Some adults play the piano for pleasure, it is a thread that goes through their lives from childhood to old age and what a wonderful joy, solace, outlet for self expression and source of inspiration this is (actually, this list could go on and on). Others start when they retire, and I have seen some beautiful results from people who are suddenly able to devote time and energy to this new discipline.

As we all know, playing the piano can be a lonely activity and yet for many adults getting up and playing in front of others is a daunting prospect. Fingers can turn to jelly as weeks of careful preparation appear to come to naught under the effects of a powerful drug secreted by our own body – adrenalin. When we are confronted with a threatening situation the nervous system releases adrenalin into the blood stream, and this produces most of the symptoms associated with stage fright: shallow and quick breathing, increased heart rate, trembling, and nervousness.  While these responses may be appropriate if we were facing a valid threat to survival, none of these effects helps with piano performance at optimal levels. At the end of our performance (if we make it that far!), we may be left feeling disappointed, dejected and even humiliated. It can be a terrifying experience to submit oneself to this experience and while it is true that performing is not for everyone there are things that we can do to improve the situation.

 

Unfortunately, the nervous system doesn’t distinguish between real threats and perceived threats. If the mind perceives the threat as large enough, even though a rational analysis would say otherwise, our system starts pumping the adrenalin. Adrenalin affects professional performers too, it’s just that over the years we have learned how to control it or at least counter the negative effects with our practice routines and rituals of preparing for a performance. How can the amateur pianist deal with this? Fortunately there are several ways to rise above nerves.

A Teacher

If you are an adult amateur pianist looking to share the experience of playing with others, the first thing I would suggest is to find a suitable teacher who can support you. Be clear on what you want from lessons though, or you might end up following the teacher’s agenda rather than your own. If you are a beginner, there are specialised teachers who will help you get off to the best start. In the UK we have EPTA (European Piano Teachers’ Association)  – a professional body of piano teachers who have been vetted and approved. Do a search and you’ll find out about the teachers in your area. If you are already able to play to a reasonable level, perhaps it is technical help you are looking for, or guidance with practising or furthering your repertoire. Maybe you need to play for an expert who will give you feedback and suggestions. Most teachers offer a consultation lesson where you will be able to get a sense of their teaching style and whether you will get along. Remember that a teacher is there to support and guide you, you certainly don’t need to do this alone. While some students need a gentle push, no teacher should humiliate you or make you feel unworthy or small. If you sense this is happening, my best advice is to leave immediately and find another teacher.

Piano Circles

Joining a piano circle is a great way to socialise with other players on a fairly regular basis and to take your turn at playing for the group. You’ll generally get together in each others’ homes and you can decide your level of involvement. Among the excellent groups in London are London Piano Circle and London Piano Meetup Group. Check them out online and pluck up the courage to go along! If no piano circle exists in your area, why not think of starting one up yourself?

Summer Schools and Courses

In the UK, there are courses you can attend, all excellent ways to improve your performance skills in a supportive environment. If you are new to this, you’ll certainly make friends. Don’t worry if you think your playing is not up to scratch, I can assure you that all levels are welcomed and catered for. I have just returned from a marvellous week of teaching and playing at The Summer School for Pianists. This course has been running for many years, and this year it moved from its previous home in Hereford to a new location at The Performance Hub on the Walsall Campus of the University of Wolverhampton. An all-Steinway campus, we performed on a new model C concert grand, which was a joy. Responsive and full of character, the instrument’s range enabled all of us to find our own particular sonority and it was uncanny how the piano sounded totally different with each pianist who played it.

Something of an institution in the UK, the Summer School’s previous tutors have included Denis Matthews, Phyllis Sellick, Bryce Morrison, Katharina Wolpe, John Barstow and Geoffrey Pratley. This year (under the directorship of Wendy Wyatt) there were seven classes, with tutors James Lisney, Christine Stevenson, Natasa Lipovsek, Karl Luchtmayer, Lauretta Bloomer, Neil Roxburgh and myself. Students get three slots per week in their allotted class, and they can also visit other classes. Private lessons with the tutors can be arranged and observers are welcome. There is plenty of socialising and it’s an inspiring and stimulating week for us all.
Listening to all the playing on offer this week it struck me there was one thing we all had in common. Whether professional or amateur, intermediate or advanced, young or old we all shared a passion for the piano that demands attention and expression. Playing a solo recital at a professional level takes extreme focus and commitment of course, as well as a considerable outlay of time and energy. For most of us there is nothing easy or effortless about this, although part of the art of performance is to make it all appear so. Concert pianists whose vocation it is to perform constantly (a relatively rare breed) will take a recital programme on the road and may play it countless times in one season. After the fourth or fifth time, it all starts to feel reasonably weathered and seasoned, but the first time can feel uncertain and restrained. This is why some great pianists first play a new programme through for trusted friends or colleagues in a safe setting before letting it loose on a paying audience. Even an artist of the stature of Sviatoslav Richter used to need to do this. We can all avail ourselves of this opportunity, no matter the level of our playing.
I also suggest you also look into the programmes at Jackdaws. These are short weekend courses held in a beautiful and unspoilt part of the country, intimate and friendly. I am going to be running a course in October (Friday 25th to Sunday 27th) entitled (not unsurprisingly) Practising the Piano. It would be great to see you there but numbers are limited so register soon!

Another course I can highly recommend is the Chetham’s International Summer School for Pianists which takes place in Manchester during the summer.

Do please let me know in the comments section what is on offer in other parts of the world, it would be great to hear from you.

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