Stress testing (sometimes called torture testing) is a form of deliberately intense or thorough testing used to determine the stability of a given system or entity. It involves testing beyond normal operational capacity, often to a breaking point, in order to observe the results (Source: Wikipedia)
Performing in front of others is stressful, whether it is to a group of friends at an informal gathering or to a full house at Carnegie Hall.
In order to prepare ourselves for such performances, particularly important performances such as an exam, audition or formal recital, it is crucial to “stress test” our repertoire by playing the entire programme in a variety of situations. This process is commonly used by professional musicians, who may choose to play a programme at regional venues before performing at an important venue such as London’s Wigmore Hall. Each time we perform, new things are revealed about our music which inform subsequent practise sessions and help us make our music more refined and, more importantly, secure, thus protecting us against errors, or at least allowing us to skim over slips and minor mistakes so that the “flow” of the performance is not disturbed.
This last week I and a friend have been “stress testing” our respective programmes for forthcoming concerts. I am fortunate in that I own a very beautiful antique grand piano, which piano-playing friends of mine love to come and play (and I love hearing the piano played well by others). Playing for a couple of friends, in a relaxed atmosphere with cups of tea and cake, allows one to play in a “safe zone”. In these situations, we know that our friends are not judging us, they listen attentively and offer encouragement and applause afterwards. Of course, it can be difficult playing to other pianists – but it can be a sympathetic experience too as we all understand how very hard it is to play the piano!
I played three pieces, by John Field, Schubert and Schumann, which form the solo element of a longer concert which I am giving with a singer. In practise, the pieces felt secure and well-known, but, interestingly, weak spots were revealed when I played to my friends which subsequently enabled me to practise with care and focus.
In addition to helping us focus on practising, “stress testing” our repertoire allows us to gauge aspects of our performance, from our concert attire and stagecraft to the vibrancy and expression of our playing (and yes it is important to do a “dress rehearsal” to make sure clothing and shoes are appropriate and comfortable). It also enables us to better understand and handle anxiety and stage fright: and the more times you practise performing a programme before The Big Day, the better you become at recognising and accepting the symptoms of performance anxiety.
Of course this preparation for performance presupposes that one has done all the careful, detailed work learning the music, including being able able to work both too slowly (a musical challenge) and too fast (an efficiency challenge), one hand thinking the other and using the wrong hand (see Graham Fitch’s useful article on symmetrical inversion), working with and without the metronome, studying the music away from the piano and in one’s head, and creating a vivid, perfect interior model of the music, while all the time guarding against routine and a lack of mindfulness. It’s hard work: there’s no getting around the fact that playing the piano is very difficult, regardless of one’s ability – as Graham said to me the other day, “if it was easy, everyone would do it!”.
Returning to the subject of practising for a performance, I had an interesting experience with one of my more advanced students recently, a teenage girl who was preparing to take her Grade 6 piano exam. I have done a lot of work on confidence and stagecraft with her, and at the last lesson before her exam, she wanted to run through her pieces. After three false, frustrating starts to the C P E Bach ‘Solfeggio in c minor’, with me sitting quietly next to the piano, I suggested we try something different. I told her about the Canadian pianist Angela Hewitt whose stage presence suggests someone who loves performing and who can’t wait to share her music with the audience. “Channel your inner Angela Hewitt!” I suggested to my student, and then asked her to leave my piano room, wait in the hall (as if backstage at the Wigmore) and then “come on” to the “stage”. Meanwhile, I moved away from the piano and sat “in the audience” on my sofa. The transformation in her performance was remarkable: she was confident and poised and she made a wonderfully vibrant sound. She was thrilled with her performance, and when she saw me after the exam, she explained that she had done the same visualisation/acting exercise in the moments before she went into the exam room. I am delighted to report that she passed her exam with a high Merit and received very complimentary comments from the examiner about the communication and expression in her playing.
As performers, we have to be actors, partly to enable us to cope with the feelings of anxiety, but also to allow us to step into the character of each piece we play. All these aspects need to be practised and tested before the The Big Day. Curiously, the more of this work we do in the weeks and days leading up to the important performance, the better able we are to “let go” in the actual performance, to play in the moment and to allow the creative and artistic side of our personality (often called “right brain thinking”) to take flight.