At the Piano with Dylan Christopher

98588What is your first memory of the piano?

My very first memory of piano is sitting quietly, listening, and watching my older brother’s lessons. He was playing a simple piece of music in a five-finger position, but I liked the sound of it, so I would listen carefully to what he played, working it out by ear later at home. This happened a few times until on one occasion my Mother heard me rehearsing, mistaking my playing for my brother’s, which now retrospectively speaks volumes for his playing, and why he ultimately stopped. She arranged for me to start lessons.

I was four.

Who or what inspired you to start teaching?

Inspired might be the wrong word, but I was inspired to start teaching by my secondary school music teacher, Ian Claydon, and Sue Rowley who delivered A-Level music during my sixth-form studies.

By the time I reached secondary school, I had already achieved my Grade 6 and was working towards my Grade 7. As you can imagine, first-year music was somewhat – to be diplomatic – uninspired (sorry Ian!), being a mixed ability class. Ian kept me occupied by letting me help other students. Before long, I was the second point of call in the class if Ian was unavailable.

When Ian retired as the Head of Music, Sue Rowley, his successor invited me to teach a few lessons to younger students during my free periods in sixth-form. It was unpaid work as a mentor, but I soon grew to love it. After sixth-form, I took a gap year and officially became a peripatetic tutor at the school. Before long, I had established my first teaching practice traveling to my students across Greater London.

I took it upon myself to ‘get qualified’ so I enrolled in a three-year music degree programme, gaining my teaching qualification a year later. While studying I met my (now) wife; when we graduated, we went into business together, teaching from our home in Colchester, Essex, which we have now been doing so for seven years.

Time really flies when you’re having fun!

Who were your most memorable/significant teachers?

I have had relatively few teachers that would be considered master-pedagogues, but one, in particular, changed my life significantly.

A remarkable woman, inspirational person, and phenomenal pianist, Lesley Young was Head of Keyboard at Colchester Institute since the early nineties until retiring in 2016. She would be considered my first ‘real’ piano teacher; that is not to detract from other teachers that I had received lessons from previously while young, but the ‘real’ here is only to differentiate the difference between a general music teacher and a piano teacher.

She valued more than anything else the psychological intelligence of her students, helping us to understand what our mind is doing while we play.

A stock phrase she would often say in lessons was:

Everything we do at the piano is cerebral; before we play a single-note, we must understand what our mind is doing.

Feel, think, then act.”

Three years of study was not enough to learn all this person had to offer me, but in this brief time, she found my Dyslexia and helped with referrals and a diagnosis. She was the epitome of clarity after years in a fog.

Who or what are the most important influences on your teaching?

This is a tough question; nothing exists in isolation, so everything is influential. My life, my experiences, my teachers, and my own personal life-lessons learned, influence every element of my teaching. As teachers, we deal in the business of shaping human beings, which we can all agree is a continual process of growth and learning; our students grow, and we do also.

If anything, the actual teaching of my students has taught me the most. Each student that is taught influences the next lesson. It would be arrogant as a teacher for me to believe that what we have learned regarding our craft as practitioners are more important than the human being we have sitting before us. We can learn a lot from our students, in particular, some of the more challenging ones.

So as oxymoronic as it may sound, my students influence my teaching; and quite drastically so. When reflecting on my teaching from 2003, in comparison to my teaching now in 2017, what amounts to a few thousand hours of teaching, the one overwhelming influential difference over that time is exposure to students, their unique difficulties, then reflecting and helping them overcome them.

What do you expect from your students?

Respect, reason, patience, discipline and obedience; however, they are almost dirty words in today’s society.

The piano – or for that matter, the larger subject of Music – arrives from a time when people had to be disciplined. It took a considerable amount of time to do anything; usually, by hand, and without shortcuts. This meant the person working at it needed to have patience and more importantly the discipline. To learn anything requires a person to be reasonable, and able to listen and carry out instructions. My students are welcome to disagree with me, I actively encourage it as makes for interesting discussions. However, if they simply refuse to carry out my instructions there is little point to the interaction.

Today, particularly in western countries, we as teaching professionals have to contend with student-centric learning, which in itself is not bad, however, it does create problems. If you give a child the open choice of eating what they want, they would likely indulge in something fatty or sugary … for every meal; which is damaging to long-term health. As teachers, parents or guardians, it is our responsibility to teach them that you need the discipline to resist these impulses. Before reaching this point, we must teach obedience to trust out guidance due to experience and longevity.

The first lesson I teach my students is to listen to what I say and to carry out my instructions even when they don’t think they need to. Without this fundamental element, it is not a lesson, and they might as well not have my input.

What are your views on piano exams, festivals and competitions?

Exams and competitions serve a function, but they should never be the soul purpose and end-goal of the activity. I often would encourage my students to take part in concerts before an audience than enter for exams or competitions. My reason for this is, when the goal becomes solely to pass an exam or win a competition, it can create an extremely narrow path for learning to obtain a certificate or trophy; this all creating false confidence.

As teachers, we have all encountered the learners who arrive at lessons touting various graded numbers, who then fail to carry out simple tasks, only for them then to avoid responsibility for the gaps in knowledge. This is false confidence; though an exam was passed, the learning was specific to passing the exam, so the validity of the test is always then questionable at best.

I am painfully aware of the irony; myself holding several qualifications, also entering a number of competitions before, during and after studying. However, they were not, and still are not the ends of my learning, but a means to test it. I passed or won, indicating that on that day, at that time, I was ready.

You pass the exam when you are ready, but, you are not ready just because you passed an exam.

What do you consider to be the most important concepts to impart to beginning students, and to advanced students?

I spend an insurmountable time with my under-fives working on ‘pulse’. This is often overlooked in transfer students I encounter, or felt unneeded by some newcomers, but, without a pulse, music will always fail to arrive.

Even advanced players can come unstuck if they fail to count measures accurately. This is also a problem with people who profess to not being able to sight-read music. It would be analogous to trying to build a house on an unreliable foundation or to paint on a moving canvas.

An advanced student, who is truly advanced is always willing to go back to basics in order to rebuild. A beginner takes a long time to build anything, so they are always reluctant to lose it once they finally built it. The beginner will also rush ahead in an attempt to catch up, only having to go back and do it again after they realise that there are no shortcuts.

Do you teach adults? If so, what are the particular challenges and pleasures of teaching adult learners, in your experience?

I do teach adults, and it is always a pleasure.

From my experiences, the main challenge I encounter is getting them not to be so hard on themselves, and not to make comparisons to other musicians. The over-compensation that is created from these two actions are devastatingly self-defeating, causing many to give up before they try.

If you are an adult reading this, it is never too late to start learning a new skill; however, be patient and remember you are an adult with responsibilities, don’t compare yourself to others, particularly children.

…and, most importantly, count!

What are your thoughts on the link between performing and teaching?

Not all performers are teachers, but all teachers are performers.

Every lesson is a performance; to bestow knowledge to another is a defacto performance. Not a single lesson has gone by without me playing the piano; whether it be a single note or phrase, or demonstrating an entire piece.

It would be hypocritical as a teacher to teach a performance art and not perform, yet expect our students to do so. Furthermore, how can we make any claim to know how to teach music to a student if we have not yet discovered it ourselves fully.

That would be like offering advice on how to traverse a vast ocean by boat, without ever sailing, seeing a boat or for that matter, ever seeing the ocean oneself.

Dylan Christopher has established himself as a pianist and music educator in Colchester providing piano lessons, workshops and concert-performance opportunities to aspirant musicians young and old.

dylanchristopher.com

The price of piano lessons 

How much would you expect to pay for piano lessons? Is your choice of teacher based purely on the price they are charging for lessons and whether the teacher offers “value for money”? Or do you consider other factors such as the teacher’s credentials and experience, recommendations or testimonials from existing students?

The problem with private piano teaching in the UK is that it is unregulated and anyone can set themselves up as a teacher and charge what they like. The teacher who advertises via a card in the window of the corner shop might be offering very competitive rates at just £15/hour for lessons, but how do you know if this teacher is any good?

The Incorporated Society of Musicians (ISM) publishes an annual survey of fees for private music tuition in the UK which provides a useful benchmark for teachers when setting fees and for prospective students who are looking for a teacher. Don’t be tempted to go with a teacher just because their lesson fees are low or seem very “competitive” (or “cheap”). Such teachers may not be sufficiently qualified/experienced (I have come across people with barely a Grade 6 pass to their name who have set themselves up as piano teachers) and those who charge very low fees undercut – and, more importantly, devalue – the work of established professionals who have undergone specialist training and/or are highly experienced.

When looking for a piano teacher for yourself or your children, consider the following:

  • What are the teacher’s qualifications (e.g. music degree or BA Ed, teaching or performance diplomas) and other credentials (experience, for example)?
  • Does the teacher hold an up-to-date DBS certficate (crucial in today’s climate of child protection)? The ISM has a directory of registered teachers who are required to undergo a full DBS check before they are added to the register.
  • Does the teacher freely offer references on request?
  • Does the teacher come recommended by existing or former students/parents?
  • Does the teacher invite you and/or your child for an interview or chance to meet in person before you decide to go ahead with lessons?

When considering the amount the teacher charges for lessons, bear in mind the following:

  • Lesson fees should reflect the teacher’s experience and qualifications
  • Lesson fees cover not only the time the teacher is actively teaching but also other factors such as admin (lesson planning, exam entries) and the cost of running their teaching studio (which may include rent, heat and light, maintenance of the piano/s and so forth)

If you are a teacher, consider the above factors when setting your fees and do refer to the ISM fees survey for guidance for the average fees for your area. Be mindful of how people perceive “value for money” – if your fees seem low, people may think you are not a good teacher (this attitude seems to prevail in more affluent areas), too high and you may price yourself out of the market.

 


Further reading

What to look for in a piano teacher

Guidance for parents of young piano students

Guest post by Alexandra Westcott

Learning Piano

Learning music should be fun, but there are processes along the way that can seem like an uphill struggle, especially to a young beginner. However, perseverance through these processes at the start will give a student more freedom at the instrument and, therefore, more fun and a greater ability to express him or herself, which is why they come to the piano in the first place. After a number of years teaching it has been very apparent to me just how fundamental parental support is to the student’s progress, not just how far that student will go, but even whether they will get off the starting block or not.

These notes are offered to parents to remind them that they can be hugely instrumental (excuse the pun) in harnessing their child’s enthusiasm for music. Their support will encourage positive progress to emerge as a result of curiosity and fun as well as perseverance. The home sessions and the learning process itself become a journey of discovery, and a young student’s goal to be able to play the piano is achieved a lot quicker than thoughtless time spent ‘going through the motions’.

I will say, firstly, that I hate the word ‘practice’. A couple of the many dictionary definitions are ‘habitual performance’, and ‘repeated or systematic exercise’. You cannot do either unless you KNOW what it is you are doing! So a session at the piano is about LEARNING until such a time when KNOWING is reached. Then follows playing, and perfecting, both with an always curious and enquiring mind. All time spent at the piano should have attention and concentration so as to incur clarity of the text and freedom of muscles; unmindful drilling and repeated practice doesn’t make perfect, unless you can include perfect mistakes and a perfectly awful technique! Engaging, absorbing and attentive study at the piano makes for thoughtful and expressive playing, takes a lot less time, and is a darn sight more interesting along the way!

And while all this sounds like hard work, it doesn’t have to be. On the contrary, getting involved will add a fun and interactive element to what can sometimes be a struggle in the early stages when there is so much new material to absorb and digest. I have a countless number of ‘games’ I play with my students (see link below) and I’m sure your child’s teacher will have their own (usually they are a fun way of learning notes/listening games/creative games) so include these in the sessions at home.

Scheduling

A very young student will need help in managing their schedule so that they fit in their regular sessions at the instrument. And while this may sound obvious, it doesn’t always happen. There is no way with school/playtime/after school activities/supper/homework/friends/tv etc that a young child will have the discipline to put aside time for the piano. The number of students I have had over my 25 years of teaching who were prodigious and passionate enough to sit at the piano for hours on end on their own I can count on the fingers of one hand (and that doesn’t include the thumb!). Having a parent help schedule the time, and gently discipline the child to keep to this schedule, can be an enormous benefit when there are so many other distractions.

How often?

This depends on the age of the child, their stage in learning, their own enthusiasm, their concentration span, and the quality of the time spent at the piano. In the very early stages when the fundamentals are being absorbed, as long as there is an understanding of what is being learnt, then little and often is probably best. As things become more complex then a little more time is needed to reach a mental understanding of what is being learnt, and a correspondingly increasing amount of time is needed to physically absorb it both into the mind and into the fingers. Personally, I think it is important to have days off built into a schedule so there are guilt free non-piano days, rather than schedule practice every day and then ‘not get around to it’, but at the same time I know for some students it works to have it so ingrained into their routine, like cleaning their teeth, that they come to the piano without question and just get down to their work. It works differently for different families so decide what is right for your and your child.

How Long?

The same constraints apply with regards age, standard, level of concentration etc. It will be different with each student. In any case though, allow for periods of ‘fiddling’ and games on top of the homework that a teacher sets, either within the practice session, or maybe in a second daily session. For instance, covering the set practice in the morning then leaving the pupil to do whatever takes their fancy in the evening – improvising, games, messing about finding tunes etc. Ideally when new technical habits are being formed then even the fiddling should be mindful, otherwise the good work undertaken in the set time gets undone as old habits take over when concentration is elsewhere. However, paramount is an enthusiasm and curiosity for the music and instrument so it is vital for a pupil to have time at the piano in ‘discovery’ mode!

Offer Moral support

As a solo instrument it can be lonely and isolating for a young child in a room on their own when they are struggling with the early stages. Having the encouragement and close proximity of a parent can be a positive support to their experience, quite apart from the practical help that a parent can provide.

Be another pair of eyes and ears

The time at home is the time when technical habits are learned and ingrained, A parent will need to go over the teacher’s notes, ensure that everything gets done and gets done well. Ask the teacher for clarification at the end of the lesson if you don’t understand anything.

There can be complicated and complex reasons why we do things, or don’t do things at the piano in a certain way, that a parent might understand but that a young child might not. Plus, it is very hard to monitor yourself and how you do things at any age, let alone at 6 or 7. Your child’s teacher will have given exercises during a lesson to help develop good fingers and technical skills. You should be able to ask as often as you like for demonstrations. As practice is about developing habits, short very focused bursts at technique is better than long protracted sessions with concentration slipping. Once you have understood what your child’s teacher is asking, do pay great attention to helping your child achieve it, with gentle encouragement, and helping them observe when they do things correctly as well as incorrectly. This is the only way good habits can be learned and ingrained and a good technical foundation means that time won’t have to be spent later on correcting bad habits which themselves hold up a musical progression (i.e. tense fingers won’t have the necessary freedom for the expression, facility, velocity and sensitivity required by more advanced music).

Lastly, try to be a reminder of what the teacher wants, rather than a judge, as this will undermine their confidence and can dampen their desire completely.

Encourage regular reading of new material

I have a number of activities that help with reading that I suggest students and parents do at home and I’m sure your teacher will too. I was very late to being a good reader but wow, the joy from being able to pick up a piece and make a fair crack of it is huge. Plus, being a good reader makes learning new music so much quicker and less painful! Later on of course, (as if you need further encouragement to add in this skill to your offspring’s practice), it opens doors to joining bands/ accompanying/duets etc etc.

Fun!

As I said before, do include games. If you need some inspiration you can find some here http://www.alexandrawestcottpiano.co.uk/resources-for-parents/

Make sure you include things to help with learning the notes on the piano, learning notes on the stave, listening (aural) awareness, memory, creativity and theory.

Other supportive activities

Other things you can do to support your child’s musical life is to play a wide variety of music around the house, attend concerts (there are lots of concerts aimed specifically at children where they can play the instruments etc), check out the internet for interesting bits of information about composers they are studying or listen to fragments of other pieces by the same composer. Write stories or draw pictures while listening to (any) music. Listen to tapes of stories of the great composers.

Notes to remember

Music is an expressive and communicative art so a student needs to feel comfortable with themselves, and allowing them an inquisitive mind and lively ear, and the freedom to translate their expressions to sounds, is vital in their growth as musicians. It is challenging but necessary to encourage them without judgement so that they feel free to explore the colours and sounds of the instrument without feeling censored, but are guided in areas where there is a ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ (i.e. note). Finally, I’m a great fan of rewards, but when extra motivation is needed make sure the rewards are for trying rather than for getting it ‘right’. Sometimes the road to getting things right is rather long so boosts along the way can give the encouragement needed to continue.

Conclusion

Just to reiterate, after all these suggestions, this is about making music and learning the piano fun, as well as providing a solid technical and musical foundation. Whether or not a student goes through the exam structure, or takes it to GCSE/A level, it is a skill and pleasure that is with them for life, so it seems worthwhile to offer them the best support we can.

 

Alexandra Westcott, BA Piano teacher/Accompanist

Follow me on twitter: @MissAMWestcott

A Fellow of the ISM, Muswell Hill N10 07966 141944

www.alexandrawestcottpiano.co.uk

Author: ‘Piano Teaching as a Career’
“Very readable, clearly laid out, and should be in every piano teacher’s library”

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Pianist for Freefall Jazz
Contact: alexandrawestcott@yahoo.co.uk

Faking it: stagecraft for graded piano exams and performance diplomas

I am continually surprised at how infrequently stagecraft is taught as a specific skill to developing musicians, from children taking graded music exams to students at music college. I think this stems in part from a misplaced view that stagecraft is only for “professional” musicians. Yet the ability to comport oneself well in a performance situation is a crucial skill for the musician, whatever their level of skill or ability, and well-organised, practised stagecraft can add an extra layer of confidence and polish to one’s performance. It also offers a useful life skill, for giving presentations or public speaking, for example, and helps to build confidence generally. Personally, I think stagecraft and presentation skills should be part of the graded exam syllabus, certainly for the higher grades

In performance diplomas candidates are assessed on their presentation skills and stagecraft, and in the Trinity diplomas this is marked as a separate aspect of the diploma recital and includes elements such as appropriate attire (“for an afternoon or early evening recital”), programme notes and communication skills. While candidates are not currently assessed on presentation skills in graded music exams, a certain amount of polished stagecraft can help the exam go well by instilling positive feelings in the candidate, and I feel it is especially appropriate in the advanced grades (6-8).

Stagecraft is not just the ability to walk to the piano without tripping over the hem of one’s concert dress, or how to bow properly. From the moment the performer enters the stage, his or her communication with the audience (or examiner) begins, and the way one greets and acknowledges the audience (or examiner) can have an important effect on the way the audience receives and enjoys the performance which follows.

Actors well appreciate and understand the need to take on a specific character or persona, and to inhabit that character for the duration of the play. As musicians we also need to employ a degree of “acting” to step outside the practice room and into the persona of “performer”. Those with little experience of performing can feel very exposed when playing in front of others, and these feelings of exposure can contribute to performance anxiety. I have found it helpful in my own performances to “act” the part of a performer, which puts me at one remove from my anxiety. It can also put one into an appropriately focussed mindset ready for a public performance.

Good preparation is crucial for all, regardless of grade or ability level. The great Russian pianist Vladimir Horowitz used to say “I know my pieces” ahead of a concert, meaning that he knew he’d done the right kind of quality practice to ensure he would not be derailed by slips or errors, or by distractions from the audience etc. A well-prepared teacher will ensure his/her students are equally well-prepared ahead of an exam, audition or other performance opportunity.

Some ways to foster good stagecraft and presentation

Encourage students to take their time in the exam/performance situation: I like to remind my students that it is not their responsibility to ensure the exam runs to time – that is the job of the examiner and steward at the exam centre (this, however, is not the case in diploma recitals where it is the responsibility of the candidate to ensure the programme is within the designated time limit). Enter the room/stage confidently, greet the examiner politely and walk straight to the piano. Ensure the piano stool is the right height, that one feels comfortable.

Do not to rush to start playing but take a moment to think oneself into the opening of the piece – its sound, mood and character. Don’t hurry into the following pieces. Again, take a moment to consider the mood and character to be conveyed. In a diploma recital, the pauses between pieces can be integral to a professional overall performance: some works segue into one another logically, others require more time to “reset” the mood (for example, a very fast piece followed by a more contemplative work may need a longer pause between pieces). Don’t fill the time between pieces by talking to the examiner/s or fiddling with your nails but remain poised and focussed, “in the moment” of the performance and ready to continue.

At the end of the performance, don’t scurry away from the piano as if you can’t wait to leave (even if you feel like this, take time, “act” confident and remain poised). In a diploma recital you may wish to bow or acknowledge the examiner/s (a little dip of the head and some eye contact). Walk confidently from the room.

All these aspects can be practised at home (in front of parents and friends) and with the teacher. My piano is in my living room and when preparing for performance, I ask students to “come on stage” from the hall while I sit away from the piano, being the “audience” and giving the student someone at which to direct their performance.

I called this article “faking it”, recalling a former student of mine who liked to “channel” her favourite musician (Nicola Benedetti) in a performance situation. When preparing for a performance we would discuss “what would Nicola do?” and my student would try to imitate Nicola’s poise. Another student found it helpful to look at pictures of Canadian pianist Angela Hewitt (who always looks as if she adores performing!), and I have personally found observing musicians in live concerts very helpful in teaching myself good stagecraft and poise.

Here’s actor and comedian David Walliams showing us how not to do it…..


Related article

Performance anxiety: a stressful subject

LCM piano grade handbooks 2018-2020

LCM_Piano_Handbooks_2018

I was delighted to act as a consultant in the selection of piano pieces for the new London College of Music (LCM) piano syllabus and I was impressed with the breadth and variety of music under consideration. When I received copies of the new handbooks, I was pleased to see some of the pieces I had suggested included in the new syllabus.

I am a recent convert to LCM music exams, having heard very favourable reports of both the exam formats and repertoire from teaching colleagues and friends who have taken both Grade 8 and the ALCM first level Diploma. LCM is clearly alert to the changing nature of piano teaching in the 21st century and in addition to traditional graded music exams, the board also offers Recital Grades, Leisure Play, Performance Assessment and the new Concert Diploma. This allows teachers and students to select an exam format which suits them (some students, particularly adult learners, prefer not to learn technical work or undergo the stress of aural tests or sight-reading). Several of my more advanced students have opted for the LCM Recital grade and are very much enjoying the repertoire, as am I. If we are to encourage and support students of all levels and ages, I believe it is important to be flexible in one’s approach to exams and to find an appropriate syllabus and format to ensure maximum enjoyment is combined with progress.

The new LCM piano syllabus is impressive in its variety. Across the grades there is a wide range of musical genres, including jazz, “crossover”, and contemporary classical music, as well as core repertoire from the classical canon, which should appeal to all ages and tastes. In the early grades, there are pieces which will suit adult learners (often a problem in other syllabuses, where there is a preponderance of “children’s music”). Of all the exam boards, LCM is the one which features the most music by female and living composers, including works by Max Richter, Joanna Macgregor, Sofia Gubaidulina, Teresa Carreno, Lili Boulanger, Fanny Mendelssohn, Cecile Chaminade, and Lera Auerbach. In addition, there are pieces by perennially popular composers of accessible and interesting piano exam music, including Pam Wedgwood, Christopher Norton, June Armstrong, Ben Crosland and Elissa Milne.

The handbooks are very well-produced with robust covers and high-quality thick cream paper (very similar to the paper used in Henle Urtext editions). The books are slightly larger than the previous LCM piano handbooks and the typesetting of the music is very clean, uncluttered on the page with clear markings. Each piece is accompanied by a note which gives background information on the composer and the music and guidance on how to explore and shape the music for performance. It is particularly gratifying to find these notes are written by active concert pianists (such as Daniel Grimwood and Zubin Kanga) who are thus able to offer expert experience on how to approach the music in performance.

In addition to the pieces and notes, each handbook contains all the relevant technical work for each grade, two studies, guidance for the Discussion (viva voce) element of the exam, including sample questions, sample sight-reading pieces and notes on the aural tests, all of which should ensure candidates are fully prepared and means teachers/students/parents do not need to purchase additional books of scales and arpeggios or sight-reading exercises.

The new LCM syllabus is valid from 2018 until the end of the summer exam season 2021.

Further information about LCM piano exams, including the complete piano syllabus

A few highlights from the new syllabus:

Grade 1

Quasi Adagio from For Children – Bela Bartok

Grade 2

The Lonely Traveller – Evelyn Glennie

Grade 3

From the Rue Vilin – Max Richter

Grade 4

When Rivers Flowed on Mars – Nancy Telfer

Grade 5

In the Owl’s Turret – Liza Lehman

Grade 6

Railroad (Travel Song) – Meredith Monk, Forest Musicians – Sofia Gubaildulina

Grade 7

D’un jardin clair – Lil Boulanger, Bloodroot – Rachel Grimes

Grade 8

Desdémona – Mel Bonis

Performance anxiety – a stressful subject

Years ago I went to a new dentist. I went with some trepidation as I had not been for regular check-ups for some years, mainly due to quite severe anxiety. When asked why I had stayed away from my dental appointments, I admitted that I was very fearful of the dentist. The dentist (a man) replied by laughing loudly and sarcastically telling me I was being very silly indeed. This made my anxiety even worse.

Some years later I had to have root canal work followed by the fitting of a dental crown. By this time I had moved to another part of London and found a dentist who was very understanding about my dental anxiety (not quite a phobia, but not far off). She allowed me to talk about my fear without interrupting me or telling me I was “being silly” or “childish” and explained that fear can sometimes come through a feeling of not being in control of a situation. “You can walk away from here any time you like, if you don’t feel comfortable’ she told me, going on to reiterate that I could choose to be in control of the situation and that she would do her utmost to make my experience as pain-free as possible. Her gentleness and empathy enabled me to largely overcome my anxiety and I went through the rather laborious root canal work without so much as a twinge of pain and fairly manageable anxiety.

In the course of 11 years of teaching, I have encountered quite a lot of anxiety in both my own students and the adult amateur pianists with whom I work and socialise at workshops and piano meetup events. How we as teachers approach anxiety in our students is a crucial part of our role and one which needs to be carried out with sensitivity and understanding.

When I was having piano lessons as a child and teenager anxiety never came up, and was never discussed. It was assumed that I would sail through my grade exams (which I largely did) and I don’t actually remember being nervous on exam day (my mother would compensate for this by being extremely anxious on my behalf!). My piano teacher never gave me any guidance on managing anxiety ahead of exams or festival performances. This is indicative of a general attitude towards performance anxiety which has prevailed until fairly recently – that one did not talk about it and certainly did not admit to suffering from it. Fortunately, we live in more enlightened times now and the positive efforts of certain teachers, musicians and music colleges mean that anxiety can be discussed in a more open and sympathetic way, while sufferers can now access support and therapy to help them understand and manage their symptoms.

And “management” of symptoms rather than “cure” is an important distinction, in my opinion. The unpleasant physical symptoms of anxiety (for example, racing heart, sweating, trembling, nausea) are part of the body’s natural “fight or flight” response, including the release of powerful stress hormones including cortisol and adrenaline, and are common to us all, to a greater or lesser extent. An understanding that these symptoms are normal can go some way to alleviating them. When helping a student with anxiety issues, I remind them that we all feel like this, even the most seasoned professional artists.

Psychologically, anxiety can stem from many sources. In piano students, specifically adults, it may be associated with unpleasant experiences during childhood piano lessons – the overly authoritarian or unduly negative teacher, the overbearing pushy parent with unrealistic expectations, the embarrassment of a botched music exam, for example. In addition, as we get older, we seem to become more anxious about the responses of others and exposing ourselves publicly in a performance situation. We worry that people will laugh or sneer if we make mistakes and that as a consequence we will feel stupid or incompetent. Adult pianists often suffer from negative self-talk as well – that destructive “inner critic” whose critical running commentary on one’s playing can derail a performance and leave one feeling demoralised.

There are a number of simple strategies which teachers can employ to help students manage their anxiety, and rather than asking students why they feel nervous, focus on finding positive ways to manage their anxiety:

  • Take any anxiety seriously, and be respectful and sympathetic. Cheery statements like “you really don’t need to feel nervous because you know how to play the piano!” are not helpful.
  • Remind students that feeling anxious is normal, and common to us all, and that even top professionals feel nervous. Give them permission to feel anxious.
  • Remind students that the teacher is not there to “judge”, but to offer support and guidance on how to improve
  • Ensure the student is fully prepared ahead of an exam, festival, concert or audition. This should include not only detailed, methodical practising of pieces and supporting tests (technical work, aural, sight-reading, etc if relevant), but also practice performances – to teacher, to other students, to friends and family, and perhaps culminating in a mini concert
  • For adult students, an informal performance event, perhaps at the teacher’s home, or at a meetup or piano club, can offer the opportunity to play for others in a relaxed, non-threatening environment and a chance to discuss their anxiety with others (realising that other people feel the same can be a great comfort) and share ideas on managing nerves.
  • Reassure students that examiners are looking for expressive, musically-aware performances, rather than bland note-perfect playing. A few slips or misplayed notes in an otherwise musical performance will not lead to exam failure.
  • Techniques drawn from Neuro-Linguistic Programming and Cognitive Behaviourial Therapy can help turn negative self-talk into positive messages of personal affirmation: “I am not scared, I am excited!“, “I can do this because I am well-prepared“, “I am doing this because I love the piano“.
  • Power poses have been proven to reduced levels of cortisol (a stress hormone) and can make one feel “bigger” and stronger emotionally too.
  • Mindfulness and trying to remain “in the moment” of the performance, rather than pre-empting or imagining what might happen. It can also help block out distracting noises from audience etc.

 

These are fairly simple strategies which are easy to implement. Those who perform more frequently gradually develop their own personal toolkit for managing their anxiety (for example, I have reached a state of acceptance about the nerves, ensure I am well-prepared and use CBT techniques for self-affirmation). But for those people with more severe or deep-seated anxiety, more specialist support may be required. A colleague of mine practices Cognitive Hypnotherapy – more about her services here

I Can’t Go On – factsheet on managing performance anxiety from BAPAM

How teenagers practice

I suspect all piano teachers broadly agree on the importance and value of consistent and deliberate practicing for all students, and that practicing is essential for successful learning and progression. How our students practice is in no small part down to us as teachers: during lessons we will suggests areas which need special attention and offer strategies for productive practicing. But once the student gets home, it is largely down to them and their personal motivation to ensure the practicing is done and done properly.

There is much to be gained from observing and understanding how professional musicians practice, and even the most junior-level students can learn from the habits of professionals. Productive, successful practicing, such as professionals employ, requires a high level of self-regulation which enables the musician to achieve specified goals.

Self-regulation involves:

  • planning, goal-setting and motivation
  • self-instructions and observation
  • self-evaluation and reflection

In addition to these key areas, the process of practicing includes knowing the right practice strategy to fit a specific task (for example, memorisation or rapid leaps) and being flexible about that strategy if it proves unsuitable t for the specific task.

An article in Psychology of Music highlights some common “types” of teenage pianist which I am sure most of us have encountered in the course of our teaching:

The “somewhat effective” practicer: this student takes his/her own notes for practicing in lessons and has developed reasonable practice goals. When he/she practices, he/she completes the assigned tasks (sight-reading for example), and is engaged when practicing his/her pieces, to the extent that he/she is able to identify errors and inconsistencies and puts these issues right by isolating or “quarantining” the specific areas which need attention. He/She is able to reflect on what he/she has achieved and what still needs to be done, and is satisfied that he/she is making good progress. He/She may even feed this back to his/her teacher at the next lesson, discussing the strategies he/she employed during independent practicing at home, and collaborating with his/her teacher on goals for future practicing. This type of student tends to make consistent and noticeable progress

The “surface” practicer: we all know this student……! She/he’s the one who plays the assigned repertoire from start to finish, stumbling over certain notes, chords or passages, but does not stop to reflect on or fix the errors, and feels that having got to the end of the piece she/he has “done the practicing”. Her/His teacher has highlighted some areas that need specific attention – she/he skims through these, repeating errors yet hardly pausing to reflect on how they might be fixed. She/He does not plan in advance or set goals for practicing, despite clear instructions in her/his practice notebook from her/his teacher. At her/his next lesson she/he might “wing it” to get through her/his pieces when played for his teacher.

So why do teenagers find it difficult to practice effectively? In my experience, a number of factors influence the way in which teenagers practice. These include:

  1. Unclear or confusing instructions from the teacher
  2. Student is unable to identify specific issues or problems in their repertoire
  3. Student is unable to judge or imagine how the music they are practicing should sound when played correctly
  4. An inability to transfer skills and techniques learnt in practicing one piece to new repertoire
  5. Over-reliance on teacher to tell students what to do
  6. Feeling overwhelmed by the task in hand or the thought of having to do 30-40 minutes practicing in one go

1 & 2. It is the responsibility of the teacher to ensure the student understands the assigned practicing and is clear about what needs to be done between lessons. I find it helpful during the lesson to ask the student to identify problem areas, state what they should be practicing and to then prioritise specific sections of the music. I or the student then write these things in the practice notebook, often numbering them in order of priority. By asking the student to specify the practice goals, we make him/her complicit in the activity of practicing and give him/her a greater sense of autonomy, which in turn builds confidence.

3. Play the music to the student during the lesson, or listen to recordings, YouTube clips or Spotify tracks. Make these resources available between lessons, perhaps via the teacher’s website. Ask the student to listen in an active and engaged way and to highlight certain features of the music, such as articulation, dynamics or changes in tempo. I encourage all of my students to listen to and around the repertoire they are learning – not to imitate or copy good recordings or performances but to simply hear how the music is presented and to give them ideas about how they might work towards a desired sound in the music.

4. Clearly demonstrate to students, using explicit examples within their repertoire, how we never learn technique or skills in isolation: voicing a Bach invention for example provides us with the tools to highlight different voices in Beethoven or Schubert.

5. See 1 & 2 above. To encourage students to act and think independently and to self-critique, I ask all my students, teenage or adult, to comment on their playing at lessons before I offer my own observations. Many will inevitably focus on errors initially, so I ask them to find three things which they were pleased with and to comment positively. This kind of positive critical self-feedback is a crucial factor in working independently of the teacher and encourages confidence, self-regulation and self-determination in practicing,

6. Many young people are ridiculously over-scheduled these days, not only burdened by unreasonable amounts of homework from school, but also an abundance of extra-curricular activities from sport to private language or maths lessons. Making time for piano practice in such a cramped schedule can feel like a Sisyphean task for some teenagers. In addition. teenagers are often very tired from school and from the physical changes they are undergoing as they grow up. Thus, as teachers we need to be sympathetic and to offer practical ways to enable them to practice without feeling overwhelmed. Point out that practicing need not be done in one single chunk – two sets of 20 minutes at different times of the day may well be more productive, provided the student knows how and what to practice. Encourage “little and often” rather a long practice session the day before the next lesson. Set smaller, more achievable goals – ask a student to prepare a single line of music for the next lesson, rather than a whole page. I have found this “marginal gain” approach particularly useful for those students who are time-poor. Above all, encourage the student to enjoy their music and to gain satisfaction and a sense of personal achievement from their practicing.


Further reading

Self-regulation of teenaged pianists during at-home practice