Becoming a Confident Performer

Question: Hi, I am a pianist and also a student, and I wonder every day in my life, why don’t I “get there”? I mean, I play the pieces, I play recitals and concerts, but I don’t know, maybe because I know myself and I watch “the pianist” from inside not outside, other pianists seem to be a lot more sure of what they are doing, and out of 10 I give myself an 8.5. I would love if someday I watched myself playing and thought – that is an amazing interpretation of this piece; that is a 10!! – Considering that when I prepare a certain piece, I research and listen to a lot of other pianists, so mine should be the best, at least to me.

– Diego Gorzynski (Brazil)

Albert’s reply: You’re talking about two aspects of performing: security and interpretation. It sounds as though the security you’re talking about is interpretive rather than technical, although the two are inextricably related.

In fact, the two have a reciprocal relation: The more technically secure you are as a performer, the more secure you’ll tend to be in your musical expression. Conversely, the more musically secure you are, the more technically secure you’ll tend to be.

The reason is that technique and expression are inseparably intertwined; technique is but the “expression” of expression.

For strategies on becoming more technically secure, please read How to Learn Music.

Musical security – i.e. certainty in your interpretation – means that what you are expressing aligns with the piece’s internal expressive vocabulary, the overarching style, and, presumably, with the composer’s ideal. Would the composer acknowledge your performance as “the piece” as he envisioned it?

These are very heady questions, and I’d like to offer a twofold response. First, any piece of music has its own network of internal relations, the way words form phrases, phrases form sentences, sentences form paragraphs and each paragraph is part of a larger whole in language.

These internal relations are partly objective and partly subjective. Many people assume music to be inherently subjective, but it is not. Objective components of music include direction and harmony, and there are logical rules of thumb that govern their interpretation, which is to say how they should be played.

For example, a descending sequential motive is most often played with a decrescendo, while a rising motive is most often played with increasing intensity, crescendo. (Crescendo and decrescendo should never be confused with absolute volume; I therefore prefer to think of the intensity of sound.)

Similarly, many elements of harmony are objective, and there are rules of thumb that govern their interpretation. Dissonance is practically always louder than consonance. If you understand this basic rule, you’ll automatically know how to apply it in music and you’ll be more sure of yourself onstage.

Understanding the rules of harmony is part of music’s expressive grammar.

The second aspect of interpreting music is style. Style cannot fundamentally be gleaned from perusing a score, as it cannot be captured in music notation. (Please do read the linked articles, as they’re intended for your more advanced level of musical understanding.)

Style is communicated in the aural tradition of music. I believe the best way to learn the style of any music-historical era is to listen to contemporary recordings from that era. We’re able to do this for later 19th-century and later music.

When you’re well-trained with a solid technical and musical foundation, when you’ve properly learned your music, and when a given stylistic language becomes your own, you’ll be much more secure in your interpretations as well as a more confident performer.

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