Performing in a Safe Circle

Many pianists relish performing and do it all the time, others end up performing as a part of their activities. It may have been a passion for music and a desire for self expression that led them into the profession in the first place and not necessarily a desire for performance itself. Performance skills come with experience, and yet many fine musicians are not really cut out for it. Many amateur players are not content just to sit at home and play for their own pleasure, they need to perform and to share their music with others in order to grow and develop. For both professionals and amateurs alike, the act of performance may be fraught with challenges and problems.

There is no doubt that for a performance to be convincing, the performer must be convinced by what they are doing. And if the performer is nervous and allows those nerves to show too much, the listener is going to feel apprehensive and won’t enjoy the performance nearly as much as if the player can manage to let go. One of the blog posts I am most proud of  is Cavaliers and Roundheads: Developing Performance Skills, in which I describe the different mindsets between practising and performing, and show how a devil-may-care attitude is a disaster in the former but a necessity in the latter!

Inner Judges

Some players find it very difficult to let go of nerves, and this may be for a variety of reasons – physical and/or psychological. Our inner judges can be real people who have (or had in the past) influence over us. This might be a parent, grandparent, teacher – anyone whose opinion we allowed to affect us.  Imagine a situation where your childhood piano teacher was constantly critical of your playing and put you down all the time instead of balancing criticism with praise. This teacher probably wanted to get the best out of you and believed in this old-school approach, or maybe they were deeply insecure and put you down in an attempt to make themselves feel powerful. You end up buying into some of the untruths you were told or you were led to assume, such as “I can’t play fast”, “I always mess up when I play in public” or “I’m not distinction material” and enshrine these statements as beliefs that play themselves out. It is possible to silence these voices and to replace them with a voice that is compassionate, protective and caring of oneself.


A stressful situation causes the brain, endocrine, and pituitary systems to release a cocktail of several powerful hormones and chemicals into the body. This is a natural reaction to what we perceive as a threatening situation and provides the tools needed for survival. If we are not prepared for the effects, these chemicals will do more harm than good. Adrenaline constricts blood vessels in many parts of the body such as the hands and many of the small muscle groups, causing the loss of fine motor skills. It also causes the heart rate to race, and produces other physical symptoms helpful in running away from a predator or heroic acts of rescue but not that conducive to the performance of piano music. It takes extremely thorough preparation (in the practice room), positive self-talk and a degree of experience to channel the effects of adrenaline to our advantage – it can actually give a performance a real edge, raising it from the mundane to the truly exciting.

Performing in a Safe Circle

One of the things I love about being a permanent tutor on the Piano Teachers’ Course (EPTA) UK is that I come away from each residential weekend having learned something! Each tutor, whether permanent or visiting, brings their own unique qualities and strengths to the table and the course ends up being an enriching experience for tutees and tutors alike.

Given that piano teachers do need to be able to play for students – not just to demonstrate but also to inspire – performance is a part of the course. Initially, some feel intimidated by this but fears are quickly dispelled thanks to an initiative of our director, Lucinda Mackworth-Young, who has come up with the concept of performing in a safe circle. Here is the concept in Lucinda’s own words (from her excellent book Tuning In – Practical Psychology for Musicians):

Gather a group of players (colleagues or pupils) who want to practise performing in a supportive environment. Tell them that they are only allowed to feel and think positive and appreciative things about the performance in progress. (This is especially useful in developing the listeners’ “Inner Carers” for them to draw on when they perform later.) Everyone performs in turn, and at the end of each performance each member of the group says something he enjoyed about the performance to the performer…from a position of equals rather than from a position of judgement. The performer then says what he enjoyed performing and what parts he wants to work on.

If you are a piano teacher who wants to expand your horizons, a young teacher just starting out in the profession or an established teacher who feels a little out of touch with colleagues and current trends in pedagogical thinking then think about registering for the course for next year (click here for full details).

Piano Meetup Groups

The London Piano Meetup Group is celebrating its first anniversary, and if you live in the London area and want a safe and supportive environment where you can play to peers this is the group for you. Founders and organisers Lorraine Liyanage and Frances Wilson hold regular performance opportunities for amateur pianists. Beginners are most welcome and encouraged to gain invaluable performance experience to a friendly audience. Lorraine explains:

We don’t comment on people’s playing at our usual events although we do make lots of encouraging comments for newbies and nervous players. We have dedicated groups for very anxious performers. It became a bit of a group therapy session which was pretty good for everyone to open up about their performing anxieties and pre-performance rituals.

Frances is keen to emphasise the friendly and supportive nature of events:

People are complimentary about one another’s playing and understand that we are often at our most sensitive in the moments after we’ve performed. We are very much a “safe place” where people can perform knowing they are free of criticism. We create a friendly, informal and non-competitive environment where people can get together to perform and share repertoire.

If you want to go along and see for yourself, have a look at The London Piano Meetup Group‘s website for full details of what is on offer. I can recommend this group most highly. Another London-based group I can also highly recommend is The London Piano Circle, for which I recently gave a memorable class (memorable in the sense that I was extremely impressed with what I heard!). If you don’t live in London and there isn’t a piano circle or a similar group in your area, why not think of creating one?

Do you run a piano-themed group or event?

We’re in the process of building an online directory of resources for amateur pianists, including a listing of opportunities to play for and listen to others. If you run or organise piano-themed groups or events then we’d love to include your group in our listing! Please click here to tell us a bit more about your group.

Are you looking for opportunities to share your playing?

Click here to sign-up to our mailing list and receive a free video on dealing with performance anxiety by Graham Fitch in addition to several other resources that will help you deliver performances that are fulfilling to both you and your listeners!