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Teresa Dybvig: Diary of a Return, Week 8

November 8, 2014

Editor’s Note:  This is the eighth 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, November 3

Report on the weekend’s run-through, practicing goals for the final week


Six days to go!  Yes, the recital is coming up fast.  Therefore, over the weekend, I previewed all the pianistic activities I will engage in next weekend.


The 21-day countdown from Don Greene’s book, Performance Success, changed my last two days of recital preparation forever.  He suggests little or no physical practice those two days.  In contrast, I used to practice around 6 hours the day before a recital, and at least 3 hours the day of a recital.  Unsurprisingly, I always felt fatigued even before the recital began.  I like this system so much more.


Therefore, this past Saturday, I did a mental practice of the whole recital, just as I plan to do next Saturday.  On Sunday, I previewed my recital day.  In the morning, I calmly reviewed technically challenging sections.  I learned that this takes about an hour and a half, which is good to know.  Somehow I think Don Greene would suggest that I find a way to whittle down that time, though.  I’ll think about that.  Then I did some shopping, which I probably will not do next Sunday, but I will do some cooking and organizing for the reception, so that’s not too different.  Maybe I’ll even get out and take a short walk if the weather permits.  About an hour before the recital start time, I sat down and started every piece, starting from the last and ending with the first.  I learned that the starts take about forty-five minutes, so I will want to start that about an hour and 15 minutes before start time.  I’ll need to get dressed and vacate the studio about 30 minutes prior to the recital so my audience can move in!


Then, I ran my recital at the very same time I will play it next Sunday!  For a very important audience of one, my husband.  He also recorded it on both audio and video devices.  It’s not like having an audience of twenty-five, but I felt responsible to the audience, the recording devices, and the music.


It went okay!  If I play like that next Sunday, I will be satisfied.  I was able to sink into the music for a lot of the time.  During the second half, we did some media experiments that involved my computer, and the fan made an incredible racket.  I admit I was distracted.  I kept wondering how it was going to be for the audience members sitting close to it if we decided to use it.  Then I would convince myself to let go and come back to the music!  Not easy.  Therefore, there were more slips in the second half, but as I have pledged to accept slips, I accepted them and moved on.  You have to honor your pledges.


Today it’s back to intensive practicing.  Ideally, I would do four kinds of practicing every day this week:


  1. Running the recital from beginning to end

  2. Playing through the whole program slowly, with the music, looking/listening/planning ahead

  3. Starting every piece and every movement comfortably and in character, feeling the pulse and creating the unique sound of that piece from the very beginning

  4. Calmly reviewing technically challenging sections


I say that ideally I would like to do all these kinds of practicing every day.  Realistically, that’s a lot to expect, if only because of the time required.  For this recital, I’m going to continue running the recital every day through Thursday.  I am learning a lot from running the recital, and it’s helping me feel like it’s less of a big deal.  If I can then accomplish either the looking/listening/planning-had practice or the review of technically challenging sections and starts, I will be happy.


Today, my friend Anna may call me to listen to more of my recital over Skype.  Therefore, I start my day with the looking/listening/planning-ahead practice.  I even find a little time to go over some technically challenging sections.


Anna does manage to call me after her son goes down for a nap!  I am able to play the whole Beethoven, and almost all of the four Debussy preludes that will start the second half of my recital before he wakes up.  I am pretty jittery, but I concentrate and love the music, and it goes all right.  Not perfectly, so I still don’t need to worry about peaking too soon.   🙂   She really does say all the right things again.  I feel reassured that my slips are truly insignificant, and that the music is speaking.  She is a wonderful musician, so her comments are deeply validating.  Thank you, Anna!


Tuesday, November 4
Avoiding negative self-talk, choosing 1-4 goals for my performance script


I seem to be maturing.  This morning as I ran my recital, I found myself in an old, counterproductive posture, and simply got out of it when I realized what was happening.  I did not indulge in time-consuming self-recriminations.  That’s how I know I’m maturing.  In the past I would have felt disappointed and maybe even defeated, and maybe had a few choice words about myself, depending on my mindset du jour.  This time, I simply reflected that it wasn’t surprising to find myself in that posture, and I was happy I could improve upon it.


This old, counterproductive posture is hunched and armored.  It’s not surprising to find myself in it, as I lived there until I was about 30 years old.  I was such a shy child that it was only natural for me to curl up into a protected shape.  It is not optimal for playing the piano, though, so with the help of bodywork experts I’m working to open up.


I was also able to identify specific characteristics of that posture, and of its more optimal alternative.  I can bring this information to practice and performance.  The better posture has a lot of softness, flexibility, and length between the jaw and elbow.  The old posture is more rigid in the shoulders and jaw.  Also, my first sensation when I started playing in that old posture was that I could not balance and release into the keys.  I felt like I could not connect to the piano.  So now I know that if I feel I cannot connect, or if I feel rigid in the shoulders and jaw, a solution may be to get more length between the jaw and elbow.


Another piece of good news is that I was in that old uncomfortable posture for a comparatively short time before I recovered.  I take that as a good sign.  Why not?


Still, I would prefer to play my recital in the more flexible posture.  To that end, I practice starting every piece, with that nice soft length from jaw to elbow, connecting to the piano, feeling the pulse, hearing the sound, and feeling the character of the piece from the very beginning.  It’s a rewarding way to practice.  Then I review some technically challenging passages, still in that more flexible posture.


With five days to go, I have to start working on my performance script.  The performance script is one of the best performance preparation tools I’ve taken from Dr. Bill Moore’s Playing Your Best When It Counts: High Performance Journal.  This script is a detailed description of both the day of the performance and the performance itself.  I’m going to spend a lot of time this week deciding the 1-4 goals he allows me.  I encountered this idea of carrying only a few goals into performance a couple of decades ago.  I believe this came from James Loehr, although I couldn’t find it when I looked just now.  I wish there were a special place in my mind for references I will want at a later date!  Anyway, I believe it was Loehr who said that if a player went into a game thinking, “This is the decisive moment.  Everything has to be right,” the game is doomed.  A goal like that is too vague and too big.  If a person went into a game with a goal like, “Make sure my feet are set well for every backhand,” everything else would jiggle into place, as it must, if the feet are to be stable for every backhand.  Ever since I read that, I have limited myself to 1-4 goals for every recital.  Not only that, I tell myself that if I make those goals about 92% of the time, I won.  I’m not allowed to complain about anything else that doesn’t go the way I want.  I’ve written this into the “Performance Preparation” sheets I have made for students too.


Things really do jiggle into place when I find the right goals.  For one recital several years ago, I chose only one goal, which was to always play with a beautiful sound, even in ff or fff.  I know how to release into the keys to create a beautiful sound in high volume, but sometimes my excitement got the better of my sound.  Things really did jiggle into place when I chose that goal: that was the most accurate recital I have ever played.  People even commented on my accuracy afterwards!  I had to laugh and tell them it was anomalous.


So I’m going to put a lot of thought into my recital goals for Sunday.  I already know what one will be: that feeling of loose length between my jaw and elbow that I found today.


Wednesday, November 5

Being happy, being grateful


Four days to go!  At this point, I figure the two best things I can do for myself are to remain happy and well-rested.  I am sleeping well, which I take as a good sign.  When I first started doing even tiny performances after recovering from harmful effects of a medication, I had a lot of trouble letting go of the music I was about to perform long enough to sleep.  This week, I feel encouraged because I can summon the discipline to sleep.  It gives me the chance of being alert at my recital, and the hope that I will bring the same mental discipline to the recital.


I figure that happiness is also my responsibility.  Not only am I responsible for the way I interpret the events in my life, but also, I can manage my life so I engage in activities that make me happy.  Yesterday, I took a walk on the beach, and I saw a fox!  It was in its lush winter coat, deep russet with white tail tip. Gorgeous.

I am also making a special effort to practice enjoying the music on my program.  Like everything else we want to happen in performance, I’m pretty sure we have to practice enjoying the music, as opposed to worrying and fussing, if we are to enjoy it in performance.


I’m also consciously practicing gratitude.  Spending some time consciously reviewing all the reasons we have to be grateful keeps us positive.  In the daily practice journal from his Playing Your Best When It Counts: High Performance Journal, Dr. Bill Moore includes the question, “What am I most thankful for today?”  And according to researcher Dr. Robert Emmons, practicing gratitude brings us a host of benefits, including alertness, optimism, and lower blood pressure – all positives in preparing for a recital.


One way to practice gratitude is to make gratitude lists, or keep a gratitude journal.  This week I am making myself a gratitude list.  I have a good life, so I only need to point my mind in that direction and the gratitude flows.  It includes Beethoven, Debussy, and Janáček, of course!  Then, other forms of art – visual arts, dance, textiles, etc.  The beauty of nature.  Gardens!


Great systems of knowledge – the Feldenkrais Method, the Taubman approach, Iyengar Yoga, and devoted teachers of all those methods.  Artist teachers.  Creative and knowledgeable doctors, good health, health insurance!  And not to forget my fantastic piano technician, and performance coaches who encourage us to practice gratitude!


This train of thought brings me to all the wonderful people in my life.  My husband, first and foremost.  Words cannot express how much he brings into my life.  My students!  The way they work with the tools I give them inspires me, and their seeking questions push me to be my best.


Finally, my friends!  The people who enrich my life are spread far and wide.  And, did I tell you about my audience?  Just this one time, for this one recital, as I try to get back into performing shape after these difficult years, I decided to play a house concert and only invite loving friends.  I even told them so!  When I invited them, I invited them to a house concert for people who will love me no matter what.  Then I backpedaled by saying that, unconditional love being a rather high bar, it was actually a house concert for people who would support me on my piano journey even if I played a lousy concert that day.  This quip prompted some to touchingly promise me unconditional love and support no matter what.


I am particularly grateful that, even though I have filled my studio with just about as many loving and supportive people as it can hold, there are still more loving and supportive people in my life whom I would like to invite.  When I reflect that I knew only one person when I moved here, I am truly grateful for all these loving friends in my life.


Making my gratitude list really does make me feel more lively and alert!  Good thing – I need to go shopping for the reception.  🙂


Thursday, November 6

Feeling the responsibility, help from Feldenkrais, mindfulness in practice


Three days to go!  To be honest, while part of me is looking forward to the event, another part is looking forward to it being over.  I feel so responsible.  Even though I’m practicing enjoying the music, there is also a lot of practicing to do.  As well as enjoying the recital, I want to play my best, and I feel responsible to that goal every minute of my practice day.  I remember this from previous performances – the feeling of being responsible to the music, and to the audience.  I feel so responsible at this juncture that the performance comes as a relief.  Even though I would think the actual performance brings the greatest responsibility, I find it a relief to play that day without being responsible for the next time.


Today I start with running the recital.  This will be my last run-through.  When I have just two days to go, slow practice feels like putting gas in the car, and running the program feels like using it up.  I have to say, though, that these nine times I have run the program have been invaluable.  This performance preparation tool is a keeper.


When I take a break, I do a Feldenkrais lesson my teacher Sharon Oliensis recommended for me.  My legs and hips (of all things) have been sore.  Sharon also thinks that if I do a Feldenkrais lesson every day, I’ll be so much more comfortable and focused that I’ll feel like I have more time in the day.  Well, the lesson was amazing.  When I played through all my pieces slowly afterwards, I felt so much more mobile and comfortable.  But Sharon, about the other part… I did not feel like I had more time in the day!  Too bad.


I just want to say one more word about slow practice:  mindful.


OK, I’ll fill in a bit more!


I realize that I mention slow practicing a lot, and I don’t want you to think I’m referring to mindless slogging away to improve “muscle memory”.  Practicing has to be mindful to be meaningful.  To that end, I always try to have an overall goal in mind when I practice anything, slow or fast.  Early on in the process of learning a piece, it might be something general like moving comfortably from note to note, or being sure to flow from section to section without stuttering.  Close to the performance date, my overall goal might be to bring out the story line of every piece on the program, or to ask myself what I would like listeners to feel or hear in every section, and bring that out.  For integrating a particular change, I love “one-goal practices” in which I focus on a particular goal and allow other elements to slip away if necessary.  Goals could be in any arena of playing – expression, mindset, technique, or body movement.  One-goal practices I’ve used while preparing this recital (to name just a few) include letting go of thoughts to return to the music, always making a free preparatory movement to play 5, always feeling movement from downbeat to downbeat, and keeping my sternum open and flexible.  A more general slow practice goal would be something like creating a signature sound for every section, or, relatedly, making sure the layers of voices are consistent in every phrase.  As I approach a performance, I do a lot of my looking/listening/planning-ahead slow practice.  This isn’t easy, and it shouldn’t be easy when we do it right – always looking ahead in the score, always listening for the next sound we want to make, always planning the next movement or effect.  But we’re trying to play well, right?  A little hard work is part of the deal, and this is hard work that yields enormous benefits.  This week, I’m doing looking/listening/planning-ahead slow practice on the whole program every other day.


For more on mindful practice, I recommend Bruce Berr’s ad lib column from the October 2014 edition of American Music Teacher.  In this article, The Art of Repetition, he discusses the importance of variation when repeating.  We have to repeat every part of a piece a lot in order to make it smooth, expressive, and performance-reliable.  We do not ever have to play it the same way.


I do a little more shopping for the reception, and call it a day.  I’ve been responsible, and now I want to let up.


Friday, November 7
Last day of practicing, program notes


Two days to go!  Today I do three kinds of practicing:  my looking/listening/planning-ahead slow practice, starts (starting every piece in character, steady pulse, and desired sound from the beginning), and review of technical passages.

One activity always helps me as a performance nears: going through every piece and asking myself what I want people to feel, or see, or imagine, as I play the piece.  I’ve noticed that very few people imagine my story when I perform, but if I try to bring out my own story, they imagine something.  The music takes them somewhere, which I think is one of the greatest gifts performers give listeners.  And a local pianist recently told me about a study showing the difference between what happens in the minds of musicians of various levels in performance.  Apparently, beginning musicians concentrate on how-to in performance, more experienced musicians have a combination of how-to and story in mind, and the mental space of master musicians is filled with story in performance.  This motivates me even more to dedicate time to clarifying my stories for myself.


Today I take advantage of making my program notes to steal some extra story time with the music.  I don’t share all my stories on the program notes, as I don’t want people to think my story is the only “right” story.  I want to give people enough guidance to open them up to listen in their own way, without making anyone feel there is a “right” thing to hear.  I do share ideas that come from the music, the titles, or the history of the composition.


Here are some images and stories I want to bring out in performance:

In the Debussy Preludes, I hear the beauty of the moors in springtime, a musical choreography of a vaudeville act (mock drumroll and bugle call that open the curtain, jaunty yet inebriated stroll in the park, failed seduction, and a few outrageous bows before the protagonist is dragged offstage), mysterious images through the fog (including elephants!), a sensual but restricted woman built into a column, who comes to life for a brief moment, a hypnotic whole tone bath, and wind swirling dry leaves, and sometimes causing even more havoc, as it races through the plains and eventually subsides.


Janáček’s On An Overgrown Path comprises ten musical poems about love and loss.   Janáček compiled the set after the death of his daughter from typhoid.  In these pieces, I hear fond memories touched by sadness, a child at play, a prayerful plea answered, a sad person surrounded by lively chatter, the state in which it’s impossible to complete a sentence, grief that comes out in stricken sobs, silent tears, and love.  The last piece of the set, The barn owl has not flown away!, references a folk superstition that equates the barn owl with death.  The barn owl theme that starts the piece alternates with a village procession.  Eventually, the barn owl theme infiltrates the procession, showing us that death is never far away.


[Incidentally, you can tell from this piece that despite his love of the country, Janáček did not know his owls.  What he told his editor was the sound of a barn owl (the motive of falling 3rds and repeated notes) sounds nothing like a barn owl.  The barn owl emits a scratchy hiss worthy of a creature in a Harry Potter film.  If you listen to the sound online, you’ll understand why people associated it with death, especially if they walked into a barn and heard the cry before they knew the bird was there.]


For the Beethoven Sonata, op. 28 (“Pastorale”), I reflect on Beethoven’s love of the countryside.  My story for the first movement has evolved as I live with the piece.  It used to be about forest sprites, who became mature, middle-aged forest sprites!  Now I feel the piece more as a soundtrack, or “feelings-track,” if I may make up a word, about feelings evoked by nature.  In the second movement, I imagine forest sprites gathering with tears in their eyes as they watch a diligent man with a secret tragedy, and only one bright spot in his life, trudge away at his tasks at the edge of the forest.  The youthful forest sprites become restless, and erupt into practical jokes in the third movement.  Good-natured humans have their own kind of fun in the last movement, and all come together in the finale.


Thinking about these stories reminds me what’s important about performing on Sunday.


Saturday, November 8

Mental practice, performance script, site visit


One day to go!  I am not planning to touch the piano today.  In times past, I would have sat practicing at the piano six hours today, but after I read in Don Greene’s Performance Success that he recommends no physical practice the day before and day of, I tried it, and I like it so much better.

That’s not to say I’m not practicing.  I mentally practice the whole recital from beginning to end, with the score.  To make sure I’m present, I look and listen ahead.  In the spirit of the site visit, I make the effort to hear and feel the music going just the way I want.  This isn’t so easy.  I have to let go of the feeling of “making sure” in all sorts of ways.  It brings me closer to the music, though, so it’s worth it.


Ahem, about that site visit…  On Thursday night my husband and I set up my studio so I could do the site visit yesterday.  Maybe it was because my fantastic piano technician spent a couple of hours in there Friday morning, but… I neglected to do that site visit.  I don’t remember even thinking about the site visit.  This is a shame.  The site visit is invaluable, and doing it a couple of days ahead is invaluable.  If you are my student, this is a good moment to do as I say and not as I do!


In addition to mentally practicing my entire program with the score, I also have cooking and housecleaning to do, as well as exercising and some Feldenkrais work.  Still, I do get to that site visit.  I enter my own studio, with chairs set up for the audience, and piano in recital position.  I sit in the back left corner, imagining the music going just the way I want.  I move to the middle of the back, and the back right.  I can spend time in every row because the studio isn’t that big!  Eventually, I am sitting on the piano bench, imagining the music going gloriously just the way I want.  The music-going-just-the-way-I-want part is the most important part of this activity.  The first time I did the site visit, it was a revelation.  That’s why I’m fitting it in, albeit a little late in the game.


I also put the finishing touches on my performance script.  Most of the performance script is already written, but I take my time finishing it up.  If I do it well, it will set me up for a good day when I read it tomorrow morning.  My 1-4 goals may be the most important part.  I always wait until the week before a performance to choose the goals.  They tend to be ephemeral, cues that happen to help me play my best that week.  Here are the goals I settle on:


  • Total commitment

  • Length jaw to elbow

  • Sit up (stomach out)

  • Enjoy every moment


I choose total commitment because the one thing I want more than anything else is to stay with the music and the piano, not pulling away for a second.  This goal has an unwritten implication of letting go of extraneous thoughts returning to the music.  The length from jaw to elbow is the cue that helps me physically play the most freely this week.  Sitting up with my stomach out is necessary for me to maintain that length.  (My Feldenkrais instructor can be quite passionate about not sucking in the gut and freezing all the muscles in the center of the body.  The day I first experimented with sticking my stomach out, my sound improved and my octaves sped up).  It takes a lot of nerve to write “enjoy every moment” into my performance script, but why not?  I mean it as in loving the music all the way through.  This is one of my goals, and I want to say it “out loud”.  It goes onto the list.


I place a few reminders into several places in the performance script – a reminder that it’s live music, a reminder to reset the loose length from jaw to elbow, to enjoy every moment of each piece.  Several times, I insert this reminder:  “Anything that goes other than I prefer is a cue to reset, release, and return to the music.”  I hope this will help me recover quickly from any slips.  Nearly everything else on the performance script is a detail I feel will help me bring out the spirit or story of each piece.


I’ve prepared every way I know how, these past weeks.  That’s all I can do.  Tomorrow, when I do my best to share the music with dear friends, I will find out how it works for me.

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.

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