Reaching The Preparation Threshold

Suppose you have a history of 100 performances in your past that all (or mostly all) went well.  What do you think is going to happen right before you give your 101st performance?  Naturally, you’ll have positive expectations as you walk on stage based on the overwhelming experience of having 100 successful performances, and these positive expectations cause you to perform better.  It’s self-fulfilling.  Unfortunately, the opposite can also happen, and it does quite often.  A history of bad performances – even a short history – can lead a pianist to draw drastic conclusions about their ability to perform that might take years to overcome.

As a performer, I have greatly benefitted from this natural tendency to save pieces until they’re pwned (pwning goes a step beyond owning), and it is my passionate desire that others benefit too.  The process of changing one’s fear of performing into a fondness can be a slow one, but it’s very doable, and preparing a piece thoroughly is the single best remedy we have.  If a piece isn’t prepared beyond a certain threshold (say, 90% or 95%), it is more likely to be performed even worse on stage than at home (nerves become fear).  If it is prepared beyond that threshold (say, 99%), it is more likely to be performed better on stage than at home (nerves become excitement).  For lack of knowing any “term” to describe this, let’s simply call this the preparation threshold.

Image credit: Wikipedia

This is a conclusion I draw from the Yerkes-Dodson Law, which states essentially that in order for a public performance of a challenging task to go well, there is an optimal amount of “arousal” that we need to experience.  Too little or too much arousal is detrimental to the performance, thus the inverted U curve to the right (solid line).  How much arousal is necessary?  No studies that I know of answer this question in the context of piano performance, but I believe it’s different for each individual depending on how their body and mind both react to stress, how difficult the piece is compared to the performer’s skill level, and also the particular types of demands of the piece (e.g., a slow nocturne vs. an exhilarating etude).  So, the U curve would look different not only for each individual performer, but also for each individual piece they play.  What if the task is not challenging and is actually quite simple, such as turning a doorknob?  The Yerkes-Dodson Law states that more arousal leads to better performance, thus the second relationship shown to the right (dotted line).  The Yerkes-Dodson Law would be a more specific example of what psychology refers to as social facilitation, which is the general phenomenon that simple tasks are performed increasingly better in front of an audience while complex tasks are not.

I believe that one can practice a challenging piece enough to almost turn it into a “simple” task (as long as the mind is still actively interested in the task), which is where I derive the idea of preparation threshold above.  While it is not possible to practice a piece so much that it becomes as simple as turning a doorknob (so our curve can never be morphed into the dotted line), we can at least widen the peak of the U-curve and also shift it up.  In other words, with enough practice, a stronger performance level is made possible (obviously – this shifts the curve up), and we ensure that the stronger performance will endure under higher and lower arousal levels (widening the peak of the curve).  The idea of “preparation threshold” represents the amount of practice necessary to morph the curve to a certain minimum height and width.  Without doing so, there is no hope of performing well under pressure.

Unfortunately, far too many students have a preparation threshold that is set far too low.  So when they get to that 85% or 90% level, they falsely mistake it for 100% because that’s all their experience knows.  Performing a piece that isn’t sufficiently prepared lowers the peak of the U-curve so that, even under the best possible circumstances of performance, the performer is doomed to failure.  That’s why it’s so important for students to have ultimate faith and trust in their teacher when their teacher insists the student will not regret the decision to save a piece for the next recital when the student may have thought the piece was ready.

Learning By Extreme Example

The difference between an Olympic 100-meter track athlete and any other professional athlete can be a matter of just three or four percent (i.e. 12 seconds instead of 12.5 seconds).  And yet it could have taken months or years of additional training to knock off that extra half second.  The same could be said for Van Cliburn Competition participants.  That extra edge of virtuosity, musicality and security that Van Cliburn Competitors demonstrate might only be achieved with an extra 1,000 hours of practice above and beyond the now well-known 10,000 hours that are required for true expertise in a field.

While students on the competition circuit and concert artists are usually learning new things on the side, these performers tour or compete with the same program for many months at a time, sometimes for a year or more.  Some of their pieces are pieces they finished five years ago.  Does that sound boring?  Repetitive?  One thing is for sure:  it is definitely necessary.  If a performer enters a high-level competition with repertoire they were still trying to memorize just one or two weeks ago, well, just forget it.  The performers who most stand out are almost always going to be the ones who have patiently spent time with their repertoire and who have continued to practice it (not just play it, but practice it) even after their teacher put a gold star on the page.  Legendary recordings are not made with pieces that were “just finished”.  Often they are pieces that a concert artist learned years ago, or possibly even decades ago.

Most teachers will never teach a Van Cliburn competitor or recording artist of “legendary” status.  But valuable things can be learned by looking at extremes.  Most of us have experienced at least one performance in our lifetimes where we truly pwned the piece on stage.  This absolutely cannot ever happen if, every time we perform, we select pieces that were just finished one or two weeks ago.  We need cushion time – sometimes lots of cushion time – to let repertoire truly settle deep into our being. As Baxter says:

“Knowing about something is quite different from experiencing it. Gyorgy Sebok told a master class once, ‘It is much easier to drive a car that is not moving.’ Performers must learn to create while ‘driving the car’ and to direct the added fuel towards creative means. As pianist Alon Goldstein said, ‘I never feel as if I know a piece until I have played it at lest twice in concert.'” (p. 61)

“To learn the art of performance, one must experience it. There is no substitute.” (p. 60)

Update on 2/10/12:  a study published in The Journal of Neuroscience (February 2012) suggests that even after we practice a piece enough to where we can finally play the notes and rhythms up to speed and correctly, additional practice carries the benefit of reducing the amount of physical and mental energy required to perform the piece (via making those physical and mental processes more efficient). I think this offers us a more precise definition of what I mean by letting repertoire settle “deep into our being”. When students complain of making mistakes in lessons or performances that they never make at home, this is often an indication that while the physical motions might be learned, they have not yet been made completely efficient.

Impatient Learners

I’ve observed that most students tend to place more importance on performing in the next recital than they do on performing well.  Not only are they eager to share their most recent piece with others, they also can’t wait to get a new piece assigned to them.  It’s human nature to want to “move on”.  Most students are in a constant state of impatiently pushing forward, trying to get that sticker on their music (or perform it in a recital) as quickly as they possibly can so they can go on to the next piece.

For me, the greatest fun and joy of music (and often the greatest musical growth!) comes at the very end of the learning process, three months, six months or maybe even a year after a sticker has been fastened to the music.  I love to sit down and create musical perfection.  I love to perform “in the zone” (also called “flow”) and experience music in the way composers intended for it to be experienced, and this simply cannot happen if I’m still experimenting with dynamic phrasing, fingering and rubato, or when I’m trying to build speed in a certain section of music, or (heaven forbid) when I only finally memorized the music two days ago!  Music that is freshly memorized, while it is enjoyable to play, is still not nearly as fun to play as music that is truly pwned.  For me, the true pleasure of music doesn’t come until the music is truly done.

Many students are eager to skip over the most enjoyable and often most beneficial part of musical creation (finishing the piece) so they can start the most painful part of it all over again (starting the piece), this time with a harder piece of music.  The same students who struggle to change fingering, add staccatos or shape dynamically are, ironically, the same students who are all too eager to drop their pieces when they are still 10% or 20% away from being done so they can start the exhausting process all over again.  Are these students signing up to learn how to play music well, or are they signing up to build a sticker collection in their piano books?

One would think our youngest students would be the worst.  Sometimes they can be, depending on their nature and musical upbringing, but I can usually tame this impulsiveness quickly and easily.  I have to say that the worst offenders in the past have generally been adult students.  Their over-eagerness to push on to the next piece stems from a variety of things, especially including a greater sense of “ego” than with younger students.  Adults often go into lessons with unrealistic expectations of how quickly they should be able to progress, especially when they get into later beginning and early intermediate levels.  They also feel extra shamed when they get stuck on the same goal week after week, thinking to themselves that surely they shouldn’t have to resort to such rudimentary measures as going slow, drilling small sections of music, playing hands alone, or counting out loud.  So they continue to knowingly or unknowingly disobey the teacher, practicing fast and not working in small sections, and we teachers become the bad guys in the next lesson when we inform the student that they made zero progress on that goal this week.  It isn’t that adults don’t know how to practice.  It’s that their egos get in the way, and taming this impulsiveness is much more difficult than with kids, sometimes taking several years of psychological work.

Application To Teaching

On a regular basis, I will encourage students to skip recitals if their pieces aren’t totally pwned yet.  If the student finishes their piece only weeks after the skipped recital, I’ll tell them to play it once or twice a day (or even once or twice a week) so that they don’t lose it, and, “we’ll start going over it in our lessons again 3-4 weeks before it’s time to perform it.”  This maintenance process takes very little time and effort and does not take away from a student’s ability to learn just as much new repertoire as if they weren’t doing any maintenance at all.  Even better, this small bit of effort also ensures that your students can whip out a variety of repertoire when family and friends ask them to play some music.  Isn’t the sharing of music with others one of the main reasons students study music at all?  For me, taking piano lessons without going through regular “past repertoire maintenance” would have been like ending the baseball season after playing only one baseball game.  If we’re going to put in all those days practicing baseball, shouldn’t we play in at least 20 baseball games that season to make the practicing more worthwhile?

Some say it’s boring to keep the same pieces for a long time.  While this can depend on the piece, performer and even the teacher, I have to ask:  How does a student know what it’s like to play an pwned piece on stage if all of their past performances took place immediately after they finished the piece?  Ignorance is confused with preference in this case.  If one hasn’t ever tasted a mushroom, then they can’t say they dislike them!  Sometimes students need to be forced to keep a piece longer for no other reason than to finally “see the light”.  Sometimes we need to say:

“Congratulations. You’ve spent three weeks memorizing Arabesque, and another two weeks getting it to flow. Now we need to spend another four months pushing the speed, control and expression up to a level that is truly impressive. While you might be able to go somewhat fast two weeks from now, doing that with really good clarity, rhythmic/dynamic evenness and togetherness is a whole different story. Let’s skip the May recital and plan to play this piece in the October recital when it’s going to sound ten times better than it already does.”

After all, if we’re not trying to build dexterity when we assign pieces like Burgmüller’s Arabesque and Clementi sonatinas, why assign them at all?  The main teaching value of such pieces is technical development, and this development does not even begin to take place during the first 3-6 weeks of learning such music!  “Moderato Clementi” is an oxymoron (at least, when referring to first and last movements).

I used to play along with students’ impulse to “hurry up” and get pieces ready for recitals.  Actually, even before consciously realizing everything I’m writing in this article, I did still always have high standards for music played in recitals, festivals and competitions;  I simply wasn’t always aggressive enough in enforcing these high standards.  Around 2008 or 2009, I realized that my own natural inclination to wait until pieces are really done before performing them was actually quite unusual, even among some professionals.  I had always taken it for granted, and I decided I would do this no more.  Since then I have regularly talked to my students (at all ages, in their own language of course) about this performance threshold idea, and my students all understand and are fully cooperative with this philosophy.  This has especially made a big difference for transfer students who are not accustomed to the level of detail I expect from my students.  They are seeing the light and thoroughly enjoying it.

I truly believe that one of the main causes of performance anxiety is when student (or, unfortunately, teacher) impatience is not corrected over the years and students are allowed (or even encouraged) to perform over and over again before their music reaches the preparation threshold.  Let’s show our students the light!  Teach your students that there is no shame in skipping recitals when a piece isn’t quite ready.  Don’t be afraid to fuss over that last critical 5% of progress.  In fact, it shows discipline.  It is a form of personal pride, part of the “if I’m going to do this, I might as well do it well” attitude that so many successful people demonstrate.  It is a form of delay of gratification.  Students never regret these decisions once the actual performance finally does arrive, especially when doing this over and over again inevitably leads to a lifetime of positive expectations for every performance to come.


Baxter, Diane. “The science of artistry (the fourth string).” Clavier Companion 5.6, 2013, p. 60-61.

(c) 2010 Cerebroom

About Chad

Chad is a pianist, composer, piano teacher and blogger with a Masters Degree in Piano Performance. He received the 2005 Nevada Arts Council Fellowship Grant for the composing and performing on his Ostinato CD.
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4 responses to Reaching The Preparation Threshold

  1. Anna

    This is so true. In high school when I had limited time to practice, I almost never felt ready for performances like I do now that I am in college, even though I am learning a larger volume of more difficult repertoire. Also, I have found that trying a piece out for an audience in a low-pressure setting, such as for a music appreciation class, before a major performance is an invaluable tool for determining if you are mistaking the “85 or 90%” level with the “100% level.” While the performance setting is informal, having an audience of any kind induces a level of “arousal” (to use the term in this article) that I do not have in the practice room. This provides a way to map areas that need further memory security and practice. I have found that mistakes in performance often occur not in the hardest parts that we have practiced most but rather in the easier places simply because we have not spent as much time consciously thinking about them.

    From personal experience, my best performances of a piece occur only on the fourth, fifth, or sixth performance. I am not talking about simply playing correct notes and rhythms. When a piece is “pwned,” there is a level of visual, auditory, and analytical memory that harmoniously work together to allow a level of musical expression that cannot be achieved if any one of these components is not up to par. That is why practicing performing, even for a small group of friends or relatives, is so critical.

    I have also found that sometimes I reach a plateau in progress on a piece. Sure, I can play the notes reasonably well, but it is not musically satisfying—musical burnout, if you will. At this point, I will completely stop playing the piece for up to six months. When I start playing it again, it is as though my brain has been subconsciously working on the piece the whole time. The musical artistry and technical comfort improve at least tenfold.

    Finally, I would like to recommend a book that comments on many aspects and methods of practice and piano performance. It was published a while ago, but it still has many relevant insights: “Pianists on Playing: Interviews with Twelve Concert Pianists” edited by Linda J. Noyle.

    • Such thoughtful feedback, Anna – a true addition to my article. I remember having very little time to practice during 11th grade too. There is only so much a student can do with music when each of their high school teachers are piling on 1-2 hours of homework each night. And yes, performing before you perform is critical too, although the one anomaly to this for me was when I debuted my Ostinato CD – I made myself nervous in my own home 3 weeks before the performance through intense visualization of the performance and nerves it would create. Not easy for everyone to do, but it worked so well that it was the best performance I had ever given despite being the very first public performance of those pieces. But ultimately it created the same effect, performing before the performance.

      Also, I’ll have to say that making a note-perfect recording of your piece to post on YouTube is an amazingly effective way to polish a piece up to that point of pwnership. In fact, it may even be better than performing publicly. Recording (with the goal of absolute perfection) is much more stressful for me than playing in front of people, because every little tiny imperfection makes me have to stop and try again. If we can’t even produce one single perfect take of a piece given 50 tries in the comfort of our home, there is no hope of a public performance being blemish-free. Very recently I’ve been assigning my students the task of bringing in a PERFECT recording of their playing on a thumb drive the next week. The results are either 1) the student practices the heck out of the piece and achieves the goal, or (more often) 2) the student is quite humbled by just how far away they are from pwning their piece.

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