Editor’s Note: This is the seventh 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 27
Goals for the home stretch
I have now purchased milk whose sell-by date is AFTER my recital date! That’s a sign. I have to move all-out into the end-stage preparation.
Last week, I hauled myself kicking and screaming to the piano to run through my program. Now it already feels like running the program is just what I do to start my practice day.
Today, I go so far as to record my run-through. I was easy on myself the first few days of run-throughs – it was hard enough to get myself to run through the program as it was – but today, I want myself to be responsible to a record of my efforts.
I am surprised, and pleased, to note that the recording tells me I need to focus on goals I already focus on when I am nearing a recital date:
Show the character of the piece
Create a clear pulse
Show the listeners what to listen to (voicing and phrasing)
I figure that as we near a recital date, it is unlikely that we will be able to significantly improve any technically challenging spot. What we can do is clarify our performance, so we give the music to listeners on a silver platter. We have lived with the music on our program for a long time, but they will have only one chance to take it in. We need to make it as clear as possible for them, to allow them to have the richest experience possible listening to this music that we love so much that we have dedicated months to getting to know it.
My recording device tells me a few places where my pulse is not always clear. To me, the pulse is clear if a listener would sway to it. I would like them to be able to sway from downbeat to downbeat. The wobbly pulse in the last movement of the Beethoven Pastorale even gets in the way of bringing out the character of the piece. That won’t do! Fortunately, the fix is easy and pleasant.
Listening intently, I realize there are a couple of places where my voicing or sound quality isn’t consistent. To my surprise, I haven’t decided what sound I want in the opening of Les sons et parfums. Talk about a pleasant fix! I experiment for a while, and settle on a kind of all-vowel sound, that sound like the edges are a little blurred. I love spending this kind of time with the music! I realize that I almost create a hypnotic quality in Voiles. A slightly inconsistent pulse, combined with slightly inconsistent voicing, bring it up short. Again, what a pleasant fix! I luxuriate in the sound and pulse for a while, and then I like it so much better.
There are also a few technical challenges to tweak, and a few places where my hands do not automatically move ahead to the next moment in the music. I touch those up – for quite a while! And then I call it a day.
One of my students played a recital yesterday. It was far away, so sadly I couldn’t be there – but she called to say it went well! In a recent email, she commented on how mentally and physically exhausting it is to prepare a recital. To which I can say only, oh baby! Preparing a recital is not for the faint of heart, or for the low of stamina. But what a privilege to live with these great works of art, and then share them with others.
Tuesday, October 28
Gifts that performers give audiences
One of my goals in these final two weeks of recital preparation is to remind myself what is important about playing for people. Today I’m reminding myself of the gifts that performers bring to audiences.
I recently spent a couple of years reading up on research about the effect performing has on audiences. Today I reviewed my notes. You can find a lot about these effects if you look for it! I even found one study that showed that people who listen to performances of complex music on a regular basis even live longer – their “real age” was four years younger than others of their year-age, or however they describe it. Medical research shows that music has been shown to ameliorate effects of autoimmune diseases and relieve depression. Reports of friends who attend performances, or notes that friends have received after their performances, are also inspiring. People told me about experiencing complete relief from pain of grief while listening to musicians perform, or initiating reconciliations with loved ones after hearing love expressed in music.
And a performance does not need to be perfect to give a gift to a listener. In one book I read an account of someone who turned around his life because he saw someone sing in public who wasn’t afraid to make a fool of himself. People are inspired to follow their own passions when they see that others can trip up, and still live to tell.
The beauty of it, for the performer, is that we can give these gifts to people just by living out our relationship with the music. We don’t need to know that someone in the audience needs solace from grief, or relief from depression, or inspiration from people stumbling a bit. I figure that I can provide slip-ups with no preparation whatsoever! The rest will happen naturally, as a result of my preparation, love for the music, and desire to communicate it.
But only if I allow it. Mindset is huge. That’s why today I’m thinking about those gifts performers give audiences.
Wednesday, October 29
Sleep, power poses, and running the music under less than ideal conditions
Life events are making me lose sleep. That’s a shame. Don Greene, in Performance Success, recommends we get in extra sleep as a performance approaches. Ha. And check out this article, which says we need the first half of our night’s sleep to solidify academic performance, and the second half to solidify motor skill performance. Unfortunately, it looks like I’m not getting a lot of that second half this week.
I’m trying to do a pajama run-through of every piece on my recital this week (you can read about pajama run-throughs in my very first diary entry). Today was the Debussy set that begins the second half of my program. It was lousy! Maybe it’s the sleep deprivation, but I have the jitters. My pedaling was off, I dropped notes, etc. etc. Although I kept going, reminding myself to come back to the music.
Listening to the recording, I was reminded that we do not have perspective to judge our playing while performing (not to mention that we have other things to do at the moment). The Debussy sounds quite good. Not perfect, but the essential musical message was intact, and it sounded mostly polished.
Then. I ended up spending a total of 3 hours at Best Buy trying to solve electronics problems. A lot of that time, I was doing nothing – my least favorite activity – while standing at the Geek Squad desk. The silver lining was that, standing there at the Geek Squad desk, I had a lot of time to reflect on how I could get back to a more positive mindset.
First, I thought about those jitters and thought maybe it’s time for some power poses. To learn the power of the power pose, check out this inspiring TED talk by Amy Cuddy. Today I’m particularly interested in two benefits of power poses – one was that her research shows that power poses reduce cortisol (which causes the jitters, among other things), and increase testosterone (making us feel more courageous). Her other point was that we can use power poses not to be artificially hyped up, but rather so we have the courage to bring our whole selves to any situation, instead of hiding behind a frightened mask of timidity. I have used power poses before, and they really have reduced my jitters. I just have to remember to do them! And bringing my whole self to this performance, in which I hope to continue down the path of becoming a happier performer, seems essential. Not only that, much about power poses coincides with suggestions various bodywork instructors have given me. That’s interesting all by itself.
Another train of thought I had there at the Geek Squad desk was about the slips that had disappointed me when I ran the Debussy. They really didn’t get in the way of the music, but I was in a mindset that allowed me to be bothered by them. So there at the Geek Squad desk, I pledged (anew) to accept slips. Somewhere, I will neglect to lift or depress the una corda pedal, somewhere my damper pedal will smudge notes. I will leap and miss, probably more than once. WHATever, as the kids used to say! (Do they still say that?). As I thought about the different kinds of mistakes I am bound to make, I realize that only one kind of mistake could/should/would bother me in any lasting way: a mistake I make by pulling away from the piano, or the music, out of fear. So then I pledged (anew) to commit to the piano, and the music, from beginning to end.
One more realization while I was standing at the Geek Squad desk: in the excitement of dealing with the jitters and my electronics, I never ran the last three movements of the Beethoven. Sigh.
I finally got home late, not having eaten, and needing to wash some perfumed product from my hair that’s been aggravating my sinuses ever since my haircut earlier in the day. I was very tempted to skip running those Beethoven movements. But I always tell my students, “Run your music when you’re happy, when you’re sad, when you’re energetic, when you’re tired, when you’re in a good mood, and when you’re in a foul mood.” I was in a foul mood for a lot of the day, but at that point I was just tired and hungry and sore of sinus. I decide to do it! I even tell myself that spending time with the Pastorale has to be a nice antidote to 2.5 hours at the Geek Squad desk, as well as a good opportunity to spend quality time with my new (old) pledges to accept slips and commit to the music.
I did it, and I kept my pledges. It really was a nice way to end the day.
Thursday, October 30
Inspiring messages from the world, nice comments from a friend
My recital is less than two weeks away! My ups and downs of the week reflect the nearness of the event. But the world seems to be trying to push me to a better place.
There is the pianopedagogy.org quote of the week from Marvin Blickenstaff: “This is my philosophy; I think a meaningful musical performance nourishes our souls. It is our jobs as teachers and friends and parents to nourish the souls of those around us.” So nice to think of nourishing the souls of those who listen to me play.
And here, from an email from a friend: “The Provost here at our university is a cellist who plays in our small symphony; there is no music degree program here, but several bands/choruses/orchestras are provided to students; the engineering students with all their widgits and so on tell me they need to make music and poetry to bring balance into their lives; I think of the Following the Ninth movement; my 23-year-old grandson goes into the woods to play his viola for a break from his job; and a grandson of a friend whose athletic family knew nothing of classical music surprised themselves by buying the boy a grand after several years of lessons. They are proud of him and have learned to embrace classical music study and performance. I hope you can take further inspiration from these small events and know we ALL need your performances and sharing of your music. I think the world hungers for it.”
Another friend writes, “Thinking of you preparing for the recital. I hope you just enjoy getting ready to play for your friends. I cannot wait to listen to you! Thank you for inviting me.”
All of these thoughts are heartwarming as I move through my day, running the recital and doing my slow looking/listening/planning-ahead practice.
I also play through my opening Debussy set for a lovely friend. Over Skype! I maintain my pledges to accept slips and commit to the music and the piano, and it feels great. And she says all the right things. Bruyères is warm and inviting, just like a call to gather. Général Lavine feels like, “Ok, now we’re all together, let’s have some fun.” She also finds it so funny she laughs at loud at one point. La terrasse des audiences du clair de lune feels like, “Now, let’s explore.” I love that!
I also take some time today to watch a beautiful TED talk by Brené Brown, The Power of Vulnerability. She talks about how her research in shame made her realize that vulnerability is essential to joy, creativity, and love. She observed that the people living the most fully engaged, wholehearted lives, were people who fully embraced vulnerability. They believed that what made them vulnerable made them beautiful. She encourages us to let ourselves be deeply, vulnerably seen.
Performing can feel terrifyingly vulnerable. But what if that vulnerability is the key to living the richest kind of life? And what if that vulnerability is what makes the difference between live music and recorded music? What if that vulnerability is the source of some of the gifts performers give audience members, like the sense they are not alone, or the inspiration to explore their own passions?
I believe that sharing our human vulnerability may be the key to much that is special about live performance. Brené Brown’s TED talk reminds me to embrace that vulnerability in the face of the uncertain results inherent in performance.
It has been an intense week of practicing. Tomorrow I have off since I’m teaching in New York, and I have to say it’s a relief. I’ll pick up again over 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.