Preparing for a Performance

PLEASE READ THE FOLLOWING VERY CAREFULLY.  I would recommend that the parents of younger students explain to them the subtleties of what follows in simpler English.  If you received this information last year, please read it again this year.  Students need to be reminded of these things regularly.

NO SHEET MUSIC ALLOWED: All music must be performed by memory.  Parents may bring along their child’s recital piece in case there is an insurmountable memory lapse and help is needed, but each piece needs to be learned by heart and well out ahead of the actual performance date.

THE RECITAL: The annual recital will be held ___ (date, time and place pending to be announced).  Although the decision concerning participation lies ultimately with the student and parents, I strongly encourage every student to participate for the following reasons:

1) Perfecting a piece for performance has an immensely beneficial effect on the student’s overall approach to the instrument.

2) Like any other human activity of any value, making music means little or nothing unless it is shared with others.  A musician is a medium or conduit, not a vessel.

3) By performing for others the student will develop all of the confidence that comes as a result of having faced and surmounted a challenge.  Please note that all of my students are invited to attend the recital whether they plan to perform or not and that, because of the tight seating in the recital hall, guests should be limited to immediate-family members and grandparents.  Finally, I realize that in special cases other commitments may require you to leave the recital early, but I urge you to stay to the end out of respect to other students and their families.

RECITAL ATTIRE: Please dress formally.  A recital is traditionally a formal occasion.  Also, be sure to wear shoes that are proper for pedaling.

PRACTICING: To make steady and appreciable progress, students at all levels should practice at least thirty minutes per day.  (I often reduce the practice time for very young beginners to fifteen or twenty minutes, though this amount should be increased to thirty as the student progresses beyond the primer level.)  Since there is nothing more frustrating than to come to a lesson unprepared, it is extremely important that the student practice daily so that he or she can sense that some progress is being made.  Lack of daily practice can soon turn into a vicious and very demoralizing circle.  In the case of the younger students who have some difficulty in budgeting their time, I recommend that each piece assigned be played a certain number of times (from three to five, for example) and that any time left over be devoted to working on the more difficult pieces.  As regards frustration, it should be borne in mind that it takes months and years to develop the ability to play proficiently on any given instrument, something that is easily forgotten in an age of immediate gratification in which many things can be acquired with the click of a mouse.  Finally, please bear in mind that musicians at all levels face frustration, if only because they are constantly trying to improve their playing.  In this sense, there is no peak, but only the mountainside, and no goal, but only the process.

METRONOMES: I highly recommend that a metronome be introduced at a very early stage in the student’s relationship with the piano.  It would be nice to think that all human beings are born with a rock-solid sense of a steady pulse, but that is only partly true.  It is not that the student should end up producing a mechanical, clock-like rendition of any given piece, but rather that the student should always know where the pulse is so that he or she can successfully deviate from it when playing more expressively.  I recommend that each piece assigned be played at least once daily with the metronome and that it be set at a slower and more comfortable tempo than that at which the piece is normally played.

APPROACHES TO THE INSTRUMENT: Before you continue reading, bear in mind that there are at least five elements at work when you play the piano:

– the auditory element: what you hear

– the kinesthetic element: the physical process involved in playing the piano

– the visual element: everything within your field of vision, including the music as well as everything that you can see peripherally

– the analytic element: your cerebral approach to the music, including an actual measure-by-measure analysis conducted for the sake of determining melodic, harmonic, and rhythmic elements within the given piece

– the emotional element: the narrative aspects of the piece in question

Unless you are dealing with a truly experimental piece of music, the gustatory and olfactory senses do not come into play.

PREPARING FOR THE RECITAL: Here are some helpful tips for polishing a piece of music for a performance:

– Learn the piece inside-out.  This will involve playing through it countless times in its entirety while also devoting special attention to the more difficult passages.  When focusing on a difficult section, do your best to approach it in terms of phrases and sections so that you provide the passage in question with a musical context.  (A good writer, for example, thinks in terms of phrases, sentences, paragraphs, and sections, not in terms of individual words.)

– I occasionally hear this statement from my students: “No one will notice my mistakes.”  To me, that can seem like an excuse not to prepare a piece as well as it can be prepared, and it definitely means that the student is taking his/her audience for granted.  In any case, I always play for the musicians in the audience, not for the general public.

– Play the piece expressively.  What specific adjective(s) would you use to describe it?  Is it happy, elegant, wistful, or melancholy?  How would you describe it in terms of colors?  Think of an appropriate description and try to bring this quality out in your playing.

– Use the metronome periodically to clean things up, and use it at a comfortable setting (usually at about ten beats slower than your usual tempo).

– Try to simulate the recital setting.  This can be done 1) by recording your piece and 2) by playing it, memorized or not, for anyone available (relatives, neighbors, guests, mail carriers, plumbers, et al.).  Pretend that it’s an actual performance!  Walk to the piano, bow, introduce yourself and your piece to everyone in the room (imaginary or otherwise), sit down, collect yourself before you begin, play the piece, bow again, and walk away from the piano.  All of this will cause you to grow accustomed to playing in front of an actual audience.

– Once the piece is memorized, play it through at least once daily from beginning to end with no interruptions, even if you make mistakes.  (I would recommend playing the piece in this way when you first sit down to it since it will be at its freshest then.)  If mistakes occur, welcome them at this point since they will give you the opportunity to play through them as you would at the recital itself.  Making mistakes will allow you to practice making mistakes.

– Pace yourself.  If you conscientiously practice the piece several times per day between now and the date of the recital, you will have no problems in polishing and memorizing it.  If you happen to master it well in advance of the recital, you may even let it go for a day or two.  (You will be amazed at how fresh it will sound and feel once you return to it.)  On the other hand, intermittent practicing in the meantime will lead to panic later on, so practice steadily.

– As you play through your piece, remember to bring out the melody at all times, no matter whether it is in the right or left hand.  The melody runs like a thread throughout the entire piece, and the listener needs to hear it.  Bring it out as if you are a singer, or pretend that someone is under the piano pulling invisible wires that are attached to the fingers responsible for playing it.

– Sit down with the sheet music and look through it carefully while you are away from the piano.  You will be amazed at some of the things that you have never noticed before.

– As for practicing a difficult passage, do not overplay it.  Overplaying amounts to overthinking, and sometimes the passage only gets worse with multiple repetitions.  Go on to something else and return to it.  Think ahead to the end of the phrase.  (I always compare this to jumping over a brook.  Think of the opposite bank, not of the water below you.)  If you have difficulty with a passage, play it with hands separate and also in completely different rhythms, especially dotted rhythms.  (I will explain this more fully as problems arise.)  If you happen to develop a mental block, break it up (literally!).  Slow it down, play very small chunks of it, use the metronome at a slower setting and for different note values (e.g. one pulse for every eighth note or half note), get your hands out of the keys (i.e. use a lighter approach), temporarily treat a legato passage as staccato (and vice versa), and play it in different rhythms (see above).  In general, approach it in as many different ways as possible.  The single best piece of advice that I can give you in this area, however, is to SLOW the passage DOWN.  

FURTHER APPROACHES: Practice with your eyes closed or in a dark room; practice away from the piano (with and without the score); practice at different pianos, including the performance instrument; work on the piece in sections and in its entirety; practice slowly and loudly; record the piece; practice with and without the pedal; like an athlete, taper the amount of practice time before the performance; always continue to refer to the music occasionally; avoid daydreaming; practice breathing; try using different styles and rhythms.

MEMORIZATION: Memorizing a piece of music involves internalizing it to the point at which it belongs entirely to you and the composer and you no longer have to rely on an external medium (i.e. the written page) to interpret the composer’s musical ideas for others.  You are now completely liberated and can focus on your physical relationship with the keyboard.  This is a critical step in the entire process of learning music, and this is when the real work can finally begin.  The next step involves mastering a memorized piece to the point at which you can play through it in its entirety while thinking about what you want for dinner.  (Charles Rosen suggests reading a detective novel, but this is rather extreme.)  Is this any way to play a piece of music?  Of course not, but it means that you can finally step away from the piece and actually listen to what you have created without being concerned about all of the mechanical difficulties involved.  This is a big step and is similar to a painter stepping back from the canvas to apply the final brushstrokes to his or her painting.  The mold is complete, and now you simply need to pour your heart into what you have already crafted.  Finally, bear the following in mind as you memorize your piece:

– Approach memorization in bite-sized chunks, that is, in terms of phrases and sections.

– Keep in mind the piece’s overall structure and harmonic progression as an aid to memorization.  Where is the piece going?  Where has it been?  What repeats itself?  Knowing these things will make your task easier.

– If your piece is a long one, be sure to divide your attention evenly among all the different sections so that each one gets its due.  Avoid preparing a piece in a lopsided way.

– Occasionally run through the entire piece in your head while you are walking around, sitting at a bus-stop, or letting your mind idle.  This helps.

– Practice all of the sections in a different order and make it a point on occasion to practice the piece differently (i.e. more rapidly, more slowly, more expressively to the point of exaggeration, with different rhythms and articulations, etc.).  Be sure to continue using the metronome at a somewhat slower setting even after the piece has been mastered: you will find it especially useful for cleaning up any remaining sloppiness.  It also helps to play the piece now and then at a painfully slow tempo since this gives the nervous system clear signals to convey to the muscles.

– Once you have memorized the piece, play it frequently and regularly.  The truth is that, if you practice it almost to the point of nausea, it will have worn such deep and indelible grooves into your neural pathways that it will take nothing short of a small cannon to cause you to make a mistake during the recital.  (When you sit down at the piano in the recital hall and play the very first note, you will in effect be commanding your internal motor-memory computer to run the recital-piece program saved there.)  In short, complete familiarity with the music will override any possible nervousness that may arise.  With that in mind, you should practice the piece at least three times daily and consecutively during the last two weeks before the recital to consolidate what your motor memory already knows.  You will not regret it.

In general, the possible memorization techniques can be summed up as follows: memorize the left hand; memorize the right hand; establish “fence posts”, or starting points, throughout the piece, and as many as possible; memorize the piece’s chord progression; look for motives and sequences, both rhythmic and melodic; try using reverse visualization, that is, imagine the notes on the staff as you play the piece by memory, as if you have a notation program in your head; practice the piece in your head, both with and without the score, etc.

PERFORMING: The following are some helpful suggestions: 1) Think about relaxing as you sit down to play, and pause to take a deep breath or two before you begin.  Above all, make a very conscious effort not to allow any nervousness to cause you to begin the piece too fast.  Hold the tempo down and watch the dynamics.  2) Will you be a bit nervous?  Of course!  Even the best musicians are nervous when they perform.  A self-admonishing statement like “I shouldn’t be nervous!” is therefore completely unrealistic and counter-productive.  Accept your nervousness and roll with it.  “I’m nervous, but so what?” would represent a more productive attitude.  3) Do not think!  Performing is not a cognitive activity, and you have already thought through any problems many, many times at home.  You should certainly be aware of what you are doing as you perform your piece, but more in the role of an engaged observer.  I once heard a story about a centipede that was walking along a road one day and suddenly thought about its hundred legs all moving at the same time.  “My goodness!  How do I do that?” it said to itself.  What happened?  It tripped, of course.  In short, analysis leads to paralysis.  4) In the same vein, I would encourage you to adopt a Buddhist’s approach to performing your piece.  In other words, do not look ahead or behind you.  Thoughts like “I’m near the end now, so I have it made!” or “The next passage is a bit sticky!” will take you out of the groove.  Stay focused on the passage at hand and let the rest of the piece take care of itself.  (Compare pitching a no-hitter in baseball.)  This also holds true for any mistakes that you may happen to make while performing (see my comments above on preparing for the recital).  Do not look backwards and do not worry!  Lapses in a performance can be compared with a speaker’s coughing during a speech.  An occasional cough is hardly, if at all, noticed by the audience.  If you happen to make a mistake, do your level best to play through it without stopping.  If the mistake derails you, take a deep breath, relax, go back to the beginning of the phrase or section, and take it from there.  If you cannot remember how that phrase or section goes, go back to a previous section or even back to the beginning of the entire piece.  If necessary, move ahead in the piece and begin from there.  5) Don’t groan if you make a mistake.  It is a natural reaction, but it seriously detracts from the music.  I have been guilty of this myself, and I now try to stifle it while practicing.  6) Try to strike a balance between playing it safe and throwing all caution to the winds.  On the one hand, a passionate performance with mistakes is much better than a robotic, note-perfect rendition, but on the other hand, there are considerable risks to tempo and technique involved in giving in entirely to all of the potential emotion in a piece of music.  For these reasons, I recommend keeping a cap on the passion, albeit a small one.  7) On the day of the recital itself, you should be sure to conserve your energy, warm up and go through the piece at least once, remind yourself that a few lapses will be inevitable, and not make any assumptions about the audience’s reaction to your performance (see below).  8) In short, simply do your best!  No matter what happens, no one expects any more of you, nor should you.  Remember that you will not be performing your piece at an international piano competition.  You will be among friends, family members, and other well-intentioned people who have all come to hear what you have to share with them.  If you stay with the music and concentrate on expressing your heart through your fingers, you will do very well indeed.

Among many other things pointed out to me by Alexander Tutunov, perhaps the wisest was the observation that there are three things at work during a performance: how you perceive what you’re doing, how others perceive what you’re doing, and what actually happens.  In other words, a minor glitch or a tiny memory lapse may seem glaring to you, but the audience will hear things much, much differently.  As for what actually happens, who knows?  No one has a completely objective perspective, and our senses are naturally limited by many factors.


POLICY FOR ABSENCES: Provided that he or she can take the lesson during a pre-existing gap in my schedule, any student who has been absent because of an illness or a family crisis may request a make-up lesson.  I will consider other reasons, but priority must necessarily be given to those students mentioned above.

JAZZ NOTES: I perform regularly with other jazzers at venues throughout the Valley: my gig announcements appear on this website (q.v.), and I will gladly add your e-mail address to my mailing list if you contact me at  To those of you interested in jazz I would recommend the following recordings as excellent introductions to a wonderful American tradition: Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue and Bill Evans’ Portrait in Jazz.  I also have a list of recommended jazz recordings, and you can find my own recordings on YouTube (see link below) and Jango Radio.

(updated on 11/9/19)