Preaching What You Practice

This post originally appeared on our PreachWhatYouPractice site.
Original Published Date: 17 November 2013

(This is a guest post by Avi Cytrynowski)

For some time now, my friend and colleague, Samantha Coates, has been asking me to write a description about my recent forays into performing, and how this has impacted on me, what insights I have had about performing, and so on. Despite my 34 years of piano teaching and all the advice I have given to my students over the years about performing for exams, competitions and auditions, I have nevertheless had so many new revelations about performing in the recent past, that I feel it would be worthwhile to unpack these insights into an informal article so that I can share what I have discovered and learnt in the process.

I also suspect that many instrumental teachers reading this article may recognize more than a few common elements between their own experiences and my own musical journey. I am probably typical of many instrumental teachers who nostalgically remember how well they themselves could play when preparing for their performance degrees and teaching qualifications, and yet who now feel that the realities of teaching make it highly unrealistic that such high standards could ever be recaptured. This is not to say that teachers aren’t involved in general music-making, in accompanying and so on, but the formal recital type of performance is often considered a thing of the past for many teachers who are so caught up in the demands of full-time work.

Since my own performance “heyday” when just a young man in my twenties (way back when dinosaurs roamed the earth) I have been involved in lots of music-making: regular performances at nursing homes, background music at weddings, restaurants, birthday parties and so on. I haven’t stopped for a moment, but for all these years, I have always felt that this sort of playing does not quite cut the mustard – well, not in comparison to what I call “real” playing, ie. the refinement, discipline and precision required for a formal recital. I would often tell myself, well, at least I am still out there, playing piano, and performing at some level, but underneath I have always been saddened by a growing belief that a really demanding repertoire, played with flawless control, would now be totally beyond me.

Well, I am here to tell all those who can connect with my story, that such assumptions are largely untrue and ultimately self-damaging. They promote defeatism and also encourage a type of musical stagnation where old favourites, that we could always play in the past, comprise the totality of our permanent and unchanging repertoire. I now sincerely believe that we can actually turn back the clock even after decades of safe, ‘Sunday afternoon’ piano playing, that we can in fact recapture that fabulous feeling of being a musician again – a pianist, a performer, sharing music of high quality in a performance atmosphere. It is possible to actually grow back into that person who was once capable of performing advanced pieces with dexterity and sensitivity. For me, this has been such an exciting revelation; it almost feels like a rebirth.

So how did this re-appraisal and change come about for me?

Due to an uncanny set of circumstances, in the last couple of years, I have found myself playing solo in situations that have progressively become more formal and less of the ‘background music’ variety. As a result of surviving several such performances, I progressively started believing that maybe, just maybe I could get back into some serious piano work again. This led me to accept a request earlier this year from the Barwon Heads Fine Music Society to present a one hour, formal classical recital. The sort of recital where people pay for their tickets, get dressed up, take their seats and expect to hear quality music like Scarlatti, Mozart, Schubert, Chopin – a far cry from playing folksongs at nursing homes all gravitating round the cosy chords of Am, Dm and E7.

Having committed myself to this recital, there was no turning back, despite the many times when I would ask myself in total bewilderment: What the heck do you think you are doing ??? Why on earth did you say yes?

I chose the repertoire for my recital and began practising regularly and uncompromisingly. I hardly missed one day over a 6 month period of intense practice, no matter how busy I was during the day. I started off with about an hour a day, but progressively found the time or made the time to practice for up to 2 to 3 hours a day. In true obsessive manner, I kept a register of every minute I spent at the keyboard. I tried to beat my daily total, my weekly total and so on, and in fact, became totally obsessed with practising. At times it felt like a burden to be shackled to this practice regimen, but it was also exhilarating to feel myself knocking out problem after problem in my repertoire. I even started feeling somehow more honest and authentic in my role as a piano teacher, given that I was now actually practising what I had always preached.

I methodically employed all the practice methods I have espoused to my students over the years, and which I have used for my own pieces in the past: special exercises for passage work, techniques to increase speed and fluency, the old “4 times right in a row” routine, playing with eyes closed, reducing whole bars to chord shapes, juxtaposing similar sections and so on – in essence, a lifetime’s teaching insights, but now applied rigorously to my own program.

The time came when I could finally do justice to my full recital program at home, but I knew this was just the beginning. I had to air these pieces in front of people, to see how I survived in a formal recital situation, which is so different to just playing background music.

I arranged at least 12 mini-recitals for myself as preparations for the “big one”. Some of these were in front of a group of friends; others were in front of three or four fellow teachers. Another was in front of 40 people at my cousin’s place. All my students heard me play the trickiest part of a particular Schubert Impromptu so many times that they could almost play it themselves. I kept a register of what pieces I played in front of what students, and systematically played everything for everyone!

Many of these performances were unmitigated disasters. One of the worst experiences occurred at an adult student’s place. She had arranged for about 10 people to be there, and from the very start, the “vibe” felt completely wrong and I became unhinged. Every piece I played suffered a memory blank or obvious pause somewhere. My passage work had knots and holes in it, I missed a couple of big leaps, I splashed notes and then did the unpardonable: I addressed the audience mid-piece with a lengthy apology. The sort of crime I would almost kill one of my students for committing. I felt I barely survived the performance and was so relieved to finally get back into my car and on my way home again.

But through such setbacks, I developed a thick skin and simply told myself that if you want to perform, you have to be prepared to humiliate yourself all over Melbourne, if necessary, in order to get there. But it took many disasters both big and small for me to finally realise that blanks and stumbles were continually happening time after time in places that I had played perfectly well at home, and in sections that weren’t even difficult. I was already practising 2-3 hours a day for week after week – so what was causing the glitches, stumbles and blanks? I was definitely not suffering from performance nerves. Years of playing at weddings, nursing homes and so on had cured me of stage fright. So what was finally sabotaging me in these more formal recital situations?

Despite years of teaching and philosophising to students about correct practice techniques, I guess the surprising truth is that there was actually a huge divide between what I was preaching and what I was practising myself. Much soul-searching led me to discover (or re-discover) two vitally important home truths about practising:

  1. No ‘automatic pilot’. The importance of being aware, of being totally conscious of absolutely everything you are doing as you practice and as you perform – every leap, every chord, all the finger “choreography”. ’Automatic pilot”, ie. relying on muscle memory, is the absolute arch enemy in this mode of music making.
  2. The importance of focus. One has to actually practise the art of focusing while practising, silly as that sounds. That last sentence was not intended as a play on words, and probably deserves a re-read! Concentrated focus, on the immediate notes being played as well as the notes immediately ahead, cannot be allowed to slacken for even a nano-second, especially during performance. Focusing is a skill we need to practise and reinforce during our practice, in the same way, that we practise the actual notes.

For me, the great insight and benefit of my return to serious playing after so many years of safe playing, has been the realisation of the above two truths, in the most profound way possible. I now practise in a fundamentally different manner, and it has been an epic awakening for me. But let me explain in more detail…

I am certainly not the first one to discover that ‘automatic pilot’ is a dangerous basis for reliable performance. The theory has been articulated time and again by musicians and educationalists at pedagogical conventions, lectures and in journals, The most recent, and convincing article that I have read on this subject is by the AMEB examiner, Dr. Mark McGee (Brain Training and Technique, VMTA journal: Music and the Teacher, April 2011).

Without even attempting to paraphrase McGee’s article, suffice it to say that when any set of movements at the keyboard becomes merely automatic and unconscious, disaster may befall at any moment. The playing could end up being perfectly successful too, but when one is in automatic pilot mode, anything can happen. It’s a 50-50 chance either way. A sudden noise, a movement, cough, a moment of doubt, a questioning of the last note you just played, and the whole house of cards can come tumbling down since you’re not aware of what you’re doing anyway, and all of a sudden continuity has been broken, and disaster strikes. You have to suddenly “know” what you are doing in a way that you haven’t bothered with for weeks or months, and you simply unravel on the spot. This is when you experience one of those ghastly moments when you want the earth to just open up and swallow you whole! And haven’t we all been there !!!

I gradually began to realise how at every point and turn I was all too ready to fool myself, to think that I really knew what I was doing. But I was taking a mental holiday during the easy parts, and really had no idea of exactly what I was doing in these sections. It was ironically in these places that disaster often struck during my trial performances. I had to suffer so many embarrassing public slips and blunders before I finally stopped and questioned the value of all those endless hours of practice. I realized there was no point to mindless repetition without the benefit of ‘consciousness’, of knowing for example that the left hand leap at the top of page 2, the easy bit, was meant to go to the lowest Ab and that this would need a quick glance at the keyboard, each and every time I got to that section.

I actually found it very challenging to practise sections that I felt I could already play well because I had to virtually re-learn such material in order to be fully conscious of what my fingers were really doing. It involved deconstructing the music, becoming aware of every pattern, every leap, every micro-movement. It took a huge amount of self-discipline to practise in this new way – often articulating out loud what I was actually doing with my fingers while playing.

Magical changes, however, started occurring in my trial performances. The silly glitches started vanishing and my morale started growing. I even began to think that I might just be able to survive the 60-minute recital intact. A trip to Sweden where I would vanish incognito might not be necessary after all!

My second major revelation had to do with focusing. To be conscious of what I was doing and of what lay just ahead in the next bar or chord, necessitated a “strength” of focus, a sort of stamina behind the focus so that the focus would not just wilt or dissipate after a few minutes. And this gave birth to my theory of The Shrinking Elastic Band. Not sure whether this theory would make it to a neurological journal, but here goes:

I always rather naively thought that I could sustain my mental focus indefinitely while practising, but the truth I discovered was very different. I became aware (very sadly indeed), that I had the concentration span of a gnat. I would try to look ahead on the score (or think ahead when playing a Chopin Polonaise from memory), and within mere moments I found the mental flexing would start to “shrink” back to the notes I was actually playing rather than to what lay directly ahead: a tricky chord, an accidental, or a huge leap. What jolted me into realising this was happening was the cold hard truth of sudden breaks in the flow, especially when performing, when the focus is even harder to discipline.

I wasn’t looking or thinking ahead at all! If I didn’t take charge and force the focus onwards, to thinking and looking ahead, then it would shrink or retract even more, just like an elastic band. Soon, I would not even be really present to the actual notes I was playing, let alone the notes in the next bar. I might be thinking of how rude the butcher was yesterday in serving that boisterous woman first, and what I should have said at the time, and why don’t I stand up for myself more these days anyway, and as I always like this as a child, and so on, until WHAM !!! Major blank at the keyboard hitting with the full force of an asteroid! But this is a slow, easy Scarlatti Sonata. How could I possibly lose it in this simple piece?

How could I not lose it, would be more to the point, given that my focus had shrunk to such an extent that it was already out of the piano room completely and doing battle with the bullies at the butcher shop. All this within the space of a few moments.

My focus needed stretching rather than retracting. I began to realise just how much work I needed to do to maintain a concentrated awareness of what was about to happen, rather than to let the focus shrink back to the notes I was merely playing at the moment, or even worse to emotional dramas and events totally irrelevant to the task at hand.

Success did not simply fall into my lap. At one point, when playing my program in front of an advanced student, I worked myself up into such a state over losing focus in a demonic section of a Chopin Etude, that I fell into a complete panic and hit rock bottom – the way kids do when it all gets too much for them! It all started feeling too much like a nightmare. I would never get this right. So many people I knew would be in the audience and they would all see me for the fake that I truly was, masquerading as a pianist. How would I ever live it down? I remember clasping my head in my hands and desperately wanting to cry, but I was too exhausted and overwhelmed even for tears! And that, in fact, was a turning point for me, because once you’ve actually hit rock-bottom, there is only one way to go, and it’s up – trite and clichéd as that may sound. The specific key to recovery for me that night, was the realisation that if I simply stopped the riot in my head and replaced it by focusing on what I was actually playing and what lay just ahead, I could ride out any rodeo with relative ease.

Well, I am pleased to report that after all these trial performances which taught me so much about focusing, the final recital at Barwon Heads was a great success. Sitting at the piano before my first piece I felt relaxed, natural, and curiously peaceful yet also very switched on and focused too. One of those heavenly things occurred where things go so well that the music starts to pour out of you, and you find yourself expressing every phrase from some deep, deep place inside you. Once you’ve reached that space, you can even take chances and say things freshly in a way that you have not done before.

Yes, there were little glitches here and there – but quite minor ones. At the centre of it all, guiding me through the minefield of all the possible disasters that could have occurred, was my ability to focus and to think ahead.

My skill in keeping that elastic band from shrinking continues to improve. A few weeks ago, I was asked to perform a rather avant-garde composition at Melba Hall, a beautiful concert venue that was refurbished and restored to its former glory, some years ago. I felt rather dwarfed in the middle of the large stage, sitting behind a beautiful 9 foot grand piano.

The two guardian angels saving me from musical disintegration at the keyboard that night were the two hard-won insights I described above. I truly knew and understood every micro-movement required by the piece. Moreover, my focus was also fully switched-on to what lay ahead and I did not let this waver for a moment. I was mentally anticipating all the time so nothing took me by surprise, and I kept forcing that focus to stay there, ahead and alert, until the final chord of the piece. Of course, I haven’t even mentioned the work that went into the interpretation (what I call the good fun) but at least there was not one mistake in the playing (well… just one hardly audible, minuscule slip on the 11th page).

I feel this journey into formal performance has been a huge landmark in my life, because I have never considered myself especially talented or gifted at the keyboard. I was not the whizz kid who won the scholarships, nor was I ever ear-marked by the top lecturers to embark on a career in performance. My triumphs were far more garden-variety, yet I have discovered that through the right sort of practice, even at a ripe old age, unimaginable new frontiers can be attained.

My aim now is to keep the journey going by embracing every opportunity to perform. Apart from the pleasure it gives to others, it is so liberating and exciting to know that you have things you want to say musically and that you can actually say them in the public arena without being bludgeoned and deflated by endless mistakes and mental blanks that seem to come from absolutely nowhere. I have learned that performance security is about being totally conscious of everything I am doing at any given moment and having the disciplined focus to be aware of what I am about to do at any given moment.

Thanks for giving me the opportunity to share!

Samantha Coates

Samantha Coates is a professional pianist and teacher with over 25 years experience in both private and group tuition. She is the author and publisher of BlitzBooks, the music education series that has captured the imagination of students across Australia and transformed the teaching of music theory, sight reading and general knowledge.

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