Category Archives: piano

New Year’s Resolutions

New Year’s Resolutions

January 1st is the day for making resolutions for the year ahead and I’m starting well by posting on my occasional blog! Given that none of my students will be reading this today – if at all – I wonder how many are committing to more regular practice this year? I’ve done a quick Google search on New Year Resolutions and practising the piano (or any instrument) doesn’t feature on any of the lists I found; Learn a new skill is the closest, but doesn’t seem so relevant when you have already been taking lessons for a few years.

Why is it necessary to remind students of the need to practise? You take piano lessons to learn to play the instrument but having a lesson every week will not turn you into a pianist without some practice in between. You improve your playing by playing more! Playing is a fun word, suggesting something that you want to do – you play with your friends, you play games – and not something that you have to do. The word practise is more dictatorial, implying hard work and effort, so it’s not surprising that there can be a certain amount of resistance to practising. But learning a new skill takes effort and when you do practise effectively, your playing will improve and you will enjoy it more. I have blogged before on practice and if you are in need of some strategies, please check my previous post here.

So, how to make those practice sessions more enticing? You could try a 100 day challenge: commit to practising for at least 20 minutes every day for 100 days – that will take you into April. (note to students who already practise for longer than this – carry on as you are!) Make sure you mix up your sessions – some sight reading, some improvising/composing, technical work, learning notes, memorising, playing through. Note the last in the list – should be saved for the end of your session and not forming all of it – and you don’t have to do all of these different activities every time! Practice of difficult sections involves repetition: learn the notes slowly then repeat at least twice until your fingers know where to go. The next day you may still need to play three times before it begins to feel easier. Set yourself mini challenges: play one bar perfectly 10 times, 20 times.  Get into the habit of practising so that it becomes as automatic as breathing – but stay focused when you are playing and listen!

Happy new year to everyone – and happy music making!

 

Performing in public

Performing in public

It’s funny how piano practice becomes so much more important when you have a performance looming. No matter whether it will be for one person – an examiner – or in front of an audience of family, fellow students and friends, the prospect of performing in public is going to change the way you think about playing the piano. It might fill you with excitement or dread and I’m going to try to suggest ways of managing your feelings so that you can play at your best and enjoy the experience! I have recently been watching a series of interviews with professional musicians, educators and psychotherapists on the subject of performance stress. While the experience of a professional musician who has to perform several times a week is obviously different from the piano student who has two or three opportunities in a year to play in public, some of the observations made are relevant to everyone and I have included the most useful advice below. You can see the interviews here but hurry – they will only be online until the end of July 2015.

Preparation

When you are going to play in public you have to be well prepared, and the first preparation is making sure you know all the notes in your piece! Is there a difficult passage or bar that you need to work at more than the rest? A bit that could go wrong? That’s the bit you need to practise more, not having a run at it from the beginning of the line (or piece) but isolating the problem and practising slowly, hands separately first of all, until you can play it easily. Aim for ten times perfectly at speed – and that means ten times WITHOUT MISTAKES. Are you playing from memory? Can you play hands separately without looking at the music? With your eyes shut? Once you know your piece, have a run through with family sitting down and listening to you – it’s quite a different experience from someone hearing it from another room. And the only way to practise playing in front of people is to play in front of people.

Then there’s the preparation leading up to the performance on the day. This is not the time for last minute practice to fix things! You should do some exercises to warm up your fingers and rehearse your piece, thinking about the music and how you want it to sound. Eat something – you need energy and you don’t want to play when hungry. You might want to be quiet and think about the performance ahead – or you might be happier distracting yourself by reading a book or playing a game. Avoid dangerous activities that may injure you and make it impossible for you to play – however tempting that might seem!

The performance

Nobody’s perfect! You want to do your best, and if you’ve worked hard and are well prepared, there’s no reason for you to ‘fail’. Your audience – even if it is an examiner – wants you to play well; it’s much more enjoyable if the performer is having a good time and sharing music with the listener. Music doesn’t exist as notes on the page: it’s there to be played and to be heard. Think of playing to an audience as a positive experience, not a scary performance test – it’s your gift to whoever’s listening. And because nobody’s perfect, things may go wrong from time to time. You may play a wrong note, or lose your place. So what? It’s okay to make a mistake! Try to keep going, or if you prefer, give a quick apology and then carry on. I once went to a recital by a well known pianist who had a memory lapse, and kept apologising for the rest of the concert. We, the audience, would have forgotten all about it if he hadn’t kept going on about it. You may want to dedicate your performance to one person in the audience – and that person can be yourself, someone who is sitting in good view or someone who’s not even there. It doesn’t matter – just play for that one person and you’ll be letting others listen in as well.

Stage fright

Some of us are temperamentally more suited than others to performing in public, but even apparently confident musicians experience a degree of anxiety before walking on to the platform. We’re only anxious about things that matter, and if you’ve been practising your piece(s) for several weeks or months before the performance date, that piece will matter to you. Anxiety and excitement are closely related in the body, and the symptoms are similar: sweaty palms, body shaking, butterflies in the tummy. You might not be able to cure the feeling of excitement but you can deal with the body’s responses: try breathing deeply, deliberately relaxing your shoulders if you are getting tense there, carrying a handkerchief or small towel to wipe your hands.

Remember, you are not your performance. It might be the culmination of hours of practice, but you have a life outside this performance and if it doesn’t go as well as you’d hoped, you are not a failure. Try to switch to confident in your brain: say to yourself I am going to play my best, I am well prepared, I love this piece.

There are different techniques you can try to manage your feelings before a performance. Picture yourself walking up to the piano and enjoying playing the piece that you can now do easily. Breathe deeply. Or try silent screaming – emphasis on the silent! Imagine you are going to scream, like you did when a baby. Screw up your eyes, open your mouth wide and shake your head, just as if you were about to emit a VERY LOUD NOISE – but without sound. You might want to check who’s watching you before trying this one! Further advice and factsheets are available from the British Association for Performing Arts Medicine, which you can see here.

Smile when you walk up to the piano to perform. It’s a lovely piano and you’re going to enjoy playing it. When you are enjoying yourself, so will everyone in the audience. You might not feel ready (although see Preparation above) but then perhaps you’ll never feel ready, and you just have to get out there and do it. The audience is not a sea of sharks waiting for you to fall in! Focus on the music and try to convey the composer’s intentions. Sometimes it’s easier to play your own music than another composer’s. A pop star from the 70s, Lynsey de Paul, (who died recently) appeared on a television chat show many years ago, intending to play a Bach prelude – she’d even cut her fingernails for the occasion – and she couldn’t go through with it. This was a pop star who performed her own songs to thousands every night.

Last words

Good Luck! You’ve worked hard, got through the difficult stages of learning your piece – now go out there and enjoy it!

End of term concert

End of School Concert – July 2015

The Summer Concert on July 12th lived up to its name: St George’s Church was a cool escape from the blazing sunshine outside.

Aran
Aran opened the concert with a performance of the traditional song Purple Heather.This was followed by the debut of Amy with Welsh Lullaby and Spring is Coming then, continuing the theme of the wrong season, Tyra played Collecting Conkers. Otto’s Sour Lemons refreshed us all for Lucy’s C’est le roi Dagobert and then there was another Summer Concert debut from Giulio with Ripples. Eleora’s Sailing in the Sun was an enticing prospect,followed by Haunted Mouse – not quite so tempting! then Finlay’s Moderato by Bartok paved the way for his performance of the James Bond theme.The world premiere of Midsummer Blues, composed and performed by Emily was the first of two new pieces; Sam followed with Cat’s Whiskers (catching that Haunted Mouse!) then his own composition Haunted House.The concert ended with two more pieces by Bartok: the dreamy Melody in the Mist preceding a spirited rendition of Jeering Song by Lottie.
Eleora
Lucy Sam Emily

Practice matters

This section of the website is for my students (and their parents!) and will be an occasional blog on piano related matters. It won’t be a surprise that the first note is on practice.

Practice matters

Practice works! You learn to play better the more you practise. It’s not just a question of putting in the hours, however – despite the ‘10,000 hour rule’. How you practise is as important as how much: if you learn a wrong note really well it will take just as long to put it right!

It is important to break up practice sessions into different parts, allowing some time for ‘playing’ and enjoying making music, and some time for the hard slog of learning notes with the correct fingerings and rhythms. It doesn’t all have to be done in one go. Sometimes it’s better to work on a short section for ten minutes then have a break. Practise hands separately, slowly (S – L – O – W – L – Y) in the first place so that your fingers will learn where to go. Building up tricky passages one bar at a time makes it easier. Practise backwards! Start at the last bar of the difficult bit – make sure you know the fingering where you start, and gradually begin from further and further back. Running at something and hoping the momentum will carry you through seldom works!

Practise every day. This really makes a difference: it’s better to practise for 10 minutes every day than an hour the day before your lesson. You can be struggling with one particular section on Monday and find you can play it without any problems on Tuesday – miracles can happen overnight but you usually need to have put some work in first!

If you are getting frustrated with something, have a break. Play something that’s easier, or that you know better. But don’t spend all your practice time playing the pieces that you already know – you need to spend some of it learning new things.

Several of my students have exams coming up in the next couple of weeks, and most of these have increased the amount of time they are spending at the piano with amazing results – they are playing even better than I thought they could! This includes the one who complained that an hour was too long – you know who you are!