So a couple weeks ago I attended the local music festival, since many of my students were participating in it. There were highs and lows, and I was super nervous as I always am, but it was also very fun and I’ve got some advice to pass on to you today.

Since I was there every day, I figured it would be a good idea to absorb as much information from the adjudicator as possible. So I took copious amounts of notes and noticed some commonalities – problems that kept coming up again and again, and consistent playing instructions.

I love music festival because even if you play brilliantly, the adjudicator will still find things to work on. The kid who got the highest mark (a 90) still went home with some playing suggestions. Playing piano is an eternal learning process!

Music Festival Categories

There are four categories we’ll talk about:

  1. Wrist and arm posture
  2. Staccatos
  3. Interpretation
  4. Entertainment

I’ll bring up some of my important takeaways from the week, and we’ll discuss each category. So pull up a chair and let’s get started!

Music Festival #1: Wrist/Arm posture

Most of you know that, when you play piano, the “tune” of the piece (the melody) needs to come out louder than the background (often the left hand). However, there are some physical movements we make that can sabotage our hand balance.

There are also hand movements we do that wreck our ability to play quickly, with nice and neat slurs.

playing with arm weight instead of finger weight

If the arm bounces, the sound projects much louder. Sometimes that’s an effect we want, but if we’re playing a nice melody in the right hand and the left hand is bouncing, then the left hand is going to overpower the right.

Instead, we want to keep our arm steady and play with our fingers more. It’s tough, because it requires more finger control, but essential, since it gives more sound control.

the bouncy arm also slows us down

-There were more than a few times where students slowed down fast passages – not just because it was “hard”, but because their arm was working against them. If your arm is bouncy, it’s going to interrupt the flow of your playing. When we play fast, it’s mostly in the fingers.

If you’re bouncing your arm while playing, say, a C 5-finger scale, it’s going to be loud and bold, which is a cool effect – but it’s not going to be fast. If you keep your arm still and do all the movement in your fingers, it’ll be much quicker (and much easier to play).

Wrist position

This is connected to playing on the fingertips and having a nice, round hand shape. How your wrist moves when you play is crucial to a good performance.

It’s so common for students to play with droopy wrists. Maybe it’s because a lot of us lack strength in the wrists. The problem is not only that droopy wrists cause us to play with flat fingers, it also inhibits us from playing quickly.

The adjudicator got several groups of kids to do the following exercise:

Open up one palm, and use the other hand to “play” a 5-finger scale, while the wrist droops down. Try to go fast.

Now, raise the wrist and try to “play” that scale again. There’s much less tension and the fingers are free to move more quickly and nimbly.

Thumb drops

Sometimes people play with perfect wrist posture – until their thumb has a note. The thumb presses, and the whole wrist collapses. Then the other fingers take over, and the wrist rises back up again.

Some people have no problems at all using their thumb in piano, but some people really struggle with it. I’m not entirely sure why – maybe it goes back to lacking wrist strength – but patrol your piano playing to make sure you’re not experiencing “the drop”.

Again, playing in this way is going to slow you down. The more time your wrist spends dancing around, the less able you’ll be to play quickly.

It also tends to create an undesireable “thunk” sound when your thumb lands, making an accent where you probably don’t want an accent.

Music Festival #2: Staccato

The next category is a quick, but important point – staccatos.

The adjudicator was very picky on articulations, such as accents and staccatos and the like. We’re not going to go too much in depth here, but there is an important point she made about how to sharpen your staccatos so they come out more crisply.

Weak staccatos

She made a great analogy of a couple types of staccatos. They are:

-sticky peanut butter finger staccatos
-crisp popcorn staccatos

Which one is ideal, do you think?

We want our staccatos bright and crisp. If they’re slow and lengthy, it makes them sound lazy. Or, like you have sticky peanut butter fingers.

Many times, the solution to this was to simply play on the tips of the fingers, as opposed to the pads. A lot of the time when we’re learning piano (kids and adults alike), we play in a flattened hand form. But it’s important to curve the fingers and play on the tips (pinkie, too!).

Since we were in a church, the adjudicator had the kids put their fingers on the top of the sitting bench, and make a “staccato” noise on the wood – first with flat fingers, then with the finger tips. It’s much easier to play nimbly this way, and it sounds better too.

Music Festival #3: Interpretation

The third point is interpretation.

Of all the points we’re talking about today, perhaps the most frequently-mentioned were topics of interpretation. Things like:

-Creating a mood in the piece
-Creating a “sound picture”, telling a story
-playing expressive, clear melodies

Melodic shaping

We have a tendency to ignore slurs when we see them on the page. Sure, it means to play smooth, but there’s more to it than that.

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The adjudicator was always quick to point out that one of the most natural ways to play phrases is to rise, and then fall. Swelling to the mid-point with a gentle crescendo, and then letting the sound fall back down with a gentle diminuendo. This gives the music a natural, lifelike, “breathing” quality.

Time and time again I saw her point out to students how important it is to have phrases that rise and fall, or crescendo and diminuendo. Not to a dramatic degree (like p to f every few seconds), but subtly, enough to make it sound more “human”.

Sound pictures

I love how frequently she talked about painting a “sound picture” during festival week. A lot of times we learn pieces with these interesting, expressive titles: The Stormy Sea, Mist, Twinkling Lights, and so on. So she often asked the students how to paint that sound picture in the audience’s mind.

So how do we create a sound picture? What are the paints on our palette that help us accomplish this?

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And so on. It’s important to consider all these details when you’re playing, beyond simply learning to play the notes. That’s what makes it music.

Festival #4: Entertainment

And finally, the fourth point – entertainment.

So what’s the point of performing? She asked this to several groups of kids, who all hemmed and hawed and gave a quiet suggestion or two.

The point of performing, she said, is to entertain the audience.

Entertaining the audience doesn’t just mean making them stand up and dance, or tap their toes. Entertainment comes in many different forms – an audience can be entertained by a heartbreaking performance just as much as one that makes them smile.

So as a performer, it’s your job to entertain. How do you do that?

Take risks

All too often, the exciting details of a piece fall apart when they’re performed live, because we get nervous, and then we clam up.

I see this every year. A student plays beautifully and expressively at home, but when they perform, the dynamics disappear. Or they play their piece lively and loud in the practice studio, but on stage, they play light and tentative.

As the adjudicator said, live a little! Play loud and bold, if that’s what the piece calls for. Play with energy and zest. And if you’re playing a slow and sad piece, open up your heart to the audience – even if it’s taking an emotional risk to do so.

Command the stage with posture

As piano players, we basically sit and face one direction the whole time we play. We can’t get up and move and make eye contact with the audience the way a singer could. Since we can’t entertain in that way, it’s extra-important that our posture is confident.

I was so proud of my students this year – almost all of them took the time to move the bench, make adjustments, and get settled in at the piano before starting their pieces. And the adjudicator noticed, and commented positively to them about it.

It seems like such a small thing – spending a few seconds to make sure the bench is just so, sitting in the right spot, getting your foot ready on the pedal – but it makes a huge difference. Again, it goes back to this timid performance mentality.

A lot of times, a student will rush to the bench, start playing, and then realize they’re in the wrong spot and it impacts their performance. It shows a lack of confidence. By taking the time to adjust your bench, you’re showing the audience that you know what you’re doing. And you’re not afraid to take a few seconds for yourself, to settle in.

It’s like when you look up a piano performance on YouTube, and the performer walks in and spends the next 30 seconds getting settled, maybe closing their eyes, practically meditating. And then – they begin. It’s such a confidence move, and it causes you to play much better.

Pretty hand dancing

When you’re finished performing a piece, is it a good idea to just flop your hands off the piano and walk away?

Answer: No.

When you’re playing a piece with beautiful phrasing and leaps, how do you move your hands?

Answer: Elegantly, with a rounded shape.

When a performer finishes a piece with a boom and their fingers fly off the keys on a resounding fortissimo, we respond to that as an audience. It’s exciting. But take that same exciting end, and your hands flop limply off the keys. The effect is lost!

Same goes for if you’re playing a beautiful piece – do your wrists float off the final note after a long sustain? Even beyond the way it looks and how the audience responds to your motions, it impacts the sound in a subtle way too.


For more tips on posture, see:

Piano Posture
a Q&A session of piano posture (and more)

We’ve also done videos on phrasing, such as:
How to put emotion in music

And piano articulations.

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