I once heard in a sectional with David Kim, concertmaster of the Philadelphia Orchestra, that great attention should be devoted to tuning beautifully. Though, of course, it is important to make sure orchestra members are in tune with each other before the piece starts, his subtle point is that the audience experience of a concert involves far more than just musical performances of pieces.
Indeed, our experiences of performances often starts with our journey to the concert venue– perhaps even the dinner we have before. Who we are with significantly changes our interpretation of the concert, as does the manner of the conductor as they walk on the stage, the drinks served during intermission, and the coordination (or lack thereof) of bows after the music stops. The length of the concert, the performance dress, the music selection, the volume and sound production, the temperature of the room and the amount of times a soloist walks back on the stage for another bow are elements of performances that can’t be ignored.
All of these details are inevitably intertwined with audience experience. But they are also typically ignored.
Perhaps in an ideal world we wouldn’t let the surrounding periphery of experience influence the way we understand one thing. The clothes someone wears shouldn’t be indicative of their value as a member of a company. The likeabiluty of a band’s Facebook page shouldn’t automatically make them superior to a band without a Facebook page. And the amount of time we spend waiting to exit a parking garage shouldn’t effect our love of a blended orchestral sound.
But it does. And therefore it is worth teaching our students to take charge of as many aspects of their audiences of them as possible.
Two of my students recently performed at the University of Texas at Austin String Project Honors Concert. And in preparation for that performance I wanted to instill in them an understanding that “performing” encompasses far more than just playing a piece. Watch Rylan’s performance below.
We worked on a routine that carried them from offstage, through performance, then back offstage.
Every opportunity for the audience to experience them as a performer (walking, bow, preparing to play, playing, acknowledging, etc.) was planned and practiced.
The advantage of this deliberateness is a polished performance experience that subtly influences an audiences reception of the performer.
So the routine I train is simple. It is a step by step performance process of which playing is just a part.
- Walk onto the stage confidently to a pre planned spot (generally in relationship to the piano)
- Bow if the audience is clapping
- Stand in rest position and feel gravity on the heels
- Move to play position, and find the correct finger and bow spot
- Nod to the pianist when settled
- Play the piece
- Go to rest position and bow
- Acknowledge the collaborative pianist and bow together
- Walk of the stage confidently
This process might sound like an obvious process students should figure out themselves to teachers who have performed and attended performances their whole life. However appropriate performing, just like playing, is a learned behavior.
For weeks we practice this process in lessons with review pieces and the performing piece. Even when students don’t have an upcoming recital (which is rare), I still incorporate the performance practice into my teaching.
The more real I can make the scenario of performance, the more prepared my students are for the actual performance. Once the routine is understood, I’ll send student’s into the hallway to walk into the room with chin high and gusto in their step. I subjugate myself completely to the audience role, clapping when I feel is appropriate and taking note of anytime I feel awkward or impatient. I resist giving feedback until the entire performance practice session is complete so that I don’t interrupt the flow of the performance. Afterward I make corrections; we then practice again.
The ultimate goal is for a student not to think about this process, for it to be as automatic as brushing their teeth or tying their shoes.
But don’t mistake automaticity for unimportance.
The secondary effect of practicing performing with a strict ritual is that it chains behaviors in a series that can prime a student for success.
This priming is prevalent in professional sports. In The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg recounts the rituals Michael Phelps deliberately surrounds his competitive swimming with. For Phelps, the time in the water is only one small part of a series of preparations the day of the race. He wears particular clothes, listens to particular music, drinks particular drinks, stretches in a particular way and eventually steps on the starting block with a particular swing of the arms.
Because Phelps gathers momentum in correctly executing each detailed aspect of his elaborate warm up, by the time he dives into the water his is unstoppable.
And every time Phelps has a successful race, it reinforces the strength of his entire performance process.
This ritual is practicable. It is a routine he can follow every time he does a race trial in practice. Even though it isn’t possible to bring the reality of competition into practice, it is possible to bring the quality of practice into competition through these ritualized behaviors.
How are you teaching performance?
Are you mindful of the the audience’s entire experience of your students playing? Do you have a clear routine you follow to prepare to play? Are your students aware of that routine? Or, more importantly, have they practiced that routine to automaticity? Are you taking advantage of the psychological power of priming that Olympic champions use?
If not, why?
Because by teaching performance practice to your students you won’t just hope for success, you will ritualize it.