Category: Piano Lessons

Liz’s Guide to a Successful Performance: Part I

In the course of my wanderings on the internet, I came across an article firmly criticizing the Joshua Bell subway experiment.  This inspired a few more thoughts on the subject, so here is the sequel series to my earlier article, Music and Perception.

The article I found, “Pearls of Wisdom?  No.” criticizes Bell’s choice of music, time of day, choice of venue, and attitude.  From the perspective of the busking community, he got nothing right.  Then again, the original article flat-out refers to the event as a “stunt” — a one-time event done for attention rather than money.  The whole thing was planned between a writer and a concert musician, neither of whom had any experience in street performance.  Had Bell truly been planning to give up the concert circuit and make a genuine attempt to make a living as a street performer, I have a feeling that he would have done a few things differently.  This, then, is my insight into why the stunt failed and my insight into what could have been done differently.

Disclaimer: I have never performed music for money, nor have I organized any sort of performance myself.  However, I do know a few things about performing, and I suspect it applies just as much to busking for tips in the subway as it does to any other performance.  Your mileage may vary, as may your definition of “success”, so, as always, take these with a grain of salt.

Without further ado…

Liz’s Guide to a Successful Performance

#1 Know your stuff.
(Insert another word for “stuff” if you so desire.)
Be very, very good at what you do before you go out and perform, especially for money. Not everyone bothers with this rule, and it always surprises me, as I have always considered it the first thing that needs to be done.  If you are going to perform, you must first have something to perform, and it damn well better be worth watching.

I have been guilty of breaking this rule, though.  I remember once I was supposed to take part in a small group piano recital my teacher had arranged.  At this point in my musical career, I was starting the surly teenage years, I had taken piano lessons for five years or so, I was on my third teacher, and I was getting bored with it all.  I did not practice as much as I should have, and, finally, my results were reflecting that.  Aaron, my teacher at the time, said I could play whatever song I wanted for the recital.  I had been learning a particular piece, but my lax practice habits meant that it was not quite up to scratch yet.  In order to avoid embarrassing myself on a piece I did not know well, I spent the week leading up to the recital reviewing and polishing another, easier piece I had learned some time earlier.  It still was not up to my usual standards, but it was good enough that I could present it without too much shame.

The recital itself was a casual affair.  All the students could choose their favorite piece to play, and there was no set program or order to our songs.  As I was waiting on the sidelines, psyching myself up to perform my chosen piece, some other girl played it first.  Far better than I could.  I panicked.  I concluded that playing the same piece right after her, not quite as well, would make me look bad.  So I chose to play my original piece, the one I had passed over because it was not quite ready; the one I had not touched for a week.  The result was as grim as you might imagine.

Lesson: Be well-rehearsed and ready to perform.

#2 Know your audience.
Your audience is a huge variable in the quest for a successful performance, but an absolutely necessary component — an audience makes it a performance instead of practice.  The ideal audience for one show might look completely different from that of another; don’t treat them all the same.

Know what your audience wants to hear.  If you have a bunch of three-year-olds, they are probably more interested in “The Itsy Bitsy Spider” than in something with complicated lyrics.  They definitely will not be interested in sitting quietly for a great length of time.  Opening for a punk rock band?  That audience would probably appreciate louder, wilder music more than your slow-and-thoughtful arrangement of an old spiritual.  The traditionalist classical concert venue may not be the place to give your rendition of Switched-On Bach.

Are the people listening to you happy, sad, or angry?  Will your audience be stressed or relaxed?  At the local summer arts fair people will be relaxed, enjoying the weather, the goods, and your music.  At the winter zoo lights, your audience may be too cold to care whether you are on pitch.  (Pro tip: Sing by the hot chocolate stand.)  Playing happy music outside the DMV might be a welcome distraction; playing happy music outside a funeral home will probably get you punched.

Does your audience have time limits?  Are you playing in a busy subway where you’ll get five minutes tops before your audience rotates, or will your listeners be around for a while?  People strolling along the sidewalk may not notice if you play the same five songs over and over, but you can bet that the store owner who has to hear those same songs every twenty minutes will.  On the other hand, playing a full sonata for a rotating crowd might leave them feeling unfulfilled, since they would only hear the middle of the song without the beginning or end.  People who have set aside the evening to hear your music will be more receptive to a long show than someone who stopped by for a quick distraction after work.

Perhaps it might hurt the artist’s pride to consider this, but is the audience even listening?  Depending on the venue, as difficult as it may be to accept, you may not be the focal point of the evening.  Are you playing at a bar, where the patrons may be more interested in consuming alcohol than in your music?  Or will they be rowdy, dancing without coordination and cheering you on with drunken yells?  Does your audience want someone to fascinate them, or just something to fill the awkward silence of their horrible dinner date?

The things to consider about an audience are so numerous that I cannot possibly list them all here, but you get the idea.  Audiences are made up of individuals, which means that each one will be a little different.  That said, understanding the type of crowd you play for will give you invaluable insight into their minds and what they probably want.

Your audience can make or break a performance: Know them.

More guidelines coming next week in Part II.

Inspiration: Pearls of Wisdom? No. | The Busking Project.


If I Were Gollum, I’d Say, “My Practice!”

Music practice and I have had a long, complicated, dysfunctional relationship.  I love practice, I really do, but it has taken many years to realize this.  We have not always gotten along.

As a kid taking piano lessons at seven years old, I avoided practicing.  I hated practicing, with that intense passion only children feel for things they despise.

To give you some idea of the setting:  The piano I played was a vertical piano that lived in the TV room of our house.  In addition to housing the television and piano, the room connects to the patio and kitchen, and is right next to the garage where my dad would come in from working in his shop.  It is a busy place in the house, always with people coming in or out, or sitting nearby.  The lower level of the house is fairly open, so sound travels easily.  All this meant there was always someone to hear me when I played the piano.  This eventually proved to be a problem.

You see, aside from the typical kid reasons for disliking practice time — too boring, too slow, too repetitive — I had one specific reason for avoiding piano practice:

I did not want anyone to hear me.

I would wait to play until the house was empty but for me and the cat.  If anyone happened to be in the house, I would refuse to play.  If I were somehow guilted into practicing with someone present, I would play very, very quietly for as short a duration as I could get away with.  I actually mastered playing silently, with the quiet thuds of the keys themselves being the only sign I was not just sitting in front of the piano, daydreaming.  Of course, this was practically worthless in terms of the practice quality, but that did not matter to me then; what mattered was technically “practicing” while still being too quiet to hear.

Flute was another issue.  It is difficult to make a bad sound hitting one note on a piano — you press the key, it sounds the note.  Wind instruments are a whole different animal.  Fingering, breath control, embouchure, it all matters, and if one thing is not quite right, the sound turns ugly.  My first months learning flute were filled with breathy, screechy, shrill sounds.  I don’t know how my parents maintained their sanity.  While I disliked playing piano with anyone in the house, I did not want anyone in the same county while I was making such terrible sounds on my flute.

Even now, I am self-conscious of my practice time.  I love my accordion, but I am well aware that it is not the world’s most popular instrument.  As one of my friends pointed out, there is no Silent Brass for the accordion, nor a volume knob, so any honest playing is going to make some noise.  I remain convinced that unwanted noise will anger people.  Even the most enjoyable of music sounds horrible when you are trying to study, or when it prevents your children from sleeping.  It does not help matters that I am usually most inspired to practice sometime around 10 PM, when most people want quiet.  It is the same situation for any other instrument I want to play; I feel that my imperfect playing will annoy or irritate those listening, and I do not wish to do that, particularly when they did not opt in to hearing my confused musical mashings.

I have trouble understanding why someone would enjoy listening to an inherently flawed practice session, particularly mine.  My parents always claimed to enjoy hearing me practice, (possibly because it meant their investments were not being completely wasted) but I never bought it.  If you are listening to someone practice so you can listen to the music, prepare for imperfection, because pretty much anyone less than a virtuoso is going to have some noticeable flubs at some point.   Sometimes it is almost painful for me to listen to another amateur practicing — the stops and starts, the repeated missteps, the complete disregard for dynamics.  It throws off how lost I can get in the music if the person I am listening too has to stop and fix something.  I tend to assume that if something bothers me, then it probably bothers someone else too; if I wouldn’t enjoy listening to myself, then no one else will either.

Practice is not perfect.  It’s not even really music, at least not the way I do it.  Repetition is the soul of my practice.  I warm up by playing scales over and over and over.  I get a metronome and go over the trouble spots in a song, each hand separately, slowly, again and again, until I can play them perfectly.  Then I speed up just a little and repeat.  Practice is my time to work on the problems and wear away the rough edges, which inevitably means detail work.  I imagine that listening to someone play the same two measures of music fifty times in a row, at one-quarter the speed of the song, gets very annoying very quickly.

What throws me off most about practice is my own personal definition:

If anyone is listening, it is a performance.

And performance has a completely different set of rules.

Practice and performance are diametrically opposed, almost antagonistic.  They cannot exist in the same space.  With practice, it is not only ok to fail, it’s expected; a performance should be flawless.  Practice is repetitive: you go over problem spots over and over, slowly, carefully, again and again and again until your fingers and subconscious have absorbed the melody, know it by heart,  can move exactly as needed.  With a performance, you get one shot.  All-or-nothing, it must be perfect.  Practice is a time of learning; performance is a time of demonstrating what you know.

Having someone watch me practice completely breaks my concentration most of the time.  My brain jumps around: “Go away.  This is my practice time, and very personal, so I don’t want you here,” to “I hope they don’t mind me playing this part again,” to “Oh crap, I have to go full-speed and perfect and not stop and not telegraph stop to work on my mistakes because someone is listening therefore this is a performance!”  Just knowing someone is within earshot is enough to make me switch from practice mode to performance mode.  And performance mode is for performances; it is not designed for learning or improvement, but for show.  Go through, play your best, and keep going despite any mistakes you make.  Never let the audience know if you made a mistake through your expressions or actions.  If you don’t let them know you messed up, most of your audience won’t be able to tell.

Having a listener is enough to make me dislike a practice session for the simple reason that they will be listening to something less than perfect.  If I were ready for an audience, then I would say as much.  I would be ready to give a proper performance, the listener would get a proper concert, and we would all be happier with the result.  Instead, they will hear something half-finished, rushed, and awkward because I am not prepared to perform, yet I feel compelled to because they are listening.

Having an audience during practice also somehow feels…too intimate.  For me, sitting and listening to someone else practice feels too intrusive, almost voyeuristic.  Watching a true musician with their instrument is like watching two long-separated lovers reunite.  Lost in each other’s presence, you and the rest of the world are not there to them; there is only the musician and the instrument, and the music they make.  Witnessing that moment is a privilege.  So beautiful and entrancing it is to watch and to hear, yet I can’t help but think to myself, “I should not be here.  This is not meant for my eyes to see.”  Something so personal, so raw, is not worthy of the casual observer.  Perhaps I am weird to feel this way, but I do.

Practice and I have a difficult relationship.  I refuse to make time for us to spend together.  I procrastinate, I dally, I try to make up for lost time with marathon sessions that do more harm than good.  Practice, in turn, makes me relearn my technique, gives me no results for days at a stretch.  Much of the time I get frustration, and boredom, and annoyance in return for even my most diligent efforts.  My relationship with music practice mirrors that of my relationship with music as a whole: confusing and uncertain, with begging and fights, gifts and peace offerings, breakups and reconciliations.  We are one of those couples for whom it seems everything keeps going wrong.

Yet we can’t seem to stay apart.