[1.III.14.6] Performance Preparation Routines

Even if a student can play perfectly during practice, s/he can make all kinds of mistakes and struggle with musicality during a recital if the preparation is incorrect. Most students intuitively practice hard and at full speed during the week preceding the recital, and especially on the day of the recital. In order to simulate the recital, they imagine an audience listening nearby and play their hearts out, playing the entire piece from beginning to end, several times. This practice method is the single biggest cause of mistakes and poor performance. The most telling remark I hear so often is, "Strange, I played so well all morning but during the recital, I made mistakes that I don't make during practice!" To an experienced teacher, this is a student practicing out of control without any guidance about right and wrong methods of recital preparation.

Teachers who hold those recitals in which the students perform wonderfully keep a tight leash on their students and control their practice routines closely. Why all this fuss? Because during a recital, the most stressed element is the brain, not the playing mechanism. And this stress cannot be replicated in any kind of simulated performance. Thus the brain must be rested and fully charged for a one-time performance; it cannot be drained by playing your heart out. All mistakes originate in the brain. All the necessary information must be stored in an orderly manner in the brain, with no confusion. This is why improperly prepared students always play worse in a recital than during practice. When you practice at full speed, a large amount of confusion is introduced into the memory. The environment of the recital is different from that of the practice piano, and can be very distracting. Therefore, you must have a simple, mistake-free memory of the piece that can be retrieved in spite of all the added distractions. This is why it is difficult to perform the same piece twice on the same day, or even on successive days. The second performance is invariably worse than the first, although intuitively, you would expect the second performance to be better because you had one extra experience performing it. As elsewhere in this section, these types of remarks apply only to students. Professional musicians should be able to perform anything any number of times at any time; this skill comes from continuous exposure to performing, and honing the proper rules of preparation.

Through trial and error, experienced teachers have found practice routines that work. The most important rule is to limit the amount of practice on recital day, so as to keep the mind fresh. The brain is totally unreceptive on recital day. It can only become confused. Only a small minority of experienced pianists have sufficiently "strong" musical brains to assimilate something new on recital day. By the way, this also applies to tests and exams at school. Most of the time, you will score better in an exam by going to a movie the night before the exam than by cramming. A typical recommended piano practice routine is to play nearly full speed once, then medium speed once and finally once slowly. That's it! No more practice! Never play faster than recital speed. Notice how counter intuitive this is. Since parents and friends will always use intuitive methods, it is important for the teacher to make sure that any person associated with the student also knows these rules, especially for the younger students. Otherwise, in spite of anything the teacher says, the students will come to the recital having practiced all day at full speed, because their parents made them do it.

Of course, this is just the starting point. It can be altered to fit the circumstances. This routine is for the typical student and is not for professional performers who will have much more detailed routines that depend not only on the type of music being played, but also on the particular composer or particular piece to be played. Clearly, for this routine to work, the piece will have had to be ready for performance way ahead of time. However, even if the piece has not been perfected and can be improved with more practice, this is still the best routine for the recital day. If you make a mistake that is stubborn and which will almost certainly recur during the recital, fish out just the few bars containing the mistake and practice those at the appropriate speeds (always ending with slow play), staying away from fast playing as much as possible. If you are not sure that the piece is completely memorized, play it very slowly several times. Again, the importance of secure MP must be emphasized -- it is the ultimate test of memory and readiness to perform. Practice MP at any speed and as often as you want; it can also calm any nervous jitters.

Also, avoid extreme exertion, such as playing a football game or lifting or pushing something heavy (such as a concert grand!). This can suddenly change the response of your muscles to a signal from the brain and you can end up making totally unexpected mistakes when you play. Of course, mild warm-up exercises, stretching, calisthenics, Tai Chi, Yoga, etc., can be beneficial.

For the week preceding the recital, always play at medium speed, then slow speed, before quitting practice. You can substitute medium speed for slow speed if you are short of time, or the piece is particularly easy, or if you are a more experienced performer. Actually, this rule applies to any practice session, but is particularly critical before a recital. The slow play erases any bad habits that you might have picked up, and re-establishes relaxed playing. Therefore, during these medium/slow plays, concentrate on relaxation. There is no fixed number such as half speed, etc., to define medium and slow, although medium is generally about 3/4 speed, and slow is about half speed. More generally, medium speed is the speed at which you can play comfortably, relaxed, and with plenty of time to spare. Slow is the speed at which you need to pay attention to each note separately.

Up to the last day before the recital, you can work on improving the piece, especially musically. But within the last week, adding new material or making changes in the piece (such as fingering) is not recommended, although you might try it as a training experiment to see how far you can push yourself. Being able to add something new during the last week is a sign that you are a strong performer; in fact, purposely changing something at the last minute is good performance training. For working on long pieces such as Beethoven Sonatas, avoid playing the entire composition many times. It is best to chop it into short segments of a few pages at and practice the segments. Practicing HS is also an excellent idea because no matter who you are, you can always improve technically. Although playing too fast is not recommended in the last week, you can practice at any speed HS. Avoid learning new pieces during this last week. That does not mean that you are limited to the recital pieces; you can still practice any piece that was previously learned. New pieces will often cause you to learn new skills that affect or alter how you play the recital piece. In general, you will not be aware that this happened until you play the recital piece and wonder how some new mistakes crept in.

Make a habit of playing your recital pieces "cold" (without any warming up) when you start any practice session. The hands will warm up after one or two pieces, so you may have to rotate the recital pieces with each practice session, if you are playing many pieces. Of course, "playing cold" has to be done within reason. If the fingers are totally sluggish from inaction, you cannot, and should not try to, play difficult material at full speed; it will lead to stress and even injury. Some pieces can only be played after the hands are completely limbered up, especially if you want to play it musically. However, the difficulty of playing musically must not be an excuse for not playing cold because the effort is more important than the result in this case. You need to find out which ones you can play cold at full speed, and which ones you should not. Slow down so that you can play with cold hands; you can always play at final speed after the hands have warmed up.

Practice just the starting few bars, from several days prior to the recital. Whenever you have time, pretend that it is recital time and play those few starting bars. Choose the first 2 to 5 bars and practice a different number of bars each time. Don’t stop at the end of a bar, always end by playing the first note of the next bar.