Going into the Zone – Practising the Piano

There is a stage in the preparation of a recital programme when it is a very smart idea to play the whole thing through in its entirety in front of someone else before the big day. This person could be your teacher, a trusted colleague or indeed anyone who will sit and listen. You could opt for safe circle feedback (see last week’s post) or for a more balanced critique, or no feedback at all.

Before you do this, you’ll need to have scheduled into your practice time several regularly-paced run-throughs for yourself. Record some of these in order to hear the sounds that are actually coming out of the piano (rather than those sounds you imagine or wish you were making – there is often a difference!). I have written about this process fully in a previous post, so rather than go into it again I would redirect you here.

No matter how well you know the music or how carefully you have practised, the first time you play for someone else you might notice all sorts of things happening you could never have planned for – that memory lapse here, that moment of uncertainty there. Hopefully you will recover and manage to proceed, and there is a lot to be learned and gained from these dings and skirmishes. I think of this as a test flight, the first of several before your performance can be certified as “airworthy”, or concert-ready.

The Downside of Careful Practice

Instead of errors as such, in a run-through in front of someone else we may feel a certain cautiousness or woodenness as we try to control everything we are doing. The process of practising entails making absolutely sure of every single note – controlling the sounds that come from our fingers and making sure they know exactly what they are doing. The process of performing involves trusting the fingers (our trained servants) to do the job unsupervised. We need to go off and enjoy the party. Remember – as long as we are trying to do something, we are not actually doing it. So the trick is not to try, but to let go and trust.

As we develop our interpretation and go into training for a performance, we risk getting tunnel vision and might get stuck in a rut. The music has to sound a certain way – our way – and no other way will do! If we should deviate from our vision of the music in any way it feels as though we have lost control and we suffer a minor trauma that momentarily paralyses us. And yet our playing has to be flexible enough to withstand a few surprises (the piano we get, our mood on the day, etc.) and even allow for an element of spontaneity. We can’t predict with total certainty that what we planned to do is what is actually going to come out, and we have to be OK with that.

Shura Cherkassky practised very slowly and blankly, never being really sure exactly how he was going to play until he was in front of the audience. Everything then came out fresh, in a way that surprised the pianist himself. This really is going with the flow in a way most of us would not feel free enough to handle – way too risky! We want a degree of certainty as to tempo, mood, character, shape, etc, and we want our performance to have a high level of planning and organising.

Deliberate Freedom

While I wouldn’t recommend the Cherkassky approach on the concert stage, we can certainly do this in our practice room as a deliberate ploy to loosen ourselves up a bit and to dislodge our playing if it feels straitjacketed or stiff. Let’s temporarily throw our preconceived ideas about how we want the piece to sound out of the window and explore something new.

The idea is to deliberately tweak the parameters of our performance so we can experience our playing in different ways. It’s a bit like fancy dress – putting on different costumes in a spirit of fun and playfulness. Enter into it fully though – if you put on a Harlequin costume, you’ll want to act the clown and not just look like him. Don’t worry – you’re only going to be wearing the costume for a short while, make sure to enjoy it while it lasts.

We’ve all experienced how our playing of a piece can suddenly change after we have listened to a recording of someone else playing it. The other’s interpretative viewpoint challenges our own and we go to the piano and take on some of the characteristics of what we have just heard. Everything seems totally different for a while.

So what are the parameters we can tweak? Here are some thoughts…

  • Tempo. Try a variety of different speeds – it is important the playing is musically coherent with each new tempo, not just a series of mechanical finger motions. Try moving from the slowest to the fastest possible tempo the music will withstand before it degenerates into mere notes. For inspiration when working at slow tempos, here is Glenn Gould playing Bach’s Little Prelude in C minor. Gould was known for his excessively slow tempos, which he managed to make meaningful and compelling. I doubt that anyone else would think to take this piece this slowly, but for me it is a model of slow practice. Listen to how Gould judges each and every note, and places it perfectly in a tautly rhythmic framework.
  • Dynamics. Concentrate on exaggerating each dynamic level, so that our loudest and our softest sounds are poles apart. Every crescendo, every sforzando needs to be carefully judged. Or, we can play deliberately on one flat level of sound (say a mezzo forte). For superb control, it’s a great idea to practise everything pianissimo. Start from no sound, by playing on the surface of the keys. Gradually allow sound to emerge from nothingness to a whisper, and dare to keep it there.
  • Texture and Perspective. Bring out the bass line, or a middle voice. If we are playing a Chopin Nocturne, deliberately hide the top line and find interesting things in the LH.
  • Style and Character. Play in the style of a composer from another period (Mozart played like Debussy), or in the style of a particular pianist (how would Horowitz have done it?). If it is a happy, lighthearted piece, try playing it mournfully (ok, mock mournfully then). An allegro vivace might try on an adagio e mesto costume.
  • Touch. Play a light staccato piece with a legato cantabile approach.
  • Pedal. Practise deliberately without pedal, or just with those pedals to make necessary joins (omit those luxurious pedals we use for resonance).

Do some of this once in a while when you feel stale, stuck or otherwise uninspired – it’s like taking your programme on a refreshing and rejuvenating holiday. When you return to your planned interpretation, things will feel pleasantly new and different.

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