Monday, August 10, 2015

Memorizing the Wallpaper - Piano Interlude

Classical pianist Josef Hofman wrote that when memorizing a piece of music you will, in addition to memorizing the music, memorize the wallpaper in the room and, . .. "the discoloration of the ivory on some key of the piano, the pictures on the walls. . . "   Hofmann goes on to say that if we then stumble through that piece in a performance we're likely to blame our memory.  But, he observes, memory is so exacting and precise that it's actually the "difference from our accustomed surroundings that upsets our too precise memory."   Practice is one thing, but performing, even with a well-memorized and prepared piece, is another.

For the amateur musician like myself, Hoffman's wallpaper became painfully real as I embarked on a personal initiative to improve my performance skills, or, indeed, to develop some. A year or so ago when I sat down at the Model D Steinway in the midst of a very friendly and informal gathering, I was the proverbial deer caught in the headlights.  The glare over my head had to be at least a dozen Kleig lights pointed directly at me.  The audience, similarly performance-inexperienced adult musicians,  had obviously turned into hungry wolves and cackling hyenas. The very keys of the offending instrument came rushing up at me, aggressive and threatening.  I looked down at them utterly intimidated.  I was sure I'd never seen a piano before.

What had happened to my nice little Kawai upright with the green wall behind it and the painting above it? Who had made me do this?  It was a simple Bach fugue which I had to start over at least twice after twice playing some ridiculous jumble of notes that had nothing to do with anything I had ever heard in my life.  My fingers literally fell all over themselves in hysteria.

I got through the piece and everyone clapped, mostly out of grateful joy that my misery was over I'm quite sure. Meanwhile, my rational mind told me that it wasn't necessary to play so badly in front of people when I can actually play quite well albeit in the privacy of my living room.  So began the task of trying to figure out how to make an informal, friendly performance a doable if not even mildly rewarding experience.

I knew there were some gaps in my performance approach, some tendencies that I suspected would get me demerits in the musicianship department.  For example, I usually employed a kind of close-my-eyes-and-cross-my-fingers approach when sitting down to perform.  Then, once I got going, I'd usually be thinking about when I'd make the first mistake, when the next, how and if I would recover, when and where I would have a memory slip and how I'd feel leaving the piano in defeat.  I was vaguely aware that I was skating on the surface with the methods I used for memorization.  And I was keenly aware that I couldn't keep focused on the music.  My concentration was lacking.  After all, I was mostly thinking about mistakes.

But what else was I supposed to think about? What do people, seasoned performers, think about when performing? The music, maybe? But what about the music? How it sounds? The next note? Picture dreamy clouds when playing Debussy and stormy skies when playing Beethoven? Ridiculous. I had heard from my teacher of some quotes by Yo Yo Ma and Claudio Arrau, something to the effect of, actually, not thinking about the music but about conveying the music, orchestrating the performance, being involved with the music yet above or beyond it.

Jonathan Biss, though not writing about performance per se in his Beethoven's Shadow, talks about the "macro- and microcosmic aspects of music" and notes that "one of the great peculiarities of the performing musician's work is that it is simultaneously so spiritual and so mundane. . . ."  I don't fancy myself a Jonathan Biss (or a Schnabel, Fleisher or Serkin, the musicians he's discussing), but these words summed up an apparent contradiction I had noted which circles me back to Hofmann's wallpaper.  Performing is not practice nor is it sitting down to play in the privacy of one's living room nor is it sitting down to play by oneself just for the enjoyment and love of the music. Yet a performance relies on all these--a studied preparation and knowledge of the music, a desire to communicate the music to others and, perhaps above all, a love of the music.  All told, a peculiarity for sure.

Based on little more than an inchoate research methodology and a smattering of intuition thrown in for good measure, I began by reducing a performance to 1) some physical properties of the performance space and 2) the first few notes of the piece. Thus, if time and place permit, I now study the performance space, sit down at the piano and take note of the lighting, the piano bench, the pedals and anything else that's around the piano.  (In one space there was a humidifier that provided a faint backdrop of sound which would have probably driven me to distraction had I not identified it beforehand.)  If the audience is there I size them up as well, mostly wondering, of course, why they haven't all stayed home.

When the person before me in the program takes their bow, it's true that I'm still momentarily annoyed at them for finishing before I'm ready to play (whereas when they sat down to perform I was momentarily annoyed at them for being ahead of me thereby prolonging my misery), but I move toward the piano. Once seated, there's no choice but to do something.  First on my list, I look at the foreign keyboard and address it bass to treble aiming to make its very keys my friends.  I tell myelf they will like me.

I  take what seems an eternity to find the place on the keyboard corresponding to where my piece of music will begin and find that's a good time to picture the first notes of the piece and think about how they're going to sound once I get my hands to the keys. If I'm playing an opening chord, I say it silently by name.  I think about exactly how I should sit on the keys to get the sound that I've practiced. I try to remember that, having arms, I must use them, but that, having shoulders, they must not be up, that sound is produced by a downward motion on the keys not by cruising tentatively on top of them.  It does help to breathe now and again. I begin.

Have I seen an improvement?  Yes I have.  If nothing else, I have something to think about now besides nerves and the audience and mistakes.  I've contrived a humble beginning to establishing a foundation that consists of something other than doubt and anxiety.  I have a positive opening ritual to pre-empt the negative one. It's my version of the micro level of  playing (apologies to Rudolf Serkin and Jonathan Biss) and it will hopefully get me to the macro. The idea of a performance still looms but now seems doable.The lights aren't Kleigs, the piano isn't an attack dog, the audience is, if not friendly, at least remote, almost out of mind as I go down my checklist.   The wallpaper phenomenon is far less and the amateur performer soldiers on.

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