Some reflections about solo performances

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Source : http://brainfunctionss.com

Now that I just finished my Masters of solo performance at Mozarteum and that I enter a new phase in my life, I naturally felt the need to look back on the past 21 years of piano lessons I received in my life, 21 years of practicing, experimenting, performing, 21 years of happiness and deceptions, exasperation and hope, busted self-confidence or uncertainty about myself.

All these thoughts made me realise, a few months ago, that from all my teachers (and I respect all of them deeply), I actually never really got a real advice, a trick, a secret of how to feel good on stage, how to control my playing or how avoid stupid mistakes or memory laps – that have actually nothing to do with memory, we will come back to that subject later. Why? Why, when it is actually the point of all these hours of practicing? Why teachers only focus on technical problems, reading well the score and interpretation, and they stay away most of the time from the main point of the life of a musician, how to play in public?


Sometimes I thought that if I ask, I’ll look ridiculous to show my weakness: yes, I get nervous. But maybe they don’t talk about that themselves because it is too personal. They maybe didn’t want to show me that they might be vulnerable; artists are way too touchy about that subject, especially in front of a student. Honestly, I think a student should be aswell a friend with who you share experiences and feelings, especially at this level.

So, let’s get to the point. In my life as a pianist on stage, I have experimented many feelings that I can divide in 3 kinds:

- the « I got the power » feeling: you feel that you control everything, you are completely free to make the interpretation you want, enjoying that moment on stage, almost entering another dimension. That’s probably why when I play good, I can’t really describe in detail the moment of the performance, it feels like I was somewhere else.
Ok, cool, but let’s get back to reality: this happens only in a few performances, for example in the second part of a concert when I already broke the ice between the stage and the public. It might also happen if you play 4 concerts a week because you are a regular concert pianist that forgot any fear (although I think this is impossible), but this article is describing mortals like me and many others, not having a solo recital every 2 days. This feeling is the one that any musician is always seeking for, and I will explain later my method to look for it.

- the « automatic pilot »: that is another possibility to survive on stage; the thing is that we aren’t studying so many hours just to endure that moment but to enjoy it! The automatic pilot means that you are playing thinking about the ugly dress of the woman on the first row, or about which cocktail you will order after the concert when you go to that nice chill-out bar with your friends, or the strange colour of the curtains on stage, or whatsoever. This method can be saving your life if you almost got to a memory laps situation during your performance and you just want to disconnect and let your fingers go. It can also happen if you played a piece so many times that you don’t want to listen it any more, even played by yourself. But honestly, to play like that, I would rather go to sell hamburgers at MacDonald’s, it would make my life and the rest of humanity much happier. So this isn’t a solution either.

- the « OMG, what is my left hand playing next bar? » feeling: that is the most common, the one that even during a « good day » performance, this thought will come to your mind at least 20 seconds. This is what I experienced in almost every exam, concert, competition and so on, even playing in front of 10 people. It is the fear of making mistakes and being judged by your student friends, by the jury, by a teacher, and actually by yourself. I thought many times that I’m afraid to play bad because I don’t want to be disappointed about myself! That’s so silly but typical of a musician. Anyway, this feeling makes us loose completely the control of what we have studied for so many hours, it can make you stop in the middle of a performance in a place where you never had a problem, make you miss a difficult passage, forget harmonies… because you are starting to analyse little details that looked so simple while practicing, places where it would never come to your mind that you would have a trouble.

And here we come to my aim: how to avoid that feeling? What makes me start to think so many stupid things meanwhile I’m playing?
I recall one of my teachers that was always bringing my moral down each time I would have a memory lap (I was around 12), telling me that I had concentration problems, that it was because of not knowing the score perfectly, stuff like that. This is false. BS. You can have been practicing 9 hours a day, 2 hours on the same bar, play everything great at home, play the left hand from the beginning to the hand by memory, be perfectly concentrated on stage and this can still happen. It has nothing to do with our accuracy, talent, skills or practicing implication. There are some people, coming probably from another planet, that never experiment nervousness. Good for them. But don’t tell me, after I practiced so much, that it just comes from a lack of discipline. Better tell me the truth:

WHEN YOU ARE ON STAGE, YOUR FIRST ENEMY ISN’T THE PUBLIC, NOR THE JURY OF AN INTERNATIONAL COMPETITION: IT’S YOUR BRAIN.

That’s it, that’s the secret: your brain hasn’t been trained to think the right things while you are playing. Your teachers told you every detail of what you should practice, but they just forgot that!

So, someday your brain is in a good mood and he will just remember what you practiced about interpretation and phrasing, but some other day, he takes everything in considerations that never came before, gets freaked out because of all those nerves and start asking existential questions about what’s happening at the end of next bar.

That’s how I realised and I do, since a few month, practice on what I should think meanwhile I’m playing. On that bar, for example, think crescendo, not about that hard thirds passage. On that other bar, think about the phrasing to the end of the line, so you don’t start to analyse the weird chords that your left hand has to do. etc.
That saved many hours of practicing: instead of repeating the same bar 1000 times to see if it works, and maybe by chance, praying God and all his saints, it will be fine on stage. If you practice thinking that way, a few hours of training are enough, because everything is planned, nothing will « eventually » go well or bad.

Of course, this won’t delete the nervousness, and thank’s God, because that emotion gives something magical to our playing. But preparing a plan, a map of what you are going to think every bar and every line is a good help to not start going in the wrong direction.

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