What a “Bad” Performance Taught Me About Practicing Piano
I’ve been practicing piano and performing for a lot of years (more years than most of our students have been alive!), so I’ve had a wide range of experiences when it comes to performing—from terrible to great and everything in between. While I’d say performing has almost always been a positive experience for me, sometimes things just don’t go the way you want them to.
I had one of those days last week! I played for a recital at BYU in front of all the piano faculty and students. It was a hard piece, but one I thought I knew well enough. But when I got up on stage, my nerves got the better of me, I made more mistakes than I wanted to, and I walked away frustrated that I didn’t feel like I’d done my best. I just knew I could have played better. That disappointment stuck with me for a couple of hours, and by the end of the night I honestly felt like just giving up.
But the more I thought about it—and the more I prayed for perspective—the more determined I became to make what seemed like a “failure” into a learning experience. Rather than just stop practicing entirely, I realized that I could make some adjustments to the way I practiced and the way I thought about performing to make sure that the next time I performed in a recital was a more joyful experience. After doing some research and talking to my teacher and colleagues, here are the 3 biggest things this performance taught me about practicing piano.
1. Practice makes permanent; only perfect practice makes perfect.
I teach this to my students all the time, but I realized that I wasn’t really using this principle enough in my own practice. Repeating a passage until it’s perfect is hard. It feels like it makes practice take longer (in the long run, it doesn’t) and requires more focus (this it does). This week, I’ve decided to practice each section until I can play it perfectly 3 times in a row before moving on, and it’s already making a huge difference! When I practice this way, I’m able to sit down to perform a piece and not worry whether I’ll get the notes right—instead, I get to focus on the expressive details and it’s SO MUCH MORE FUN.
2. Consistency is key.
Before this performance, I’d been practicing piano a lot, but I had a lot of music to work on and didn’t always include this piece every day. When you have tons of repertoire, it’s not possible to work on it all every day. But coming into a performance, making sure that you practice the piece you’re going to perform on a daily basis will help you feel so much more confident. You can’t cram for a marathon, and you can’t cram when you’re practicing piano—it doesn’t work!
3. Find your fire, and let THAT be the thing that drives your performance.
This lesson hit me the hardest when I was talking to my teacher after the performance. Have you ever noticed how Michael Phelps always has headphones on right before he competes? He’s listening to music that gets him pumped up. Lots of athletes and other performers have similar routines, and it’s not just superstition. It actually helps them to focus on what they’re doing rather than what’s going on around them.
I realized that when I performed, I was trying to be completely calm before I played. But I still felt nervous, and then all I could think about was everyone who was listening to me and what mistakes I might or might not make. Now, I know to focus my energy and attention on what makes me feel “pumped up” about playing the piano—and that attitude is already changing how I perform!
For me, what makes me feel the best when I’m performing is just remembering why I do what I do. I want to become a great pianist so that I can serve my future family and future students, so that I can connect with people better, and especially so that I can show my gratitude for the talents God has given me. When I focus on that, both performing and practicing piano are easier and more enjoyable.
So whether you’re having a great piano day or a not-so-great one, remember that even the hard ones are worth it. I can’t wait to keep working on all the things I learned—and to keep learning more!