“But I could play it perfectly at home!”
3 Ways To Perform Confidently With Tiny Pieces
Ok, so 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 Ever Tiny Piano Pieces, beginning in early 2018.
I hope it’ll inspire pianists of all ages to enjoy the process of learning and performing new music, assuredly and expressively.
Whatever your chosen repertoire, I highly recommend routinely adding tiny pieces.
Starting with tiny pieces builds confidence. It can take 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 you build fail-safe, enjoyable learning processes which you can apply to longer pieces.
You can maintain a satisfying repertoire of tiny pieces that you play fluently, easily and joyfully.
Good tiny pieces are not spuriously 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 that – it’s about meeting yourself you where you are and forging ahead from there.
I’m suggesting adding tiny pieces to your current routine.
So how exactly can tiny pieces help you to perform confidently?
They’re the perfect chance to try a fresh approach to learning new music quickly and easily, with an open mind.
If you approach tiny pieces in the same ways that have failed to counter anxiety in the past, they’ll be no more helpful than anything else.
If you grab the opportunity to try out transformative 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 investigating mindbodymusic.co.uk or cognitiveharmony.co.uk if you wish to explore this possibility further.
For some, including me, however, a fresh approach involving radical new learning priorities can in itself be a portal to confident performing.
I remember the day I admitted that I was trying to perform music without really knowing it.
I was ‘practising’ it, 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 beginning to notice already that I was relying less on the score than I used to. I seemed to half-memorise sections and then play them whilst only vaguely following the score.
But apart from this general sense of a shift, I was still leaving my learning processes largely to chance. On reflection, 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 meant leaving my outcome – my performances – 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 not only get to enjoy every moment of your practice…
…you can also learn new music efficiently and perform it confidently from memory.
Sound too good to be true?
Here are my 3 top tips:
Connect deeply and personally with the music as your top priority.
Maintain an ongoing deep connection (Flow) throughout all practice activities.
First, 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.
To paraphrase the sentiment attributed to St Paul, without love, there’s little point. Imbue every activity in your practice with love.
Get to know the piece in its various parts and layers – the main melody, the bass line, any inner lines. Notice the contour of every phrase, each melodic turn, each harmonic inflection, as you encounter it.
Notice how every detail of the music makes you feel, even at the moment at which you first explore it.
Dance or move to each new phrase, or make a gesture in the air that expresses its rise and fall, its tension and release.
Yes, the music will ‘grow on you’ to an extent as you get to know it. It won’t necessarily reveal its secrets all in one go.
But make connecting deeply and personally with the musical details your Number One Priority. Don’t ‘learn the notes first.’
Indulge. Let go of the idea that ‘practice’ must be a slog.
Imagine every musical gesture is an expression of the composer’s innermost feelings. 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 in performance) without heightening your state beyond self-consciousness.
If this doesn’t seem to be happening, maybe ask yourself: am I really shifting towards love, in all of my practice activities? Am I cherishing the moment? Am I truly conscious of all of the musical details as I practise?
The most efficient way to learn music to a deadline is to forget about the deadline, stay in the moment and let the process happen. You need fail-safe processes in which you can trust deeply, in order to do this.
You can begin to explore such processes in this video from the free online course, The 7 Secrets of Piano Playing.
Play by ear.
Orient every aspect of your learning towards the aural.
Even if you’re 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 and 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 – altogether at once from the outset.
This is the slowest way to learn the piece, and you’ll most likely 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, without hearing the details, also means you’re less likely to remember a piece if you leave it for a period of time and then come back to it.
You’ll find you haven’t internalised it deeply enough and grown to love its details and contours, like a beloved human being.
Play only single parts, in any unfamiliar sections (which presumably means all of the music, at the outset), every time you play, for a period of days or even weeks.
When you start to play the parts together, as soon as you find yourself hesitating, drop out a part, or drop back to one part.
Every time you reach a section that doesn’t yet flow with all parts together, play only one part at a time for that section, until you know it confidently by ear. Then add another part. Ensure that you hear each part distinctly.
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. The latter will try to convince you it knows the music, but will also ultimately let you down under pressure.
Cultivate inner hearing, such that you can imagine and enjoy the details of the music in your mind’s ear whilst lying in bed or going for a walk.
This will enable you to hold vast numbers of pieces in your memory, requiring perhaps the slenderest of reminders to recall them in future.
All of this is much easier to achieve with tiny pieces. If you’re used to relying on your visual or muscle memories, trying to learn complex pieces by ear at the outset can be demoralising. It takes too long.
Enjoying tiny pieces routinely in this way will build confidence and ‘rub off’ on longer pieces.
Expect a transition – of months, at least – towards playing longer pieces by ear, if you’re used to prioritising visual and muscle memories.
You can begin to explore playing by ear in this video from the free online course, The 7 Secrets of Piano Playing.
Incorporate 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, at least if you are to prevent injury.
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 excess tension.
Bring your awareness to technical challenges as and when you reach them, even as you get to know the music.
Explore 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 Piano Portals is subtitled ‘Technique in the Flow Zone’, it’s naturally full of suggestions of how to do this. It’s essentially a musical environment designed to cultivate and refine exactly these skills.