“But I could play it perfectly at home!” – 3 Tips for Playing Confidently in Front of Others.

Picture this. You’ve learnt your piece. You’ve played it once, twice or more every day. It feels almost harder to make a mistake than to mess up. You sit down in front of your friends/piano class/audience…and strange things happen. The score looks blurry and unfamiliar. You misread an accidental for the first time. You suddenly play a familiar chord in the wrong clef. You glance down at the keyboard. It’s looms back, a forbidding sea of black and white.

This post complements my video playlist, The Best Tiny Piano Pieces, starting in early 2018. I hope it will inspire pianists of all ages to enjoy the process of learning and performing new music with complete assurance and expressive abandon. Whatever your chosen repertoire, I highly recommend routinely adding tiny pieces.

Starting with tiny pieces builds confidence, as it takes less time to reach a satisfying outcome. In my case – having honed my processes over time – just a few minutes, for really tiny ones.

Tiny pieces can be invigorating – even rapturous – in their own right. They can help to build failsafe, enjoyable processes of learning which you can apply to longer pieces.

You can play an invigorating repertoire of tiny pieces fluently, easily and joyfully.  Good tiny pieces are not purely educational or “baby” pieces. They’re imaginative pieces into which composers poured their inspiration, even if they were young when they wrote them.

Please don’t misunderstand me. I’m not suggesting you ‘go back to square one’. Piano Portals never advocates this – it’s about meeting yourself you where you are and strengthening both your strong and weaker areas as a player. I’m suggesting adding the tiny pieces to your current routine – not sticking to them exclusively.

So how exactly can tiny pieces help you to perform confidently in front of others? It’s all in the ‘how’. If you approach tiny pieces in the same ways that have led to anxiety over the years, they won’t bestow their gifts. If you grab the opportunity to try out transformational new priorities in learning, you’ll never look back.

Please note that if you associate performing with a particular traumatic event (or sometimes even if you don’t), there may be deeper subconscious issues at play. In which case, I highly recommend mindbodymusic.co.uk or cognitiveharmony.co.uk if you wish to explore this possibility further.

For some, including me, however, a fresh approach incorporating radical new learning priorities can provide a route to joyful, confident performing.

I remember the day I admitted that I was trying to perform music without really knowing it. I was ‘practising’ music, and I thought I was getting to know it.  But I wasn’t – at least not deeply enough to all-but-guarantee confident, expressive performance.

Fortunately, I’d already learnt to stomach uncomfortable revelations. I’d turned my back on one longstanding practice after another throughout the process of creating, exploring and recording Piano Portals.

I was learning a Chopin Ballade at the time. I was noticing already that I was relying less on the score than I used to. I seemed to half-memorise sections and then play them without scouring the page in detail.

But apart from this vague awareness of a shift, I was leaving my learning processes largely to chance. That was my uncomfortable revelation that day.

When I questioned myself, I couldn’t be sure exactly what I was focusing on or prioritising whilst learning a piece. As with many players, I was relying on a mix of visual, aural and muscle/automatic memory – and hoping for the best. This means leaving your outcome – your performance – largely to chance, too.

If you’re thinking that the opposite of this hope-for-the-best approach is some kind of ultra-structured, regimented approach, then please think again. Here’s where I insist you can have your cake and go wild.

Simply by refocusing on certain elements – refreshing, gratifying elements – you can not only learn to enjoy every moment of your practice…You can learn efficiently and perform  expressively and confidently from memory.

Sound too good to be true?

Here are my 3 top tips:

1 Connect deeply and personally with the music as your top priority. Maintain an ongoing deep connection (or Flow) throughout all practice activities. Listen to, move to, dance to recordings of the piece. Or, if you can already imagine the music to an extent in your mind’s ear, play it in your imagination – and express yourself.

We remember what we love, what we cherish. And, to paraphrase the sentiment attributed to St Paul, without love, there’s little point. Imbue every activity in your practice with love. As you get to know the piece in its various parts and layers, notice the contour of every phrase, melodic turn, harmonic inflection. Notice how each detail of the music makes you feel, even at the moment at which you first explore it. Dance or move to each new phrase.

Yes, the music will ‘grow on you’ to an extent. It won’t necessarily reveal its secrets all in one go. But make discovering those secrets your Number One Priority. Don’t ‘learn the notes first.’

Indulge. Lose all notions that ‘practice’ is hard slog. Imagine every musical gesture is an expression of the composer’s soul. Ask yourself: what sentiment, character, atmosphere underpins each gesture?

If this kind of approach becomes habitual – over months and years – it becomes increasingly difficult to play at all (including performing in front of others) without heightening your state of consciousness to level where you move beyond self-consciousness.

2Play by ear. Orient every aspect of your learning towards the aural. Even if you are starting with the score – as many of us do – sing everything, as you get to know the music. Sing out loud, then hear the phrases, the melodies, clearly, in detail, in your mind’s ear. Sing to so-fa, if this interests you. Transpose small sections as you learn them, as long as this feels like a game and not a chore.

Don’t try to play parts of the musical texture – e. g. main melody, inner melodies, bass line – all at once from the outset. You’ll inevitably do it primarily by sight. This takes less time to accomplish, for confident readers, but is ultimately unreliable. The visual memory is the first to let us down under even mild pressure.

If you rely on your eyes, it’s easy to bypass the process of internalising the sound of the music – rather perversely, since the music itself is sound.

Learning the music primarily by looking – and without hearing the details – also means you’re less likely to remember it, if you don’t play it for a period of time and then come back to it. You haven’t internalised it deeply enough, appreciating all its details and contours, like a beloved human being.

Play only single parts, in any unfamiliar sections (which presumably means the whole piece at the outset!), every time you play, for a period of days. As soon as you find yourself hesitating whilst playing all of the parts, drop out a part. Every time you reach that section, play on one part at a time, until you know it confidently by ear.

Play individual parts with various combinations of hands and fingers (e. g. with the ‘wrong’ hand or with alternate index fingers). Along with transposing, this helps to counter the muscle memory, which will try to convince you that you know the music, but will also ultimately let you down under pressure.

Cultivate your inner hearing, such that you can enjoy the details of the music in your mind’s ear. This will enable you to hold vast numbers of pieces in your memory, requiring perhaps the slenderest of reminders to recall them in future. Lie on your bed and ‘hear’ the details of all musical parts in your head.

All of this is much easier to achieve with tiny pieces first. Doing so repeatedly will build confidence and ‘rub off’ on longer pieces. Expect a transition – of at least months – in longer pieces, if you’re used to prioritising visual and muscle memories.

3Incorporate technique into the flow of learning the music, from the outset. Don’t ‘note bash’. Don’t ‘learn the notes first.’

Since developing Piano Portals, I’ve come to see piano technique less of ‘something to do’ – like a number of sit-ups – and more as a deepening awareness. It’s more like yoga or t’ai chi than cardio, although arguably even cardio is more effective if you bring to it your conscious awareness. It’s about making connections between parts of your body, noticing what’s operating and integrating freely and what’s not. At least, it is if you wish to play efficiently and expressively, with no unnecessary tension.

So bring your awareness to technical challenges as and when you reach them. Explore elements such as those outlined in the 7 Secrets of Piano Playing within the flow of your connection to the music. As you get to know the music, shift your awareness from one aspect of your coordination to another and notice what’s going on.

Since ‘Technique in the Flow Zone’ is the main premise of Piano Portals, it’s naturally full of suggestions of how to do this. It’s essentially a musical environment designed to cultivate and refine this very skill.

Do please leave your comments or queries below. To the journey!

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