Editor’s Note: These are Teresa Dybvig's reflections on her diary entries describing strategies for preparing for an upcoming recital after a long break from performing. For more about The Well-Balanced Pianist, click on this link:
As I look back on all my Diary entries, I can see two things that helped me achieve my goals: the fact that I knew from the beginning what I wanted, and the fact that I consistently used every tool I knew of. I believe that having a clear, specific goal helps us achieve the goal, and that we have to make an effort to use the tools we know, and not practice our same old way.
What did I want? As I gradually emerged from some years dominated by poor health, I had been creeping toward my main goal, to become a performer again – for a few years there, I hardly practiced, and only performed occasional duets. As my energy returned, I played increasingly frequent small performances. It occurred to me last March that if I wanted to return to playing professional performances, I would have to up the ante. Thus was born the idea of playing a full-length house concert for a small, supportive audience.
I chose repertoire that I love, of course, and I also avoided repertoire that was overtly virtuosic. One step at a time! Still, the music was rich and challenging. Some of it was more challenging than I anticipated! That was good for me. I don’t think I would bring my whole self in quite the same way to repertoire that was simple to play and understand.
I also wanted to prepare and perform happily, in contrast to my tense and anxious approach of old. I had been on that course before my forced break from performance, and I felt that if I was smart, I would take advantage of the break to complete the process. Stating that clear goal to myself was important.
Fortunately, I have a lot of tools. I’ve gathered them for myself, for my students, and for participants in the program I run, The Well-Balanced Pianist (my colleagues there, particularly Susan Nowicki and Judy Huston, have also made invaluable contributions to my toolbox). I pledged to myself to use them assiduously! I once skimmed a book called High Energy Living, in which author Robert Cooper offered his five-step process for dealing with stress. All of the steps were useful, but the last one made a particular impression: “Call upon your best self.” Instead of giving in to frustration or falling into old habits just because they are familiar, we can choose to take the best route, even if it takes concentration or discipline. Sometimes I think the people I admire the most are those who most consistently bring their best selves to every situation.
Well, my best self knows a lot about getting inside the music, and what kind of mindset shift we need to make the transition from practicing well to performing well. My best self even knows a lot about practicing and performing happily.
I don’t know why it’s such a challenge to honor what we know. It must require some discipline that is hard for humans to come by. Maybe it’s because it requires us to change habits, or maybe it’s just because it requires us to be alert and not revert to auto-pilot. I think this is one reason real practicing and performing is good for us – if we think of that discipline to honor what we know as a muscle, then practicing and performing sure does give it a workout!
I knew I had to honor all I know, and bring my best self to practicing and performing this recital after years off. I did, and I reaped the benefits: I was almost always happy and curious in practice, and immersed in the music in performance. The recital went quite well. And I feel happy and confident about my next performances, on series which are open to whoever wants to walk in the door! So this recital seems to have worked as a step toward returning to professional performance.
It would be foolish of me to take my use of these tools for granted. But I know how I managed to play at a high level while enjoying the music. If I honor what I know, it can happen again. After a while, I will have a habit I can rely upon.
One more thought I have is about my loving and supportive audience. In all my decades of performing, from age 7 to now, I have never walked out and bowed to an audience filled with individuals whom I would hug if I met them on the street. It was a lovely feeling! I went so far as to tell them so, after intermission. Even as I was speaking, I had a little revelation: I could choose to feel that way about any audience I ever play for. Maybe I wouldn’t actually give total strangers a hug, but I could choose to want to give them a musical hug. Something to think about for next time!
I’m glad to say that there will be a next time. I already have two engagements to play this program publicly, and I hope there will be more. My experience is that I only fully inhabit music on repeat performances. Meanwhile, a few weeks have passed since the recital, and I have already felt the music change and deepen. I’m looking forward to whatever happens next with this repertoire and future performances.
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.