How should I practice?
What piece should I learn next?
How do I prepare for a recital?
How do I help my student who is having trouble with X, Y, and Z?
Questions often come up about how to best learn to play the piano that seem to have different answers depending on who you ask. Some piano teachers recommend practicing hands separately, others advise against too much hand separate practice. There are teachers who swear by the metronome, and others recommend throwing it out. Should I practice slow, or fast? What is the correct tempo, fingering, pedaling, phrasing, and so on.
Most of the interesting questions about piano playing have more than one right answer. A solution to a problem may work in one situation and not in another. Two things that contradict each other can both be true, especially truths that are based on personal experience. I have seen both students and teachers struggle with the ambiguity that music presents. Part of becoming a mature musician is learning to tolerate ambiguity.
How can we handle contradictory advice? My solution is to treat everything like an experiment, and this includes performances.
I think most people will agree that practicing includes a fair amount of experimentation. We experiment with different fingering, pedaling, articulation, and phrasing, and try to find what feels natural and easy and sounds good to us. We also experiment with many different practice techniques, and develop a repertoire of strategies for learning music that are effective for us.
But what about the performance itself? What if that was also an experiment ? What if you play from memory, vs. use the score? What if you perform something you learned recently, vs. repertoire you’ve known for years? Should you talk and joke with people right before you perform, or should you stay quiet and get focused? When you get on stage, should you spend a long time getting mentally prepared before you start, or should you start right away? Should you start with the piece you’re most comfortable with, or the one you’re most nervous about?
If you want to improve your performance skills, you have to practice performing. That means you have to perform as much as possible, and try a lot of different things in order to find out what works. In order to do this, you have to do the one thing that is very hard for us musicians: be willing to risk having a bad performance.
If you are not willing to risk possibly having a bad performance, you won’t practice performing enough to master it. Some people will only perform when they are fully prepared, and the circumstances are just right. For some performances, this may be a good policy (such as an audition). However, to become confident and at ease, you have to be convinced that you can handle whatever happens. In order to be convinced that you can handle anything, you have to prove it to yourself by performing in a wide variety of settings and circumstances. This even includes performing when you haven’t prepared as much as you would have liked. You can learn to keep your composure, and keep the music going, even if you have to sacrifice a few notes along the way.
If you find this difficult, you can blame your teachers or maybe your parents. Somewhere along the way you got the message that making mistakes in public is a really bad thing that you should avoid at any cost. But we can’t look at mistakes as moral failings, because that’s not what they are. Mistakes are simply instances where you didn’t achieve the result you were hoping for. Rather than blaming your mistake on a lack of effort or practice, consider thinking about your mistakes as simply the result of your experiment.
“I tried X, and Y happened, but Y isn’t exactly what I wanted to, so I’m going to take a closer look at X and try to figure out what happened.”
Benjamin Zander, well-known conductor, tells students to respond to mistakes by saying “how fascinating!” How can we achieve a culture where students can treat performances like experiments? Teachers can provide opportunities to perform where the stakes are low. Studio class and students-only recitals is a good opportunity for this. Students should perform every week if possible, even if they are not “ready.” They learn to keep going and keep making music no matter what, and the other students learn that everyone makes mistakes. Everybody gets a chance to see the process unfold with each student, as they perform their pieces week after week. A culture of acceptance and a focus on process emerges, and students become confident and in their ability to perform in any situation. They strive to play as well as they can, but because they are not hampered by excessive fear mistakes, they make music freely and expressively.
Will this work? It may not work perfectly at first. It will probably be a process of refinement over a long period of time. I encourage you to try it. It will be an experiment.
(See what I did there?)