5 Stage Presentation Tips Part 2

My most recent article for Pianist Magazine’s newsletter features the art of stage presentation. This often forgotten topic is rarely highlighted, yet it plays a significant role in every performance. This is the second of two articles on this subject, and you can read the first one, here.


In my previous article on stage presentation, I discussed how to foster the necessary ‘thought-process’ required for performing, as well as the importance of repertoire selection, and attire on stage. Today, the discussion turns to the actual act of going on stage itself. How we might traverse the concert platform in order to capture and keep our audience’s attention.

1. When we walk to the piano to play our concert, how we approach the instrument might indicate our level of anxiety. If you can cultivate an assured sense of confidence before the concert begins, you will instigate that same confidence in your audience, and they, in turn, will relax and start to enjoy your presentation right from the outset. You don’t need to stride – but rather stroll purposefully and with a certain conviction and realisation of the occasion.

2. Perfecting the bowing technique. A pianist must show gratitude to their audience, and this involves bowing conscientiously and with grace. This element will be highly visible to your audience, so aim to take time to bow with dignity and appreciation. It is probably a good idea to smile before you commence playing too, and try to appear relaxed and in no hurry to start.

3. How we sit at the piano will determine our comfort level. Take your time to adjust the stool, ensuring the correct height. Rest your feet on the pedals, making sure you can play them easily, and relax your shoulders; if you can rest your hands on the keyboard whilst keeping your shoulders relaxed, then you have probably found the perfect height for your stool.

4. Take a few moments to ‘breathe’ before you start. This might make the difference between a smooth, rhythmical opening to one with a few unexpected errors. Try not to rush into your piece; it can help to focus for at least ten seconds, and then, in order to establish the correct tempo, count a couple of bars (in your head) at the desired speed before you start to play. If you can do this, you will be able to exude polish and control.

5. Some pianists tend to move too much at the keyboard. There must be a certain level of movement in hands, wrists and arms when playing, to help with flexibility and comfort when circumnavigating copious note patterns. However, it isn’t strictly necessary to move the whole body as this can prove a distraction to your audience. Aim to keep movement to a minimum and try to minimise facial expressions too!

At the end of your performance, remember to acknowledge your audience. If you can learn to enjoy performing, this will bode well for all future endeavours and the improvement of your piano playing as a whole.


My publications:

For much more information about how to practice piano repertoire, take a look at my piano course, Play it again: PIANO (published by Schott Music). Covering a huge array of styles and genres, the course features a large collection of progressive, graded piano repertoire from approximately Grade 1 to advanced diploma level, with copious practice tips for every piece. A convenient and beneficial course for students of any age, with or without a teacher, and it can also be used alongside piano examination syllabuses too.

You can find out more about my other piano publications and compositions here.


 

5 Practice Tips To Instantly Improve A Performance

Over the past few weeks I’ve been travelling around, teaching and adjudicating, providing the opportunity to hear a large and varied smorgasbord of piano playing. Whether pianists are young or old, beginners or very advanced players (and there has been an unusually large cohort of superb playing this year), several issues persist amongst pianists. With this in mind, my post today focuses on a few (hopefully) constructive, yet easily implemented, ways to improve piano playing, based on what I’ve witnessed.

1. Pedalling. It can be a major issue, particularly for nervous performers, because there is often a tendency to ‘ride’ the sustaining  or right pedal. It’s such a shame to work so hard with the fingers, playing accurately, and in many cases, beautifully, only to hide all this good work under a cloud of pedal. Admittedly, it’s not easy judging acoustics, especially if pianists aren’t used to the hall or piano, however, if in doubt stay away from the sustaining pedal! It can be a good idea to practice your piece completely without pedal (from beginning to end). Most of us sectionalise pieces when we practice, generally without using the pedal, and we get used to this, but try to become accustomed to playing through any piece sans pedal. Once confident with the sound, add smaller amounts of sustaining pedal (to start with), for a cleaner performance. Listening is crucial. Know the work inside out so you can think only about the sound and how the pedal changes that sound; particularly observe ends of phrases, rapid passage work and chordal passages.

2. Legato. The knock-on effect of a heavy right foot (i.e. the sustaining pedal), is often a lack of smooth, legato playing. It’s too easy to forget to join notes effectively, when the pedal is readily available to do it for us. Once students are stripped of the pedal ‘security blanket’, they can be upset by the sheer clipped, detached nature of their playing. Bypass this by preparing a piece using fluent legato fingering from the outset, adding the pedal only once notes have been fully digested. You may be pleasantly surprised by the pleasing sound of the fingers alone, once legato has been achieved. If you have already learned your exam piece, go through it without any pedal, checking you have used adequate ‘joining’ fingering, creating a smooth contour, which is usually vital in melodic material.

3. Tempo. Starting and ending in the same tempo can be an issue for some pupils, and this ties in with the problematic matter of thinking before beginning. Once seated to play, resist the urge to start at once. Instead, take a few seconds to think; ten seconds should be ample (although it will feel like two minutes!). This will not only grant time to collect thoughts, but will also allow space to set a speed which is both comfortable and realistic. Always feel the pulse, counting two bars before playing, almost as an introduction! Use this time to think about the fastest or smallest time values in the chosen work; semi-quavers or demi-semi-quavers can be negotiated with ease at a chosen tempo. Feeling the pulse religiously can also be helpful, and can stem the compulsion to rush (or slow down).

4. Body Movement. As many know, too much movement (whether swaying, nodding of the head, obsequious arm movements or moving around on the stool), can be detrimental and distracting. However, even more debilitating, is not to move at all. Rigidity causes a harsh sound and wrong notes (generally). This is a matter which can be caused by nerves, or perhaps lack of preparation. In order to play in a relaxed manner, it’s important to develop freedom in body movement and cultivate a relaxed stance at the keyboard. Start by careful observation; watch posture, hand positions and wrists, during practice. Try to focus on how you move around the piano. Basic tips are to keep shoulders down, wrists free and use arms in a way so  they transport hands easily around the keyboard. If this issue is worked on consistently and consciously in practice sessions, it will become a good habit, and one which will continue to linger in performances too, even under pressure.

5. Close to the keys. It might seem contradictory after reading tip number four, but  a good plan is to keep fingers close to the keys as much as possible, even if body movement is considerable. Whilst wrists and arms must be flexible and able to shift around if necessary, fingers and hands are best kept hovering over the keys ready for action (this may sound obvious, but many don’t adhere to it). This isn’t to suggest rigidity or keeping hands/fingers ‘in position’, but on the other hand, moving (i.e. being in place a split second before playing in order to prepare fingers) and thinking ahead all the time, particularly at the beginning of a performance, will help instil confidence and proffer accurate playing.

These points are fairly easy to effectuate; work at them one at a time, and slowly if necessary, building them into weekly practice routines. They will instantly improve piano playing, creating an assured performance.


My publications:

For much more information about how to practice piano repertoire, take a look at my piano course, Play it again: PIANO (published by Schott Music). Covering a huge array of styles and genres, the course features a large collection of progressive, graded piano repertoire from approximately Grade 1 to advanced diploma level, with copious practice tips for every piece. A convenient and beneficial course for students of any age, with or without a teacher, and it can also be used alongside piano examination syllabuses too.

You can find out more about my other piano publications and compositions here.


What can musicians learn from Andy Murray’s Wimbledon victory?

Watching Andy Murray soar to victory at this year’s Wimbledon was as much a lesson in superlative tennis playing as it was in mental and psychological preparation and willpower. It’s true of course, that many of the top tennis players in the world play fantastically well, so what distinguishes the winner from the runner-up? Especially if their standard of playing is virtually the same? Mental strength, determination and courage. The ability to not buckle under real pressure.

Musicians need exactly the same approach and preparation particularly if any kind of competition is involved. Many feel that music shouldn’t be based on competition but sadly it is prevalent throughout the profession, and in many ways it’s more difficult to come to terms with than in sport because it’s all very subjective. So whether at a local music festival or at a big international competition, competing plays a significant role in a pianist’s development. There is one psychological element that can prove very useful when overcoming musical difficulties and that is fostering the kind of concentration and energy required to focus during any performance.

Many tennis players have spoken about their ability to be ‘in the zone’; the necessary enforced concentration that they have cultivated throughout the year and indeed their careers. Musicians can also foster this very useful device. I have written about the necessary preparation required to perform well many times on this blog, but a pianist can only perform at optimum level, making good use of all that ground work, if they are able to function ‘in the zone’ at the crucial moment or rather, on demand. It can signify the difference between passing or failing a music exam, not winning a music festival, an international competition, or just acting as a tremendous boost to confidence on stage.

There are so many different ways to reinforce your concentration and acquire the necessary mental aptitude. Musicians and sportsman work at preparation in a similar way; practising for hours everyday honing their skills, but sportsman often have more opportunities to get ‘out there’ and perform. I think it’s vital for all musicians, irrespective of their standard, to get on stage and play.

Most performers feel uncomfortable in front of an audience to start with, but after practice, they normally become accustomed to it. For me, performance concentration developed when I was a student. Encouraged to take part in college concerts (sometimes several per week), I learnt to cope with the associated nerves because it was all part of the training. Playing for peers was also incredibly difficult at first and it took time to develop total focus. By the time I played for my final recital I was so ‘in the zone’ that I had a rather bizarre ‘out of body’ experience where I actually felt that somebody else was playing through me (all very strange and this phenomenon has occurred several times since too).

To become a piano champion start by playing your pieces through really thinking about every note and every phrase. Don’t be distracted by anything. To develop consistency, practice each hand separately preferably from memory, even if you don’t plan to play the piece without the score, because memory learning really helps. Focus on detail when practising (pedalling, dynamics, articulation etc.) because this will give you plenty to  contemplate when you perform.

The more you can think carefully about the music emotionally then the better you will play the piece and certainly this bodes well for a good performance. Play pieces that mean something to you musically, works that move you. This will then be conveyed to your audience. It will also help you attain a positive performance experience hence give you confidence.

After thoroughly studying your score and fostering a good feeling about performing the work, play the piece everyday to yourself (it helps to imagine that you have an audience listening). Then play it to your family and friends. Don’t be upset by errors, worrying about them will not help you to adopt the right attitude. Keep performing; play the piece to anyone who will listen – even the dog! Learn to concentrate under unusual and less familiar circumstances.

Now work at playing it away from the piano; play the piece through in your head; this works wonders for encouraging the ‘in the zone’ mentality. Visualisation helps too. Imagine performing on stage and go from the beginning of the piece right through to the end; actually have a picture or image of doing this (it does require lots of concentration). Before you start each performance think about these three elements; tempo, pedalling and control. Then allow yourself to be so involved in the work and the music making process; eventually you will be so caught up in your playing that you will definitely be ‘in the zone’ and you will give a championship performance.

Perhaps the most important attribute to developing the ‘in the zone’ mentality is persistence. Keep trying, and you will have success. Many congratulations to Andy Murray on his historic win.

Andy Murray

Britain’s Andy Murray raises the trophy after beating Serbia’s Novak Djokovic in the Wimbledon final. Photograph: Glyn Kirk/AFP/Getty Images


My publications:For much more information about how to practice piano repertoire, take a look at my piano course, Play it again: PIANO (published by Schott Music). Covering a huge array of styles and genres, the course features a large collection of progressive, graded piano repertoire from approximately Grade 1 to advanced diploma level, with copious practice tips for every piece. A convenient and beneficial course for students of any age, with or without a teacher, and it can also be used alongside piano examination syllabuses too.

You can find out more about my other piano publications and compositions here.