Public speaking for pianists

Playing piano in public is a great way to get used to speaking in public. For starters, it gives you a chance to say something very short, so you can deal with possible nerves very quickly and “get it over with.” And if it’s going well and you feel relaxed, you can simply keep speaking and “enjoy the moment.” (Yes – it is possible to enjoy these moments!)

I just came back from a ceremony where a clergyman was being honored for 45 years of service to a community. It was eye-opening to see the huge difference in quality between the various speakers and presenters. For one thing, it’s called public speaking, not public reading. It is very ineffective to stand at the podium with your head lowered, reading words off a page in a boring monotone. Speak to the audience; don’t read to them.

Yes, it’s OK to read, but say remember that you have an opportunity to actually speak to the audience. The words are a reminder of what you want to say, but you need to read them as if you’re not reading. Better yet, think of it as speaking to people, just like you speak to people every day. If your speech starts with “It’s exciting to be here today,” then say it as if you mean it. It’s ingenuine to say those words without meaning it, or at least trying to mean it. (And in fact it shows everyone present that you don’t really mean it!)

Let’s go back to the piano. You walk out on stage, look at the audience and say, “Hi. What a beautiful day!” Or “How are you all doing today?” Or “I’d like to play one of my favorite songs for you.” People are so used to boring “public readers” that you’ll instantly make a positive impression if you can “be yourself” and connect with them. It just takes 10 seconds and helps both you and the audience relax with each other. It’ll help you play better too.

I used to get really nervous while speaking in public. I remember when the great jazz pianist Dave Brubeck came to my college and I was asked to put together a jazz quartet to play some of his tunes for him. The program listed the songs in the wrong order so I wanted to simply let the audience that we switched songs 2 and 3 around. I started sweating and ended up saying the wrong thing! (This was a lesson in itself: I thought it was a disaster but people later told me that they were just a little confused by what I said. Nobody but me payed much attention to it. This helped me put things in perspective.)

Do you know what finally got me over my fear of speaking in public? I played at a church for 18 years where the minister was a little absent-minded. He would routinely put the wrong hymn numbers up on the board. I soon realized that he wasn’t going to change so I decided to simply stand up during the service and say, “Please turn to page 104 in your hymnals” or whatever hymn number we were singing.” After a short while I began feeling comfortable doing this and I now enjoy speaking in public.

Why did announcing the hymn numbers help me so much? Two reasons: First, I came to realize that most public speaking is just conveying information. We think it’s about us, but in fact it’s not about us. It’s about the audience. They’re just sitting there and we tell them what’s going on. The congregation just needed to know what page to turn to. It didn’t matter how my hair looked or if my voice cracked or if they liked me. They just wanted to know what page to turn to. Simple. Information.

Secondly, I announced the hymn change several time per month for years. I became acclimatized to speaking in public. When you do something over and over, it’s impossible to keep feeling the same way about it. Sooner or later, something in us relaxes.

When you walk onstage to play piano in public, the audience wants to get to know you. That’s it. They’re a bunch of people sitting there and don’t know what to expect. Use this to your advantage and say a few words. Just a few, with a smile. “Here’s something by Duke Ellington.” “Here’s an acoustic version of a current hit song you may recognize.” “HI’d like to play a piece by my favorite composer.”

Speak to them as you would to a friend and they’ll be your friend. Then sit down at the piano and have some fun!

If you want to learn to play from chord sheets and a whole lot more, my piano improv video course will get you playing like you’ve always imagined!

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