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Articles for music students for advice and inspiration.


The major venues which hold several thousand people can be intimidating at first and cause an extra degree of nerves on the day of performance and anxious anticipation in the weeks or days preceding it. For those who started public performance at an early age, entering these big halls before embarking on a professional career, will probably find it easier to deal with the occasion, and it is the experience of performing in high-ranking venues which will make it easier as time goes on. Experience, whether in large important venues, or somewhere much smaller, is the one thing which can change feelings of terror into quiet confidence, where the repertoire you play many times can become like old friends, familiar, manageable, and where you feel able to give of your best.

When working up to a recital whatever is achieved successfully in the practice room should work in the concert hall. The old saying “It’ll be alright on the night” cannot be further from the truth. In a passage of music where you find yourself saying “I always keep getting that wrong”, it will most certainly go wrong in a public performance. There is no magic inspiration which suddenly descends to put right all the bits that haven’t quite made it at home. Thorough preparation in which everything is secure is essential, and although it will be something you have been told many times, it is the most important goal and will carry you through, even if on the night you feel incapable of playing anything, you will have built up a foundation which will enable you to go onto automatic pilot for a short while before entering a more relaxed state when you feel acclimatised to the hall and audience. For those still with teachers guiding them up to the moment of performance, the process is much easier. Every note is accounted for, (or should be!); but there comes a time when the teacher is no longer there and you find yourself having to make all the decisions alone. When this time comes to allay those nerves which threaten to undo everything we’ve worked towards you can help yourself a great deal by doing the following:

1. Play through your programme as many times as you can to anyone, being ready by at least the week before. Involve family members, friends, your dog, putting on the show as you expect to give it - bowing, time spent between movements or individual pieces, & if you’ve been asked to talk about the pieces, go through that as well.

2. Record yourself. The very business of pressing the record button suddenly puts you into a different state of awareness, and simulates the moment when you embeark on the first notes you play in the concert hall.

3. Play through wearing what you’ll be in during the recital or concerto. In the case of girls this is particularly important. Make sure that straps are not likely to creep down your arms, & that nothing is too tight, especially if you have to cross over hands. Wear the same shoes, and have a hairdo that shows your face, without strands which could escape. Boys have a much easier time in this respect!

When you get to the hall for your rehearsal, always have the lighting technician present so that the stage lighting & that of the hall is set for your entire rehearsal. There’s nothing worse than the harsh glare of brilliant white light on the keyboard or in your face which is too dazzling, & should be turned down. Also, if you see a shadow of the the word Steinway, or whatever else it happens to be, on the keyboard, moving the piano to a slightly different position should get rid of it.

The dressing-room or Green Room is either equipt with a piano or without one. All the major concert halls have wonderful facilities backstage & someone to look after you, so there are no problems with not being able to warm up before you play. For pianists being deprived of a piano, sometimes for many hours, there are the problems of muscles not being warmed up & a greater feeling of insecurity. To counteract this, play the begining of your programme at home many times without any preparation at all. If your hands for any reason are freezing cold, just get on with it & see how you feel. With the correct technique you shouldn’t be in danger of pulling tendons or experiencing injury problems. If the piano-less dressing room is cold, plunge your hands into the hottest water you can bear, or clap them extremely hard a few times, slowly. To help the tummy butterflies & the fast-beating heart, deep breathing is good. Hold your arms above your head & link hands with the palms facing upwards. Take a huge breath through your nose, & exhale very slowly counting to twenty, bringing the arms down to hang normally. Repeat this several times & you will find that it lifts your upper body & distracts you from negative thoughts. Do this in the minutes prior to the performance. Then begin to go through the start of your first piece in your head, so that once you step out onto the platform, you have reminded yourself of the opening speed, dynamic level and whatever physical gestures may be required.

As you walk out, chin level, chest out, looking confident, even ‘though you may be quaking inside, turn & smile at the audience, either left hand lightly on the front side of the piano as you bow, or slightly to the side not holding onto anything. We’ve all seen others bow hundreds of times, but practice in front of a full-length mirror, or have someone make a vidoe on their mobile for you. Just remember that the people in front of you have paid to hear you, or will have travelled especially to be there, & I have always thought that an artist glaring at the audience, or appearing to be indifferent gives a poor impression, & the audience won’t feel warm towards them. Everyone develops their own way of dealing with this, finding a happy medium between grinning, looking arrogant, being dismissive, or looking cold and uncaring. You are only there for your audience at the end of the day.

The scariest thing about perfoming without the score is that there is the chance of a memory lapse. This is what accounts for most of our nerves. Playing with the score makes a world of difference, but can be said to hamper the communication between artist & audience. In the case of many contemporary works the score is essential, and also if you’ve been asked to perform something at very short notice. If you need the score because you feel that your memory is sure to let you down, then it could be too early to be playing the piece, or you haven’t worked hard enough at it. Infrequently, hopefully, we all have to battle with that terrible occasion when we simply don’t know what’s coming next, & the greatest performers in the world, with a wealth of experience, could still be prone to such happenings.

The first thing to do is to prepare yourself never to stop. Easier said than done; but preparing the motoric memory of your fingers continuing even when your brain has stopped telling them what to do, can avoid a possible memory lapse. It obviously involves playing a piece a great many times from start to finish so that the pattern of scales, arpeggios, and any other figuration, is so well remembered that it can’t go wrong. The more you play your repertoire in public the more it will become instilled in your hands and memory. does happen that this fails & sometimes the reason can’t be explained. It could be a passage which is complex harmonically & is a threat to the memory. Say the names of the notes out loud: bass-line, harmonies, or whatever is appropriate. Memorize which keys are visited at moments when the music takes a different turn, or there has been a pause. Make a list of places you can start from should you have a blank moment, & particularly if one did occure in performance, go over it at the next opportunity starting shortly before & going out of the passage, describing to yourself, as if you were a teacher talking to a student, what went wrong.

Last but not least dress smartly for whatever occasion, be it a competition, masterclass, or audition. Jeans and a t-shirt don’t show respect for the situation. Evening recital dress needs no explanation since we see what artists choose to wear all the time. Recently I saw a female attired in all black against a black grand piano. Her hair was black, and although attractive of face and figure, her outfit detracted from the overall effect. The image we present on stage is important. Our performances are always a combination of how we look and move, as well as how we play. The audience is never aware of what is going on in an artist’s mind, so try not to grimance if something goes wrong, and even if you’re thoroughly mad with yourself because of a poor performance, don’t express yoiur anger or disappointment physically, and when probably unsuspecting people come to greet you at the end and express how wonderfully they thought you played, try not to say “It was terrible. I’ve never played worse in my life”. If indeed it was, it was a message to go back to the drawing board, and possibly back to your old teacher or someone who could advize you if you feel that the problems were technical. I know through my own experience that you can give a performance with hardly any nerves at all, & feel that you are giving your thoughts and feelings to the audience, and enjoying it, and any trembling of the hands or shaking legs is a thing of the past. This kind of performance doesn’t exclude concentration. It’s being in the zone of having the opportunity to do your very best, whilst continually assessing and learning from your performances.

August 2012

Angela Brownridge