Editor’s Note: This is the fourth 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, October 6
Incorporating comments and observations from last week’s lesson, and technical work, and music review
The first item on my practice agenda is to review the music from last Friday’s lesson, incorporating both Carol’s comments and my own observations from the recording. Fun! The music is really starting to “speak”.
My right hand felt stretchy after I played Le vent on Friday, so I look at the recurring whirling figure. I realize I must incorporate a gentle staccato between the thumb and fourth finger. I previously thought that with good under-over shaping I could play it with a true legato, but that stretchy feeling is telling me that was overly optimistic. I have to concentrate on several levels – playing without the pedal and listening for the staccato, feeling the left hand and right hand cue one another, and feeling that nice, comfortable feeling that indicates an absence of stretching. I know I will have to do this for a while. Darn. Habits are much easier to establish than to change. The good news is that my hand feels so much better after this work that I feel certain this is a good step.
Then there is the first movement of the Pastorale. There are two technical issues to address. One is that left hand scale passage that disappointed me on Friday. Then there is the development, where I changed several left hand fingerings a few days before the lesson.
At Carol’s suggestion, I am lightening up the tremolos in the inner voices that precede the scales. That already helps my hand feel set for the scale. Then I make sure to breathe before the difficult passage. A pianist friend of mine who also teaches Alexander once advised one of my students to make a very soft hissing sound to ensure she exhales if she finds herself holding her breath during a piece. Fun fact: if you exhale fully, you will inhale. The lungs are built to expand once emptied, so unless our lungs are damaged, all we need to do to keep breathing is to exhale. I try this before my scale, and it is quite calming. It reminds me of a trick I have used previously, to “practice out the panic” that sets in right before a difficult passage. I never broke down the components of practicing out the panic; my goal was only to approach the passage without the mental and physical clutch that made it more difficult. I wonder if, unbeknownst even to myself, part of that clutch was holding my breath. Whatever the case, thank you, Renée!
The fingering change requires another solution. I noticed on the recording that, although I changed the fingering in the left hand only, it is the right hand who is stumbling. This reminds me of my very favorite tool for integrating new technical changes into a passage. I don’t know why I didn’t think of this already!
Don’t roll your eyes when I say I use mental practice. I know, I keep bringing up mental practice. This is different, though. This is how to use mental practice for the situation in which you have made a technical change, to only one hand, in a passage that is already learned. You probably noticed the tendency of both hands to just play their same old way when you put the hands back together. This is how to circumvent that tendency: physically play one hand while mentally practicing the other. Then switch. I don’t know if it matters which one you play physically the first time around, but I like to start with the one in which I made the technical change so I can monitor the change.
It’s not easy! I take this as a hopeful sign. If it were easy, I wouldn’t be changing anything. I have to go through the passage several times both ways in order to fully mentally practice the non-playing hand. Then I play hands together. Even though I knew I must be making changes to my hard physical-plus-mental practice, I am not prepared for how much more secure this passage feels. It feels so much better it’s hard to put into words. It’s like it feels simultaneously more automatic and more present.
That’s not it for the day, though. I’m determined to record the whole Janáček again, more successfully, on Thursday. So I work through the last half of the set, mindfully listening and paying attention to beginnings and endings. Tomorrow I will record it.
Tuesday, October 7
Recording Janáček, recording Debussy, practicing more Janáček
I have a few goals for the next couple of weeks. One is to play a set of Debussy preludes at the next Performers Club meeting, next Wednesday. Another is to record the whole Janáček Overgrown Path on Thursday. Therefore I am relying on my recording device a lot this morning. A larger goal is to begin playing through the whole recital. I like to know I can play through a solo program without embarrassing myself by a month before the performance date. Coming up…
I start by recording next week’s Debussy and then listening to it. Not bad! Not entirely to my liking, but I think I can get it into shape by next week. One of them, Les sons et les parfums tournent dans l’air du soir, has not gotten enough attention. I give it more attention. I give all of them more attention. It is a pleasure to get the music to sound like I have always played all of the voluminous expression markings Debussy wrote into the score.
Then I turn my attention to reviewing, and then recording, the last five Janáček that I worked on yesterday. Not bad! I still hope to improve them, so I set to work. Unsurprisingly, the newest contain the most interruptions in the flow. They just need more time, so I give them some more time.
I was so happy with yesterday’s results of playing one hand and mentally practicing the other that I try it again with some other technically challenging passages in my program. In most places, the improvement is not as extreme as where I made the, but one changes a lot. Le vent feels comfortable and… nice!
To be honest, I wish I could stop there. I feel tired and I am behind on correspondence, not to mention vacuuming. But I have some extra time today, and I have ambitions for the week. So I get to work on the first half of the Janáček. I play it slowly with tender loving care.
It’s not hard to muster tender loving care for this music. On an Overgrown Path is a set of ten musical poems about love and loss. Reading up on the piece, I learn that Janáček wrote to his editor that the music contained reminiscences about the life and death of his daughter. Some pieces were written before her death, but he indicated that some were about her suffering and death. Titles like Unutterable anguish and In tears, both written after his daughter’s death, give what I think is a clear indication of the inspiration for those pieces. Good night!, written before she died, requires more imagination. I can’t help but think that he included the others because they had some quality that he associated with his love for his daughter. It’s not just the back story that’s compelling, though. The music is gorgeous, emotional, gripping, intense. Not to mention that if having a unique and compelling language is the mark of a great composer, then Janáček is a great composer. I marvel that, although I heard some fellow student play the Chopin f minor Ballade every single semester of my long post-secondary adventure in piano performance, I never heard even one piece by Janáček. Especially shocking considering that even in a fatigued state, it’s a luxury to immerse myself in these pieces.
There is one hitch, though. I seem to be responding to musical intensity with physical tension. Instead of changing the speed and weight with which I move through the point of sound, I am tempted to push to the bottom. I address this a bit today, and intend to get to it more tomorrow.
Wednesday, October 8
Reviewing, recording, reviewing, recording
Lots of recording in store for me today. I want to record the first half of the Janáček as well as the three Debussy pieces I’ll play at the Performers Club next week.
First I work on de-intensifying my approach to the first five Janáček pieces. While I’m at it, I incorporate some improvements I’ve made in the last few years to my left thumb and fifth finger (I always feel like my 5 and 1 are in cahoots). When I’m ready, I sit down and record the whole first half of the set.
Guess what? I actually like most of it! But I’m stunned to realize that I have misunderstood They chattered like swallows all along. I’ve been thinking of it as driven, fierce, and sweeping. As I listen to my recording while looking at the music, I don’t like what I’m hearing. My dissatisfaction is not new, but what is new is that suddenly I know everything I need to do. Slow it down (ahem, to closer to the metronome indication), and fully incorporate the implied accent on the second beat of every measure (a tie on the double-stemmed note that holds it through the next measure). Then, lighten up the accompaniment more instead of having both hands join equally in a driven sound. The texture never did support the sound I was trying to create – always a huge hint that I’m on the wrong track.
I like it so much better when I make those changes.
Now it’s time for Debussy. This is the set I am planning to play next Wednesday morning: Bruyères, from Book 2, and Le vent dans la plaine and Les sons et les parfums tournent dans l’air du soir from Book 1. Poor Voiles has again been left off due to time constraints. It’s a shame, but on the bright side, it means a lot of people are prepared to play, which is good for the club.
I’m starting with Bruyères because I will start my recital with it. I’m going on to the other two because they are new, just learned and memorized at the end of August. As I’ve been practicing Bruyères, I’ve been able to get a certain warm and friendly sound that I think is just right for the piece. I’m also trying to play it in a leisurely fashion, never hurrying except in one place, measure 28. Even there, I hope to make it more of an excited crescendo than a little rush. There are only a couple of measures of pp in this piece, so I keep my foot off the left pedal.
Le vent dans la plaine has that pesky stretchy right hand figure, so I remind my hand of its secret staccato. I’m thrilled to hear that the sound is becoming more consistent. Those dastardly chords seem to be coming along, too! Phew Not that I’m planning to celebrate yet. I will probably be working on these technical issues right up to the day of the recital. That’s okay. It’s worth it, a fun piece full of great sound effects. As I practice it today, I conclude that it’s about a windy day in the winter. The four-note alternating minor 7th and half-diminished chords are the hint. All those Gb’s and Bb’s make them silvery-blue and wintry.
Les sons et les parfums tournent dans l’air du soir, on the other hand, is languorous, sultry summer. Since it has received the least attention up to now, I give it a lot of attention today. I set an internal alarm so I pay close attention to every place my hands hesitate to look for the next note, or when they don’t change sound quality the moment a new motive begins. Without the alarm, it’s easy to become accustomed to little glitches, and think on some barely conscious level, “Oh, that’s just the way I play.”
I set up that recording device again, and play all three Debussy. Improving! I want to play with the pedal some more in Le vent. And I realize that while the right hand figure is less stretchy, it has also become less even. You gotta think of everything! Well, thank you, recording device, for letting me know. I’ll work on it tomorrow.
Thursday, October 9
Playing for an audience, recording, improving, checking out YouTube videos
I think I found the final piece of the puzzle of how to play that RH whirling figure in Le vent! Not to jinx it! But as I experimented today, an observation floated at the periphery of my mind, that my arm was having to move an awful lot. And I know what that means: another part isn’t doing its part. I gently add a little more activity at the front of my hand, and now everyone else can move less, and it sounds more even. And it feels better! All pluses.
The discovery came after I played next week’s three Debussy preludes for my husband and my recording device. Not bad for the first time with someone else in the room. As I was playing, I felt hasty, but I don’t hear hastiness in the recording. I can tell by the playing time that I’ve played something faster than usual, but the music sustains this tempo. It’s a good reminder to work with whatever happens in performance.
My recording device tells me what will make the performance better, so I get to work. Along with my discovery about the whirling figure in Le vent, little sound and dynamic clarifications will help Bruyères speak. Les sons requires some attention to pedal and flow. This mysterious piece is a collage that rarely settles into one message or image for more than a few measures at a time. Just sounds and perfumes swirling through the evening air. I feel there is also a feeling associated with each sound and perfume – never heavy or even fully felt – more like in a daydream, or those weird thoughts before sleep. I try to hint at these while I’m playing.
Now to Janáček. I feel okay about the recordings I’ve already made, so instead of taking the time to record the whole thing, which soon I will be doing frequently, I work on observations from previous recordings. I do record They chattered like swallows with my new changes. I like it!
Janáček composed some of these Overgrown Path pieces originally for harmonium. I wonder what that means in terms of the sound, so I google “Janáček harmonium youtube”. What do you know? There are videos of someone playing two Overgrown Path pieces on harmonium! Which is a different instrument than I thought (maybe I shouldn’t admit that publicly, but may as well be honest. Did you know what a harmonium was?). I imagined a hand-held instrument, but no, it’s a standing keyboard – this one is double-manual – a kind of reed organ worked by a bellows. I am first captivated by how difficult it looks to play. Apparently the feet are working the bellows, both to maintain the sound and also to create a bit of dynamic variation. Sometimes the performer plays on both manuals with one hand. Yikes. Meanwhile, the music sounds so different from on the piano. Even though the performer is assiduously changing stops, and playing on two manuals, I hear very little difference in sound color and none in dynamics. Maybe it’s the quality of the recording, but it seems that even with the choice of about ten stops, this instrument has less tonal variety than a good piano. Maybe a bigger contrast is how sustained the sound is. Some of the pieces originally written for harmonium have notes that are tied for days, and on the harmonium they sound as strongly at the end of the tie as when they are first played. On the piano, of course, they die out frustratingly quickly. I’ve put a lot of thought into those long tied notes, wondering if I should replay them at some point, play them extra loud at first, or let them go as they die away. I’ve had… feelings… about Janáček in regard to these tied notes. Why did he bother us with them? Some force the hand into awkward positions – like when the left thumb has to hold a tied note for about two minutes while the rest of the hand plays tremolos! Good grief. These harmonium recordings don’t help me decide how to deal with those ties, but at least I understand them now.
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.