At the beginning of this year, my son (24) passed his driving test, his achievement made more remarkable by the fact that, due to the covid restrictions, his test was postponed 6 times over the course of 18 months. He displayed a dogged pragmatism towards the disappointment of the cancelled tests (he was ready to take his test in July 2020) and simply carried on practicing his driving whenever he could – in my car, his own car, and with his driving instructor.
While my son was having his lessons, I was reminded of my own driving lessons, some 30-odd years ago, and how my instructor stressed the importance of “time at the wheel” – that any driving practice was useful. My son certainly appreciated this and we enjoyed lots of excursions in the car which relieved the monotony of lockdown while also giving him useful driving experience.
While we were out and about, I pointed out to my son that one of the most important aspects of having lessons is so that one learns how to pass the test. A good instructor knows what needs to be covered to ensure the candidate is well-prepared. I remember my instructor made me practice manoeuvres like parallel parking and three-point turns over and over again so that the all the processes, physical and mental, became fixed in my procedural (muscle) memory, were almost intuitive, and ensured that I was not nervous on the day of the driving test. The same was true for my son – his parking abilities impress me no end (especially as I can no longer parallel park successfully!)
What does this have to do with the piano and music practice? Well, playing an instrument, like driving, is a series of movements and processes, which utilise and train the procedural memory. Most of us know well the old adage “practice makes perfect”, but, more importantly, practice also makes permanent, so that movements, processes and gestures become intuitive – we do them without (apparently) thinking.
This permanence comes, of course, from practicing – not mechanical note-bashing, (or mindlessly driving around Tesco’s carpark) but from thoughtful, careful practicing to ensure we are well-prepared.
The great Russian pianist Vladimir Horowitz apparently had a little phrase which he repeated ahead of a performance – “I know my pieces” – meaning he knew he had done his preparation. It’s a helpful mantra, and one which I have used in my own preparation for performance.
It is this preparation which gives us perhaps the most useful skill of all – confidence – which enables us to perform to the best of our abilities in an exam or concert situation, can help allay nerves, and ensures that the odd error or slip will not derail the overall performance.
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Last week, I gave a formal concert as part of the South London Concert Series (of which I am Artistic Director) at the wonderfully eccentric Brunswick House, in the ‘Embassy quarter’ of London’s Vauxhall. Part of the London Architectural Salvage and Supply Co (LASSCO), Brunswick House is a magnificent Georgian mansion just a stone’s throw from Vauxhall Station, the MI5 building and the glittering new apartments of the Nine Elms development. The house is home to an eclectic collection of antiques and salvaged curiosities, all of which are for sale, including the early twentieth-century Bechstein grand piano which graces the opulent first floor Saloon (price £6000). The venue provides a great backdrop to the kind of programmes I favour (an eclectic mix of music of different eras and styles) and also acts as a splendid talking point for the audience who can enjoy exploring the rooms beforehand. I was joined in the concert by four pianist friends, three of whom have careers outside of music for their “day jobs”. And this for me is where it gets interesting…..
All of us had clearly prepared very carefully for the concert: we’d had “practise performances” at home, for friends, and at our piano group, and I had already played the pieces I was performing at two public concerts in the weeks leading up to the Main Event. We had all tried the piano at Brunswick House in advance of the concert, and I spent a couple of hours there with the tuner a few days before the concert. On the day of the concert we arrived in good time, warmed up, chatted to one another, set up the video camera and checked the lighting over the piano, and then waited quietly for the concert to begin. No one betrayed any nerves, nor discussed how they might be feeling: we all knew that we had to deal with our anxiety in our own way. What was most evident to me was the sense of excitement and anticipation amongst my fellow performers (and I admit I was pretty excited too – the concert was a sell out and the audience mostly comprised friends and family which made for a very warm atmosphere). We all performed with confidence, poise, musical understanding, sensitivity and expression. Because we were playing music we liked and enjoyed, the experience was wholly pleasurable, and I think our affection for the pieces we had selected, and our friendship, shone through every note.
Anyone who thinks performing to a roomful of people is “easy” needs their head examined. Of course it may look easy – and one of the great skills of the performer is to present what appears to be an effortless, fluent and convincing performance. In order to reach this point, one will have put in many hours of lonely practising – note-learning, refining, adjusting and finessing the pieces. Each performance throws up interesting new things or highlights areas which need to be worked over again to be made more secure (this is why it is important to perform a programme several times). On top of this, one needs to know how to cope with the inevitable performance anxiety, to hone one’s stagecraft, select the right outfit for the occasion, practise wearing the concert frock and shoes (for women), try the piano at the venue, talk to the tuner, if applicable, find out where the green room/loos are, and generally do as much as possible to remain calm and focused in the final moments leading up to the performance.
On the day of the performance, whether it is a concert or a recital for an exam, festival or competition, I have a clear strategy which I always follows to ensure I arrive at the venue with a clear head and a rested body. Rushing around, over-practising or doing too much can leave one feeling drained and flustered, and this can heighten one’s anxiety. In all the excitement of the actual performance, it’s easy to forget that one expends a vast amount of energy, in particular brain energy: keeping body and mind rested in advance of the performance is crucial.
When I arrived at Brunswick House a couple of friends of mine were already at the bar and greeted me eagerly, admiring my dress and wishing me luck for the occasion. I didn’t want to linger to chat (keeping the head clear!) and I promised I would speak to them afterwards. In terms of final preparation, lately I have become interested in “mindfulness” and have been applying it to my performing. At a concert I gave in a very cold church on a less than perfect, but huge Petrof piano a few weeks ahead of the Brunswick House gig, I decided to employ some mindfulness techniques to play “in the moment” and not worry about what happened. I was pleased with the resulting performance and instead of dwelling on “what might have been”, I went to the piano to practise the next day with the thought “what can I do differently/better next time?”. Of course there were areas of my pieces which needed special attention, but there was nothing that caused me serious worry. And in any event, after the concert, there is nothing to be done, for we can’t go back and change what has already been.
As performers we are often our own worst enemy – and all my pianist friends, professional and amateur, are frightful perfectionists. We worry about our note-learning, our memorisation, our expression, musical understanding, how we communicate to the audience, and so much more – and of course we want to give a note-perfect and characterful performance on The Day. It is crucial that we are perfectionist in the practise room because this will enable us to do the correct, careful preparation for the performance. Looking at the video of the concert afterwards of course there are moments when one might wince a little and wish that you’d played this or that note or phrase differently. The audience, however, enjoys the music in a different way, and a well-rehearsed, fluent performance which is rich in expression and communication will engage an audience, no matter if there are a few slips or errors (in fact, audiences rarely notice the mistakes we fret so much about, and people who go to concerts to gloat about spotting errors in the performance are thankfully a rare breed).
The photographs my husband took of the event clearly demonstrate that we had a really wonderful evening: as one of my co-performers said afterwards “it was an unforgettable experience of music and friendship” – and the congratulations and bravos we received from the audience were a testament to how much everyone had enjoyed the occasion. This continued into the bar, some of us staying very late before venturing out into the freezing January night.
The day after a concert one often hits the ground with an unpleasant thump. As the adrenaline leaves the body, one experiences a distinct “low”. This is often compounded with a deep tiredness, of brain and body, and it may be hard to motivate oneself to do anything the day after a concert (in fact, I took two days “off” the piano and instead lolled around the house, glum and moody, much to the disgruntlement of the rest of my family!). In fact, the best remedy for this special kind of post-concert depression is to get back to the piano and get working again. In my case, I was excited to start practising again because I had new work I wanted to look at, and other pieces which needed to be brought back up to scratch for a private charity concert in which I am performing in the Spring. What remains of the Brunswick House concert are memories of a very special evening, of music played by friends, with friends and for friends, an important reminder that music was written to be shared. We have photographs too, and videos, as mementoes of the event, and I would like to thank my co-performers, and Rebecca who turned the pages for me, for their special and wonderful contribution to a magical evening.
The Cross-Eyed Pianist is free to access and ad-free, and takes many hours every month to research, write, and maintain.
If you find joy and value in what I do, please consider making a donation to support the continuance of the site