Editor’s Note: This is the second installment of diary 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 22
Today the plan is to succeed where I failed last time – playing slowly through the whole first half of my recital. But before I even started, I found myself first recreationally practicing two pieces from the second half! It was undisciplined, but I was doing some paperwork and had to find something in the piano studio. I was just naturally attracted by the piano. To make the most of this unscheduled practicing, I did at least play slowly. In my defense, it’s not like those pieces couldn’t use the attention.
But now the paperwork is done, and I’m ready to work toward my goal. I prop open my Debussy Preludes, and play through Bruyères, Général Lavine – excentric, and La terrasse des audiences du clair de lune, slowly, looking and listening ahead with the goal of playing each note just the way I want. Then I close the book, and repeat.
I am amused to note that although I intend to play slowly, I start out playing in tempo. Truly amused! Because I know this trap! I noticed way back in college that often, when I intended to practice slowly, I would find myself a few measures into the piece in my same-old-same-old tempo. Later I learned I was not alone, in Daniel Levitin’s This Is Your Brain on Music. He and his colleagues studied how well people remembered different elements of music, like key, melody, rhythm, lyrics, and tempo. One way they looked at it is to have people sing their favorite song from their 20s. The researchers observed that although everyone was a little off on the melody, a little off on the rhythm, a little off on the lyrics, and just plain off on the key, they were always within one metronome notch of the correct tempo. I replicated this study my own self, singing Carly Simon’s immortal song, You’re So Vain, with the same results. Tempo has sticking power.
The moral of the story is that we need to concentrate when we want to change tempo. I always tell my students about Levitin’s research to emphasize this point. I believe the danger presented by this powerfully “sticky” element of music is compounded by the fact that most Western musicians have little awareness of tempo, meter, pulse, and rhythm. Many of my students cannot even define these separate entities when we first meet, even though they are serious pianists, many with degrees in music. In college I discovered other pieces of the time puzzle – for example, that sometimes an uneven pulse created tension in my playing. However, I only started to become conscious of all the dimensions of time in music at a woefully late date in my education: as I was studying for the oral exam that would end my doctoral degree! I happened upon a book that dedicated some pages to rhythm, meter, and tempo in Bach. That day, I learned things that were so basic that I felt I should have learned them in my freshman year of college. But I had missed out. As a group, I’m sorry to say that we Western classical musicians pass on a tradition of shallow attention to elements of time in our teaching. I still catch myself being sloppy with meter or rhythm, but less and less since that day studying for my orals. The reward has been music that leaps to life.
Now I am playing in a true slow tempo that allows me to listen ahead for every sound I want to make. I feel good about the Debussy, so I go on to Janáček’s On an Overgrown Path. I play through all of them slowly, with the music. Then I refresh my memory on a couple that I performed those years ago – Good Night! and The Barn Owl Has Not Flown Away! I’m feeling a little under the weather, so I’m glad to be able to use mental practice. That’s about it for me for the day.
Tuesday, September 23
Several years ago I was asked to play a few of Janáček’s On an Overgrown Path for a subscription series. Since then I have been gradually learning the rest, and this is the first time I will perform all ten pieces. Today I play through all of them slowly, with the music.
I only recently learned and memorized Unutterable anguish, the 8th of the set. I had put it off because I just couldn’t relate to it. I have confidence that if I spend time with it, the music will speak to me, though. I loved many of these little musical poems from the first hearing, although all were in a musical language foreign to me. Now I love most of them so much that whenever I play through one of them, I feel sad when I reach the end and the piece is over. I am often tempted to go back to the beginning and play it all over again. Maintaining discipline is challenging amidst such temptations.
Part of my problem with Unutterable anguish is the quirky accompaniment figure: two groups of 32nds, separated by a 16th rest and followed by another, followed by a bass note on the 2nd beat. ?? At first, this seems more silly than anguished. So I follow directions. Following directions has always been my greatest hope with music I have trouble relating to. Meter, dynamics, and articulation markings all get me closer to the meaning of the piece. I can only hope the metronome markings in my Bärenreiter edition are authentic. The more I play Unutterable anguish, the more I want to play it. The accompaniment figure begins to feel like a sob, or a grief-stricken skipping heartbeat, and the fractured descending melody is heartbreaking. I’m fascinated by the ending. Most of these pieces end with a slow reprise of the main motive. Not this one. Unutterable anguish ends with an abbreviated return of the opening, followed by a short chorale. I realize I have begun to think of the whole return-plus-chorale as a coda. This might be partly because it is set off from what comes before by a few measures of suspended activity – time to let our thoughts unwind before the return. When it arrives, the accompaniment figure limps along a half-beat later than in the opening, and dissolves into the short chorale. This is not a simple slow reprise.
Mental practice allows me to keep practicing despite a migraine. I note with amusement that even in mental practice, I am tempted to “play” up to tempo, even though slow practice is best for me at this stage.
I had used mental practice before I read what Don Greene had to say about it, but I have used it more, and used it better, since. I find it particularly helpful for reinforcing new technical skills, clarifying musical intentions, improving concentration, and memory. It is invaluable when I am too under the weather for productive physical practice.
When I taught a lot of children, I learned that mental practice is also a magnificent tool for young children who practiced and solidified their reading errors at home (showing that they have indeed practiced!). After I interested them in hearing what the music will sound like with the note the composer wrote, often they could not change their habit though they tried and tried. Before they got too frustrated, I would sing a little fanfare, “Time for men-tal PRAC-TICE!!” I had them mentally practice that little section just the way they wanted it to go. Those who really did the mental practice – not just making a show of squeezing their faces into an affect of mock concentration – made the change they wanted 100% of the time.
I feel like I’ve done the best I can with the practice time and conditions that I had to work with. Time to go on with the rest of my day.
Wednesday, September 24
I love my recording device! Not for its snazzy features; I don’t begin to maximize its capabilities. No, I love it because it is there at the press of a button, and it tells me the truth.
Today I record the Debussy set that will open my recital. From my recording device, I learn that my note values are not in order in Bruyères. My awareness of the sound of relative note values dates from hearing a description of an activity in a Dalcroze class. Apparently the teacher had students play different note values on a plain drum. The goal was to differentiate a 16th from an 8th from a quarter from the way they played a single note on their drum. The idea was such a revelation to me, I felt rewired. It made such sense! Of course, eight 16th notes should somehow add up, in a crucial way, to a half note. Only it had never occurred to me. There are other considerations – downbeat and upbeat, denser and less dense sets of notes, a composer’s dynamic markings – but the hierarchy of note values must be high on the list of fundamental concerns for any musician. I’ve been working with the idea ever since, in my own practice and with my students. So when I hear my recording of Bruyères, I can tell that in my earnest quest to express Debussy’s beautiful running lines, I am over-expressing in a way, and letting my 16ths weigh down the music. I wonder how I fell into that trap, so I examine the music and realize the piece contains ten levels of note values. Ten! Ranging from a tied dotted half note through triplet 32nd notes. I feel like I could tie myself in knots trying to differentiate all ten note values from one another, so instead I play through the piece, a little under tempo, listening for the balance of my note values.
My recording device tells me that I have been too interested in bringing out quirky little rhythmic motives – groupings of short notes going to longer ones – in Général Lavine – excentric. I don’t know how, but as I listen, I just know that the elegant dandy will step with more of a glide if I back off on expressing quirkiness and play more steadily.
Courtesy of that same helpful recording device, I learn that I am letting myself get away with taking little bits of extra time here and there in La terrasse des audiences du clair de lune. These are innocent little errors, just a little extra time to get to a different region of the keyboard here, or be sure of the sound I’m going to create next there. No doubt I needed this extra time when I first learned the piece, and maybe even last week as I was improving it. But I think it’s now reasonable expect myself to play in tempo. I don’t want to build in those interruptions to the flow of the music.
I am tempted to take out my metronome for Général Lavine and La terrasse, but surely it is better for me to generate a steady tempo internally. So I listen to subdivisions remaining constant throughout these two pieces.
I press that recording device button and record those three preludes again. I like them so much more now. Bruyères sounds warm, light, and airy, and the Général glides about with insouciant confidence. La terrasse flows better, and sounds more effortless. I didn’t realize how laborious it sounded when I snuck in all that extra time.
The changes I made because of recording myself today were not earth-shaking. Often, all a recording does is pull my attention off of whatever I have been listening to and call my attention to an equally important element I have been ignoring. I like to think that eventually I would hear it all. That may or may not be true. For sure, I get to the “equally important element” sooner, and that makes my practicing more efficient. Efficient practice is a gift to a grown-up! That is why I love my recording device.
Thursday, September 25
I devote myself again to the first half of my recital. Some slow practice and interpretive work on the Debussy, and then serious time with Janáček. I am determined to record all 30 minutes of the Overgrown Path tomorrow, so I do slow practice with and without the music.
I am so grateful for the interpretive markings of great composers. In measures 6 and 7 of Janáček’s Words fail!, the accelerando, crescendo, and sfp clear up this otherwise mysterious phrase, and show how he wants me to handle the syncopated note. In measures 49 through 57 of They chattered like swallows, I would be at sea trying to figure out the phrase groupings, but helpful sf, crescendi, and diminuendi give them to me on a silver platter. I would never have decided that the crescendo would move right through measure 57, gasping to the shocking ppp in the next measure. I would never have created that rollercoaster of emotions on my own. Thank you, Mr. Janáček! Debussy’s diminuendo in measure 34 of La terrasse tells me which of the 3 layers to bring out – the sigh in long notes. The running-note figure still emerges after the sigh ends to take us to the next musical event. And two crescendi in the Général, in measures 58 and 67, create a hilarious overdone grand-gesture effect. I have great fun with those crescendi, but I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have the imagination to think of them myself. Sometimes I picture composers including interpretive markings in an act of self-protection against lesser musicians handling their music. More likely, they were just part of the music they heard. Whatever the case, I’m so grateful.
While I’m doing my slow practice, I make an effort to practice the skills I learned in the last Skype lesson with my brilliant Feldenkrais instructor, Sharon Oliensis. The most important points were to keep my whole sternum open and soft, and the shoulder blades rested down. When I succeed, the sound is so much richer, and the tiniest movements get me where I need to go.
You may have noted that I said “whole sternum.” I was shocked and rather embarrassed to learn that my sternum is not simply the knobs between the collarbones. The sternum runs from those knobs down to the place where the rib cage opens out. Who knew! Not me. Meanwhile, I had no idea how much I was scrunching it in, whatever it’s called. Since Sharon educated me about the sternum and suggested I keep it more open, I have noticed that I scrunch it in whenever I feel something poignant in the music, whenever I am about to play a subito p, whenever I am about to play something that requires concentration, whenever I am about to play something I’m insecure about, when I am about to play a sound color that is important to me… You could say I find any excuse to scrunch it in. Yikes. The good news is that I seem to be educable. I can now play for whole minutes at a time without scrunching my sternum. It feels so free and open. Why did I ever do all that scrunching? Well, I have never been a Freudian when it comes to movement. It can be interesting to know why an unproductive habit came to being, but it’s more important to me to engage in a better habit.
Sharon also suggested I sit little farther back from the piano, so I could lean forward a bit more. Well, blush. I know this already. To be honest, I had recently found myself playing with my elbow in back of my centerline, a huge hint that I’m sitting too close. Or leaning too close. It seems that when I feel a little insecure, or feel the music is especially intimate, I just want to snuggle up to the piano. What a difference it makes when I don’t crowd my piano-playing limbs like that. Thank you, Sharon, for urging me to live up to what I know.
I often reflect that we humans rarely live up to what we know. How much better the world would be if we did.
Friday, September 26
Oof. It was a humbling day at the piano. As planned, I recorded the whole Janáček, and let’s just say it’s a good thing the recital isn’t next week. I simply haven’t spent enough time on this music. Some of Janáček’s lovely sounds come out, but it’s possible that I’ve been luxuriating in Janáček’s sounds a little too much, and not enough on giving them to a listener on a silver platter. Even as I play, I realize my glorious imagination has probably been filling in where my actual playing left off, misleading me into thinking the piece was more prepared than it was. A friend of mine once commented that when we first play for someone, we suddenly hear what they’re hearing, not just the music we imagine. Even just playing for a recording device works that way for me. I become disappointed as I move from piece to piece, and even though I move on, my concentration is probably affected by continually lowered expectations.
I now record myself much earlier in the process of learning a piece than I used to. Back when, I only engaged in the valiant act of recording myself late in my game, when I started doing practice performances for people. Then, several years ago, I decided to record the Bach Partita in e minor before dropping it from a recital program. It was so demanding that I wanted a recording of it, especially because practicing and performing that piece – although gorgeous and rich – put me in such an intense frame of mind that I doubt I’ll want to play it again. (A friend who specializes in early music told me that e minor is the key of unrequited love – and considering the sadness, rage, and bitterness in those dances, I believe it). The Partita improved so much from my careful listening to repeated takes that I vowed to record myself in the future from the first moment I could play a piece from A to Z.
I have kept my word, and I am happy and relieved to say that what I hear is changing. My proclivities used to include what I call “over-appreciation”: I could stop a piece dead just to set apart a beautiful chord or melody or ornament. Of course, as soon as I set it apart, it lost its meaning along with its context. I am relieved to say I almost never hear that any more. I also went through a period of time when I couldn’t feel the meter in my recordings. My gold standard for bringing out the meter is to imagine that a listener would sway from downbeat to downbeat. I sometimes need to move from downbeat to downbeat better, but in general, this element is also improving.
Still, I always hear something on my recordings that keeps the music from speaking. And no matter how humbling, I would rather know now!
I am daunted by the work I need to do to get the Janáček in shape to perform, and I don’t have a lot of time today. I work on my newly revealed issues one at a time. I am relieved to make some progress. I am eager to make more, but… how do people ever find the time to prepare for performances while living real lives? I don’t even have kids! Besides, I feel like I need a break. It’s supposed to be a gorgeous weekend, and I plan to spend a lot of it outdoors.
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.