January 2019

It’s too late really to wish you a Happy New Year but here it is anyway and I hope that this New Year is a really good one for you.

My winter is proving to be a reasonably quiet one which I am very grateful for. I have only had two trips this month, one to work with school children in a music centre in the midlands and a talk and masterclass at Hull University. For the first, I was booked up with individual sessions for a whole day as well as the two-hour class. That plus the long drive there and back definitely required a good dose of energy!

Performance Coaching for children and when it’s tricky

I don’t often work with under-18’s anymore despite having spent over 20 years teaching piano to that age group. The most significant issue is the parent-child-teacher triangle, which is always an important consideration in teaching, but becomes highlighted when giving performance coaching. For example, it is essential that the pupil wants to have a coaching session and that they know what it might involve. When a parent books a performance coaching session without their son or daughter’s whole-hearted enthusiasm, it can often make it very hard for them and also an uphill struggle for me too.

A reluctant pupil can mean that they fight me every step of the way despite my best attempts to involve them and support them. It happens rarely but it’s tricky to manage when it does. In one instance of this recently, the girl in question clearly didn’t want to be in the session and asked to leave early. It was encouraging to then find out that she had booked a practice room straight afterwards.  Apparently, this was out of character, so perhaps she had felt too much under the spotlight in the session itself and when she felt less pressurised she was able to explore what we had done more comfortably.

When the pressure becomes too much for a younger musician

Pressure is a big issue for any musician, and for younger musicians it is something parents (and of course teachers too) need to be incredibly careful about. When a parent wants a child to do well, that well-meaning desire, if it gets out of balance, can put incredible pressure on the child. It’s a difficult balance to get and I totally empathise with any parent in this situation, but when it does go wrong, it can create havoc. It can create the very problems that the performance coaching is supposed to solve.

I’m thinking of the parent who demands perfection, or at the very least, extremely high standards from their child. These demands can be incredibly pressurising for the young person in question who might show it by getting incredibly nervous for exams, recitals or any other performance, with unpleasant symptoms like feeling nauseous, shaking or even crying at the thought of performing. They can feel they need to play perfectly, beating themselves up if they don’t and music becomes some horrible chore they have to get through. These put-upon pupils will often give up performing at the first possible opportunity, which is very sad, and I’ve seen it more times than I can care to remember.

It is usually that parent who is over-keen for their son or daughter to have coaching, over-involved in the whole process – writing endlessly long emails with far too many details – wanting to sit in on the session (something I don’t encourage) and so on. It is that parent who often has no awareness that they might actually be a part of the problem they are hoping to solve through coaching.

Piano recitals

I am in the middle of giving two solo piano recitals. One was in my studio to a small audience of friends, and the other is coming up in a private house in Hampshire. I aim to learn two new solo programmes a year which keeps me practising and the performances are a good reminder of everything that I do to support performing musicians.

It’s been around 10 years now since I have ‘officially’ performed professionally as a pianist, meaning that I earn a chunk of my living from performing. Many of the performances I have given then have been professional in that I get paid, but I see them rather differently. I play programmes I like, when I like and in front of small, uncritical performances. All of these conditions I have set for myself have made a huge difference in how I perform. I enjoy it far more than I ever used to and I feel I am playing better because I am so much freer emotionally. I know I won’t be judged or ignored or assessed on whether I will be able to continue work professionally as a result of that one performance. All of these were a constant theme of my professional playing life and it’s only now that I realise how I coped for all those years: I numbed out, blocked out my feelings and tensed up physically. I managed well considering, but at what cost!

I still get insights from these small, intimate, unpressured recitals and recently they have been about stamina. When you perform as infrequently as I do at the moment, you realise that there is something to be said for a regularity of performing. If I were to do this every week, I wouldn’t have the feeling of running out of steam, losing focus towards the end of the programme and making little slips. I would be less affected by external conditions – the piano, the temperature and so on. But that is a small price to pay for something that I find so enjoyable and long may it continue!

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