How to give a “pitch perfect” piano performance

I went to see the movie Pitch Perfect 2 last night. Without spoiling anything for you, I’ll just say that I thought the first 20 minutes tried too hard but the movie settled down nicely when the “new girl” arrived. All in all it was very entertaining, featured some exciting a cappella vocal arrangements, and was almost appropriate for kids.

Even though this was a movie, not real life, something happened during one of the singing group’s performances that we pianists frequently face. They had to follow another group that was really good. In fact, the other group was great and the audience loved them.

What do you do in a situation like this? How do you react?

The movie handled this issue very well, and with surprising subtlety. As an audience member, I was watching the other group’s spectacular performance and trying to imagine how the Bellas were going to sound. And when we ourselves are in this situation, it’s tempting to do the same. For instance, if you’ve prepared a quiet, introspective piece and the performer before you is wowing the crowd with technical fireworks, it can indeed be difficult to even mentally imagine your music. Or if they’re tugging at the audience’s heartstrings, it may be difficult to visualize the audience liking your fun pop music, or whatever.

The overwhelming tendency is to try to match the energy of the previous piece. To fight fire with fire. But as I was recently reminded, we don’t fight fire with fire; we fight fire with water.

If you can be brave and stick to your plan, a magical thing will happen. Once the previous applause dies down and you begin to perform your music, with no regard for what just happened, the audience forgets what they just heard. They’ll be with you 100%. It happens quickly, within 5-10 seconds, but you have to take the lead and trust this process.

Be yourself, and the audience will be with you. This is because you have something to offer that no one else can, no matter what you thought a few minutes ago. I know it can be difficult and feel like you’re taking a leap of faith. But it’s really your only hope. If you try to mimic the previous performer’s energy, you won’t perform at your best and the audience will still compare you to them. You may have to go through this a few times before you begin to trust this process, but you’ll eventually see that it’s your best bet. Trust in yourself and the audience will respond favorably. This is one of the keys to giving a pitch perfect performance, and not just in the movies.

Here’s an example of when I myself had to go through a similar process. Good luck with your playing!

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