Wednesday, January 15, 2014


A month ago I wrote about a nearly disastrous page turn during a concert. Now, to balance the universal chi, I'll mention one of my favorites. (Favorite page turn? You are strange. I know that. Just listen.)

It was another holiday concert, a year ago last month. I have a strong desire not to leave out any notes on a page turn if I possibly can--besides, publishers like to put the piano interludes on the page turn so it is particularly obvious if you are leaving out one hand in order to get the page turned. Their theory is that the people with the free hands can't sing and turn pages at the same time, so the one person employing both hands to make music has to give up one of them to turn their page. I try to pretend I have a third hand and play everything on the page AND get the page turned. In this particular case I remember only wanting very badly to play the full chord on the next page. The next thing I knew, my left hand hand played the chord in the bass and instantaneously leapt two octaves to capture the right hand notes. I look down at my hand and grinned sheepishly as if to say "I didn't know you were going to do that!" This was also the concert at which I realized that if I put my music on both sides and left a spot open in the middle of the music stand I could see the reflection of the conductor in the brightly polished wood without the need to keep turning around to see the conductor who was off to my right and behind me. I put that one in the observation and problem solving category. The page turn is just a matter of will.

Things like that don't just happen, however. I practice page turns for efficiency and impossible hand jumps at every rehearsal. I never stop the choir if I play wrong notes, get lost, or my music falls on the floor, which is one reason why I was able to get through last month's debacle. Instead I pretend it is a performance and try to get out of any tight spot the best I can, learning to minimize mistakes and get back on track so fast there is hardly time to notice something was wrong in the first place. This explains why I am so tired after a rehearsal. It also explains why I can deal with adverse situations well--I get as much practice dealing with them as I can. Which means every chance I get.

I have to chuckle when I read exhortations from piano teachers about practicing slowly and fingering everything. It isn't because it isn't important. I've had teachers who insisted on that and I'm grateful. It's just that these days I can't possible do it anymore. There just isn't time in the (what is it? 60-odd pieces of music per week?) mass of material I have to deal with, all the concerts and rehearsals and church services and compositions, to sit down and studiously write in all the fingerings. Instead, my fingers have to think on the fly. They can do that, however, mostly because they've absorbed scale and arpeggio patterns, and thousands of other patterns from pieces I've played and memorized in the past.

In other words, I couldn't do what I do without a firm foundation. But for a professional musician there comes a time when you have to be so fluent that you can "leave out" those steps and still fly. It isn't a matter of choice, really. You just don't have the time anymore. Play a piece through once and it's time to hit the stage, practically. Your fingers better know what they are doing!

One of my teachers at the conservatory told me that I had a real luxury of time to prepare and that I should enjoy it while I could. Now I know what he meant.

Will power isn't a substitute for training. But here is what is interesting. It will often get you through a concert for which you were unable to adequately prepare. It will help to make your performance more interesting musically if you are so engaged in the moment that nothing can get in your way. It allows your instinct to have something to say, even if your premeditated, along the ground self hasn't had time to catch up yet. It is often improvised, the result of just wanting something to come out, and it focuses on the end result rather than on process. And yet, though the method is inconsistent, it is practiced. Just wanting it real bad isn't going to get you there. And yet, that may be what drives you to practice hard in the first place.

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