Advice to an Aspiring Pianist


A college freshman recently wrote to me and asked if I had any advice for an aspiring young pianist. In the following advice, I'm not factoring in the "state of classical music." Music will always be a part of our lives. Some people will earn their living as musicians. I consider myself fortunate to be one of them.


Imagine yourself as a 50-year-old. I know it's hard, but try. It will happen.

And sooner than you can possibly imagine.

If you continue on your current path, where will it take you?


If you enjoy performing, do you prefer to play solo concerts? Do you enjoy the hours of solo practice and the stress of concert life? Do you hope to play concertos with orchestras? (That's a difficult way to make money - you'd better like to be on the road.)

If you're considering a career that includes large amounts of travel, I suggest repeated viewings of Planes, Trains and Automobiles. Remember, it was made in the days before hourlong screening lines at airport.


If you like to play Chamber Music, do you also have excellent social skills? How's your Emotional Intelligence? The hardest part of holding an ensemble together isn't musical. It's getting along with the same people day after day doing work that can be tedious, exhausting and often under-appreciated. Throw in some travel and you've got a recipe for disaster. Have you learned to give and receive criticism with skill and tact? Both are important. If you don't say anything of critical substance, rehearsals will be smooth and silky. Of course, your ensemble will sound atrocious, but you'll all feel great during the rehearsals.


If you hope to teach are you taking full advantage of every opportunity to learn to be the best teacher you can? Take that pedagogy class seriously. It may be the only genuinely practical class you take in college. Being able to recite and discuss the Beethoven Sonatas by Opus number and nickname may seem crucial at the moment, but you may wish you'd listened when your pedagogy teacher was discussing the differences between the piano methods of Faber and Piano Town by Diane Hidy & Keith Snell. You'll wish you knew names like Frances ClarkJames and Jane Bastien, and William Gillock. Not to mention Robert Vandall and Elissa Milne.


What kind of music do you like to write? Can you find a way to market that music? With the internet available now, the opportunities for self-marketing are endless as long as you're willing to do them. Finding a publisher and persuading them to hire you is no longer the only way to market yourself. 


Are you someone who likes to be alone or do you like more social situations? Do you want to live in a big city or somewhere more rural? Is that location important to you? Do you want a relationship and/or a family? I gave up on the idea of a university teaching job because I was unwilling to live anywhere but San Francisco. Even for a year or two. That limited my options. I have colleagues, however, who are extremely happy in places I would never want to live. I'm thinking of Michael GurtSandra Shapiro, Boris Slutsky andThomas Hecht,  to name only a few. These are all brilliant musicians who live places I would not. (Baton Rouge Louisiana, Cleveland Ohio, Baltimore Maryland and Singapore respectively.) One of my favorite people in the world, Frederic Chiu, lives with his wife, Jeanine, at Beechwood Arts in Connecticut. I could live there, but I'll have to settle for visiting.

Think about what you LOVE to do. What feeds your soul and makes you thrive? I love being around people. I have developed a community of families with whom I have long-term, close relationships. That's the main reason why I stopped pursuing a concert career and focused on a locally-centered life. (That, and I really like plants. Seriously.)

I earned money the summer before I went to Juilliard as a singer/dancer at an amusement park. The performing experience was invaluable, and it gave me great appreciation for tap dancers.I'm fourth from the right. Yeah. Really. It was a very long time ago.

I earned money the summer before I went to Juilliard as a singer/dancer at an amusement park. The performing experience was invaluable, and it gave me great appreciation for tap dancers.I'm fourth from the right. Yeah. Really. It was a very long time ago.

I played a lot of concerts after I won the American Pianist Association fellowship. After while I didn't like being on the road. I wanted to have a family. I loved teaching. Each person is different. I have made a career by recording, teaching, playing concerts and writing teaching materials for pianists. Sometimes I also play for theater and do improv with an amazing group of improvisers. When I was at Juilliard I tried to hide things like my hidden talent for playing by ear and not really liking Liszt. Now I just laugh and say, "Hey, you know what? The best Liszt is any Liszt played by someone else!"

Wink Martin, the host of Tic-Tac-Dough. I won $14,000 in cash and prizes in the fall before I entered the Van Cliburn Competition.

Wink Martin, the host of Tic-Tac-Dough. I won $14,000 in cash and prizes in the fall before I entered the Van Cliburn Competition.


I've also worked as an accompanist, paid vocal soloist, a side-kick on a live radio show (I did this for 10 years and I met my husband there!) and on-stage in a theater production with Bebe Neuwirth. I even earned the money to prepare for the Van Cliburn competition by going on a game show. There is no "right" way. There is only "your" way - which will only work for YOU!


What it's Like to Compete in the Van Cliburn Competition

I was one of 35 competitors in the Seventh Van Cliburn International Competition held in 1985. Though some things have changed since then, the basic experience is still the same.

I’ll start from the beginning of my journey.

The application form is intimidating. Planning the repertoire I would play was complicated. Included in the application was not only the repertoire for the multiple rounds of the competition, but also a list of my complete solo and concerto repertoire. The application has always been designed to eliminate anyone not ready to play a professional concert schedule.

Many people are cut without even being heard. If one makes it past the application process itself, there are screening auditions where preliminary judges listen to more than a hundred pianists around the world. They choose fewer than 40 to compete every four years in person in Fort Worth.

My journey started with a videotape made at the Los Angeles Cliburn screening location. I had an hour to make a 20-minute video of three pieces. These preliminary auditions are no longer done by videotape. The 2013 prospective competitors performed recitals in front of a live audience and a panel of judges. 

When I got to Fort Worth, Lisa, a pretty girl about my age met me at the airport. She had knee-high walking casts on both her feet. She was recovering from bunion surgery. Bunion surgery wasn’t the first thing I would have dreamed I’d be discussing at the Cliburn, but it filled ten of the twenty-five minute drive from the airport to Fort Worth.

Our first stop was at the Hospitality Suite at the Americana Hotel. We were greeted by numerous well-dressed middle-aged women wearing Ferragamo shoes, sporting BIG hair and charming southern drawls. One of them handed me a giant packet of information.

“Die-yAnn,” as I was called for the following weeks, “Could you please tell us who wrote the cadenza you’ll be playing in your Mot-zart concerto?” asked one woman. “Die-yAnn, do you have any special dietary needs that you may have forgotten to tell us about?” asked another. “Die-yAnn do you have any questions about scheduling or your host family?”

As I left, another enthusiastic volunteer presented me with a large, potted, yellow chrysanthemum. So far the Cliburn competition felt like a meeting of the Garden Club.

Every occasion at the Cliburn is a social occasion. The first event was the picking of the numbers. This was held on the formal lawn of a patron’s estate and was called The Drawing Party.

I had a hard time deciding what to wear because I was keenly aware that the competition was being made into a documentary. I settled on a red sweater and a denim skirt but still looked like a minister’s daughter. (I am a minister’s daughter, which might explain the resemblance.) My host mother, Beth, whipped out a bright red straw hat. Presto! I looked almost artistic.

As each competitor draws and announces their number, the crowd says, “Oooooooh, aaahhhhhhhh! Oh goodness, number 18!” There’s a tradition that number one is bad, so everyone is trying to avoid it.

I walked nervously up to the oversized brandy snifter that held the numbers. I covered my face with my hand as I pulled out my number. “Number 19,” said Susan Tilley, one of the competition officials. I guess the hat was a success because I found a picture of myself in full color the next morning on the front page of the Dallas Morning News.

The Cliburn competition is more humane that others because it gives competitors two chances to play before the jury makes the first cuts.

Number 19 had pros and cons. My 1st round was scheduled for 8 pm. Prime time. The time most concerts are played. Unfortunately, my 2nd round time was at 9 am. Early morning is a dreadful time to play. There are the fewest people in the audience and it means getting up ridiculously early to have a chance to warm up. In 2013 the earliest performance time was 11 am. 

To give some perspective on the amount of repertoire required, this was my program:


  • Bach English Suite in A minor (25 mins)
  • Beethoven Sonata in C Major, Op. 2 #3 (25 mins)
  • Chopin Scherzo in C sharp Minor, Op. 39 (9 mins)
  • Etude in G flat Major, Op. 10 #5 (3 mins)
  • Scriabin Etude in C sharp Minor, Op. 42 No. 5 (4 mins)


  • Mozart Sonata in D Major, K. 576 (20 mins)
  • Beethoven Sonata in A Major, Op. 101 (25 mins)
  • Chopin Ballade in F Minor, Op. 52 (9 mins)
  • Ravel Gaspard de la nuit (20 mins)


  • Brahms Piano Quintet in F minor, Op. 34 ( 40 mins)


  • Ravel Gaspard de la nuit  (20 mins) One repetition from another round was allowed that year
  • Corigliano Fantasia on an Ostinato (8 mins) (the required commissioned work which we received four weeks before the competition began
  • Schumann Symphonic Etudes Op. 13 (23 mins)


  • Mozart Concerto No. 25 in C Major, K. 503 (30 mins)
  • Brahms Concerto No. 1 in D Minor, Op. 15 (40 mins)

This totals 4 hours and 32 minutes of music when played straight through from beginning to end. It’s easy to see why managing so much music requires a plan.

John Perry had explained to me how to maintain such a large amount of repertoire. I was to practice one or two rounds ahead of the round I was about to perform. In other words, I was to practice the semifinal material while I was still in the Preliminary Stages. In competitions which I entered after the Cliburn I did a much better job of this rotation practicing. At the Cliburn I had a hard time with it.

In my competition year, the preliminary round performances were shorter. We had to prepare the about the same amount of music as today, but the judges got to pick and choose from our offerings. 

The first round went well. The repertoire that the judges picked felt wonderful: The Prelude to the Bach A Minor English Suite, the Chopin C Sharp Minor Scherzo, and the first movement of Beethoven Sonata Op. 2 #3. The time of day was favorable, the hall was full and the audience enthusiastic. 

I hadn’t quite adjusted to the two hour time difference when the next round came around. The 9 am time still felt like 7 am to me. I hadn’t slept well, and I wasn’t feeling particularly well at all.

The judges sent their requests from my second round program to me backstage moments before I played. It was all the movements I’d just as soon not have played. Everything I hoped they’d ask for, Ravel’s Ondine for instance, was glaringly absent. Instead, they asked for the first movement of the Mozart Sonata, K. 576, the LAST two movements of the Beethoven Sonata Op. 101, and....Scarbo. I firmly believe that this final movement from Gaspard de la nuit should only be played in the wee hours of the morning in a hallucinogenic state derived from mushrooms, LSD or great sex. It is also the piece about which I’d had my worst anxiety dreams. 

I was terrified that the judges has chosen Scarbo, but I had no choice. I took a deep breath and walked on stage.

There were a few people scattered in the front row flipping their programs around. The light reflecting off them looked as if they were trying to send me a message via Morse code. It was so distracting that I left the stage after the first piece.

The Cliburn competition provides something no other competition does: a “Backstage Mother.” This woman, hand-picked for her motherly nature and unflappable demeanor, stays just off stage throughout the competition. She lovingly hands out Bandaids, glasses of orange juice and water, hugs and reassuring words. She stocks fingernail clippers, Kleenex, aspirin and Neosporin.

I ran offstage and up to the Backstage Mother. “Please,” I begged, “Get those people in the front row to move!”

“OK, honey. Just a minute and I’ll take care of it.” The Backstage Mother was the most humane fixture I ever came across in the world of international piano competitions. 

She got the culprits moved and I walked back onstage to finish my program. From there on it was a blur.

I walked offstage, sure I’d played miserably. The camera crews were waiting for me and caught every moment as I burst into tears. What I didn’t realize was that I’d played quite well and was missing my opportunities for curtain calls by standing backstage crying. Only when I watched the documentary later did I realized what had happened. The producers were quick to use the footage of me crying. At the time I was embarrassed, but now I see it as exploitive. TV producers love footage of people crying, and I had inadvertently supplied them with exactly that. It was a dose of reality television before knew what that was.

I forced myself to practice even though I knew I was doomed to be cue. The following night we all went down to the hall for the judging decision. We waited for what seemed like hours, but was probably only 45 minutes. The Director announced the names of the semi-finalists in alphabetical order. My name was not called.

The worst part of being eliminated from the competition was calling my parents. It felt like my parents’ disappointment was greater than my own. I think the Cliburn should provide someone to call your parents for you. If they are kind enough to provide a “Backstage Mother,” couldn’t they splurge and have someone called, “Surrogate Bad News Giver?” Today this would be irrelevant because the entire competition is broadcast live on the web. But in the old days we had to make those painful phone calls.

When I talked to my Dad he wanted to know if he could turn in the tickets he’d already purchased for the finals. He wanted his money back. I’m sure it seemed logical to him at the time, but it felt to me like going to a funeral and asking if someone had gotten a good deal on the coffin. 

After I got over the shock of not making the cut, I started enjoying myself. If they’d given a “Miss Congeniality” prize I would have won it. I went to all the semifinal and final performances. I made friends with the film crew and administration of the competition. I did press interviews. One thing the Cliburn can do is throw a party. It was delightful to attend them without having to worry about performing the next day.

Since that time the Cliburn has continued to influence my life in ways I could never have imagined. I’ve returned to Fort Worth many times to play outreach concerts and educational programs. I judged the Amateur Competition in 2002 and loved being on the other side of that equation.

When I watched the competition today, I knew exactly how those people felt not hearing their names. I wonder where these amazing performers will end up. I identify with them. I worry about them. I hope for the best. 

My fingers are crossed, hoping that the judges will pick the greatest artist, the most imaginative pianist, the person with the most to say.

Not Ever


It's taken me a week to calm down after reading a post on an internet piano teaching group. It was a simple enough question;  a teacher asked for suggestions on how to handle a child who kept fiddling with the piano keys during a lesson: a common problem. But the tone of the suggested intervention from another teacher was chilling to me.

"Explain that it is RESPECTFUL for students to place their hands in their lap and listen to the teacher, and that it is DISRESPECTFUL for students to fiddle on the keys. Do NOT put up with this kind of behaviour."

With all the information we know about different kinds of learners, ways in which each of our brains and bodies differ from each other, do we really need to be talking about the respectfulness of sitting with one's hands in one's lap? With all the information available about sensory processing issues, should we be calling children names instead of trying to understand what their body language is telling us?

 The part of the post that distressed me the most were these few lines:

Filing fingernails
" look at the little rotter and say "Let me know when you are finished being disrespectful so that I can continue the lesson. I will not teach you will if you are fiddling while I am talking." Then TURN YOUR BACK TO HIM, pull out your nail file and file your nails. If he doesn't shape up, then walk to his mother and say "As soon as Junior chooses to be respectful and NOT fiddle on the keys, I will continue the lesson." Then walk back to your chair and wait."

I currently have a student who simply cannot maintain eye contact. With me. With anyone. It is physically and psychologically painful for her to look at anything or anyone for more than a few seconds. Her mother is trying to sort it out and figure out what kind of processing problem is going on. Would it make sense for me to tell the child that looking away when talking to me is DISRESPECTFUL? Because I don't think it is. She isn't choosing to be disrespectful. She just has something else going on that has nothing to do with me.

"It's hard to imagine how a child could be actively "yanking your chain" or know "just the right buttons to push" when he's not thinking rationally in the midst of frustration. It's harder still to imagine why a child would intentionally behave in a way that makes other people respond in a manner that makes him miserable."  - Ross W. Greene. author of The Explosive Child.

That's my problem with this kind of thinking. Kids do well when they can, not when they want to. I concentrate my efforts on making things possible. I look at everything the child does as communication. When I sent the post to a friend of mine who has a child with autism, she wrote back, "If I were that kid I would just keep on fiddling to avoid interacting with that teacher." 

Sometimes I'll hear a teacher talking about a student disrespectfully and wonder, "Why in the world do you teach children?"  "Do you even like children? Do you know how hard they are trying to please you? Do you know how mortified they would be to hear your words?"

And then I realize, of course, that the child has already heard their words. In every sigh, in every less-than-imaginative assignment, in every frustrated glare and judgmental frown. They've gotten the message loud and clear. 

Tangle Fidget Toy, a student favorite.

Tangle Fidget Toy, a student favorite.

Where is the kindness in that? Where is the love or understanding? I know kids are frustrating. I'm the mother of two teenagers right now. But if for one minute I thought that I could be less than kind to a student, I would suggest that student should immediately move on to another teacher.

I'm not going to be pulling out my nail file. Finding a quiet fidget toy for them to play with? Yes. Having them jump up and down the stairs 20 times before the lesson starts? Yes. Because in my world the kids are all doing the best they can. They're not Little Rotters. Not even behind their backs. Not even when I'm talking to another teacher.


For more information about sensory processing, please see this post.  

I have found The Explosive Child to be the best general parenting book I've ever read. I've bought many copies over the years, and given each one away to a parent who needed to read it.

Update Your Studio Policy TODAY

I'm updating my studio policy and calendar for next year and you should be too. If you don't jump on the end-of-the-year opportunity to make real changes, your new year will be exactly like your last and you'll be wishing you'd taken the time to make it better. 

Here's what my To Do List looks like. I've tried to get some of these done early enough to be able to share them with you.

1. Update Your Studio Policy for 2018/2019

Are there things you didn't like about the way your studio ran this year? How are your payments going? Would you like to change something about it? Here's my studio policy updated for the coming year. Feel free to copy and use any of the wording. Or if you don't feel comfortable with it, figure out what you would want in your ideal world. This is the best chance you have to make your studio better fit your life. Your life is changing every year. Your kids are growing up, or maybe you've just had one. Something has changed and you should make your policy reflect those changes. I take Mondays "off" because that's the day I go to visit my elderly mother. What do you need to do for yourself or your family?

2. Make a Teaching Calendar for 2019/2019

Some things can be planned. Every year I plan when I will teach and which weeks I'll take off. I don't teach whenever my daughter has a school vacation and whenever I'm out of town speaking. I also schedule one flex week - a week I can take off if I'm sick or stuck with jury duty.

Here's a link to the google doc for my studio calendar. I've made a copy, so feel free to edit it and use it as yours. Just make a copy of the document before you edit it.

3. Create a Swap List

Here's a google doc sample swap list from my studio. You can edit it online and use it to make your own swap list. You can share it directly from Google. I usually attach it as a document to an email so my students' parents won't lose it.

I color-coded mine by length of lesson time. Sometimes someone with a longer time will switch with a shorter lesson because it's better to have 45 minutes than none if they have a conflict. (The families in turquoise have chosen not to swap which is always an option.) This format has been successful and is a great way to have families deal directly with each other. It also builds community within the studio as families help each other out with scheduling conflicts.

Here's a picture of my swap list from this spring.


4. Raise Your Rates

The only time you can raise your rates comfortably is in between billing periods. It's also good to give people notice, so now is the time. Your rates should go up every year, even if it's only a small percentage.

For a more thorough description of the business of piano teaching, including the importance of having a website and how to do it, read Studio Business Basics.

Every Child Needs Music

"A tearful thank you from a mother who thought there would never be a day when she could go to a musical performance with her autistic son touches me more deeply and enduringly than any ovation I may have received in Europe or the States.  For during an Azure performance, for a short period of time, this mother feels like she is not alone but part of a community.  Her child, feeling like any child the need for love, acceptance and success, witnesses on Mom’s face happiness and contentment, rather than pain and disappointment.  And hopefully the power of music, perhaps through the slow movement of Debussy’s Quartet or by way of a Beethoven Moonlight, can allow both to be transported together to a place of peace and beauty, free from fear and worry." - Stephen Prutsman
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