Editor’s Note: This diary entry is the twenty-eighth 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 24: let go/listen
Last week, I wrote how I use a variation of my meditation form to enhance my concentration in performance: when I think unwanted thoughts, I label them “thinking,” which helps me to let them go and return to the music. I’m accustomed to labeling my thoughts “thinking” during meditation, so it wasn’t hard for me to transfer this technique to playing a piece of music.
You can read in Diary entry V, Part 5, how it worked out for me: so well that I didn’t hear EMS techs in my performance space! Having such a success, of course I wanted to share this new performance tool with my students. I was surprised by how difficult they found it. I quizzed them in detail about their experience, trying to understand what didn’t translate. I realized it was that word, “thinking.” A lot of times they couldn’t even remember the word when they had a thought, and searching for it distracted them more than the unwanted thought they wanted to let go of. I searched around for something that would be easier to apply. Finally I hit upon, “Let go-listen.”
The results were amazing. Amazing! I’ll just tell you about the first time someone used it at the program I run, The Well-Balanced Pianist. We have performance classes at The Well-Balanced Pianist, but they’re not like performance classes in which students play and then receive coaching. The WBP participants are already receiving coaching in lessons; in the performance class, we want to make a difference in their performance experience. To that end, we write performance class participants before the session begins, to ask if they have any issues about performing that they would like to change.
One summer, a participant wrote something that made us feel she was easily distracted in performance. So the first day of the session, I went outside and sat at a picnic table with her for a bit, and gave her her own personal assignment for the performance class: she would think “let go” in response to any unwanted thought, and then, right away, “listen,” to remind herself to get back to the music. This was Thursday, and the class was Saturday, so she only had a couple of days to practice with “let go-listen” before the class.
If I recall correctly, she played Jeux d’eau. Because of a lapse in planning, neither piano instructor knew how much she planned to play before she sat down at the piano (sometimes people play excerpts if they feel that’s all they can prepare well), so I announced her and her piece slightly vaguely. Well! She played the whole thing from beginning to end, and then gushed, and gushed, and GUSHED! She gushed that she had never played that piece all the way through before, because she had always been so busy criticizing herself that she would give up before she reached the end! She gushed that she herself had no idea she was playing through the whole piece – she just kept saying “let go-listen” every time she had a thought, and was therefore in the moment right up to the end. She said that “let go-listen” was now her favorite performance tool and she was going to use it for the rest of her life!
Since then, I have always had students use “let go-listen” in response to unwanted thoughts. It works better than “thinking,” and seems to help everyone who tries it to stay present with the music, in the state I call “total immersion”.
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.