play – practice – perform

play  ~  practice  ~  perform     Part One

Playing, practicing, performing are the three basic ways we spend time at the piano. Neither one is better or more important than the other, all three are essential. They are related, yet distinctly different. It is therefore important and necessary to define what it means to play, to practice, and to perform.

When you play the piano, the goal is to not have a specific goal.  Whatever happens is ok. Wrong note? No problem. Tempo all over the place? Don’t worry about it.  Which is probably why we call it “playing for fun” – because it’s fun not to have to worry about stuff. “Messing around” at the piano falls in the playing category, as does trying out new pieces.  One could compare playing to the way one meets people at a party or public function: due to the setting, interactions are usually less thorough, less intense, than in a one-on-one meeting. You will probably not take the time to divulge your inner-most secrets to every single person in the room – as a matter of fact, it would be inappropriate to do so; nor would you spend the time and resources (questionnaires etc) to get to know every last little detail about everyone present.

When you practice, the goal is to improve. This requires two things: you need a goal (what do I want to improve?) and you need a plan, a strategy (what do I need to do in order to improve?). Having a goal but no strategy is similar to having a destination but no knowledge of how to get there. On the other hand, having a strategy but no goal will make you wander aimlessly.  It is helpful to have an evaluation system in place: how do I know when I have reached my goal?

When you perform, you have an audience, real or imagined.  A pianist in a recording studio does not have a real audience, but he/she is playing as if there were an audience because once the CD or DVD has been published, it will be listened to, and/or watched by an audience. When you perform for a real/live audience, you get one chance at presenting your piece and for that reason it is different from playing. Most people underestimate what it takes to perform. They think that performing is like playing, except with a lot of concentration because you don’t want to mess up.  They think since you know how to play, you should – with a lot of concentration – be able to perform.  However, that’s like saying you’re qualified to give a speech just because you know how to speak.

Even though all three elements – playing, practicing, performing – are equally important, this is not how most students and pianists spend their time at the piano: we tend to spend a huge amount of time practicing, some time playing (feeling guilty because we’ve been told that we should be practicing), and even less time performing. We especially don’t practice to perform. This means our performance success is based on luck (“Just focus and you’ll be fine!”) rather than skill (“I have practiced to perform, I am well-prepared.”)


play  ~  practice  ~  perform     Part Two

A different frame of mind is required for each of the three basic ways we spend time at the piano.

When you play the piano, the goal is to not have a specific goal.  In other words, you don’t care what happens. You should not care. The point is not to care. The moment you care, you are actually practicing.

When you practice, the goal is to improve.  In other words, you must care. You must listen and critique and correct and aim to improve.  If necessary, you must interrupt your playing in order to fix something. You must be prepared to interrupt, and to repeat short sections. If you don’t care, you’re not actually practicing, you are playing.

When you perform, you have an audience, real or imagined.  In order to perform successfully, you must leave the “practice” frame of mind behind. You may take mental notes of your performance, but any accidental deviation from the perfect ideal must not distract you or interrupt your playing. It takes practice to change one’s frame of mind, intentionally, from practicing to performing.  Naturally, there is more to successful performing but this different frame of mind is probably the thing students and pianists overlook the most often.


Vanhal Cello Concerto in C

In May, Mark came across mention of a cello concerto by Vanhal he wasn’t familiar with, decided to look for it and found a delightful YouTube recording but no score.

After much research he did find the full score (via interlibrary loan). imslp has the composer’s own transcript for viola, but not cello.

International Music Company sells the version for viola and piano, but both the cadenzas and the piano reduction are highly romanticized and therefore not really useful.

On the Reddit Cello Forum, Mark posted,

“The only thing I could find was a full score via interlibrary loan.

With the help of my cello teacher and my wife, a pianist and piano studio owner, I was able to produce a cello transcription from this score. Unfortunately the score had a number of inaccuracies, and even some cello parts in viola clef.

After several weeks work, with dozens of edits and revisions, we have a cello transcription that includes articulations, fingerings, and dynamics.”

The inaccuracies in the full score were at times mind-boggling – missing accidentals, horrible melody lines (“resolving” an F# up to C, etc.), and as Mark said, cello parts written in *viola* clef.

I created a piano reduction of the orchestra part, attempting to stay true to the Classical style and also aiming to keep it at a (late) intermediate level so it would be playable by an advancing student.

After two months of much tedious and exciting work, we are proud to announce that we now have a publication of the Cello Concerto in C major by Johann Baptist Vanhal, for cello and piano, the only one in existence. Published on SheetMusicPlus as well as SheetMusicDirect. 

It is reminiscent of the Haydn Concerto in C, just as delightful but a tiny bit easier and therefore approachable for cello students who are not quite ready for the Haydn.

Here is the link to Mark’s post on his cello blog:

How to Practice Better

The following are excerpts from Arnold Schwarzenegger’s daily email where he wants to cultivate “the positive corner of the internet”. While his emphasis is of course on physical fitness, many of the things he advocates for apply to any endeavor where you are trying to get better.

From the June 5 email:

Less Is More

Want to know what goes great with focusing on your wins? Narrowing your focus and not trying to do too much at once. A simpler approach can make all the difference between breaking through and experiencing setbacks.

Research suggests the more goals you try to tackle — and the more complicated you make them — the less likely you are to achieve your desired outcome. People try to “build Rome in a day” and overvalue complicated decisions over simple, repeatable behaviors.

[…]If you want healthy habits that last, you must make it so easy it’s hard to fail. Only then, can you progress to the more difficult challenges. I didn’t start by deadlifting 700 pounds or doing the workouts that made me Mr. Olympia. It began with pullups on branches and deadlifts in the dirt. Over time, as the reps and weights increased, I could train longer and harder and become stronger. But none of that would have been possible without tremendous focus that allowed me to build great routines.

So instead of setting 10 goals, start with just one or two — and make sure that they are realistic. Want to become a better cook? Start with basic recipes with simpler ingredients. Want to get up earlier? Limit your screen time later in the day and set an earlier bedtime. If you haven’t been in the gym in a few weeks, don’t start with an hour workout. Instead, See if you can do a 20-minute workout, two or three times per week. […]

The behaviors you want to achieve are the byproduct of stacking small wins and doing them repeatedly. The more they add up, the more you can add complication and challenges, and the more likely you are to stick to the plan, gain confidence, and achieve results better than anything you accomplished before.

So, how does that apply to practicing?

One Thing At A Time

Decide what you want to improve. If the goal is to play correct notes only, then you may have to temporarily ignore dynamics, articulation, expression, even rhythm to some degree. My favorite advice here is to “abandon fluency”.

Of course you are aware of what the dynamics, articulation, expression will eventually be, but for now, focus on that one thing: correct notes.

On the other hand, if your goal is to play with more expression, then you may have to ignore an accidental wrong note here and there.

Eventually, it will all come together, and you will be able to play correct notes with the correct rhythm and appropriate dynamics, articulation, expression, fluency, and tempo (which should always come last).

The goal should always be to make things so easy it’s practically impossible to fail.

The more concrete and manageable your goal is, the more likely you will accomplish it.

While some people are spurred on by failure, success is actually the best motivator. So, set yourself up for success, by focusing on One Thing At A Time. 

Dealing with Performance Anxiety

Most of us who grew up learning an instrument and therefore performing at recitals were offered various pieces of advice on how to deal with performance anxiety.

They ranged from, “Just focus and you’ll be alright!” to “Pretend the audience is wearing nothing but their underwear!” (because half-naked people are – less threatening?) to “Pretend the audience isn’t there.” That last one always baffled me: if you pretend the audience isn’t there, then why are you performing? Isn’t it for the audience? The audience you pretend isn’t there?

My teacher was different. She didn’t give advice but she made sure we were so well-prepared that any chance of “messing up” was minimal (and we practiced recovery for when mistakes did happen). We also practiced to perform, not once at a dress rehearsal but many times during the lessons leading up to a performance: how to walk up to the piano, bow, make sure the bench was at the proper height and distance, sit down, hear the beginning of the piece in our head, perform, finish, get up, bow, walk back to our seat.

If that sounds tedious – yes, maybe it was, but those are the steps involved in performing and so we practiced all of those steps until they felt natural and became part of “performing” – not just practicing your piece until it was perfect.

She also addressed the physical aspects of being nervous: feeling like you can’t breathe, etc.: she had us do jumping jacks – “faster!” – until we were out of breath and then immediately sit at the piano, and figure out what we had to do so we could perform while – initially – being out of breath. It was a good exercise, both physically, but also mentally in that the vague “nervous” became a very concrete physical sensation one could deal with.

I have since added my own ideas: butterflies in your stomach? Make them fly in formation. Shaky knees? Gently hold on to them with your hands and move them with purpose. And of course breathing techniques. All of which is meant to put you back in control, not allowing the performance and everything around it to control you.

The Issue of Wrong Notes

How one deals with wrong notes depends on what one is trying to accomplish.

When learning a new piece, it is useful to distinguish between the different skills needed.

HARD, HIGH-PRECISION SKILLS are actions that are performed as correctly and consistently as possible, every time. They are about repeatable precision. It helps to be careful, slow, and keenly attuned to errors because the first reps establish the pathway for the future.  

SOFT, HIGH-FLEXIBILITY SKILLS aren’t about doing the same thing perfectly every time, but rather about being agile and interactive. With these skills, we are not trying for Swiss-watch precision, but rather for the ability to quickly recognize a pattern or possibility, and to work past a complex set of obstacles. Soft skills are built by playing and exploring.”

(from Daniel Coyle “The Little Book of Talent – 52 Tips for Improving your Skills”) 


The HARD SKILL, as it pertains to learning a new piece, especially the notes, is:

  • repeatable precision, getting it right the first time and every time, no pecking at the keys until it sounds like it could be correct. 
    • Frances Clark says, “We must rid ourselves of the notion that in each day of practice, we make fewer mistakes than the day before. Practice is playing perfection again and again.“


To succeed, one must figure out what it takes to get it right the first time and every time.

Examples are:

  1. writing note names, finger numbers and counting in the score;
    • how to know which note names to write in the score: use the two-second rule: if it takes two seconds or longer to name the note and/or find the key on the piano – write the note name in the score.
    • Stephen Hough says, “When starting to learn a piece I always write in fingerings. It aids memory, it emphasises the act of study, it discourages a sloppy “sight-read till ready” attitude, it forestalls nerves in a performance, it personalises the score.”
  1. circling easy-to-overlook details such as sharps and flats from the key signature, accidentals;
  1. but most importantly: abandoning fluency and GOING SLOW and DELIBERATE.
    • Stephen Hough says, Slow practice can be a complete waste of time if the mind is not working quickly. Simply to trawl through passages like a contented tortoise is a waste of the felt on your piano’s hammers. Good slow practice is more like a hare pausing to survey the scene sharp in analysis, watching through the blades of grass, calculating the next sprint. […] It stops any tortoisian ambling and it focuses the mind quickly from one reflex to another. It is a hare with alert eyes.
    • Madeline Bruser says, The real key to vivid engagement with music isn’t slowness. It’s attention. But most of us are so used to speeding through all of our activities, including our practicing, that we need to slow down a lot at first in order to discover the power of attention. As we develop our listening capacity much more, it operates fully at faster and faster speeds.”
    • Diane Hidy says, “Practice at the speed of no mistakes.”
    • Someone else said, “Do yourself a favor and get it right!”

These tactics are like a cast for a broken bone:

They are necessary for success (healing a broken bone without a cast is possible but not likely to yield desirable results), and

They are temporary (cast comes off when the bone is healed). It is helpful to make a copy of the score to initially write note names, fingerings, helpful comments in the score, and then as one progresses set that copy aside and make a new one for a new set of comments and helpful hints.


SOFT SKILLS, as they pertain to learning to play a piece, have to do with exploring, experimenting with vague details such as pedal and dynamics, etc. = there is no one correct way.

Here, it is ok to ignore an accidental wrong note, especially if fluency is the goal.


Hard skills build the house,

soft skills apply wallpaper.

You can – you probably should! – dream 

about wallpaper while the house is being built

but you cannot apply it until you have walls.

The Art of Teaching

The Art of Teaching is different from, say, the art of painting, or the art of playing an instrument, different from the art of tuning a piano, or the art of making a beautiful home.

If you mess up your painting, you’ve got a messed up painting. If you mess up on your instrument, you messed up a piece of music. If you don’t do a good job tuning that piano, then you’ve got a messed up piano which is annoying and can be expensive to fix.

When you mess up in your teaching, you are messing with a human being.

So, why is it that people who know how to play their instrument but have NO training in regard to teaching are let loose on pupils?

Recently, I had the opportunity to observe some poor and inexperienced teaching. One of the two teachers had a one-size-fits-all approach to teaching, in addition to a frenetic and somewhat chaotic personality (and teaching style). While this teacher was without a doubt very experienced, the lesson itself was not a very promising sign of things to come: it was crammed full with irrelevant information (way too much theory that would not be applicable/useful for several weeks), redundant information (without checking with the student what he already knew, this teacher “taught” concepts with which the student was thoroughly familiar already), and way too little actual instruction on the instrument. The student was not given sufficient time to try out the new concept and then make sure that it was sufficiently understood to be taken home and practiced for a week.

The other teacher had a much more pleasant personality and some day will probably be a good teacher. At the moment, however, this one has neither the experience nor the training to teach a beginning student. After grousing about how inexperienced this teacher was, I came to the realization that it was not inexperience but the obvious lack of pedagogical training which made the lesson unsuccessful.

We all start out “inexperienced”. None of us are born with experience. There’s a first time for everything. There’s a first time a physician performs an exam or a surgery. There’s the race car driver’s first race.

What sets these people apart is the fact that before their first “real” thing they did spend time, usually a very long time, observing their masters, and then learning to practice their craft, usually under the guidance of their masters.

For some reason, people think that as long as you can play an instrument, you can teach. I actually once overheard the wife of the head of a music department at a university tell one of the professors something to the effect of “I don’t understand what there is to learn about teaching: you gotta love kids and you gotta love what you do.” There. She said it. What more could there possibly be to it?

There are, of course, “natural” teachers, just like there are “natural” psychologists, people who have an instinctive, intuitive, “feel” for people. But think of the training a psychologist has to undergo before she is allowed to practice her craft!

My wish list for pedagogical training of any future teacher of musical instruments includes:

mandatory lesson observations of different masters in their field, more than just once or twice please;

study the art of teaching their particular instrument: while there is some flexibility, there is usually a certain order in which things need to be learned (master addition before you attempt multiplication) or else you end up with an unreliable foundation;

study the teaching literature for their instrument: just because you grew up with a certain method doesn’t mean it’s the best;

teach many, many lessons under the supervision of your teacher/master. In the beginning, this should take the form of observing your teacher’s lesson (of another student) and taking over for 5 minutes to teach a certain concept. Over time, you grow into teaching an entire lesson, more time and you’ll be creating your own lesson plans.

In short, some form of apprenticeship.  Think about a physician’s first surgery. Regardless of how simple the surgery, the physician has most likely observed this surgery many, many times, then, with more training (reading about it, studying all aspects of it, passing tests to prove she understands all aspects of it), assisted in this surgery before she ever gets to touch a patient without supervision.

Of course, you say, well, with surgery – you have to be that careful.

But why should a student’s learning process be different from surgery? As a teacher who gets transfer students, I see all the time the damage a teacher with insufficient training can do to a student who doesn’t know any better.

I dream of a world in which we hold (the training of) teachers of musical instruments to the same standards as physicians, psychologists, and other professionals in charge of human development and health.

(Originally published Nov 19, 2009)


What I have learned

I have been teaching for a while now, and like most piano teachers, I heartily regret the first ten or so years of my teaching career – I had no idea what I was doing. My degree is in Performance and Pedagogy, so I thought I knew what I was doing, but like most piano teachers coming straight out of college, we tend to teach beginners up to intermediate students the way we were taught in grad school: emphasis on interpretation and performance, minute details, some technique, not nearly enough effort and time spent on building a good foundation, nor taking the time for lots and LOTS of repetition.

I shouldn’t be, but I am surprised that I am still learning new and important things. One of the recent most impactful ones came out of my growing frustration when students didn’t play well at a lesson.

I try to be very precise and unambiguous with the things I want my students to work on at home, but still, students were often not as well-prepared as I thought they could be. I remember one student in particular who kind of stumbled through his piece. I realized I was getting angry at his seeming lack of preparedness, especially since we had carefully set up goals and strategies at the previous lesson – and then his mother said, “At home he doesn’t play hands together, he only plays hands separately.” – So why on earth would you try to play hands together at the lesson?? When I asked him to play hands separately it was obvious that he was in fact very well-prepared.

So now, regardless of what a student asks – “Do you want me to play hands together or hands separately?” or “with metronome or without?” or “with the book or without?” or anything else -, I say, “Play it the way you play it at home.”

Sometimes they will say things like “- but I only got through the first two lines” to which I respond, “Then I would like to hear the first two lines.” – “But I only know the right hand” – “Then I would love to hear right hand for the first two lines.”

Once in a while a student seems to struggle with a piece and when I ask, “How do you play it at home?” they may sheepishly say, “Well – I usually play it *really* fast …”  No wonder they don’t recognize the piece when they try to play it at the correct (= slower) tempo for me.

One would think that my students have become used to this “Play it the way you play it at home” but every so often there is a student who plays through a piece and it gets progressively worse and worse. Why?  “I only practiced the first page, I haven’t learned the second one yet.”  So they were sight-reading through the second page (but making it appear like the second page was part of their preparation). I try to explain that that is not a smart idea because it makes it look like they didn’t practice at home.

I guess, it all comes down, again, to communication.


New Students

(publ. Nov. 2021) Over the last 15 months or so quite a few new students have come into the studio, and because I have a strict mask policy I have yet to see their faces. I know their eyes, and I know their voice, and their favorite outfits and their favorite masks; I am sure I would recognize them if I ran into them in a store.

The other day, someone other than a parent dropped off one of the younger students and said she wouldn’t come inside because she forgot her mask. I offered her a mask which she gratefully accepted, and that’s when I realized that it was, in fact, the mother of the student. I had never seen her face, and I was stunned at how very different she looked without a mask.

Yesterday, I asked the mother of another young student if it would be ok for me to take a picture of her daughter at the piano, and if it would be ok for her to pull her mask down for the two seconds it took to take the picture. She said, Sure, Of course, and – again, there was suddenly a completely new person at the piano, it was mind-boggling.

So, now I have started to take pictures of my newer students whose faces I had never seen, at the piano, mask pulled down for a second or two, to reveal the entire face.

I was surprised at how giddily excited I have become, seeing the whole face for the first time ever – it’s like discovering a new person! I had known their eyes, their voices but this is like a new dimension.

We say that you can see the soul of a person in their eyes and I am sure that is true, and eyes can be very expressive, but boy, there’s something about the rest of the face that the eyes don’t even hint at.

Makes me smile, just thinking about the other students whom I get to discover over the next couple lessons! I find myself wondering now, actively guessing what their faces look like behind their masks. (Mark asked if these new students have ever seen *me* without a mask, and – no, of course they haven’t, but most of them have seen a picture of me, without mask.) I think I’ll print the pictures of students’ faces just so I can look at them – and hope that someday, before too long, we will not need masks all the time anymore, and I get to see their entire beautiful faces for real, not just in a picture.


A Sign of the Times

Our town has always had its (small) share of (usually) homeless people, standing in the shade under a tree at the street corner, often close to a grocery store or Walmart, usually with a smallish hand-written piece of paper or cardboard sign, asking for help, food, occasionally money.

Recently, things have become more sophisticated. It is now usually a small family, or mother and children, often Hispanic where the mother speaks no English and depends on the child(ren) to communicate. The signs have become larger, much larger, with large print that is readable from across the parking lot, and the pleas for help have become more urgent, usually mentioning some sort of dire emergency: pregnant without resources, just lost their house in a fire or having been thrown out by the landlord with nowhere to go, one of the children urgently needing surgery, etc. and so on.

Gone is the disheveled look, the temporary-ness of the small cardboard signs. The same few (two or three) families seem to cycle through town, showing up in different places on different days.

The newest, latest, is now someone, sometimes a child (with father nearby), playing a violin, again with a large sign declaring their emergency, often with an online payment option at the bottom of the sign, Venmo number etc. so you don’t even have to interrupt their playing as you give them money.

The music is beautiful, romantic, lush, usually with some orchestral background to the violin solo. While it is not at all unusual for street musicians to have a recording of the orchestra part to their live playing, these recent performances are so obviously NOT live performances – the bowing and the finger movement of the other hand are so terribly out of sync with the music, and the sound of the violin unnaturally carries all the way across the parking lot.

It is not these scam artists whom I consider a sign of the times, but the reaction of the people.

We’ve been under so much stress for so long, helplessly watching COVID-19 ravage our country, raging fires destroy towns, entire counties, with no end in sight. Afghanistan, hurricanes, it just keeps piling up – and there is NOTHING the average citizen can do. We’ve been feeling helpless, powerless for so long – so, when there appears a chance to make a difference in someone’s awful life by helping them – a chance to actually DO something, right here, right now – people jump at it.

Reading accounts on social media, it is touching how quickly people put their lives on hold and go to great lengths to help these unfortunate ones who through no fault of their own are in such dire straights right now. People spend hours and resources to collect money, set up GoFundMe’s, collect resources where to find help (we have lots of them in our town), offer to take them places. – Only, these unfortunate ones show up a couple days later in a different part of town, with the same story, starting another cycle of people going out of their way to help them.

When it is being pointed out to the helpful ones that the boy playing the violin is not actually playing the violin, they get upset, “We were just there! We saw him!”

Which may possibly be a point to be made for public school music education: educate people so they can tell the difference between real violin playing and something fake. 

Your earliest convenience

My brain has trouble processing spoken language when I cannot see the person with whom I am speaking. I therefore have on my website that all communication should be via email. So, I receive emails, inquiring about piano lessons. Sometimes they have specific questions, sometimes it’s just, “Do you have room in your studio?”

Once in a while, the email concludes with “Please respond at your earliest convenience.”

I want to respond and ask, “Why?” Is there some emergency?

I can think of medical emergencies where I depend on a fairly immediate response from my physician. But piano lessons?

Or perhaps they think I need to be told not to dawdle? Because – ?

I don’t get it. And I resent it. If you send me an email with a question, of course I will respond. And I will respond as soon as I get to it. Which is usually the same day, unusually a day or two later, perhaps after the weekend. Which is by the way how my doctor responds, or actually any professional I happen to do business with. And they do it without being told to respond at their earliest convenience. It’s just – normal? I would think? And if they don’t respond right away then there’s most likely a good reason.

Many years ago, an email arrived, inquiring about piano lessons. When I didn’t respond right away, a tersely worded follow-up email basically said, “Well, are you interested or not? Because if you’re not then we’ll look somewhere else.”

I should have said, “Go something-something-unprintable and look somewhere else.” Instead, I was polite and responded that I was in Germany, completely overwhelmed because I was taking care of the memorial service for my mother who had died unexpectedly a couple days earlier, taking care of her affairs, and that I would get back with them when I was back in the States. “Oh.”

Instead of telling me what to do, implying that I NEED to be told what to do, I would suggest something like, “I look forward to your response!” or “We’re eager to get started!” or “Can’t wait to hear from you!”

(In case anyone is wondering – yes, I do take things very literally.)