Preparing for a Solo Jazz Piano Concert

Originally published in Canadian Musician Magazine, May/June issue 2013

recently performed a solo piano concert in Toronto, and CM asked me to write an article about the preparation involved. There were three key things that made the performance a success: good time management, regular exercise, and disciplined practice sessions.

Good time management is essential when preparing for a solo concert. The ideal situation is to dedicate a consistent block of time to practicing each day. Of course, the reality is much different. Many professional musicians juggle teaching schedules, performances, and the regular demands of everyday life just like anybody else.

I had to plan my practice schedule at the beginning of each week to ensure that my time was being used effectively. Each person is different, but I found that the ideal amount of practice time for me was four hours per day, six days a week, broken up into 45 minutes of playing and 15 minutes of rest/stretching. If I could not find four hours in a day, I would condense the practice steps into two hours. Having practice time pre-planned weekly alleviated the stress of not being able to find enough time to practice.

Regular exercise and stretching are essential to keeping alert, focused, and healthy during preparation. It is easy to injure yourself if you do not counteract the repetitiveness of long hours at the piano with physical activity. Having decided when to practice, one must decide WHAT to practice. It is easy to feel overwhelmed by the volume of music that needs preparation. I had to prepare and maintain 10 pieces, which amounted to just over one hour of playing time. To help with this task, I would keep the practice sessions as consistent as possible. I also took detailed notes while practicing to help organize the following day’s practice session. A typical session would be broken down as follows:

1. Finger Independence Exercises & Technique (45 mins)

It is important to do a proper warmup as the demands on your hands will be quite strenuous over the practice session. My finger exercises of choice are: Alfred Cortot’s tenuto finger exercises from his Rational Principals of Pianoforte Technique and the 10thexercise from Dohnanyi’s Essential Finger Exercises. I would then follow the finger exercises by playing four-octave scales, four-note/dominant/ diminished chords, and tonic/dominant/diminished arpeggios in three major and minor keys.

If you are new to finger exercises it is important to work through them with an experienced teacher! Playing these exercises incorrectly could lead to injury. Listen to your body and rest when you need to.

2. Rest/Stretching (15 mins)

Do not skip this step!  Rest allows your mind and body to calm and prepare for the following part of the practice session.  Try to stretch completely from the top down to stay loose and relaxed.  If you are unsure of how to stretch, consult with a physiotherapist or chiropractor that works with musicians.

3. Extremely Slow Metronome Practice Of No More Than Three Pieces (45 mins)

This could be playing through a piece in its entirety or the isolation of small sections. Slow metronome practice ingrains inhibition and focus. This slow practice is what keeps you calm when nerves start acting up on performance day. The previous day’s practice notes would determine what I tackled during this portion.

Some examples would be: playing an entire piece L.H. alone, improvising using only large note values, playing the piece using only a few voices, only playing chords, only playing lines… I would apply these techniques to “trouble” spots from the day before to become more familiar with them. Any part of any piece that felt weak would become top priority. I would gradually rotate through all pieces over 7-10 days.

4. Rest/Stretching (15 mins)

5. Playing Pieces Without Metronome (45 mins)

Time to let loose a little. After the discipline and focus of finger exercises and metronome practice, it is important to actually play for pleasure. This is when the hard work of the previous practice steps becomes apparent. You should notice that your ideas are more fluid and your technique more confident. It may take a few sessions for things to start becoming second nature. Do not be discouraged; this is a long-term process.

6. Rest/Stretching (15 mins)

7. Free Improvisation, Classical Repertoire, Cool Down (45 mins)

Paradoxically, free improvisation and interpreting classical compositions both use the same part of the brain that is attributed to creativity. I have found that playing in both styles keeps the mind in “learning and creating” mode. This prevents stagnation and repetition of ideas, both of which can make you feel like you are not moving forward as a musician. For a cool down, I play through the first of Cortot’s tenuto exercises one final time.

8. Final Stretches & Notes

Writing down what you have just done gives a sense of accomplishment and highlights the intrinsic rewards of hard work. Anything that was problematic during the practice session should be noted and worked on the following day.

Planning a solo piano concert is one of the most demanding, but ultimately one of the most rewarding tasks that a pianist can undertake. Hopefully this information helps you prepare for your own concert. The challenge is worth it!