Any pianist worth his or her salt knows that the keyboard is
symmetrical around both D and G#. This useful fact allows you to
invert any one-hand figure and practice it with both hands
Many times there is a slight variant that trades off exact symmetry
for improved musicality. The key point is always to use identical
fingerings in both hands.
Increases the efficiency in your use of time
Balances your strong hand against your other
Helps to achieve exact rhythm
You should have one or two pieces in your permanent repertoire
that you play very well even when very drunk. For those who don’t
drink that would be one or two pieces you play very well even under
very stressful circumstances.
You can be sure that at some point your best friend, who should
know better, will insist that you play, brushing aside excuses that you
have just drunk a bottle of Jack Daniels or have just undergone
The smallest if not the weakest finger, the pianist’s pinky deserves
extra attention. Frequently it has the greatest responsibility – such
as supporting the treble and bass lines. Support it with the
movement of the hand, wrist and arm.
Avoid concert-circuit tricks such as playing octave passages with the
thumb and middle fingers. This has probably been the primary
cause of the complete loss of use of the right hand for some pianists.
Consider a genetic mutation or manipulation that swaps the fingers
in such a way that the thumbs are on the outside. Would this enable
a new breed of Super-Pianist? Will pianists in the future have pinky
extensions or transplants to enable a thumb to pinky interval of a
twelfth, equaling Rachmaninoff ’s prodigious finger span?
THE RING FINGER
The ring finger is the weakest and least independent finger, because
it shares a tendon with the middle finger. Its independence and
strength can be gauged by the quality of your middle and ring finger
trill, the hardest trill except possibly for the pinky and ring finger
Professionals in the know recommend that you not avoid or work
around this finger, because it will improve through practice. This is
the same reason an eye patch is always placed over the good eye: to
improve the weaker eye.
It could be beneficial to overuse the ring finger slightly to accelerate
improvement, but this must not conflict with the development of
your own consistent and natural fingering method.
EIGHTY FIVE PERCENT
Never perform pieces that require one hundred percent of your
theoretical peak performance.
The other fifteen percent is to account for any combination of bad
luck, bad conditions or bad headache.
The exception to this rule is when you’re playing in an informal
setting, on a piano you know intimately and with a forgiving and
You may find it helpful to build a select group of sympathetic
people for whom you can try out your most challenging material
before you attempt it in concert.
Don’t have sex before performing; it takes the “edge” off the
performance. I’ve heard that some professional athletes also follow
this advice, and I understand that beta blockers sacrifice this “edge”
for manageable nerves.
Start being nervous well before the concert; don’t think negatively
but do think about performing and try to get some adrenalin going.
When you do start playing you will still have an “edge” but you
won’t have to contend with a sudden flood of adrenalin.
Don’t be alarmed should your hands shake or should you make new
and unusual mistakes at the start. Most important is to survive the
first piece with panic at bay and your ability to concentrate intact.
BEFORE THE CONCERT
Never drink alcohol or eat a large meal before a concert.
Do not practice on the day of the concert. If you aren’t well
prepared, practicing on the same day will simply illustrate for you
the things that will go wrong — inciting panic when it is too late to
have any benefit.
It is best to warm up with “dry-run playing,” wherein you play very
lightly and without pedaling.
Don’t allow friends to coerce you into an attempt at being sociable
before a concert. Allow yourself the luxury of being a bit of a
loner or grouch. You must keep distractions and irritations to a
Find a true friend who can help you by driving you to the concert
or by coming backstage to give you the green light signal.
WHAT TO BRING
Concert clothes unless you plan to wear them
Concert programs and miscellany unless already provided
Talcum powder or chalk for moist hands
Handkerchief to mop up excess blood, sweat, tears and mucous
Sheet music in case of memory lapse
Portable heater if needed, for cold hands; hot running water will suffice
Tuning wrench and two rubber dampers unless you have checked the
piano recently, in case any note is out of tune with itself
TUNING A SINGLE PITCH
Required: A tuning wrench and two rubber dampers
It is unpleasant and distracting when a note (pitch) that uses two or
more strings is out of tune with itself. This is caused by pin
slippage, notched strings, tension imbalance or sudden temperature
or humidity changes. Almost always, one string or pin will have
slipped (gone flat) relative to the others. First decide which one has
slipped, then adjust it with the minimum of pin movement.
A pianist is often forbidden from correcting this, as carelessness can
weaken the pins or make the problem recur should a tension
imbalance be introduced. For three-string notes, tune the outside
strings to the middle, but if you’re certain the middle string is out,
use another as the reference. Ask your technician to help you
acquire this essential skill, and then deploy it only when necessary,
without permission, and always with the utmost care and
Encores are two (sometimes one or three) pieces that are
programmed and practiced just like the others, except:
Encores are not listed on the program.
Encores are to be played if the audience feels that you’ve done a
good job, even when you don’t completely agree. Sometimes an
audience will congratulate you simply for your hard work and
courage; if they insist, you should comply.
Encores should be single-movement pieces on the brief side. You
can play a big warhorse piece like L’Isle Joyeuse as an encore only if
your performance is triumphant. Encores should generally not be
contingent on anything; if you are merely stalwart you can not play or
risk playing badly. Encores should be reliable pieces for you, or you
need reliable alternates that can be substituted at the very last
or: Crouching Pianist, Hidden Message?
Superfluous physical activity is to be avoided while playing. Much
of a pianist’s practice time is spent alone, with no witnesses. Once a
bad habit becomes unconscious it can be impossible to break.
Avoid talking, muttering, humming, groaning, whistling, loud breathing,
sighing, tapping, stamping, flailing, gyrating, scowling and of course the
overly dramatic falling off the bench.
Other body language tricks, which I find unnecessary or worse, are
crouching to give the illusion of quiet dynamics and leaning to give the
illusion of volume swell. Such tricks are no substitute for the real
Physical movement is sometimes called for to support the
performance. An example is shifting weight onto the left or right
buttock, to move your center of gravity toward the extreme left or
right of the keyboard, when a passage requires it.
Also acceptable is the Lisztian eyes closed and nose heavenward.
SMARTER NOT HARDER
Your brain must be fully engaged while practicing and performing.
It is true that improper practice can be much worse than no practice
at all. Rote learning and reliance on “muscle memory” can be
dangerous and lead to the dreadful halted performance.
More important than practicing exactly three hours daily is to ensure
than every minute invested works (however slowly) toward your
Important tools are the Rule of Segments (to break down difficult
material into segments) and the Rule of Three. The Rule of Three
states that if you can’t play a segment three times in a row correctly
you need to continue working on it. These tools must be married to
the Rule of Connectivity, where each segment’s last note or beat is the
next segment’s first, to insure motion and phrase connectivity.
Your listeners should not be punished for expressing appreciation.
Current performance practice is stuffy in this regard; in the past it
was normal for an exuberant first movement to be applauded.
Acknowledge all applause with a bow, nod, smile or wave.
Try not to have anyone in your direct line of sight, not usually a
problem for pianists. People in close proximity and in your line of
sight may distract you with sudden movements or other behavior,
however unintentional it may be.
Unlikely though it may seem, watch out for sabotage, or even better,
enlist a friend to help. I experienced it myself, only discovering it
after repeated listening to a live recording of mine. Expect it in
competitive environments. You may in dire circumstances find it
necessary to make a short list of the unwelcome, but there is no
shame in this. Performing is one of, if not the most difficult things
you will ever do.
THE RIGHT FOOT
That’s what you want to start off on. Unless you are a virtuoso,
veteran or consummate performer you would be well advised to give
special attention to the piece that starts the concert.
If you falter and lose your concentration you may find yourself in
the dreadful state where you are dwelling on past mistakes and are
doomed to make new ones. The worst that can happen is that you
panic and don’t finish the concert or that you play consistently
This is why the first piece in a program should be in a medium to slow
tempo, or be something you are very comfortable with. Watch for bad
tendencies such as pushing the tempo just beyond where it should
be. If your first piece goes well you may find that you enter the
ideal state where you are inspired, concentrated and may even play
better in concert than you do usually.
The middle pedal on a concert grand is called the sostenuto pedal.
Since you often can’t rely on having one, you might forgo its use
altogether. One alternative that will serve you well is to learn the
half-pedal technique. In this technique you quickly lift the damper
(sustain) pedal a small amount to partially dampen the sustained
notes. Because the lower strings are fatter and vibrate more widely,
this dampens the upper pitches while sustaining the lower ones.
This is usually the desired effect, and can achieve what is sometimes
referred to in music theory as a pedal point (this term refers to the
foot pedal register of an organ). This requires some practice and
each piano’s pedal will have a different point at which it gives the
exact effect you desire. There are exceptions of course: for example
in Albeniz’s El Albaicín, at bar 253, which starts with a low Bb
octave sustained over a long period. This passage benefits so much
from the sostenuto pedal that it is worth using it whenever possible.
I sure wish my Steinway grand were portable — but if it were, it
wouldn’t be a Steinway of course. Pianists should regard with envy
musicians who may easily cart around their lovely acoustic
instruments. Given that we must usually make do with the one
provided at a given venue, pianists must learn to quickly adapt to an
astonishing variety of different instruments. The only exception is
the tiny, fortunate minority who are able to add requirements
regarding the piano in their contracts and bookings.
It really is quite a disadvantage that is often not considered by
non-pianists. The fine level of intimacy one gains from years of
familiarity with an instrument is often difficult to translate onto a
very different one. Pianos can be extremely bright, dull, loud or
quiet. Sometimes the dynamic control of the different registers is
uneven, for example when the bass has a tendency to completely
drown the treble. Sometimes the action and pedals are so different
that you feel as if you are fighting the instrument.
The action on a grand is quite different from that of an upright
piano. In part because the hammers on a grand are pushed directly
upward to hit the strings, its action can be characterized as
“meatier,” or “heavier.”
This is a good thing in general I think, as a heavier action aids in the
development of overall strength and dynamic control. However,
you may run into the odd piece that benefits from or almost requires
the lighter action of an upright. A case in point is Debussy’s Poissons
d’or, which evokes goldfish with a very fast tremolo effect. It is
substantially more difficult to play on a grand.
If you don’t practice regularly on a grand you may find the
adjustment difficult if you just plop yourself down to perform on
one. I suppose this is true for uprights as well. Playing on many
varieties of piano should enable you to quickly adapt to whatever
circumstances you encounter.
PAIN AND PROPER TECHNIQUE
This is not a guide to piano technique. Hopefully you have had an
excellent grounding in proper technique by a good teacher.
That said, I must stress this because of its importance:
If it hurts, stop immediately.
Playing the piano is not supposed to be painful. Frequent
performers may contend with fatigue, and the unfortunate may have
to deal with numbness, caused by repetitive stress injury or carpal tunnel
These are no laughing matters for a pianist, and so I must again
stress the importance of learning proper technique from a good teacher.
POKING AND PRODDING
Although it may seem silly or insensitive, this is one game my
teacher and I played to improve my concentration.
The game consisted of my playing the piano while my teacher tried
to disrupt my concentration. He would do this by rummaging about
the room noisily and occasionally poking or prodding me.
In reality, one must be able to survive the many obstacles to
concentration. These may come in the form of phones ringing,
pagers beeping, doors shutting, loud coughing, chairs scraping, or
It is essential that these things not throw you off, and any method
or tool for this purpose is worth a try at least.
These are the practice modes I find most useful.
Dress Rehearsal is to act as if you were performing — the entire
program, no stopping, surviving mistakes as best you can.
Drill Down is to stop at every significant error, dissecting as finely
as is required to address the problem.
Memorization Mode is to learn to play a piece without the score,
stopping to consult it as needed.
Free Improvisational is to explore beyond the score, in order to
comprehend it more completely.
Maximum Coverage is to play as much of your repertoire as
possible, omitting repeats and “easy” or rock-solid material.
Discovery Mode is to play unfamiliar music, and
Featured Composer is to explore your repertoire one composer at
One valid criticism I’ve heard jazz musicians level at classical
musicians relates to improvisation and the overly literal treatment of
Improvisation is not the sole purview of jazz music, although you
might think so from current performance practice. Historically,
musicians were expected to improvise ornamentation, repeat
variations, and even harmonization and accompaniment. I believe
this was often done “on the fly.”
A solo pianist can use improvisation as a practice tool, to help
develop compositional literacy, to dissect passages, to compose your
own cadenzas, or to “raise the bar” by making difficult sections even
more so. Hint: when you lower the bar after raising it you can make
difficult material seem easier, and even turn the impossible into the
difficult but doable.
KNOW THE SCORE
Unless you are working with a conductor or composer, you are the
final arbiter of the scores you are working with. You should be able
to easily distinguish a repeat variation from a typographical error.
Posthumous works deserve extra care; for example most editions of
Chopin’s Nocturne in E minor haven’t what my piano teacher and I
settled on as the “right notes.” Hint: bar 24, last beat, right hand, C
natural, A natural.
Study of music theory, however you wish to do it, is crucial to assist
you in determining a composer’s intention. Usually you can only be
certain of pitches and note values. The publisher or editor, not the
composer, often adds or changes tempi, dynamics, phrasing,
articulation, pedaling, and fingering. Occasionally a pedantic
revisionist sees fit to grind his axe on another’s music. In J. S.
Bach’s Prelude No. 1 (W.T.C.), if bar 23 has a G in the bass it should
be elided. Bach thought it acceptable to pass from F# to Ab
directly. The Schwenke edition made this “correction” and it still
misleads the unsuspecting musician.
ADAPT THE SCORE
As with ancient religious texts, a literal or fundamentalist treatment
of the score is a grievous error. It fails to acknowledge the true
intent and mening of the music, which the score is meant to
illuminate, not embody. You should use the extra bass notes on a
Bösendorfer when a low A is a substitute for G#; this is just one
clear example of the need to understand the intent of a note.
Treat fingering and pedaling marks as helpful advice, nothing more.
Be not afraid to shuffle notes freely between the hands. A favorite
example of my own invention (certainly discovered by others too) is
in Chopin’s Ballade No. 4, bar 223, where the middle notes of each
three-note group in the right hand, except the first, is taken with the
left. I find difficulties abound and I’ll gladly use all the help I can
get. Tricks like this can be considered a pianist’s trade secrets and I
fear some aren’t published and never become common knowledge.
Pianists with small hands need their own special bag of tricks. I’ve
heard that Alicia de Larrocha has a span of an octave only, which you
certainly wouldn’t know from listening to her.
All pianists play at least an occasional wrong note. The difference
between a good and a great player perhaps lies in the quality of their
wrong notes. If the interpretation is transcendent the audience
certainly should be more forgiving.
One classic anecdote I heard tells a story of Liszt making an
unmistakable error on a passage’s climactic high note. Rather than
continue onward, Liszt wheels back around, improvising a re-
approach to the error, and with a grand flourish, plays it correctly the
second time. There is no improvement on this inspired method of
dealing with a mistake.
Don’t be discouraged by what I call the tyranny of the recording, where
it may seem that most players play note perfectly, even in the most
difficult pieces. In reality these recordings are often edited or
chosen carefully from among many. Musicality is the goal, not
While some think that memorization is required for solo
performances, this is not a law set in stone. It is better to perform
with the aid of a score than not to perform. It is better to perform
with a score than to halt in confusion and consult the score. Do
practice handling the score smoothly.
It is quite acceptable to use a score for avant-garde works and works
that are lengthy or not suited to memorization. One trick I’ve relied
on is to use the score as a fallback. In this case I turn the pages
myself but only when convenient, relying on memory when the hands
are simply too busy to turn them.
Perhaps the most treacherous to memorize are pieces where a
section repeats several times, each with a slightly different ending or
modulation which carries you forward or back. Missing such an
ending causes a distressing looping or truncation of the piece, and can
be very difficult to survive gracefully.
Once you know it is time to begin, walk confidently onstage, try to
smile, perhaps placing one hand on the piano, and bow deeply at the
waist with arms at your side. Then, position yourself at the piano
and sit. If you are wearing tails you may at the same time fling them
ceremoniously behind you.
Take your time to get situated and gather your nerves; you can buy
extra time if needed by fiddling with the bench and such. Take three
very deep breaths.
Once you are ready to begin, you should place your hands and feet
in their starting positions and then wait for silence, or perhaps wait
for the pounding of your heart to subside.
Hearty applause deserves a long bow. Should you be blessed with
the need to play encores, they should be announced as loudly as is
comfortable just before playing them.
DIGITAL VS. ANALOG
Pianists are for the most part analog creatures. They may be
transformed into digital entities by such things as the glorified player
piano, the Yamaha Disklavier. This hybrid machine digitally and
precisely captures the manipulations of the keys and pedals, also
known as performance capture, which can then be reproduced exactly,
ad infinitum, on the analog piano. A lazy individual could purchase
and not play this instrument, thus avoiding the need to hire (or bribe)
musicians, take lessons, or even go to concerts. This is not in the
best interests of the art form. You should consider carefully the
degree to which you agree to be digitized.
My Steinway is not digital, thank you very much. Nor is it MIDI
compatible, nor does it require frequent upgrading or rebooting. Nor
do I think this is a problem. In the light (and dark) of recent local
power crises, I for one appreciate the qualities of such an
instrument as I play on it by candlelight.
It is difficult to listen carefully to yourself while playing. If you
don’t, though, you have no hope of playing really well. One tool you
can and should employ to this end is to record and listen to your
playing. It may be painful at first but is guaranteed to bring things
to light. Counting time along with the playback may help uncover
If you can record your live performances, you should do so.
Hopefully these recordings will serve as a permanent memorial to
your bravery and artistry. At the very worst they will serve as a
record of difficult lessons learned.
Either way, it is easy to forget both your moments of inspiration
and your moments of despair, and a live recording will bring these
memories back, vividly. Eventually you will be able to gather your
best performances into a collection and proudly publish them as
your own live recordings.
My teacher always rolled his eyes when he told me of pianists who
would program lengthy recitals consisting solely of the late works of
From an audience’s perspective, a narrative arc or at least contrast is
important. Rather than treat the concert as some sort of platform
from which you lecture a class, think of it as a journey or even as an
opportunity to tell a story. A recital of all Liszt, Ravel, Chopin or
Beethoven should not be lacking in contrast.
I often divide the program into two halves separated by a short
intermission. These halves can then be divided again into two or
three parts, grouping the pieces so that the audience does not feel
required to applaud after each one. The groups should preferably
be chosen so that they have some sort of arc or some contrast.
Treat each group as a single piece with several movements,
especially when constructed by you of disparate parts.
Music seems to me both a mysterious and magical phenomenon.
Perhaps the most abstract of all the art forms, it seems universal and
ubiquitous. Why can five notes arranged just so trigger strong
emotions in some people?
Why is “pushing air” such an important art form? Rhythmic pulse
may have a deep connection to the beating of the human heart and
the cosmological clock. I firmly believe (without any proof) that
music can induce spiritual and even physical healing.
Fascinating studies on music’s effect on people range from the
alleged “Mozart Effect” on children’s abilities in mathematics to
comparing brain physiology of musicians. I think my own musical
capabilities have something to do with language and mathematics.
Sometimes when I am improvising it seems as though I enter a
cerebral “alpha state”, and the music begins to flow through me.
Understanding the brain is clearly essential in understanding why
music is so important to so many of us.
Given the difficulties inherent in live performance, you may indeed
wonder, why bother. Whether or not society seems to hold the arts in
high regard, the challenge and joy of live performance should be its
Artists of the caliber of Martha Argerich and Lang Lang are most
certainly enviable and deserving of admiration and respect. But,
should you teach a single student, perform a single concert or write
a single article on music, you too are part of a great tradition and
should take pride in its survival and evolution through the centuries.
The piano is a truly marvelous instrument and will be around for
the foreseeable future. In spite of what some futurists may say, it
will always require a human musician to play it beautifully.