Playing Cold

Photo by Leonie Wise from Unsplash

While public performances offer opportunities for students to express themselves, some performances may seem more daunting than others, such as the move from recitals to contests before a judge for a rating.  In preparation for such scenarios, I recommend that students throw themselves into uncomfortable situations prior to performing. This can be accomplished by playing at times that might seem counterintuitive or just inconvenient. If the student is more of a morning person, then I suggest sitting down at the piano and playing the solo late at night just before going to bed. If more of a night owl, they can play first thing when they wake up before doing anything else. If they are not feeling well, take advantage of the less than ideal moment and ask them to give the best performance possible. In other words, anytime is a great time to play if it is the last thing they want to do. Combine this with playing on as many different and/or unfamiliar pianos and they have the potential for creating undesirable circumstances for performing. In all theses instances, there is to be no warm up. They are to sit down, concentrate, and give their best possible interpretation of the literature. The results may be the worst they play all day, but the goal is to challenge them to focus and concentrate despite how they feel at the moment.  By adapting to the situations and learning to better concentrate, they are preparing for the most unusual situations surrounding any given performance. In other words, get comfortable with the uncomfortable.

Often in recitals that my students are a part of, the hardest works are at the end of the program. If the performer warms up at home, drives to the recital, sits through the lineup awaiting their turn at the end of the program, the amount of time that passes could be significant and therefore turns into a cold performance situation. By having prepared ahead of time under unusual circumstances,  adapting in the moment to different room acoustics, key resistance of the pianos and how the pedals respond (or how none of the pedals responded as was the case in accompanying my daughter at state contest one year) while staying as focused as possible, they can better prepare for what they might face in performance. One of my students recently learned to adapt his pedaling from full to half and quarter pedaling as he did not like what he was hearing from the piano at a district contest. By adapting his approach, he did very well despite the circumstances thrown at him by the piano. He commented to me after receiving a gold rating at state that the cold playing helped a lot.

To illustrate such an unexpected possibility in performance, I would like to tell you about a pianist who during our undergraduate studies had just finished a turbulent first movement of a work. During the quieter second, all the lights on the stage went out. The auditorium was completely dark. He just kept on playing as if nothing happened. Slowly after a short period of time, which must have felt like an eternity to him, the lights over the stage slowly rose in brightness back to their original state. Upon conclusion of the recital, everyone wanted to know what went through his mind the moment the lights went out. His response was, “Concentrate!”

Another advantage to the cold playing is the discovering of passages that are not as secure as they should be. Students may become more aware of these spots without a warm up. One cold performance to another will highlight the weaknesses as they reoccur and point to where more attention is needed before the big performance.  

In addition to playing cold, I also push my students to continue playing through memory slips in order to not stop the performance. Preparing for potential memory slips, we look at the solo and divide the work into multiple sections. Usually I will number or have the student number sections that can be any formal divisions and others varying in length, such as four, eight or sixteen bars. Then, I ask them to treat the solo as a story and the sections as chapters in the story. After memorizing the starting points, the student memorizes each of the sections. Once they are able to start a section when I call out numbers in a random order, I know they are ready at any instance to jump from one section to another in case of a memory slip during performance. So if a memory slip occurs in a cold performance situation, they have a plan for working through the slip. If for some reason they become flustered during a performance and can’t remember the next section number, any number beyond the slip point will get them closer to finishing the piece. Of course, of all the sections to not forget, the last one is probably the most important.