How to Get Back to Your Piece on Stage

How to Get Back to Your Piece on Stage

How many times were you playing a piece that was going very smoothly, only to lose your grip of it in the most unexpected place, throwing you off and making your performance go downhill?

I don’t know about you, but not too few times for me to be honest. At least now though, I can brag that I, mostly, have overcome this hurdle. Mostly…

The reason our performance gets worst instead of, say, thrives after a development like this, is because our psychological balance becomes affected. And, as we all know, to heal any psychological wounds in life, it always takes time. Not the case in live performance I’m afraid; not sufficient time to heal things. We need to promptly get on with our playing!

In live performance nothing that impacts us psychologically can be immediately rectified. If we were robots of course, this would have been an easy situation; we would just come out stronger from a memory lapse or a finger misplacement, and we would not only have the chance to respectfully continue our performance, but to even improve upon it.

So, yes, everything has a tendency to go downhill after a misfortune on stage, but not because we haven’t necessarily prepared our pieces sufficiently prior to our concert, but because our mental balance has been abruptly affected.

Is this state of affairs “curable”, however? I think it is. Read on!

And then there’s a very important question that often comes in mind in those situations. How come a situation like this only affects some pianists and not some others as much? Would a wrong note negatively affect Evgeny Kissin, for instance? Would it have had affected Vladimir Horowitz? We all know the answer of course, and the answer is “No”; well, not that much at least. Why? Because those artists knew one thing very well, that escapes the mind of some of us, dare I say, “lesser” pianists; Those giants always maintained that an audience is not in the least interested about the tiny nuances of our performances, but they care about the gestalt of our performances. And what is the gestalt of a performance? The gestalt is the essénce it gives. It’s like you’re holding a rose and you are about to smell it. You don’t care if some of its petals have some tiny imperfections, but you only care about its enchanting aroma and the lasting feeling it will immerse your senses to.

Hitting a bump on the road will be forgotten once you’ve reached your destination, but it will feel substantial if you stop and return back home because it rattled your confidence in your driving abilities.

So, the masters of any era new in their core the following: That the essénce of their musical journey counted the most and not the hurdles to complete it. Contrary to Kavafis’s Ithaca, in live musical performance we do not care that much about the hurdles of the journey, that, yes, they will undoubtedly make us stronger and cast as experienced, but we care mostly about its end-musical-aroma and its aftertaste. An aftertaste that emanates well after the audience has left the venue.

So, how do you ease your performing journey after a stage “road-bump”?

Bear in mind that, more often than not, losing the grip of our piece on stage is not directly connected to our overall command of it, as many of us would naturally think; we might have prepared a work to “perfection” only to find out that things do not work as planned on a live setting.

As mentioned above, an audience cares about the gestalt of your performance. So, you need to stop and feel this deeply inside you before you pressed any key. This should happen in the practice room. You need to think and contemplate about this gestalt notion in the practice-room, because this is the only way to change your attitude towards your perceived imperfections on stage. Here are some suggestions to consider:

  • Your perceived stage-mishap is only a subjective one. So, for instance, a wrong note can be deadly to your confidence, only if you allow it to be. People may not have heard it in the first place. And, more often than not, is not as important as you initially thought.
  • Audiences tend to remember the good and forget the bad; this happens partly because of our innate human predisposition to see things positively in life.
  • You need to decide prior to exposing yourself to audiences of what pianist you ultimately want to be. Do you want to be a fine pianist that people will remember, or you want to stay at home and watch the Leeds on TV cheering the next confident individual?
  • Are you going to let the amateurs and the “judges” ruin your performing life? Because, you need to always remember, that 90 to 95% of all audiences —in competitions, concert halls, galas, festivals, etc.— belong to the amateur sphere of pianism. Don’t let their own ineptitude feed on your wrong note because this is the only thing they could ever judge. They can’t argue with analysis if your performance was stylistically correct or if you delivered the structure of your piece beautifully; they only know C from C sharp.

So, force your own version of the story upon your audience. You are the master of your musical tale. A Machiavellian master indeed, that even though you “tantalized” your audience with your own imperfections and bold last-minute musical decisions the audience will still follow you. They will follow your lead because they know that essentially you’re one of them; an imperfect being who shows the will to stand behind their musical decisions at any cost.

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© Nikos Kokkinis – 1st of August 2019

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How to Start a Piece on Stage

How to Start a Piece on Stage

So, the day has come to play on stage. Our hearts are pumping fast, our hands become surprisingly sweaty and we feel deep inside, that this is by no means an ordinary day. This is a special day. Everything feels so different than normal. And all we know, is that things are only going to be ok once we’ve finished our dreaded performance.

But in order to finish our performance commitment and get on with our lives, we need to put our fingers on the keys and start the piece.

 

First things first

First thing is to actually get into the mood of your piece before you even reached the stage. You don’t want to reach the piano stool only to realize that your only thought is where to put your fingers in order to start. What about your own mood? What about rhythm? What about sound? What about the style of your piece? Would you decide upon those things after you’ve started the piece? Of course not. You’re not a “pantser”; you’re not writing a novel and deciding its ultimate fate as you go along. This is music. Your playing should have been predetermined while still in the practice room, days or even months ago. The road of how to start your piece should have started before you even sat down.

So, here’s a few suggestions:

  • If it is a slow piece, you don’t want to straight sit down and start; you should sit, ideally relax for a few moments, feel the piece’s gestalt and then calmly put your fingers on the keys and make your move. —just imagine a pianist appearing hotfooted from the side of the stage, crush on the stool and start the first movement of the Moonlight. That doesn’t sound like an ideal scenario, does it? Even if he played it wonderfully—I mean, you’re free to go for this type of start in this “anything-goes” era, but I just don’t know… I’m just too traditional sometimes.
  • If it is a fast piece on other hand, you have more leeway to act. I sometimes sit on the piano and start immediately in order to create “suspense” and excitement —especially for an encore— I believe that, for instance, there’s no need to prepare oneself for half a minute (thus, you make the audience wait for you) to play The Flight of the Bumblebee. It could be awkward. Do you get my gist? But, it depends of course. You might want to wait for five minutes for some voguish interpretational reasons; it’s really up to you. Nikos, stop patronizing your readers!

 

New pianos, new idiosyncrasies

Indeed, a newly experienced piano will certainly have different idiosyncrasies from your own practising piano. Even in the same model the differences can be significant sometimes —often in the key action, which can be more annoying than sound anticipation—.

It’s like you drive a new car. You have to be extra careful; you don’t want to press the accelerator too abruptly, because your new super-fast car might react differently to your previous car that you knew so well.

So hopefully, we would have had a little bit of time to rehearse on the piano of the venue prior to our performance. If not however, we should be starting our performance pressing the keys ever so slightly more firmly in order to compensate for any unevenness of the keys or any non-sounding notes. Do not overdo it, however. You don’t want your piece to sound heavier or louder, even though in bigger concert halls abrupt pressing of the keys can be more forgiving.

 

Tempo Is everything

Speed is, indeed, paramount in any performance setting. You wouldn’t want to play Liszt’s Feux Follets Andante, of course, but you wouldn’t want to sabotage that piece and your technique either by playing it in your normal blistering pace on a foreign piano that has heavier action than you’re used to and force your fingers to stumble over the keys.

So, take a reasonable speed; by reasonable I do not necessarily mean slow, but, I generally imply slow-er. See how it goes. Test the waters, as they say; there will be no big difference in playing a piece in 112 instead of 114 BPM. Not a single person will notice. Not even you in a couple of years if you had to listen to the recording. The audience is going to listen to your own story —your own version of a musical story that you have the right to interpret as you may wish. They don’t know your start, ending or climactic path of your interpretation. They just wait for you to show them your version of the musical story (piece) they came to experience—

Sit for a few minutes quietly at the back of the stage. Don’t dive into illustrious conversations or challenge your mind with trivial things that you can without effort resolve after your performance.

Sometimes you even have to “force” yourself to shut off your ordinary reactionary self. Find somewhere quiet to sit.

A new version of you is about to be presented on stage.

 

© Nikolaos Kokkinis, 29th of June 2019

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Our newest piece, a tango for solo piano. Just released this June. 

Do we play for us or for the others?

Do we play for us or for the others?

Arguably, we, the people who associate ourselves with music, do play for the others.

Well, we do play for the others in concerts, in classes, etc, but first and foremost, I think we play for ourselves.  What do you think?

Since our species are mainly tribal in nature, we exert satisfaction from all kinds of external approval, such performing and thus, performing for the others is considered a main component of our human predispositions. Remember that, in a way,  we do constantly perform in our everyday lives; we speak in groups, we care of how we look, we carefully utter our thoughts, and so on and so forth; all this belongs to the performing categorization. Thus “performing” ,somehow, should benefit us, otherwise we wouldn’t do it.

Coming to music and piano, even though you might argue that you play chiefly for your own well-being, or “for yourself” as we normally say, ultimately, you mainly play for some different sets of ears. However, playing for others makes us happy and content, and since this gives us some sort of gratification that means we play also for ourselves.

Thus, in a most basic level, this is a wonderful musical vicious circle. However, is there a definite answer to the question raised in the title of this article? I think there is. Let’s carry on.

Paraphrasing The Enlighted self-interest philosophy in ethics, one could argue that musicians who perform for the satisfaction of an audience, ultimately perform for the satisfaction of themselves. Thus, this philosophy maintains, that offering something of value to the others is only approvable —at least subconsciously— if it benefits oneself. So, coming to music and simplifying the above principle, we play for the audience and benefiting them with our wonderful sound, because it benefits us first —in many levels— by playing to that audience. Go figure!

And then, there’s this other thing; why do we play for the others, even if we know that we walk a tightrope, performing music that can sabotage our musical standing if we didn’t deliver it properly? Why we subject ourselves to the tyranny of stress and tachycardia? Do we really do this for our own benefit? Well, fortunately my incapable mind didn’t have to answer this question; a bigger, more robust mind, did it for me, however: The German philosopher Emmanuel Kant.

He asserted, that —I’m paraphrasing— we do things not because we care if they are right or wrong, but because they fulfill, in a way, our inner urges. So, in essence, if Kant was lecturing a piano student, he would instruct him to just go for it, without caring about memory lapses, wrong notes, or approval from his peers, and just play, because this way he will satisfy his inner need of performing; and ultimately he will be first catering to himself.

Schools of thought always maintained that the central reason of our actions is to promote our own well being. And, before I continue oversimplifying the research of the great minds of this world, I would just finish this by expressing to you why I perform.

I perform for myself. At least, this is what I believe I do. I don’t do it for the others. Even if someone asks me to do it in exchange for a fee, it still benefits me in a most basic and Darwinian way, and I cannot alter that.  I like what I’m doing and I feel that if my enjoyment is shared by an audience, that’s really fantastic. However, when an audience’s approval coincides with my love of performing, that’s still incidental. But, what could be a better “incident” than that?

Copyright (c) 31-05-2019 by Nikolaos Kokkinis

Many, many thanks to Manuel Nageli for his wonderful image used in this article. Please, click the black button below for more images of the artist.

What an Audience Wants

What an Audience Wants

When audiences come to us —that is to say attend our performances— they come for a reason. They seek, and they demand. And rightfully so, of course, because let’s not forget that they have already honoured us first and offered us one of their most precious properties; their time. So, we have to honour them back, if I may say, thank them for coming, and offer them our music as a token of our gratitude. In this article we talk about the things that an audience seeks from the performers. 

Here’s some of them:

  1. Audiences seek their own satisfaction. That goes without saying of course, and that is the first and foremost thing that an audience —and every human being in this life, to be honest—  cares about before they commence doing something. Audiences want to have a meaningful evening, that will inspire THEM, will lift THEIR spirits and leave fulfilled and regenerated. 
  2. The gestalt of your individual performance; The audience wants the aroma that your concert emanates and its enchanting aftertaste. They want to exit your concert venue thrilled, with their hearts pumping with excitement. 
  3. The gestalt of you. Through your music an audience will forge an idea of what you represent in this life of ours and what is essentially, well, you; they want to have more of that aura you, customarily, give in your performances, and that’s why they may keep coming to your performances in the future. At the same time, the things they may not interest them that come from you, such as your political or religious views, will, however, inadvertently shape your sound, and thus, if the audience likes your art through your sound, they will, somehow, like you as an individual as well.
  4. Your own interpretation of a piece they like; Your fans might like how you particularly phrase that nocturne by Chopin or your classical-piano take on Kapustin’s jazzy studies. 
  5. To experience new music. Audiences often want to test their ears with new composers and their latest creations.
  6. An audience might be in the process of seeking new and refreshing interpretations on established repertoire. Not wise for a pianist to attempt, but let us be open and accept this as a possibility. 
  7. They might just want to re-taste an established interpretation on a piece they like. You wouldn’t necessarily go to a concert demanding a radical approach to the Waldstein, for example. We tend to leave classic repertoire “as is”. Eccentricity or differentiation in interpretational approach is not always a reasonable goal for a pianist and could not necessarily come in line with what the composer themselves ultimately wanted. 
  8. To come closer to understand the meaning of life. Their coming to you, is a conscious endeavour to understand the world and relish on its beauties, but not its ugliness. So, you better play those notes correctly and usher those people further in apprehending a possible “meaning” of life. 
  9. Audiences come to you to become better. It’s an innate predisposition of humans to improve and to move forward in a “right” direction through a “right” medium, that they have predefined. Thus, you owe to be respectful and honoured by your fellow passengers on life’s train. 

Before closing this, I would say, that if I were you I would concentrate on the last two things on the above list; because they show that humanity has indeed unique, honourable intentions. Even though I know that all the things we do are to ultimately benefit us and our own wellbeing, I would remain on the more romantic and idealistic side of life and keep believing that we still do things altruistically. 

Oh, no. Altruism is still ME, ME, ME. 


 

 

Copyright © Nikos Kokkinis 31 March 2019

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What Doesn’t Interest An Audience

What Doesn’t Interest An Audience

We, the performers, often take for granted that people come to our performances to simply listen to us playing the piano.  We might assume that audiences simply come to us, for us. And so, since they come to us, instead of the other way around, they must unconditionally accept the things that we have to offer. 

However, we mustn’t forget that audiences have personalities and “egos” as well, and inevitably, they can also be indifferent to some of the things that emanate from us. 

In this article we talk things that don’t interest an audience. 

An audience is not interested in some of the following:

  • Your feelings; audiences couldn’t care less if you are kind, serene, a humanitarian, or an art lover, I’m afraid. They didn’t come to your concert to buy a painting you liked in the Met last week. 
  • Your emotions; The audience don’t want anything to do with what triggered your anxiety after calling your bank this morning. They demand to listen to the Moonlight sonata if they may. 
  • What you think of yourself; Maybe you love yourself or maybe you hate yourself, but the audience doesn’t mind at all either way. 
  • Your physical shape at the time of your performance. They’re not in the least interested to know if you’re in pain because you twisted your ankle, or if you have a stiff neck because you didn’t do your weekly class of Pilates.  
  • If you like the music you’re playing; Really, they’re so uninterested in that. 
  • If you like the piano of tonight’s venue; Audiences are completely unmoved by your opinion that the piano you are about to perform on cannot project your “subtle techniques” or “expressive nuances” in Chopin’s fourth Ballade. So, on with performing, please!
  • Your attire. I mean, don’t really play the Appassionata wearing a wetsuit and you’ll be fine. No need to be wearing colorful jackets, backless dresses or extravagant bow ties, except, of course, if you want to distract your audience from your mediocre pianism; then you must.  

  • Your own understanding of the music you are playing in that concert; zilch caring, too. 
  • Your general music expertise; The audience didn’t pay your ticket because, say, you harmonise correctly a bassline, or you are very good in dectée, or you can write an in depth structural analysis on Schnittke’s second piano sonata.
  • Your numerous musical and theoretical qualifications, such as degrees, certificates, doctorates, Phd’s, Post Docs and the rest of noise that actually did nothing less than stopped you from practising the piano when it mattered the most. 
  • Your other qualifications, such as your degree in law, or your Bachelors with honours in Agriculture; do I need to elaborate more on this?
  • If you are rich or poor; not a difference to them at all. They’ve already paid the ticket to your concert and made a reservation at the Italian restaurant later on. You are heading back home on a train, so relax. 
  • What are your future goals; I mean, by all means record Medtner’s complete piano sonatas, or finish up the last act on your Opera, but tonight is neither the time nor the place to discuss it. Just play the piano if you don’t mind. 
  • Your character. When the audience comes to see you play Schubert, they don’t care if you are well-mannered, compassionate, loyal, strict, easily offended, irate, or that you like the cats. They’d rather heard you… um, let me think, oh yes… PLAY THE PIANO. 
  • Your political, or other personal views; I’ve never heard of a member of the audience saying he particularly liked an iteration of the Cadenza in Beethoven’s third piano concerto, but hated the rest because the pianist voted liberal in the previous general election. 

So, yes, we are performers! Congratulations! Let’s give ourselves a pat in the back. And if there was a PhD in “audience pleasing” we’ll be sure the first to get it. However, we need to get off our high horse at once, and think about our audiences as well! Let’s stop delusioning. Can it really be that an audience is only interested in us and our “unique” personality traits? How much more self-centered can we be if we believed that?

Do I sound harsh and horrible? Yes, I do sound harsh and horrible and, please, feel free to condemn me and liberally add to my list of horribleness. If anything I should have been harsher though. Because I have a mission with these writings of mine. To help the gullible pianists become realistic and, well, less gullible and face the realities in their art.

So, when you perform, it’s not only about you. It’s also about your audience. On with your practising. 

© Nikos Kokkinis 27th of February 2019

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Scholarly Versus Voguish Phrasing

Scholarly Versus Voguish Phrasing

Initial Thoughts

As with our verbal communication, musical communication demands appropriate phrasing to show with clarity what we are trying to convey.

Since the day we are born we try to perfect the “art” of communication, both consciously and subconsciously. Humans are communicating verbally but also using other non-verbal ways. In music, we communicate mostly with creating or manipulating sounds.

By the time we are three years of age we can construct simple sentences, and then by five we speak with more flair, and deliver sentences with special stresses and hereditary audial predispositions so our fellow human beings can, basically, understand what we are trying to tell them.

Then, by the time we reach adulthood, it’s safe to suggest that we have “perfected” our own verbal communication skills — some of us have succeeded more and some of us less. Going forward in life, at some point, our ongoing road to perfecting verbal communication will reach a peaking point and then, inevitably, it will cease to progress; again, for some of us abruptly and for others in a slower pace.

 

It’s Not About the Ingredients. It’s How We Use Them

Speaking is not only about which words we use, but also about the way we deliver them to our listeners. Thus, different delivery, equals different meaning(s). The same applies to music, but we’ll get there in a few moments.

Here’s an example of how a simple phrase can send different messages to a set receiver.

In this example, we will use the phrase “I like music”.

Those three words uttered with different pauses and stresses, will mean different things. Here we go. [I use bold text for the stressed words]:

  1. I like music: if I stress the word “I”, this could mean that I, personally, am the one who likes music, as opposed to someone else who doesn’t like it, for example.
  2. I like music: If we stress the word “like” I could try to convey that I want the listener to grasp that ‘I indeed like music a lot’, as opposed to hating it or other.
  3. I like music: This time we stressed the word “music” and that could signal that I like music instead of something else, such as painting or math.

 

Scholarly vs Voguish phrasing

Similar to verbal communication from above, the same axiom applies to music; A set musical phrase performed in varied ways with tell a different story to our audience.

But, what’s more important, is which phrasing should we choose? Our own phrasing, a voguish phrasing, the composer’s phrasing, the editor’s phrasing, or other?

Well, the answer is always in front of us: It’s the composer’s own phrasing that we should honour. Here’s a few reasons for it:

  • We get to deeply apprehend the composer’s music idiosyncrasies, compared to other composers of her era.
  • We could potentially draw nearer to how to perform composers that share similar compositional characteristics with the composer we currently perform.
  • If the composer is a pianist herself, that’s all the better; usually they “know” what they are doing pianistically, thus, by following their instructions we not only learn about their style but incidentally, we also improve our technique.
  • We ultimately learn how to follow instructions— Following instructions in life is indeed an integral part of proper human social functioning.
  • Following instructions and music rules to the letter, will make us musically equipped to break them, if we wish, down the line.
  • We will also come closer to the conclusion that technique should mainly be practised in the right context. For example, we could, but shouldn’t really try to grasp the baroque keyboard peculiarities by playing them, using the music from a composer from the romantic period.

Thus, coming closer to the point of this article, even if we perfect the way we choose to deliver a musical phrase, that doesn’t mean that we are doing something that has any veritable meaning. We should always try to challenge things in life and be open-minded and fearless and heroic and all. But music is a serious business. It involves composers’ rules and we should honour those rules. Breaking rules and doing our own phrasings, articulations etc. is ok at the end of the day, but doesn’t mean that this make us more musically heroic or adventurous.

The composer’s intended musical notions are there for a reason. And, coming back to the verbal communication, we’ve all seen people that use the language with flair, composure and perfect diction, only to be unable to make sense of what they’re talking about. (Am I falling into this trap in this very article?) Same applies to the piano and music in general.

If, for example, we choose to play the third movement of Beethoven’s Tempest sonata in staccatissimo, and our performance is perfect musically, (rhythmically, melodically, technically, etc.) that doesn’t mean that this is the way Beethoven wanted to communicate this particular piece. Technical proficiency and understanding of intended musical phrasing do not always overlap.

 

Final Thoughts

To complete this article I will just say, that even though voguish or experimental phrasing can indeed improve our technique, we should always strive to do the accepted phrasing of the time of performing. If available, using the composer’s own phrasing is paramount.

 

Copyright © 2018 by Nikos Kokkinis

 

 

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