4 Steps to a Solid Performance

It’s recital season. And as strange as last year was when the world was in complete shut down, this year is even more unsettled. Some teachers have the ability to safely hold in-person recitals, some have set up outdoor venues, others will be entirely online. But no matter how you’re choosing to do it, your students have been working hard and you see the need to be able to showcase their work 🙂

I have vivid memories of going to my piano lessons early and staying late during the month before our annual recital. Why? Because my teacher saw the benefit of practicing how we would perform. And as a nervous student who did not particularly see a need to share my music, practicing with other students allowed me to rehearse the courage I knew I’d need in a smaller, safer setting. And after years of this rehearsing both for myself and now for my students, I am a firm believer that how you practice is what will come out in your performance.

Does your student stick their tongue out when they make a mistake in the middle of a song? They’re likely to stick out their tongue while performing.

Does your student insist on starting the piece over every time a mistake is made? They’re likely to start over while performing.

Does your student practice standing up? Then you guessed it, they’re likely to perform standing up.

But practicing for a recital works in both positive and negative ways. If your student figures out how to continue even after making a mistake, they will be comfortable in how to handle a missed note or rhythm mid-performance.

If your student is good at playing through mistakes and pretending as though they don’t exist, then your audience will likely not know they exist either!

If your students have practiced bowing, there will be no awkwardness when it comes time to do it for real.

I realize that every teacher has their own way of preparing and putting on a recital. So today my goal is to encourage you to set your students up for maximum success by showing you the four steps my students rehearse in the weeks leading up to a performance, as I believe these 4 steps should be non-negotiable no matter what your performance style looks like 🙂

Before we get to the four steps, let me be clear – process is VERY important. Students taking the time to properly dissect a piece and work through the hard spots, memorize through theory AND muscle memory, learn how to play a piece beginning at different starting points and play straight through mistakes when necessary is vital. All of this is critical and part of the longer process of preparing for recital.

But when it comes down to the final preparations, students MUST be practicing what to do in the short moments before performing if they want to be successful when on the stage. My students and I repeat, rehearse, and remind each other of these four things constantly –

Click below for a pdf print out of this graphic 🙂

1. Adjust the bench.

I don’t know about you, but my students come in all shapes and sizes. Making sure they put the bench in a position for best playability will make all the difference in how their performance turns out!

2. Check and double check hand position.

I was playing a simplified version of The Swan by Saint Sans. I LOVED this piece and had it memorized forwards and backwards. I felt like I could make real and beautiful music, and as much as I hated recitals growing up, I was ready to share this piece. Until I got up to the stage piano and began playing. And it didn’t sound right. I knew I was playing all of the right fingers … by why did it sound so wrong? My hands were in the wrong position. And to make it worse, I tried to fix my hand position while still playing, instead of stopping and starting over. My teacher was gracious, encouraged me to stop and grab the music, and then I played it as beautifully as I ever had. But 10 year old me was traumatized, and I have made it a point to remind my students to check and double check where their hands are before they start. No reason for anyone to suffer because of one mistake before a note is even played!

3. Hum the first few measures in your head.

I get some weird looks at this one. But two things are at play here. One, the performer ahead of the student just played a really cool song that is now in the student’s head. And two, my students usually pick 2-3 songs in contrasting styles. This means that when a student sits down to play, it will likely take 2-4 measures to feel like they’re in the groove and style of the piece they’re playing. BUT what if they hummed the first few measures before playing? Then suddenly their brain has already settled on the style and tempo of the piece, and the student can have a strong start to their performance.

4. Take a deep breath.

Few people perform without any jitters. Taking a moment to take a deep breath can steady the rapid heart beat and focus the student for the task ahead. It only takes a moment, and your audience won’t notice the breath, but will notice if a performance is affected by nerves.

When do my students begin rehearsing these 4 steps? Usually a month before they are set to perform. We recite them back to each other, we practice them (in a non-pandemic world with the students who have lessons before and after), I email them to parents, write them down, and encourage all of my students to practice the steps when playing their recital pieces at home.

The result? Even my most anxious students walk into a performance with knowledge of how it will run, exactly what they are to do, and {usually} the ability to control their nerves because of it.

What are some other ways you prepare your students for a performance? Do your steps look similar to mine? Are there any tricks you’ve found make a big difference in the quality of performance your students are able to achieve?


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