Editor’s Note: This diary entry is the eleventh 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/
Tuesday, September 30
Technical tweaks, mental practice, and music-box practice
I am preparing for a special event, a lesson with Carol Montparker. Carol possesses two invaluable qualities: keen and knowledgeable ears, and a generous spirit. She also writes and paint watercolors! If you want to see what I mean, this video celebrates all three of her artistic activities. Carol genuinely appreciates every effort even the least capable person makes to play beautiful music on the piano. I imagine every student leaves her studio feeling empowered and appreciated. Still, she doesn’t let me get away with anything.
I plan to play the Beethoven Pastorale sonata for her, and some Debussy Preludes. Yesterday I practiced the Beethoven, revisiting the first and second movements after a summer off. Technical tweaks dominated my practice time. The first movement felt disconcertingly awkward. A little investigation revealed that the five side of my left palm ( the “f’alm,” as my student Tom christened it) (if you’re wondering, he claimed spelling rights) is sagging. When I toned it up, my hand felt so much better balanced, and the sound was more satisfying. Until I realized the f’alm was the source of my discomfort, I blamed the thumb. To be fair, the thumb is a frequent miscreant. But this time the thumb was the victim of the f’alm forcing it to overwork.
The fourth movement suffered from a left hand/forearm that tilts toward the five. Correction brought relief and greater control over the sound of stronger and weaker beats.
I don’t do enough mental practice. Whenever I don’t have the energy for physical practice, my mental practice is so productive that I always vow to do more of it. But when I feel better, I go back to my old ways (if you are my student, please remember to learn from my mistakes). I am affected by an old and limited concept of what practicing consists of, combined with what I think is an understandable desire to touch the keys and hear the music. Today, though, I’m smart enough to do mental practice.
Of course this is driven by desperation. No matter how I try, I cannot repeat the glory of the open sternum and quiet left arm in Le vent dans la plaine that I experienced over the weekend. So, in a fit of intelligence, I get off the piano bench and walk out of the room. I set up some pillows so when I lie on them my sternum will be open, and imagine playing the prelude. I “play” through it a couple of times, clearing up some musical intentions and fingering while I’m at it. Then I walked to the piano and play it again. Wowie zowie, the results are amazing! It feels better, the sound is better, it’s more even, it’s more expressive. Probably somebody out there knows why mental practice is so powerful at circumventing habit. I am just glad it is.
Le vent dans la plaine sounds so much better that I do mental practicing with the first and last movements of the Beethoven Pastorale too. While imagining myself playing with a rich, full Beethoven sound and clear phrasing, I also feel my hands are balanced and my shoulder blades are rested down. Again, the music is greatly improved when I play it on the piano.
I finish my day’s practice with a trick I developed a few years ago to feel confident about fast playing. I use it whenever I feel like I’m playing at my own top speed, and it’s barely fast enough for the music to speak. I grab the metronome, zzzip it around to the right, and play through the piece like a music box on high speed. Believe it or not, I can usually do it! OK, I only use this trick when I can already play the piece pretty well, but still! It’s like my hands find the attitude they need to play that piece quickly. When I return to my chosen tempo, it feels downright leisurely.
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.