3 Ways to Prepare for a Successful Piano Performance

I’m a little late to the party, but 2022 has been my year for discovering podcasts. Just about all of my podcasts are music-related and one of my recent favourites has been Ben Kapilow’s All Keyed Up.

All Keyed Up is a podcast for piano teachers, where Kapilow interviews professionals who specialise in certain areas of piano teaching. These areas range from how to teach specific topics (improvisation, theory, technique, certain genres and practice strategies) to setting up and managing a piano teaching studio.

Recently, a particular episode of All Keyed Up caught my attention: “Noa Kageyama: Help Your Students Work Through Stage Fright”. In this episode, Kapilow interviews performance psychologist Kageyama, and they discuss performance anxiety, the benefits of working through it and then how to prepare a student for public performance. I thought you might find what I learnt about performance preparation useful. Here are my key takeaways:

Find ways of bringing the stage to the practice room; not bringing the practice room to the stage. Kageyama mentions this as being the advice of violinist Midori Gotō. A lot of our practice strategies can be great for improving our pieces, but don’t do much to help us mentally prepare for performance. The things we do whilst practicing—self-critique, stopping to fix mistakes, going over the tricky parts, etc.—are completely different to performance, where there’s only one chance to get it right the first time. The solution? Make distinctive performance practices and, for want of a better phrase, practice practices.

The performance practices should simulate the performance environment. This involves stage etiquette, one playthrough, an audience (if possible, or you can substitute with a recording device), dealing with mistakes as you would on stage, and mental simulation.
To elaborate on mental simulation, we’re looking at the difference between what a performer is thinking about on stage, versus what they’re thinking about in the practice room. When I practice, my mind wanders (often to food); but, when I’m performing, I’m fixated on every note I play. In the moment of a performance, this can be scary; what was initially an automatic process is suddenly in the foreground of conscious thought. This is where mistakes occur. A performer should be focused on the music whilst practicing for performance, because they’ll be self-aware during performance.

Even physical reactions to performance can be simulated in performance practice—Kapilow says he’s instructed students to do star-jumps in the lesson, before playing through their performance pieces, to get the sweaty hands and racing heart students will have on the day of performance.

Practice practices are where students work on difficult passages, interrupt their playing to fix dynamics, phrasing, articulation, fluency, etc. Practice practices are what we already typically do when practicing. When I practice for performance, I treat these two types of practicing as different events, so I’ll go and do something else between the two; or, if I really want to get it all done in the one go, I’ll leave the practice room and then immediately come straight back. As silly as it sounds, it’s a mental palate cleanser.

On the day of performance, say “I’m excited”. Nerves before a performance are inevitable. There’s no value in telling a performer to relax, or not to worry. What we have to do is repurpose and reconceptualise this nervous energy; turn it as much into a positive as we can.

Kageyama discusses Allison Woodbrook’s studies on threat versus challenge states. Her research found that anxiety and excitement are, physiologically, almost identical. Our goal is to attribute this nervous energy to excitement by saying “I’m excited”, instead of “I’m nervous” or (perhaps even worse) lying to oneself and saying “I’m calm”. Kageyama mentions a study, where singers who reported being excited before a performance were assessed in the 80% range; whereas the singers who were told to say “I’m nervous” before the performance were assessed to only be in the 50% range.

Lastly, something new to try for practice practicing. Kageyama talks about how we typically divide our practice schedule into chunks. If you have 30mins to practice three pieces, you might typically assign 10mins to each piece. According to Kageyama, organising practice time into big chunks like this means we’re not encoding what we practice into our long-term memory.

Instead, we ought to spend a shorter amount of time on each part, with what’s called random (or interleaved) practice. Interleaved practice looks like this: 2mins on the tricky part of the first piece, and then 2mins on the next one, cycling through the pieces more quickly. By doing this, we’re revisiting the pieces, emphasising retrieval practice and continually interrupting the flow we’ll get into with repetition. This means, on the second and third times around, the performer will have to work harder to retrieve results because they purposely stopped themselves when they were just starting to get the hang of it. According to Kageyama, this exact moment of effortful recall is exactly where long-term learning occurs.

To sum up, set aside time for both performance practice and practice practice, treating the two as distinct events. After a performance practice, think about what needs to be fixed and come back to these in practice practice. When practice practicing, cycle through the pieces in small chunks. At the end of your practice practice, you might like to go over the whole piece once more, to ensure that those tricky parts you focused on still sound good with the rest of the piece.

Rinse and repeat.

Noa Kageyama: Help Your Students Work Through Stage Fright – All Keyed Up | Podcast on Spotify

Top Four Piano Pieces I’d Love to (One Day) Learn

Ravel Sheet Music

One summer I was at a music store in Melbourne, drooling over pianos I couldn’t afford.

Most of them had signs, saying I needed to ask for permission if I wanted to play them. I found a sales assistant behind a desk and, gesturing to one of the signs, I asked him if he gets a lot of learners coming in and playing Fur Elise on every piano.

‘All the time,’ he said. ‘And that other one … the theme from that movie, The Piano.’

‘”The Heart Asks Pleasure First?” I know that one, actually. I’ll show you,’ I replied, pretending to walk over to the closest piano.

‘Don’t you dare. You might be a lot bigger than me [for reference, I’m over two metres tall], but I’m a lot angrier,’ he joked.

Now these are both nice pieces, but are definitely common choices for the aspiring pianist. A question then arises: If you’re no longer a beginner to piano, do you still have pieces you’d love to learn?

Definitely. Here’s a short list of my top four if-I-had-the-time pieces …

4. Piano Sonata No. 2, Op. 54: I Allegro Molto (Nikolai Kapustin)


We start off the list with an explosion of energy. Kapustin was one of those composers who masterfully brought jazz into Classical structures. What results is an incredible mix of complex rhythms and dissonant chords, all organised into a contrasting four-movement sonata.

There are moments of swing, stride and pure chaos. Listening to this whole sonata is like being pulled through a crowd and then being let go for a moment and suddenly grabbed and guided by someone else in a different direction. You’re completely at Kapustin’s mercy.

Nikolai Kapustin – Piano Sonata No. 2, Op. 54: I. Allegro molto (1989) – YouTube

My excuse? I spent a while getting the first page fluent and then realised each of the other 24 pages would probably take me just as long.

3. Gaspard de la nuit: I Ondine (Maurice Ravel)

Similarly, to Kapustin, this piece is also the first movement of a collection. Ravel’s Gaspard de la nuit is a three-movement work, based upon poetry by Aloysius Bertrand. This first movement, “Ondine”, is about the water nymph Undine beckoning an observer to visit her in her kingdom at the bottom of a lake. The observer tells her he loves a mortal, so she weeps, laughs and vanishes. You can hear the cascading water and droplets in this movement.

Ravel – Gaspard de la Nuit, No. 1, “Ondine” Sheet Music + Audio – YouTube

My excuse? The whole suite is famously difficult. The last movement (“Scarbo”) is considered one of the most difficult piano pieces ever written. I imagine the “Ondine” isn’t too far off that. I’ll just admire this one from a distance, thank you.

2. Java Suite: X In the Kraton (Leopold Godowsky)

As travel became more accessible a lot of European composers became fascinated by countries to the east. Godowsky wrote his Java Suite as a musical travelogue to describe his experiences in Java. This suite is heavily influenced by gamelan music and you can definitely hear the colours of Indonesia. “In the Kraton” is the tenth piece in this suite and it’s my favourite.

Godowsky – In the Kraton – YouTube

My excuse? The polyrhythms are very intimidating. The rhythmic patterns are so cleverly, but complexly, intertwined. It’s mesmerising to listen to, though. There’s so much going on and so much to listen for.

1. Happy Birthday in the Style of Maurice Ravel (Nahre Sol)

We return—although not quite—to Ravel. Sol is a (currently active) composer, performer and teacher. She has a YouTube series called “How To Sound Like …” where she discusses the stylistic traits of famous composers and then rewrites Happy Birthday, emulating her chosen composer. She’s covered Bach, Debussy, Beethoven, Chopin and others; however, my favourite of hers is her take on Ravel …

“[Ravel’s music is] almost like a very delicate flower, but frozen inside a geometric—a perfectly-shaped geometric—block of ice.” (Sol)

You can find her performance at twelve minutes and four seconds into the linked video below. If someone asked me what style of piano music I’d like to one day compose I would point to this particular piece.

How to Sound Like Maurice Ravel – YouTube

My excuse? Does Netflix count?

I wanted to keep this list short, as it’s easy to get carried away when recommending music; but there are plenty more pieces I’d like to learn out there (I haven’t even mentioned the many seemingly impossible piano arrangements of orchestral pieces). Hopefully you’ve found these pieces as inspiration as I do.

References:
Godowsky Java Suite History : Interlude
Ravel’s “Gaspard de la Nuit”: Three Devilish Sonic Fantasies – The Listeners’ Club (thelistenersclub.com)
How to Sound Like Maurice Ravel – YouTube 

How Do I Help My Child Overcome Piano Performance Anxiety?

Child Piano Performance
Piano Performance

Months ago, your child enthusiastically agreed to participate in a piano concert. Suddenly, the big day arrives.

They have been practicing for weeks and know their pieces like they know their alphabet.

Grandparents are en route and your child’s outfit is laying on the bed, ready for them.

Seemingly out of nowhere, they no longer wish to play in the concert. There is outright refusal—perhaps nausea, tears and even a tantrum.

Does this scenario sound familiar?

It won’t for everyone. Some children are comfortable performing in front of people. Everyone is different, and it’s somewhat influenced by personality type and temperament. Studies reveal that those high in levels of perfectionism suffer greater performance anxiety. It may also come from a learned behaviour; for example, a prior bad experience. However, if it’s something that you believe you would like to help your child manage, the question becomes: How do I help overcome this anxiety?

Firstly, let’s begin with what not to do.

Avoid using phrases such as “Don’t worry” or “You’ll be fine”. You may have the best intentions here but the words convey a lack of empathy and understanding; they imply a judgement that it’s wrong for your child to feel the way they do.

What to do instead.

As much as possible, respond with empathy. For example, “I understand that you’re feeling a bit scared/a little nervous/have some butterflies in your stomach [tailor this to the age of the child]”. If the child is old enough, have a conversation about anxiety. Explain that it is the fight-or-flight response and that it’s perfectly normal to feel that way. Have a discussion about how your child feels and how these feelings are transient and manageable with strategies.

Help your child learn their best ways of managing their anxiety early. This might include strategies like deep breathing in through the nose and exhaling out through the mouth, perhaps even counting at the same time. Some children might even find comfort speaking to their stomach and telling themselves aloud that they can calm their nerves down.

If possible, don’t allow avoidance. You want to offer your child the opportunity to realise that anxious feelings are not fatal—that these feelings can be acknowledged and overcome. Reinforcing avoidance strategies may generalise to other anxiety-provoking situations. On the other hand, be careful not to push your child too much, or the fear may be exacerbated. As the parent, you are the best judge when finding that healthy balance between acknowledging anxiety and instilling fear.

Shift the focus onto the pleasure the playing will provide the audience, rather than what could possibly go wrong with the performance. Try going for a little walk before the performance—a way of releasing some of that nervous energy. Also, if possible, host some mini concerts before the event, where your child can perform in front of family members. This is often a comfortable steppingstone.

An opportunity.

A performance does provide an opportunity to build resilience. It’s nearly impossible to get through life without facing some form of performance anxiety—whether it’s a job interview, exam, speech, etc. The more times your child successfully takes themselves a little out of their comfort zone, the more empowered and resilient they will become. It may take some time and understanding, but be sure to focus on the journey and not the outcome. Don’t forget to reward your child for facing their fears and make the event a happy memory; for example, you could go somewhere special together or do something fun afterward.

Anxiety isn’t one of the more enjoyable feelings. It comes from the autonomic nervous system’s response to a perceived threat. When confronted with this threat, our bodies “prepare for battle”. However, we have an instinctual tendency to fear situations which pose no real threat to our wellbeing. Learning to overcome anxious feelings is highly beneficial, as it bestows a sense of empowerment. If managed correctly with empathy, patience and understanding you can help your young performer build a resilience which will aid them through many of life’s challenges. 

References

Why Are We Scared of Public Speaking? | Psychology Today Australia

https://piano.uottawa.ca/wp-content/uploads/2016/04/Publications/Physical%20aspects/23.%20Dempsey_Erin_2015_thesis.pdf

Motivating Students to Practice

Motivating Students to Practice

Playing piano is like any skill—to do it well you must invest in practice. Even Mozart had to practice! The question then becomes: How do you remain motivated to practice? Numerous studies support the long-term value of intrinsic motivation (doing something for its inherent value, rather than some external reward) for maintaining motivation. Intrinsic motivation is linked to deep learning, better performance and well-being (Orsini, Evans and Jerez, 2015). Below I will discuss some strategies to increase intrinsic motivation for piano practice, to, hopefully, foster a long-term love of learning and playing music.

Engaging Music
It’s important to learn and play pieces that you feel passionate about—pieces that mean something to you, or evoke an emotional response. As a piano student your teacher will often give you pieces with particular learning outcomes in mind—for example, technical, rhythmic or interpretive development; however, it is also important that there are pieces added to learning that are chosen by the student. Communicate your preferences and discuss these piece choices with your piano teacher. Your piano teacher will help select pieces suitable to your level of playing to ensure that they are both challenging and rewarding.

Practice Routine
Many students underestimate the importance of setting a practice routine. Consistency is key and the more practice, the greater the gains, which leads in itself to greater motivation. For establishing a practice routine, you need to set a time which suits you. Some people practice better in the mornings, some in the afternoons, and some prefer the quiet of the early evening. Once the ideal daily time is determined it is best to set a routine of practice, otherwise it becomes too easy to say “I’ll do it tomorrow”. Parents should allow the older student to set the practice time for themselves.

Goals—A Reminder of Why We Are Practicing
Why do we practice? To become better at what we really want to do; to gain more pleasure from it; to reach and achieve a goal which is important to us. Students should keep this goal in mind, whatever it may be. And the goal will be different for each student—for example, you may want to pass a certain grade (performance or theory), master a particular song, win a competition or perform to a group. If your goal is in the front of your mind, motivation to practice will come more readily.

S.M.A.R.T. Goals—Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant and Time-bound (Set Collaboratively)
The students’ goals should be specific. This is not just wanting to play better; but, for example, reaching a certain grade, finishing a theory book, nailing a piece or a set of scales, etc. Measurable goals have the ability to determine achievement and set specific criterion for attainment. The goals need to be achievable or they will frustrate the student and lead to feelings of failure and decreased motivation. To make the goals relevant they need to be important to the student. This is why they must be set collaboratively. Setting goals can even be done with young students, although they may need to be given some options of goals to choose from. Time-bound goals keep the student focused and help with the practice routine. Remember, the student should set their own goals so that they are in control of them, and therefore have ownership over them. As stated by Reeve (2002), “autonomously motivated students thrive”.

Challenges
Challenges allow for growth and an increased sense of accomplishment upon completion. They keep us motivated by the desire to do our best. By nature, they need to provide a challenge to the student, but an achievable one. The challenge of exams, performance, attaining a particular grade, learning a particular scale or piece, all provide a very real, valid and relevant reason to practice.

Performance and Examination Opportunities
Music is made to be enjoyed by many. Students given the opportunity to perform for others will have the pleasure of sharing their passion, but it also provides a wonderful incentive to practice. And if the student has chosen to participate in the performance themselves, they will be intrinsically motivated to practice for it. Exams can function as the carrot on the stick; the student has an uncompromising timeframe, driving them to preparation.

Practice Environment
Try to create a practice environment that is inviting, warm, well-lit and free from distractions, such as technology, other family members, etc. Choose somewhere quiet where you can get lost in the music.

Keep Piano Playing a Hobby/Interest
It is good for the student to think of piano learning and practice as a choice, distinct from compulsory school homework, which may not always be their choice. Reinforce it as a pleasurable pursuit, that still requires training, much like sport or other hobbies or interests which we desire to become good at. For the parents of younger students, remember to try and associate practicing with positive feelings. If there’s frustration in the practice room, there is no harm in taking a break and coming back later. Be wary of using a threatening tone of voice when discussing practice; instead, try to focus on the idea of the positive outcomes of practice—for example, improved playing.

Watch/Listen to Good Musicians
Attend concerts, watch artists, and listen to beautiful music—immersing yourself in the music you love will be sure to increase motivation to become a better player yourself. Ask your teacher for recommendations.

Contact Richard

References
Orsini, C., Evans, P. & Jerez, O. (2015). How to encourage intrinsic motivation in the clinical teaching environment: a systematic review from the self determination theory. Journal of Educational Evaluation for Health Professions.
Reeve, J. (2002). Self-determination theory applied to educational settings. In E.L. Deci & R.M. Ryan (Eds.), Handbook of self-determination research (p.183-203). University of Rochester Press.

10 Benefits of Learning a Musical Instrument

10 Benefits of Learning a Musical Instrument – Cognitive, Health and Happiness.

‘The transferable skills of communication, empathy, organisation, self-discipline, self-assessment, self-awareness, self-knowledge and pride in high standards, to mention a few, are worth more than gold. We are training them to be successful in life and bring these skills to any profession they choose.’ Anthony Williams, 2017. ‘The Piano Teacher’s Survival Guide‘. Music has an undeniable universal appeal. The ability to create music holds a similar allure. However, there are benefits of playing a musical instrument in excess of being able to impress your friends with your rendition of Beethoven. Below are just ten of these:

1. Improves Memory

We may have ready access to many devices from which to access a world of information anytime, anywhere, but an efficient memory still reigns supreme. Numerous findings support the claim that playing a musical instrument improves your memory. A 2011 study by Dege, Wehrum, Stark and Schwarzer looked at the influence of two years of music training on visual and auditory memory. This study found a significant enhancement to the children’s visual and auditory channels. Similarly, George and Coch (2011) found that long term music education is related to improvements in working memory, both in the visual and auditory domains. Importantly, these benefits are not restricted to children. Bugos, Perlstein, McCrae, Brophy and Bedenbaugh (2007) found a significant enhancement to executive functioning and working memory in older adults. Anecdotally, these findings make sense. From remembering the notes and their positions on music charts and the keyboard, to learning whole pieces, playing the piano is the perfect way to exercise and enhance our memory, no matter your age.

2. Relieves Stress

Prolonged stress is detrimental to the body and the brain. Pleasurable pursuits and hobbies help to relieve some of the stress associated with daily life and its demands. Toyoshima, Fukui and Kuda (2011) conducted a study on the psychological and physiological stress-reducing effects of creative activities on college students. They found that creativity has a positive effect on stress, particularly playing the piano. I play the piano almost every day as a form of escapism. The mechanism differs depending upon the type of practice I am doing, however the results equally therapeutic. Sometimes my meditation takes the form of a mathematical and measured approach where the focus is on musical accuracy (I once was shocked to find that I had spent forty-five minutes practicing only eleven bars of a Bach Invention!). At other times I will put the sheet music aside and improvise. When I do this, I feel as though I have lived for a moment in another world and when I eventually leave the piano it is as if waking from a dream. There is a state of mindfulness achieved when absorbed in playing—a special time when your complete focus is on the present moment.

3. Gives a Sense of Achievement

That buzz you feel after nailing a challenging task or goal is a feeling we are all acquainted with. Playing a musical instrument offers many opportunities for these—whether it’s perfecting a difficult scale, or finally finishing off a piece you have been persevering with, there is a definite sense of achievement at the end. Additionally, once a piece is learned to a certain standard it remains internalised for a very long time. I am always pleasantly surprised when I stumble through some of my old exam pieces from when I was a student and am able to enjoy them all over again. This increase in self-efficacy has a flow-on effect which leads to the next benefit …

4. Builds Confidence

Healthy levels of self-esteem are related to many areas of life satisfaction. In 2004 Costa-Giomi studied the effects of three years of piano instruction on fourth grade children who had never previously participated in formal music education. The results of the study indicated that piano lessons had a positive effect on the children’s self-esteem. The positive feedback I received from my peers about my playing in primary school has had a lasting impact upon me. What accompanied this was growing up with a strong sense of musical identity. I wasn’t the fastest runner or the best at maths; but, when called upon, I could produce some nice sounds on the piano in music class—and that was something in which I could feel a sense of pride.

5. Enhanced Cognitive Abilities

Both verbal and non verbal reasoning skills were found to be enhanced in children who take instrumental music lessons in a study by Forgeard, Winner, Norton and Schlaug (2008). Learning to read music—and the ability to then apply this knowledge to producing music on an instrument—requires a great deal of skill. Reading, comprehension, maths and visuospatial manipulation, are all utilised to turn symbols on a page into beautiful sounds which evoke emotional responses.

6. Practice Improves Patience, Increases Self-Discipline and Time Management Skills

I always explain to parents that there are many benefits to students of enrolling in competitions, concerts and exams beyond the obvious musical benefits—attention to detail, performance instructions and musical symbols; knowledge of the composers intentions and sometimes even the broader historical context of the piece. There is also the requirement to master the piece under varying degrees of pressure. This often mimics the pressures of life itself. The self-management needed to practice a piece to perfection requires focus, self-critique and hard work. It could be compared to preparing oneself for an important job interview or fulfilling a dream. These skills, vital in achieving any of life’s goals, are developed and practiced through the consistent demands of learning to play a musical instrument.

7. Makes you More Creative

Tachibana, Noah, Ono, Taguchi and Ueda (2019) found that the areas of the brain associated with creativity are activated when students engage in spontaneous musical creativity, and that neural engagement enhances neural efficiency and scope. This is one of the reasons why learning music theory is so important. It is sometimes argued that theory can restrict creativity, but this idea is misguided. What theory does, is provide a student with a variety of tools which can be used in a creative manner. Pablo Picasso’s cubist paintings were not simply the result of a stroke of genius; but, rather, years of learning how to paint, including the theory of painting. This provided him with the skills which gave him the ability to express himself creatively.

8. Mathematics

Dr Frances Rauscher, in her 2006 article published in the Educational Psychologist, explains that “young children provided with instrumental instruction score significantly higher on tasks measuring spatial-temporal cognition, hand-eye coordination and arithmetic.” Part of this is due to the amount of overlap between music skills and maths skills. The visual and spatial skills that a child exercises every time they practise an instrument and play music strengthen their mental-physical connection. The link between the physical practice of music and strong mathematical abilities are demonstrated in studies which show that children who play a musical instrument can perform more complex arithmetical operations than those who do not play an instrument. The slow work of practice, the attention to detail and the discipline it takes to learn an instrument are also excellent preparation for the practice involved in building strong maths skills.

9. Self-Expression

Learning to play the piano requires gaining a certain set of formulated knowledge and skills. However, once the basics are acquired there is much room for self-expression and creativity. This ranges from performance expression to composing ones own pieces. Students will relish the opportunity to express their individualistic selves through the universal medium of music.

10. It’s Fun and Makes you Happy!

This last requires no study to confirm its validity. Try it for yourself and you’ll see!
Contact me now for a free chat about learning to play piano.

References:

Bugos, J.A., Perlstein, W.M., McCrae, C.S., Brophy, T.S. & Bedenbaugh P.H. (2007). Individualized piano instruction enhances executive functioning and working memory in older adults. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/17612811/

Costa-Giomi, E. (2004). Effects of Three Years of Piano Instruction on Children’s Academic Achievement, School Performance and Self-Esteem. https://doi.org/10.1177/0305735604041491

Dege, F., Wehrun, S., Stark, R. & Schwarzer, G. (2011). The Influence of Two Years of School Musical Training in Secondary School on Visual & Auditory Memory. European Journal of Developmental Psychology, 8, 608-

Forgeard, M., Winner, E., Norton, A. & Schlaug, G. (2008)_Practicing a Musical Instrument in Childhood is Associated with Enhanced Verbal Ability and Nonverbal Reasoning. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0003566

George, E.M.& Coch, D. (2011). Music training and working memory: An ERP study. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neuropsychologia.2011.02.001

Rauscher, F. & Hinton, S. (2006). The Mozart Effect – Music Listening is not Music Instruction. Educational Psychologist 41(4), 233-238.

Tachibana, A., Noah, J.A., Ono, Y. et al. (2019). Prefrontal activation related to spontaneous creativity with rock music improvisation: A functional near-infrared spectroscopy study. Sci Rep 9, 16044. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-019-52348-6

Toyoshima, K., Fukui , H. & Kuda, K. (2011) Piano playing reduces stress more than other creative art activities. International Journal of Music Education vol. 29(3):257-263