Slaying the Performance Anxiety Beast (Part 3)

I've been doing a lot of traveling lately so I have some catching up to do. I'm just going to crank these out.

Let's rewind back to June. I had recently joined a Meetup group called "Let's Meetup and Play Piano!". Through this meet up, someone announced that a volunteer organization called Sing for Hope was doing it's fifth annual art project of placing 50 donated pianos in public spaces in NYC (Manhattan, Staten Island, Brooklyn, Queens, Bronx) from June 9 - 19, 2016.

This was the first time I had enough advanced warning to drop what I was doing and visit nine of those pianos in Manhattan. is the website, and they have a mobile app with a map of locations. You can also reserve times and locations to perform.

They keep the pianos outside for 11 days because this is as long as the pianos can stay outdoors and still have a long life afterwards. After June 19 the pianos were donated to local schools this year. Each has a tarp attached in case it rains, a Sing for Hope plaque, and a description of the artist on a square piano bench.

Because there are so many things going on in public spaces: people, traffic, sirens, and all sorts of distractions, this is great practice to see what your rational brain knows (and can do when intently focused on a task at hand), versus what your autonomic systems know (muscle memory - can you play while daydreaming?) You’ll invariably be surprised at what you don’t know, or what crops up, when you daydream / get distracted / etc. This is yet another level of deep reinforcement during piano practice, and it’s great to think of these types of sessions as another form of piano practice.

I met a lot of good musicians along the way. Many were able to play by ear / memory. Some were able to pick up the music books attached to the pianos and sightread something. One woman shyly asked after I played if she could play, not realizing the pianos were open to the public. After her performance I commended her for sitting down and playing by memory and she said “oh, that’s no big deal. If it were in front of my family or friends, I would freeze. But there are all strangers here, so no problem!” Fascinating! That hadn’t occurred to me at all.

After my 10th performance I’d learned a few things. I will admit part of the reason I have confidence is that I play my own compositions. If I make a mistake, not many will know it unless I stop midway. Now, if you ask me to play Garden in the Rain, that’s a whole other ball of wax. And not just because I haven’t played it in a decade :\

On my second piano in Central Park I blanked at the end of one section of Thelxiepeia’s Lament and found I couldn’t continue (even though I wrote this in 2012, performed it at a benefit concert, and it’s pretty solid at this point). I took a break and transitioned into Steampunk Music Box. After that, I was able to go back and pick up where I’d left off, and finish. This was my first yip (look at “nip the yip” in Part 2). Since I was close to Juilliard I thought I’d stop there after and see if I had a true yip that I needed to fix, but then I discovered our IDs were only good during the semester and they didn’t allow access after, which in retrospect makes perfect sense. So I didn’t have that luxury. Instead (back to Part 1), I practiced on my leg for awhile until I was assured I’d corrected the problem, and then I was fine when I played on the other pianos.

I saw most of the pianos the first day they were available publicly in the new locations. Since this was a weekday, I had a number of nice conversations with people along the way. I found that was actually harder during the weekend since there was a lot more activity going on.

Some of the pianos were hard to find. I quickly learned to talk to people like security guards if I was having trouble. One limitation is that the pianos had to be secured to something, like a fence.

Notes on repertoire: first off, have a playable one at all times. You never know when an opportunity like this will pop up. The day I did a marathon walking tour, the piano on 57th and 10th Ave had gone honky tonk. The sustain pedal for the one in Madison Square Park was broken that day, so having honky tonk repertoire and something that sounds good without a pedal is advisable. I learned there were three tuners addressing problems that were called in.

Sing for Hope had scheduled a sing-along at Times Square, and they were smart enough to come prepared with lyrics for those passing by to join in.

Curiously, while you would think the Times Square piano would be a noisier location, during the week it wasn't as bad and the one in Herald Square was more challenging with traffic noise. Acoustics can be quite interesting depending on where the piano is.

I closed out my day with the piano in Washington Square Park, which was different in that the normally white keys were black and the normally black keys were white. This became a challenge later as the sun set, and I got to test my ability to play without seeing the keys. Doable but not easy. 

After my marathon walking tour, I went back a week later to join the "Let's Meetup and Play Piano!" group at the Madison Square Park piano, and the group was still performing after I'd left an hour and a half later. What a great group of musicians, many really good. That is the perfect storm for a project like this: Sing for Hope supplying the pianos, and the Meetup group performing on those pianos. One little toddler went up and started playing as someone else was trying to play, and with a gracious smile the performer managed to get through. Another lesson in adaptability.

Next year I'll start practicing for the Sing for Hope pianos in January.