This year my annual student concert was held at the 1901 Arts Club, a beautiful, intimate venue in a former schoolmaster’s house (built in 1901) close to London’s Waterloo Station. The venue boasts a lovely Steinway C grand piano and an informal, convivial atmosphere, thanks in no small part to the very welcoming personalities of the people who run it. I use the venue for the South London Concert Series, an innovative series of concerts which I organise and co-host with my friend and piano teaching colleague, Lorraine Liyanage. I felt the small size of the venue (it seats just 45 people in a gold and red salon redolent of a 19th-century European drawing room) would enable the young performers to feel less anxious and to relax into the special atmosphere of the place.

The music salon at the 1901 Arts Club
The music salon at the 1901 Arts Club

I cannot stress too highly the importance of performing, at whatever level one plays, and I have written extensively on this subject on this blog, my sister blog The Cross-Eyed Pianist, and in my column for Pianist magazine. Music was written to be shared – whether in the home or the salons of other people’s houses, or in recital rooms or concert halls. But on another more important level performing builds confidence, not just in the sphere of music but in many other walks of life, and equips people (of all ages) with an important life-skill.

When I was the age of my students (9-14) I had few opportunities to perform for others. My then piano teacher never organised concerts for her students, not even small-scale events in her home, and as a pianist at school I was always rather sidelined (a solo instrument being deemed the epitome of showing off!), so my only real performance experience was either in the orchestra (where I played the clarinet) or in the choir, both instances where one’s performance anxiety is tempered by performing with others. One of the many decisions I took about my piano teaching when I established my practice in 2006 was that I would give my students performance opportunities. And so from little house concerts (with obligatory tea parties!) to the event this week at the 1901 Arts Club, the annual student concert has become an integral part of my studio’s activities.

Preparations begin many months before the actual date – and I know from my own experience as someone who has come relatively late to performing (in my late 40s) that preparation is everything. Being well-prepared is one of the best insurance policies against nerves and will enable one to pull off a convincing, enjoyable and polished performance on the day. Good preparation, including practising performing in less stressful situations, also means that any slips or errors in the performance on the day can usually be skimmed over and will not upset the flow of the performance.

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Many of my students chose to perform exam pieces – music which they had already played in an exam situation and with which they were therefore very comfortable. It’s always interesting to play exam repertoire after one has put it before the critical ears of the examiner: when I revisit my Diploma pieces (as I am now, in preparation for a concert in January) I notice a distinct sense of relaxation in the music – and my students have commented on this about their own pieces too. Some selected new pieces, and we also had solo clarinet and saxophone performances (it is so gratifying that a number of my students play other instruments – saxophone, trumpet, clarinet and cello – or sing in school choirs).

I always perform at my students’ concerts as well. I think it is important for them to see their teacher performing and to understand that I do my practising and preparation just as they do; also that I am also engaged in ongoing learning of new repertoire or revising previously-learnt music.

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The event at the 1901 Arts Club was really lovely. The young performers all played beautifully (no visible nerves whatsoever, though a number did say to me afterwards that they were really nervous!) and we had a lovely range of music from Arvo Pärt and Einaudi to Bartok and ragtime. Despite knowing my students pretty well now (some have been learning with me almost as long as I have been teaching), I am always amazed at the way they step up to perform with such poise. I don’t know what I do, but maybe by assuring them that their performance will be wonderful, they learn to trust me and this gives them confidence. Each performance was greeted with much enthusiastic applause by family and friends, and at the end of the event another piano teaching friend, Rebecca Singerman-Knight, awarded prizes for Star Performer (Tom Driver) and Most Enjoyable Performance (Eli Hughes). The children were presented with boxes of chocolate grand pianos (which I doubt lasted the homeward journey!). I have had some lovely feedback, from students and parents, and I think the general consensus is that this was a really enjoyable and inspiring event. I certainly felt so!

More about the benefits of performing:

On performing

Performing in a safe circle

Going into the zone

Strategies for coping with performance anxiety

 

Pianist Stephen Gott taking a bow after his performance at Normansfield Theatre, May 2012
Pianist Stephen Gott taking a bow after his performance at Normansfield Theatre, May 2012

‘Stagecraft’ refers to a number of aspects of performing and preparation for a performance from seemingly simple things such as appropriate dress and deportment to managing anxiety, programme planning and notes, communication (both verbal and musical), energy and emotional intensity, and movement and gestures.

Stagecraft is not just the ability to walk onto the stage without tripping over. From the moment the performer enters the stage, his or her communication with the audience begins, and the way one greets and acknowledges the audience can have an important effect on the way the audience receives and enjoys the performance which follows.

An understanding and appreciation of good stagecraft is very important and can help one produce a good performance, regardless of the level at which one plays. Stagecraft is an important factor in music diplomas and candidates are marked on their stage deportment, communication, programme notes and attire. Good stagecraft can also increase one’s feelings of confidence in a performance situation. Get into the habit of building good stagecraft into your practising and preparations and you will find you can pull off a poised and engaging performance.

Here are some suggestions on how to hone good stagecraft:

Preparation
This ties in with managing anxiety. If you are well-prepared and know your pieces you are far more likely to pull off a polished performance while also keeping nerves at bay. Play within your capabilities and make sure all tricky passages have been thoroughly ironed out.

Programme planning
This is an important aspect for people who taking are performance diplomas where one is judged on the ability to produce an interesting and varied programme. Think about the music from the listener’s point of view, rather than simply playing pieces you think the examiner wants to hear. Good programmes are like stories, with a beginning (perhaps a Prelude or short albumleaf), middle and an end, and the ability to vary degrees of energy in a programme will prevent it becoming too ‘samey’ or dull. Interesting and surprising juxtapositions – for example, a Baroque piece paired with something contemporary – can be very exciting and can help throw a new light on familiar repertoire. The late Phyllis Sellick apparently used to describe a programme by all one composer as ‘a list’, but single composer programmes can work really well if the performer has thought about differing levels of energy and emotional content in the pieces selected.

What shall I wear?
Choosing the correct attire for the time of day and venue is important. Full evening dress is not appropriate for a lunchtime or afternoon concert, and the style and atmosphere of the venue is also a factor in deciding what to wear. The performer’s concert attire is a means of differentiating you from the audience and defines your role for them. Getting ‘dressed up’ for a concert allows you to appreciate that this is an ‘occasion’, distinct from the practising and work done at home at the piano. The most important aspect is that you feel comfortable in your concert clothes, with plenty of freedom of movement and no distractions such as tickly labels or zips.

Walking to the piano
No matter how anxious you feel, your stage deportment should not betray your nerves. Walk confidently across the stage, greet the audience or bow, and sit at the piano. Take a moment to compose yourself before you play: this ‘breathing space’ at the start of a concert is vital, not just for you as the performer, but also for the audience, making them sensitive to the music about the wash over them.  Likewise at the end of the piece, don’t hurry away from the piano, nor scurry off the stage immediately. Take time to acknowledge the audience.

Talking to the audience
This is becoming more and more popular at professional concerts I attend, and a few words about the music being performed can immediately make the audience feel more engaged and connected to the performer. Talk clearly and don’t simply repeat the programme notes. Most people are interested in why the performer has chosen the repertoire and what makes it special for them. Never pre-empt your performance by telling the audience you played the piece well in practise at home, or that you are very nervous!

To play from memory or not?
The debate about whether playing from memory results in a better performance rages on, but if you do use a score, try not to cling to it as if you life depends on it. In particular, make sure tricky sections and page turns are memorised. Have someone turn for you, as this can increase the professionalism of your performance.

After the performance
Enjoy the compliments from the audience and never apologise for errors or slips in your performance. Save these things for when you next go to practise, for all these issues are useful and help prepare for the next performance.

Above all, learn to enjoy performing. It is a wonderful cultural gift to be able to share so much fantastic piano music!

(from Le Tourneuse, 2006)

In recent months at concerts held by my local music society, I have been asked to turn the pages for the performer (because the secretary of the society knows I am a pianist). I have always declined – because to have the responsibility sprung upon one, without warning or preparation, makes it a daunting task, especially if the music being performed is 1) modern 2) very busy 3) modern and very busy.

“You read music! You play the piano! You must be able to turn pages!” is the cry I frequently hear, and while all these statements are true, many people do not realise that page turning is an art in itself, a specialist skill which can help a performance go brilliantly, or turn a concert into a Feydeau farce.

These days at piano concerts it is still quite unusual to see a page-turner in attendance. The ongoing – and to my mind rather ridiculous – trend/burden of having to perform from memory (a habit which developed during the second half of the nineteenth-century, thanks in no small part to Franz Liszt and Clara Schumann) means that the turner is a fairly rare sight. It is more common if the pianist is playing as part of a chamber ensemble, but even here some pianists will memorise the piano part to avoid having the turner with them.

Page turning can be a nerve-wracking experience as the turner feels a great responsibility to “get it right” for the performer. Turns should be discreet and silent (turn from the left of the pianist, using the left hand to turn the top of the page):  in effect the turner should be “invisible” – and the turner should be sure never to turn too early or too late. In addition, the turner has to be able to understand and act correctly upon repeats, da capo and dal segno markings, and other quirks of the score. Turners also need to be alert to concert hall conditions: drafty halls can be stressful as stray gusts and breezes may blow the pages around. Page turners have to observe correct on stage etiquette: they must follow the performer on to the stage and know not to rise from their chair nor fidget during pianissimo passages. They leave the stage after the performer has taken his or her applause and only step forward to receive plaudits if invited to by the performer. Much of the turner’s role is about being able to “read” the performer’s body language and be acute enough to act upon sometimes highly discreet signals. Turners should not discuss their anxiety with the performer, nor expect the performer to give them tips or advice about their own playing or musical careers.

In fact, being able to read music is not necessarily a prerequisite of being a competent page turner as someone who gets too involved in reading the music may miss a crucial turn. The friend who turned for me during my Diploma recitals had very limited music-reading skills, but he spent a good deal of time listening to the music and we had many rehearsals ahead of the final performances. (My signal was a very firm head nod. Any other movements of my head were to be disregarded, after a silly moment during a piece by Liszt, when I shook my head in a gesture of despair at my own incompetence in a certain passage!) A quick poll around Facebook and Twitter revealed some page-turning horror stories (turning the wrong pages, a severely damaged score with pages held together with sellotape, pages out of order) but also anecdotes celebrating page turning and page turners. One turner confessed that pianist Francesco Pietmontesi’s performance of the Liszt transcription of Beethoven’s ‘Pastoral’ Symphony had moved her to tears, and many people describe the privilege and pleasure of being able to turn for top international artists. (Fortunately, nobody confessed to any of the strange antics portrayed in the French film La Tourneuse……!)

Modern times call for modern page-turning techniques and gagdets: scores stored on an iPad or other tablet device can be turned using a bluetooth foot pedal such as the AirTurn. I have one of these devices but I must admit I don’t trust it: press the pedal too harshly and two pages will turn at once. And then there is the anxiety of how to cope with the piano pedals while using the AirTurn. Music publishers attempt to print music in such a way as to facilitate easy page turns, but when this is not possible, one either ends up with photocopied sheets taped to the score, uses an automatic turner, or opts to have a page-turner, which can look more poised and professional. Whatever route you choose, make sure your page turns are tidy, quiet and discreet – oh, and always thank your page-turner after the performance!

Lang Lang (photo © Philip Glaser)

Here’s an article from Bachtrack’s ‘Piano Month’ on pianists and their gestures. Whether you love or hate Lang Lang’s extreme facial expressions and flamboyant OTT gestures, or feel the perfomer’s gestures should only serve the music, this is an interesting and thoughtful read.

Every age has its own tastes, its own aesthetic lines drawn in the sand. Since the 19th century, with its seminal guardians of musical decorum (Clara Schumann chief among them), pianists and their critics have debated the role of stage persona. Most outspoken are those who believe that a quiet, undemonstrative approach to the instrument – à la Arthur Rubinstein – best reflects a serious commitment to earnest musicianship. The corollary is presumed true as well: that excessive body movement or facial expressions can cheapen an interpretation or betray a lack of real understanding. Pianist Lang Lang, often insensitively derided as “Bang Bang”, is held in this case to be Public Enemy Number One. Our current notion of good taste is less extreme, and concedes that a bit of visual display can be acceptable and even beneficial, so long as it is a natural byproduct of a performer’s interpretation. Read more

 

I meet many piano teachers, at courses, workshops and masterclasses. It is always good to meet other piano teachers, to exchange ideas and discuss aspects of our work. Many of the teachers whom I meet are also performing musicians, professional or otherwise, and many regard performing as a necessary, indeed crucial, part of the job as a teacher.

I also meet many teachers who do not perform, for one reason or another. Some cite lack of time, others anxiety or lack of confidence. I actually met one teacher who claimed she was “too afraid” to perform for her students in case she made a mistake.

As teachers, performing is, in my opinion, a necessary part of the job. An exam is a performance, and we need to be able to guide and advise our students on how to present themselves in a “performance situation” (exam, festival, competition, audition), and to prepare them physically and emotionally for the experience. A whole new and different range of skills are required as a performer, and it is important to stress to students the difference between practising and performing. We also need to be able to offer support for issues such as nerves and performance anxiety, and to offer coping strategies to counteract the negative thoughts and feelings that can arise from anxiety. How can you train others to perform if you have never done it yourself?

A successful performance demonstrates that you have practised correctly, deeply and thoughtfully, instead of simply note-bashing. Preparing music for performance teaches us how to complete a real task and to understand what is meant by “music making”. It encourages us to “play through”, glossing over errors rather than being thrown off course by them, and eradicates “stop-start” playing which prevents proper flow. You never really demonstrate your technique properly until you can demonstrate it in a performance. Performing also teaches us how to communicate a sense of the music, to “tell the story”, and to understand what the composer is trying to say. It adds to our credibility and artistic integrity as musicians. And if you haven’t performed a piece, how can you say it is truly “finished”?

I always perform in my student concerts, not to show off, but to demonstrate to my students (and their parents, who pay my bills!) that I can actually do it, that I too am continuing my piano studies by preparing repertoire for performance, and that I have managed my performance anxiety properly. I also feel that by performing with my students, we transform our concerts into a shared music-making experience.

I hope that by hearing and watching me playing, my students can better grasp aspects of technique or interpretation we might have discussed in lessons, as well as enjoying the sheer pleasure of listening to piano music, and perhaps drawing inspiration from it. I also get ideas when I am performing which inform my teaching.

For the teacher who is nervous about performing, one can start in a very low-key way by hosting an informal concert at home, or by joining a piano group, which provides a supportive and friendly environment where people can perform for one another. Choose repertoire with which you feel comfortable, and practise performing it a few times (at least three) to friends, family and pets before putting it before an audience. I guarantee your students will be dead impressed by anything you can play as a teacher!

Resources

Music from the Inside Out by Charlotte Tomlinson. A clear and well-written book on coping with performance anxiety, with tried and trusted techniques for dealing with nerves and improving self-confidence.

The curious tale of the musician, Dr Frankenstein, and apocalyptic Tesco on Christmas Eve…..

A guest post by pianist Emmanuel Vass

Definition of art 

noun 

1 [mass noun] the expression or application of human creative skill and imagination, typically in a visual form such as painting or sculpture, producing works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power.

 

Definition of chemistry 

noun 

1 [mass noun] the branch of science concerned with the substances of which matter is composed, the investigation of their properties and reactions, and the use of such reactions to form new substances.


As I sat by the piano in the recording studio waiting for the next red light, I couldn’t help but think about my abrupt transformation from artist to chemist, as defined above. I was sixteen and, having just played a Chopin Nocturne from start to finish, there were one or two small fluffs and errors, which I considered re-recording and editing. Why? The track was for my own personal use and was never going to go beyond the four walls of my Yorkshire bedroom. Until that point, my teachers encouraged me to discount any mistakes in live performance and continue regardless of the odd inaccuracy: bigger picture and the overall artistic communication what I was always told to aim for. We’re only human, after all. Unexpectedly, the option of appearing ‘super human’ and re-recording sections of pieces until they were perfect had a certain appeal, and it was from that moment on that my potential status as an artist-cum-chemist, a Dr Frankenstein, first began.

It is no secret that musicians strive for perfection, a perfection that may involve securing a technical inconsistency, or developing a better form of communication within a piece – we are all a work in progress. Whether you are a beginner or professional, there will always be something further to strive for and now, as a 24-year-old pianist, I discover new possibilities and developments within my playing on a regular basis; I also hear it whilst teaching my pupils. It is wonderful how much can change within as little as five days, especially with regards to a live performance of the same piece, say, twice in one week. After all the blood, sweat and practice tears striving for perfection, a live performance may go fantastically well one day and less so on another. Comfort and enjoyment onstage knowing the piece has gone well a number of times in the past can, for instance, suddenly yield to confusion as to where that random wrong note came from. It is something we all experience to varying degrees, and is part of the exhilarating, impulsive and unmistakably human-world of live performance, which I fell in love with aged seven. To dedicate yourself with total abandon to a live performance, both as a listener and performer, is to accept that occasionally, just sometimes, the unexpected may occur.

Now consider the world that surrounds us and the ensuing paradox: we live in an age of convenient, digital, airbrushed perfection where a vast amount of items presented to us are expertly designed and manipulated. The lines between reality and illusion, and how we perceive and identify them, have been blurred to the point where entire body parts of celebrities can be digitally sewn on and removed, ‘Frankenstein-ed’, as to morph our opinions and perceptions. We have the luxury of driving around in cars that can protect us from ever making a wrong turn; international news can break on social media via eyewitness films long before newspapers or twenty-four hour news can give a detailed description, and the entire country seems to go into apocalyptic meltdown when the instant convenience of supermarket shopping is lost for just twenty four hours on Christmas Day. I rarely buy bread, but come Christmas Eve there I am elbowing past panic-stricken mothers who also appear to have the entire contents of the cheese aisle stuffed into their pushchairs. In many ways I believe the entire world as we know it is just an all too convenient, disposable and HD-streamed click away: I won’t read the book and will just wait for Hollywood to feed me their version, or, I could probably learn a language but online translator machines can do it for me. Who needs to write a letter when you can talk instantly via webcam? Why bother travelling to Paris, you’ve seen all the stock, generic photos on Facebook and Google Streetviews, right?!

I’m here neither to argue that we should do away with these modern conveniences, nor rant about how the world has changed for the worst and we’re most definitely, direly doomed for all eternity. Rather, my fear is that certain audience members may have been conditioned to believe that a live performance that is anything other than note-perfect is not a worthy one, that the lines between the supposed illusion within the world of recording and reality of the concert hall are far too blurred. There is, of course, a difference between the odd wrong note and a distinct, noticeable problem with fluency and continuity; here I accept that in this situation a performance may start to be deemed ‘less successful’. That said, as humans, we are bound to make mistakes and we should never aspire to be machines; nothing should ever anaesthetise us from the raw reality of life. Does this not contradict the whole point of art in the first place? Perhaps some would be more satisfied listening to pre-programmed robots over real musicians?

 As mentioned in my opening paragraph, recording can be a very complex process for musicians. Of course, not every musician heavily edits or relies on sophisticated recording software – indeed, I didn’t have the time or the money to do so for my first album, ‘From Bach to Bond’. Similarly, it would be absurd to comment that a 100% accurate performance is impossible to achieve or less artistically valuable. I hope the discerning audience member of a live performance would value their experience based on the authenticity, emotion and artistic powers of the performer, and not just their ability to mechanically replicate the exact formula. Judging an artist on their capacity to be an onstage chemist is not an equation for success.

For those of you who prefer the anaesthetised comfort of CDs/recordings and hate wrong notes, I tell you what, you can go ahead and look at pictures and videos of Paris on the Internet, and I’ll go and travel to Paris myself. We are all a work in progress.

Emmanuel Vass will be giving a lunchtime concert at St Sepulchre, the musicians’ church in London on Wednesday 10th July. Full details here

Emmanuel Vass

Named as ‘one to watch’ by The Independent newspaper in April 2013, twenty-four year old Emmanuel Vass is rapidly establishing himself as one of the most charismatic pianists on the contemporary scene. 2013 has already seen the launch of his first CD – From Bach to Bond – and his first UK recital tour under the same heading. The tour, which took in seven venues across the North of England and culminated in his London debut at Steinway Hall and St James’s Piccadilly, attracted considerable media interest, including a live broadcast on BBC Radio 3’s In Tune.

Emmanuel Vass was born in Manila, Philippines and grew up in East Yorkshire. Having passed Grade 8 piano with distinction at the age of 15, he subsequently studied with Robert Markham at Yorkshire Young Musicians, the centre for the advanced training for gifted young musicians based at Leeds College of Music. This was followed by four years at the Royal Northern College of Music, where Manny studied with John Gough and was supported by scholarships from the Leverhulme Scholarship Trust and the Sir John Manduell Scholarship Trust. He graduated in 2011.

www.emmanuelvass.co.uk