Editor’s Note: This is the sixth 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 20
Good lesson, nothing’s perfect, reflecting on the benefits of a clear intention
Today I had a shock. I played the whole Janáček On an Overgrown Path for Carol Montparker straight through, and I experienced total immersion. Just as I wrote into my performance script! It’s almost eerie. The feeling I had while playing is hard to describe. First, total comfort with the instrument and the music, even though this is my first experience with that piano. Secondly, I felt the emotion of the music so keenly. I believe Carol felt it too, judging from what she said when I finished. I don’t want to quote her because it will sound like I’m boasting! But I don’t think it would be too over the top for me to mention that she said I made Janáček’s unusual musical language accessible. I can’t tell you how thrilled I was to hear that. Sometimes I fear that I might have a deep emotional experience while playing the Overgrown Path while the audience will sit baffled and increasingly resentful for thirty minutes. I now have hopes that instead, an audience can understand why I love this music so much.
I also played a few Debussy preludes for Carol, who said she has hardly anything to say about them! Just a few teensy comments! Then, after I finished the Janáček we still had some time, so I played the first movement of the Pastorale for her. It has not improved since I played it for her last, or if it has, some things have improved while others have de-proved, and she had lots to say. Every place she brought up happened to be a place where I felt awkward while playing for her, so I’m grateful to her for offering her solutions.
I have been putting a lot of attention on the Janáček, so although the Beethoven’s current state makes me a little uneasy, I mostly feel that if I bring it back into my field of attention, it will also improve. I’m feeling positive about this upcoming recital!
I am fascinated by this second personal victory in the space of five days, coinciding with something I wrote into my performance script. The first was last Wednesday, when I had the nerve to write accurate crashing chords into my performance script. And then today, I had written total immersion into my performance script, and I felt it. Although in the interest of full disclosure, I should specify that I did not feel it right away. When I started with the Debussy, I had quite a few critical thoughts and kept wondering how it was going. I kept reminding myself to let go of thoughts and come back to the music. Within a few minutes I settled into the music, and that was a relief. As I always tell my students, the comfort is in the music.
Obviously, the performance script is not handing me these victories for free. I can’t imagine the performance script working if I hadn’t practiced enough, or had a pretty clear idea of the music’s message or how to physically make it happen. Still, the performance script provides a powerful clear intention. My Feldenkrais instructor often says that the clear intention is the most important aspect of making a movement. She emphasizes that we should not worry about doing a movement correctly; we will get it eventually if our intention is clear. I wonder if something like that is at work with the performance script. After all, I could bring many goals to a performance of the Janáček. Bringing a clear intention of playing in a state of total immersion must raise that to a clear priority and make it more likely to happen. My victory last Wednesday (the accurate crashing chords) seems almost more magical, in that I had never succeeded in playing those chords accurately in performance before. Apparently, though, my practicing had been sufficient that when I provided that clear intention of playing them accurately in the performance script, it happened.
I’m not arguing!
When I get home, I listen to the recording, and the Janáček is just as beautiful as I felt it was when I was playing. The Debussy sounds better than I felt while I was playing, in general. Fortunately, nothing is perfect. It wouldn’t do to peak too soon! Not only that, I will avoid what James Loehr, in The Mental Game: Winning at Pressure Tennis, calls “The Letdown Phenomenon.” That’s the relieved and complacent state that makes people lose focus after experiencing success. It’s nice to know I don’t need to worry about the Letdown Phenomenon!
Tuesday, October 21
Shifting practice goals, more Feldenkrais adjustments
Today I am turning a corner in my practicing, and my new goal seems overwhelming. Since the recital date is coming up soon, I now feel that, instead of focusing intently on particular pieces, I should touch every note of every piece on my recital every day. I should also run substantial portions of the recital, if not the whole recital, every day. For sure, I’m going to start every day of practice with the set of Debussy preludes that will open my recital, and end every day of practice with the last movement of the Pastorale, which will end the recital.
In between, I will play everything. I don’t know why this feels so enormous. It’s only seventy-five minutes of music! And I’ve been practicing many more than seventy-five minutes most days.
I’m dreading it.
I don’t feel like the Beethoven is ready for a run-through in tempo, and I just played the Janáček yesterday for my lesson. So I start by running the Debussy set that will open my recital (Preludes 5-7 from Book 2), and proceed with playing the whole recital, slowly, looking/listening/planning ahead.
I know, I’m always bringing up the slow looking/listening/planning-ahead practice. I’ll tell you why I keep doing this kind of practice. First, my performance level rose at least three levels on the first recital for which I employed this practice technique. Then, at least three aspects of performance have changed enormously for me since I began slow looking/listening/planning-ahead practice:
In performance, I no longer find myself in an unexpected place in the music, causing me to suddenly think, “I’m here already??”
I am no longer surprised in performance by something I have to do next, like a sudden leap or sudden change in dynamics – because I have practiced planning ahead to make those leaps or dynamics.
I am no longer startled into a state of confusion when my finger slips or a note comes out too loudly or softly – because I am accustomed to listening ahead, I am now much more likely to just go on.
I proceed with slow looking/listening/planning-ahead practice on every piece in my recital. I survive it all. It probably wasn’t worth all that dread! Then I touch up a few technical spots and try out a few musical ideas.
I have a Skype lesson with my Feldenkrais instructor, Sharon Oliensis. I asked her to meet so we could go over the dastardly tremolos-with-held-notes in Janáček’s Frýdek Madonna. I think she can help me get them to feel less awkward.
Sharon makes several suggestions before we find the right combination of solutions. Shifting over to my right sit bone, making sure my jaw is loose and I feel a solid core down to the seat, feeling my breath open my left shoulder get me almost there. I continue playing one of the tremolos sections incorporating these ideas, and notice that my hand and forearm are not fully balanced into the piano. Trying to maintain the other changes, I adjust my balance into the keys, and suddenly the sound is consistent, rich, and velvety. I continue for a few measures to make sure I can maintain the changes, and then I stop. I say to Sharon, “Did you hear the sound change?” Since we have already established that she can’t seem to listen while she’s watching my movements, it’s silly for me to ask. But to my surprise, Sharon says, “Just a few seconds ago, the sound suddenly caught my attention.” I told her the sequence of events – I incorporated her ideas, and then balanced my hand and forearm better into the keys, and then voilà! Better sound. We agree that it’s a sign that the sound suddenly caught her ear.
I am happy to have new ideas to work with tomorrow, and I’m also relieved to be done with my first day of practicing everything on the recital.
Wednesday, Oct. 22
Running the whole recital, appreciation practice
When I get up this morning I know what I need to do, and it terrifies me. I need to run the recital. I feel so daunted by this that, early in the morning, I write Carol a whiny email saying basically, “Do I have to?” She responds generously that she can’t tell me what I have to do, but surely I could find an hour and a half to run the recital, and then an hour more to touch things up. She gently encourages me – “You can do it.”
I doubt that an hour will be sufficient for me to touch up whatever I need to address after running my program, but I have also calculated how much time it will take to run it, and concluded that it is childish to use time as an excuse to avoid the run-through.
I do it.
It’s awful. Miserable. I’m nervous and shaky, and the Beethoven sounds especially weak. As I’m playing, I do not experience total immersion. Instead, I debate whether I should take the Pastorale off the program. I would still be left with 24 minutes of Debussy and 29 minutes of Janáček. Yes, I have this debate while I am playing the Beethoven. No, I do not recommend this kind of thought process while practicing to perform, or while practicing in any way for that matter.
I soldier on and play the Janáček, which I now regard as my bosom buddy on the program. Suddenly I realize what the Janáček has the Beethoven does not. And I realize I can give that to the Beethoven, and my life will change. What I have given the Janáček is tender loving care for every note, and appreciation practice. You wouldn’t think I would need appreciation practice for one of the great works of art pianists have the privilege to have in our repertoire. But there it is. When I first learned the Beethoven, I did appreciation practice galore. Every minute I practiced it was appreciation practice. Unfortunately, the technical and musical challenges have gradually taken up all my Pastorale brain space and shoved appreciation aside. But no problem! I would be happy to stop worrying about all the challenges and do appreciation practice instead.
The tender-loving-care-for-every-note practice is physical as well as emotional and mental. I have a very particular feeling in my body when I fully commit to every note. My ear feels directly connected to my fingertips, and my whole body, from finger to toes, is committed to each note. My forearm and hand are comfortably rested on every note, and my upper arm and torso respond so each hand is always where it needs to be to play each note without tension. I feel like I know just how much effort and movement I need to make every sound I want. The movement is so free and focused that the resulting sound is rich and golden, and every note can be different from the last and the next.
If you’re wondering why I don’t permanently play in such a lovely state, I can tell you two reasons. One is that I have to become pretty comfortable with a piece to be able to give tender loving care to every note in tempo. The other is that, well, I get distracted. Is the accompaniment soft enough, is the bass supporting without booming, is the tempo steady, are the scales solid and reliable? I seem to have to go through a period in which I’m answering those questions rather than concentrating on tender loving care for every note.
However! After running the whole program and coming to this realization, I eagerly practice the Beethoven, and it’s easy to give tender loving care to every note! And it sounds, and feels, so much better! Worlds apart from the first run. I don’t know what this tender loving care is doing to my tempo, so I turn on my recording device and play the first and second movements. Nice! I guess I won’t drop the Beethoven from the program :-).
So. I had to haul myself, kicking and screaming, to the piano to run through my program, and it was an awful experience. But doing it made me realize just how I needed to practice the Beethoven to bring out the beauty of the piece and my love for it.
It was worth it!
Thursday, October 23
My second run-through, trying to practice so the program improves in the presence of an audience
After yesterday’s revelatory run-through, I am less daunted by the enormity of running the whole program, though I’m still trepidatious. At the same time, I’m eager to see if my Beethoven improvements have held. So I sit down and do it.
So much better than yesterday! In times past, I never would have started running the program 2½ weeks before a recital date. I’m sure this sounds silly to a lot of you (not that I know if there are a lot of you out there reading this!), but I always feel like there’s so much work to do. Therefore, the most I’ve ever run at one time before it is half of a program. But already I see the benefit of running the whole thing. Omigosh, I would not like to play the way I played yesterday morning way a week before, or a few days before. Eek. Better to know now! At least my head was clear enough that I could figure out what to do. Playing through multiple times is definitely going to become part of my performance preparation.
A friend of mine is getting ready for performance, and doing many run-throughs herself. She says she is taking the “preciousness” out of performing. I can see her point.
After the run-through, I sit down and start addressing issues that came up while I was running the program. As I anticipated, it takes more than an hour. More like four hours!
I would like to get my program, or at least most of my program, to the point, mentioned in this article, in which the performance is improved by the presence of an audience. The researchers covered in the article say this is a result of practicing long after you have learned it “well enough”. They measured how much oxygen people used at different stages of learning – apparently oxygen use correlates with mental effort – and learned that well after muscles have learned to perform a task, mental effort continues to decline as we continue to practice. They relate this to the “audience effect,” which is that when an action is simple or very well learned, it improves in the presence of an audience.
I have had the experience of playing significantly better for an audience than I play on my own. It hasn’t happened to me much, but when it has happened, it has been one of the best of all life experiences. I’ve had it mostly in late Beethoven sonatas, but it’s happened in other music too. After I sat down and started to play, I’ve sunk into the music, and soon my whole consciousness consisted of only the sound in my mind, matched by the sound in the hall. When I’ve been in this state, I haven’t even felt my hands moving on the keys. The experience is so extraordinary that I have often reflected on the component parts, so I can get back there. One component is always that I’ve always been very well prepared when I’ve had this delicious feeling. Another has been a positive mindset – thinking only easy and positive thoughts the day of the performance, for example. Finally, there is the presence of the audience. I have only experienced this other-wordly feeling when I wanted to communicate music to people. I have never felt that feeling when I played on my own, even when I played late at night in a kind of dreamy state. The audience also always seems to feel “in the zone.” When I’ve had that feeling, it’s always seemed like both the audience and I needed to surface after the music came to an end, before we all remembered our next jobs – applaud, stand up, bow.
Therefore, I am very willing to keep working on this music, even though it’s tiring to keep tweaking the program after running it.
Friday, October 24
Last week, I wrote how I use a variation of my meditation form to enhance my concentration in performance: when I think unwanted thoughts, I label them “thinking,” which helps me to let them go and return to the music. I’m accustomed to labeling my thoughts “thinking” during meditation, so it wasn’t hard for me to transfer this technique to playing a piece of music.
You can read in Diary entry V, Part 5, how it worked out for me: so well that I didn’t hear EMS techs in my performance space! Having such a success, of course I wanted to share this new performance tool with my students. I was surprised by how difficult they found it. I quizzed them in detail about their experience, trying to understand what didn’t translate. I realized it was that word, “thinking.” A lot of times they couldn’t even remember the word when they had a thought, and searching for it distracted them more than the unwanted thought they wanted to let go of. I searched around for something that would be easier to apply. Finally I hit upon, “Let go-listen.”
The results were amazing. Amazing! I’ll just tell you about the first time someone used it at the program I run, The Well-Balanced Pianist. We have performance classes at The Well-Balanced Pianist, but they’re not like performance classes in which students play and then receive coaching. The WBP participants are already receiving coaching in lessons; in the performance class, we want to make a difference in their performance experience. To that end, we write performance class participants before the session begins, to ask if they have any issues about performing that they would like to change.
One summer, a participant wrote something that made us feel she was easily distracted in performance. So the first day of the session, I went outside and sat at a picnic table with her for a bit, and gave her her own personal assignment for the performance class: she would think “let go” in response to any unwanted thought, and then, right away, “listen,” to remind herself to get back to the music. This was Thursday, and the class was Saturday, so she only had a couple of days to practice with “let go-listen” before the class.
If I recall correctly, she played Jeux d’eau. Because of a lapse in planning, neither piano instructor knew how much she planned to play before she sat down at the piano (sometimes people play excerpts if they feel that’s all they can prepare well), so I announced her and her piece slightly vaguely. Well! She played the whole thing from beginning to end, and then gushed, and gushed, and GUSHED! She gushed that she had never played that piece all the way through before, because she had always been so busy criticizing herself that she would give up before she reached the end! She gushed that she herself had no idea she was playing through the whole piece – she just kept saying “let go-listen” every time she had a thought, and was therefore in the moment right up to the end. She said that “let go-listen” was now her favorite performance tool and she was going to use it for the rest of her life!
Since then, I have always had students use “let go-listen” in response to unwanted thoughts. It works better than “thinking,” and seems to help everyone who tries it to stay present with the music, in the state I call “total immersion”.
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.