Editor’s Note: This diary entry is the fourth in a series of entries describing Teresa Dybvig’s strategies for preparing for an upcoming recital after a long break from performing. Keep posted for further installments. For more about The Well-Balanced Pianist, click on this link: http://www.wellbalancedpianist.com/
Thursday, September 18
Today I foist an unreasonable goal upon myself, and unsurprisingly fail to meet it. I plan to play slowly through the whole first half of my recital. This is in spite of the fact that I last played the first two pieces in… hmm, I can’t remember what year. They are the 5th and 6th Debussy Preludes from book 2, Bruyères and Général Lavine – excentric. A couple of my students have played Bruyères, so at least it is in my mind if not my fingers. I barely recognize the general though, so I have to quickly re-commit it to memory. Moreover, the 3rd from my opening Debussy group, La terrasse des audiences du clair de lune, is relatively new to me and requires a lot of attention.
I’m starting with Bruyères because it feels so open and inviting. Debussy evokes heather, or heath, so perfectly that I feel that I can see the moor, feel the breeze, smell the scent of the outdoors. I’m continuing with the other two because I feel like I should at least play the pieces in Debussy’s own order, since I’m not playing all twelve. Plus, the set taken together is so varied and evocative.
I hope I can pull off Général Lavine. My own humor tends toward situational irony; I cannot tell a joke. And this is slapstick, a musical portrait – or maybe a sound track – of a routine developed by American vaudevillian Ed Lavine. Imagine being such a vivid character as to inspire Debussy to write a piece about you!. Fortunately, Debussy’s writing is so clear that I feel as if I saw the routine myself. I can imagine hearing the mock drum-and-bugle fanfare, and the curtain opening to reveal a dandy in uniform. He steps with elegant insouciance through the park, until a graceless fall in measure 18. Was it a banana peel? We’re not sure. We find out in measure 25: he is sloshed. The tritone chord movement combined with the unbalancing crescendo toward the 2nd beat says it all. He weaves through the park, tipping his hat at the ladies, until in measure 46 his eye lands on one in particular. The lady does not respond to his charms, but he takes it in stride, puffing up his chest and bowing extravagantly, several times, before returning to his weaving stroll through the park. In measure 94 he considers returning to the lady of his dreams, but the sickening D major chord in measure 97 shows that he is alert enough to realize it won’t go. He jauntily recovers his spirits, does a little jig to the drum-and-bugle fanfare, and the curtains close. You can hear the applause even though the music has finished! What a composer.
I refresh my memory of Bruyères and Général Lavine with my best memory technique: I read the score and take in as much as I can reasonably expect of myself, and then close the book and play it. I repeat until all the details are in place. Memorizing this way keeps me from dithering in my practice, and protects me from the kind of little note-reading errors and missed dynamics that I tend to have when I become familiar with a score before committing it to memory. Closing the book after studying this score is made easier by the fact that my beautiful new Durand edition by Howat and Helffer will not stay open no matter what I do. I am very grateful to Cathy Kautsky for aiming me to this scholarly edition, but I sure do wish Durand had constructed the book so it would stay open without being propped by two books and a metronome.
I move on to La terrasse. I memorized this a few weeks ago when I first learned it, but it does not come close to flowing. I love the many sections and layers, but I am confused about the title. I don’t see a terrace, or anything immobile, although I can feel the moonlight. According to Howat and Helffer, the inspiration for the piece is an article about the coronation of King George V as Emperor of India. I still don’t see it, although my hat’s off to anybody who is inspired by a newspaper article to write a piece of music. Paul Roberts’s delicious book, Images: the Piano Music of Claude Debussy, comes to my aid. According to Roberts, someone asserted that Debussy was struck by the words, “the hall of victory, the hall of pleasure, the garden of the sultanas, the terrace for moonlit audiences.” Pretty inspiring for a newspaper, I admit. My head begins to fill with images as I play. After working a bit on the expression and on my rested shoulder blades, I record myself and learn where to put my attention next.
I spend a little time on bringing out the meter more consistently, and that is about it for me for today. I’m a grown-up after all, and I can’t spend my whole day luxuriously communing with the piano. Sometimes that’s frustrating, but it does focus my practice. Tomorrow I take the train in to teach in New York, so mental practice will be all I can do. I am almost relieved to have the break. It’s been a good week, but it’s been intense.
Teresa Dybvig is founder and director of The Well-Balanced Pianist, an organization which presents programs across North America based on an integrated approach to teaching, learning, and performing. Previously on the faculty of the Taubman and Golandsky Institutes, Dr. Dybvig now teaches privately in Long Island, Manhattan, Chicago, and Denver. She specializes in helping pianists with playing-related injuries.