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Piano Playing: How Anticipation can trip you up and what you can do about it. (Video)

Anticipation and its adverse influence on piano playing affect nearly every pianist regardless of level. It’s a form of mind-wandering where the player’s focus shifts from the here and now to musical events that will take place measures, if not phrases or even pages away. As a metaphor, imagine eating lunch but thinking ahead to dinner. Such future-based thoughts would interfere with the sumptuous savoring of every bite taken in the present.

In the context of sight-reading, however, gulping many measures at a time, like a speed reader would pore over a page and siphon big ideas from paragraphs, is valuable and a big asset, but not when a performer is on stage trying to deliver the best polished performance he can, in the groovy here and now. (Sometimes called the most desirable place of all— “being in the zone”)

When a student is practicing in the privacy of his home, he can still find his attention shifted too far ahead of itself. Most pupils will say that the “stage” environment provokes this dreaded “anticipation” which may indeed be tied to clinical “anticipatory anxiety” while others will swear that just going to piano lessons and playing for a teacher ushers in an awful bout of it.

I have seen reams of students over the years say the same thing to me as if I were the stimulus of an unwelcome response.

They will swear that right before they came to their lesson, they were fully focused and present in their music. The minute they realized that I was somewhere in the vicinity, even off to an excused bathroom break, their cosmos drastically shifted.

So how does one deal with this nemesis of Anticipation? (And by the way it frequently rears its ugly head at the turnaround of scales–at the peak note in particular, before the descent) Or it can nix the player who dreads an upcoming tricky passage.

To ward It off in the first place, I do the following:

Number 1, I have to know my composition inside and out before I have the luxury to receive a dose of full-blown inspiration in the moment of performance. This applies to any playing venue, informal for friends, family, etc.

That means PREPARATION and ground-up, layered learning has to be the foundation of my playing. I would therefore need to have established solid fingering; know the form of the piece; how it progressed harmonically, and the composite of phrasing and dynamics. There could be no substitute for thorough, conscientious studying from the very inception of learning.

Number 2, I would work toward a complete state of singular relaxation, breathing natural full breaths. Like any meditation or prayerful state, I would focus on the here and now, tuning out everything in the environment that might distract me. This, alone, would require significant concentration.

If I needed to use mental imagery to assist me in finding my core relaxed focus, then I would tap into this human resource. In my case, I might imagine a garden with flowers, plants and trees, with a few monarch butterflies soaring about. For others it could be a pictorially peaceful stream or gentle waterfall in the forest. Naturally, I wouldn’t want this nature scene to distract me from my music, but I would want to establish a baseline state of calm, riveted focus.

When I’m actually playing a passage, and it might be a challenging set of notes in fast pace, I would use my dependable opposites attract approach by thinking slowly through rapid notes, and quicker, but still relaxed through very slow sections of a piece. I might also enlist the dotted-eighth/sixteenth rhythm to provide a built in time delay as I worked through  a problem area.

I’d always make it a point to savor each and every note, listening to the very end of one, for my cue to play the next. I alluded to this in a technique-based video and it seemed to help the adult student (in the hot seat) who was cursing under his breath every time he hit a few clunkers.

Instead of taking a deep breath, or sighing off the tension, he got himself more knot-entangled by tightening up, gritting his teeth, and lunging for the same notes again and again only to find himself making repeated mistakes. By that time he was a nervous wreck!

Simply stated, I would have said that he was anticipating another crash and burn, and did the very thing that made his note problems more likely to proliferate.

In truth, he needed to return to a tabula rasa state, as the Buddhist’s claimed to do so easily and effectively, finding a place in the heart of his psyche that was neutral and non-judgmental.

To summarize: Practice your attentive listening as you breathe natural, deep, long breaths. Think clearly to the end of one note before you play the next. That alone will absorb your total listening focus.

Love each note as it happens, each measure and phrase as it unfolds and don’t think of future love affairs on the horizon in your music.

If you are patient and self-accepting in this process, it will be the best way to banish Anticipation from your piano playing universe.

And even if you don’t experience success at first try, go back to start and enjoy finding the here and how with all the gratification that it brings.


Recommended Reading:
Just Being at the Piano, by Mildred Portney Chase
The Inner Game of Tennis by Timothy Gallwey
Zen and the Art of Archery by Eugen Herrigel

Related: Performance Anxiety and the Pianist

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