Five Tips for Successful Performance Preparation

performance preparation

One of the most exciting aspects of becoming a musician is to share what we have been working on.

This is the moment when we take what a composer has written, translate it into how it speaks to us and then share our interpretation with an audience.

We, as musicians, connect unrelated people through what we do on stage.

What a powerful moment!

How do you prepare your students for such a monumental event?

Here are some guidelines for your students to prepare for an upcoming performance.

1. Programming appropriately.

As tempting as it is to assign or allow students pieces they want to play or we want to hear for a recital, sometimes they are simply not ready.

Just because a child could play it doesn’t mean they should.

It is far better to assign a piece of music that is easier for them so that they have a positive musical experience.

When students are allowed to over-program, they are robbed of the opportunity to have a genuine musical experience.

If a student feels a technically appropriate piece is too easy for them, they are not working hard enough.

There are always things to improve.

Focus on dynamics and articulation.

Can they play it at a different tempo and with a metronome?

A general rule of thumb two to three months prior to a performance is that if a student cannot make it through the piece the first time they sit to play it, the piece is simply too hard to be done well in a short time frame.

Does that mean they shouldn’t work on it?

Of course not!

We learn from what we don’t know rather than what we do know, so it is still a valuable teaching tool- just maybe not the right choice for an upcoming performance given the constraints of time.

2. Practice slowly.

If they can’t play it slowly, they don’t truly understand it.

We don’t want students only to be able to play everything quickly.

How is their precision of the subdivision when there is a lot more space in between beats for errors?

Quick is fun and exciting, but it is a lot more gratifying when it is precise!

3. Start from the end.

Students love that upper left-hand corner of the page.

That is why the beginning of so many of their pieces are so solid!

I love to start from the end.

“End on a good note.”

Audiences remember the first thing they hear as well as the last thing they hear.

They will forgive the middle- although they may not forget it!

Start from the end and work your way towards the beginning.

This helps with transitions as well.

Speaking of transitions…

4. Practice transitions.

We as musicians tend to “chunk” our music.

We play one section, then another.

The bridge between the two often gets neglected and even more frequently, sounds neglected.

This is necessary not only within the confines of one piece but also from one piece to the next.

It is important to hear the change in style and tonality between pieces of music.

Don’t save the run-through for the performance.

Have them end one piece and then play the beginning of the next so that their ears and fingers are accustomed to that transition.

5. Memorize their music.

Simply stated, if it isn’t memorized, it hasn’t been practiced enough.

When we are glued to the black dots on the page, we miss out on the joy of actually creating music.

They have to be able to allow the music to lead them.

Each note should not just last the prescribed number of beats; it should rise and fall with the emotions they are experiencing on stage.

This can only happen if they aren’t reliant on reading the notes on the page.

They know their music well enough to look away.

Use these tips to help prepare your students for their upcoming performance.

Of course, modify according to ability and temper.

The best performances occur when your student is prepared and can connect with the audience.

Above all, enjoy helping your student make connections!

About April: April O’Keefe is co-founder and current Associate Director of SoliMusica Academy.  She graduated from Georgia State University in 2002 with a Bachelor in Music Performance with a focus on cello performance.  She taught at East Cobb Middle School from 2004 until 2014.

While teaching at East Cobb Middle School, the orchestra program grew from 120 students to over 275 students.  Under her direction, the orchestras consistently received superior ratings at local and regional Large Group Performance Evaluations.  Many of her students participated in select ensembles such as the Cobb County Middle School Honor Orchestra, Georgia All-State Orchestra and the Georgia Youth Symphony Orchestra.  Mrs. O’Keefe has been actively involved in the Georgia Music Educators Association serving as District Twelve Honor Orchestra Chair and District Twelve All-State Audition Chair.  She also actively serves and clinician and adjudicator throughout the metro-Atlanta area.

Since 2008, April O’Keefe has served as music education assistant for Kennesaw United Methodist Church.  While in this position, she has worked with and organized children’s choir, children’s handbells, and various summer camps.  She also created a barbershop ensemble, taught an adult violin class, and served as interim Music Minister directing adult choirs and adult handbell groups.

Mrs. O’Keefe lives in Kennesaw with her husband, Paul, five-year-old Carson, and two-year-old twins, Logan and Molly.  Paul is a violinist, Carson is just beginning his musical journey on violin, and the twins are enjoying watching-for now.


Memorization technique

The following is one of the most efficient memorization techniques that I’ve taught my students.

It’s common knowledge that students all around the globe practice too fast. And this produces poor results!

Slow and steady wins the race.

I always remind my students about The Tortoise and the Hare.

Who wins?

The tortoise, of course.


Because he’s slow and methodical.

The hare gets cocky and only knows one speed – fast! And this ultimately leads to his losing the race.

We have to take care in reminding our students to practice slowly.

Learning the piano is a marathon, not a sprint.

So, why memorize music?

Well, we encourage our students to memorize music because it helps them internalize and bring a higher level of interpretation to their music.

They don’t have to worry so much about the notes anymore and can focus on the dynamics, phrasing, and other musical nuances.

When it comes to memorization, I like to teach a back to front approach.

It’s not a quick approach, but it yields amazing results!

Maybe you, like me, have seen students attempt to memorize a piece from beginning to end quickly.

Impatience = Sloppiness

This is why it’s so important to remind students about the long game. In the end, the tortoise wins the race!

One caveat before we dive into the technique; a student shouldn’t attempt memorization until she can play a piece from beginning to end without making mistakes.

She must have a solid grasp of the music.

Now, on to memorization.

As already mentioned, I prefer a slow and steady back to front approach.

Once students are ready to begin memorizing, I have them turn to the very back of a piece, extract the last three to four bars, and play them several times slowly along with the music.

I stress slowly here.

Once they’ve played the three to four measure phrase slowly with the music, I ask them to play the phrase from memory.

Carving out small sections one at a time and practicing them in this way forces students to pay attention to what’s going on in the music.

What are the intervals? What does the melody sound like? What’s the rhythm?

Extracting small snippets of a piece and practicing them in this way gives way to solid memorization.

You’re determining these little fragments by the phrasing, or course. You could be working with six bars phrases in your case. Or it could be less.

But I would not bite off more than six bars. This may be a bit much for your students depending on the tempo and difficulty level of their piece.

I’ve had my students repeat as little as two measures at a time.

Once students have mastered the last three or four bars of a piece (or last part of a phrase), I have them back up to the preceding three to four bars of music.

Now, have them repeat the process. Not only with the new measures, but the measures they’ve already memorized.

This technique reinforces the music that they’ve already memorized and works extremely well when it comes to solidifying memorization of any piece.

Okay, so just to recap. –

  1. Play the last three or four measures of a piece (depending on the phrase) several times while looking at the music.
  2. Next, play the passage from memory.
  3. Then back up to the preceding three or four measures and play them plus the memorized measures several times while looking at the music.
  4. Now try the passage from memory.
  5. Rinse, wash, repeat.

This approach just works!

I encourage you to approach large-scale works, such as Beethoven’s sonatas a little differently.

You’ll want to break larger pieces into smaller chunks (one or two pages at a time) and then apply the slow back to front approach.

So there you go!

I hope this quick article gives you some food for thought as you’re resting and gearing up for a new semester of teaching

Remind your students of the classic fable The Tortoise and the Hare.

Remind them who wins the race!

So what works for you?

What memorization techniques are you using in your lessons?

I’d love to hear from you!

Please leave a comment below.

And as always, thank you for supporting the PracticeHabits community!

Christmas Recital Time, Again?

Tree at Christmas recital

It’s the most wonderful time of the year! Or is it?

Christmas recitals are just around the corner.

Are you prepared?

Better question – Are your students prepared?

Many Christmas recital to-do-lists look like this –

  1. Purchase food and drinks
  2. Tune piano(s)
  3. Create and print programs
  4. Collect recital fees
  5. Remind parents of due dates and recital times
  6. Extra piano lessons (maybe make-up lessons) before recital

The list goes on and on!

It’s difficult to accomplish these things when there are so many other items on the list!

The most important item being one-on-one time with your students.

Many of you have expressed to me that the biggest problems you face in the lesson room include lack of practice and lack of enthusiasm.

Well, I’ve told you that is a resource for you. A resource you can rely on for helpful tips and tricks when things get tough.

Things can get real tough around recital time.

Let me provide you with one super fantastic tip that’s helped me time and time again with my students around recital time.


It’s something so simple, yet so inspiring to your students!

They have an opportunity to work hard practicing and preparing for weekly lessons and important events such as recitals and in return their efforts they receive the prestigious STUDENT OF THE MONTH award!

Now, maybe you already have a similar program within your studio.


Consider reimagining it this Christmas recital season just to light a little fire in your student’s bellies ; )

What if you gave this prestigious award away to several students during the month of December and rewarded them at the end of the Christmas recital?

What an honor! What a message you’d be sending to all of your students and their families –

Practice is important. Engagement is important. Your student has worked really hard in these areas and deserves to be rewarded!

It helps light a fire in the bellies of your other students as well.

Now, I used to award a certificate as well as a special piece of music to my students of the month.

It was a win-win, really.

They received a gift for their hard work. That gift was a piece of music. The students loved practicing these pieces!

Love and practice in the same sentence? Wow, what a beautiful thing!

I want to give you something. An award that you can pass out to your students of the month.

Please accept this fun and inventive arrangement of Jingle Bells for the late-beginner to the early-intermediate piano student as a token of my gratitude for your support of the community.

Now, maybe you’re in need of an excellent piece for the mid-late intermediate piano student. Well, check out my original composition That Fall Feeling. I know you and your students will enjoy it!

The next three weeks are going to be busy. Remember to take care of yourself and your family.

And as always, allow to fill you up with inspiration in the form of great articles and music!

Merry Christmas!