Diary of a Return: week 2, day 1

TD2 (1)

Editor’s Note:  This diary entry is the fifth 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/

Monday, September 22


Today the plan is to succeed where I failed last time – playing slowly through the whole first half of my recital.  But before I even started, I found myself first recreationally practicing two pieces from the second half!  It was undisciplined, but I was doing some paperwork and had to find something in the piano studio.  I was just naturally attracted by the piano.  To make the most of this unscheduled practicing, I did at least play slowly.  In my defense, it’s not like those pieces couldn’t use the attention.


But now the paperwork is done, and I’m ready to work toward my goal.  I prop open my Debussy Preludes, and play through Bruyères, Général Lavine – excentric, and La terrasse des audiences du clair de lune, slowly, looking and listening ahead with the goal of playing each note just the way I want.  Then I close the book, and repeat.


I am amused to note that although I intend to play slowly, I start out playing in tempo.  Truly amused!  Because I know this trap!  I noticed way back in college that often, when I intended to practice slowly, I would find myself a few measures into the piece in my same-old-same-old tempo.  Later I learned I was not alone, in Daniel Levitin’s This Is Your Brain on Music.  He and his colleagues studied how well people remembered different elements of music, like key, melody, rhythm, lyrics, and tempo.  One way they looked at it is to have people sing their favorite song from their 20s.  The researchers observed that although everyone was a little off on the melody, a little off on the rhythm, a little off on the lyrics, and just plain off on the key, they were always within one metronome notch of the correct tempo.  I replicated this study my own self, singing Carly Simon’s immortal song, You’re So Vain, with the same results.  Tempo has sticking power.


The moral of the story is that we need to concentrate when we want to change tempo.  I always tell my students about Levitin’s research to emphasize this point.  I believe the danger presented by this powerfully “sticky” element of music is compounded by the fact that most Western musicians have little awareness of tempo, meter, pulse, and rhythm.  Many of my students cannot even define these separate entities when we first meet, even though they are serious pianists, many with degrees in music.  In college I discovered other pieces of the time puzzle – for example, that sometimes an uneven pulse created tension in my playing.  However, I only started to become conscious of all the dimensions of time in music at a woefully late date in my education: as I was studying for the oral exam that would end my doctoral degree!  I happened upon a book that dedicated some pages to rhythm, meter, and tempo in Bach.  That day, I learned things that were so basic that I felt I should have learned them in my freshman year of college.  But I had missed out.  As a group, I’m sorry to say that we Western classical musicians pass on a tradition of shallow attention to elements of time in our teaching.  I still catch myself being sloppy with meter or rhythm, but less and less since that day studying for my orals.  The reward has been music that leaps to life.


Now I am playing in a true slow tempo that allows me to listen ahead for every sound I want to make.  I feel good about the Debussy, so I go on to Janáček’s On an Overgrown Path. I play through all of them slowly, with the music.  Then I refresh my memory on a couple that I performed those years ago – Good Night! and The Barn Owl Has Not Flown Away!  I’m feeling a little under the weather, so I’m glad to be able to use mental practice.  That’s about it for me for the day.


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.   

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