A Week at Piano Camp – For Adults

The Pianophoria! program offers great teaching, enforced practice and help with an issue everyone has experienced: stage fright

26 Jan 2020 | 06:26

The morning begins at 9:15 with coffee and conversation in a paneled room of the Bloomingdale School of Music. The students come from all over – nearby on the Upper West Side, but also Brooklyn, Westchester and New Jersey. They are amateur pianists who are also scientists, teachers, business executives and therapists. There’s a range of experience, from relative newcomers to the piano to those who play advanced repertoire.

The dozen students then head off to their assigned practice rooms. Soon, muffled sounds of Bach, Chopin, Brahms and Schubert fill the hallways. After a break for lunch, there are lectures, workshops and duets – and more practice, practice, practice.

This is Pianophoria!, a week-long summer program which bills itself as a “Piano Day Camp for Adult Students.” Now in its 17th year, the program originally had its home at Hunter College, then moved to the Bloomingdale School of Music on West 108th Street in 2017.

The program offers instruction by three superb pianists and teachers – founder and director Marcia Eckert, Raj Bhimani and Deborah Gilwood. Every year there’s a focus on one particular composer or type of music. Last summer it was Russian music; 2020 will be devoted to Beethoven, in honor of the 250th anniversary of the composer’s birth.

As a lapsed pianist looking to get back into practicing, I went to Pianophoria on and off in the Hunter College days, then returned last summer after a break of several years. I enjoyed meeting new members of the group as well as re-connecting with familiar faces.

Performance Anxiety Sessions

I was surprised to see that last year’s schedule featured some changes. Most notably, Eckert added sessions to address a vexing issue everyone has experienced: stage fright. (She once showed us a button with a slogan that read: “I Played it Better at Home.”)

In the new performance anxiety sessions, we would play a piece for the group and tell everyone how we felt afterwards. Typical responses: “My hands were shaking” and “my heart was racing.” We’d get feedback from the teachers and students, who were invariably helpful and supportive. Then we would play the piece again and talk about how it went the second time around. It was almost always better.

Eckert explains why she introduced this technique. “About a year ago, I realized that every performer felt the same thing to varying degrees – that performance nerves had hampered his/her performance,” she said in an email interview. “That was the overriding response, even from people who played very beautifully ... I started to feel that this is a crucial topic to discuss and normalize for everyone, all performers, and certainly for adult amateurs.”

She added: “I did some research and developed the class on performance anxiety, trying it out for private students of mine last spring. The idea of playing twice and noticing carefully what one felt and thought the first time around, and then addressing those things as much as possible by counteracting them, or some other way of adjusting, was what I was after. Some pretty amazing things happened in that class and the empathy and encouragement coming from the other players was a big part of it. We also had a lot of laughs. It seemed like a very good thing to try at Pianophoria.”

One other, related innovation: the week used to end with a concert-hall recital attended by fellow students, friends and family. It could be a nerve-wracking experience. But last year the program also included daily “Play Time” sessions, where participants would perform more informally for their peers before the final-day recital.

“For a number of years, participants had been asking for more opportunities to play for each other, partially so that the end-of-session recital didn't turn into a scary future event that loomed over the whole week,” Eckert said. “I think the Play Times really helped with this. Last summer's recital seemed much less fraught and everyone could enjoy it more. We will keep these going forward!”

For more information about Pianophoria!, go to pianophoria.com.