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It sounds like a weird question, but I just don't know how to describe it in words; sometimes you are really good at performing the piece, and you feel enthusiastic and more confident, other times your performance plummets, and your hands/arms are stiff and you're so bad at performing that you just can't imagine the other time you played it like perfectly.

I have been playing the piano for over 10 years, and I have been having this lately, after I started playing virtuoso pieces. In piano competitions, I get told by the judges often that I am playing with emotion and without thinking, and that I rely too much on my fingers.

Is it normal to have such unstable piano performance skills, and is there a way to fix this?

  • What pieces are you playing in these competitions? I'm assuming romantic and early 20th century pieces rather than baroque but if we knew then it might help with the answers. – JimM Oct 13 at 12:31
  • Everybody has his bad and good days. That's why so many people take drugs. Some are meditating, others are praying. Did you think about drinking enough water and nutrition at all? Do you know this book: Eugen Herrigel Zen in the Art of Archery Training the Mind and Body to Become One My singing teacher recommended this to me years ago. – Albrecht Hügli Oct 13 at 17:55
  • @JimM I am playing Chopin and Liszt pieces – HirG Oct 14 at 0:39
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Basic problem is being human! We're not machines as such, and other factors affect any performances we do - whether it's playing piano, running, going about our 'normal' day to day doings.

One telling thing is the saying 'amateurs practise till they get it right, professionals practise till they can't get it wrong.' There comes a point in practice when we know a piece mechanically, and could recite the 2 times table while playing it. We still haven't 'learned' it at that point. We need to go much deeper: trying out rubato, accelerando, de/cresendo, etc., and suck out as much from the markings, and put in as much emotion as possible. Maybe exaggerate all those and many other aspects. But none of these things can happen until we can play the piece from a mechanical aspect.

Obviously, rehearsal/practice is the answer, but not merely playing it through and through - that's the first stage, if you like. Then comes the best bit - exploring what we can do to unravel the piece, put our own mark on it, make it speak to our listener.

Experiment with different aspects, even change subtly some of the original markings if that makes the piece work better for you. Remember that even the best judges will have some subjectiveness about their judgements, no matter how small. They're human too...

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    " 'amateurs practise till they get it right, professionals practise till they can't get it wrong.' " Love that saying. – ggcg Oct 13 at 9:59
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One thing to consider, by your own words, is that you are now playing virtuoso level performances and were not before. And the problem started at this point.

Although I may be misinterpreting your statement, are the judges saying that you are (or are NOT) playing with emotion. Because that is a good thing in the correct context. Or are they implying that you are too emotional about your performance and letting that get in the way of your skills?

I would compare your situation to that of an athlete who is trying to do something new, say a runner trying a new event, or trying to run a sub 4min mile for the first time. You are playing things that were once beyond your skill level and now you are demanding more of yourself. That requires an adjustment period, not only of your body but of your mind and your self expectations. Harder pieces require more time to memorize and get in the muscle memory and more skill. All of this will get better and in a few years you may see these pieces as easy relative to what you are working on.

I go through a similar phase on the guitar. As I get better (or I think I'm getting better) I start feeling like I'm getting worse. My father and I are both classical guitarists and he pointed out to me one day, after hearing me practice, that my technique had improved but that I was also developing a more discerning ear and thus judging the quality of the technique with a finer scale. In other words my criterion for "not getting it wrong" had evolved and my standards are higher (not only for myself but in judging other guitarists). This is likely happening to you as well. As you get better and surpass your current challenges you will demand more of yourself. This could also explain the stiffness in your arms as complex pieces are physically challenging. I cannot explain the judge's reaction to your playing except to say that if you are in a state where your mind and body are not relaxed that will get projected in your performance.

In my opinion, and that of my teachers, performances should be automatic. When a piece is really fully learnt it's in the muscle memory and you can almost feel like you are listening to someone else play it. It's like having an out of body experience. I typically won't consider playing a piece in a formal classical recital until I can (1) play it without the sheet music, and (2) improvise on it without getting lost. I know that may sound odd for classical but all music is subject to improv and that is a self assessment in that I'm challenging myself to fly away from the formal template and not lose my bearings. It helps with my memory and recovering from mistakes gracefully (mistakes do happen even when you have a piece worked out). I've heard the greatest musicians in the world make mistakes on stage. It's part of being human like Tim said.

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    That 'out of body experience' rings true. Sometimes, when playing, that's a good description - I'm watching myself from somewhere, but it's not on stage. And worst of all, critically! +1. – Tim Oct 13 at 10:43
  • Regarding "I typically won't consider playing a piece in a formal classical recital until I can (1) play it without the sheet music, and (2) improvise on it without getting lost." - When I was a child, I had to play piano pieces for recitals and competitions without getting (2) (even though piano concerto movements kinda enforce being able to get (2)), and I often couldn't even get it mistake-free by the time I had to publicly perform. – Dekkadeci Oct 14 at 9:17
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This is a tricky one but here is my take on this.

Am I correct in thinking that you do not have a teacher? The reason I mention this is that if you did then you would not need to be asking the question here, you would be referring back to them.

So working on that assumption I am thinking that you are not getting enough feedback on your performances or your development as you practice. What criteria do you apply when you feel that you have mastered a piece? Getting the notes right is the obvious one but there is a lot more to it than that and it might be difficult to take an objective view.

I can suggest two things that might help: firstly start recording yourself when you practice and listen back to it. Is what you hear what you expect? Does it sound the same to you when you listen back as it did when you were playing it? Try to be objective, its hard but it will be ultimately beneficial. Secondly find some recordings of prominent artists playing the same pieces (there will be loads on the internet) and listen to them. Compare what they do with what you are doing. Again be critical, its worth it.

Now this is going to sound a bit harsh but it will turn out to be beneficial if I am correct: I think you may find when you do this that you are perhaps not as proficient as you think. And that's a good thing because it gives you something to work on to improve. You clearly have the drive and are prepared to put in the effort but if the only time you get feedback is when you take part in competitions then you are perhaps not developing your skills in the most efficient way.

Good luck with this.

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Using a metronome will keep your playing tighter and with less emotion. It seems very basic but just might be what you need.

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