I meet many piano teachers, at courses, workshops and masterclasses and other professional development events. Many of the teachers whom I meet are also performing musicians, professional or otherwise, and many regard performing as a necessary indeed crucial part of the job as a teacher.
I also meet teachers who do not perform, for one reason or another. Some cite lack of time or confidence. I even met a teacher who admitted she was “too afraid” to perform for her students in case she made a mistake.
As teachers, performing is, in my opinion, a necessary part of the job. An exam is a performance, and we need to be able to guide and advise our students on how to present themselves in a “performance situation” (exam, festival, competition, audition), and to prepare them physically and emotionally for the experience.
A whole new and different range of skills are required as a performer, and it is important to stress to students the difference between practising and performing. We also need to be able to offer support for issues such as nerves and performance anxiety, and to offer coping strategies to counteract the negative thoughts and feelings that can arise from anxiety. How can you train others to perform if you have never done it yourself?
I used to be shy about performing, because I lacked performance opportunities when I was at school, and then had a long period away from the piano in my 20s and 30s. But I quickly realised when I started teaching that I would need to “get over myself”, and my shyness, and learn how to be a performer if I was to be useful to my students as their teacher. The hard fact about performance anxiety is the only cure is to do it. I will never forget the sense of elation and self-fulfillment at having successfully and convincingly delivered a Chopin Étude at a concert hosted by my teacher, the first time I had performed in public in over 25 years. Sure, it was nerve-wracking, but I knew I was well-prepared – and this to me is the most crucial aspect of performing and teaching others about performing: preparation.
A successful performance demonstrates that you have practised correctly, deeply and thoughtfully, instead of simply note-bashing. Preparing music for performance teaches us how to complete a real task and to understand what is meant by “music making”. It encourages us to “play through”, glossing over errors rather than being thrown off course by them, and eradicates “stop-start” playing which prevents proper flow. You never really demonstrate your technique properly until you can demonstrate it in a performance. Performing also teaches us how to communicate a sense of the music, to “tell the story”, and to understand what the composer is trying to say. It adds to our credibility and artistic integrity as musicians. And if you haven’t performed a piece, how can you say it is truly “finished”?
I always perform in my student concerts, not to show off, but to demonstrate to my students (and their parents, who pay my bills!) that I can actually do it, that I too am continuing my piano studies by preparing repertoire for performance, and that I have managed my performance anxiety properly. I also feel that by performing with my students, we transform our concerts into a shared music-making experience.
I hope that by hearing and watching me playing, my students can better grasp aspects of technique or interpretation we might have discussed in lessons, as well as enjoying the sheer pleasure of listening to piano music, and perhaps drawing inspiration from it. I also get ideas when I am performing which inform my teaching.
For the teacher who is nervous about performing, one can start in a very low-key way by hosting an informal concert at home, or by joining a piano group, which can provide a supportive, friendly and non-competitive environment where people can perform for one another. Choose repertoire with which you feel comfortable, and practise performing it a few times (at least three) to family and friends before putting it before a “proper” audience. I guarantee your students will be very impressed by anything you can play as their teacher!
Music from the Inside Out by Charlotte Tomlinson. A clear and well-written book on coping with performance anxiety, with tried and trusted techniques for dealing with nerves and improving self-confidence.
The Musician’s Way – excellent book and accompanying book by Gerald Klickstein which covers many aspects of performance, stage craft and managing anxiety, amongst many other interesting and useful articles.
The Inner Game of Music – Barry Green. An excellent resource for performers, students and teachers.
A passionate advocate of amateur pianism, Frances is co-host of the London Piano Network (formerly London Piano Meetup Group), which organizes performance platforms, workshops and other events for adult amateur pianists in London. She is co-founder and artistic director of the South London Concert Series, an innovative concert concept which gives talented amateur pianists the opportunity to perform in a formal concert setting at some of London’s most unusual and intimate venues.
21 June 2017