Editor’s Note: This diary entry is the first 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/
Monday, September 15
I start the day with a pajama run-through. Without coffee, morning stretches, or warm-up, I pad to the piano, turn on my recording device, sit down, and play through ten minutes of music that I will perform on Wednesday morning for my local Music Performers Club. First is Debussy’s Danseuses de Delphes, then the 3rd and 4th movements of Beethoven’s “Pastorale” sonata, Opus 28. Just in case there is extra time at the meeting, I also run through Voiles, the second prelude from the first book. Yes, this is a motley combination of pieces, but it fits within the 10-minute limit imposed (for sanity’s sake) by the club, and they are all pieces that could use a hearing. Both Debussy are relatively new, just learned and memorized a few weeks ago. The Beethoven is, well … Beethoven. Not for wimps! The broken octaves in the trio section of the scherzo have been consuming a lot of my practice time, and there is a lot of action in the 4th movement as well.
I learned about the pajama run-through in performance coach Dr. Don Greene’s book, Performance Success, the title of which says it all. And before I go on, I must emphasize the undignified term “pajama run-through” is my own, not Dr. Greene’s. The pajama run-through (I can’t stop myself) is one of the activities in his 21-day countdown to a performance. He suggests doing it with the first piece in your program. However! Upon doing it with my first piece that first time, I felt so empowered that I continued doing pajama run-throughs with the whole rest of the program, even Schumann’s sprawling Humoreske. When I completed playing them all without preamble, I felt that if my plane were late, and the taxi broke down, and I had to run several blocks in the rain to the hall, and had no time to do anything but change into my stockings and dress shoes, I could still walk out on stage and play that recital. Ever since that first empowering experience, I have always done a pajama run-through of every piece I performed. I recommend it to my students too. I use and recommend variations as well: play through when you’re tired, when you are happy, when you’re angry, when you have a cold. It’s great to know you can play a piece under any condition.
After coffee, breakfast, and some yoga and Feldenkrais, I listen to the recording. Not bad! I would feel okay if I played like this on Wednesday. It’s not as I wish, though. The Debussy suffers from little breaks in the flow, no doubt as they were so recently memorized. My failure to move ahead quickly enough in a couple of places in both the Scherzo and the Rondo resulted in some note errors. Most mortifyingly, I over-pedaled the Rondo. My students know very well how I feel about this. Pedal as a blurred sound effect should not happen by accident. The last movement of the Pastorale is not an appropriate place for it.
So, it’s mental practice for me. I get those Debussy preludes to flow, practice moving ahead and listening ahead all the way through the Beethoven, and clear up that pedal! I return to the piano and am satisfied with the results. I reward myself with a swim in the Long Island Sound before going on to the rest of my day.
I am not just practicing to play at the Performers Club, although that alone would be a reasonable goal. At this point, I am practicing for a house concert for a few friends, as a next step in my return to performing. I had a few hard years during which I hardly practiced, having energy only for teaching and sleep. I’ve been rebuilding my performance gumption as my energy returns. Except for 13 minutes at a Performer’s Club event, I haven’t played a public solo performance in something like five years.
I don’t feel like I can call this a “Comeback.” That would imply a serious Performing Career back when. It was more a career with a small “c”. Still, I played several solo recitals a year.
I have played solo recitals since I was thirteen years old. I have other roles in life, but performing seems like part of who I am. I have missed it. So I am working to return.
Tuesday, September 16
Today, my husband listened to me run through my music for tomorrow. This time, I went so far as to eat breakfast and warm up first! Somehow, playing for my even my husband feels like having a real audience, when he sits quietly in a chair facing the piano. And although he would tell you he knows nothing about music, he always hears the overall message of a performance. Today he reported that the Debussy was mysterious, the Scherzo was happy, and the Rondo was lively. From my end, the Rondo was mysterious – because I had such trouble concentrating. My thoughts ranged over upcoming meals, friends I want to be in touch with, how to help a student reach a goal – anything but the Rondo. The results were predictable. Still, when I listened to the recording, I was pleased to note that my lack of concentration was only audible once or twice. Moreover, the pedal was fine! The little hesitations in the Debussy were ironed out, and I liked the sounds I was getting.
It’s comforting to know that practicing works.
To improve my concentration, I use a technique that James Tocco taught me when I was in grad school. I call it “looking/listening/planning-ahead practice”. I put the music on the music stand and look one measure ahead, planning how that measure will sound and feel, while simultaneously playing the previous measure just the way I want. The tempo needs to be slow enough that I can play just the way I want, but fast enough that it still feels like music.
The rest of my piano time is devoted to mental practice and tweaking my “performance script”. I learned how to do a performance script from Dr. Bill Moore’s 3-book series, Playing Your Best When It Counts. For the performance script, I use his High Performance Journal. Some of my students have made major breakthroughs in performing just by writing performance scripts. Dr. Moore suggests we start with the beginning of the day, and work right up to a strong finish of the last piece. So much of this is good for me. One part of my plan for tomorrow is to be very present with everyone I see when I get to the meeting, and continue to be present with every performer and the music they play before it is my turn. Being in the moment in this way is invaluable for me in keeping calm in mind and body. I also plan what sounds I will try out on the piano before the meeting starts. The sostenuto pedal is risky on an unfamiliar piano, and I also want to try some of the pp and ppp sound effects and see what I need to do for them to come out. Having written a list of places to try, I will remember them no matter how scattered my mind.
Before I put the script away, I decide to add one more item to my list of goals for the performance: instant forgiveness. This is my best way of letting go of playing anything that doesn’t go the way I want, and moving on. I am not always the master of instant forgiveness. It can’t hurt to include it in the script.
My greedy secret is that I don’t want to just return to performance. I want to perform more happily. My life is so full of good things that tension and anxiety around performance is now too dissonant to tolerate. The performance script is just one way I’m working toward that goal.
Wednesday, September 17
When I wake up, I start thinking happy thoughts. That’s the rule! Troubles will remain safely in place until after the performance. I read my performance script, stretch a bit, and go to the piano. I warm up, start each section, and do a little calm looking/listening/planning-ahead practice.
I sit down and try out my lists of sounds, and learn how to cooperate with the piano. This I accomplish by finding what Dorothy Taubman called the “point of sound” on the keys (a piano technician would call this the “aftertouch”): the little bump in between the top and bottom of the keys. She taught us to aim to this spot and follow through, without stopping, to the bottom of the key, for every note. Every volume and color we want is produced by moving through the point of sound in a particular way.
Nearly thirty years ago, when I first studied the Taubman approach, it was because my hands and arms hurt so badly I could barely brush my hair, let alone play the piano. It’s an understatement to say I was grateful for all the Taubman approach concepts that enabled me to play again, but the point of sound was the first element that made me happy. I have always been a sound person, and learning how to make any piano’s best sound changed my life. If I have only one minute to get to know a piano, I spend it with the point of sound.
The program begins. I successfully remain present while others play; some performances are excellent and moving. A Kuhlau trio for two flutes and piano is a pleasant surprise. I had never heard it before, and I enjoy the combination of classical liveliness and early romantic sentiment.
It’s a good thing that I planned to be present with every performance before my turn comes to play: I am last on the program. Playing with focus and freedom after sitting for an hour is a good challenge for me. When it comes time for me to play, I smile and walk to the piano. I quickly describe the inspiration for Danseuses – a column carved in the shape of a female figure. To tell the truth, at the time I tell them it is layers of figures, but later I learn I was incorrect on that point. Oops! At least I got the column part right.
I sit down, and almost throw my hands up to the piano and start without preparation. In a quick save, I open my sternum, rest my shoulder blades down, and touch the keys, feeling a luxurious connection to the piano. I’m already listening to the pulse, so I sink into it and start the piece.
Debussy packs a lot of action in these two pages – he asks us to create several sensuous chordal layers while jumping constantly from region to region of the piano. The secret for me is such freedom in jaw and torso that I can move quickly to the next chord, and have lots of time to make whatever sound I want. There is just one smudged note –a chance to practice instant forgiveness! – but mostly, I am immersed in music, and enjoying it. The scherzo really does go just the way I want. The big surprise is the trio. As planned, I move directly from the first iteration of the scherzo to the best attitude of my body for starting the scherzo. From then on, it goes so well that I don’t need any of my cues – jaw, shoulder blades, dynamics, anything. My hands play it with no instruction from me. My husband later tells me this sounds creepy to him, but I love it! I listen to the music inside me, and the sound comes out in to the room with no effort on my part. The Rondo is… fine. Some sections feel a little wild, and I have a disappointing stumble in the coda. It’s a little late to realize I neglected to write a strong finish into my performance script! Next time… On the positive side, I feel engaged in the shifting moods – welcoming, happy, thinking, arm-waving, joking. And they seem to come out. People’s remarks to me afterwards are warm and specific.
After lunch, I listen to the recording. This pedal is still okay! I like the Debussy. I have put a lot of attention on Beethoven’s fussy 2nd-beat staccato, while still creating a nice downbeat sound. That is working; now it’s time for attention to larger groupings. The Rondo did not thrill me. Happily, I recognize several concrete ways to improve it.
I get to work. Wow, I’m tired! Just 10 minutes of performance took a lot out of me. Still, I get involved and make progress on that Rondo. I listen for even 16ths and make sure I have a good preparation for my left 5th finger when it starts a motive. I also do slow practice on Debussy’s moto perpetuo Le vent dans la plaine. More of that lies in store for me, but at the moment I heartily feel I deserve my swim in the Sound.
Thursday, September 18
Today I foist an unreasonable goal upon myself, and unsurprisingly fail to meet it. I plan to play slowly through the whole first half of my recital. This is in spite of the fact that I last played the first two pieces in… hmm, I can’t remember what year. They are the 5th and 6th Debussy Preludes from book 2, Bruyères and Général Lavine – excentric. A couple of my students have played Bruyères, so at least it is in my mind if not my fingers. I barely recognize the general though, so I have to quickly re-commit it to memory. Moreover, the 3rd from my opening Debussy group, La terrasse des audiences du clair de lune, is relatively new to me and requires a lot of attention.
I’m starting with Bruyères because it feels so open and inviting. Debussy evokes heather, or heath, so perfectly that I feel that I can see the moor, feel the breeze, smell the scent of the outdoors. I’m continuing with the other two because I feel like I should at least play the pieces in Debussy’s own order, since I’m not playing all twelve. Plus, the set taken together is so varied and evocative.
I hope I can pull off Général Lavine. My own humor tends toward situational irony; I cannot tell a joke. And this is slapstick, a musical portrait – or maybe a sound track – of a routine developed by American vaudevillian Ed Lavine. Imagine being such a vivid character as to inspire Debussy to write a piece about you!. Fortunately, Debussy’s writing is so clear that I feel as if I saw the routine myself. I can imagine hearing the mock drum-and-bugle fanfare, and the curtain opening to reveal a dandy in uniform. He steps with elegant insouciance through the park, until a graceless fall in measure 18. Was it a banana peel? We’re not sure. We find out in measure 25: he is sloshed. The tritone chord movement combined with the unbalancing crescendo toward the 2nd beat says it all. He weaves through the park, tipping his hat at the ladies, until in measure 46 his eye lands on one in particular. The lady does not respond to his charms, but he takes it in stride, puffing up his chest and bowing extravagantly, several times, before returning to his weaving stroll through the park. In measure 94 he considers returning to the lady of his dreams, but the sickening D major chord in measure 97 shows that he is alert enough to realize it won’t go. He jauntily recovers his spirits, does a little jig to the drum-and-bugle fanfare, and the curtains close. You can hear the applause even though the music has finished! What a composer.
I refresh my memory of Bruyères and Général Lavine with my best memory technique: I read the score and take in as much as I can reasonably expect of myself, and then close the book and play it. I repeat until all the details are in place. Memorizing this way keeps me from dithering in my practice, and protects me from the kind of little note-reading errors and missed dynamics that I tend to have when I become familiar with a score before committing it to memory. Closing the book after studying this score is made easier by the fact that my beautiful new Durand edition by Howat and Helffer will not stay open no matter what I do. I am very grateful to Cathy Kautsky for aiming me to this scholarly edition, but I sure do wish Durand had constructed the book so it would stay open without being propped by two books and a metronome.
I move on to La terrasse. I memorized this a few weeks ago when I first learned it, but it does not come close to flowing. I love the many sections and layers, but I am confused about the title. I don’t see a terrace, or anything immobile, although I can feel the moonlight. According to Howat and Helffer, the inspiration for the piece is an article about the coronation of King George V as Emperor of India. I still don’t see it, although my hat’s off to anybody who is inspired by a newspaper article to write a piece of music. Paul Roberts’s delicious book, Images: the Piano Music of Claude Debussy, comes to my aid. According to Roberts, someone asserted that Debussy was struck by the words, “the hall of victory, the hall of pleasure, the garden of the sultanas, the terrace for moonlit audiences.” Pretty inspiring for a newspaper, I admit. My head begins to fill with images as I play. After working a bit on the expression and on my rested shoulder blades, I record myself and learn where to put my attention next.
I spend a little time on bringing out the meter more consistently, and that is about it for me for today. I’m a grown-up after all, and I can’t spend my whole day luxuriously communing with the piano. Sometimes that’s frustrating, but it does focus my practice. Tomorrow I take the train in to teach in New York, so mental practice will be all I can do. I am almost relieved to have the break. It’s been a good week, but it’s been intense.
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.