Published in Piano Guild Notes, Jan-Feb 1994 (Vol. 43, No. 4)

Dr. Virginia Houser, Kansas State University

The day is steadily drawing closer. Soon you will publicly share your interpretation of the music you have been studying. You want your ideas to sparkle and sound fresh and spontaneous. You want to feel relaxed, focused, and positive about yourself and your playing. Above all, you want to be free of mental and physical snags while sharing musical insights with the audience.

Sound like a tall order? It is! The seeds of a successful performance, while rooted in the period of learning and memorizing the notes, grow and mature in the time before walking on stage to begin the program. It is during this period that the player lives and experiments with the music, investigates its special details, and comes to know it intimately. It is a formative time for developing sound concepts about the repertoire and the experience of public performance. What can be done during this time span to insure positive, effective preparation for a performance?

There are two ingredients that play a crucial role in this incubation period: concentration and imagination. Concentration is a type of mental stamina. Playing through the entire recital program daily at least a month in advance develops mental and physical endurance. Concentration must strap itself to the music in a way that does not come undone. If concentration loosens during practice, allowing the ear and mind to stray, the player must draw it back while continuing to play.

Imagination in practice drives away boredom and insures that musical ideas and the means of conveying them are fresh and interesting. Practice time should be as creative as the player can make it, continually rejuvenated by what the mind brings to the process. Creative practicing, however, is not immune from the sluggish, debilitating state known as creative block. All who are involved in creative endeavors confront it sooner or later. The point is how one gets around it.

"I am so tired of my music" is a comment that is often heard from practice-worn musicians who are preparing for a recital. This might be reworded more accurately, "I am so tired of thinking of new ways to approach my music." Imagination and creativity take effort and energy that can be physically and psychologically depleting if not replenished periodically. Every player, whether professional or amateur, must gear one's lifestyle to accomodate performance preparation. As the performance date draws closer, it is not enough just to practice a specific number of hours. The performer must determine and do those things that will enhance a sense of well-being and eliminate those activities that prove detrimental to the performance.

In an ideal world, the performer would be free of the daily hassles and distrctions that comprise normal living. Such a world does not exist, but one can make decisions and plan activities that gear the attitude positively toward performing. The suggestions that follow aid in successful preparation for the recital:

  1. As the performance date draws closer, involve yourself less with people socially. Staying more to yourself will minimize distractions, keep your mind clear and focused on the music, and insure that you get in the required uninterrupted practice.
  2. In order to share musical ideas in a convincing way, instill in yourself a clearly defined sense of what you wish the music to say. You must firmly believe that the music is yours and that your ideas are important.
  3. Refuse to feel discouraged and continually remind yourself how much you desire to perform.
  4. Nurture confidence within yourself. The local library and bookstore have many books that will give new ideas on self-confidence, self-improvement, and creativity. Even a few stolen moments of reading may trigger new mental approaches.
  5. Eat and sleep well.
  6. Tape record your practice regularly and critique your performances.
  7. Practice slowly to allow the ear to hear every detail and enhance the mind's creative approach.
  8. Practice with the metronome at varying tempos ranging from moderately slow to the performance tempo and perhaps a little faster. This forces one to listen and adjust to the feel of the music at different speeds.
  9. When you are tired but still must go through the program, play it slowly and softly. Although intense physical energy is not present during such a practice session as this, the mind and ear are involved in a very intimate way with the sound; memory and musicality are strengthened.
  10. Play through the program in a variety of places on different instruments.
  11. Play for friends and acquaintances in a recital-like situation. Do not chat beforehand; create an atmosphere of formality. You may find as the actual performance date approaches that you do not want comments afterwards.
  12. Set aside regular commitments of time for score study away from the instrument.
  13. Set aside time for visualizations of the performance. Mentally create how it will feel to go through the performance. This activity requires as much concentratin and focus as practice itself and must be done in a quiet place. Short slots of visualization time (10-15 minutes) are quite valuable. One session might be spent visualizing the performance day from the time you leave the house to the moment you walk on stage and begin the first piece. Another session might be spent mentally performing a large work scheduled on the program. The point is to eliminate as many surprises during the performance as possible.
  14. Spend some time in the library reading about your compositions and composers and listening to recordings of other performances of the literature for new ideas.
  15. Think about the music in daily non-musical activities, but not in a forced, intense way. Thoughts can de directed musically during such activities as showering, washing the dishes, house cleaning, gardening, or walking. One never knows when a musical insight will flicker on the surface of conscious thought.

Above all, enjoy the whole process of preparing for performance. There is really nothing quite like it. The recital is an occasion for giving to the listeners, and the preparation is an unequalled opportunity for getting to know yourself better. Always strive to keep your music in the status of a dear, growing friendship--one whose association becomes ever richer and more meaningful with the passage of time.

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