Editor’s Note: This diary entry is the eighteenth 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, October 9: playing for an audience, recording, improving, checking out YouTube videos
I think I found the final piece of the puzzle of how to play that RH whirling figure in Le vent! Not to jinx it! But as I experimented today, an observation floated at the periphery of my mind, that my arm was having to move an awful lot. And I know what that means: another part isn’t doing its part. I gently add a little more activity at the front of my hand, and now everyone else can move less, and it sounds more even. And it feels better! All pluses.
The discovery came after I played next week’s three Debussy preludes for my husband and my recording device. Not bad for the first time with someone else in the room. As I was playing, I felt hasty, but I don’t hear hastiness in the recording. I can tell by the playing time that I’ve played something faster than usual, but the music sustains this tempo. It’s a good reminder to work with whatever happens in performance.
My recording device tells me what will make the performance better, so I get to work. Along with my discovery about the whirling figure in Le vent, little sound and dynamic clarifications will help Bruyères speak. Les sons requires some attention to pedal and flow. This mysterious piece is a collage that rarely settles into one message or image for more than a few measures at a time. Just sounds and perfumes swirling through the evening air. I feel there is also a feeling associated with each sound and perfume – never heavy or even fully felt – more like in a daydream, or those weird thoughts before sleep. I try to hint at these while I’m playing.
Now to Janáček. I feel okay about the recordings I’ve already made, so instead of taking the time to record the whole thing, which soon I will be doing frequently, I work on observations from previous recordings. I do record They chattered like swallows with my new changes. I like it!
Janáček composed some of these Overgrown Path pieces originally for harmonium. I wonder what that means in terms of the sound, so I google “Janáček harmonium youtube”. What do you know? There are videos of someone playing two Overgrown Path pieces on harmonium! Which is a different instrument than I thought (maybe I shouldn’t admit that publicly, but may as well be honest. Did you know what a harmonium was?). I imagined a hand-held instrument, but no, it’s a standing keyboard – this one is double-manual – a kind of reed organ worked by a bellows. I am first captivated by how difficult it looks to play. Apparently the feet are working the bellows, both to maintain the sound and also to create a bit of dynamic variation. Sometimes the performer plays on both manuals with one hand. Yikes. Meanwhile, the music sounds so different from on the piano. Even though the performer is assiduously changing stops, and playing on two manuals, I hear very little difference in sound color and none in dynamics. Maybe it’s the quality of the recording, but it seems that even with the choice of about ten stops, this instrument has less tonal variety than a good piano. Maybe a bigger contrast is how sustained the sound is. Some of the pieces originally written for harmonium have notes that are tied for days, and on the harmonium they sound as strongly at the end of the tie as when they are first played. On the piano, of course, they die out frustratingly quickly. I’ve put a lot of thought into those long tied notes, wondering if I should replay them at some point, play them extra loud at first, or let them go as they die away. I’ve had… feelings… about Janáček in regard to these tied notes. Why did he bother us with them? Some force the hand into awkward positions – like when the left thumb has to hold a tied note for about two minutes while the rest of the hand plays tremolos! Good grief. These harmonium recordings don’t help me decide how to deal with those ties, but at least I understand them now.
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.