Thinking back or planning ahead?

18th October 2014 | Concerts, Musings, Teaching | 1 comment

An interesting discussion the other night with a bunch of student pianists. We were discussing the kind of situation where you have to perform several different pieces in a row without being able to leave the stage. This is sometimes the case in, for example, a competition, where the rules state that you must perform your programme in a single sweep. Almost everyone finds it hard to remain on stage and go straight from one piece to another without the opportunity to do what they’d usually do when they’re off stage for a moment – jump about, take a drink of water, make a joke, breathe deeply or whatever.

One of the pianists had just performed a twenty-minute programme consisting of four very different works, all of them difficult. In between the pieces, he sat still for quite a few moments before continuing. When we were giving ‘feedback’, I asked him what he had been thinking during the pauses, expecting him to say that he was preparing his mind for the next piece.

‘To be honest’, he said, ‘most of the time I was actually trying to eliminate tension after the piece I’d just played. My heart was beating really fast and I was basically waiting for it to slow down to something near normal. I wasn’t really planning for the next piece. I just wanted to get to a point where I felt able to begin it!’

This was an interesting response and a useful one for all of us. It’s absolutely true that when you are compelled to stay sitting on the piano stool between one piece and another, you have first to cope with the energy, the adrenalin, the concentration and effort required by the piece you’ve just played. Unless you can ‘swallow’ that energy or find a way to surf along on it, it will be hard to plough into another challenging piece, probably a piece in a different mood altogether.

We often talk about preparing the mind for what we’re about to play, but it suddenly struck me as equally important to talk about how to disperse tension from mind and body – or how to use the energy to your advantage, if there’s a way to do that with an audience watching you.

1 Comment

  1. Nick Ashton-Jones

    Dear Susan Tomes,

    Ten years ago a good friend, Helena Noble, gave me your book, Beyond the Notes. It sat in my bookshelf in two homes until I was clearing out before the painters came last month. I started to read it. By page 7 (where you talk about the advice that Peter Brook gave you) I realised I was reading something profound; the sort of I book I come across very rarely (I read about 30 books a year). Not only enjoyable, fascinating (to someone who devours classical music) and beautifully written but also uplifting and full of wisdom. Thank you so much for writing it. Best wishes from Nick Ashton-Jones


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