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.


 

Memorising your piano pieces

‘Who developed the concept of playing from memory?’ This question is pursued on the lips of  many piano pupils, conservatoire students, and professionals. Memorising a work  (playing without the score or committing a work to your memory) certainly puts an extra strain on an artist. Every note must be meticulously rehearsed and learned to the point of distraction (or might I suggest obsession in some cases). Whilst a small number pianists find memorising a piano piece a relatively easy task, others struggle and live in fear of the errant memory lapse on stage. So who do we have to thank for this sometimes gargantuan task?

The piano came into its own in the middle of the 19th century during the Romantic era; before this period, pianists would have been lucky to appear briefly in a concert and they certainly would not have played from memory.

A pianist then came along who changed all that forever; Hungarian pianist and composer, Franz Liszt (1811-1886). Liszt (pictured above) single handedly developed the concept of the solo recital (his word too). Before Liszt it was unthinkable to have a whole evening concert featuring one artist playing just one instrument. Liszt recognised the power of the virtuoso not just by the idea of a pianist playing incredibly complex and flashy pieces that run all around the keyboard (although this can be impressive), but also the importance of image and crucially stage presence and charisma. He cultivated almost rock star status and was pursued and idolized everywhere he went. This was partly down to the way he approached performing (as well as his beautiful piano playing and his good looks!).

Liszt not only developed the solo recital idea but he devised how the piano was to be positioned on stage too (with the piano side-on so that the pianist’s profile can be admired and the lid up facing the audience to ensure full volume). He was also the first pianist to play from memory. This potent combination guaranteed total devotion from his fans and more importantly set the stage for all future piano recitals for the next 200 odd years. In his lessons and masterclasses (the masterclass was another Liszt brainchild), he often commented on the importance of playing without the score;

‘Look up and away from the keys, and you will play with greater inspiration. Neglect of this is the cause of much of the crippled playing one hears’.

Liszt benefitted tremendously from performing in this way and successfully conveyed the romantic image he worked so hard to cultivate. However, for those mere mortals who have since made the concert platform their home over subsequent generations, playing from memory has indeed been the cause of much misery.

Today a concert pianist cannot be taken seriously unless he or she plays everything without the score and many students are frequently perplexed as to how to sucessfully memorise pieces. Those taking amateur music exams are not required to play from memory but if you are preparing for a school concert or music festival it’s a good idea to be brave and perform without the music as it tends to give a more polished performance and shows you really ‘know’ your piece.

So here are a few basic tips for all those interested in developing their memory skills:

1. If you know you are going to commit the piece to memory then start memorising from the outset. As you learn the note patterns and fingerings make sure your fingers and brain are memorising carefully as you progess line by line (or bar by bar).

2. Look out for obvious signs in the music that will ‘jog’ your memory; key changes, chordal progressions, scalic passages, large leaps etc. All these elements will aid memorisation. They will act as sign posts.

3. It’s best not to rely solely on digital memory (i.e through the fingers) alone. This is one way to come unstuck during performance. A better idea is to have a thorough knowledge of the work’s structure particularly the harmonic structure. Study it methodically and intellectually even before you start memorising.

4. You will benefit from knowing the piece aurally, digitally and mentally before you work on the interpretation. One tip I always find useful when memorising is to concentrate on the interpretation and on ‘hearing’ the music in my mind, epecially focusing on the  way it affects me emotionally. By doing it this way  you will never forget anything.

Under pressure, our memory sometimes lets us down so do make sure you have many practice performances without the score before your ‘big’ concert. Good luck and happy memorising!


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.


 

The Joys of the Parent Pupil.

The new term brings fresh challenges and new pupils for many music teachers. One interesting group of prospective students is parent pupils.  A parent will  occasionally announce that they wish to start playing the piano alongside their child. There are many reasons for this; it may be that they want to keep an eye on their son or daughter and their progress (or lack of it); perhaps they want to be able to help their child with weekly piano practice; or it may just be that they have always wanted to play and think it will be an excellent hobby that will fulfill a creative desire. Whatever the reason they can be very satisfying students to teach.

Parent pupils will be able to help their offspring in so many ways. They will have an informed interest in the joys and frustrations involved in learning and realistic expectations about rates of progress as well as the importance of regular practice. They can also give complete support and encouragement which is crucial if the child is to make swift progress with their playing.

One of the benefits of this relationship is shared practice. The parent can help the child foster good practising habits by regularly monitoring posture, hand positions, and rhythm. Technical exercises which may seem boring can be turned into fun if both parties explore different ways and speeds to practice observing who can play the most accurately. Another game could be ‘spot the deliberate mistake’ which will help devlop note reading and aural skills.

The parent – child duo are a ready made duet partnership. There are many duet (two pianists playing one piano together) pieces arranged for beginners and hopefully a helpful teacher will guide their students to the most appropriate ones. The parent will help their child focus on the details such as keeping time and correct notes and fingerings, they will also be able to share in the sense of achievement after performing a piece for the family.

Perhaps the most important role the parent pupil can take is to lead by example. They can illustrate the importance of regular practice by making time in their day and consequently when their child sees this they tend to follow and gradually view practice as a necessary route to improvement. When a parent’s good intentions occasionally fall by the wayside they might find themselves being gently reprimanded by their child! Another amusing situation occurs when the child becomes more fluent than their parent and parents will then find themselves ‘having a lesson’ from their son or daughter. Most parents are delighted with this development and it gives children a real sense of confidence and achievment too.

Children to do need real support when learning to master an instrument. It does help if a parent is around to help with practice sessions particularly if the child is young, so if a parent does decide to take lessons this can only be a positive influence on a child’s musical development. If you have been planning to take piano lessons with your child then what are you waiting for? Get playing and have fun.


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.