The medical institutes and national media covering the Covid-19 pandemic have links with the philanthropist foundations.’ I will probably get a lot of flak for this but isn’t the human thing to do during these extremely traumatic times simply to listen to others no matter how ridiculous their thoughts are? All of us have our own demons to conquer, and what we are feeling right now is intrinsically linked with our own anxiety and past experiences, hence this is all deeply personal. I have colleagues who are terrified of going back to work when school resumes, and at the same time, I also know people who are not afraid of the virus. But I am not going to reprimand these individuals when they are two centimetres outside their social distancing perimeter when I am waiting in line to do my grocery shopping. At the same, I can only be supportive and continue to convey the message of hope and safety to everyone else during these uncertain times.

I have always found it interesting that what constitutes expertise as well as the clarity of thought is often directly linked with the reputation of an institute and its country of origin. For example, a medical doctor working for a first-world medical establishment will always be considered as better qualified than a doctor living in a third-world country with his/her own private practice. Western art music, due to its heritage and traditions, is full of what can be described as ‘gatekeepers’: musicians, teachers and critics (though not necessarily in that order) who are convinced that theirs is the definitive way of playing the piano and musical interpretation. I often get the impression that part of this has to do with privilege as well as pride: ‘I studied with A, who was the student of AB, who studied with ABC, who is the neighbour of ABCD, who was responsible for feeding the stray cat who wanders around Beethoven’s apartment, which in turn makes me a direct link to Ludwig himself!’ (Jokes aside, one often feels obliged to convey a worthwhile message learnt from one’s teacher to the next generation). Doubtless many of us will remember Wanda Landowska’s closing remarks to a talented young pianist, ‘Very well, my dear, you play Bach your way, I’ll play Bach his way!’. Without intending any form of disrespect towards Madame Landowska, I doubt even she had ‘the hotline to Bach’, as legendary South African piano teacher Laura Searle used to put it.

I came across an interview not so long ago by an eminent pianist of the twentieth century (another one of my musical idols) talking about the differences between Classical and Romantic music. The pianist went on to say the following:

There are certain devices that one uses in Romantic music that are appropriate only for Romantic or subsequent music. If you take those devices and apply them to earlier music, then it’s totally inappropriate, and it makes the Classical music sound silly. However, if you were to use what you might call ‘Classical devices’ on Romantic music, historically, that would be correct!

In my humble opinion the difference between the interpretation of Classical and Romantic music has much less to do with the ‘devices’ (in using such a term I suspect the pianist was talking about rhythmic organisation). I strongly feel that the difference between how we approach Classical and Romantic Music lies in our sense of musical objectivity. This is because the musical ideals of the Classical style were intrinsically linked with the Age of Enlightenment, with its emphasis on logic and the rational. In Classical music this is translated into balance and structure, as well as the beauty and clarity of melodic line. Being a virtuoso during Mozart’s lifetime had little to do with thundering double octaves and brute fffs, but rather with beautifully shaped semiquavers passages. The Romantic movement is a reaction against the hegemony of reason central to the Enlightenment. In art and music, Romanticism shifts the emphasis from structural objectives to the realm of emotional subjectivity, at the same time placing the individual as a focal point in the creation of an artwork. In short, the performer now has more musical licence for rubato, as well as for injecting his/her personality into the performance. I recall one of my teachers telling me that rubato in Mozart is on ‘a knife edge’, you are either right or you are wrong, whereas rubato in Liszt is more of a ‘grey’ area. While I wholeheartedly agree that nothing is more hideous than Mozart being played in the Romantic style: lots of Sturm und Drang, long pedals across bars, variation in tempi as well as the ‘splitting of the hands’ – a quintessential Romantic gesture found in the performance of Chopin, Schumann and the late Romantics. I also cannot imagine Liszt and Rachmaninoff performed ‘classically’: with little, if any, tempo fluctuation and understatement of all the dynamics, topped off with a hygienically precise execution. Music is a living, breathing entity, it is also a reflection of humanity, flawed, unique and unapologetically beautiful. I am not saying for one second that we should disrespect the stylistic parameters of musical performance that have been passed down for generations, but I find many of the mainstream musical narrative somewhat troubling because there will always be exceptions to the rules, just like there are exceptions when it comes to individual performances. While I am far from convinced with the musical interpretations of pianists such as Glenn Gould and Ivo Pogorelich (it must be said that some of the rationale behind some of Gould’s more eccentric recordings – such as the Mozart Sonata in A Major K331, has more to do with the pianist’s own sense of anxiety more than anything else), I also think it is unfair to dismiss them as charlatans or musical quacks. I may not be Pogorelich’s biggest fan with regards to the pianist’s comeback performances, but at the same time I pay him the compliment of treating him as a human being and a musician; the very least I can do is to listen. And even though I might not like what I hear, Pogorelich is still entitled to his musical opinions. By the same token, I don’t think Pogorelich himself will approve of many of my own performances! However, one sometimes comes across a musical interpretation that has absolutely no regards for the musical text or what the composer wants, and that is when I get immensely annoyed. I recently came across a YouTube performance of the ‘Wanderer’ Fantasy at [at least] a quarter of Schubert’s tempo marking. My initial reaction was that this must be a joke; sadly it wasn’t, and if it was, I have obviously missed the punchline. I will never forget my composition teacher telling me the following when I was a wide-eyed teenager: “Michael, if you want to be loved, don’t become a musician.” He is right of course, musical interpretation is full of subjectivity and no matter how competent you are, there will always be someone somewhere in the universe who will find fault with what you do. At the end of the day, I truly believe that if you are a trained musician, and you approach the music that you play with humility, intelligence and heart, then you will be able to do it justice. Whether or not your interpretation is ‘in line’ with the mainstream musical narrative, does it really matter if the gatekeepers don’t like what you have to say?

I want to finish this article by referencing a movie my wife and I enjoyed during the lockdown, Jojo Rabbit. Directed by Taika Waititi’s and based on Christine Leunens’s 2008 book Caging Skies, the film is set towards the end of World War II and centres around the everyday lives and the imaginary world of Johannes ‘Jojo’ Betzler, an innocent but heavily indoctrinated ten-year-old German boy who dreams of becoming a Nazi and fighting for the Third Reich (Jojo’s make-believe world is symbolised by his interactions with an extremely supportive and immensely entertaining ‘Adolf Hitler’, played by the director himself). Jojo’s world starts to fall apart when he discovers that a Jewish girl, Elsa Korr, has been secretly living within the walls of his house and it doesn’t take the two protagonists long to strike up a friendship. As Jojo develops feelings for Elsa, he begins to question his own beliefs before realising that ultimately, it is love and ‘butterflies in the stomach’ that prevail, especially during traumatic and uncertain times. As the world slowly emerges from the Covid-19 pandemic, I would like to think that this momentary pause in time gave all of us a chance to reassess our lives and how we go about doing certain things. The world may not be a perfect, yet it is the only one that we have. Life can often be a struggle, but all of us who are here on earth have been given a wonderful opportunity to make something of it: live it, embrace it, love it, and if you can, play some music on the way, and perhaps take a leaf from Jojo and Elsa’s book –  dance to it.


Dr Michael Low, May 2020

As a teenager, Michael studied piano under the guidance of Richard Frostick before enrolling in London’s prestigious Centre for Young Musicians, where he studied composition with the English composer Julian Grant, and piano with the internationally acclaimed pedagogue Graham Fitch. During his studies at Surrey University in England, Michael made his debut playing Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto in the 1999 Guildford International Music Festival, before graduating with Honours under the tutelage of Clive Williamson. In 2000, Michael obtained his Masters in Music (also from Surrey University), specialising in music criticism, studio production and solo performance under Nils Franke.

An international scholarship brought Michael to the University of Cape Town, where he resumed his studies with Graham Fitch. During this time, Michael was invited to perform Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto for The Penang Governer’s Birthday Celebration Gala Concert. In 2009, Michael obtained his Doctorate in Music from the University of Cape Town under the supervision of South Africa greatest living composer, Hendrik Hofmeyr. His thesis set out to explore the Influence of Romanticism on the Evolution of Liszt’s Transcendental Etudes.

In 2013, Michael started a project in Singapore collaborating with The Kawai School Elite in a series of masterclasses and workshops for teachers and students. Having grown up in the East and lived his life in the West, Michael believes that both cultures has much to offer and envisage an exchange between Singapore and Cape Town in the future. In 2019 Michael was also invited to Taipei for a series of Masterclasses and workshops.

Michael is also the co-founder of the Elvira Ensemble – a Classical Chamber Orchestra specialising in the Piano Concertos of Mozart and Beethoven as well as Soundtracks from Blockbuster Hollywood Movies. The Ensemble have given performances at several high-profile events such as the wedding of Justin Snaith, one of South Africa’s leading race-horse trainer. In January 2020, the ensemble was engaged to perform at the wedding of the former Miss Universe and Miss South Africa, Miss Demi-Leigh Nel Peters.

Michael has also worked with numerous eminent teachers and pianists, including Nina Svetlanova, Niel Immelman, Frank Heneghan, James Gibb, Phillip Fowke, Renna Kellaway, Carolina Oltsmann, Florian Uhlig, Gordon Fergus Thompson, Francois du Toit and Helena van Heerden.

Michael currently holds teaching positions in two of Cape Town’s exclusive education centres: Western Province Preparatory School and Herschel School for Girls. He is very much sought after as a passionate educator of young children.

www.michaellow.co.za

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

If you enjoy the content of this site, please consider making a donation towards its upkeep:

Buy me a coffee

This week I fulfilled a long held wish – to attend a live performance of John Cage’s infamous and iconoclastic ‘silent’ work 4’33”. The performance was part of a special visit to a recording studio at City University to see how Edition Peters create content for the innovative and high-spec Tido Music piano app. This involves a filmed masterclass where the pianist (in this instance Adam Tendler) sets the work in context, with information about its creation and critical reception, and advice on practising the music, together with a live performance (more about Tido Music here). The decision to include 4’33” in the Tido Music library is entirely due to the work’s extraordinary and for some, controversial, place in twentieth-century music – and for pianist Adam Tendler the work should be regarded as a “standard” of piano repertoire.

Ever since its premiere given by David Tudor on August 29, 1952, in Maverick Concert Hall, Woodstock, New York, as part of a programme of contemporary piano music, the piece has courted controversy and opprobrium, its detractors claiming it is not “real music” or that the work is some kind of joke. Some audience members felt cheated or angered by the performance, saving their loudest, most uproarious protests for the post-concert Q&A session. “Good people of Woodstock, let’s drive these people out of town!” someone reportedly shouted after the concert.

 

So why is 4’33” so controversial? When John Cage conceived it, in the years immediately after the Second World War, he was attempting to remove both composer and artists from the process of creation. Instead, by asking the musicians specifically not to play, Cage allows us, the audience, to create our own “music”, entirely randomly and uniquely, by listening to the noises around us during four minutes and thirty-three seconds of “silence” and removing any pre-conceptions or pre-learned ideas we may have about what music is and how it should be presented, perceived and received. The work is an example of “automaticism”, and was, in part, Cage’s reaction to a seemingly inescapable soundtrack of “muzak”.

Neither composer nor artists seemingly have any control over or impact on the piece; the piece is created purely from the ambient sounds heard and created by the audience. In this way, the audience becomes crucial: this aural “blank canvas” reflects the ever-changing ambient sounds surrounding each performance, which emanate from the players, the audience and the building itself. Maverick Concert Hall, where the work was premiered, is partially open to the elements, and thus the audience at that first public performance could hear the “accidental” sounds around them: birdsong, the wind in the trees, rain on the roof, and the sounds of the audience members themselves. This of course was one of Cage’s intentions for the piece – to prove that the absence of musical notes is not the same thing as silence.

Cage was not the first composer to conceive a piece of music consisting entirely of silence: examples and precedents include Alphonse Allais’ 1897 Funeral March for the Obsequies of a Deaf Man, consisting of twenty-four blank bars (Allais was an associate of Eric Satie, a composer whom Cage much admired), and Yves Klein’s 1949 Monotone-Silence Symphony, an orchestral forty-minute piece whose second and last movement is a twenty minute silence. And there are examples from the world of visual art too: American artist, friend and occasional colleague of Cage, Robert Rauschenberg, produced a series of white paintings, seemingly “blank” canvases, which change depending on the light conditions of the rooms in which they are hung, the shadows of people viewing them and so forth. Like Cage’s work, Rauschenberg’s canvases are brought to life by their viewers and the venue in which they are exhibited (I saw one of Rauschenberg’s White Paintings at a retrospective at Tate Modern, together with other works dedicated to his friend John Cage, and the canvas really does shift and alter depending on the conditions of the room in which it is displayed). There are parallels with other visual artists too, including Carl André and Marina Abramovic, both of whose work explores the relationship between artist, artwork and audience, the limits of the body, and the possibilities of the mind.

whit_98-308_026
Installation view of Rauschenberg’s White Painting (three panel, 1951) in the artist’s studio, 1991. (©Robert Rauschenberg Foundation / Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY)
On another level, Cage was challenging – and exploiting – the conventions of traditional concert hall etiquette. By programming a work to be performed at a prestigious venue, with high-status players and conductor, the audience’s expectations are heightened long before the performance begins  – think of the excitement and anticipation generated when Simon Rattle, Daniel Barenboim or Jonas Kaufman come to town.

Cage was also experimental – he liked to try new things and challenge conventional ways of doing things. For him art was “a sort of experimental station in which one tries out living.” I am sure he felt the audience’s reactions – curious, puzzled, angry, intrigued, amused – to 4’33” were as interesting as the concept of a silent piece of music.

“They missed the point. There’s no such thing as silence. What they thought was silence, because they didn’t know how to listen, was full of accidental sounds. You could hear the wind stirring outside during the first movement. During the second, raindrops began pattering the roof, and during the third the people themselves made all kinds of interesting sounds as they talked or walked out.”
– John Cage, speaking about the premiere of 4’33”

Later in his life, Cage stated that he played 4’33” every day, and the notion of incorporating 4’33” into one’s daily practising regime is very appealing, never more so in our noisy, fast-paced, always connected modern world. The work was composed, in part, as a reaction to “muzak” and the “background noise” that seems to invade every corner of our lives. I’ve become more and more aware of this when I am out and about. There is music everywhere and it’s becoming increasingly intrusive – it’s in bars, cafés, restaurants, shops, leaking from other people’s headphones, even my bank, often at a volume which precludes comfortable speech or hearing, and which invades our conscious, creating unwanted “earworms” or aggravating my tinnitus. It seems that there is some unseen force which requires us to have a soundtrack for every moment of our day. In contrast, 4’33” impels us to to take time out to listen, and really listen. And it encourages a special kind of in-the-moment focus, common to the practice of meditation.

This intensity of listening and engagement with the work was very evident at the Tido Music performance by Adam Tendler. The performance took place not in a conventional concert hall but in a small performance space at City University. The audience was very small –  just Tido and Edition Peters staff members and I, no more than 15 of us. The excitement and anticipation of the performance began before we entered the room, much in the same way as it would if one was at Wigmore Hall or the Proms. The pianist was seated at a gleaming Steinway D which stretched before us like a sleek black limo. On the music desk was the score and a stop watch. After a very interesting, articulate introduction to the piece (for the benefit of the Tido Music app content), Adam was invited by the film crew to begin when he was ready. A palpable ripple of expectancy vibrated around the room, a couple of people primed their smartphones to take photographs. I had expected to be able to hear the ticking of the stopwatch but it was not audible at all. Instead I heard the hum of the air-conditioning, the stomach gurglings of the person sitting next to me, someone stretching their legs. And all around me I could sense everyone else listening very intently, focusing, engaging. It was a remarkably intense experience, an intensity which made 4 minutes and 33 seconds feel much longer than it actually was in real time. When the performance ended, there was an audible collective sigh and the sense of the tiny audience releasing, unwinding, relaxing, before the applause came.

tido
Adam Tendler preparing to play 4’33” (picture: Tido Music)
The actual performance began when Adam lowered the fall board of the piano and started a stop watch on the music desk. He sat almost motionless at the piano, but there was no sense of him disengaging from the performance or relaxing. He might not be playing any notes on the instrument, but he was still performing a piece of music. And this leads to another fascinating concept which 4’33” provokes: the idea of performance and the pianist’s presence, gestures and body language during performance.

In a conventional piano recital, the audience’s reactions are largely led by the sounds the pianist makes. But physical gestures and body language are important too (some performers seem to allow exaggerated body language to obscure the music; I’m no fan of this kind of pianistic histrionics). From the moment the performer enters the stage, we are engaging with them via their body language – and vice versa. A bow, for example, is the performer’s way of greeting and acknowledging the audience, just as we applaud to demonstrate our acknowledgement and appreciation (for what we are about to hear and what we have heard). How the pianist comports him or herself at the piano can be crucial to our relationship with both performer and music, and stage presence and bodily gestures create an important channel of communication which can hold the audience captive during a performance. Through gesture the pianist can control audience reactions to the performance – the most basic being the lifting the hands away from the keyboard to indicate the end of a piece.

The issue of “what to do between pieces” came up at the recent Diploma Day event, at which I gave a brief presentation on basic stagecraft. A couple of people (adult amateur pianists who were preparing for performance diplomas) told me that they “didn’t know what to do between the pieces” in their diploma recital programme – i.e. how they should comport themselves, or what body language was appropriate. I explained that it very much depended on the music which had gone before and what was to follow in the programme. Some pieces lend themselves to more space or silence between them while others encourage the performer to segue from one to the next. Understanding this ebb and flow of a concert programme and the need to create space and silence within it is crucial to shaping the narrative and energy of the entire concert. Thus, if one wishes to prolong a sense of stillness or meditation after, say, a performance of Takemitsu’s Rain Tree Sketch II, one might simply sit quietly at the piano, head bowed, hands resting lightly on one’s knees, allowing the memory of the sound to resonate in the audience’s consciousness, after the physical sound has decayed.

When there are no audible notes, as in 4’33”, the pianist’s presence is even more crucial. If the pianist were to slouch at the piano, or stare around the room, pull faces, or study his finger nails, the presence would be lost, along with any sense that this was a “performance”. Thus to be successful, 4’33” demands the performer to be fully aware, in the moment, present and engaged – and that’s no mean feat when one is not actually required to play the instrument before which one sits. This makes 4’33” perhaps the hardest piece to perform convincingly.

I learnt a lot about performance and the performer’s “presence” while watching and of course listening to Adam Tendler’s interpretation of 4’33”. It has made me consider even more intently notions of public performance, stage presence and body language, and with this in mind, I will close this article with a quote from Adam himself:

Cage eliminates the details of notes, rhythm, tone, and leaves the performer with the basics of presence. It means the handling of (again traditionally) a piano lid, a clock, and a body—fingers, legs, torso. We use these parts of our body as instrumentalists, of course, but 4’33” isolates them, zooms in on them. It puts a microscope onto the passage of time and how our body—the thing that performs— behaves in that time.

Poise.

I can’t tell you the number of times I have attended a fine, accurate, acceptable and perfectly usable performance from a musician who has never actually learned to sit.

 


Further reading

Searching for Silence

What silence taught John Cage

Defending 4′33″ as a standard in the piano repertoire

 

 

il_570xn-375692039_r8tt

A plethora of P’s PP’s and PPP’s by three guest writers for this entry in A Pianist’s Alphabet

Piano……Whisper it softly, everything we do as pianists is indicated in advance by the letter ‘P’. If we play the piano as a piano – which is to say play it piano – then we are simply following this alphabetic instruction.

We might, therefore, be tempted to say that the most pianistic pianist was Chopin, who played his piano so piano that his audiences often struggled to hear him play at all. Importantly, Chopin achieved this pianism not through the use of another ‘p’, the una corda pedal (signed ‘ped’), but through the fingers. He played with great touch, preferring to practise and perform on instruments that suited his style – notably, on Parisian Pleyels.

And yet, shout it loudly, the great strength (or forte) of the piano is that it holds within itself its polar opposite. It was originally conceived by Cristofori as a harpsichord that could be played both quietly and loudly. It is the gravicembali col piano e forte. The piano, that is, is always the pianoforte or ‘pf’.

Thus it was that Liszt, who had been inspired by Paganini (another ‘P’), was able to perform in places like La Scala, Milan, and to thousands of gathered aristocrats in St Petersburg without any loss of sound. Not that it was it just about sheer volume for Liszt. The Hungarian was, by all accounts, the master of pianoforte playing in the fullest sense. In performance, one of his strengths was that he played the pianoforte ‘pf’, moving from quiet to loud, from lyrical passages to bravura runs and back again. For him, the pf was to be played ‘pf’.

James Holden is a writer working across the critical-creative divide. He is a specialist in British and European culture from the birth of Chopin in 1810 to the death of Monet in 1926. His published work includes In Search of Vinteuil: Music, Literature and a Self Regained (Sussex Academic Press, 2010). He is currently working on a philosophical reading of romantic pianism. James also writes experimental prose and poetry. He is currently associated with the HOARD art project in Leeds. 

His website is www.culturalwriter.co.uk and he tweets as @CulturalWriter 

 

P  is  for  Piano. Many call it the Perfect instrument. It can Play every note, high and low, that the orchestra can. It can be both melody and accompaniment. Or a wash of sound and colors. Or even five individual voices all vying for their chance to sing above the others. It can be Percussive, Pulsating, Pounding, or Powerful. It can be Pensive, Profound, Philosophical, or Prayerful. It can be Playful, Presto, or Peculiar. It can be Pleading, Poetic, Plaintive, or Pianissimo. The Piano can express a range of emotions, to the audience of course, but also to the Performer, who often experiences the music in a totally different way than the audience. It can at times sound Pompous and Pretentious. Or Produce the most Private, Personal, innermost thoughts and feelings.

P  is  for  Practicing. Many a Pupil will Procrastinate on this essential Part of Piano Playing.  Picking apart a Piece to understand it, analyzing minute details like the chord to chord Progressions, and the overall structure and compositional form. Researching Performance Practice, to ensure that the Pedaling is appropriate for the Period, or that the Portato touch is not too short. Practicing means Painstaking Preparation. Patience. Persistence. Repeating Parts, over and over, literally thousands of times. Purging wrong notes and solving Problems that arise along the way. It means Pleasure in Perfecting a Passage. Or Sometimes Physical Pain, when a Pianist overworks his muscles and Pushes himself too hard. Or even emotional Pain, because Practicing Piano also means being alone.

P  is  for  Psychology. As performers and teachers, not only do we need to know how to Physically Play the Piano, but we need to be our own and often our students’ Psychologists. We Practice Performing to Prepare ourselves for Principal dates and venues and maybe even Premieres. We try out our Programs, Playing for whoever will listen, making ourselves nervous with the hope that at the “real” Performance we will be calm and collected, and therefore able to make music more easily. Mistakes still happen, though, even though we Played our Program Perfectly many times in the Practice room and beyond. Bad mistakes can sometimes lead to a Phobia of Public Performance, which is tough to overcome. With our Psychology in one hand, and solid Preparation in the other, however, we Push down the Panic, the Palpitations, and the Perspiration (often on our Palms!) and get back on stage, encouraging our students to do the same, hoping to share a musical moment with the audience. After all, Playing the Piano is not about Perfection, but about making a connection: to the music, to ourselves, and to the audience.

Francesca Hurst

Francesca Hurst is a New Music and Classical Pianist and teacher in Washington, DC. 

www.francescahurst.com

 

P is for PPPP –  Plan, Practise, Prepare and Perform!

It’s Spring 2016, and I’ve just been planning my repertoire for concerts in 2017 and 2018. In this post about the Performance of a new piece, let’s begin with the Planning, which starts a long time in advance. Yes, we must be conversant with different periods of music and different styles, but think long-term, play to your strengths and play music you respect, believe in – and enjoy; this will communicate itself to your audience.  Keep learning new repertoire, investigating the unusual as well as the familiar, to keep programmes fresh and interesting.

Then comes the Practice. If a musical performance can be likened to an architectural structure in sound, then the score is the blueprint, and much can be gleaned from studying it away from the instrument. See how the piece is put together; what are the musical motifs which form the building blocks, how are they used, and which sections reappear in different guises? What stylistic features are apparent; to what stage of the composer’s life does the composition belong, what else was he/she writing at the time in other genres, and what does the title tell us? What were the characteristics of the instruments of the day, and what else was going on in the world ?

Having grasped an overview of the piece and ascertained its context, it’s time to start the Practice. Be strategic; learn similar sections simultaneously. I would always start with separate hands and careful fingering in small sections, gradually building into longer sections with hands together when they are fluent. Memorise as you go using not only muscular memory, but an awareness of keys, patterns, harmony and structure.

After learning the piece, we then enter the crucial Preparation stage before the first Performance.  Here we need the aim of a complete play-through some weeks, or even months, before – keep going, no matter what happens. Seek to replicate performance conditions, and try ‘stress-testing’ by getting friends and family to reproduce the noises which seek to distract us in public. Coughing, rustling, mobile phones, glasses clinking… you’ll think of others, I’m sure. Try recording yourself in private or making a video –  anything that raises the expectation and which highlights areas that need reinforcement. Seek out opportunities for trying-out pieces in informal settings. Have a dress rehearsal; ensure that clothes –  and shoes –  are suitable. Brendel writes amusingly of a piano duet performance with Daniel Barenboim wherein he became tangled in Barenboim’s concert outfit; they had rehearsed in their shirtsleeves.

And so – The Performance. Everyone approaches Performance differently; some withdraw into isolation before it, some are gregarious. Find what works for you. Try the piano in advance. Before you play, take deep breaths, smile, walk tall and enjoy! You’ve Planned, Practised and Prepared; be confident.  And afterwards …  Ronald Smith used to say that pieces always improve themselves after the first performance, and he was right. Learn from what went well, note what still needs attention – then move on. Tomorrow is another day.

Christine Stevenson

Christine Stevenson enjoys a distinguished career as a recitalist and concerto soloist in the UK and abroad. She is a Director of the Summer School for Pianists, and is on the staff of the Royal College of Music Junior Department in London.

Her concerts continually draw critical acclaim for her virtuosity, musicianship, and the engaging rapport she establishes with audiences of all ages.

www.christinestevenson.net

www.notesfromapianist.wordpress.com

Meet the Artist……Christine Stevenson

“There is no word to describe it because all the work, all the sacrifices, all the things you put into it, it’s just unbelievable.” (Mo Farrah, double Olympic gold medallist)

You won the gold medal, you achieved the ultimate accolade, you revelled in the euphoria of success, the attention, the adoration of the crowd. You worked hard for this, every day for weeks and months, maybe even years. It’s everything you’ve strived for. You ascend the podium, bow your head to receive the medal on its purple ribbon. You lift the gold medal to your lips and kiss it as a thousand flashbulbs go off all around you…..

During the London 2012 Olympic Games we have witnessed many moments like this, from athletes of all nationalities, who have been successful in their chosen field, and whose hard work and dedication has been rewarded and recognised. But how does it feel the day after the ceremony, and the day after that, a month down the road? The euphoria of winning, of achieving such dizzying heights, soon wears off as you contemplate that early morning start on the track, in the dark, in the rain. As British rower and four-times Olympic gold medal winner Matthew Pinsent admitted in a programme on BBC One ahead of the closing ceremony, after the euphoria has worn off comes the question “what next?”.

Musicians understand and experience these feelings too: the euphoria of live performance is matched by a special kind of depression compounded by a profound tiredness after the event. In the last days and hours before a concert, just like the distance runner or the sprint cyclist, everything you do is geared towards the single-minded responsibility of the main event, a super-human organisation of physical and emotional resources.

A vast amount of energy – mental and physical – is expended in the experience of the performance, and the excitement of the concert fills your every moment in the hours leading up to it. And then, suddenly, it is all over. (Sometimes, when performing, you lose all sense of time passing. I was astonished, when I checked the clock on my mobile phone after my Diploma recital last winter, that a full 45 minutes had passed: it felt like no time at all. And yet, the moment in the Liszt Sonetto when I had a minor memory lapse felt like a lifetime……)

After a performance, you feel drained, your mind is completely out of breath, your body physically depleted. You’re ready for your bed, but you’ve still got to do the PR thing post-concert: meet people, sign programmes and CDs, give interviews. But there’s no time for exhaustion: you have work to do tomorrow – and work is the best antidote to these feelings of depression and tiredness.

“At this low point, we have only to let music itself take charge. For every challenge we can possibly want lies before us in the vast and inexhaustible repertory that cannot but replenish our spirit. For true musicians, depression is temporary because their music is permanent.” (Seymour Bernstein, from ‘With Your Own Two hands’)

For the athletes, there’s not just the next Olympic Games to train for, there are any number of trials, competitions, and world championships to prepare for. The winning of a medal or medals has endorsed all those hours of training, and may even encourage a shift of focus, an adjustment to a tried-and-trusted regime. And for the pianist, there’s the next concert. There’s no future in looking back, going over what has been (a promise I made with myself immediately after my Diploma recital was “no post-mortem!” – I refused to analyse what had happened in the exam room, errors, memory slips, etc., at least not until I received the report and could set any of these issues in context). As performers, we’re only as a good as our last performance, and if that was less than perfect, the best thing is to move on and plan the next performance. We draw strength from our love of the repertoire, our excitement about our individual pieces and the prospect of putting them before an audience. Like the runner on the track, the rider entering the show-jumping arena, the swimmer poised to dive, the performance is what endorses all the hours of practice and preparation, and a fine performance will erase the memory of a bad one.

(a future blog post will focus on performing)

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