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November, 2001
Just For Teachers

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Why Perform? (and How to Prepare)

Often after a performance I have had adults tell me that they began piano lessons as a child but quit when they "had to perform" in a recital. How sad, I think, that the approach to this essential part of music was presented in such a traumatic light. After all, music doesn't exist if it is not performed and for non-performers that means their only musical experience comes from someone else's performing, whether live or recorded. I realize that the primary reason is stage-fright, nerves, fear, call it what you will. But if you read interviews of world-class performers you will see that the majority of them also experience nervousness before a performance. They, though, have developed coping mechanisms which include focusing on the positive attitudes, such as a sense of giving a gift to the audience.

This past month I read an interesting interview with a California pianist, Gloria Cheng in which she talks about how she copes with nerves in performance:

Piano Forte News: Many amateurs get terribly nervous about playing in public. What would you suggest to them to overcome their fear?

Gloria Cheng: One needs to keep things in perspective: a recital is not a life or death situation! Try to keep in mind that the audience is there because they like you and they've come out to share in a wonderful musical experience; so the nice thing to do is to just give them a good time. The other thing to keep in mind is that you are not important, the music is what is important. When I can forget myself and inhabit the piece and just become one with it, then my own problems, hang-ups and ego disappear, which is as it should be.

A child's fear of performing is often in direct proportion to the expectations of their teacher and parents, and the views these adults have of performing. I don't deny the fact that some children are more extroverted and enjoy the stage, while others are more introverted and fear the spotlight. That is exactly why teachers need to present a variety of approaches and healthy views of performing so that each child can find the reason/attitude that speaks directly to their fears and personality. Older students may draw encouragement from reading interviews or biographies of famous performers, or self-help books about performing such as With Your Own Two Hands by Seymour Bernstein, The Art of Practicing by Madeline Bruser or Making Music for the Joy of It by Stephanie Judy. (For some interesting online reading, read the "Reader's Reviews" on Amazon.com for these books and discover some fascinating accounts by adults who have struggled with these issues.)

Ideally attitudes and habits about performing develop right from the beginning of lessons, at an early age. In an effort to give tangible and practical guidelines I include a reference page in each of my student's assignment notebook entitled Performance Success. It begins with the fundamental question: Why Perform?

  • To give a gift, the gift of yourself and the gift of music
  • To share something you enjoy
  • To communicate your ideas and feelings
  • To polish your music and grow as a musician
  • To strive for a goal and meet a challenge
  • To learn how to do your best work
  • To add beauty to someone's day
  • To teach others about the culture, historical time and ideas of a composer
  • To inspire the listener to also do their best and share themselves with others
  • To bring a meditative spirit to the listener
  • NOT to show off!

This list is as much for the parents as it is for the student. They often need a reality check in what can develop into a highly competitive field. The most well-balanced adult performers usually had practical parents that kept in mind the broad picture of life when raising their children.

After encouraging a healthy attitude for performing, the teacher needs to outline (and teach) the specific steps necessary for a successful and confident performance. It is never too early to teach them organized memory and performance habits. I believe that performing is a distinct skill that needs to be consciously taught in an organized sequence, and practiced, just like sight-reading, ear-training and improvisation. The books listed above spell out specific ways to memorize and practice performing, and there are many articles and workshops given on these subjects today. These are resources that did not exist decades ago when students naively went to a recital, unprepared for the unique stresses that they were to experience, and many left with a sense of failure and lack of confidence that merely became a self-defeating cycle as they played in recital after recital, until quiting altogether. Disappointed teachers and parents did not help, even if they said "You'll do better next time" (but how??). By teaching and expecting specific skills the teacher can turn failure around, or better yet, avoid it before it begins.
The Performance Success page continues with three more sections:

Why Memorize

  • To learn a piece thoroughly
  • To free you from the music so you can think of the sound and the meaning
  • To strengthen your 4 types of memory:
  • Knowledge memory (structure); Aural memory (sound); Muscle memory (touch); and Visual memory (sight).

Steps for Memorizing:(this is just one of many possible approaches to developing a secure memory)

  1. First learn the piece with correct fingering, rhythm, dynamics, tempo
  2. Number starting points, usually the beginning of each phrase or section
  3. Repeat the music in each section many times, not just playing though the whole piece
  4. Begin playing at any number and play to the end of the piece
  5. Play the right hand alone in each secion, by memory
  6. Play the left hand alone in each section, by memory

Preparing to Perform
Memorize the music
Play it every day, using starting points
Have someone listen to you play it, then ask you to start at different points
Perform for a few friends, pretend it is the real thing
On the recital day:
Warm up your fingers
Play the piece through slowly, then up to speed, checking memory points
BRING THE MUSIC TO THE RECITAL (you can leave it in your chair)
It's OK to be nervous, eveyone is a little bit, and it helps you to play your best
Remember that everyone listening likes you and wants you to do your best


Having a reference page like Performance Success encourages communication with the parents and students as to the teacher's specific expectations for recitals. The general guidelines listed above can be tailored to fit each student's learning style and work habits as well as the teacher's ideologies. At the least it gets the teacher and student talking about concepts the teacher may assume and organizes the performing preparation into a teachable skill that hopefully will bring immediate self-confidence and a lifetime of positive memories.

written by Rose Eide-Altman
published November 1, 2001
copyright 2001 PianoWomen.com


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