Performers on Performing: Piano Performance Tips from the Pros (Part 2)

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In the last video, we looked at 5 famous performers and their sentiments on performance. We looked at their experiences with performance anxiety (or lack thereof), and I tried gleaning lessons from their words and experiences.

We’re going to be doing the same thing in this video – we’ll look at another batch of five performers, and dive into their experiences.

Glenn Gould

Glenn Gould was a Canadian piano player – and a fun fact that I shared before is that I used to live less than a block away from his old apartment in Toronto. Gould lived from 1932-1982, and is especially noted for his ability to play Bach.

Piano Performer Anxiety

He also experienced performance anxiety, and considered giving up performing entirely when he was in his 20s (and did permanently give it up at age 31). Gould’s real passion, instead, was for making recordings, where he was most at ease.

His fear of the audience was also intermingled with something I haven’t seen in these other performers – a hatred of them, as well. His perception was that the audience was rooting for him to fail. And he was also a germophobe, so he feared catching germs from big groups of people.

You get a sense of his underlying dislike of people in this quote:

“If an artist wants to use his mind for creative work, cutting oneself off from society is a necessary thing.”

And, more overtly, this one:

“I detest audiences – not in their individual components, but en masse I detest audiences. I think they’re a force of evil. It seems to me rule of mob law.”

Gould had a solitary personality as well as a being a control freak – two traits that don’t lend themselves to being a fearless performer. He was also taking a steady supply of anti-depressants and anti-anxiety medication, and was a self-admitted hypochondriac. And then he died at the young age of 50 from a stroke.

Piano Performance Tips from Gould

So what does this very eccentric, very tragic, anti-performer have to teach us?

I appreciate Gould’s contributions, and his assertion that music is free for all to interpret the way they choose. But I think in many ways, Gould is an example of what not to do. His anxiety roller-coastered out of control to the point where he retired from performing at age 31, and his fear of illness translated into constantly wearing gloves. These obsessive, anxious traits kept going and going, and he was never able to hit the brakes on them.

He took lots of medications (which was almost definitely to his detriment), but it seems he never learned ways to manage his anxiety, and thus, it overtook him. For those of us who have similar audience fears, or even audience hatred, it’s important we confront that instead of letting the fear own us.

Yuja Wang

Our youngest performer on the list, Yuja Wang was born in 1987 (a year after me!) in Beijing, and now resides in New York. She was already a well-established performer at the age of 21, and tours the world regularly. She’s a passionate, energetic performance machine.

The only story of Wang experiencing stage fright was in a story she told about being a young child performing Mozart’s “Twinkle, Twinkle” variations. She said,

“I was always quiet before a concert, while the other kids were so nervous. They talk, some are very noisy. I don’t understand. Why are you nervous? Until the first time I played Mozart. I was not nervous until I was onstage. Then I felt I was in a completely different time and space. My fingers just played. And I thought there is a difference between practicing at home and playing onstage.”

And, further elaborating on why she grew nervous to perform this piece, she said,

“Maybe intuitively I was struck by the beauty, by the symmetry, by how like something inherent in nature it is. Before, I was, Oh, Mozart is so boring.”

Aside from this outlier experience, Wang feels entirely at ease with performing, saying, “For me that’s normal – like talking.” She also says that she “feeds off the energy I feel in the hall”, and “I get to know my repertoire through performance, by doing”. She adds, “I need to perform to feel alive.”

In performance, she’s able to bring out all those nuances that make music great – all the little shades of emotion. She gets the composers she plays. She understands them. And in a way, it allows her to be them, like a chameleon. Here’s what she has to say about Mozart and his humor:

“Mozart is like a party animal. I find I play him better when I am hung over or drunk.” At the same time, she saw Mozart’s music as “noble, tragic, like a great Greek play. The human emotion is there but with a lot of godliness in it.”

Piano Performance Tips from Wang

Part of her strength also lies in her ability to shrug off criticism and fearlessly blaze her own path, regardless of the naysayers.

I think there’s a few things to learn from Wang in all of this. First is her perception – to her, the audience isn’t a threat, but rather, fuel. Secondly, she’s able to get inside the head of the composers she learns, so that expressing their music is like expressing herself. I’ve noticed in my own performing life that performing my own music is much less stressful than performing someone else’s, so maybe there really is a deep well of truth in “make the music your own”.

Claudio Arrau

Claudio Arrau lived from 1903-1991, and was a great Chilean pianist who interpreted everything from Baroque to Romantic music. He did plenty of performing in his day, and plenty of teaching as well.

He serves as a good contrast to Gould, because though he experienced performance anxiety, he learned how to manage it. In his words,

“I don’t say that I never feel fear before a performance, but I have learned to channel it.”

This coming from a guy who once took months to recover from a concert that he had made a mistake in.

By the time Arrau was in his twenties, he became friends with a psychoanalyst named Dr. Abrahamsohn. The two stayed friends for life, and Dr. Abrahamson gave him regular treatments, which he credits with giving him more self-confidence and the ability to explore his creativity at the piano and on stage.

Piano Performance Tips from Arrau

Getting professional help might seem like an extreme solution to performance anxiety, but depending on a person’s situation it can be very practical. For someone like him, who regularly performed, it was probably essential.

He’s the only person on this list (that I found) who had therapy sessions – he took an active role in managing his anxiety, instead of leaving it up to fate. This seemed to work out very well for him – he lived to a good, old age (88), was able to perform very demanding, vigorous pieces even in his later years (like Brahms’ piano concerto no. 1), and averaged 120 performances a season when he was between the ages of 40-60.

Mitsuko Uchida

Mitsuko Uchida was born in 1948 in Japan, and now lives in London. She’s known for her interpretation of Viennese composers such as Mozart (and spent some of her life studying in Vienna, so perhaps it’s no surprise).

On the subject of anxiety, she admits to experiencing it “always”. She continues,

“When you are waiting to go on you wonder how you can do it. Then, as you step out, some psychological trick occurs. You think about the music, how wonderful it is, how lucky you are to be performing it…”

We’ve heard similar sentiments from Yuja Wang – how the beauty of the music has the ability to overtake nerves and anxiety.

Another way she manages the anxiety that comes with performing is by doing less performances. She says,

“I restrict the number of concerts per year to 50, a tiny number for anybody with my sort of career. Some of my colleagues do 75 or 100. Some mad people do 150. Fifty per year keeps me sane.”

That way, she allows herself the time and space to practice, something she loves and is obsessed with. She says,

“When I’m at home I spend all day around my pianos. My fingers never tire. It’s my back, shoulders and brain that need a rest.”

Piano Performance Tips from Uchida

I love Uchida’s logical, disciplined approach – she seems like a pretty balanced person. She doesn’t seem to express a deep desire to perform like some others on this list, and she experiences some fear, but ultimately it’s her love of the music that enables her to perform well and enjoy the process.

Daniel Barenboim

Daniel Barenboim was born in 1942, and is an Argentine-Israeli pianist who plays a mean Beethoven. Even though he’s in his seventies, he’s incredibly busy and ambitious, and apparently inexhaustible.

Reading his interviews, I clearly gained a sense of his passion for music, to an almost fanatical degree. And then, of course, his famous brilliance interspersed with bouts of anger.

On performing, I couldn’t find anything that said Barenboim suffers from performance anxiety – but based on other things he has said, I don’t believe he does.

The thing about Barenboim is he doesn’t believe in recorded music. He doesn’t really listen to it, and doesn’t think it’s particularly valuable – for him, music is meant to be live.

Piano Performance Tips from Barenboim

I want to share his words with you, further elaborating on his feelings toward live music versus recordings:

“As much as I admired and respected him, I can’t agree with Glenn Gould or his philosophy.  You can’t say that it’s an artificial way of making music, but it is an artificial way of reproducing music.  Music is not really reproducible.  It only has a reason for being from this moment to that moment in this place and not elsewhere.

“A whole lot of physical considerations come into being which are not there.  When we play the second act of Tristan in Orchestra Hall, we automatically but also consciously play differently than if we were in the pit at Bayreuth or in another hall.  We adjust the acoustics to the sound of Orchestra Hall and to the degree of reverberation, etc.  So when you record in one studio and then listen to the disc on another machine in another room, nothing is really as it should be.

“If I were playing the same piece in your living room, I would probably play it at a completely different tempo.  Therefore it is a very bastardized way of doing music, and a bastardized way of listening to music.”

He is also quoted as saying that he finishes every concert knowing that he played a “fistful of wrong notes”. So clearly, our takeaway from Barenboim is that music is best as an expression of a particular moment in time. To him, a live performance is less about playing everything note-perfect and mimicking rehearsal, but instead an opportunity to create a unique and beautiful moment in time.

Conclusion

Thank you for watching this video series on piano performance tips from the pros. I had a lot of fun reading through interviews and gleaning wisdom from these excellent people, and I hope you enjoyed it as well!

xo,
Allysia

Allysia has been teaching piano in Canada for nearly a decade, and has her Grade 10 RCM certificate. She especially enjoys nerding out to music history and theory. When she’s not making videos or teaching, she’s reading, writing, and jamming in a rock band.