Editor’s Note: This diary entry is the seventh 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/
Wednesday, September 24
I love my recording device! Not for its snazzy features; I don’t begin to maximize its capabilities. No, I love it because it is there at the press of a button, and it tells me the truth.
Today I record the Debussy set that will open my recital. From my recording device, I learn that my note values are not in order in Bruyères. My awareness of the sound of relative note values dates from hearing a description of an activity in a Dalcroze class. Apparently the teacher had students play different note values on a plain drum. The goal was to differentiate a 16th from an 8th from a quarter from the way they played a single note on their drum. The idea was such a revelation to me, I felt rewired. It made such sense! Of course, eight 16th notes should somehow add up, in a crucial way, to a half note. Only it had never occurred to me. There are other considerations – downbeat and upbeat, denser and less dense sets of notes, a composer’s dynamic markings – but the hierarchy of note values must be high on the list of fundamental concerns for any musician. I’ve been working with the idea ever since, in my own practice and with my students. So when I hear my recording of Bruyères, I can tell that in my earnest quest to express Debussy’s beautiful running lines, I am over-expressing in a way, and letting my 16ths weigh down the music. I wonder how I fell into that trap, so I examine the music and realize the piece contains ten levels of note values. Ten! Ranging from a tied dotted half note through triplet 32nd notes. I feel like I could tie myself in knots trying to differentiate all ten note values from one another, so instead I play through the piece, a little under tempo, listening for the balance of my note values.
My recording device tells me that I have been too interested in bringing out quirky little rhythmic motives – groupings of short notes going to longer ones – in Général Lavine – excentric. I don’t know how, but as I listen, I just know that the elegant dandy will step with more of a glide if I back off on expressing quirkiness and play more steadily.
Courtesy of that same helpful recording device, I learn that I am letting myself get away with taking little bits of extra time here and there in La terrasse des audiences du clair de lune. These are innocent little errors, just a little extra time to get to a different region of the keyboard here, or be sure of the sound I’m going to create next there. No doubt I needed this extra time when I first learned the piece, and maybe even last week as I was improving it. But I think it’s now reasonable expect myself to play in tempo. I don’t want to build in those interruptions to the flow of the music.
I am tempted to take out my metronome for Général Lavine and La terrasse, but surely it is better for me to generate a steady tempo internally. So I listen to subdivisions remaining constant throughout these two pieces.
I press that recording device button and record those three preludes again. I like them so much more now. Bruyères sounds warm, light, and airy, and the Général glides about with insouciant confidence. La terrasse flows better, and sounds more effortless. I didn’t realize how laborious it sounded when I snuck in all that extra time.
The changes I made because of recording myself today were not earth-shaking. Often, all a recording does is pull my attention off of whatever I have been listening to and call my attention to an equally important element I have been ignoring. I like to think that eventually I would hear it all. That may or may not be true. For sure, I get to the “equally important element” sooner, and that makes my practicing more efficient. Efficient practice is a gift to a grown-up! That is why I love my recording device.
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.