How do you prepare a student to have a good experience in a competition or other event? Below are a some specific ways that I try to make sure the student is ready. Event prep is an ongoing process of growth and learning for both teacher and student. This long list is in a somewhat random order and by no means complete, but I hope it will generate a few ideas for you.
Start early. Nothing spoils the process more than running out of time. Creating a reverse timeline is an excellent idea. Starting from the date of the event, work backward setting intermediate goals and deadlines. For example, if an event takes place on April 5, you might set a deadline for secure memorization of the material by March 1, articulation, phrasing, and dynamics integrated by January 15, and notes, fingering and rhythm secure by December 2.
Start the piece correctly from the beginning. Do not allow any bad habits to develop. It is easier to start with a new piece from the ground up than to choose a piece with ingrained problems to rehabilitate. Allow the student one play-through to get the overall feel of the piece, but then slow way down and work section by section, phrase by phrase. On the other hand, sometimes the second or third time you learn a piece, it really comes together. Don’t be afraid to pull out a piece learned last year and relearn it at a deeper level, if it does not have big issues.
Choose material that is level-appropriate. Too hard and tears and frustration will be the result. Too easy and boredom and carelessness will set in. Take into account the amount of time you have to prepare. If the competition requires a certain minimum level of difficulty, use Jane McGrath’s book “The Pianist’s Guide to Standard Teaching and Performance Literature” to determine the level of your piece.
Start with the rhythm, separated from the notes. The rhythm drives the dynamic expression. Count and tap the rhythm out loud with expression and dynamics. Try dancing to the piece so your whole body gets involved. Understand the naturally stressed beats in the pulse. Feel faster passages in groups of notes. Insist on metronome practice. Tap the rhythm in one hand, while playing the notes with the other hand. (Some teachers prefer to also start notes separated from rhythm with students who have visual challenges.)
Get the correct fingering worked out and noted in the music first thing. Fingering is critical to being able to successfully execute everything else. Do not just rely on the fingering noted in the edition. Make sure it works for this student and make adjustments for hand size.
Listen to recordings. Have the student listen to four or five different recordings of the piece. You-tube is free, but the quality is sometimes not what you need. You can download individual recordings on Amazon for only 99¢. If you find a good one, have the student listen both actively, with the music out and pencil in hand, and passively, in the background while they are doing other tasks.
Memorize the piece section by section and string it together for more secure memory. Number key sections and be able to start cold at any number. Have the student write out the opening measures and see how much detail they can remember. Look for similarities and differences in repeated sections. Practice recognizing the differences and mentally rehearsing where they lie. Analyze the chords and harmonies. Label the form and structure. Clearly mark repeats, endings and codas. Mark key and clef changes.
Involve the muscles, ear, and brain in all the of the learning and memorization. Remind the student that they need to give the muscles time, with slow, frequent repetitions. Identify all the “tricky” places and work on them first. Create a game or exercise out of a problem area. Have specific practice goals each week.
Practice performance-day skills constantly. Adjust the bench, breathe. Look at the judge and wait for them to nod that they are ready for you to start. Take your time! Hear the music and tempo in your head before you start. Breathe again. Use your relaxation skills, stay with the piece until it is finished. Lift the pedal and your hands at the same time. Don’t snatch your hands away and stand up before the last sounds have even died away. Bow and smile.
Video tape the student. Watch the recording together to see if there are any distracting mannerisms or facial expressions. Listening and watching yourself from the outside is a completely different experience than what you perceive from the inside. Follow along with the music like you did with the professional recording and critique yourself.
Practice it exactly how you want to perform it. Every time. In the stress of the performance, we play what we have programmed ourselves to play, not what we “hoped” would turn out right. That pesky mistake that you never completely corrected will most certainly show up at the performance. No one is ever perfect, but you want the odds to be in your favor. Don’t be satisfied with getting it right only 50% of the time. How do you know which 50% will come out on performance day? Being able to play through cleanly nine out of ten times is much better odds.
Slow down! Seriously. Practice slowly enough that you are not practicing mistakes. Your brain can easily correct the rhythm later if you pause when needed to ensure accuracy. Take the time to practice big jumps carefully, with lots of repetition. Move, then cover the right notes with the correct fingers before you play them. Your brain is always learning. Don’t teach your brain (or your ear and muscles) that there are three, or five, or ten different ways to play the passage.
Don’t forget to work on the ending. Sometimes the last page gets the least amount of practice and the ending is an after-thought. This is a mistake because the end is the part everyone will remember. Whatever else happens, you want to be able to nail the ending.
Don’t stop until you reach the final level of musicality. There are four basic levels to pass through. 1. Everything is brand new and a struggle. 2. You can play the notes and get through the piece with the correct rhythm, dynamics and fingering, but it takes a lot of concentration. 3. The piece is memorized and all the technical and expressive elements are in place. 4. The piece feels almost “effortless.” You are past struggling with the mechanics and are free to soar with the music and express your soul. Like a world class ice skater, your execution is automatic, smooth, and beautiful to watch. (Warning: even though you have reached this level, don’t get over confident. Keep working on starting points and play with the music some of the time, checking details.)
Talk about the event. Where does it take place? How long does it take to get there? What kind of a room will it be in? Who will be in the room? Where will the judges sit? Who will you give your music to? What time do you need to be there? What can you do while you are waiting for your turn? Will there be a practice room, and should you use it?
Prepare to play a warm up scale. Pianists are one of the few musicians who cannot take their own instrument with them. They are expected to play at their best on a piano they have never seen or touched before. Playing a warm up scale and cadence chords can help a student get a feel for the touch of a strange instrument before they begin. This is especially helpful if their piece starts off softly. Sometimes a scale is required and rarely it may not be appropriate, but most judges do not have a problem with a warm up scale. Check with the room monitor in advance. Realize that when you play a warm up scale you are setting the judge’s expectations before you even begin, so don’t fumble through it! They will be more impressed with good technique and even tone quality than with speed. Adding a crescendo as you ascend and a diminuendo on the way down helps you get the feel of playing both loudly and softly on the instrument, as well as adding interest to the scale. Younger students should play scales hands alone. Add pedal to cadence chords for a full, rich sound.
Talk about performance anxiety. It happens to just about everybody, but there are things you can do to help. First, know yourself. If you are naturally shy, more work will be needed in this area. Things that have helped me are: know the piece well enough that I can play it even while I’m shaking, observe, correct and redirect my negative automatic thoughts, don’t obsess, regulate my breathing, use tapping and other relaxation techniques while waiting to play, and get in lots of other performance opportunities before the big day. It helps to teach students to non-judgmentally notice their random, unproductive thoughts, and learn to gently, but quickly, refocus back on the music.
Provide run-up performance opportunities. Family gatherings, nursing homes, school talent days, and performance classes can all help to calm the nerves for the big day. Stage a dry run-through of what it will be like at the event. Picture the room. Think about where the judges will be and the other people who will be present. How will you approach the piano and sit down? Picture yourself adjusting the bench and cushions. Breathe! Imagine yourself hearing the piece in your head and then starting to play, and notice how well everything is going. At the end, stay in the moment until it is really over, and take your time getting up. Don’t forget to smile and bow. Mentally practice and visualize all these things ahead of time, just like a professional sports player mentally rehearses their performance.
Give it a break. If it seems like the more you practice, the worse it gets, maybe it is time for a short break. You want to peak at the right moment, not a month early. If you can afford a week off, it might be the best thing you could do. For sure don’t over practice the day of the event. Plan your activities so that you are busy and distracted that day, but not tired. Keep the conversation light-hearted and positive. Lay out your clothes and your music and get to bed on time the night before. Know where you are going and how long it will take to get there. Plan a fun celebration activity afterward.
Build up calm mental confidence toward the end. In the last few weeks before the performance, switch over from correction to praise mode. Don’t try to make any major adjustments in the last two weeks. Focus on expression. Start pointing out all the things the student is doing right. Remind them of all the careful preparation and hard work they have done, and how ready they are. Bolster a strong sense of internal trust that what they have worked on will be there when they need it. Tell them you believe they are ready and will do well.
What if the student is obviously not ready? If the student is unusually arrogant, has ignored all your warnings and instruction, and needs someone else to tell them there is more work to be done, let them go ahead. Otherwise, gently pull the plug. A disastrous experience can hang over the student for years to come, adding to future performance anxiety. Learn from what went wrong, and start working toward a new goal.
Don’t schedule too many events too close together. Even very motivated students need some down time. They also need time to work on other skills and material. Don’t be afraid to use the same piece for several events. Have each student develop a play list of pieces they can pull from when they need a “student’s choice” piece to go with the required piece.
Let go of the outcome. Music is an extremely subjective medium, and many unexpected things can happen in a live performance. Two plus two is not always four. Take joy in the journey of learning and preparation. The sun will still come up tomorrow. Your parents will still love you. You will still have a life. Trust that you have done everything you could do with what you were given. Enjoy and celebrate the day and the experience.