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

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