Tips on Preparing for a Piano Competition

The Princess has a piano competition in a couple of weeks. I know she’s a bit nervous, as am I. All we can do is put our best foot (and fingers) forward and prepare for it as best as we can. If she messes up, no big deal. It’s all about the experience of preparing and presenting oneself with poise in a high-pressure situation. No big whup, right?

Funny thing is, she’s playing a piece that I also played in a piano competition many years ago—Beethoven Sonatina in G, first and second movements. I think she plays it better than I did, but then again, my mom wasn’t as trained as I was to be able to help me practice and prepare more effectively.

Nevertheless, the Princess faces the same challenges—to not play too fast (due to nerves), and to remember to play expressively with dynamics while maintaining technical control and to appear to enjoy playing.

So what does one do to prepare? Here are some tips:

Lots of slow practice. It’s so easy to let the fingers get out of control, especially when the adrenaline is coursing through one’s body during the Moment of Truth. Practicing slow forces one to focus on the nuances of a piece, to work out unevenness, as well as to really listen to what’s happening. Too often people play fast and gloss over trouble spots hoping they’d just disappear over time. Sorry, not going to happen. Slow is the way to go.

Another benefit of slow practice, especially by memory, is that one knows for sure whether s/he knows the piece by heart. Like I tell the Princess, “If you can’t play it slow, how can you expect to play it fast?”

Lots of hands separately, especially the right hand alone, in order to hear the melody line and work on shaping the music. One shouldn’t neglect the left hand, either. It’s very easy to let the left hand get out of control, especially in a technically difficult passage. There’s nothing like applying dotted rhythms to help condition the muscles and smooth out passages.

Isolating the trouble spots, so they are no long trouble spots. You can be sure the judges will be listening for them. Be able to play these areas smoothly, and don’t forget to make sure the measures before and after are worked through as well. If there’s a particular passage that guarantees you to fumble, it’s extremely important to train yourself to be able to play it effortlessly and flawlessly, especially during rehearsals. Easier said than done, I know.

Exaggerating the dynamics during practice so it becomes part of muscle memory. I remember many times feeling the blood rush to my brain and pound against my ears so it’d become too hard to listen to what I was playing. I could only rely on my fingers to take over and my body to go through the motions of what it remembered from the hours of practice. Although “not listening” is not ideal in a performance, it cannot be helped sometimes. That’s why it’s important to train your body to remember what it feels like when one lets the music take over. Think of it as a back-up system.

Another thing that’s helped me remember dynamics is creating a narrative while I play. I pick out the mountain ranges (diminuendo/crescendo), dancing fairies, fight scenes, serenading troubadours, playful forest critters, death scenes, sun rising/setting, moon peeking through the clouds, etc. Whatever works, right?

Rehearse/imagine the performance. It’s important to role play a performance from beginning to end. Sometimes it’s helpful to record what you play and listen to it so you can pick out areas that need work. You’d be surprised at some of the things you hear in the recording that you might miss out on during a run-through.

…and finally, at the risk of sounding hokey…

Say a prayer. Granted, nothing beats hard work, but there’s something to be said about getting that extra bit of help from invisible hands. I like to ask God, my angels/spirit guides, St. Cecilia (patron saint of music), the music composer, and perhaps even the great pianists throughout history, to help me play the pieces as best as I can and in the way the music was intended to be played.

There have been a couple of times where I can honestly say I was divinely guided. But that’s another story.

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