Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Playing techniques

I generally feel that, in the same day's practice session, mental work should precede playing work. In real life that's what happens. You'd never do mental work after playing a recital, for instance--unless you're reliving the recital, good or bad, in a post-concert restless night!

As I wrote in my previous post, you might want to alternate days of mental work and days of playing work. You might also have less time in your practice session, so you might just touch on, for instance, your landmarks. Just as you might envision each landmark's starting point, you could play the start of each landmark instead of playing the entire piece. For me, this sort of thing works best in reverse order.

Let's presume that you've gotten very sure of your piece and that you've gotten into a comfortable, though varied, practice routine of mental and playing work. You're quite confident in your memorization and in your interpretation of the piece, but you want to make sure that your piece is really ready to go. Other than jumping around from landmark to landmark, what are some ways in which you can make your playing work varied?

For one, you could simply play through the entire piece for fun. By "for fun" I mean that you are playing this in a way that is completely relaxed without much attention to landmarks or visual memory. For me, it's very rare when this type of playing happens in concert. If it does happen, it's usually followed by a lapse when I start to realize that I'm playing before a live audience! This "for fun" playing really shouldn't become a regular thing, but it's nice to remind yourself how fun it is to actually play well without any stress. When we're on stage, we need to give the appearance of this relaxation, but we have to be very conscious of what we're doing. All told, I wouldn't recommend this type of playing more than twice a week. It can be harmful to what it is you are trying to achieve.

In contract to the "for fun" playing, I often engage in super-concentrated playing. Here, I am forcing myself to anticipate each landmark, to visualize them before I get there. I even try to visualize every note while playing, especially in fast music, thus overriding any tactile response. I don't want this type of self-consciousness to happen in concert, but, if it does when, say, I'm excessively nervous, I'm ready to handle it. Another reason to force landmark anticipation and visualization is to keep your mind where it needs to be: on the music. It's all too easy in this middle stage of memorization to play "for fun" with little regard for focus and detail. Beware of losing the Inner Game!

Sometimes I try to make myself nervous by deliberately creating memory lapses. In doing so, I create a situation in which I can practice working my way out of a lapse, either by jumping to an earlier or to a later landmark. In some cases, I won't be in a spot where it's easy to jump to a landmark, so I must force myself to improvise till I find myself in a place for smooth and convenient transition. (New to improvisation? Hang in there: I'll touch on it in a later post.) Very importantly, don't do too much of this type of practice. It is very easy to make nervousness a learned response, and you might find yourself establishing some specific and regular lapse areas in your piece. 

Be nice to your Doppelgänger.
My teacher John Whitelaw talked about a Doppelgänger technique in which the performer would picture him or herself as an audience member while also playing. Although John and I were working with music from score, this technique has excellent applications to the memorizing musician. It takes a little practice, but you'll find that you will hear the music differently--indeed, like an audience member. This in itself can add a bit of nervousness and realism to the play-through experience. A similar technique is to record yourself, treating the recording as if it needs to be perfect.

(I could go on about using audio or video recordings as a practice technique, but that's not really in the scope of this blog. In short, I'm not a big fan of the process because one ends up modifying the interpretation more and more to fit the particular circumstances of the recording instead of working purely with one's ear.)

With all of this playing--and the excitement about finally being able to play through a piece after so much work--, we can not forget one of the most important playing techniques: to not play at all and to work mentally through the score. Don't neglect your mental work.

With so many possibilities, what are some other playing techniques that you can thing of? Post your comments here!