If you've been following this blog, you may notice the theme of focused self-improvement. I approach my practice sessions with great awareness in observing from within, but often have difficulty perceiving myself from the outside. I know how it feels to play, but how am I coming across? Am I effective musically?
Video recordings are a perfect solution. Many of us dread listening to ourselves, or dwell on mistakes from recordings of live performances. Rather than judging the performance, choose to use it as information and focus in on smaller chunks, either from a performance or from a practice session, and examine specifics.
BOEHM GRAND POLONAISE
My example is from Boehm's Grand Polonaise. I recorded an early progress video of this small section, and when listening back, I noticed several things right away that could be more effective.
1. Listening and Score Study
Identify the Bigger Picture of the Piece. What is the context? Allow the score to guide musical choices. Commit to the character of each section, you will then use your own recording to measure whether your contrasts are effective.
Listen to as many recordings as possible of these few measures. Search on YouTube, Spotify, SoundCloud, and more, to hear a range of interpretations, and take notes on how the character is achieved, as well as details that make for an effective (or less effective) performance. It won't take long to hear 15-20 recordings when comparing only a small section. (Observe the ideas of others to learn, do not judge.)
- Here are my notes from the many different recordings I studied:
Maintains a flow and grace through the fast moving notes and resonates through each - every note can be heard without sounding overly athletic or held back - flows forward with solid tempo rhythm.
Follows the piano as a guide for taking time, growth, direction, and “punctuation” of phrases.
Flows, effortless in the upper register, not forced, stays graceful throughout, even through technical passages. Takes time and makes a statement when piano drops out.
Peppy and Bright! Faster than the others, but with clarity and always energetic in character.
High notes sing and connect as melody notes. Brings out style contrasts within this small section by singing on the higher notes. Push and pull of tempo to shape the phrases, moving forward with the piano, and lingering when along (high notes), punctuating each as a statement.
Flows - Second phrase begins small and graceful, tension and release but always graceful and singing - every note is heard, and each has the supple and warm tone, never forced. Triplets flow and move forward, not static.
Effortless light upper notes, she has lots of flexibility to shape them and keep them singing, warm, and alive at soft tempo, never forced or closed, and moves effortlessly through all registers with consistent sound.
Other performances that seemed less effective did not let the longer, high notes ring out at the ends, could not hear every note projected and placed as clearly. High notes may feel too aggressive and less resonant - maintain AHH openness and add vibrato to these notes to keep them warm. The last notes of phrases should ring and have vibrato, even the shorter notes at the bottom of runs.
Drive through the triplets if lingering on the higher notes to keep energy up and to make a contrast and add character! Don’t let it slow.
- Effective to make choices on how the longer notes relate to one another. Where do we want to come in lighter.
2. SELF-RECORDING + NOTE-TAKING
Listen back to your recording and identify specifics of what was unclear, not effective, out of tune, not in tempo, and so on. Some of the notes I made were:
- I made note of the dynamics - the opening is 'mp' with no written crescendo in the repeated triplet figure. Measures 13-14 feature a crescendo to the height of the phrase, the high G, and decrescendo down to the end of the phrase at m. 16. The new phrase begins at piano, and should feel much lighter and contrasting.
- Allow the high notes to sing effortlessly, translating the same open sound to each, rather than closing down just before leaping up to the high notes.
- Lengthen the last note in m. 16, and maintain intensity to avoid losing presence and pitch.
- Make a contrast in beginning the new phrase at m. 17 by coming in with a new color at a distinct dynamic level lower than the opening, and keep the notes short and light.
- Make a greater distinction between the articulation noted in m. 9 and m. 13.
- Clarify the first note of measure 12.
3. Practice, record + repeat
Address and practice the ideas listed. Find solutions to each through trial-and-error or personal reminders, and record the selection again. Listen back to hear your progress and repeat!
In choosing to focus on a very small section with heightened detail and immediate feedback, we're ultimately learning more in less time. I am guilty of listening back to my recordings of live recitals, wishing I would've spent more time studying recordings ahead of time. I always find sections where I regret not having been more intentional in my musical choices, finding out too late that I needed to do more to achieve the appropriate character. Taking it section by section requires you to make musical choices and practice with intention.