Why Perform? Resources for Pianists

I first published this post a few years ago, but I have recently been sent details of brand new piano meetup groups in the UK, and decided to republish this post with all the updates. Please let me know if you run a piano group and I will be happy to include your details.

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When we perform, we call on a different part of ourselves from when we practise or play alone, because these are completely different activities.

The concert stage is no place for shrinking violets. In performance we need to project our ideas about the music – as well as our sound – outwards to the listener, and we must make sure we do this convincingly so they really get it!

When we perform authoritatively we summon feelings of abandon, spontaneity, and creativity. These qualities are associated with right-brained activity, whereas practising relies on thoughtful, analytic procedures where we constantly evaluate – repeating and refining our results until we are satisfied they are correct. These are more left-brained activities.

We must be prepared to go with the punches – there’s no point worrying about the piano, or that you weren’t happy with how you played that opening phrase. In practice we go back and get it right, in performance we have to accept what comes out and just deal with it.

Performance Mindset

In performance, we need to leave our inner critic in the green room and go into another state of mind once we are on the stage, one where we are not engaged in thinking, but rather in being and doing.

We probably all know an excellent pianist who is not able to make the transition from the one state of mind to the other. While they may play wonderfully, they can’t seem to put themselves through what they perceive as the torment of public performance.

Letting go of our critic is easier for some than others. What makes a good performer is the combination of natural talent and the capacity for sheer hard work, together with the ability to let go and surrender control when on stage. Some relish the act of showmanship – performance with all its theatre – while others shrink from it, seemingly unable to believe in their own abilities or to get out of their own way.

Franz Liszt by Nadar, March 1886
Franz Liszt (a few months before his death)

Even though these words are from violin virtuoso Jascha Heifetz, they apply absolutely to us pianists:

Practice like it means everything in the world to you. Perform like you don’t give a damn.

Like most other things in life, the more we do something, the easier and more familiar it becomes. Smart piano teachers have regular student concerts where everyone gets up and plays – they are all in it together. Exams and (more usefully) festivals or eisteddfods are wonderful ways of developing performance skills. You are usually playing in a fair-sized hall on a grand piano, to a built-in audience and a professional adjudicator.

At the conservatory level, there will be many opportunities for performance: concerts in front of teachers and peers, as well as higher profile events where there will be a public audience. Outside of formal exams, there will be a portfolio of in-house competitions you will be eligible to enter, and there will probably be weekly performance classes where you test out your pieces. Use as many opportunities to perform as are on offer to you, or that you can generate yourself.

Remember: The very best way to learn performance skills is to perform regularly!

For my students, I have a rule that a programme needs to be aired three times in safe, smallish situations before it is ready to be presented to a paying audience or an examiner. These smaller performances could be to an invited audience in a private home, a lunchtime recital in a church, playing in a hospital or old people’s home, etc. The run-throughs are themselves prefaced by a week of playing the programme through in its entirety daily as part of the practice regime. Only then is the programme properly seasoned and ready to be taken on the road.

For more on developing performance skills, follow this link to my blog post Cavaliers and Rounheads (click here) and to Part 4, Volume 1 of my eBook Series (click here)

The Amateur Pianist

I work with a number of amateur pianists and this is a very special part of what I do. What a privilege to be able to help people improve their playing and to express their love of music more freely and more skilfully! I notice time and time again how vital piano playing is in the lives of amateur players, who approach it with a passion that would put many a professional musician to shame.

It is of course quite possible to take piano lessons and play only for yourself at home. Many people do just this, because they are fearful when playing for others. They imagine they will make all sorts of mistakes and their playing just wouldn’t hold up under pressure. What a shame, though, not to share your playing with others who might be able to appreciate it and also support you!

Haeckel Orchidae

Think of your playing like an exotic plant, such as an orchid. You love, care for and tend to it and are proud to show it to others. It brings joy not only to you but to other people too – it really is a beautiful thing.

My advice is to take the plunge – jump in the deep end and give it  a shot. Playing the piano is probably essential in your life for recreation and self expression, and you might want a safe opportunity to perform when you have something ready to play.

Resources for Developing Pianists and Amateurs

We’re 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 and we will notify you when our directory is due to be published.

If you’re looking for opportunities to perform then please click here to visit our directory. You can also sign-up to our mailing list here to receive a free video on dealing with performance anxiety by Graham Fitch plus some additional resources to help you deliver performances that are fulfilling to both you and your listeners!

In addition to these groups, the following are some further places, groups and organisations that offer performance oportunities:

Finchcocks offers residential piano courses for adults of all abilities. Many of the guests are keen to take up the piano again, having not had time to play properly since leaving school. Equally, they cater for people who are keen to take up the piano from scratch, sometimes having not played the piano at all. At the other end of the spectrum, they offer courses for advanced players (grade 8+) who are working on their diploma as well as courses for piano teachers. I tutor regular courses at Finchcocks, and can vouch for the inspiring nature of the place, the amazing hospitality from Neil and Harriet, and the wonderful food and wine. There are nine grand pianos available.

Finchcocks courses for amateur pianists

The Summer School for Pianists. Over the past 40 years, this Summer School has established a unique place amongst an ever-growing number of summer schools being held each year throughout the British Isles. It combines an atmosphere of friendliness with musical expertise, creating a most positive and rewarding week. Within the state-of-the art setting of the Performance Hub in Walsall, people of a very wide range of pianistic levels can meet and enjoy all that’s good about music-making, without any unhealthy competitiveness or feeling of inadequacy. Participants return year after year to this keenly anticipated annual event. A warm welcome, studies with leading experts, plenty of practice pianos at this All Steinway School, good food and accommodation, recitals by tutors and students, and a final gala dinner and barn dance make the week very special indeed. I count myself privileged to have been on the tutoring staff since 2012.

Jackdaws is dedicated to improving participation in and enjoyment of music through weekend courses, education projects, a Young Artists Programme and performances by world class musicians. There are year-round programme of residential music courses that allow musicians of all abilities to come together and learn from some of the most experienced tutors in the trade. Jackdaws’ mission is to enable creative expression by bringing music to life. This goal is underpinned by the core values of inspiration, access and inclusion. Jackdaws is situated on the banks of the Mells river, surrounded by beautiful English countryside, set among the fields, rivers and valleys of Somerset. My next course will be in October 2015 – it is not yet listed on the site but please contact the organisers to register your interest.

The Chethams’ International Piano Summer School is a source of inspiration, fun, insight and focus for everyone who enjoys the piano and piano playing. Now in its thirteenth year, it continues to grow and develop as a ‘piano republic of equals’. There is no elitism on the course, though everyone is extremely serious about piano playing. There is no other summer school that manages to cater for the universal: adult amateurs, promising children and observers are as welcome on the course as concert pianists, international young artists preparing for top competitions, and professional music teachers.

The British and International Federation of Festivals for Music, Dance and Speech works for amateur festivals everywhere. Most of the festivals are competitive, and the performers receive verbal and written educational feedback from a professional adjudicator in each classification of music, dance or speech. I am proud to be one of the piano adjudicators for the Federation. There are almost 300 amateur festivals affiliated to the Federation and a similar number of professional adjudicators (in all classes) and accompanists, listed in the Yearbook and on their website. Each year the festivals attract around 1 million performers. While most entries are from children and young people, there are classes for adults too.

Setting Up a Piano Group

If you are interested in setting up something like this in your area, why not take the initiative?

If there are a few of you, you might organise regular meetings in each other’s homes. Another thought is to contact your local piano dealership – they will relish the opportunity to build bridges and develop relationships with pianists in the area, who are, after all, potential customers. It will be a win-win situation for all.

I asked Frances Wilson, co-founder of the very successful London Piano Meetup Group, to write a few words on how she set up the group:

Organising a piano group is a great way to get amateur pianists together to play, share repertoire and socialise. Playing the piano can be lonely activity, and many pianists relish the chance to meet and perform for one another. Performance opportunities afforded by piano groups are also very valuable in improving performance skills, learning how to deal with anxiety, and preparing repertoire for exams, festivals or concerts.

You can set up an informal group amongst friends, where you meet regularly at one another’s houses, or at a rehearsal space with a nice grand piano, or you can organise the group more formally, advertising events via a website and using social media to promote the activities of the group. The London Piano Meetup Group (LPMG) was formed in Spring 2013, run by piano teacher Lorraine Liyanage and myself – we are both passionate advocates of amateur pianism. LPMG uses Meetup, an easy-to-use social networking platform that allows people to organise events and meet. LPMG organizers list events on the site and members are able


Why Perform as an Amateur?

It’s wonderful to see many people taking up the piano or returning to it as amateurs. However, despite approaching their pianistic endeavours with significant energy and enthusiasm, many amateurs limit their playing to themselves at home. They often shy away from playing in front of others, anxious about making mistakes and imagining all manner of judgements from their audience. Although this is perfectly understandable, it is a great shame as it means missing out on sharing something that you are passionate about with others who will appreciate it and support you!

Pianist performing in a masterclass

Benefits of Performing

Performing and practising are very different 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 in which we are constantly evaluating, repeating and refining our results. Not only can performing be an incredibly rewarding experience but it will help you take your musical development to a new level beyond simply playing for yourself.

Practice like it means everything in the world to you. Perform like you don’t give a damn.

Jascha Heifetz

Contrary to what you imagine your audience are thinking, they will not be there waiting for you to slip up. Other pianists know exactly what it’s like to be on the spot and you’re most likely to have their support and encouragement. It may seem dauting and many are nervous to begin with, but it’s common to see anxiety turn to sheer delight and enthusiasm once the ice is broken. This level of energy comes only from sharing with a group.

It’s also easy to become demotivated when playing for oneself. Having goals and dates to work towards, even if they are informal performances, is a great way to avoid getting stuck in a rut. This creates a virtuous cycle in which making consistent progress makes it easier to continue to be motivated.

While not all formats or events offer feedback, it can sometimes be useful to participate in an event such as a masterclass or course where it is offered. This can be particularly useful if you feel there are things holding you back or standing in the way of your musical intentions.

Feedback on a performance at Blonay

How to approach performing?

The best way to approach performing is just to take the plunge! Like most other things in life, the more we do something, the easier and more familiar it becomes. Thankfully there are now so many opportunities ranging from informal meet-up groups (online and offline!) through to masterclasses, courses and examinations.

As a starting point, choose something that feels like a challenge but not too far out of your comfort zone. You could start by recording yourself performing, playing for a teacher in a lesson or for a friend. Then when you’re feeling more confident, perhaps try an informal meet-up group in your area or online if there aren’t any.

There is a natural attainment gap between what one can achieve within the comfort of one’s home and in public (click here for a blog post on this). Therefore, it is essential to be as well prepared as possible laying good foundations from the start and engaging various forms of memory (not just muscle memory) when learning a piece. Closer to the performance, it’s also important to make the shift from a practising mindset to a performing one by practising a performance (more on this is available here and here).

Resources & opportunities

The following are some further resources and ideas to get you started:

  • Join one of our performance opportunities! We offer various formats that provide a chance to perform and get feedback on your playing, including in-person and online performance workshops. Our online workshops also offer you the option to pre-record your performance as a gentle way to start the performance journey and to obtain feedback. Click here to view our events calendar or click here to join our mailing list for notifications of upcoming events.
  • Piano groups – There are many piano groups which offer a variety of formats for sharing your playing, both online and offline. We’ve started compiling a list of groups which can be viewed here.
  • Free articles on performing – Click here to view a listing of articles on our blog relating to performing and preparing for a performance.
  • Learning materials – We have many resources to help you learn pieces including a free email course and an in-depth workshop on deep learning techniques for greater security and confidence in performance.

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!