This article details etiquette for piano performance in a public setting for students of any level, as basics of performance remain the same whether the student is playing “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” or a Chopin Nocturne. It is especially beneficial for students to go over these parameters right before a performance event with their instructor.
In preparing for a piano performance–like a recital, solo concert, or other event in public—so much emphasis is put on the preparation of the piece itself, and not so much the attitude the student exudes when on stage. Of course, knowing the piece you are going to play proficiently is step number one, but the way a student “carries himself” is also a big part of the performance as well. This includes manner of dress, bowing, walking, posture, and many other components, and making sure you think about and practice these ideas will enhance the performance of the piece itself.
How Should You Dress for a Piano Performance?
The first step to setting a great tone is having the appropriate attire for a piano performance (Please note, this excludes popular style performances like country and rock music, as the rules change a bit for these genres of study). Traditionally, performers wear black or black and white, though the rules are a bit more flexible for non-collegiate students. The term “Sunday Best” comes to mind. This means, a collared, tucked in shirt with slacks for boys, and dress pants/skirt and blouse or a dress for girls. Essentially, it’s the dressier end of conservative attire.
Bowing Before and After You Play
It is proper etiquette to bow when the audience claps for you. It’s a performer’s non-verbal way of saying “thank you,” which means you should bow before and after you play. When you approach the stage and before you sit down is the first bow. When you get up after the piece has been played, you should bow again before walking off stage.
How Should You Bow?
Keep it simple! It’s an acknowledgement of applause, not a dance! Hands should stay by the performer’s sides or be placed simply on one ledge of the piano. The main thing to avoid is looking like a puppet that fell over, so don’t let the arms dangle in front of your body when taking a bow, and keep your back straight as you bend slightly from the waist.
The Walk Up, the Walk Back
Just like bowing, the idea is to keep it natural. Try not to walk in a way that is very different than the way you normally walk (i.e., no skipping or hopping to the stage). I would recommend paying attention to posture and making sure you walk gracefully, but not to the point where you are practicing with a book on your head at home. Just drop your shoulders, hold your head up high, and walk easily to and from the stage with a smile!
Posture at the Bench
When you get to the piano itself, take time to get situated. If you are using sheet music, make sure the music stand on the piano is a good distance from you and that the bench is close enough to be comfortable. When you are on stage, every moment can feel like a lifetime, and you may feel hurried, but take your time—the audience does not feel the same length of time that you do. Your performance will be better if you get set up correctly.
Lastly, make sure you are sitting tall and proud at the piano with your shoulders down. When we get nervous, a lot of times, the first place that gains tension is the shoulder area, so drop your shoulder blades down your back, take a deep breath, and you are ready to begin.
It’s easy for students to take performance etiquette preparation for granted when they are getting ready for a recital or concert, but teachers can help them do their very best overall by reminding them of the non-musical things performers do to set the tone. Everything with the way the audience perceives the performer’s attitude contributes to the overall success of the performance, and in my studio, I have found that going over the performance etiquette basics with students extensively helps them consistently play their piece better. The reason for this lies in the full concentration and comfort students gain in knowing exactly what to do every moment the audience is looking at them. Use this guide as a quick checklist reminder for performances, and students and teachers alike will see the success in emphasizing these non-musical techniques.