If you've been playing the piano for a while, chances are you've been there -- the regular recitals that your teacher make you do, even when you don't want to. Well, it's a fact of life, and it's good for you. But if you're anything like me (a few years ago), you probably dread these things. Here's some tips to help you become better at them.

The number 1 rule here is Practice!! Not only will you play better, you will also become more confident. And confidence is a very important factor in successful performances/exams.

If you're required to memorize your pieces for a performance (which is very likely), make sure that you know it inside out, upside down and backwards. Also make sure that not only your fingers know it, your brain and your ears also know it well. The reason for this is that the better you know your pieces, the less likely you'll be overcome by stage fright and suddenly forget everything. And then even if you do make a mistake, your brain knows what to do.

Remember that the more you perform in front of people, the less nervous you will be. Here's some general tips for your next performance:

Make sure you eat something before a performance so that you're not hungry in the middle of it.

Cut your fingernails two days before the big day.

Don't wear any jewelry on your wrists because it will distract you. This includes watches too. No rings either. Necklaces are ok.

Don't do all your practice a few day before. Just like a test, you can't cram for a performance. Instead you might panic and mess things up.

Wear something formal, comfortable and not too elaborate. It will give positive influence to your audience and to you (it puts you in the right mood).

SMILE!!! It shows that you're confident about what you're doing and assures the audience that it will be a pleasant experience for them.

Take a bow. Then turn to your left towards the piano. Just make sure that you never have your back to the audience when you turn.

When you're playing, pay attention to yourself and not to the noises around you. Listen to yourself. Keep focused.

When you finish playing, don't be in a rush to get off the stage. Let the music ring. Then take a bow and SMILE even if you made a mistake. Chances are your audience don't know the music and won't notice it.

Most importantly: Enjoy yourself and smile! You may not get to perform very often, so treasure the experience. You have shared with others the wonderful gift of music.

Now comes the everyday-life part of being a pianist -- practicing. The best ways of practicing are discovered by trial and error, but there are some general tips, which I will try to provide here.

There's no definite amount of time for practicing -- it's different for everyone. Generally, your practicing time should be long enough that you can go through all your pieces and fix the bad spots, and not so long as to cause high levels of pain. For ergonomic reasons, your average practice session probably should not last more than 3 hours.

Start with technique -- scales, chords, arpeggios, etc. It is good warm up and prepares you for your pieces. Unless it's close to a performance, audition or exam -- then I find it preferable to practice the piece that you're going to start with first. That allows you to get used to playing without warming up, which is common in recitals and exams.

For playing scales, chords, and arpeggios: they can sometimes be very boring if you have lots of them to play, so here's how to make them interesting: add dynamics. Crescendo on ascending scales, and decrescendo on decending scales. Take care not to bump the last note -- but rather fade the last few notes out gradually. Listen carefully to make sure that your hands are exactly together. Gradually increase the speed over time. For chords: keep hands landing exactly together, be strong and stable. For arpeggios: same dynamic as scales, increase speed if it gets boring. Explore key relationships with chords, etc. Lots can be learned by practicing technique.

Always listen to yourself when you're practicing and don't get distracted. Think about interpretation as well as technique. Ask yourself: what more do I have to offer for the music? What needs more work on? What is the composer trying to tell us?

Listen to famous pianists on recordings and write down what they do at certain places for the pieces that you are working on. You don't have to copy what they do but it will make you notice things.

Don't get tense when you play. Make sure that you're not holding your breath (I know this sounds weird but it happens). When doing octaves or tremolos, this is especially important. Also make sure you're aware of what your body is doing -- where the tension is and try to relax it. Excessive tension could lead to stress-related injuries.

When practicing very fast pieces, start slow then gradually build up. If after a while you find that one short passage is still catching you, then practice that VERY slowly on the metronome, then increase the speed by one or two notches each time you can play it perfectly at the slower tempo. This method might seem a little annoying at first but it really works! It'll solve your problem faster than you think.

A note on ornaments: trills, turns, etc are best learned by practicing. As for fingering, when doing trills, avoid trilling with your 3rd and 4th finger if you can -- try to substitute with 3rd and 5th. And glissandos: up glissandos are played with fingernails only -- otherwise it will really hurt (I tried it); down glissandos are played with the fingernail of your thumb. This will take some practice.

Watch out for bad habits and try to correct them. Common ones are bending knuckles down (this one has to be practiced), and holding your fingers too high when they're not playing.

Accompanying, whether for a singer, a choir, or a solo instrument, can be very fulfilling for a pianist. But it's not always easy, especially if you're used to playing by yourself. In Christmas 1999 I have had the honour of accompanying my school's Chamber choir to a series of concerts around the city. We worked on a 15-minute cantata called The Song of Christmas. It was a very interesting experience, and I've learned a lot about accompanying at the same time. Since then I've stayed active as the accompanist for a number of choirs at my school, while also enjoying in singing with them. Here are some tips for accompanying.

The most important thing to remember about accompanying a choir, singer, or instrumentalist is to LISTEN! Since you're not the main role in the performance, you must follow the other musician's interpretation. Watch the conductor very carefully when accompanying a choir.

Practice ahead of time to make sure that you really know the music well, but at the same time be flexible. This is important because you might not practice at the same tempo as the person that you're accompanying, and when you get together in a rehearsal you always have to follow the other person's tempo. Knowing the music gives you a chance to think about these things as you play, instead of just worrying about notes.

Don't forget to play with feeling and sensitivity. That means phrasing, dynamics, balance, etc. Sometimes you might feel that you're just an accompanist, but in fact you have a very important role to play. Make sure that you know what your soloist/instrumentalist/choir director is doing and has in mind. Study their part as well, not just your own. This will help you connect more efficiently with them.

Listen carefully (again) to make sure that you're not (usually) playing louder than the person you're accompanying. This again means to play with sensitivity without being so quiet that you can't be heard. The choir director sometimes will gesture for you to play softer or louder. Pay attention to that.

Get a page turner if you need one. It's easiest when you don't have to worry about turning the pages while you're playing, as it sometimes disrupts the music. But of course, make sure that your page turner knows what he/she is doing. Work with them to let them know when they should turn the page.

If you have a solo section between the singer/choir/instrumentalist's sections, play the solo a little louder. Then as the choir/singer/instrumentalist comes back, cut back to let them take over, like a conversation.

Being able to sightread well is a very valuable skill for an accompanist. You don't always get a chance to practice well ahead of time, so sightreading is very important. Also, being able to read chord symbols or read open score is an asset.

If the conductor/soloist/instrumentalist acknowledges you, bow to the audience and smile.

Remember that playing for other people gives the usually solo pianist to socialize and cooperate in a music-making activity. Enjoy the experience and learn from it. Good luck!

Piano Exams (or Juries, depending on the part of the world you live in) are often not the most fun things to do. But they providd you with a standard to which you can compare yourself, and gives you goals that you can work toward. They are meant to be a learning experience, in that it's a chance for you to hear someone else's opinion.

Keep in mind that everybody is different -- what works for one person might not work for another. It's best to find your own ways. Also, not every music exam system is the same. Personally I am familiar with the Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto, which is most popular in Canada. I don't know how other systems work, so you'll have to adapt my tips to what suits you.

The number 1 rule here is, again, Practice!!! Just like in a performance, skill and confidence are the most important in a successful exam, and practicing will help you achieve that.

If you know what order you are going to play your pieces, make sure that you know the first and last ones the best. The first is to give them a good impression of you, and last is to let them keep the good impression. Of course the middle ones are important too, but keep that in mind.

If your exam involves playing technique (scales, chords, arpeggios, etc.), know them well. In my exams they worth a lot and they also often comes first.

Try to tell yourself that it's no big deal, even if it is. Chances are, if you are going to take more exams, this one wouldn't matter. See if this works for you. I found that it relaxes me. But don't let this trick sacrifice your determination.

Try to forget about the judge or examiner that's sitting there and listening to you. Most of the time you can't even see them so that shouldn't be too hard. Pretend that it's a performance. Your goal is not to get it over with but to do the best you can and impress your audience. Let the music carry you away.

Don't worry too much about making mistakes -- just play. Often in the higher grades, technique is not as important as phrasing, dynamics, and expression. If you make one or two small mistakes in an otherwise beautifully expressed piece, the examiner won't take them into account.

If your exam involves ear test (clapping rhythm, hearing intervals, etc), here are some tips:

    -If you have perfect pitch, then consider yourself very lucky -- not many people do and ear test is probably easy for you. For the rest of you, practicing ear test is probably the best strategy. Get someone, a family member or a friend, to test you on the items such as melody playback and interval recognition. Only after you hear the sounds and get used to them can they become a part of you.

    -When doing rhythm tests, listen carefully, and don't rush. Internalize the rhythm.

    -Here's another tip from my piano teacher: if your ear test require you to say your response out loud (such as naming intervals), don't answer as if you're asking a question (which means, don't put a question mark after each answer). The examiners will think that you're confident and knows what you're doing, even if you don't.

For sight reading:

    -The best way to get better in sight reading is to practice it. Use sight reading books if you can, or otherwise use pieces that are about one or two grades lower than yours. One sight reading exercise a day should be enough. If you feel that they're get easy, progress to more difficult exercises.

    -Keep in mind that when you sight read, rhythm is just as important as notes. If you miss a few notes, keep going and don't loose the beat. Try not to go back and correct wrong notes all the time. It's better than getting all the notes but with no rhythm attached.

    -Remember that sight reading is very important. It's useful when, for example, you're suddenly asked to accompany a choir or soloist (instrumental or vocal), perhaps to fill in for someone.When you are in the higher grades, this can become common, so be sure that your sight reading skills are up for it.

After your exam is finished, relax and enjoy yourself a little, and get ready for your next grade. Don't worry too much about the mark that you get. Keep in mind that piano performance is essentially an artistic pursuit, and attempts to judge it is always a little subjective. Think of it as a fresh start for something better.

Exams are probably not as often as recitals, so it might take longer to get used to them. The best way is to know what you did every time, learn from your mistakes and improve on the next one. Remember that each exam is a stepping stone on your way to become a better pianist.


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