Preparing for performance
Performance, in its many forms, has an important role to play in any learners’ musical development. For students to have a positive and enjoyable experience, teachers need to ensure that preparation is thorough and effective, as Carole Jenner-Timms advises. When teachers ask their students to perform a piece, it can be an exciting prospect for some, while for others it can be a daunting request. However, for all students the experience of performing can affect their motivation, progress and development. Teachers therefore have a responsibility to ensure that the strategies they use to address performance preparation provide a holistic learning experience. Pupils need to feel positive about their ability to play a selected piece in the performance situation. Performances can be both informal, such as playing a piece at the end of a lesson to a parent, and formal, such as a concert, exam or audition. Whatever the setting, the criteria for an effective performance remain the same – the ability of students to control their instruments, interpret and communicate the music, and make their performances individual. Teachers usually choose repertoire with their pupils but it is essential that pieces selected for performance show students at their best. A joint audit of the skills, knowledge and understanding required will ensure thorough learning of the chosen piece. This approach offers the chance for pupils to take ownership of their learning and provides a tool to facilitate discussion, assessment and the agreement of practice targets.
Controlling the instrument
Pupils start to develop their ability to control their instrument from the first lesson, but technical assurance is essential for playing a piece both accurately and with musicality. Planning a series of lessons that offer the opportunity to link scales and technical exercises to the chosen piece will foster greater knowledge and understanding as well as acquisition of the relevant skills. Teachers can also incorporate creative tasks, such as call and echo focusing on a technical or rhythmic feature, and activities that focus on aural awareness and the use of the voice, such as playing, singing and naming the opening interval and singing sections of the piece to appreciate phrase shapes. Listening to recordings of the piece, and others by the same composer, will help students to gain a better understanding of the style of the music they are playing.
Interpretation is the linking of musical elements in a meaningful way and is connected to understanding of the style and period of the piece being studied. Students often need persuasion to discuss ideas about a composer’s intention. Attention to dynamics and phrasing is also necessary if pupils are to develop consideration and reasoning when making interpretive decisions.
Communication and individuality
Thorough learning of a piece through perseverance in acquiring the skills, knowledge and understanding required will enable students to communicate the spirit or meaning of the music and their interpretation of it. Adequate opportunities to rehearse with the accompanist (if applicable) are also essential. You can encourage students to exaggerate dynamics and take risks in tempi changes to make a performance more individual and, as a result, communicate with an audience more effectively – with commitment and authority.
Playing from memory
Improvement of presentation, greater musical understanding and enhanced communication with the audience are all benefits of playing from memory and many teachers encourage their students to do so. Memorising a piece can be made easier for students if a variety of teaching strategies are used that address differing learning styles – visual, aural, kinaesthetic and cognitive. However, playing from memory does not appeal to everyone (although some who refuse initially can often be persuaded at a later date!) and if pupils are pushed into memorising before they are ready, anxiety can often result.
When performing to an audience, students need to understand how to present themselves well. Dress, adjusting the height of the music stand if used, walking on and off the platform, acknowledging the accompanist (if applicable) and bowing should be discussed or practised beforehand. If students intend to introduce their pieces, they need to rehearse what they wish to say, ensuring they are able to project their voices adequately.
Finally, teachers should provide feedback about their experiences as listeners to help students understand what an audience’s perception of a performance might be. Any formative assessment of performance should then take into account students’ ages, personalities, performing experience, expertise, motivation and confidence. By ensuring that preparation is thorough, teachers can go a long way to helping their students to have positive and enjoyable performance experiences.
This article was originally featured in the May 2012 edition of Libretto, ABRSM's magazine.