Dr. Yerlow has joined the Arts and Science faculty of Fordham University in New York City in the Department of Art History and Music as Adjunct Professor in Piano. Dr. Yerlow has taught at the State University of New York, and at New York University. His notable students include Regis Philbin, Phil Donahue, Elaine May, and Tony Roberts. His continuing series, MAKING MUSIC ALIVE, published by Keyboard Classic Magazine, has been the subject of several radio interviews and news articles (see below). An article COUNTERACTING NERVES DURING LIVE PERFORMANCE, was the subject of an hour-long performing interview on National Public Radio's, A NOTE TO YOU.
Making Music Alive
BY STANLEY YERLOW
The process of making music alive requires both intellect and instinct. I believe in using all the musical and mechanical elements at our disposal to explore the wide range of possibilities. One way to do this is through exaggeration.
Exaggeration teases and expands the mind. If you do not know how loud a note should be, set the extremes of playing it between as loud as possible and as soft as possible. Once you establish the boundaries, you can easily move from loud to soft, or from soft to loud, creating a feeling for the scope. It is important to understand this concept to be able to control - change - the amount of sound. Sometimes I play an entire phrase in exaggerated forms so that my ear can identify the one that is best for me.
There is no "right" decision, but being able to make a decision comes from knowing the multitude of choices. Take a musical line which has slurs within a crescendo. The crescendo moves the line forward and the slur counteracts that movement because it wants to linger or stop. You must make a decision as to how much to continue the movement, and how much to stop it. When deciding, the ear, as evaluator, will tell you what it wants you to do, producing a fresh, spontaneous interpretation.
Mechanical and other physical adjustments are areas which are best dealt with by the individual. Technical solutions can then be tailored to fit the individual I perform best when I feel that my whole body is relaxed. I try to get into the most comfortable position, understanding that for every piece I play, I will have to make physical adjustments.
Whenever you approach the physical side of music making, you should be in a process of discovering. If you do not have anything new to discover, try to experience what you discovered yesterday. Don't try to remember what you discovered yesterday, however, try to re-experience it. Feeling has to be fresh, not stale. If it is not fresh, it already has chains on it.
The moment I play something, I ask myself if there is a better way. If I am loose and relaxed, I want to know if I can be more loose and relaxed, knowing that what I want is efficiency and pliability.
Self-exploration is the excitement of learning, and it's by solving problems and not becoming stagnant that you are your own person. This means that you must avoid doing something simply because someone tells you to.
Edwin Gerschefski, who was my teacher and mentor at the University of Georgia, was quoted in an article some years ago: "If a person doesn't clutter himself up with what other performers used to do, he comes up with unforeseen solutions. This gives the same piece freshness everytime."
Many artists have come to the same conclusion and realized that for your art to reflect yourself, you have to know who that self is. Toscanini is said to have stated, "It is not enough to interpret the notes on the page-you must look into yourself.” Vladimir Horowitz shares his sentiments: “They practice and practice and repeat passages and parts a hundred times over. Then they go on the stage, and repeat them for the hundred-and-first time. And you hear it that way. You feel it. But performance must be more than just- the next repetition; it must live and breathe."
When you listen with "your own ears" a11 the questions of "when?" and "how much?" can be addressed immediately in light of your own perception of the music. All of these decisions, ranging from fundamental rhythms to overriding dramatic considerations, must come from within yourself.
I'm not suggesting that a performer try to be different. That would be as foreign as doing something because you are told to do so. In both cases, honesty and sincerity would be lacking. If the audience
Two days before I had to play the concert, something was still wrong. Then I made a discovery.
ever detects that you feel superior to the music, you will destroy the music and be a fake. Performance will take on a truth, an authenticity, when you feel that the music is in some way special to you. If the performance should become second nature, one begins to inject formality into it, and it becomes automatic and mechanical. For music to be alive, it must be sincere and honest.
I would like to share a personal experience with respect to the listening process that occurred not long ago at a recital I performed in New York. As is the custom of the recital hall, the artist is allowed to practice on the piano in the hall for two hours which was scheduled four days before the concert. The rehearsal began all right, but then I began making too many mistakes. Panic set in.
Searching for a solution, I realized the piano had an over balanced bass. So, my task was not to allow the bass to divert my attention from the melody, I concluded that I would follow the melody like a thread and let it tell my mind what to do. The music and the logic would reveal themselves at the proper time - which I concluded must be one of the secrets of public performance.
I experimented with this discovery prior to my New York recital, but I was still anxious to learn if it would solve my dilemma. I maintained the melody much better. But something was still wrong.
It was now two days before the concert and I was practicing in the famous Steinway basement on one of the world's finest concert grands. All of a sudden I heard something I had not heard in years. I heard a melody note "ripen." I now had something to listen for. I would listen for the duration of each note, and hold on to it with my ear and savor it as it ripened.
The evening before the concert, something else wonderful happened. It was a revelation that was no doubt related to years of teaching professional actors; for more than acting, actors must react. I would now react to the ripening note by relating the next note in terms of sound quality and rhythmic duration.
The audience followed the music, and commented afterwards on how much they were involved in the musical feeling. Listening and reacting were the missing ingredients. I was listening and the audience sensed that I was listening.
Following the recital, I immediately began demonstrating this listening power to my students, and I was amazed at how quickly they understood. One of my students who has some experience with wine-tasting compared the ripening of a note to wine-tasting: "When you taste wine and it remains on your palate for a moment, the taste heightens and explodes."
Playing at home is one experience and playing for a teacher is another. I once asked a 14-year-old student if she had memorized a Bach Invention and she replied: "At home I do." Playing a concert is something else again. 1 played a concert in Florida for some 2,000 people on an untested piano, a strange stage, and with an overly zealous electrician who decided that the moment I played the first chord of the "Revolutionary Etude" by Chopin, he would turn off all the stage lights and hit me with a spot. Immediately, a shadow appeared on the white keys, and my hands looked different. Somehow, I managed to continue listening without stopping. It was a new experience, and I had to do some quick reacting.
Live performance means change. Freshness still comes from variety and change. Once we understand this, and react to the change, its can push us to freshness. In the last analsys, it is your own ear that will make your music alive. ®
DR. STANLEY YERLOW - KEYBOARD CLASSICS
Dr Yerlow is currenly on the faculty of Fordham University in New York City as Adjunct Professor in Piano.
Stanley Yerlow (Sep 16, 2011)
MAKING MUSIC ALIVE
Counteracting Nerves During Live Performance
By Stanley Yerlow
Several years ago I had the opportunity of hearing a
performance by a very accomplished pianist and friend.
Recently, I saw him and inquired as to when he planned his
next recital. He replied, “As I got older adrenaline got in
the way. I am too nervous to perform”. Like most of us,
especially in mid-life, he discovered that playing at home
is one thing, playing for a teacher is something else, and
playing in front of an audience is something else again. I
felt, being experienced myself with performance nerves, that
this fine pianist could have developed ways to counteract
his problem and even turn it into an asset that could
inspire freshness in his performances.
Nerves may cause a performer’s fingers or legs to
making music alive, published in KEYBOARD CLASSICS,
November/December 1990 Vol. 10/No. 6, Page 46
shake. At other times, he may have difficulty following the
melody and as panic sets in his memory evaporates. The
performer’s body tightens and he uses too much pedal. His
fingers go out of control, jumping ahead, grabbing or
sticking, and he tends to play too fast.
Teachers, knowledgeable about counteracting nerves, can assist students not only by preparation, but by immediate analysis of specific performances. On one occasion, I attended a well-known teacher’s seminar given for one of his
better students. When the student started, he played
much too fast, and he was unable to control the performance.
Befuddled and hoping for a solution, he looked to his
teacher for help. I heard him tell his mentor, “I can’t
control my fingers and the tempo gets away from me. I feel
embarrassed and unprepared." His teacher’s only advice for
his student’s dilemma was to say that when he plays at a seminar, he also plays too fast! The student was left
When nerves interfere, certain physical functions
immediately become predictable, such as a rise in the
performer’s shoulders. The result is tightness with his
entire body. Next the sustaining pedal goes down and stays
down, forcing the pianist to listen to sound over a
blur—which is much more difficult than listening to sound
without that interference.
Musically, nerves may cause a performer to be somewhat
detached from the music. Music can get ahead of the
performer’s fingers with the fingers eventually getting lost
in the ensuing shuffle. Nerves may be responsible for a
lack of feeling for the end of phrases which sooner or later
catches up with a performer, making for a frantic sound.
Finally phrase beginnings may suffer from lack of attention.
Counteracting these negative results begins with
physical adjustment, and the first step is appropriate seat
adjustment. Since the heights of pianos varies, attention
should be given to the height of the chair or bench relative to the piano. I bring two two-by-four boards and place them
under the chair in order to achieve my desired height.
Once seat adjustment has been attained, body tension
needs to be counteracted by first totally relaxing the
shoulders. Tension is released by consciously dropping the
shoulders, even slightly pushing them down. The elbows
should be free of any tightness. This can be achieved by
allowing gravity to simply let them hand free.
The next step is to adjust the hand to the keyboard.
For me, this is accomplished by allowing my hands to sprawl
on the keys, so that I feel as though the piano is
supporting their weight. My knuckles should be collapsed,
with a feeling of air surrounding them. I know my hands are
completely loose when I am able to move my wrists freely in
all directions. There are as many hand positions as there
are pianists, However, I find that my hands and fingers
cannot shake as long as they are resting freely on the
Once the feeling of looseness is found, the pianist
needs to maintain it throughout the performance. A
performer once thrown off balance has a strong tendency to
raise his shoulders and become tight. Whenever he feels the
slightest hint of difficulty, he needs to counteract this
tendency by pushing and keeping his shoulders down.
I would like to share a personal experience regarding
the dropped shoulders’ process with occurred some time ago
at an important out of town recital. To prepare myself
mentally and physically, I arrived a week early. But while
practicing, the concert material quickly disintegrated, and
I became a total wreck. Yet I felt that I should give the
On the evening of the concert, I had use of a studio
for a final attempt to prepare myself. Very soon I was
painfully aware that everything I had practiced was falling
apart. Nevertheless, as is my custom, one-half hour before
the program, I put on my concert tails. Suddenly, like
magic, I felt loose. I went to the piano and played better
than ever. Not wanting to loose this magic, I quickly went
down the stairs, over to the concert hall and on to the
stage, bowed and sat at the piano—all the while carefully
holding my body in the same position. The magic remained
throughout the first half, and everyone was pleased.
Later, Edwin Gerschefski, who was my teacher and mentor at the University of Georgia, told me that when I put on the tuxedo jacket, the tight cut under my arms made me feel
loose in my shoulders. Perhaps if I had changed into a
fresh tuxedo jacket for the second half, the magic would
When a performer is nervous, he also tends to over use
the sustaining pedal. By conscientiously using less pedal,
the performer can avoid this difficulty. I try to let my
ear tell me how much pedal to use.
To counteract the tendency to obscure the melody, the
pianist needs to achieve an appropriate balance between the
melody and the accompaniment. For me, the melody represents the most important factor in performance security, and when I am nervous I need to follow melody like a thread. The accompaniment should not blur or interfere with the
melody. Balance does not only refer to melody and accompaniment between hands, but also within the hand. For example, the pianist should never simply play an octave, but should focus on the melody note as he plays the octave. The same is true with a third or a fifth or a sixth, etc. I always play
melody as a singing melody and everything else with a
neutral quality. Every piano and every concert hall has its
own characteristics and, therefore, the proper balance must
be discovered with each recital.
To counteract my nerves and to avoid distractions, I
rely on a definite knowledge of where each phrase or motive
begins and ends. Lack of phrase direction, which refers to
motion or shape of a musical line, causes more memory lapses
than anything else. The thread of continuity in a piece
come from the mind, and during a performance the mind will
tell the performer exactly when to play. As the performer
listens, his mind will also tell him how to pace the line as
it moves toward its objective. The mind rules.
During liver performance, mistakes often occur when the
mind gets ahead of the fingers or the fingers get ahead of
the mind. More than likely this mind/finger relationship
gets out of synchronization when the mind jumps, “grabs”,
ahead at the end of phrases. The mind will be thinking
about the next note rather than listening to the ending note
or silence being played. When the performer does this, the
endings sound sluggish. Dropping the wrists at endings
--provided the fingers are touching the keys—will
counteract this tendency to “grab”. I feel that I have not
gone to the end until I have dropped my wrists.
Additionally, by consistently dropping my writs while
having contact with keys, I am able to let go of tension.
Enough contact with the keys is essential to release
tension. Without enough contact, he will tend to tighten
his muscles and accumulate tension. I find that dropping my
wrists also enables my mind to clear out any distractions,
any cobwebs that may have accumulated.
Particularly for a nervous performer, the beginning
of each phrase is as important as knowing its objective.
During a performance he must listen to the beginning of each
phrases with a feeling of where it is going. The beginning
note should carry-over or transfer to the next note of
silence while pacing the line toward its objective. The ear
will be able to follow continuously through the line if
listening begins with the first note. Otherwise, trying to
catch the musical line while it is in progress is almost
impossible. Listening to growth or slur at the beginning of
a line is elusive. The performer must realize he has to
listen, then he must do it, thereby creating reliability and
If the performer has a clear beginning and has a clear
concept of where the line is going, the ear will tell him
exactly what to do with the middle of the line. Saying
something musically with the line may be referred to as a
musical recitation or dialogue. In performance the dialogue
will develop as a dividend of musical direction.
Should a performer create the feelings of performance
in order to experiment and practice with these methods given
to counteract nerves? In worse cases, some pianists prefer
not to perform in any capacity, even for friends or at a
small seminar. Unfortunately, that performer will not have
a chance to practice the actions that counteract nerves. I
am not familiar with artificial methods for creating live
performance nerves, but I do suggest that a performer search
for opportunities to perform for anyone who may make him
nervous. A pianist should acknowledge the possibility of
nervousness, and when it starts to arise while performing
for an audience, he should learn how to quickly bring it
under control. Only when the performer is at ease before an
audience can he begin to make music reliable and exciting.
When I am on stage, I want to know exactly what I am
doing without relying on magic. By including these devices
to counteract nerves as part of my preparation, nerves and adrenaline will help me experience the joy of making music.
Freshness which comes from variety and change and the high
level of concentration which is part of a concert will make
my music alive.
Dr. Stanley Yerlow