My First Recital

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Welcome to, I’m Robert Estrin. Today’s show is about my first recital. It seems like it was only yesterday, even though I was a very young child. Performers know how different it is when you play for other people. In the olden days with in-person lessons, my students would play for me and say, “It went better at home.” But with virtual lessons, what excuse is there when they’re at home on their own pianos? Well, there’s a lot to this subject. Let’s dive right in!

I grew up studying piano with my father, Morton Estrin.

Though my father was a professor of music at Hofstra University in Hempstead, Long Island, he did most of his private teaching right in our home. There was a big addition on the house with two grand pianos. In fact, my father had monthly recitals there. Each month he’d feature a student who was preparing a solo recital. Sometimes he would have multiple students perform. It would be a three, four, or even five way recital, giving students ample opportunities to perform. Because it’s so important to practice performing, for the reasons I’m going to articulate in a moment. In June he had two recitals back to back for all of his students who weren’t ready for solo or joint recitals. That’s where I first had an opportunity to play in a recital.

In my father’s studio, he had professional recording equipment.

There are tapes of my playing from the time I started lessons. I have them in storage right now. One of these days I’ll pull some of them out. I’m sure many of you would be interested in hearing some of these recordings. From my very first pieces, he recorded virtually everything my sister and I studied. I’d have seven or eight short pieces and he’d switch on the tape machine. I’d announce them and play them. We did that for years and years. So there are a whole bunch of tapes. Because of that, you would think that playing a recital wouldn’t be a big deal. After all, it was in the same room on the same piano where I had recorded countless times. But here’s what happened. I remember the first time I performed so vividly! I was playing my father’s piano in his studio, which was in our home. You would think I’d be very comfortable. I knew the pieces really well. I could play without even thinking! By the way, that’s part of the problem, which we’ll get to in a minute.

I got to the piano and it was almost like being in a dream state.

The black keys looked so black and the white keys looked so stark white. I was looking down on all these keys thinking, “Oh my gosh, I have to find all the notes to these pieces I’ve memorized?” It just seemed absolutely impossible! How could I find all those notes among those keys I was staring at? It was a horrifying prospect! My father wouldn’t have me play if I wasn’t really well prepared. And because I was very well prepared, I ultimately was able to play.

It’s amazing how seriously we take our own performances.

During one of my first performances, I had a little blunder. In my mind I had a complete catastrophe! I thought it was just horrific what had happened. My life flashed before my eyes. There is something about playing publicly that gets your adrenaline flowing. I thought it was a complete disaster! But at my next lesson, my father put on the tape of the recital. As I was listening, there was one little tiny blip that went by. I was waiting for the mistake. But then it was over. I couldn’t even believe it. It was a little teeny, tiny momentary thing that I practically didn’t notice listening back to the tape. But at the time, it seemed like the world stopped! There was an eternity of time in that moment.

When you’re performing, you are hyper aware of what you’re doing.

You notice things during a performance in a way that is completely unlike your practice when you’re just playing without giving too much thought. In fact, your thoughts are focused on the music, which is really the key to being able to perform well. But how do you stay focused on the music? There are many ways to achieve this. I’ve talked about the importance of practicing performing. You can start by recording yourself. Then play for a family member or a good friend – just a single person. Then work up to more and more people. Some people will say you should just ignore the audience. Just go out there and pretend they’re not there and just play. While this may work for some people, I’ve always taken the opposite approach.

Visualize the performance as accurately as you can.

Think about the moment you are going to be in front of an audience. Try to get all the juices churning. Try to be in that moment. In my practice, when I do little tryout performances, even with nobody there at all, I’ll pretend I’m at the actual performance. I’ll think about the room. I try to psyche myself into the feeling of performing. It’s almost like a post-hypnotic suggestion. I think about sitting on the bench. I think about the image of the name of the piano. If it’s a Steinway, I think Steinway. If it’s a Baldwin, imagine the Baldwin logo. I just breathe deeply and imagine that moment with an audience there, seeing the name of the piano, so that it’s not a surprise when the moment of performance comes. Then you have some idea of what it’s like. When you sit down at a performance, or even if it’s your lesson on your own familiar piano, suddenly everything feels different. You want to prepare that moment in advance. Then when you come to it, you take that same big breath. You look at the name of the piano and it brings back that state of relaxation that you practiced beforehand. This is a great technique to get you centered.

Take things a little slower during a performance.

When you are nervous, you tend to go faster. Your entire physiology speeds up. Your heart rate goes a little faster. You might have sweaty palms. If you just go a shade slower than you think you should, you probably will be right where you should be, right at your normal tempo. One of the reasons why you may have difficulty when you’re playing for somebody is you’re going slightly faster than you’ve ever gone before but you don’t even realize it. Then things start messing up. And once things mess up, if you get into a thought of, “What’s coming next?” It’s a disaster. Because the amount of material you learn is awe-inspiring when you think about it. It’s amazing that you can remember all that music! Even if you’re playing with a score, it’s amazing that you can digest all of those notes coming at you furiously. You have to make sure you have enough time. So give yourself that little extra time by taking a slightly slower tempo.

You can rely on motor memory, to a certain extent.

Physiologically, your fingers know where to go. I liken this to watching a toddler learning how to take their first steps. The concentration on their faces is unbelievable. But of course, once you learn how to walk, you can walk while thinking about other things. The same thing is true for driving. The first time you drive, everything is incredibly intentional. I’m not suggesting you shouldn’t concentrate while you drive. You absolutely have to! But the human mind can’t really think about more than one thing at a time. You just go back and forth very quickly. And that’s what you do when you drive. You’re looking in front of you, you’re checking your mirrors, you’re keeping track of what’s around you. At your musical performance, it’s the same thing. You’re watching certain things. But if you’re playing something that’s really fast, how can you possibly think of all the notes? Of course, you try to think of all the notes. But if you’re playing a whole piece, or a whole program, there will be moments of distraction. Maybe there’s a noise in the audience, or something where you’re not100% on top of every single thing that’s happening. It’s almost like freewheeling, and it’s very dangerous! And yet, we all depend upon it to one extent or another. But you always have to have part of you looking down at yourself, making sure you don’t take a wrong turn. You have to continually reaffirm your concentration.

Listen to the music and let it draw you in.

If you listen to what you’re doing, your audience is compelled to listen also. It keeps you in the moment, which is the whole secret to having a coherent, solid performance. If you start thinking about what’s coming later it can be a disaster. You can’t really think that way. If you make a mistake, you can’t dwell on it. Once again, you have to be right where you are, focused on what you’re doing, listening and trying to make the most beautiful music you can. You want to reach people with your love of the music. The reason why you spend so many hours achieving the level you do is so you can share your unique take on these pieces. Take advantage of that moment. Let the audience inspire you! Take that energy and use it positively to keep you focused on the score, listening and creating beautiful music, and you’ll do great.

In your practice, don’t just depend upon your motor memory.

Go back very slowly with your foot off the pedal, playing with the metronome. Double and triple check your work, hammering each note clearly, delineating and exaggerating everything. Particularly dynamics, because one of the things you’re going to find in your performances, when you listen to them, is that things that you thought were really exaggerated, strong accents and short staccatos and loud fortes and quiet pianissimo, are not going to be nearly as extreme to the listener from 10, 20, 50 feet away. You have to exaggerate everything! Practice that exaggeration in your slow practice so you learn the sound and the feel of exaggerating everything. So that when you lose your concentration momentarily, your fingers still remember, and your ears remember the sound you’re after. I hope these tips work for you!

Thanks again for joining me, Robert Estrin here, Your Online Piano Resource.

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5 thoughts on “My First Recital”


  1. Robert — you are truly a treasure of two generations of gifted musicians — your father, and yourself 🙂 ! Thank you so much for all that you share with us.
    PS – you may want to consider retrieving those tapes and getting them digitized before they become unplayable — just a thought.

    1. You’re right about the tapes. Many older tapes have to be “baked” first since the oxide coating can flake off. You may get only one good play through to capture the music. Even then, the tape heads have to be cleaned throughout the process. It’s a long, tedious process for each tape. There are hundreds of tapes there. So it is an arduous task.

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