judi

Some Thoughts on Mental Tension

When we think of tension in piano playing, we correctly label this as negative – it is a thing that hampers us and our objective should be to locate its source and then eliminate it. This tension might be physical or mental, or perhaps a bit of both! Inadequate or inefficient technique, or incorrect use of the body manifests in physical tension. Mental tension (such as stage fright, exam nerves, etc.) may have its origins in the mind but it soon becomes very apparent in our breathing and the tightening of our arm muscles, the wrist and our shoulders. If we are particularly apprehensive, our legs may also tighten up and this affects our whole system. Adrenaline gets pumped into the body and this alters the way our muscles feel and the way we respond physically to what we perceive as stress and danger. When muscles tense up our ability to move freely across the keyboard is compromised, often severely. This leads to all kinds of clumsy and uncoordinated errors until eventually we can no longer play.

Poisonous Pedagogy

Unfortunately, many teachers (including some with excellent reputations at the top of the profession) teach by shaming the student, making them feel inadequate and inferior. Once worn down and confidence eroded, the idea is to rebuild them in the image of the teacher. This sets up unhealthy dependency and a host of psychological problems. I am not suggesting this is deliberate cruelty on the part of the teacher, because this behaviour is usually unconscious. The teacher is simply passing on like a hot potato the way they themselves were taught. Despite the quality of the information we might get from such a teacher, nobody needs to be subjected to this treatment.

If you had teachers who made you feel incompetent and useless because they focussed only on the negatives in lessons, and delivered instruction in an abusive way, then how can you hope to feel empowered, confident or good about your playing? You will likely carry that teacher around inside your head and everything you do will feel stiff and tight, like walking on egg shells. Nervousness, insecurity, anxiety and mental stress will translate directly into physical tension. It is a foregone conclusion that you’ll mess up, and sooner rather than later!

Do you remember the recurrent theme from the BBC series Keeping Up Appearances, where Hyacinth Bucket’s domineering and intimidating presence causes such panic in her neighbour Elizabeth that she cannot be trusted even to hold a teacup without spillage or breakage? (Watch the first minute of this…)

For many young pianists at the start of their playing career, a barrier to security in performing is not physical limitations but psychological issues. There is often a lack of self confidence and they believe their playing is somehow off the mark, missing something or even totally wrong. They need a teacher they can respect who will mentor them, validate and inspire them and act as a mirror for how they sound by giving honest and supportive feedback. With this seal of approval, they can get up and play and magic can happen. Without it, performance can feel frightening, risky and full of self doubt. We can sit on the stage and feel that everyone out there is judging us, and harshly! “No, that’s much too slow!” and “You would have thought after all that practice you could get that run more even” are the sort of thoughts that go through our mind.

I once had a teacher who, when she visited me in the green room before a concert, held my hand and urged me to “go out there and make sounds that nobody has ever made before!”. What a lovely way to make your student feel empowered, and special.

It is vital to keep a positive mental attitude around our practising and performing, and not to tolerate the destructive antics of egocentric teachers. There are plenty of others who will support and encourage you in the process of building you up as a pianist and as a musician. I suggest you seek them out.

I am busy writing the next part of my ebook series, on technique. Meanwhile, you might be interested in the three volumes of practice tools. 

Special offer bundle – Part 1 of Practising The Piano eBook Series (All three volumes)

Buy Part 1 of Practising The Piano (three volumes) for over 30% off the full individual prices.

[prod_btns code=”part1bundle” title=” “]

 

 

 

 

 

judi

Mental States in Performance – Practising the Piano

We all know the importance of early training in shaping a pianist, with correct musical and technical development right at the top of the list.

There is another vital ingredient in the mix that is sometimes overlooked, the responsibility of the teacher to nurture a healthy psychological outlook in the student. Lessons should always be positive experiences even when faults need to be corrected or discipline meted out. This is why teachers should balance positive feedback on the playing and the week’s work with constructive comments and instructions that are delivered in a manner that is always respectful and empowering – never shaming. It is also the teacher’s responsibility not to put their student in for competitions before they are ready, and to prepare them fully for all performances. This way the student develops a healthy self-esteem with regard to their playing – a positive mental attitude.

I am very pleased to announce that Part 4 of my e-book series, Practising the Piano has just rolled off the end of the production line and will be launched next week. I will tell you more about the contents of the publication in next week’s post but first I want to talk a little further about the importance of cultivating a positive mental attitude as a ploy to counter performance anxiety.

 

iPad-ptp4-images

Performance Nerves

In conjunction with writing and researching the book, I decided to run a short, informal and anonymous survey, Performance Anxiety Among Pianists. I was delighted by the response, well over 1,000 took the trouble to complete it and I have included some of the stats in my book.

It is no secret that many of the world’s greatest concert pianists have at some stage in their careers suffered from performance anxiety. Vladimir Horowitz was forced to retire from the concert stage for long periods because of debilitating nerves, and there are many wonderful pianists who turn to jelly as soon as they walk onto the stage. One of the most celebrated teachers of the 20th century, Adele Marcus, apparently vomited over the keyboard at the start of the Schumann concerto because of nerves and was unable to give the performance.

There is no substitute for experience when it comes to performance – getting out there and doing it regularly and routinely is what seasons a pianist. Take a break for a few months and it feels like you have somehow lost the knack of handling the adrenaline and of controlling your playing in front of an audience. I do much less playing now than I used to, and when I do play a recital I am aware that an awful lot of time in the practice room is devoted to bolstering up my memory and to knowing the music upside down, backwards and sideways. Anything to avoid that horrible feeling of insecurity on the stage.

It seems that the slightest distraction can put us off our stride in performance – coughing, mobile phones going off, someone walking around in the auditorium – but more usually it is what is going on in our own head. When we perform, we can be our own worst enemy.

I would like to share two personal experiences of performing that I hope will be empowering. I want to preface this by stressing the importance of being fully prepared pianistically, this is the number 1 priority. No amount of positive self-talk or inner game work is going to save the day without thorough preparation. With this in place, the difference between a successful performance and a sub-standard one is all in our head.

Royal College of Music - April 2007

A Lesson at the Royal College of Music

When we perform, we call on a different part of ourselves from when we practise or play for ourselves, because these are completely opposite activities. In performance we need a feeling of abandon and spontaneity, of creativity and going with the punches, whereas practising relies on thoughtful, analytic procedures where we constantly evaluate, repeating and refining our results until we are satisfied they are correct.

When I was an undergraduate student at the Royal College of Music in London, I experienced these two opposite states of mind in a lesson – in the first instance the careful practiser and secondly the carefree performer. My piano professor had assigned me Debussy’s L’isle joyeuse and had given me two weeks to learn it. Anxious to show him how much I had practised and how well I had prepared the piece, I was (unconsciously) reluctant to surrender control in my lesson. When I played it through to him it was full of errors caused by anxiety and tension, not by lack of time or effort in the practice room. As we all know, mental tension translates immediately into physical tension and I ended up playing with a different sense of my muscles – sluggish, restricted and uncooperative.

My teacher, being very wise, immediately asked me to play the piece again, this time trying to play as many wrong notes and to make as many mistakes as possible. This somewhat unusual permission was enough to flip a switch in my mind, and the difference between the two performances was chalk and cheese. I remember being startled by this, since the two play-throughs were back to back without any detailed instruction or in-between practice. It was the Jekyll-and-Hyde change of mindset that was solely responsible for the difference between a stiff, awkward, and therefore inaccurate and disappointing version, and a free, creative one that felt exhilarating and on target.

Here is Marcelle Meyer playing Debussy’s L’isle joyeuse.

[youtube id=”3hZypJXrzIs” width=”600″ height=”350″]

In the Green Room

Many years later I was in the green room waiting to go onstage and play a recital at the Australasian Piano Pedagogy Conference. Sitting around waiting to go onstage is usually the most anxious part of a performance for me, when I entertain thoughts such as: “Why am I putting myself through this? Why didn’t I choose a proper job?”… and so on. The butterflies in my stomach were worse than usual because the audience was made up of professional pianists, professors of piano, piano teachers and piano students. What torture!

Just before I had to set foot on the stage I found I was able to alter my thoughts, and walked out confidently. So what had changed? Instead of fear and self doubt, I realised that they would all be experiencing exactly the same fears if any one of them were in my shoes. After all, who would want to play for a hall full of colleagues and peers? Also, they would be bound to be sympathetic to any shakes or nervousness. But the most important thought was: “They know this music and will immediately hear all the nuances I bring to it, so they will appreciate my playing all the more!”

In my mind, I had already won them over before I had even played a note. I walked out and played confidently, and really enjoyed myself.

Practising the Piano Part 4

In Part 4 of Practising the Piano, I explore various ways we can improve our positive self-talk and banish the critical inner voices that can undermine us so powerfully. I also offer in-depth information on how to develop performance skills in your studio as part of the practice process, and of course cover the important subject of memorisation.

[youtube id=”5J8Zc9vRvq0″ width=”600″ height=”350″]

Click here to purchase a gift voucher for the publication – a perfect stocking filler for the holiday season.

I would like to share a personal story. Some years

ago I was in the green room

waiting to go onstage and play a recital of French

music at a piano pedagogy

conference in Australia. This is usually the most a

nxious part of a performance

for me, when I entertain thoughts such as: “Why am

I putting myself through

this? Why didn’t I choose a proper job?”… and so on

. The butterflies in my

stomach were worse than usual because the audience

was made up of

professional pianists, professor of piano, piano te

achers and piano students.

What torture! Just before I had to set foot on the

stage I found I was able to alter

my thoughts, and walked out confidently. So what ha

d changed? Instead of fear

and self doubt, I realised that they would all be e

xperiencing exactly the same

fears if any one of them were in my shoes. After al

l, who would want to play for a

hall full of colleagues and peers? Also, they would

be bound to be sympathetic to

any shakes or nervousness. But the most important t

hought was “they will

immediately hear all the nuances I bring to the mus

ic, and they will appreciate

these much more than a conventional audience.” In m

y mind, I had already won

them over before I had even played a not

I would like to share a personal story. Some years

ago I was in the green room

waiting to go onstage and play a recital of French

music at a piano pedagogy

conference in Australia. This is usually the most a

nxious part of a performance

for me, when I entertain thoughts such as: “Why am

I putting myself through

this? Why didn’t I choose a proper job?”… and so on

. The butterflies in my

stomach were worse than usual because the audience

was made up of

professional pianists, professor of piano, piano te

achers and piano students.

What torture! Just before I had to set foot on the

stage I found I was able to alter

my thoughts, and walked out confidently. So what ha

d changed? Instead of fear

and self doubt, I realised that they would all be e

xperiencing exactly the same

fears if any one of them were in my shoes. After al

l, who would want to play for a

hall full of colleagues and peers? Also, they would

be bound to be sympathetic to

any shakes or nervousness. But the most important t

hought was “they will

immediately hear all the nuances I bring to the mus

ic, and they will appreciate

these much more than a conventional audience.” In m

y mind, I had already won

them over before I had even played a not

 

 

judi

Some Ideas for Mental Practice

Many of you will have read the fascinating story of Andrew Garrido’s piano journey. As an 11-year old boy keen for lessons which his family could not afford, he did not even have access to a piano to start with. Undeterred, Andrew made a paper keyboard which he stuck to his desk. By clicking notes on an online keyboard, he was able to remember the sounds and “play” them back on his paper one. Apart from a short series of lessons, he made significant progress all by himself – ending up firstly at the Purcell School and now on a scholarship at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. Even though he now has access to pianos, Andrew states: “The irony is that I continue to do a lot of my practice away from the piano: what we call mental practice. It unlocks key areas of the mind that are less readily accessed by piano playing alone.”

Mental practice is something I wish I had done more of when I was a student. I was acting on the mistaken belief that only time spent practising at the piano would make any difference to my playing. Had I known better, I could have spent time sitting on the train visualising the pieces I was studying; this would have created pathways though my brain cells as if I were actually playing the piece – all without moving a muscle.

According to his memoirs, Artur Rubinstein learned César Franck’s Symphonic Variations on a train on his way to the concert. As there was obviously no piano on the train, he practised passages in his lap. Once we understand that effective piano practice does not necessarily involve making sounds, we might begin to appreciate that solutions to passages we suppose are problematic because of some technical deficiency or other are actually problematic because we don’t have a detailed mental map of the terrain.

Psychiatrist Srini Pillay explains:

Imagining allows us to remember and mentally rehearse our intended movements. In fact, visualizing movement changes how our brain networks are organized, creating more connections among different regions. It stimulates brain regions involved in rehearsal of movement, such as the putamen located in the forebrain, priming the brain and body for action so that we move more effectively.

First Steps

Studying a score away from the piano can be challenging if you have not done it before. Let’s start with what I hope are fairly simple exercises to develop some skills.

Close the Piano!

Here are 3 short excerpts from elementary pieces you might use as tests, to get you started. Each one a little more difficult than the one before. Of course you can find your own examples if you prefer.

Spend a few moments looking at each test away from the piano (no cheating allowed!). When you are confident you have absorbed all the information, go to the piano and play from memory with full expression, phrasing and shaping. It is always important to conceive even the most basic test in terms of musical expression, since this vital dimension gives meaning to what we are doing and keeps us more fully engaged.

Here is a suggested way of doing this:

  • Scan the test as a whole, trying to get a sense of the character and shape (notice dynamic markings, phrasing, etc.), and hearing it in your inner ear as vividly as possible.
  • Analyse the shapes and patterns. (What’s the key? Does the line move by steps or skips? Are there any large intervals? Any recurring rhythms or melodic groups? Whatever you notice is fine).
  • Using the imaginary keyboard that you see with your mind’s eye, and “play” through the test once. Remember to include all the musical details.
  • Repeat, allowing your fingers to move in the air or on the imaginary keyboard, as though playing in space. Go through the test in this way with each hand separately, singing either out loud or under your breath (using solfège or any syllables you like).
  • When you are ready to play, it would help to record your efforts, following the score as you listen back.
  1. No. 12 from Behrens’ 50 Piano Pieces for First Beginners, op. 70

2. Romanze from Türk’s Kleine Handstücke für Angehender Klavierspieler

3. No. 24 from Walter Carroll’s Musical Exercises

Did you capture the musical meaning? Were you accurate in notes and rhythms? Did you manage to play with a sensible fingering? If you succeeded in playing the test accurately, then you have proved to yourself that you can absorb music through mental comprehension and mental rehearsal alone. Consider developing this skill and using it as a practice tool to memorise music away from the piano. If you feel you don’t have time to apply it to whole pieces, perhaps use it for those places in a piece where you are not secure. When you stumble, ask yourself whether it is a technical problem or a gap in your comprehension of that passage. A little of this type of work away from the piano can often work wonders.

If you are a piano teacher, consider having a short exercises like this in your waiting room each week. Your students will have a few moments to absorb the phrase, which they play to you from memory when they come in for their lesson.