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

Effective practising for a performance diploma

Managing the practise of a selection of pieces, as one needs to when preparing for a performance diploma, can be problematic and at times frustrating.

I find juggling four works at the same time so tricky. If I leave one aside for a while, even only a week, it seems to fall apart!

For my Associate performance diploma I had 7 works in the programme and for the Licentiate 8 (I treated the Bach keyboard concerto as 3 works from the point of view of practising). All the pieces had their own particular difficulties, knotty sections which needed focused practise. Ensuring that everything was practised regularly and systematically became a feat of juggling and time-mamagement, as my practise diary attests, with each day’s work minutely mapped. One of the most important things I took away from the experience of preparing for my Diplomas was understanding how to practise deeply and thoughtfully.

  • If you have limited time to practise, learn to be super-efficient. If it helps, map your practise time in advance and keep notes of progress in a notebook. These notes should include 1) what you plan to achieve at each practise session and 2) what you actually achieved. The notes you make after the practise session should offer food for thought and consideration at the next practise session. However, allow your practise plan to be flexible – there will be days when you can’t practise, or don’t feel like practising, and I believe it is important to be kind to oneself on those situations, rather than beat oneself up for not practising. Rigid schedules can be unrealistic and dismotivating.
  • You don’t have to do all your practising in one chunk (and bear in mind that after about 45 minutes, one’s attention is waning and it’s time for a break, if only five minutes to do some stretches and make a cup of tea). Taking breaks during practise time helps to keep one focussed and engaged and ensures practising is productive and mindful, rather than mindless “note-bashing”.
  • Learn how to dissect the pieces to spotlight which areas need the most attention. Take out technically challenging sections and “quarantine” them so that they get super-focused work. And don’t just quarantine sections once: build quarantining into your regular practise routine and return to those problem areas regularly to ensure noticeable improvement.
  • Break the pieces down into manageable sections and work on those areas which are most challenging (technically, artistically or pianistically) first while your mind is still fresh and alert. Start anywhere in the piece, work on a section, and then backtrack and do an earlier section before knitting those sections back together.
  • With a multi-piece programme, try to have the works on a rotation, so that you start with a different work (or movement if playing a sonata or multi-movement work) at each practise session rather than spending a week, say, working on a single piece.
  • Even when you feel a piece is well-known and finessed, spend some time doing slow practise, memory work, separate hands practise etc. Be alert to details in the score – dynamics, articulation, tempo etc: even, and especially, when a piece is well-known we can become complacent about such details and overlook them.
  • Schedule regular play-throughs of entire pieces, and (about 3 months prior to the diploma date) the entire programme, even if some works are not fully learned/finessed. This allows you to appreciate the overall structure and narrative of both individual works and the entire programme, and helps to build stamina.
  • Practise away from the piano is useful too. Spend time reading the scores and listening to recordings – not to imitate what you hear but to get ideas and inspiration. Go to a concert where some of your repertoire is being performed and in addition to listening, look at the gestures and body language the pianist uses and how he/she presents the programme (all useful pointers for stagecraft and presentation skills, on which one is judged in a performance diploma).
  • When we’ve been working on the same pieces for a long time, we can lose sight of what we like about them as we get bogged down in the minutiae of learning. It’s worth remembering what excited you about the pieces in the first place, why you chose them and what you like about them (I ask my students to make brief notes about each of their exam pieces, and I did the same for my Associate programme).
  • Above all, enjoy your music and retain a positive outlook throughout your practising.

Further reading

The 20-Minute Practice Session – article on Graham Fitch’s blog

I offer specialist support for people preparing for performance diplomas, including advice on planning a programme, writing programme notes, stagecraft and managing performance anxiety – further details here