Editor’s Note: This is the third 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 29
Three experiences from this past weekend are helping me practice today.
One experience was a lovely recital played by one of my students. Among other pieces, he played Miller’s Dance from the Three-Cornered Hat by de Falla, a Mendelssohn Song without Words, and the Franck Prelude, Chorale, and Fugue. He has been working on his quality of sound along with balancing different layers, and wow, could you hear it. Every sound he made was beautiful. Listening to him play, I thought about his trajectory of progress, starting with recovery from injury, through amassing of technical skills, some tightening up of his rhythm and pulse, right through his newfound control over sound. He has always had the bottom-line quality I need to hear in a performance – the ability to make the audience feel that he is playing for us because he loves the music and he wants us to hear what he appreciates in it. But still, he has progressed so much! It reminds me of something I already know but sometimes forget in the seeming urgency of recital preparation: every performance is merely a moment in time, not the definition of who the person is as a performer. I also admire the way my student has made performing manageable for himself, despite a demanding job. He no longer plays 80-minute recitals. His recital yesterday was over within an hour, and nobody seemed to feel cheated.
Another of my interesting weekend experiences was a conversation with somebody who loves to listen to music, but is not an educated musician. I asked him what he wanted to hear in a performance. His answer was shockingly unexpected. He wants “temporal resolution.” If you’re like me, you can’t even imagine what that could mean. He explained helpfully that if it were a photograph, it would be expressed in pixels – the more pixels per inch, the higher the resolution. For him to understand music he is listening to, time groupings need to be clear to him. He needs to know how much to listen to, and each subsection of a piece needs to be short enough for him to grasp. He needs to know where a musical sentence begins and ends, and where the paragraph begins and ends. I told him that, probably in a fit of projection, I expected him to say something about communication or story line. He laughed and said that maybe if we both stepped back far enough, we would be saying the same thing. I reflected that we probably don’t have to step back very far at all. We tell stories with words, sentences, and paragraphs, and the spoken word is senseless unless these divisions are clear. Music requires phrases and sections to be clear and audible. As a matter of fact, harmony and melody are incomprehensible without the beats in meters they hang on. I like to think that I make an effort already to have high “temporal resolution,” but I have a feeling that may be a large part of what was missing last Friday when I recorded my Janáček. I’m so happy to have a new concrete goal to work toward.
The other weekend experience that helped my practicing was a recording of the first book of Debussy Preludes. To tell you the truth, I found the playing mechanical and heavy. However, the sound the pianist got for the left hand melodies in Le vent dans la plaine (”The wind in the plain”) made me realize I was holding my shoulder blade – and hence my upper arm – up, contrary to my Feldenkrais instructor’s advice. I was so sure that resting my upper arm and shoulder blade would help that I practiced right then and there, during my day off in the middle of a gorgeous weekend. As I played, I realized that I had let my left hand be affected by all the activity in the right hand. They do overlap, playing right on top of one another, but the right hand has to move… well… like the wind, while the left hand can and should move at a slower pace. How stable the piece felt when I eliminated this “sympathy” of the left for the right’s movement.
Tuesday, September 30
Technical tweaks, mental practice, and music-box practice
I am preparing for a special event, a lesson with Carol Montparker. Carol possesses two invaluable qualities: keen and knowledgeable ears, and a generous spirit. She also writes and paint watercolors! If you want to see what I mean, this video celebrates all three of her artistic activities. Carol genuinely appreciates every effort even the least capable person makes to play beautiful music on the piano. I imagine every student leaves her studio feeling empowered and appreciated. Still, she doesn’t let me get away with anything.
I plan to play the Beethoven Pastorale sonata for her, and some Debussy Preludes. Yesterday I practiced the Beethoven, revisiting the first and second movements after a summer off. Technical tweaks dominated my practice time. The first movement felt disconcertingly awkward. A little investigation revealed that the five side of my left palm ( the “f’alm,” as my student Tom christened it) (if you’re wondering, he claimed spelling rights) is sagging. When I toned it up, my hand felt so much better balanced, and the sound was more satisfying. Until I realized the f’alm was the source of my discomfort, I blamed the thumb. To be fair, the thumb is a frequent miscreant. But this time the thumb was the victim of the f’alm forcing it to overwork.
The fourth movement suffered from a left hand/forearm that tilts toward the five. Correction brought relief and greater control over the sound of stronger and weaker beats.
I don’t do enough mental practice. Whenever I don’t have the energy for physical practice, my mental practice is so productive that I always vow to do more of it. But when I feel better, I go back to my old ways (if you are my student, please remember to learn from my mistakes). I am affected by an old and limited concept of what practicing consists of, combined with what I think is an understandable desire to touch the keys and hear the music. Today, though, I’m smart enough to do mental practice.
Of course this is driven by desperation. No matter how I try, I cannot repeat the glory of the open sternum and quiet left arm in Le vent dans la plaine that I experienced over the weekend. So, in a fit of intelligence, I get off the piano bench and walk out of the room. I set up some pillows so when I lie on them my sternum will be open, and imagine playing the prelude. I “play” through it a couple of times, clearing up some musical intentions and fingering while I’m at it. Then I walked to the piano and play it again. Wowie zowie, the results are amazing! It feels better, the sound is better, it’s more even, it’s more expressive. Probably somebody out there knows why mental practice is so powerful at circumventing habit. I am just glad it is.
Le vent dans la plaine sounds so much better that I do mental practicing with the first and last movements of the Beethoven Pastorale too. While imagining myself playing with a rich, full Beethoven sound and clear phrasing, I also feel my hands are balanced and my shoulder blades are rested down. Again, the music is greatly improved when I play it on the piano.
I finish my day’s practice with a trick I developed a few years ago to feel confident about fast playing. I use it whenever I feel like I’m playing at my own top speed, and it’s barely fast enough for the music to speak. I grab the metronome, zzzip it around to the right, and play through the piece like a music box on high speed. Believe it or not, I can usually do it! OK, I only use this trick when I can already play the piece pretty well, but still! It’s like my hands find the attitude they need to play that piece quickly. When I return to my chosen tempo, it feels downright leisurely.
I got a lot done, (mostly) not practicing over the weekend!
Wednesday, October 1
More mental practice, lightening up with 80/20 practice, and listening
I’m enjoying the effects of this mental-practice-with-open-sternum so much that I repeat it today. Again, when I return to the piano, the music practically plays itself! The way I’m setting up these pillows to open up my sternum also keeps my collarbones and shoulders open. I think it’s all helping.
I’ve become a little heavy and serious about this recital in the last few days. Judgmental thoughts about little slips and feelings that I “must” get something down are invading my practice time, and interfering with my enjoyment of the music. I realized yesterday that, although I now feel I have a good routine to produce a happy performance for the last couple of weeks prior to the performance, I don’t have a routine for daily practice with a near-term goal. When I have no goal, or a goal that’s very far away, I love practicing. I love the sounds, the musical explorations, the problem-solving, and the physical sensations. I get the blues when I don’t get to practice. So this feeling of serious heaviness that is invading my practicing is doubly unwelcome – it is not only unpleasant on its own, but also I miss my usual happy practice feelings.
I cannot let this stand, so I review what I know about practice mindset. One suggestion I haven’t tried systematically from Dr. Bill Moore’s Playing Your Best When it Counts series is his 80/20 rule. Until the performance is nigh, he says, most of your practicing should be in the problem-solving practice mindset. Even then, though, he says some of your daily practice should be practice of performance skills – things like trusting what you have trained. Dr. Moore says that trust is a skill you can practice! I decide to try that today. After some mental practice and slow practice, I play the first movement of the Pastorale up to tempo, not making sure of anything, but trusting that what I’m listening for will come out.
It’s fun! It works! I don’t feel heavy and serious, quite the contrary. Some time ago I came up with a whole story for this movement (it’s about forest sprites, if you want to know), and it comes into my imagination unbidden. Most of the piece really does go the way I want. Although there is that place where I changed some fingerings yesterday… Well, that’s ok. I practice that again after I do my trust practice, and then run it again, and it’s fine. I will no doubt need to revisit that section – a perfect spot for mental practice. But I feel happier and more engaged in my practice again. I will give this 80/20 thing a serious try these next few weeks.
Today I listened to some recordings of my Debussy preludes and the Overgrown Path. The Debussy is largely too fast for me to take it in, and full of little slips, but still, the pianist always gives us the big picture. This is an important reminder. The pianist playing the Overgrown Path takes tender loving care of every note, so much that he often plays in what would be a slow-practice tempo for me. I check the metronome markings in my Bärenreiter score, and although at some point I had to speed up some of those pieces, I am now playing some faster than marked. In others, the recording is a lot slower than the markings. I’m going to put some thought into that. In the meantime, I feel invited by that recording to more fully engage with every single note. That sounds so comforting I sit down to try it, and I love it.
Thursday, October 2
Slow appreciation practice, looking/listening/planning-ahead practice, mini performance script
Trying to remain happy and engaged in the music today, I fall into an almost meditative slow practice, just appreciating the music. I still work to smooth out new fingerings and get technically challenging passages to flow, but my main goal is to bask in the music, and remind myself what I want people to hear when I play it.
I play slowly and appreciatively through all the music I’ll play for Carol tomorrow, and then play it all again, slowly, looking/listening/planning ahead. Occasionally I lie on my sternum-opening pillows and mental practice, but today I’m mostly making sounds.
I do a lot of slow practicing. I have always felt it was efficacious. I know others do too – a friend recently wrote me that she was going off to do some slow practice – “It usually works when other avenues have failed…” Cognitive neuroscientist Gary Marcus says slow practice is the way musicians circumvent the brain’s speed-accuracy trade-off. Marcus describes this and other skills musicians must learn in his book Guitar Zero, about learning to play the guitar as an adult. He says that usually, the faster we execute a skill, the more mistakes we make. Slow practice allows us to encode subtle motion that survives in speed. Thank goodness!
Now, I have to be honest. The evidence does not fully support the idea that I always appreciated slow practice. Mrs. Mabel Berges, my beloved childhood piano teacher, wrote “slow practice” in my notebook every week for years. I suspect this was because I didn’t do it! But one day – I think I was in 6th or 7th grade – while struggling at home with a piece I couldn’t yet play, I glanced at my notebook and saw those words, for approximately the 400th time. I thought to myself that I would practice slowly if it weren’t so boring. This provoked a cascade of thoughts that ended in me playing slowly and expressively. My life changed! Slow practice wasn’t boring at all when I played with all the dots and dashes and p’s and f’s! As a matter of fact, I could hear the music so much better that way! That is why I always urge my students to play beautifully while playing slowly. After all, aren’t we practicing slowly so we can learn to play the music the way we want?
Since I have my lesson tomorrow, I spend a little time on a performance script. It’s a Reader’s Digest version, just some notes about what I think are important about the pieces, and reminders of elements that help me play well this week. Open sternum, practicing trust, and full engagement make the cut. I have never done such a paltry performance script before. I hope it still helps.
Friday, October 3
You’re dying to know how my lesson with Carol Montparker went, I am sure. It was great! For three reasons, if you don’t count being in the presence of Carol and her lovely husband in their art-filled house. Which you really should.
Okay, the three reasons the lesson was a great experience are
Playing through almost half of my repertoire for someone I respect
Listening to the recording afterwards.
First, Carol’s comments. Every time I finished a piece, she kindly announced that it was so beautiful that she had almost nothing to say. “Just one teensy comment”. Funny thing though, we managed to fill two hours with thirty-five minutes of repertoire and her single teensy comments! Actually, most were fairly teensy. Only once did she have to stop me a couple of measures into the piece to remind me that quality of sound, not acrobatic feat, was the point. Fortunately, I was able to adjust as soon as she set me straight. Otherwise, most of her comments had to do with dynamic markings or articulations that I wasn’t fully bringing out. And what a difference they made! Whole sections hinge just on following composers’ directions.
She caught me in one hilarious rhythmic error, a result of being so traumatized by the effort to play a leaping three- chord motive in Le vent (if you have played it, you know where that is) that I took a little nap to recover before moving on. It reminded me of playing the Brahms b minor Rhapsody in high school. In practice, my scales before the return were so erratic that I had developed an alarming habit of playing them over again immediately to correct the mistakes from the first run. During my end-of-year solo recital, though, the scales went just the way I wanted – they were so clean, driven, and scary that for a moment I didn’t know what to play next. Several decades later I’m learning the same lesson: just go on.
It was so good for me just to practice performing all that music. I was thrilled that my hands barely shook. I think my reduced shaking is partly because my performance gumption is returning, and partly because I’ve figured out one reason for my shaking: when I’m nervous I tend to tense my upper torso. Why? Because I tense a bit in practice, and in performance we do more of whatever we do in practice. As I hold less in practice, I’m happy to see that I’m holding less, and shaking less, in performance.
Meanwhile, it was good for me to pick up after little errors, and to keep going on even when I wasn’t 100% pleased. I could use more work on instant forgiveness, though. In one place, I have to say I failed completely. I had a little internal temper tantrum when my left hand stumbled during a scale. Even though this scale has been beautiful at home! (I should have a pin like one of my grad school roommates had that said, “I played it better at home.” She wore it to orchestra auditions to lighten herself up). Well, there is a history here. My left hand seems to have a Pathological Shyness Syndrome. Whenever it’s the center of attention, it just crumbles. I need to give it special tender loving care as I approach its exposed passages, and I guess I didn’t do it. To be fair, it is improving, but when it stumbled I was annoyed and disappointed.
But I’m not complaining. I was there not just for Carol’s invaluable comments, but also to be reminded about things like the need to let go and move on, and where I have to put my attention in practice and performance. I’m happy about the whole experience.
From the recording, I learned several little details about quality of sound and timing that I’m able to apply right away when I practice later in the day. The coda of the first movement of the Pastorale builds up to an exciting climax, but it will be more fulfilling if I let it expand instead of giving in to the temptation to hurry. And the left hand/forearm, in its pathological shyness, tends to cringe a little away from the piano, falling into the heel of the hand instead of the keys, creating a dull sound. I know I can give it the special loving care it needs to proactively play right into the keys.
I am so looking forward to the weekend!
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.