Playing the piano

The following ideas have been gathered from several sources: my own experiences and thoughts, the influence of some of my teachers (Cecile Genhart, Jeanne-Marie Darre, George Driscoll, Martino Tirimo, Marilyn Neeley, Warren Jones, Martin Katz), from books (Josef Hoffman, Josef Lhevinne, Walter Gieseking and Karl Leimer, Anthony Legge and Barry Green, Seymour Bernstein, Heinrich Neuhaus, Charles Rosen, Joseph Banowetz, Chungliang Al Huang and Jerry Lynch, and Gygorgy Sandor) and from many other fine musicians with whom I have worked.

Please keep in mind that music is much more than thoughts and guidelines; music is about inspiration, emotion, and communication, all the qualities that make us uniquely human. I hope you find what follows to be useful as a starting point.
Learning new works
Balance with other instruments
Interpretive questions
Performance practice
Physical considerations
Orchestral reductions
Stage fright


View practicing as a means to becoming a better person — this will lead to becoming a better musician and then a better pianist.

The point of practice is to use total concentration to create a skill, and then to turn that skill into an unconscious habit.

Extreme physical positions should be avoided. Don't press the upper arms into the body. In general, elbows out, wrists in. Don't hunch your shoulders — let elbows hang. The arm guides the hand, the hand guides the finger. Since forearm muscles move the fingers, align hand and arm accordingly.

Warm up properly; starting too vigorously with cold hands can lead to injury.

In a typical practice session, try to cover four main areas: technique, sight reading, listening for phrasing and decay of sound with slow melodic passages, and playing of polyphonic works (Bach).

Set clear goals, and always encompass them within a musical framework.

There are seven main technical areas: trills with every possible combination of fingers/speed/dynamics, scales, arpeggios in all positions, double notes (thirds/sixths/octaves), chords (evenness of attack and separation of voices), leaps, and polyphony. Strive for legato, beauty, and absolute evenness in tone quality and duration.

Isolate the problem and the principle behind the problem. From the outset, never repeat failed or flawed approaches to technical problems.

Sometimes slow practicing of fast passages does not result in successful playing of them up to tempo; this probably occurs because you are not allowing time to mentally prepare the change. Try slowing the rate of change without slowing the rate at which the notes change. For example, practice multiple repetitions of a sequence of notes while mentally preparing for the upcoming problematic change.

Use variety when practicing in order not to kill spontaneity. Don't practice when tired, as old habits can return unnoticed. Take frequent breaks. Total concentration is required.

The volume of sound depends exclusively on the speed with which the hammer hits the string. Once the hammer strikes the sound cannot be altered, so don't exert pressure after the key has been depressed. Try aiming to the point of escapement — about 2/3s of the way down — the finger will continue to the bottom without unnecessary force and with little or no impact.

Relaxation is essential. The wrist must always be flexible; velocity requires a loose hand.

For power, use the weight of the body, particularly the shoulders.

To trill quickly, think quickly. Note that trills can be melodic or rhythmic in effect.

Learning new works

When learning a new work, develop a mental tonal picture of it before you actually begin playing the notes, or read through it once as close to tempo as possible. Then learn it in small, manageable sections. Whatever fingering results in the most accurate musical rendering of a passage is the correct fingering.

Slow practice, without mistakes, repeated as often as necessary, is essential. Accuracy is largely a matter of mental certainty. Make the mental aspect the master over the physical. If you find errors creeping into a piece, return to slow practice to fix it. Mental practice is essential.


To listen closely requires a certain mental isolation when playing. Listen to every tone (tone quality, duration, and strength) you produce — this cannot be over-stressed. You must be able to separate what you hear from what your fingers are "telling" you. To improve one's listening, play a note f, the next mp, the next pp, and the next pppp, matching the ends of sounds each time.

If playing from a score, read at least one or two beats ahead while listening for the moment. If accompanying, let your eye dwell on the vocal or instrumental line, and be able to hum/sing it and accompany yourself.

When playing with other instruments, timing, timbre, and gesture vary from instrument to instrument; recognize that different instruments vary in the time it takes each to "speak" and listen for this difference.


The "best" tone is the one that renders a particular meaning in the best possible manner. This does not necessarily suggest that a "warm" tone is always desired.

The first element of expression is tone — not rhythm, volume, or tempo. To get a warm tone, "draw" the keys rather than strike them, keeping your fingers close (or on) the keys at all times, using as large a surface area on the fingertip as possible. The key must be depressed all the way to produce a good tone. Release of the tone is equally important — reverse the process to achieve the desired effect.

Properly balance the dynamics between the hands. Treat accompanying figures polyphonically. Look for opportunities to produce tonal coloring and expressiveness: descending bass lines, thirds, ascending chromaticism, and inner voicing.

Do not overlook the varieties of staccato: very short (seldom-used), half-length, and portamento (note this is not a singer's portamento). Use the arm, the wrist, or the finger for different effects.


To play legato requires not only connection between tones but also continuity of volume and consistency of tonal color, difficult feats on a percussive instrument where tonal decay must be taken into account. Note this requires not only the connecting of the next note in succession, but also the slow release and blend of the previous note. Listening is critical. The finger must not leave the key; arm weight should be employed. With repeated notes, the key must not rise above 3/4s of its height. You must be able to play legato with and without the pedal. Note that legato markings in registers where there are no dampers may indicate emphasis on expression rather than true legato.

Balance with other instruments

Balance depends on the piano, the nature and changing registers of the other instrument, and the acoustics of the hall (which change depending on whether filled or empty). Too much pedal, resulting in lack of clarity, and doubling of the line can result in imbalance. The other instrument, its timbre and its strengths and weaknesses, must always be taken into account. Placement plays an important role — side by side you hear what the audience hears, off to the side (as with singers), you hear less than the audience; don't underplay in the latter case, rather hear the singer (the words) "through your tone".

The composition itself should play a role in determining optimal balance in terms of the relative importance of the parts at a given moment. Don't be a slave to the composer's dynamic markings, while being aware that some composers (e.g., Beethoven) were more careful in some of their markings than others.


Long notes must be played with greater force than the shorter ones that accompany them in order for them to be sustained. Pedaling can also help.

Inner voices are frequently more important when playing with other instruments — outer voices are often more important in solo playing. When two lines of equal importance occur simultaneously, bring out the inner voice as it will be the more difficult for the audience to hear. Playing with "color" means to subdue the uninteresting; bring out the interesting. Emphasis on top notes results in brilliance; emphasis on bass notes warmth. Think of non-melodic passages as melodic when trying to play them unobtrusively. Know when not to double vocal lines, as in early music with figured bass.


Be aware of the shape of the line, the direction of the line, the pivotal notes within it, and the pacing required by it.

Never confuse bowing slurs (bowing changes) with musical phrases. Bowing slurs are used either for expression or for articulation, and are often put in piano scores by composers who think instrumentally. Be wary of all editor/composer markings.

When accompanying, be aware of the phrasing, movement, and direction in the other instrument's part, while understanding how it integrates with yours — note that it could be complementary or contrasting to yours. When imitating instruments, remember that bowing begins with an upbow — no accent — think where the downbow comes. Note that staccato means disconnected, unless marked martellato.


Holding of the breath increases tension and cuts off emotional responses. One simple exhalation can reduce tension. Experiment with inhaling before technically difficult passages and exhaling as you play them. Sing or hum melodic lines and experiment with inhaling on one phrase, exhaling on the next. Breathing with the phrasing increases physical and emotional receptivity. Note that excessive use of rubato interferes with breathing patterns at the entrances of new phrases.


The time it takes for the sound to "unfold" will influence the tempo (e.g., the piano will require a faster tempo with voice than will the orchestra with voice). A lower, heavier voice will sing the same piece slower than a higher, lighter voice. Large masses of instruments will perform at slower tempi. Echoes and other acoustical phenomena will affect tempo. The structure of the composition will determine tempo (e.g., shorter notes in Bach help determine tempo, while overall expressiveness may play a larger role in Beethoven's music). Historical style may determine tempo (e.g., alla breve in the classical style is an indicator of accents, not tempo).

Before playing the first note, you must have a mental picture of the tempo, the manner of touch, and the attack of the first note. If there is a phrase that can only be performed at one tempo, think of it before beginning.

Crescendi played in strict time are frequently heard as accelerandos, so don't rush them.

Gradual changes in tempi must be gradual, usually beginning on weak beats. Be flexible, not metronomic — but don't destroy the basic rhythmic structure.

When accompanying, clarity in the accompaniment (or lack thereof) can influence how a given tempo is heard. Achieving the desired effect sometimes requires slowing the tempo a bit in order to accommodate technical difficulties.


Instrumentalists and singers tend to be freer in rhythm and other forms of interpretation than pianists because of the differing nature of their instruments as contrasted with the more mechanical nature of the piano.

Rhythmic structure must be conceived and understood. One way to grasp this is to conduct the composition.

Don't be a slave to the bar line. Consider sacrificing rhythm for effect only where appropriate — a few departures from rhythmic structures will be far more effective and expressive than numerous minor ones.

An accent, in theory, is emphasis of one note over others through normal metric emphasis or unusual rhythmic emphasis. It is achieved through meter, longer duration, changes in pitch, texture, register, contour, dynamics, articulation (bowing or breathing), or simply a stronger attack. An agogic accent, in practice, is a slight delay to emphasize the pitch. A stress is nothing more than the implementation of an accent. Understanding the differences between naturally-occuring stresses (e.g., downbeats), agogic stress (pause), tonal stress, and stress by means of volume or duration is essential. For example, a tenuto is an agogic stress, ^ is a stress by means of an attack. Use each at the appropriate time . Note that accents should always be context-sensitive, that is relative to the phrase. Some accents may be melodic rather than dynamic (e.g., with a sforzando, the accent occurs after the attack, which is of course not possible on the piano, therefore fz > in piano music is a simple accent, not a decrescendo).

Sometimes stylistic considerations will influence rhythm; in the Baroque dotted thythms are sometimes played more quickly, sometimes more slowly.

To avoid anticipating a note before it is time to play it, concentrate on the full length of each note value — fill it to overflowing. Be able to imagine crescendos, diminuendos and constant dynamic levels on sustained notes. Be especially careful not to rush eighths and sixteenths and thirty-seconds in slow passages.

Pauses such as fermatas should be done within the framework of the phrases that contain them. A sudden one might get 2-4 beats, a structured one (a turning point in the composition), more.

Rests (silences) are music and therefore as important as notes — observe their effects. Do not cut them short. To feel rests, sing the line or imagine a different instrument is playing the line. Poise, among other things, frequently depends on giving rests their full values, that is, taking the time to make your musical "point".


Rubato means robbed or stolen. The desired effect is always increased emotional intensity. Rubato may or may not be witten into the notation, and may occur with or without verbal instructions — it is up to you as interpreter to determine the composer's intentions as reflected by his views on the subject.

Prior to 1800, it was common to rhythmically alter some melodic note values while maintaining strict rhythm in the accompaniment. Between 1800-1850, tempo alterations as well as rhythmic ones existed concurrently. After 1850, tempo alterations became the dominant form. Note that rhythmic rubato is commonly employed in contemporary performances of popular songs.

Examples of rubato: ornamentation, arpeggiation, polyrhythms, anticipating or delaying melodic notes, syncopation or delayed harmonic resolution, portato (non-legato with emphasis), increase or decrease in note values, tenuto, accents, and in vocal music, elongation (and subsequent shortening) of vowels by placing sung consonants before the beat.

Interpretive Questions

What is the purpose of the notation as written out by the composer?

What is the effect of fingering and hand position on rendering a passage?

Are there moments when the expressive force of the music leads the listener to imagine (hear) what is only implied? What are the implications?

What is the harmonic rhythm? How does the rate of harmonic change relate to the number and groupings of phrases? What is the relationship and effect of tempo to the rate of harmonic change? What is the relationship and effect of harmony on tone color?

What is the purpose (function) of the pedal as marked?

What is the purpose of silences? Of spacing? Are ritards sudden or prepared?

How do dissonances resolve, both tonally and rhythmically? What is the effect of appoggiaturas, both on individual notes and on entire phrases?

On what does the "character" of a passage or entire work primarily depend: pitch, rhythm, spacing, dynamics, tone color, something else?

Performance practice

"All true and great music transcends its time, and moreover, has never fitted into the confines, form, and rules of the period in which it was created." (Dinu Lipatti)

All interpretive decisions must be rooted in musical understanding. Musical interpretation is not synonymous with performance practice.

Expression precedes and gives meaning to execution, not vice versa. Notational symbols are used by composers to clarify and reinforce expressive ideas already in the score.

A study of the harmony can reveal the correct inflections of the melody.

In 18th century music, the duration of notes is intimately linked to the desired effect on expression. Eighteenth century sources on performance practice notoriously disagree and should be used as a guide, not as an authority. An example: a wedge-shaped mark could be a staccato, an accent, or both in late 17th and early 18th century music.

Non-legato effects may be heard as an inherent part of the passage itself without resorting to purposeful detachment of the individual notes themselves. Staccato markings are frequently used to make the notes more expressive without accenting them or "dwelling" on them.

Stepwise motion — small intervals — is associated with melody and singing and is therefore usually played more legato. Larger intervals — fourths and fifths — are frequently associated with the articulation of harmony.

Slurs must always be interpreted according to the musical sense of the passage. Slurs frequently indicate bowing articulation or technical groupings, should not be confused with phrases and are not to be "clipped" at the end. Bowing here means a treatment of the notes as a single entity: a single beat, a rhythmic or harmonic grouping, not necessarily a phrase.

The expression inherent in ornamentation should guide the proper execution of it. Treatises on ornamentation are meant to be applied to the instruments of their time. A non-harmonic ornament will call attention to a melodic line on a harpsichord (an instrument without the capacity to emphasize a single note by dynamic or timbre), but simply playing the harmonic melodic line louder on a piano will accomplish the same thing. Note this suggests that it makes little difference on the piano whether trills begin on the principal note or the upper note.


Every well-written composition has an underlying architecture — discover what it is, individually and together as an ensemble, and agree on what it means for the performance of the work. For example, there is probably only one climax — where is it, and how does its placement fit with the rest of the work?


The importance of pedaling cannot be over-emphasized. Always try to ascertain the purpose or function of the pedal in any given passage, and be aware of the capabilities of the historical instrument for which it was composed. Never assume a composer's markings indicate his full intentions — styles changed over time, composers modified earlier editions, composers wrote with the capabilities of their own pianos in mind, and publishers were less than reliable in reproducing original manuscripts.

Pedal marking first appeared in the 1790s, the time of Mozart's death, and generally referred to knee levers where the treble and bass dampers could be manipulated independently. A wide variety of pedaling techniques existed from 1790 to the 1820s, excluding syncopated (legato) pedaling which did not become dominant (replacing rhythmic pedaling) until much later in the century. To make things more confusing, in some countries "sordino" means dampers, not pedal; Beethoven's "con sordino" — "with damper" — means without pedal, "senza sordino" means with pedal.

The damper pedal is used to connect tones and to color them. Coloring depends on the amount of time between lifting and lowering the dampers in legato pedaling. Note that the longer the dampers are raised the greater the possibility of hearing changes in tone quality. The timing between depressing the pedal and the depression of the key must depend on the register, the hall, and other factors. Waiting until the hammers strike the keys yields a "purer" sound.

Examples of where to use the damper pedal: repeated melodic notes, staccato notes and other accents where more color is desired, to intensify crescendos, before starting a work to enrich the sound, for variety in repetitions, on rapid unmeasured trills.

Sympathetic vibrations work acoustically down as well as up — using pedal when playing notes without dampers still causes sympathetic vibrations to occur in lower notes.

Legato pedaling techniques must be dependent on registers. For example, pedaling bass changes must allow extra time for the harmonies to "clear".

Finger pedaling can be substituted for damper pedaling (e.g., Alberti bass). You must always understand the function of the harmony so as not to obscure it.

The perception of dissonance is dependent on the duration, that is the "absorption" of it. Choosing to create melodic dissonances with the pedal must take this into account.

Underlying bass lines in accompanying figures must be carefully pedaled to achieve the desired amount of emphasis.

Don't pedal over every phrase — breaks can be refreshing.

Slow release of the damper pedal can be used to shape phrases, provided the piano is well regulated.

Abrupt pedal release before a rest gives emphasis to the rest, especially if the sound ceases precisely on the rest and not slightly thereafter.

Change the pedal on repeated notes and chords if a crescendo is not wanted. Use flutter or vibrato pedaling for decrescendos.

Abrupt changes from loud to soft require increased attention to pedaling.

When holding the pedal through changing harmonies, each successive melodic note must be dynamically balanced against the aggregate of sound that precedes it. This requires careful attention to each note.

Pedaling is most effective when the listener is unaware it is being used. Use all varieties of pedaling: full (dampers don't touch), half (barely touch), quarter (rest lightly).

Use the una corda to change the timbre — the color, not the volume. The amount of shift should depend on the condition of the hammers and where the grooves physically lie. The resulting abrupt change in tonal quality should be carefully planned (e.g., not usually in the middle of a phrase). Note that the una corda pedal may be desirable where intensity of tone is wanted without a corresponding increase in volume.

The sostenuto pedal was patented in 1874. European pianos typically did not have them. When deciding whether to use it, play first with partial damper pedaling, trying to ascertain the the composer's intentions. Note that silent depressing of a note(s) and catching it with the sostenuto pedal can creat a sympathetic haze of sound (partials) that can be used for interesting effects.

Adjust pedaling to the performance hall and the instrument itself. Be aware of the effect of overtones in the hall itself. The speed at which the dampers rise and fall affects the sound — experiment with slow and fast pedaling in the hall.

In Bach, repeated notes can be connected and melodic notes of long duration can be enriched through the use of the pedal.

Haydn and Mozart did not write pedal markings into their scores, but they both probably used knee levers. Clarity of texture, phrasing, rests, and articulation should not be obscured — the pedal should be "imperceptible". Dry tone can be avoided through damper or finger pedaling. Tempo should be taken into account — e.g., fast Alberti basses should be instrumentally-conceived (not pedaled) while slow ones could be pedaled.

Beethoven was the first to mark pedal in scores, frequently to ensure a particular effect was achieved. Examples: sustaining bass, improving legato, "collective" sound, dynamic contrast, connecting sections, blurring harmonies. Omission of pedal releases may be unintentional or a direction to let sound die away. Note that Beethoven used more pedal in his performances than he indicated in his scores.

Chopin was very particular in his pedal marking while his publishers were not. He often held pedal through rests, used it with scales, blurred harmonies, coupled it with accents and staccato notes. Pay particular attention to Chopin's pedaling as applied to harmonic rhythms.

Schumann stated "use pedal in nearly every measure, always as the changes of harmony demand". As with Beethoven, his markings usually highlight some special effect. Note that Clara's editions are unreliable.

Liszt adopted syncopated pedaling in his later years, and he was the probably the first to recognize and approve of the sostenuto pedal. No pedal in Liszt is the exception.

The Catalan school requires special attention to clarity of voices, tone color, and pedaling. Melodic lines frequently are sustained over changing harmonies. As with other music, the degree of dissonance perceived is highly dependent on the tempo.

In Debussy and Ravel, long bass notes and/or harmonies dictate pedaling. Sostenuto is almost never used. Staccato notes are frequently pedaled to create color differences. Melodic notes must be brought out and non-harmonic tones voiced more softly than harmonic ones in passages with long pedal points. Long-note chords in one voice with shorter notes and rests in another voice can be silently retaken.

Evaluate and note the differences between pedaling an accompaniment without the other instrument versus with it.


Some believe freedom of interpretation can only be achieved through memorization. Some believe hands should be memorized separately. Always, memory should be aural, visual, intellectual, and physical. Pick the weakest and strengthen it. Memorizing away from the piano is helpful. Memorize as you learn a work, and always know where the "pick-up" points are for performances. Be able to start anywhere. A good test of memory is whether you can play the memorized piece very slowly.

Physical considerations

The way you look is the way you play.

Proper seated height is elbows lined up with the key bed, or slightly lower. Know when you need to have eye contact with the keyboard, and don't vary from this plan.

Orchestral reductions

These scores cannot be relied on, especially when preparing singers for performances with orchestra (the right cues are needed). Get the orchestral score and study it. Have shortened beginnings and endings ready. Listen to the orchestral recording, find the "essence" of the music and strive to imitate it by pruning notes that are not needed, adding notes where they are needed, while always keeping in mind the inherent strengths and weaknesses of the piano. The harmonic and rhythmic skeletons (especially bass notes) are the most important. Never let technical problems overcome musical intent — edit accordingly.

When the score looks like piano music, remember not to play it that way. Woodwinds can be simulated by independent attack of lines. Use lots of pedal for maximum use of overtones. Don't take liberties with tempos. Never play grace notes before beats. Be careful of cutoffs — make them orchestral-like. Modify tremolos (use only for continuing sound) to make them sound acceptable on the piano. Try to avoid doubling melodic lines, particularly with singers.


When meeting new students, ask for references. Always state the good things first. Never criticize anyone's teacher. Contact the person's vocal or instrumental teacher and discuss problems, goals, etc.

Teach music first, the piano second.

Ask, what is the nature of the music? Try to ascertain the spirit of the music as opposed to slavishly adhering to the letter of it. Describe the nature or spirit. Discovery on the part of the students (or performers) through awareness will yield superior results compared to dictated solutions. Understand the difference between instructing someone and allowing that person to learn from you, and use both approaches at the appropriate times. As a student, know what you want from a teacher..


Be thoroughly prepared from the start. If accompanying, insist that you get your score well ahead of time to thoroughly study it. Research the works you are playing.

When rehearsing, ask questions that will focus attention on the problem, focusing on one problem at a time. Locate the most severe aspect of the problem and experiment with various foci of concentration for solving it. In difficult passages, conceptualize — simplify and unify. Focus on the simplification and trust the rest. Carry these approaches into performances.

In ensemble playing, focus on the other part(s) — sing it silently, and accompany yourself. This increases your awareness of all musical aspects and makes you feel an essential part of the whole. Reading ahead will enable you to more closely listen to what is happening at the moment. Remember that your physical presence should be in keeping with the nature of the composition.


Unrelenting self-criticism destroys confidence, courage, concentration, hope, motivation and excitement. You wouldn't criticize your friends as you do yourself — why not treat yourself as a friend? Acceptance of self is greatly dependent on acceptance of others.

Do not judge your value as a person by your level of playing. Let go of your obsessive need to sound good or to impress people and your fear of failure will disappear. If you insist on being critical, ask yourself if you're failing to communicate something of yourself while you're playing — that is the true failure.

We are never as great as our greatest victory nor as bad as our worst defeat. Our greatest achievements are human relationships.

Stage Fright

Inadequate musical preparation, or poor living habits in general.

Absolutist judgments of my own ability — black and white thinking.

Unrealistic desire to always be thoroughly competent, and expecting things to always turn out the way I want them to. Inability to allow oneself to fail.

Fear of losing face while under public scrutiny — damage of self esteem.

Mistaken belief that specific achievements equate to intrinsic worth.

Fear that the audience is not going to think as highly of me as I want them to, or as I regard myself. Inability to accept the role of interpreter of the music while worrying about how we appear to others.

Unrealistic fear that the audience is going to be as critical as I am, while holding expectations of perfectionism as high as my own.

Mistaken belief that the audience is the stumbling block to successful performances when it is really only my own doing. This is an inappropriate reaction to a stimulus (the audience in this case) probably unfortunately fortified by past reactions to other unrelated events in life.

Unrealistic fear that, even though I've done it hundreds of times, I can't do it again. An inability to get my emotions under control with more focus on the music. Both result from focusing on the end result rather than the means and procedures in the present time.

Hanging onto the wrong performance goal — perfectionism — as good or better than in practice — rather than a goal of consistent/reliable performance, a realistic reflection of where I am at the time.

Treatment (cognitive re-structuring of perceptions, mental attitudes, beliefs):
An in-depth evaluation and ranking (least to worst) of all unrealistic, irrational beliefs, thoughts, and expectations. Fear and anxiety do not represent the truth about a future event, they represent our attitudes about that event.

Setting of realistic performance goals for each performance.

Challenging of all self-defeating thoughts and development of effective counter responses. Rehearsal of these new positive responses and incorporation of them into task-relevant activities. Choosing your response rather than automatically reacting to your fears.

Occasional sessions of practicing as if you were performing. This would include a complete mental rehearsal in great detail of the entire event, with coping strategies for all foreseeable difficulties.

Mental rehearsing
Affirmation: to be effective, it should be positive (what I want, rather than don't want), concise, in the present, visualized, and often repreated. A good example for me — "I am a talented amateur who sometimes plays like a professional — perhaps this will be one of those times."

Focusing: to be effective, it must be directed at a small aspect of your activity in the present. Observe and anticipate your own personal patterns of distraction, rank them in order of importance, and choose, one by one, different aspects of the task at hand for purposes of centering your concentration.

Tolerate failures — they are inevitable. Likewise, tolerate successes, for they will inevitably be followed by occasional setbacks. To maximize successes, set realistic but challenging short-term goals, goals that are set within a context of experiencing your activity as joyful.

Preparation for Performances
Assess your attitudes towards performance — how you study, what you expect from yourself, what you want to give, how you relate to your instrument, and how you feel about music in general.

Preparing for important concerts: practice as if performing, tape record with no audience, perform for a small friendly group in an informal setting with careful planning and execution, then a larger informal group in a public setting, finally the formal concert. Consider what clothes you will wear throughout.

Performance is the result of setting personal priorities and not a direct result of your abilities. Choose your priorities very carefully. Replace expectations — confidence that something will turn out exactly as you predict (an emotionally-charged ego trip) with preferences. This will take the focus off outcomes and put it squarely on the task at hand. If each task or moment is exciting and fun, it will be perceived as a worthwhile activity regardless of the outcome. Who really knows the meanings of outcomes anyway?

If you are fearful of consequences, reassess your goals, and re-connect to them. Fear is often the result of feeling overwhelmed by a perceived enormity of a task; view the task as a progression of small, manageable sub-tasks.

If you are fearful of losing your concentration, know where to place your concentration — sight (on the score or a mental picture of yourself), feelings (emotional or physical), hearing (remembering how it sounded when you did it well), or understanding (your intrinsic knowledge of the work). If you are having problems concentrating because of an ongoing, critical internal commentary, focus on awareness by shifting from a judgmental to a non-judgmental attitude. Focus the critic on the music — not on you.

If doubt and fear are your biggest obstacles, work on trust. Trust in the power within you — this is your integrity, a refusal to compromise your talents, your inner sense of self, and your values. Worrying about what others will think and feeling uncomfortable about things getting out of control are both based in lack of trust.

Avoid any foods that stimulate adrenalin: alcohol, caffeine, and sugar in all forms.

Take five deep breaths through the nostrils, eyes closed. Exhale slowly, counting down from 5. Mentally rehearse, with detailed images, the positive feelings you wish to feel throughout the performance. Focus on the image you want to hold — perhaps an oak tree on the piano bench being warmed from the top down by the rays of the sun. Retain this image as your inner sanctum, a quiet place where you have total control over what happens there. If negative thoughts interfere, replace them with positive visual images and then let them go. Create an anchor word or physical gesture that, when invoked, allows immediate recall of this image and resultant quiet state.

Trust that you have prepared mind and body to function at their best. Choose to either identify with the audience or completely detach from them.

Strive for excellence, not perfection. Excellence is an objective, positive, accurate reflection of where you are at the time — physically, mentally, and emotionally.

Tempi are influenced by pulse rate. The first priority in performing is to establish the right tempo while being aware your elevated pulse rate is affecting your perceptions. Regulate your physical motions according to the amount of tension you are feeling. Concentrating on expression will help prevent the tempo from becoming too fast. Concentrate on what you hear, not on what you are feeling.

Focus on musical aspects that don't interfere with automatic habits. Create excitement, don't get excited. Understand that as performer, you must consider a work at some level of emotional "distance" to properly present its structure and meaning.

If things do not go as planned, use trigger words to immediately enter your "inner sanctum". Remind yourself that the reward is in the doing, not in the end result.


Music is more important than playing the piano — music is about being human. You are a human being first, a musician second, a pianist third, and an accompanist last. Remember why you became a musician in the first place. Do what you do best, and enjoy it to the fullest.

    © Copyright David Kelsey