So How Did Carnegie Hall Go?

On stage

It went great! I actually enjoyed myself and I was happy with my performance. For me, this was as good as it gets!  Click here to hear recordings of my performance.

As regular readers may remember, the email telling me I was a winner of the 2013 Bradshaw and Buono International Piano Competition got lost, so I wasn’t able to perform on the Winners’ Concert in May 2013. After several conversations with the organizers of the event, we settled on my performing as a featured artist on another event in February 2014 called “The Artists of the Alexander and Buono Masterclass Series”.

While I was sorry to miss hearing the other winners, I was glad to have many months to prepare for the concert. I developed a practice routine, took a special course to decrease performance anxiety, and did many practice performances.

Each day I would begin my time at the piano by playing the pieces straight through for the video camera. No warmup, just sit down and go, exactly as I would have to do on stage. Then I would listen to the video while studying the score, and use my observations to direct my work during that session.

I arrived in New York five days before my concert. I had a reservation at 853 Rehearsal Studios and continued my practice regimen there every morning. In the afternoon I mostly found myself resting and catching up on work that had fallen through the cracks in California.

On the big day, the dress rehearsal was scheduled from 9 to 11. The Weill Recital Hall is stunning, and the 9 foot Steinway piano had a beautiful sound and was easy to play. I only got 5 minutes in the morning to try the instrument because there were 18 other performers. Fortunately I had visited the Steinway Gallery in Walnut Creek where the manager, Justin Leavitt, let me rehearse my music for an hour or so on a similar Model D Steinway. So I was not thrown off by the big increase in bass sound; instead I could use it to make the music more beautiful. My sister, Jenny Peters, besides being a ‘Uke Wiz’ is also a pianist. She had flown in from Chicago, and was a big help listening in the hall to help me adjust what I was doing on stage so that it projected well.

Jenny and Rebecca at sound check

After the rehearsal, we got some breakfast; then I practiced some more at the rehearsal studio. We returned to the hall around noon for a photo shoot. The concert began at 1:30 p.m. but I didn’t go onstage until about 3:45 p.m. I spent the time backstage mentally reviewing my pieces and doing centering exercises. Those two hours were pretty trying!

My first piece, the Rachmaninoff transcription of Kriesler’s ‘Liebesleid’ was the best performance I have given of that piece. Once I started playing, my inner mental voice would say, “This is the big time! Be careful! Don’t mess up!” which caused a burst of anxiety. Then I would remind myself to bring my mind back to the music and focus on what I was doing. The zooming in and out of a focused state went on for about the first two minutes of the Rachmaninoff, but gradually I felt more centered. I began to enjoy the beautiful surroundings, the gorgeous instrument, and the feeling of being comfortable with my ability to play the piece. After all, I had played it from beginning to end hundreds of times. Why worry now?

I’m done

When I finished the first piece, someone in the balcony shouted ‘Brava!’ and everyone burst into applause. The enthusiastic feedback gave me a boost of happiness which translated into a little more relaxation and enjoyment. In the ‘Valse Brilliante’ by Manna Zucca, I was able to be more playful and trust my preparation to see me through. There was a nice response from the audience at the end, which made me happy. But most of all, I was thrilled to be finished with a period of intense work. Time to relax!

View from the restaurant

After the concert I went out to dinner with friends and family. It was a perfect New York evening with great food, live jazz and views.

6 Practicing Myths Dissected

You might have heard the old saying, “How do you get to Carnegie Hall? ….practice, practice, practice!” Now that I am scheduled to perform there in February 2014, I feel qualified to weigh in on the topic of how to practice the piano.

Piano Playing is Complicated

Studies have shown that playing a musical instrument is “among the most complex skills of (human) motor tasks” (LG Meister et al./ Cognitive Brain Research 19 (2004) 219-228). Certainly learning to perform a complicated classical piece of music from memory in front of an audience is the hardest task I have attempted. Most other things have seemed relatively easy by comparison except for facing the prospect of dying young from cancer.

Plenty of Advice Available

Many books have been written on how to play and practice the piano specifically, and on how to master complicated skills more generally. They range from philosophical books such as Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and The Inner Game of Music to pragmatic recent publications such as Josh Kaufman’s The First 20 Hours: How to Learn Anything… Fast!, and Chuan C. Chang’s Fundamentals of Piano Practice, and YouTube videos by everyone and their brother. It seems like mastering the piano should be a relatively easy task given the vast amount of instruction available; there were 104 MILLION listings when I googled ‘how to practice piano’.

But Will it Work?

However, when the rubber meets the road, one is generally alone at the keyboard trying to figure out the solutions to various problems. As the American folk song “Lonesome Valley” puts it:

You got to walk that lonesome valley
You got to walk it by yourself
Ain’t nobody else
Can walk it for you
You got to walk it by yourself.

What’s Ahead

I have decided to offer my thoughts on some of the more widespread beliefs about practicing. Hopefully you will find something of value here to help you on your path.Next week I will dive into the first myth: Practice Makes Perfect.  In the weeks ahead,  I will commit myself in print about some other common thoughts on practicing,  such as:

You can learn anything with enough repetitions
Practice, practice, practice will get you to Carnegie Hall
Learn it hands separately then hands together
Listen to recordings enough and you can put together a great interpretation
Learn technic first then work on music

I’d love to hear from you.  Are there any other beliefs about practicing you would like to hear about?  Do you have thoughts on the process of practicing you’d like to share?