First published in March, 2015, I decided to republish this post on the importance of imagination in preparing for performance.
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Someone recently asked me what I think about when I am performing, and whether this is different from what I think about when I practise. Very good question – I am going to aim to address it here.
When I practise, I need to listen very critically and analytically to what I am doing. Practising involves experimentation and working often in small sections at a variety of different speeds – with frequent stops. Performing is all about letting go of self consciousness, getting into a flow state and communicating the message of the music to the listener. Essentially practising is more a thinking activity, and performance a feeling one.
The critical inner voice is therefore necessary in practice, but a liability if we bring it with us onto the concert platform or the exam room. I don’t want to be consciously thinking about fingering or pedalling on the stage, or judging myself. Concentration is very necessary, but what is it that I’m concentrating on exactly?
For more on the different states involved in practice and performance, follow this link to my blog post Cavaliers and Roundheads: Developing Performance Skills
I once gave a class at which a student presented Des Abends from Schumann’s Fantasiestücke, Op. 12. She played accurately and fluently but she clearly hadn’t any idea of what the piece was all about. I asked her what the title meant, and she told me she didn’t know. I explained it was German for “of the evening” and that this was a gentle picture of dusk where atmosphere, calm and stillness are paramount.
I can’t think of anything more misguided than spending all that time learning the notes without bothering to do the single most important thing – figuring out what inspired the composer to write the piece.
Playing a piece with a descriptive title involves the imagination in rather an obvious way. If you want to feed your imagination, a quick google image search for “dusk” yields plenty of photos that evoke the mood. How about searching for quotations or poetry for added inspiration?
Just yesterday, someone brought a number of pieces from Schumann’s Kinderszenen to his first lesson on the work, including Hasche-Mann (Blind Man’s Bluff). It would have been easy for me to start with making corrections – fixing some pedalling, fingering and other technical issues – but I decided to approach it from another angle first. It was clear he did not know what Blind Man’s Bluff was, so I suggested before he did any more practice at the piano that he made it his business to fill in this rather obvious and vital gap by doing some quick internet research.
To play the standard game of Blind Man’s Bluff, one player is blindfolded and then disoriented by being spun around several times. The other players amuse themselves by calling out to the “blind man” and dodging away from him. The sforzando accents in Schumann’s piece now make sense – this is where the blindfolded person is knocked – and the semiquaver (16th note) patterns where he is spun around.
Some pieces don’t have descriptive titles, but more generic ones – like “sonata”, or “suite”. When I play Mozart’s Sonata in B flat, K.333, I feel I am involved in an opera. I imagine the interplay between the various characters on the stage and follow this story line as though I were conducting from the keyboard. In performance, this is the only thing I focus on.
If you’ve never explored these ideas before, you might consider creating a storyboard. A film storyboard is essentially a large comic of the film or some section of the film produced beforehand to help film makers visualise the scenes before they occur. If a storyboard feels too concrete or too complex, then a mood board might be a good alternative. A mood board serves as a visual tool that quickly informs us of the overall feel and flow of an idea. For us pianists, this might be a collection of images and/or text, plus multi-media elements such as video or audio clips – like a modern-day scrapbook. The idea is to embody colours, feelings, and characters that inspire the imagination, to refer to (and add to) during the learning process.
In the 1900s, a visit to the cinema might mean crowding onto a bench to watch a film projected on to a 6′ by 6′ sheet. Admission was cheap and music would be provided by a solo pianist who improvised as he or she viewed the movie, often mixing snatches of popular songs and passages from the classics into a soundtrack that helped tell the story.
Assuming you have done all the necessary preparation in your practice, you might imagine you are providing the accompaniment to a silent movie that exists in your imagination as you perform. The clearer the plot and look and feel of your movie, the more vivid the object of your attention can be in performance.
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