A colleague put this quotation up on his Facebook wall this week, and while these golden words are from one of the greatest violinists of the last century, they apply absolutely to us pianists.
Practice like it means everything in the world to you. Perform like you don’t give a damn. (Jascha Heifetz)
I am convinced we use different parts of our brains for practising and for performance, they are two quite different activities. In performance we need a feeling of abandon and spontaneity, of creativity and going with the punches (more of what is known as right-brained activity), whereas practising relies on thoughtful, analytic procedures where we are constantly evaluating, repeating and refining our results (left-brained activity). In performance, we need to leave our inner critic in the green room and go into another, “thoughtless” state of mind once we are on the stage. We probably all know an excellent pianist who is not able to make the transition from the one state of mind to the other, and while they may play wonderfully, they can’t put themselves through the torment of public performance. Letting go of our critic is easier for some than others, and the ability to do this (allied with natural talent and a capacity for hard work, obviously) is what makes a good performer. Some relish the act of showmanship – performance with all its theatre – but others shrink from it, seemingly unable to get out of their own way.
When I was a student, I experienced two opposite states of mind in a lesson, the careful practiser and the carefree performer. Anxious to show my professor how much I had practised that week and how well I had prepared the piece, I was (unconsciously) reluctant to surrender control. When I played it through to him, it was full of errors caused by anxiety and tension, not through lack of time or effort in the practice room. As we all know, mental tension translates immediately into physical tension and we end up playing with a different sense of our muscles – sluggish, restricted and uncooperative. My teacher, being very wise, immediately asked me to play the piece again, this time trying to play as many wrong notes and to make as many mistakes as possible. This somewhat unusual permission was enough to flip a switch in my mind, and the difference between the two performances was chalk and cheese. I remember being startled by this, since the two performances were back to back without any instruction or in-between practice. It was the Jekyll-and-Hyde change of mindset that was solely responsible for the difference between a stiff and inaccurate version and a free, creative and exhilarating one. I often refer back to this experience, in my own playing and in my teaching.
Imagine you were the owner of a shop, that at the end of each day you needed to count the takings, check the stock, place the orders and whatever else shop owners need to do. After a while your business grows and you are in a position to open up a new shop somewhere else, so you appoint a manager to take over the first one. The new manager is installed, but you don’t trust him to do the job properly and you return regularly to go through the accounts. Because his systems are different from yours, mistakes are made. The result is the opposite of what you intend – this interference leads to conflict and inefficiency.
A colleague of mine has an expression which I think is very true: “You’re as terrible as you’re wonderful”. Everything has a shadow side, not least careful, studious piano practice. Our striving for perfection, making sure we have covered every detail in the score and mastered the technical problems in a piece mean that we need to find a mechanism of mind that allows us to let go of all of this care and attention and to surrender control when we are on the stage. But how?
Some of this is mental – we need to give ourselves permission that all our hard work is the passport to the performance, and we need to trust that we have done enough work and for long enough. This relies on positive self talk. More practically, the ingredient most often missing, and which I consider indispensable, is practising a performance. I have discussed this in a previous post, and in light of the Heifetz quote it might be worth re-reading.
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