Editor’s Note: This diary entry is the thirty-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/
Friday, November 7: last day of practicing, program notes
Two days to go! Today I do three kinds of practicing: my looking/listening/planning-ahead slow practice, starts (starting every piece in character, steady pulse, and desired sound from the beginning), and review of technical passages.
One activity always helps me as a performance nears: going through every piece and asking myself what I want people to feel, or see, or imagine, as I play the piece. I’ve noticed that very few people imagine my story when I perform, but if I try to bring out my own story, they imagine something. The music takes them somewhere, which I think is one of the greatest gifts performers give listeners. And a local pianist recently told me about a study showing the difference between what happens in the minds of musicians of various levels in performance. Apparently, beginning musicians concentrate on how-to in performance, more experienced musicians have a combination of how-to and story in mind, and the mental space of master musicians is filled with story in performance. This motivates me even more to dedicate time to clarifying my stories for myself.
Today I take advantage of making my program notes to steal some extra story time with the music. I don’t share all my stories on the program notes, as I don’t want people to think my story is the only “right” story. I want to give people enough guidance to open them up to listen in their own way, without making anyone feel there is a “right” thing to hear. I do share ideas that come from the music, the titles, or the history of the composition.
Here are some images and stories I want to bring out in performance:
In the Debussy Preludes, I hear the beauty of the moors in springtime, a musical choreography of a vaudeville act (mock drumroll and bugle call that open the curtain, jaunty yet inebriated stroll in the park, failed seduction, and a few outrageous bows before the protagonist is dragged offstage), mysterious images through the fog (including elephants!), a sensual but restricted woman built into a column, who comes to life for a brief moment, a hypnotic whole tone bath, and wind swirling dry leaves, and sometimes causing even more havoc, as it races through the plains and eventually subsides.
Janáček’s On An Overgrown Path comprises ten musical poems about love and loss. Janáček compiled the set after the death of his daughter from typhoid. In these pieces, I hear fond memories touched by sadness, a child at play, a prayerful plea answered, a sad person surrounded by lively chatter, the state in which it’s impossible to complete a sentence, grief that comes out in stricken sobs, silent tears, and love. The last piece of the set, The barn owl has not flown away!, references a folk superstition that equates the barn owl with death. The barn owl theme that starts the piece alternates with a village procession. Eventually, the barn owl theme infiltrates the procession, showing us that death is never far away.
[Incidentally, you can tell from this piece that despite his love of the country, Janáček did not know his owls. What he told his editor was the sound of a barn owl (the motive of falling 3rds and repeated notes) sounds nothing like a barn owl. The barn owl emits a scratchy hiss worthy of a creature in a Harry Potter film. If you listen to the sound online, you’ll understand why people associated it with death, especially if they walked into a barn and heard the cry before they knew the bird was there.]
For the Beethoven Sonata, op. 28 (“Pastorale”), I reflect on Beethoven’s love of the countryside. My story for the first movement has evolved as I live with the piece. It used to be about forest sprites, who became mature, middle-aged forest sprites! Now I feel the piece more as a soundtrack, or “feelings-track,” if I may make up a word, about feelings evoked by nature. In the second movement, I imagine forest sprites gathering with tears in their eyes as they watch a diligent man with a secret tragedy, and only one bright spot in his life, trudge away at his tasks at the edge of the forest. The youthful forest sprites become restless, and erupt into practical jokes in the third movement. Good-natured humans have their own kind of fun in the last movement, and all come together in the finale.
Thinking about these stories reminds me what’s important about performing on Sunday.
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.