Robert Estrin - piano expert

My First Recital

How to get prepared for your first recital

In this video, Robert tells a story about his first piano recital, which may be very interesting for all musicians.

Released on April 6, 2022

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DISCLAIMER: The views and the opinions expressed in this video are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Virtual Sheet Music and its employees.

Video Transcription

Welcome to I'm Robert Estrin with yet another variation on my theme. For today's show, which is My First Recital. Boy, it seems like it was yesterday, even though I was a very young child. And I want to give you a little bit of background, because you know how different it is when you play for other people. In fact so many of my students play for me and they tell me, "Oh my gosh, it went so much better."

And in the olden days with in-person lessons it was always, the famous saying was, "It went better at home." Now what excuse is there when they're at their home on their own pianos? Well, there's a lot to this subject. So let's dive right in.

Well, many of you probably know that I grew up studying with my father, Morton Estrin. And while he was professor of music at Hofstra University on 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. And in fact, my father had monthly recitals there.

And each month he'd feature a student who was preparing a solo recital, or perhaps they'd split a recital together. Or it'd be three or four, or even five-way recital, giving students ample opportunities to perform. Because it's so important for the reasons I'm going to articulate in a moment.

Well, in June he had two recitals back-to-back on two different days, for all the other students who weren't ready for solar recitals, or even to be three, four, or five parts of one recital. And so that's where I first had an opportunity to play in a recital.

Now I want to preface this by saying that in my father's studio, he had professional recording equipment. And so from the time I started lessons, there are tapes, I've got them down in storage right now. One of these days I'll pull some of these out. I'm sure many of you would be interested.

From my very, very first pieces, he recorded virtually everything my sister and I played. Everything we studied with him, he'd record. Not each piece. I'd have seven or eight short pieces and he'd put on the machine, I'd announce them and play them. And we did that for years, and years, and years. So there's a whole bunch of tapes.

So you'd 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 recorded countless times. But here's what happened. I remember it so vividly. The very first time I played, and I'm on my father's familiar piano in his studio, which is in our home. You think I'd be so comfortable. And these pieces, which I knew really well and could play without even thinking about it. Which, by the way, that's part of the problem, which we'll get to in a minute.

So I get to the piano and it's like, it's so hard to describe. It's almost like being in a dream state, where the black keys look so black, and the white keys look so stark white. And I'm looking down at all these keys thinking, oh my gosh, I've got to find all the notes to these pieces I've memorized? It just seemed absolutely impossible, how I could just find all those notes among those keys I was staring at. And it was a horrifying proposition.

Well, because I was very, very well-prepared, me father wouldn't have me play if I wasn't really well-prepared, I played. And here is what is so amazing. I don't remember if it was at the first recital where I had this experience, I think it was a little bit later on. Where I had a little blunder. Well, little blunder. I had a complete catastrophe in my mind.

I thought it was just horrific what had happened, and my life flashed before my eyes. You know, it's amazing how seriously we take our own performances? If you're on the freeway and something happens, that's understandable. But something about playing publicly gets that adrenaline flowing, doesn't it?

So I thought it was complete disaster and I just ... Well, next lesson my father put on the tape of the recital. And I'm cringing and cringing and then listening. And there's one little tiny blip that went by. And it keeps going, I'm waiting for the mistake. And was that it? And when I listened back to the tape I couldn't even believe it. It was a little teen tiny momentary thing that I practically didn't notice in listening back to the tape. But at the time it seemed like the world stopped. There was an eternity of time in that moment.

So this is one lesson to be learned. When you're playing for someone, you are hyper-aware of what you're doing in a way that is completely unlike in your practice, when you're just kind of playing without giving it too much thought. In fact, the thought is focused on the music, which is really the key to being able to perform well, to stay focused on the music.

And how to do this, there are many, many ways to achieve this. I've talked about the importance of practicing performance, and you can start by practicing recording yourself. Then for a family member or good friend, just a single person, and work it up to more and more people.

Another thing is some people will say, oh, I just want to ignore the audience and just go out there and pretend they're not there, and just play. And while this may work for some people, I've almost taken the opposite approach. In my practice, when I do little tryout performances, with nobody there at all, not even recording it, I'll pretend I'm at the actual performance. And I'll think the room. And I try to psyche myself into the feeling of performing. And the nerves if possible, try to get it all, all the juices churning and try to be in that moment.

More than that, thinking about the moment you are going to be in front of an audience. And what I used to do, what I came to later on, is almost like a post-hypnotic suggestion. I would think about sitting on the chair, I'd think about the name of the piano. If it was a Steinway, I'd think Steinway. If it was a Baldwin, I would think Baldwin. I would just imagine looking at that.

And I would just breathe deeply, imagining that moment with an audience there. Taking a deep breath, seeing the name of the piano, so that it's not a surprise. Because you know what it's like. You sit down at a performance, or even if it's at your lesson on your own familiar piano, and suddenly everything feels different. So you want to kind of prepare that moment in advance. So when you come to it, you take that same big breath, you look at the name of the piano, and boom, it brings back that state of relaxation that you practiced beforehand. Thinking about the moment, looking at the name of the piano. That is a great technique to kind of get you centered.

Now, what else can you do? There's some very practical things. One thing is that when you are a little bit nervous, you tend to go faster. Your entire physiology speeds up. Your heart rate goes a little faster, you might have a little sweaty palms. And 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.

And then things start messing up. And once things mess up, if you get into a thought of, oh, what's coming next? It's disaster. Because the amount of material you learn is kind of awe-inspiring when you think about it, that you can remember all that music. Or even if you're playing with a score, that you can digest all of that, all those notes coming at you furiously. So you've got to make sure that you have enough time, and giving yourself that little extra time.

What else can you do? Well, in preparation for performance, there's a certain amount of motor memory, I've talked about this. Physiologically, your fingers know where to go. And I liken this, and I've made videos on this subject. How, if you watch a toddler learning how to take their first steps, the concentration on their face is unbelievable. And of course, once you learn how to walk, you can walk and you can be thinking about other things. You can be doing ... The same thing for driving.

The first time you drive, everything is incredibly intentional. And on a long car trip, you're kind of ... I'm not suggesting you shouldn't concentrate. You absolutely have to. But the human mind actually can't really think about more than one thing at a time. It's just going 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. And your musical performance, it's the same thing. You're watching certain things. But if you're playing something that's really, really fast, how could you possibly think all the notes?

Of course, you try to think all the notes. But in the course of, if you're playing a whole piece or a whole program, there's going to be moments of distraction. Where maybe a noise in the audience, or something where you're not going to be 100% 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.

So you're always have to that part of you, looking down at yourself, making sure you don't take a wrong turn. Reaffirm your concentration. And number one, listen. 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. And it keeps you in the moment, which is the whole secret to being able to stay with it and have a coherent, solid performance.

If you start thinking about what's coming on later, oh am I going to remember later on what's coming ahead? It's a disaster. You can't really think that way. Or if you made a mistake you think, what did I do there? Once again, you have to be right where you are, focused in on what you're doing. Listening and trying to make the most beautiful music you can, reaching people with your love of the music. The reason why you spend so many hours achieving the level you did was so you could share your unique take on these pieces.

So take advantage of that moment. Let the audience inspire you. Take that energy and use it positively to keep you focused into the score, listening and creating beautiful music. And you'll do great. In your practice, be sure you don't just depend upon your motor memory. Go back very, very slowly with your foot off the pedal, putting the metronome on, and double check 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 things that you thought were really exaggerated, you made strong accents and short staccatos, and loud fortes and quiet pianissimos, are not going to be nearly as extreme to the listener from 10, 20, 50 feet away.

So 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're on automatic pilot for those little stretches of time when you lose your concentration momentarily, your fingers still remember, and your ears remember the sound that you're after.

I hope these tips work for you. Anybody else who has good suggestions, how to deal with performance, leave them in the comments here on and YouTube. And thank you, all you subscribers ringing the bell, thumbs up. This is what brings these videos to more people. We're just about to hit a hundred thousand subscribers here on YouTube, many more on Subscribe there for my newsletters that come out twice a week. See you next time.

Again, Robert Estrin at, your online piano resource.
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Comments, Questions, Requests:

Bernice on April 28, 2022 @6:19 am PST
I am so grateful to you for sharing your wisdom.
Thank you.
This is the 3rd video of yours that i have watched and i must say, i find your material very valuable.
You play so beautifully.
Kind regards
Robert - host, on April 28, 2022 @7:56 am PST
Here is a search box so you can explore other videos. I have over 1,300 of them for you!
Karen * VSM MEMBER * on April 6, 2022 @7:13 am PST
Okay, great ideas
Since I speed up when I perform,
from now on, I’m going to perform to a room full of elephants
who are both slow and friendly.
Robert Estrin on April 28, 2022 @7:57 am PST


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