Sunday, November 18, 2007

Recital Prep: The Three M's

My student recitals are fast approaching. Here is a set of ideas on preparing well for a relatively short performance of one or two solo piano pieces:

Have it Mastered, Memorized, and Moving!

(Don’t you love alliteration, too?)

Have it Mastered: Your pieces should really feel like they are completely “in your fingers” and you should feel confident even in the most difficult parts. Remember that there is a big difference between mastery and perfection. Perfection is impossible but mastery is necessary for achieving a rewarding experience as a performer. Most students who have played for at least a few years have fond memories of a good performance that went well. Think about why it went well, and you’ll probably realize that it was because you were in control, felt confident, and knew your music thoroughly.

Have it Memorized: To most piano students, this means knowing your notes, fingerings, and rhythms. But don’t forget about dynamics, phrasing, articulation, pedaling, tempo adjustments (like ritardandos, accelerandos, etc.), as well as any other stylistic considerations. All of these elements must be incorporated so that your performance really speaks with authority and expression. I also take this one step further: You have not truly memorized thoroughly unless you are able to skip ahead in the music in case of a memory slip. Can you skip to the next section or phrase if you forget where you are? If you can skip ahead successfully, your confidence will only be increased! That, of course, will make it less likely for you to have a memory slip in the first place.

Try practicing this before your recital by forcing yourself to stop sometimes while running your piece. Then see if you can skip ahead quickly. If you have several “markers” you can skip to in any given piece, you will be more likely to save a nervous first performance where memory slips can be common. This is one practical reason why it’s important for students to understand the basic musical forms (ternary, sonatina, sonata, five-part forms, etc.) and cadences (the V-I motion being the most common).

Remember, everyone has memory slips from time to time. Be prepared to skip ahead, and your audience might not even notice if you do have a slip!

Have it Moving: This is about tempo. All too often I see students who are otherwise well prepared for a recital simply play a piece at the wrong tempo. You should be ready to perform at the right tempo without forcing it. It is important for music to flow naturally without feeling hesitant, and this is what I mean by “moving”. Be sure to check regularly on any metronome markings (composers mark them for a reason) and try to get yourself as close to the tempo marking as you can.

Fortunately, tempo markings are often suggestive of a range of tempos. For instance, there is no definitive metronome marking for “Andante moderato.” What’s important is to understand that the tempo marking doesn’t just imply the speed but also the character of the music. Play the wrong tempo, and the piece might not really get off of the ground. If a composer marks an absolute tempo (like quarter note = 120), it is usually your duty to get the tempo as close as possible to that marking. But even then there is some freedom. Your version of the piece might sound better at 126, while others will be more comfortable at 116. Most composers are actually looser in what they want for tempos than what is evident in the score.

The flip side is that a performance can also be played too fast. Notice that my choice of wording was “moving,” not “frantic!” If you’re simply trying to impress everyone at your recital with super-fast tempos (this notion afflicts the young quite often) you might crash and burn. That’s usually not impressive, even to untrained ears. So keep your performance moving along, but not so fast that you are out of control and your fingers get ahead of your mind. That’s a sure recipe for disaster!

Ideally, these three M’s of performance preparation should be achieved by no later than TWO weeks before your performance. Even better would be three weeks or a month, but then you do run into the danger of having your pieces peak musically before your performance instead of at your performance. You want to sound as fresh and spontaneous as possible. Reaching this balance can be a real challenge, so you must know yourself as a performer and take the right path to avoid “overcooking” your performance. But, to be sure, better safe than sorry – preparing ahead of time is always preferable to stressful crunching at the last minute.

Happy preparation…perhaps more on this topic will appear in future posts soon.


Pamela said...

This is great! I feel inspired to start practicing piano again! :-)

Joshua Nemith said...

Thanks for the compliment, Pam. I'm curious about what repertoire you'd like to practice...

Pamela said...

Well, I've decided to work pretty much exclusively on accompaniments so I can accompany students or myself. There are many solo piano pieces I've worked on in the past, but in thinking about it, I realized that I might as well just spend my energy on what makes the most sense for me. I spent the weekend practicing some Faure, Strauss, and Barber pieces. We'll see how things progress... :-)

Joshua Nemith said...

That's a great idea!