Editor’s Note: This diary entry is the twenty-third 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/
Friday, October 17: polishing, rethinking performance goals
Today I have two goals. One is to get my Janáček On an Overgrown Path as polished as I can for my lesson on Monday. I also need a little more review on Général Lavine – excentric. Another goal is to touch up the Pastorale so I can play through the second half of my recital soon. The larger goal is to begin touching every note of the recital every day. That probably won’t happen today, but I hope for it to begin next week.
Again, I find myself making a Reader’s Digest version of a performance script. Even a minimalist one helped before, so I feel like it’s worth it. I plan a loose jaw, and open sternum, and total immersion in the music.
I am no longer writing instant forgiveness on my list of performance goals, by the way. Instant forgiveness is important as a general goal, and probably an important step in working toward a performance. However, forgiveness, however instantaneous, still implies a thought process that involves judgment, criticism, and disappointment or disapproval. How much better it would be to skip all of that and get on with playing the music.
I have done this before. Many years ago, I learned to meditate from a book called Start Where You Are by Pema Chödrön. Meditating made my life better in many ways, and at some point, I realized I could use the form of the meditation to improve my concentration and presence in performance. The meditation form is simple and brilliant – it consists of two activities (as this is my description from having read this book many, many years ago, don’t rely on my description if you would like to learn this meditation – get the book!): 1. Concentrate on your out-breath. 2. When you find yourself thinking, label it by saying “thinking” to yourself, and let go of that thought. Concentrating on the out-breath allows me to practice being present. Labeling my thoughts “thinking” and letting go of them helps me to experience without reacting, and be present for the next moment.
When I decided to apply the meditation form to performance, I decided that instead of concentrating on my breath, I would concentrate on music. So, when I thought any extraneous thought when I was running my pieces in practice, I practiced labeling the thoughts “thinking” and bringing my attention back to the music. It’s not easy. Depending on my state of mind, and my state of playing, thoughts can come thick and fast. Not to mention that sometimes, just as when I meditate, I would forget my goal altogether and indulge in wanton thinking.
But what a difference in performance. That performance was the first time that I hadn’t been distracted by any thought that I had. One thought had always been trouble for me: “This is going well!” That would be a cue for a major stumble. I don’t like to think that I’m a superstitious person, but it felt like the very act of thinking that thought would jinx me. But it’s had no effect since I worked the meditation form into my performance preparation.
Did my concentration improve? You be the judge. During that first performance in which I used the meditation form, there was a lot of rustling while I was playing a Bach Sarabande. Every time I noticed the rustling, I thought, “thinking,” and returned to the music. I remember doing that many times in the course of that Sarabande. I forgot about it as I went on to play the rest of the first half of the recital. Then at intermission, the presenter came running up to me, and fell all over herself apologizing for the noise during the Bach. “I had no choice,” she said. “That man passed out right next to me, and I didn’t know if he was having a heart attack or what, so I just had to call 911. I knew the EMS workers were making a lot of noise, and so were their walkie-talkies, but I didn’t feel like I could ask them to be quiet while they were trying to help that man.”
You can imagine my surprise! I had registered no walkie-talkies or EMS personnel. Instead, I was having a lovely experience immersing myself in music, simply being present, or reminding myself to come back to being present.
Instant forgiveness pales in comparison to total immersion. That’s why total immersion takes the place of instant forgiveness on my list of performance goals.