love teaching performance but it has taken me a while to nut out exactly what I need to teach. To be honest I used to think it was mostly the instrumental teacher’s job and that I should just encourage students to keep up the practice. Well that was my excuse for not really being able to define what the ‘X factor’ was – let alone teach it.

Convincing performances require so many more skills than being able to play an instrument well.  After years focused on technique and playing the correct notes, it comes as a rude shock to students to that giving a performance includes a range of completely new skills.

Over the next few posts I’m going to share some of the things that work for me when teaching performance.

  1. I try to be honest with my students.

My job is to help them improve which requires honesty and sometimes a bit of tough love. Performance is a very personal thing. It was vital in my class (possibly because I am not renowned for my subtlety) that the relationships and trust levels I have with my students are pretty strong before embarking on this It is also important for the relationships within the class to be good. Luckily this often happens naturally with music kids. Honesty is important as I have found that in some cases I was the first person who had mentioned to students that they could improve and weren’t just naturally gifted.

  1. Repeat things – often (Nag them!!)

Performance is one of those weird things that is made up of a bunch of habits. By the time students are giving a performance they don’t want to be thinking about all the things I have said all year – they need to be in the moment. To get rid of some old behaviour and replace it with new behaviour so well that it is a habit, is very difficult. Trust me! I have gone back to university to study conducting. I will refer to my experiences of this quite a bit because the process has made me a much better teacher. My teacher says ‘Hold your stick up higher’ or ‘Stand still’. These sound like simple enough instructions right? Apparently not. He has been repeating these for weeks and I am still at the stage that I have to think about them – I have not formed the habit yet.

  1. Start them young

We are all fully aware that the younger we start learning the easier it is. I still wish I had learnt another language when I was 5. I start students thinking about performance skills from year 7.

In their very 1st class performances we talk about walking on, introductions, and basic physical aspects of performance. As each year progresses they add to this so that their performance habits are developing steadily – not just when it counts.

  1. Aim for excitement not excellence

I have totally ripped this one from a very experienced VCE adjudicator but the statement made a huge impact on my students and me. It changed our aims from presenting notes well to giving the audience musical excitement – what could be better? The class then started to understand that aiming for dynamics, expression and style are just as important as thinking about the correct notes.

  1. Work on creating a ‘Presence’

Soooo hard to do – soooo important.

I think this will probably be a full blog post in the future as it is so important. I had a student named Sarah who was very shy. She could enter any room and nobody would notice. I think she had worked hard to perfect this skill. Sarah was quiet, polite and nice. She never wore anything eye catching and worked very hard. You know the ones! All was good until she wanted to do VCE music. It took a full year to get her to walk into the door in a way that the audience noticed her and paid attention. She pretty much had to develop another persona for performing with her shoulders back and a confident smile on her face.  This is the same concept as the 11 second rule (not to be confused with the 3 second rule if you drop your food on the floor). It says that employers decide in 11 seconds if they want to employ you or not. Presence is important and can be taught.

An excellent performance makes a lot of hard work look like a natural gift.

Related Resources – Bravo! Teaching Performance Excellence

Jenny Going

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