The Importance of Engagement in Musical Performance

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Welcome to Living Pianos.com, I’m Robert Estrin. The subject today is about the importance of engagement in musical performance. At a concert, sometimes you’re riveted by the performance. You’re on the edge of your seat waiting to hear what’s going to come next. It’s palpable through the whole audience. You can feel it! Everybody is breathing together. It’s the oneness of a crowd. The energy of the room is just spellbinding. Sadly, sometimes you experience the opposite of that.

What makes us engaged in some performances but not others?

Oftentimes, you’re at a concert listening to an accomplished performer playing hard music, and playing it well, but you find yourself zoning out. You can’t concentrate on anything! You look around and people are fidgeting. You wonder what’s wrong with everybody. You wonder what’s the matter with yourself! “Why can’t I concentrate on this, is there something wrong with me?” I’ve found that in those moments, that’s when the performer will have a little glitch of memory or some other error. This is incredibly insightful as to why you are sometimes engaged in a performance and why sometimes you’re not. Of course, part of it could just be your mood. But I think a bigger factor is the engagement of the performer.

An engaged performer draws the audience in.

Sometimes you’re playing a piece of music and you’re kind of zoned out. You’re on auto-pilot. Your fingers are moving, but you’re not really engaged on an intellectual or emotional level. When you are engaged and you’re feeling the music, you’ll find your audience is equally impressed. They will be focused on everything you’re doing because you are focused. Now, how do you achieve such a thing? In practice, if you let yourself go all the time, you get to the performance and it feels stale. You’ve done it so many times. How do you bring something fresh to your performance where you’re actually engaged as if you’re hearing it or playing it for the first time?

In your practice, have a reserve of emotion.

Play strictly what’s written, follow the score without the luxury of the pedal, and listen critically to every note in an intellectual manner. I’m not saying you should never try things out and let yourself go in practice. You should sometimes do that so you know what your inclinations are and you know what to practice in order to achieve them. On the other hand, the predominant time you spend at the piano should be spent in a very mechanical fashion, cementing the music you’re playing. If you’re playing Brahms and you’re always playing it expressively, maybe that’s the way you want to play it, but in practice, get rid of the pedal. Put on a metronome and play strictly and accurately. This should be done with the score so you cement the performance. You’re focused on every note, every rest, every nuance of expression and phrasing. You play exacting with your fingers, metronomically, so when you finally get to the performance, and you put the pedal in to give a little bit of rubato and shadings, it feels great!

You don’t want to be indulgent in your performance.

If you practice playing with a lot of nuance of expression and you let yourself go, then in the heat of the moment of a performance you might actually let yourself go too far. It could be a little bit gross and self-aggrandizing. You don’t want to be so overly expressive that you lose the sense of the music. The expression should be in service of the music so there are nuances of expression rather than something that takes away from the overall structure of the piece.

This is the way to stay engaged!

In your practice, be precise. Take your foot off the pedal, play with the metronome, and play with the score so when you finally have your performance, it’s fresh. You can let yourself go while still having a solid foundation to build an expressive performance upon. I hope this helps you to stay focused and engaged in your performances! Thanks so much for joining me, Robert Estrin here at LivingPianos.com, Your Online Piano Resource.

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5 thoughts on “The Importance of Engagement in Musical Performance”


 
 

  1. Interesting! And MOST helpful I’m having to do just this very thing for an offertory I’m playing on Sunday. It’s my own arrangement which I put together completely “by ear” – which means that: 1. I often make little changes as I’m playing it, and 2. I don’t have a written score to follow! 😐 I’m so used to playing it on autopilot, and what I’m finding is that, as I try to play it consistently each time, I get more and more lost the harder I think about it! Yikes! I finally had to make a video of the keyboard with me playing it, and then use that so I could see what I’m playing without changing anything, and try to key it in to MuseScore so I could have a score to follow. I’m having to almost completely dis-assemble and re-assemble it in my mind and hands to be able to play it with the metronome, without pedal, and sans all those nuances I’ve been playing on auto-pilot. It’s almost like a new piece – only maybe worse, because of all the muscle/mental memory form playing it before. Lesson learned – write it down! Four more days to get it right – here’s hoping. But getting it back into conscious control using the metronome and without pedal is definitely the right prescription! – THANKS!

    1. We are all thankful for being able to play on auto-pilot. But ultimately, you can’t always depend upon it! So, you are doing the right thing solidifying your playing so you have a deeper understanding of the music.

      1. Robert – thank you so much for your kind words of encouragement! 🙂 I finally – after about 20 – 30 iterations – got it into Musescore and printed out so I can see which notes to play, and which hands/fingers to use. It felt really strange having to write in fingering for something I’ve been playing since 2016 … but that’s just how confusing it had become! Thankfully now I can play the same way – same notes, same fingers – and re-learn it – it’s coming along much better now. Hopefully it will be solid by Sunday morning – “fingers crossed” (except when playing, of course 😉

  2. Robert – THANK YOU so much! I managed to “survive” – I had to leave out a few notes here and there and had a few minor fumbles, but didn’t play too many wrong ones! This is my first time playing in front of a live audience in over 5 years – and that after a being mostly occupied in an IT career – not a musical one. Making a “comeback” at age 72 does present a “few” challenges. The biggest challenge that caught me off-guard was the stage lighting. I had practiced in the sanctuary before, but the lights were on full and bright. However, during the service they had them set differently with more of a spotlight coming from the side and not as much from overhead. It cast a dark purple shadow from the sharps that was very disorienting! I managed to get through it, but it wasn’t at the same level as I had practiced. Live and learn I guess! Have you ever encountered a situation with disorienting lighting like that?
    Again – thank you for your kind words of support and encouragement!

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