Performance Preparation Routines

All successful piano teachers hold recitals of their students. Therefore, attending these recitals is a good way to find good teachers and to learn about how they teach. There is a direct correlation between how good the teacher is and how many recitals s/he schedules. Obviously, the better teachers hold more recitals, some as many as six or more a year. See the section on "Teaching" for how you can schedule so many recitals every year. Have you noticed that student recitals tend to be either terrific or terrible? This happens because some teachers know how to prepare their students for recitals while others do not. This explanation is supported by the observation that, when the recital is good, all the students play well, and vice versa.

Even if a student can play perfectly during practice, s/he can make all kinds of mistakes during a recital if the preparation is incorrect. Most students intuitively practice hard and at full speed during the week preceding the recital, and especially on the day of the recital. In order to simulate the recital, they imagine an audience listening nearby and play their hearts out, playing the entire piece from beginning to end, many times. This practice method is the single biggest cause of mistakes and poor performance. The most telling remark I hear so often is, "Strange, I played so well all morning but during the recital, I made mistakes that I don't made during practice!" To an experienced teacher, this is a student practicing out of control without any guidance about right and wrong methods of recital preparation.

Teachers who hold those recitals in which the students perform wonderfully keep a tight leash on their students and control their practice routines closely. Why all this fuss? Because during a recital, the most stressed element is the brain, not the playing mechanism. And this stress cannot be replicated in any kind of simulated performance. Thus the brain must be rested and fully charged for a one-time performance; it cannot be drained by playing your heart out. All mistakes originate in the brain. All the necessary information must be stored in an orderly manner in the brain, with no confusion. This is why improperly prepared students always play worse in a recital than during practice. When you practice at full speed, a large amount of confusion is introduced into the memory. It is analogous to a computer that has been used for a long time without defragmenting the main disk and deleting duplicate and useless files. In addition, the environment of the recital is different from that of the practice piano, and can be very distracting. Therefore, you must have a simple, mistake-free memory of the piece that can be retrieved in spite of all the added distractions. This is why it is extremely difficult to perform the same piece twice on the same day, or even on successive days. The second performance is invariably worse than the first, although intuitively, you would expect the second performance to be better because you had one extra experience performing it. As elsewhere in this section, these types of remarks apply only to students. Professional musicians should be able to perform anything any number of times at any time; this skill comes from continuous exposure to performing, and honing the proper rules of preparation.

Through trial and error, experienced teachers have found practice routines that work. The most important rule is to limit the amount of practice on recital day, so as to keep the mind fresh. The brain is totally unreceptive on recital day. It can only become confused. Only a small minority of talented students have sufficiently "strong" musical brains to assimilate something new on recital day. By the way, this also applies to tests and exams at school. Most of the time, you will score better in an exam by going to a movie the night before the exam than by cramming. A typical recommended piano practice routine is to play nearly full speed once, then medium speed once and finally once slowly. That's it! No more practice! Never play faster than recital speed. Notice how counter intuitive this is. Since parents and friends will always use intuitive methods, it is important for the teacher to make sure that any person associated with the student also knows these rules, especially for the younger students. Otherwise, in spite of anything the teacher says, the students will come to the recital having practiced all day at full speed, because their parents made them do it.

Of course, this is just the starting point. It can be altered to fit the circumstances. This routine is for the typical student and is not for professional performers who will have much more detailed routines that depend not only on the type of music being played, but also on the particular composer or particular piece to be played. Clearly, for this routine to work, the piece will have had to be ready for performance way ahead of time. However, even if the piece has not been perfected and can be improved with more practice, this is still the best routine for the recital day. If you make a mistake that you know is stubborn and which you are almost certain that it will occur during the recital, fish out just the few bars containing the mistake and practice those at the appropriate speeds (always ending with slow play), staying away from fast playing as much as possible. If you are not sure that the piece is completely memorized, you can play it very slowly several times. Again, the importance of secure mental play must be emphasized -- it is the ultimate test of whether you are ready to perform.

Since you are allowed only one practice at speed (or close to it), what do you do if you make a mistake during that one practice? Play right through! Don't stop to correct it or even hesitate. Unfortunately, any mistake you make at this time has a high probability of reappearing during the recital. Therefore, after you have finished the piece, go back and fish out the phrase containing the mistake and play it slowly several times. You will generally find that in mental play, the same place will be insecure -- therefore, practice it very fast and very slowly mentally.

Also, avoid extreme exertion, such as playing a football game or lifting or pushing something heavy (such as a concert grand!). This can suddenly change the response of your muscles to a signal from the brain and you can end up making totally unexpected mistakes when you play at the recital. Of course, mild warm-up exercises, stretching, calisthenics, Tai Chi, Yoga, etc., can be very beneficial.

For the week preceding the recital, always play medium speed, then slow speed, before quitting practice. You can substitute medium speed for slow speed if you are short of time, or the piece is particularly easy, or if you are a more experienced performer. Actually, this rule applies to any practice session, but is particularly critical before a recital. The slow play erases any bad habits that you might have picked up, and re-establishes relaxed playing. Therefore, during these medium/slow plays, concentrate on relaxation. There is no fixed number such as half speed, etc., to define medium and slow, although medium is generally about 3/4 speed, and slow is about half speed. More generally, medium speed is the speed at which you can play comfortably, relaxed, and with plenty of time to spare. Slow is the speed at which you need to pay attention to each note separately.

Blackouts are different from mistakes and must be dealt with differently. Never try to restart from where you blacked out unless you know exactly how to restart. Always restart from a preceding section or a following section that you know well (preferably a following section because mistakes usually cannot be corrected during the recital). Secure mental play will eliminate practically all blackouts.

Up to the last day before the recital, you can work on improving the piece. But within the last week, adding new material or making changes in the piece (such as fingering) is not recommended, although you might try it as a training experiment to see how far you can push yourself. Being able to add something new during the last week is a sign that you may be a strong performer. For working on long pieces such as Beethoven Sonatas, avoid playing the entire composition many times. It is best to chop it into short segments of a few pages at most and practice the segments. Practicing HS is also an excellent idea because no matter who you are, you can always improve technically. Although playing too fast is not recommended in the last week, you can practice at any speed HS. Avoid learning new pieces during this last week. That does not mean that you are limited to the recital pieces; you can still practice any piece that you have previously learned. New pieces are unpredictable and will often cause you to learn new skills that affect or alter how you play the recital piece. In general, you will not be aware that this happened until you play the recital piece and wonder how some new mistakes crept in.

Make a habit of playing your recital pieces "cold" (without any warming up) when you start any practice session. The hands will warm up after one or two pieces, so you may have to rotate the recital pieces with each practice session, if you are playing many pieces. Of course, "playing cold" has to be done within reason. If the fingers are totally sluggish from inaction, you cannot, and should not try to, play difficult material at full speed; it will lead to stress and even injury. Some pieces can only be played after the hands are completely limbered up, especially if you want to play it musically. However, the difficulty of playing musically must not be an excuse for not playing cold because the effort is more important than the result in this case. You need to find out which ones you can play cold at full speed, and which ones you should not.

Recording your playing is a good way to practice playing before an audience. Videotaping is far better than just audio recording; it is by far the best way to simulate a performance -- the only better way is to recruit a bunch of people to listen to you. Videotaping has the advantage that you can alternate practicing with taping so that you can immediately correct any mistakes you find. The magic of videotaping works in two ways. First, it is such a good simulation of the actual recital that, if you can play satisfactorily during videotaping, you will have no trouble during the recital -- you will gain the confidence to perform. The second magic is that, if you gain sufficient confidence, the nervousness can be almost completely eliminated. Of course, in order to eliminate nervousness, you must also follow all the other points discussed in this book, starting with the attitude that you are a performing pianist and therefore is expected to perform. Finally, as stated repeatedly in this book, secure mental playing is the most important skill that will improve your performance immeasurably. Once you have performed after mastering mental playing, you will wonder how you ever had the courage to perform without it.