Piano performances

My grade 10 exam is coming up :S This really has me questioning my abilities. I feel like I am learning more in this final year than I have learned in all the other years learning piano combined. Of course that’s not true, but just now I am learning how to practice to become a real professional, which is basically the pinnacle of piano playing.

As for my experiences, I’ve found a few things that would benefit any piano player trying to improve his/her level:

1. Play for others

Playing at senior centres, for instance, is a wonderful opportunity to do this. It not only lets you share the joy of playing music, but you will also try that much harder to practice well and play perfect every time (the more you succeed, the more this becomes good muscle memory! :0)  ), which can make your practicing so much more effective.

2. Video tape yourself

This can be almost as useful as the first one – in fact, if you don’t get feedback from your audience, this is even better, because you can then watch the tape and notice a lot more things for yourself. Weird curling of fingers, too fast/too slow, not enough flow of melody… these all become apparent on video. The trick is to pretend that you are taping as if you wanted to put the video on youtube – making you try to play as well as possible.

3. Practice slowly

LivingPianosVideos on youtube has a lot of great advice as far as memorization and good practice goes (see this video for how to memorize: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QeDEI0dGW_w) and I totally agree with his advice, that you should practice the exact dynamics and rests and rhythm that the piece is supposed to have when fully learned. If you think “oh I’ll add that in later”, then you are actually practicing the wrong dynamics and rhythm – and this is getting in your muscle memory, which will be insanely hard to get rid of after.

I suggest something further; practicing with the metronome, every piece. Even rubato, even jazz, even waltzes. You have to be able to play plainly and precisely before you can learn how to stretch and bend the music. If you get too used to playing just the “bent”-way then you may start losing control of playing it “plainly”, without all those dressed up rhythmics and sostenutos.

Another thing I suggest is playing pieces that normally use the pedal, without the pedal. so often, I gradually forget to hold notes for their full value because the pedal holds them all for me. The pedal should be used when you have an impossible legato stretch, or a note that you can’t keep holding, or to connect the base in waltzes. But it should not be relied on just to make it sound like your finger is still on the key when it’s not – this just makes bad control of form and messes up your technique.

4. Memorization in random places

As for memorization, I do think that LivingPianosVideos has the best possible method one could ask for – I however did not learn that when young, so I basically grew up on muscle memory. I could be playing a piece for months and still have barely any clue of what I’m really playing – my mind wanders off, lost in the melody, while my hands do their routine on the keys. This worked okay, except that I would often lose focus, and when I had to perform in front of someone or in a new place, I would get nervous and try to start remembering the notes and then realize I can’t, and start internally freaking out.

I’ve tried going back and relearning some pieces with the LivingPianos method – this works pretty well. But another method I find equally good (if you are like me and learned songs by muscle memory because no one taught you a better way), then take the notes somewhere away from the piano and try to learn them there. The kitchen works best in my opinion, as it has absolutely nothing to do with the piano, so if you can correctly remember the notes there, then you pretty much can anywhere. First, try to imagine you are at the piano, and imagine your fingers hitting the keys of the song. If you cannot remember, check the notes, then try to visualize it again, without looking at the notes. Since your hands instinctively know where to go, this method I find is quite easy. Subconsciously, you probably already know the notes – by learning them in your conscious memory too, this bond becomes strengthened and connected to the finger memory.

5. Feeling over perfection

One last thing – when you are playing for people, it is more important to be able to play with feeling than to hit 100% of the right notes. Yes, the right notes are important – hitting too many bad ones would break the melody’s flow – but if you do not have feeling, then there cannot be any flow at all. One of my best performances at the senior centre was when I did have some errors, but I was feeling the music so deeply, it reached my audience, and they were moved as well.

If you are new to performing, I would recommend watching your pedal use – don’t overdo it – and don’t try to play too loudly, even if the piano sounds weaker or a lot quieter than the one you normally play on. The sound carries throughout the rest of the room – you wouldn’t want to make your audience deaf. 😛

Well that’s pretty much everything. 🙂

And remember – be open to honest critique from your listeners! It will broaden your experience and you will be able to improve on things that a wide range of listeners points out to you. Not everyone is right, of course, but everyone deserves some consideration of their opinion. Most people will just give compliments – but really listen for the critique, because it is what can help you move forward. Don’t let it get you down. It is just one person’s opinion, and there may be some truth to their words.

Perhaps to be really able to accept compliments, we must first be able to smile in the face of a negative comment and say “thank you for your feedback”.

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