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.


 

Preparing for your piano exam

With the holiday period fast approaching many students will soon be taking music exams. Preparing for a music exam is so important and by ‘preparing’ I am not referring to the amount of practice required to pass exams. This goes without saying and is expected of all candidates; a considerable amount of practice is needed to achieve satisfactory marks. Once you have prepared thoroughly for your exam the real ‘practice’ begins; performance practice.

It is too easy to go to your lessons every week and play your pieces and scales plus aural and sight reading, and think that you are now really ready for your exam. The problem with this is that you will turn up for the exam totally unprepared for the (often) huge inconvenience called nerves or performance anxiety. If you have never suffered from nerves or ‘stage fright’ before then this can come as quite a shock. You may be a super -confident type who is largely unaffected by these feelings but the overwhelming majority of candidates experience some of the following: heart palpitations, sweaty hands, memory muddle/loss or (my favourite) trembling legs and feet – exacerbated by high heels!!

Don’t worry, this is all completely normal and there are many ways of dealing with these feelings. Your teacher may be instrumental in helping you deal with nerves however, you still may need to practice performing in addition to your lessons.

The main issue to deal with when experiencing any kind of performance related stress is to learn how to control your mind. Once you have achieved this you will be able to focus fully on the music you are playing and not on what your audience is thinking.

Here are a few brief tips:

1. Thorough preparation is essential as I have mentioned above – it helps counteract the self doubt that so often creeps into the mind especially when ever higher standards are expected.

2. Try to have a realistic approach to your performance. Perfectionist attitudes don’t really help. At the end of the day you just have to be satisfied with doing your best.

3. Pay attention to your posture and make sure your breathing is helping you stay calm and relaxed. Some find it helpful to do breath control exercises such as Alexander or Dalcroze techniques.

4. Acknowledgement of problems and the determination to perform, in spite of these, appears to be paramount. Learning to perform well inspite of trembling hands for example.

5. I find positive imagery to be most helpful. Thinking of images that project musical and technical skills and competence in a positive way can often tame the ‘negative voice’. The ‘I can’ mantra can help overcome all kinds of self doubt.

If you can implement some of the ideas and suggestions above then you will be well on your way to a distinction in your forthcoming exam. Don’t think you can achieve such a high mark?………oh yes you can! Good luck.


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.


 

Performance Anxiety? 5 top tips

Several blog followers wrote to me last week asking for advice on how to combat performance nerves and anxiety. They were disturbed and upset by the fact that they could practice a piece for months thinking they had perfected it, they then would perform the work and ‘go to pieces’. Performing is a huge topic and one that is often ignored by teachers. Students spend months learning pieces and scales, not to mention practising sight reading and aural, only to get into the exam room and totally forget everything they have learned.

Everybody gets nervous, even professionals, but the main difference between amateurs and professionals is performance practice. A professional musician has been performing in public for years, usually since they were children. Pros know how it feels onstage; they have become accustomed to being on show and knowing how to ‘think’ under pressure. This is an important point; it is crucial to use the feeling of absolute terror, a ‘negative’ emotion, and channel it into immersing yourself into the music, so in a sense you forget all about the audience. This takes years and is beyond the scope of most amateurs. However it is possible to take a few steps towards a more positive performance outlook – who knows, you may find that after a while, you really enjoy being onstage.

Here are my top tips;

1.  Once you have mastered your piece, practice playing it through to yourself several times each day without stopping or correcting your mistakes. Everyone makes mistakes – they are best forgotten and ignored whilst performing.

2. You need to learn how to concentrate under pressure so always start by tackling a piece that is beneath your usual level of playing. Something fairly easy that you feel confident about. Performing is all about building your confidence.

3.  One effective way of practising is to imagine you have an audience every time you ‘perform’ your piece through to yourself. You will be surprised by how much this technique forces you to concentrate. Another trick is to record yourself playing, but be warned this can be quite a shock. Performing has a habit of making you play faster than you think you are – stress can do strange things to your mind and your sense of pulse.

4. It is vital to practice performing regularly, and by regularly I mean every week. Whether to friends, family, teachers, pets or anyone who will listen! If you perform every week you will get used to it; it will become ‘normal’ rather than an occasional event that you dread. Its worth gathering together a group of piano friends so you can practice playing to each other – then you will all be forced to suffer the same nerve-wracking scenario and will be more sympathetic towards each other’s efforts.

 5.  Try to focus purely on the music you are performing; concentrate on how much you love your piano piece and how it makes you feel. This will hopefully be conveyed to your audience.

Always be kind to yourself after your performance even if you have made many errors. Each time you practice performing you will become stronger mentally and will cope with the concentration element more effectively. This can help combat negative emotions and will turn the “I can’t do it” feeling into “I can do it and I enjoyed it”.


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.