Editor’s Note: This is the fifth 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 13
Yesterday’s half-recital run-through, pajama run-through, playing for a friend
Having taught out of town on Friday, followed by a day and a half of mini-vacation visiting friends in Connecticut, I felt that I should practice a bit yesterday. It was hard! It was a beautiful day, and what I really wanted to do was sit on the deck and later go for a walk on the beach. I eventually did both sit and walk, but also I did some looking/listening/planning-ahead practice on the three Debussy preludes I will play on Wednesday for the Performers Club. Having done that, I think about how I would like to start playing through my recital every couple of days. I like to know I can play through the whole recital without embarrassing myself I am month before the recital date. I don’t know why I think it will jinx the recital if I tell you the date, but I do! So let me just say we are in the environs of that one-month mark…
So I decide that I could play through at least half the recital. I choose the first half, which consists of Debussy preludes and the whole Janáček On an Overgrown Path. It’s about 41 minutes of music. I can handle that.
And, what do you know? I really am able to do it without embarrassing myself. Most of the time it is even a pleasant experience, no scrambling or sense that there’s a lot of work I need to do. Not that there is no work to do! It just seems manageable. My concentration flags a bit in the last ten minutes or so. Maybe I need more time with those pieces, but may be it’s just that I need to keep playing through. I earned my time on the deck!
But that was yesterday, and this is today. I start the day with a pajama run-through – the activity suggested by Dr. Don Greene in Performance Success, wherein we start the day by playing through some music, without coffee or warm up. This is so empowering that I intend to do it with every piece on my recital by the time the date arrives. Today I play through the three Debussy preludes I will play for the Performers Club on Wednesday. After breakfast I listen to the recording, and, it’s not bad! I’m still giving in to some stretching in Le vent, and the opening of Bruyères is clunky, so I work on those things. Then I hop into my car and drive to my friend Kathy’s and play them through for her. They sound okay, but I wish I felt more settled – something to aim for next time. Also, I really give in to stretching in Le vent. Darn darn darn. If I had only realized from the first that I needed that little secret staccato, I wouldn’t have a habit I have to change. But I really do need to change it, so I (slightly resentfully) spend a lot of time later in the day on this one technical challenge.
In the meantime, Kathy gave me several suggestions, all excellent! Her ears are so focused. She doesn’t give me a ton of feedback, just precise ideas like places where pulling back a little more will help me to arrive at a new section more securely. She also mentions one place in which I may have to start with a higher dynamic than written in order to make the indicated diminuendo. I love her reaction to Debussy’s dynamics: “This is not reasonable.” It’s true! He wants you to play several chords plus tremolos, starting pp, and then getting softer… Who is he kidding? Actually, her comments made me realize that my problem probably starts with the previous chord, which I need to play more robustly.
I’m so grateful that Kathy’s comments are specific and musical, and give me fun things to play with that get me closer to the music.
Tuesday, October 15
“Site visit,” slow practice with music, performance script
Some interesting activities are on the agenda for today that don’t include making sounds on the piano.
First, a mental “site visit”. The site visit is one of the activities Don Greene describes in Performance Success. For the site visit, you don’t just go to the place where you will perform and try out the piano. No, you engage in a curious exercise. (Before I go on, I should say that I am recounting this as I remember it, but I last read it quite a while ago. Memory being what it is, if you want to know exactly how Don Greene describes the site visit, you need to read what he says himself!). Disclaimers aside, this is the curious exercise: you go to the back of the hall, take a seat, and imagine the music going just the way you want. After a bit, you get up and move to a different place in the hall. And another, and another, and another. I try to experience both sides, front, middle, and back. Finally, you sit on the stage and imagine yourself playing, the music going just the way you want.
The meeting tomorrow is at a friend’s house. I don’t want to bother her with a site visit, and even if I did, I doubt she has moved her furniture and put up chairs yet. However! I know the layout for meetings at her house. I set up my sternum-opening pillows and imagine moving from seat to seat in that space, the music going just the way I want. Finally, I am sitting on the piano bench, and the music is going just the way I want. This takes concentration too! Everything is requiring my concentration today! But it’s in the service of a good cause.
I have done mental site visits before. Sometimes when I travel to perform, I don’t get to see the hall or meet the piano until the afternoon of an evening recital. So far I have always been able to find a photograph of the space using Google images. It is so comforting to walk into a familiar space. Often my students can do their own version of the Google-images site visit. Our local piano teachers group has performances in just a couple of spaces. After their first performance in a space, they can do a mental “site visit” before the next.
The first time I did a site visit, I was working through Don Greene’s highly recommended 21-day countdown to a practice performance. I rolled my eyes when I read the instructions for the site visit, because the site was… my own studio! To make it feel a tiny bit more realistic, my husband and I rearranged the room and set up the chairs right before my dutiful site visit. Still, it seemed like a silly waste of time.
Au contraire, it was a revelation. I learned that day that I had never, ever, in my conscious practicing life, practiced playing the music just the way I wanted it to go. I always practiced to deal – deal with my technical difficulties, deal with difficult voicings, deal with avoiding my usual mistakes, etc. Deal, deal, deal. Following the instructions for the site visit, though, I played, played, played. It was a new and lovely experience. Ever since then, you can bet I have always done a site visit before a performance, if even just mentally. Not only that, I now incorporate the “music going just the way I want” into my slow performance-preparation practice.
Before I do the site visit, I do play the piano. I treat the three Debussy preludes I will play tomorrow to my favorite solidifying pre-performance practice, playing a little under tempo, with the music, looking, listening, and planning ahead. Looking ahead consistently requires a surprising amount of concentration. Even though I have done it many times before, it still wears me out. Still on the piano, I work on some of the Janáček Overgrown Path pieces that are less solid than the others. Then I remind myself of my best skills for playing the whirling figure in Le vent – secret staccato, rested shoulder blades, right-hand feeling open-but-not-stretched. (I always felt that Dorothy Taubman, treated these four hyphenated words as a single important word).
One more item on the to-do list, a performance script. I include all the usual things – being happy, enjoying the morning, how I will warm up, what I will try out on the piano when I arrive. I choose a few short excerpts that won’t take everyone’s piano-tryout time, but will give me an idea how to make the sounds I want in these colorful Debussy works. Then I describe how the pieces will sound in some detail. In a fit of bravado, I write this in my script for Le vent: “The crashing chords are shocking, and shockingly accurate.” !! Some nerve! We’ll see how that works out for me.
Wednesday, October 15
Debussy performance, practicing for the next event
When last we met, I had had the nerve to write accuracy into my performance script for this morning! I didn’t mention that I had also written in a “spirit of adventure”. This would mark the second time a spirit of adventure made its way into a performance script. Last year was the first, when I performed some songs with a beautiful soprano. One of them was so filled with large repeated chords that I calculated I had to play up to 38 notes per second! You better bet I trained that piece very carefully. Still, sometimes it would happen and sometimes it would not. As I was practicing for the performance, I realized that the successful runs were ones to which I brought what I finally identified as a spirit of adventure. A happy conversation with a friend, or a fun interaction with the soprano right before we ran it would make me feel light of heart and playful, and… adventurous. I would then be open, flexible, and fully engaged as I played, and it would go well. So I planned to bring a spirit of adventure to the performance, and even wrote it into the performance script. When the day of the performance arrived, I read the performance script and reminded myself about the spirit of adventure. I reminded myself about the spirit of adventure again right before we launched into the first notes of that song. As we rounded the corner to the last page of the song, I realized I was pulling it off and almost laughed out loud with the thrill of it! That song and Le vent are superficially unalike, but both require the kind of speed and precision that only an open, flexible body can muster. A spirit of adventure can’t hurt, and it helped before. Along with the plan to play those dastardly chords accurately, I am mentally armed as well as I know how.
And guess how it went. It went well! Not perfect, but I could feel by the quality of silence in the room that people were immersed in the music when I was playing my opening piece, Bruyères. Next came Le vent. I got my torso into position, rested my shoulder blades down, and made sure my right hand felt open-but-not-stretched. Then I reminded myself to bring a spirit of adventure to the next few minutes, felt the pulse, and started. Two things made me happy. The first was that I was able to express. I did not feel that I was just surviving the piece, I was crafting it, at high speed. Secondly, those chords! They were indeed very accurate! There were a couple of slips, but I believe they were more accurate than any time I had ever played them previously, except for in extremely slow practice! Not only that, I was so happy and amazed at their accuracy, that I became more and more free with each set of chords. By the last set I was just throwing my hands around. What a ride! It was hard for me to calm down to play Les sons when it was over, but I managed to play it in a way that I liked, with just one little insignificant hesitation.
I was so happy with this performance that I was almost afraid to listen to the recording and find out I was mistaken about how it went. Some comments emboldened me, though. A couple of people asked me expectantly, “Were you happy with your performance?” Nobody has ever asked me that before when I have played for the Performers Club, and I was pretty sure they meant, “You have to be happy with that performance, right?” And one person made a comment about Bruyères – “When I played Bruyères, I never realized how long the melody lasts” – that made me feel happy indeed. I have been trying to create a consistent warm sound for all of the melodic notes all the way through the A sections, and then throughout the B section, and his comment makes me feel I have succeeded.
After lunch I did the responsible thing and listened to that recording. It really was quite good! Just a couple of things… That’s good! It’s always good to have something to work for, and wouldn’t do for me to get complacent. I make a special note to practice getting “into character” the minute I start each piece. I took a little time to settle into the particular sound quality I wanted to create for both Bruyères and Les sons, and these pieces are so short you want to be fully immersed in the character from the first note.
I have just a little time to myself before I need to get on with the rest of my day, so I begin touching up the Janáček, which I will be playing for Carol Montparker next Monday, along with Général Lavine – excentric, Bruyères, and Les sons.
Thursday, October 16
Today I do not feel like practicing. It’s like I spent so much energy focusing on yesterday’s little performance-let that now something in me petulantly demands a break. I am fortunate, in that I almost always want to practice. I enjoy practicing so much that I don’t want to make it heavy by practicing when I don’t want to. For that very reason, I wouldn’t practice today, except that I have this recital date coming up, not to mention a more immediate goal of my lesson with Carol on Monday. So I feel I must practice. My state of mind reminds me of words of encouragement one of my students received from a friend: “Give yourself the gift of a great recital.” My student, describing this in an email, added “(every day in the practice room, of course)”.
Yes, every day in the practice room. I’m always telling my students that there is nothing like being “in training” at the piano; regular, focused, and plentiful practice improves our playing, and helps it becomes solid and consistent like nothing else. Courtesy of the same student, I learned this David Campbell quote, “Discipline is remembering what you want.” Although I must add that I don’t remember her saying it came from David Campbell; ahem, I found that attribution through Google. Wherever it comes from, I like it! What do I want in relation to the piano? My overall goal these days is to feel happy and comfortable performing. Which means practicing most days, even when I feel like I want a break.
Fortunately I have great music to practice. My plan is to practice Janáček today and record it tomorrow.
I am a little easy on myself when I am in this state. I don’t try to improve challenging technical passages too much, although I put in a little time so I feel better about them. Mostly, I make an extra effort to be accepting, and allow myself to appreciate the music. Believe it or not, checking my own tempo against the written metronome markings helps with this. As I mentioned previously, I am playing some of the pieces a little faster than marked, and I’m curious about the effect on the music when I slow it down. One piece feels heavy and forced at that slow the tempo, but sounds beautiful and loving at a pace in between my sprightly one and the slow marking. The others sound more rich and sostenuto at their slower tempos. They remind me of the harmonium recordings on YouTube, which struck me partly because the sound was so sustained. I double check which pieces were originally written for harmonium. All of the pieces I am slowing down and making more sostenuto today were in the original set of pieces for harmonium! Interesting.
After a gloomy deluge that lasts all morning and part of the afternoon, the sun starts to come out from under the clouds. I feel like I shouldn’t allow myself to be at the mercy of the elements like this, but suddenly I feel more perky and eager to practice more. Why not take advantage? I have another goal, which I hope I will get to even before I play for Carol on Monday: to play through the whole second half of my recital. I played through the first half last Sunday, but the second half still hasn’t had its turn. In preparation, I do slow practice on some of the more technically challenging sections of the Pastorale. Now I feel that I have really done my job for the day. Even though I started out grudgingly, today’s practicing ended up being interesting and productive.
Friday, October 17
Polishing, rethinking performance goals
Today I have two goals. One is to get my Janáček On an Overgrown Path as polished as I can for my lesson on Monday. I also need a little more review on Général Lavine – excentric. Another goal is to touch up the Pastorale so I can play through the second half of my recital soon. The larger goal is to begin touching every note of the recital every day. That probably won’t happen today, but I hope for it to begin next week.
Again, I find myself making a Reader’s Digest version of a performance script. Even a minimalist one helped before, so I feel like it’s worth it. I plan a loose jaw, and open sternum, and total immersion in the music.
I am no longer writing instant forgiveness on my list of performance goals, by the way. Instant forgiveness is important as a general goal, and probably an important step in working toward a performance. However, forgiveness, however instantaneous, still implies a thought process that involves judgment, criticism, and disappointment or disapproval. How much better it would be to skip all of that and get on with playing the music.
I have done this before. Many years ago, I learned to meditate from a book called Start Where You Are by Pema Chödrön. Meditating made my life better in many ways, and at some point, I realized I could use the form of the meditation to improve my concentration and presence in performance. The meditation form is simple and brilliant – it consists of two activities (as this is my description from having read this book many, many years ago, don’t rely on my description if you would like to learn this meditation – get the book!): 1. Concentrate on your out-breath. 2. When you find yourself thinking, label it by saying “thinking” to yourself, and let go of that thought. Concentrating on the out-breath allows me to practice being present. Labeling my thoughts “thinking” and letting go of them helps me to experience without reacting, and be present for the next moment.
When I decided to apply the meditation form to performance, I decided that instead of concentrating on my breath, I would concentrate on music. So, when I thought any extraneous thought when I was running my pieces in practice, I practiced labeling the thoughts “thinking” and bringing my attention back to the music. It’s not easy. Depending on my state of mind, and my state of playing, thoughts can come thick and fast. Not to mention that sometimes, just as when I meditate, I would forget my goal altogether and indulge in wanton thinking.
But what a difference in performance. That performance was the first time that I hadn’t been distracted by any thought that I had. One thought had always been trouble for me: “This is going well!” That would be a cue for a major stumble. I don’t like to think that I’m a superstitious person, but it felt like the very act of thinking that thought would jinx me. But it’s had no effect since I worked the meditation form into my performance preparation.
Did my concentration improve? You be the judge. During that first performance in which I used the meditation form, there was a lot of rustling while I was playing a Bach Sarabande. Every time I noticed the rustling, I thought, “thinking,” and returned to the music. I remember doing that many times in the course of that Sarabande. I forgot about it as I went on to play the rest of the first half of the recital. Then at intermission, the presenter came running up to me, and fell all over herself apologizing for the noise during the Bach. “I had no choice,” she said. “That man passed out right next to me, and I didn’t know if he was having a heart attack or what, so I just had to call 911. I knew the EMS workers were making a lot of noise, and so were their walkie-talkies, but I didn’t feel like I could ask them to be quiet while they were trying to help that man.”
You can imagine my surprise! I had registered no walkie-talkies or EMS personnel. Instead, I was having a lovely experience immersing myself in music, simply being present, or reminding myself to come back to being present.
Instant forgiveness pales in comparison to total immersion. That’s why total immersion takes the place of instant forgiveness on my list of performance goals.
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.