28 Jun Performance practise
Sunday, 07 December 2014
When I was younger, I was sucked into the culture – as many children (and parents) are – of thinking that once I’ve performed a piece, that’s it. I’m done with that now. That might have been ok when I was doing grade 3 and looking forward to being able to say that I was now preparing for grade 4. (I’m sure many a teacher would agree that this can be such a frustrating issue, that many students and their parents only measure success by the grade number, ignoring the importance of extending repertoire and the joy that can be found outside the lists of exam pieces.) I’m sure that as a child, I was convinced that performing the same piece again would be the easiest thing in the world, but now I’m acutely aware not only of how necessary it is, but also what a challenge it usually is.
Over the years, especially in college when I was learning a lot of repertoire in quite short amounts of time, I learned that I could improve so much between just two performances. It is so difficult to try to simulate performance conditions, and things can go so wrong in such a simple passage and you might have no idea why. When I struggled with performance anxiety, one of the first books I read on the subject by Dr Carrol Mclaughlin completely changed how I would then prepare for my performances. I realised that I was often coming to a big performance having only performed the piece once before, or in extremely rare cases, was now performing it for the very first time! So even though I knew that a piece could improve a lot by performing it repeatedly, I wasn’t actively using this information. No wonder I was so nervous!
Hindsight is a wonderful thing, and it’s easy to look back even three or four years ago and shake my head at some of my actions or choices or beliefs. Re-learning a piece that you last played three years ago, or three months ago, can seem like a much easier task than the first attempt. The fingers may vaguely remember their way, and the ear usually remembers what it should sound like, even if doesn’t quite sound right yet. However, all those little details that makes the music magical, those can be much harder to find, because it’s just too easy at the beginning. Since your ear kind of remembers, and your fingers and feet kind of remember, you can fudge it. I’ve found that I really have to force myself to look at the dynamics or that accent or that hidden alto line jumping around the chords of both hands.
So this is the challenge: to keep making music out of the notes on the page, whether you’re playing it for the tenth time or the hundredth time. Whatever instrument you play or sing, there will be pieces that you perform again and again. My inspiration? Listening to someone else’s performance. (I’ve done exactly that recently and realised that I’m putting in a massive crescendo where a diminuendo was written…) You may hate it, you may love it; but most importantly, it opens your ears. If you can, listen to your own performance, either by recording yourself now or from months or years ago. Detaching yourself from the physicality of performing can open such an interesting door, leading to sound, interpretation, accuracy, tempo or timing changes. Take the time to re-capture that something that makes the piece special, because otherwise, it’s just notes on the page.