Tuesday, September 23
Editor’s Note: This diary entry is the sixth 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/
Several years ago I was asked to play a few of Janáček’s On an Overgrown Path for a subscription series. Since then I have been gradually learning the rest, and this is the first time I will perform all ten pieces. Today I play through all of them slowly, with the music.
I only recently learned and memorized Unutterable anguish, the 8th of the set. I had put it off because I just couldn’t relate to it. I have confidence that if I spend time with it, the music will speak to me, though. I loved many of these little musical poems from the first hearing, although all were in a musical language foreign to me. Now I love most of them so much that whenever I play through one of them, I feel sad when I reach the end and the piece is over. I am often tempted to go back to the beginning and play it all over again. Maintaining discipline is challenging amidst such temptations.
Part of my problem with Unutterable anguish is the quirky accompaniment figure: two groups of 32nds, separated by a 16th rest and followed by another, followed by a bass note on the 2nd beat. ?? At first, this seems more silly than anguished. So I follow directions. Following directions has always been my greatest hope with music I have trouble relating to. Meter, dynamics, and articulation markings all get me closer to the meaning of the piece. I can only hope the metronome markings in my Bärenreiter edition are authentic. The more I play Unutterable anguish, the more I want to play it. The accompaniment figure begins to feel like a sob, or a grief-stricken skipping heartbeat, and the fractured descending melody is heartbreaking. I’m fascinated by the ending. Most of these pieces end with a slow reprise of the main motive. Not this one. Unutterable anguish ends with an abbreviated return of the opening, followed by a short chorale. I realize I have begun to think of the whole return-plus-chorale as a coda. This might be partly because it is set off from what comes before by a few measures of suspended activity – time to let our thoughts unwind before the return. When it arrives, the accompaniment figure limps along a half-beat later than in the opening, and dissolves into the short chorale. This is not a simple slow reprise.
Mental practice allows me to keep practicing despite a migraine. I note with amusement that even in mental practice, I am tempted to “play” up to tempo, even though slow practice is best for me at this stage.
I had used mental practice before I read what Don Greene had to say about it, but I have used it more, and used it better, since. I find it particularly helpful for reinforcing new technical skills, clarifying musical intentions, improving concentration, and memory. It is invaluable when I am too under the weather for productive physical practice.
When I taught a lot of children, I learned that mental practice is also a magnificent tool for young children who practiced and solidified their reading errors at home (showing that they have indeed practiced!). After I interested them in hearing what the music will sound like with the note the composer wrote, often they could not change their habit though they tried and tried. Before they got too frustrated, I would sing a little fanfare, “Time for men-tal PRAC-TICE!!” I had them mentally practice that little section just the way they wanted it to go. Those who really did the mental practice – not just making a show of squeezing their faces into an affect of mock concentration – made the change they wanted 100% of the time.
I feel like I’ve done the best I can with the practice time and conditions that I had to work with. Time to go on with the rest of my 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.