The Makings of Musicality by Elvina Pearce

Photography by Raeleen Horn
Photography by Raeleen Horn


It’s probable that many believe musicians are born, not made.  Certainly  some individuals appear to have an innate “talent” for music-making and sometimes develop into superstars at an early age.  They somehow seem to acquire technical prowess and the ability to play expressively — but not necessarily because of how they are taught (sometimes even in spite of it!).  In this article, I am not writing about this type of “gifted” student.  Instead, I want to address music-making in terms of traditional (“average”) pre-college level students – the kind that I and others who teach at this level spend most of our teaching time working with.


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Take a Bow and Celebrate!

Well, I am back from a restful vacation and ready to get to work. After a summer break, most teachers are eager to begin another year with renewed enthusiasm. New goals are set, activities are planned, and projects are in the making. If you have a passion for teaching, it never seems to leave you.



In this blog, I share more of my research about the pedagogy class that Louise Goss taught, “The Teaching-Learning Process and the Piano Teacher.” Today’s topic is on recital preparation. In addition to what Miss Goss had to say about performance, I have included suggestions made by Elvina Truman Pearce. Mrs. Pearce joined the class as an invited guest lecturer.


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Diary of a Return: reflections



As I look back on all my Diary entries, I can see two things that helped me achieve my goals:  the fact that I knew from the beginning what I wanted, and the fact that I consistently used every tool I knew of.  I believe that having a clear, specific goal helps us achieve the goal, and that we have to make an effort to use the tools we know, and not practice our same old way.


What did I want?  As I gradually emerged from some years dominated by poor health, I had been creeping toward my main goal, to become a performer again – for a few years there, I hardly practiced, and only performed occasional duets.  As my energy returned, I played increasingly frequent small performances.  It occurred to me last March that if I wanted to return to playing professional performances, I would have to up the ante.  Thus was born the idea of playing a full-length house concert for a small, supportive audience.

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Diary of a Return: index of performance preparation tools

Below is an index of the tools I wrote about in “Diary of a Return,” along with a couple that I didn’t mention.  I hope it will be useful to you and your students. Obviously, some items belong in more than one category.  I felt like I had to choose one category per item, because otherwise this entry would never end.  Before I launch into them, I want to thank you for reading, and thank for allowing me to follow this project through to the end!  It’s been good for me.


Learning the music, improving the interpretation

·        Speed-memorizing: away from the piano, and without the music first time we touch the piece

·        Concocting stories for the music

·        Mental practice

·        Mental practice for children who misread notes at home

·        Following a composer’s directions to get close to music we don’t relate to at first

·        Slow practice to help us avoid the “speed-accuracy trade-off”

·        Challenge of changing tempo to truly practice slowly

·        Slow practice is easier when we play expressively

·        Consistent voicing

·        Recording ourselves a lot, starting early in the process – especially the sequence of recording, listening, practicing in changes, and then recording again. I don’t expect you to check out all these entries!  (And there are more that I didn’t include!)  I just wanted to emphasize how much recording I do – and, the fact that I learned something important about my playing from every recording I made: here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here.

·        The music comes out when we follow the composer’s articulations and dynamics here and here.

·        Mentally practicing one hand while physically playing the other: here and here

·        Appreciation practice

·        Paying attention to double-stemmed notes that imply greater stress

·        Paying attention to the texture when deciding what sound we want to create

·        Accepting that we’ll be revisiting some technical sections until the day of the performance

·        Lessons with artist teacher

·        Experimenting with marked tempos to determine how to help a piece  speak

·        Giving oneself the gift of a great recital

·        Discipline

·        Tender loving care for every note – practicing that is physical, mental, and emotional

·        Consistent sound for melody

·        Playing for friends who are excellent musicians: here and here

·        Research about the music:  listening to Janáček played on harmonium on YouTube, reading about Janáček on articles in JSTOR, Howat and Helffer edition of Debussy, Paul Roberts’s Images: the Piano Music of Claude Debussy.  I didn’t mention Sandra P. Rosenblum’s Performance Practices in Classic Piano Music or Lewis Lockwood’s Beethoven: The Music and the Life because I read them at an earlier stage.  It’s also fun to read Thayer’s Life of Beethoven, and I’m looking forward to reading Elements of Sonata Theory by Darcy and Hepokoski.

·        Using pedal, sound, and dynamics, along with exploring feelings in the music to help it speak

·        Listening to recordings can be like taking a lesson with the performer.

·        Mental practice circumvents habit, and combining it with lying on pillows set up to keep sternum open helps improve posture.

·        Music box practice

·        We need to spend enough time with every piece of music.

·        Generating a steady tempo internally by listening to subdivisions

·        Awareness of the hierarchy of note values and other rhythmic/metric considerations

·        Setting an internal alarm to notice little hesitations or inconsistencies in sound – the alarm keeps us from getting used to the way we play.


Practicing specifically to bring out the music in performance

·        Creating such a clear pulse that the audience would sway from downbeat to downbeat

·        Listeners need sections and chunks to be clear.

·        Identifying the sound quality we want in every piece and section

·        Goals for the last couple of weeks before a performance, so we give the music to the audience on a silver platter: show character of a piece, create a clear pulse, show them what to listen to

·        Running the whole program the last couple of weeks before a performance: here and here

·        Article from Time: Over-practicing makes perfect

·        Practicing so the performance improves in the presence of an audience

·        Lots of slow looking/listening/planning-ahead practice: Benefits, description, another mention (there are more!  I do a lot of it before performances)

·        Getting into character from the first note

·        Being able to play the recital without embarrassment by one month prior to the recital date

·        Previewing recital and recital preparation one week prior

·        Running the music under every condition

·        Practicing starts – taking time to feel connected to the piano, then starting in character, with steady pulse and desired sound from the first note.  It’s one of the few things I practice the day of the recital, in a very particular way.


Technical tools

·        Aiming to the point of sound for every note, and finding the point of sound to get used to a piano in a hurry

·        Avoiding pushing on the key bottom by changing the speed and weight with which we move through the point of sound

·        Hands open-but-not-stretched

·        All parts moving enough so one part doesn’t have to work extra

·        Avoiding stretching with a gentle staccato

·        One hand cuing the other

·        Toned f’alm

·        Balanced arm with no tilt


Body movement

·        Sternum open and soft

·        Sitting far enough back from piano for arms to have room to move

·        Making a nearly inaudible hiss to ensure we keep breathing

·        Loose jaw

·        Lessons with master Feldenkrais teacher

·        Rested shoulder blades: here and here

·        Sticking out the stomach!


Setting ourselves up for success

First, two books:

·        Dr. Bill Moore’s Playing Your Best When It Counts three-book seriesThe High Performance Journal contains practical steps for improving practice and performance, and is the one my students and I use the most (I mention these tools a lot, particularly the performance script).  The practice journal is also invaluable.  The High Performance Workbook is for going deep to improve performance skills.

·        Dr. Don Greene’s book, Performance Success.  I also mention this book a lot, particularly the pajama run-through (please be aware that this undignified term is my own and not Dr. Greene’s) and the site visit.  We can even do a mental site visit.

·        Success with performance script

·        Importance of writing a strong finish into the performance script

·        Mental practice the day before the recital

·        Knowing my own story or image for every piece and every movement on the program.  If I’m clear about my own story, people may not imagine my story, but the music will take them somewhere.

·        Maximum of 1-4 performance goals; here are the goals I chose for the recital

·        Paying attention to encouraging messages from friends and others

·        Embracing vulnerability

·        TED talk: The Power of Vulnerability by Brené Brown

·        Getting enough sleep!

·        New York Times  article: Getting enough of the right kind of sleep

·        Power poses to reduce jitters and bring one’s whole self to performance

·        TED talk: Your body language shapes who you are by Amy Cuddy

·        Pledging to accept slips and commit to the music to improve mindset in performance

·        Remembering that performers bring gifts to audiences

·        Benefits of a clear intention

·        Dr. Bill Moore’s “80/20 rule” to practice trust in performance

·        Planning to bring a spirit of adventure to performing challenging, lively music

·        Deciding ahead of time what to try out on a new piano: here and here

·        Being aware of The “Letdown Phenomenon”

·        Playing short performances for a group that meets specifically to keep up performing skills

·        Remembering that each performance is a moment in time, not the definition of a performer

·        Practicing gratitude

·        Practicing enjoying the music:  if we practice in fussing and worrying, that’s what we’ll do in performance!  If we want to enjoy the music in performance, we probably have to practice that instead.


Mindset tools for the performance itself

·        Using meditation form to improve concentration in performance

·        Using “let go/listen” to let go of unwanted thoughts in performance: this is how I have modified the meditation form to be useful for those who don’t practice that meditation.

·        Remembering we do not have the perspective to judge our performances while they’re happening – not to mention that our minds should be elsewhere

·        Instant forgiveness: here and here and here.  The last one is about letting go of instant forgiveness and seeking total immersion:

·        Total immersion/commitment: here and here and here, and at the recital

·        Work with whatever happens in performance

·        Thinking happy thoughts the day of a performance!  Troubles can wait safely in place until after the performance.

Diary of a Return: The Recital Day



Editor’s Note:  This diary entry is the thirty-eighth in a series of entries describing Teresa Dybvig’s strategies for preparing for an upcoming recital after a long break  from performing. Keep posted for an index of resources for performance preparation.  For more about The Well-Balanced Pianist, click on this link:


Sunday, November 9: the recital!


Today, I woke up and smiled – as planned, in my performance script!  Following the script, I also ate a tasty breakfast with my husband, did some Yoga and Feldenkrais, and meditated.  I ironed my jacket and did some reception preparation in the kitchen.  I read my performance script.


The only practicing I did was to spend about a half hour reviewing some technical spots in the morning, and then my starts before the recital.  Right before a recital, I start every piece, beginning with the piece at the end of the recital and ending with the first piece I will play.  Before each start, I remind myself of my performance goals, release my arms to connect to the piano, and then listen to the sound of the opening of the piece, and feel the pulse.  I practice taking as long as I need to connect to the piano, listen to the sound of the opening, and feel the pulse.  I know from experience that this never takes as long as I think, and it sets me up to start each piece in character right from the first note.

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