Further reflections on practising during the coronavirus pandemic in the form of three poems by pianist Beth Levin


Look at a page of music

as a space to breathe

dissect the voices see where they lead

as if you are a camel in the desert

and music eternity

 

Perhaps you’ve looked over 

performances from the past

been interviewed even zoomed a concert

Perhaps you’ve reached out for a future engagement

Now is the real process

a musical phrase an inhaling and exhaling of time

a lonely escapade

 

Let the slow new work begin to live

ask why and why of the music more often

the urgency of a recital date gone

but another urgency taking its place

one’s drives and demons propelling the work forward

into the unseeable, incalcuable unknown


Rubato

To play in strict time is bracing
no meandering off like a python out of its cage

“Keep the left hand steady
said my teacher
slacken a bit in the right”
a subtle direction
at twelve I knew the idea must be felt
in the body

Some days you just need latitude
notes in the margin crossed out
a furtive amble away from the tour guide
a hidden escape clause

The trick is keep the underpinnings solid
a left hand of resolve
allowing for creative fluctuation


Poem

There was a time I’d decide whether
to jump double dutch in front of the house
or in the back alley

Once I climbed a tall Sumac
got lost in the hilly park grass of Fairmount
lay down and took a nap

Time was a pomegranate
its seeds popping
rich dark red

Time the ropes
looping upward, lapping, interlocking
a sine wave in air

The aroma- the ripest melon-
inhabits me as I lace my shoes


How to Practice While Sheltering from the Virus


beth20levinBrooklyn-based pianist Beth Levin is celebrated as a bold interpreter of challenging works, from the Romantic canon to leading modernist composers. The New York Times praised her “fire and originality,” while The New Yorker called her playing “revelatory.” Fanfare described Levin’s artistry as “fierce in its power,” with “a huge range of colors.”

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One of my best friends is a published author. With two popular and successful books under her belt, she gave up her day job to write full time. When we meet, she and I often end up discussing creativity, for the life of the writer and the musician are not dissimilar. We share similar processes – for example, the need to keep to a regular routine, as this fosters more consistent creativity and output –  and we both appreciate the need to feed the muse: as my friend would say “what comes out must be put back”, and when our creative forces are depleted, we must stoke up further reserves of inspiration. She and I both also see value in accumulating experience and wisdom as we progress through our daily lives.

Just as writers have days when the creative juices seem to dry up, so too do musicians. We may rail against an unproductive practice session, frustrated that nothing seems to go right, the brain willing but the fingers sluggish and unresponsive – or vice versa. This can be seen as “wasted time”, pointless because you achieved nothing but, apparently, a slew of errors. It can be disheartening and demoralising to walk away from the instrument with the feeling that you have achieved very little.

In fact, nothing is wasted, and if we treat each practice session with curiosity and an open mind, it is possible to find useful nuggets in everything we do. Reflection is a significant aspect of deep practising, and it is important to consider why a practice session didn’t go as planned and to explore ways in which it could go better the next time. All errors should be regarded as learning opportunities (I used to tell my students “there’s no such thing as a wrong note”) and should be examined carefully: maybe that slip was due to a poor or improperly-learnt fingering scheme.

Students in particular also believe that they should only be practising the music they have been assigned to practice by their teacher. Wrong. Any time spent at the piano is useful, even if you’re just noodling, messing around with some chords, improvising, or simply playing through some pieces which you enjoy playing. One of my students actually apologised to me for having learnt the first section of Debussy’s Clair de Lune during the Christmas break. “Why are you apologising?” I asked her. She said she thought I would be “angry” that she had practised something I hadn’t assigned to her. What she hadn’t realised was that by taking the initiative to learn some music without me, she had taken a first step towards a goal which is imperative for a musician: autonomy.

Time spent away from the instrument is also beneficial. Our daily lives feed the musical temperament and contribute to our music making, and it is simply unhealthy, and often unproductive, to spend hours locked away in the practice room. We draw on life experience to inform our artistry and activities which may seem divorced from our musical lives can actually inspire and inform. Don’t feel guilty about spending time reading a book or watching a movie: this is not “wasted time” for the musician, and nor is “down time”, for body and mind need time to rest and unwind to be ready for the next practice session or performance.

As musicians we should cultivate curiosity, not only in practicing and performance, but in our daily lives, and just as the writer may squirrel thoughts away in a notebook, so we too should store ideas. This way we ensure that nothing is wasted, and everything contributes to the richness and variety of our musical lives.

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Guest post by Dr James Holden

I’ve always really enjoyed playing the piano. However, I’ve always avoided doing my piano practice. This spring I decided to put an end to that. I was particularly motivated by the start of the annual 100 Day Project, in which people commit to doing something creative for 100 days. I determined that my project would be to teach myself how to play Chopin’s Nocturne op. 27 no. 2, a piece I’ve always loved but lacked the impetus and dedication to learn. To do this, I committed myself to practising for at least 30 minutes every day. What’s more, I decided to make myself publicly accountable by streaming my practice sessions on my Twitch channel.

In case you’re not aware, Twitch is a streaming platform usually used by gamers to broadcast themselves playing videogames. However, it’s also used by artists and other creatives to stream their ongoing work. At any one time you can usually find several pianists playing live in the ‘Music & Performing Arts’ category. These players are often watched by hundreds of viewers as they perform arrangements of popular songs and other tunes, improvisations and more.

If these pianists are giving online concerts, they are less like modern concerts than they are nineteenth-century salon performances. Twitch allows real time interaction through a chat window which means that these pianist-streamers can engage with their audiences in real time between and even during pieces, and are therefore able to perform requests, respond to suggestions and otherwise chat with viewers.

My own Twitch streams are a little different. Firstly, my standard of playing is generally lower: I am an intermediate level amateur at best with limited repertoire (largely the result of my limited practice!). Secondly, I’m not attempting to give salon style performances. Instead, I’m ‘just’ broadcasting my daily piano practice.

Practice is normally private not public. It’s what precedes a performance; it’s not the performance itself. And yet, the simple act of streaming it on a public media platform means that my private practice does take on a performative aspect. Even if no one is watching – and that’s often the case on my channel – people could be watching. And that makes all the difference.

The performative aspect of my streams has necessarily altered my relationship to my practice. It has introduced an implied need to make it enjoyable to watch. This means, in the first place, choosing to work on a piece that will appeal quickly to viewers surfing between channels. The Chopin nocturne I’ve chosen is a beautiful work with relatively immediate appeal. However, it simply doesn’t have the mass recognition or popularity that a cover of a hit song would have. Secondly, the need to make my streams an enjoyable watch potentially risks altering how I practice. It feels as though I should play the work through coherently ‘in flow’ rather than working in a more deliberate, detailed fashion. It’s just not that much fun to watch someone play one bar over and over, or play a phrase slowed down to the point of unrecognizability. And yet, that is the kind of effort that is often required when practising.

On the plus side, Twitch’s interactivity means that it’s possible to get immediate positive reinforcement during practice. I was genuinely thrilled when a viewer typed in chat that my playing sounded good. The comment led me to think about the broader possibilities of learning on stream. I can imagine a practice session becoming something like an informal masterclass with knowledgeable viewers offering encouragement and advice.

chopinpaintingsmall

Given my chosen piece, I can’t help thinking about all these issues in relation to the Romantic virtuosos. Chopin himself, of course, was a brilliant performer but famously averse to giving large concerts. Perhaps he would have enjoyed playing in the privacy of his own home to an invisible public audience on Twitch. I’m not sure how he would have felt about making the private work of practice public though. I certainly know how the older Liszt would have felt. It’s probably true that during his years as a touring virtuoso the younger Liszt did much of his practice in public on the concert platform itself. However, in later life as the stern master of Weimar he was famously dismissive of pupils who displayed poor technique during his masterclasses, berating them with the declaration: “Wash your dirty linen at home!” I am literally counting ledger lines during my streams so am certainly, musically speaking, washing my dirty linen in public.

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Franz Liszt in concert in the 1840s

I’m only a short way into #the100dayproject. Despite the complications it has introduced, the decision to stream has already had several positive effects. Firstly, it has given me the necessary commitment to keep practising. My advertised stream schedule makes me publicly accountable for my practice in a way I’ve never been before, not even when I had lessons as a kid. I have, as a result, stuck to the task far more than I would have done otherwise, and my playing has genuinely improved as a result. I’ve certainly made solid progress with the nocturne. Whilst it’s true that I’m still stumbling over the more challenging passages and continue to play wrong notes, I at least play them better than I did before. It turns out that regular practice really does make a difference!

A second consequence of my decision to stream my practice is that I now have a video archive of my progress. I can compare the video of my day 1 stream with, say, that of my day 21 stream and quickly see the progress. This is a source of positive reinforcement that offers continued motivation when things seem challenging. More immediately, the fact that Twitch makes streams available as VODs means that I can watch myself back straight after I finish my practice. I can listen to my playing divorced from the act of playing itself, which means I can hear things much more clearly. The critical reflection for which this allows feeds back into my following practice sessions.

Thirdly, I have become somewhat used to the idea of others watching me play (if not perform exactly) – which was a rare occurrence before. In particular, I’m more accustomed now to the idea of people seeing me struggle with a piece and play wrong notes. I’ve had to get over any embarrassment about my lack of technical ability or competence, and my playing is probably becoming freer as a result. I think, overall, that streaming is making me more forgiving of my mistakes.

I’m excited about where my 100 Day Project is heading. I’m certainly looking forward to hearing the improvements I’m sure to make in the days and weeks ahead, and to exploring new pieces alongside my current choice of nocturne.

I’ll be streaming my practice on my Twitch channel at 6pm UK time for about 30 minutes every evening until I reach day 100. It’d be great if you could tune in, say hi in the chat and give me some encouragement. Please do give the channel a follow whilst you’re there too. Can’t make it at 6pm? Don’t worry, you can always find videos of all of my previous practice sessions, so do stop by.


James Holden is an independent writer and academic. He is a Lisztian, a Proustian and a Nerd. He is currently streaming his piano practice every day at 6pm on his Twitch channel. Find out more about his work and publications on his website. You can also follow his progress on Twitter and Instagram.

Advice from pianist Beth Levin

1. brew coffee

2. consider learning new repertoire

3. visualize a recital you would have given before the venues closed – imagine 4, 5, 6 encores! well with a little luck it might have gone that way!

4. imagine the dress you would have worn – consider it with different earrings

5. go to your music stacks, pick anything and start sight-reading (hopefully it won’t be Islamey!)

6. listen to a recording of yourself in recital to remind yourself that yes, you know how to play

7. brew more coffee

8. consider learning new repertoire

9. daydream about a tour of China when this is all over

10. brew more coffee

 


Brooklyn-based pianist Beth Levin is celebrated as a bold interpreter of challenging works, from the Romantic canon to leading modernist composers. The New York Times praised her “fire and originality,” while The New Yorker called her playing “revelatory.” Fanfare described Levin’s artistry as “fierce in its power,” with “a huge range of colors.”

Read more

Too often it seems that we view learning, studying, practising and performing music as a kind of fight. People talk about “doing battle with Beethoven” or “fighting the fear” (of performing) as if one must take up arms against unseen, powerful forces.

It’s true that learning new repertoire can be a Herculean task, and practising can feel like a form of captivity, the same page of music confronting one day after day, coupled with the sense that one has hardly moved forward from the previous day’s practising. It is also true that in order to learn any repertoire properly, and deeply, we must spend inordinate amounts of time sweating the small stuff – all the details in the score, the directions and signposts the composer gives us to navigate the keyboard and produce a coherent path of sound to take the listener on a unique journey into the composer’s own inner landscape, while also to enabling us to make our own interpretative choices about how we will perform the music.

There is no alternative to the hard graft of learning new work in depth: working, with pencil and score, cutting through the music to the heart of what it is about. Living with the piece to find out what makes it special, studying style, the contextual background which provides invaluable insights into the way it should be interpreted and performed. The endless striving to find the emotional or spiritual meaning of a work, its subtleties and balance of structure, and how to communicate all of this to an audience as if telling the story for the very first time.

Studying, practising performing and ultimately sharing music, the musician’s “work”, should not feel like a battle or a mountain summit that must be conquered. I know many musicians, professional and amateur, who have personal strategies to prevent this sense of struggle. Spending time with the score away from the instrument can be particularly helpful, familiarising the shape and architecture of the music on the page, and imagining the sound in one’s head, without the added distraction of the geography of the piano keyboard, for example. For very complex music, I like to leave the score, or copies of the score, around the house – on the dining table, by my bedside, so that I see the score regularly, often many times during the day. When I come to place it on the music desk, it already feels comfortable, even if I have yet to touch the piano’s keys

Practising is an act of doing, creating, living with the music. It defines who we are as musicians and gives us a reason for being. A positive, open minded approach to practising can remove the feelings of toil and travail. Making friends with the music brings joy, pleasure and excitement to practising. We should live and breathe our work, beginning every practise session with the question “What can I do that’s different today?”.

Our excitement and affection for our music is very palpable when we perform – audiences sense and appreciate it – and it brings the notes to life with vivid colour and imagination.


 

Do you ever think you might be practising the piano in your sleep? Yesterday I went to practise Debussy’s prelude La cathédrale engloutie, which I’m preparing for a performance later in the year. The second section, when the waves start to roll and the sunken cathedral begins to emerge from the deep, it bells tolling and organ playing distantly, has previously been problematic for me, in part because of the position of the right hand chords and the necessity for the right arm to cross the body to the bass. I find this difficult because of a left shoulder impingement which is painful and limits my movement. In previous practise sessions this section has tended to sound chunky and lacking in fluidity, but yesterday the chords, with their flowing bass accompaniment, rose gracefully from the piano, growing in drama as the section approaches its climax and the full resonance of the cathedral’s organ is heard through those big, deliciously hand-filling chords. I was also able to play without pain, which is quite an achievement for me these days. I later tweeted that perhaps I had been “practising in my sleep” and that this had led to the improvement in the Debussy!

It’s not such a fanciful idea, “sleep practising”. We can do a huge amount of useful, productive practising away from the instrument, both detailed work studying the score, analysing the music and memory work, but also seeing the wider picture of the music, its narrative, character and context. Listening is also useful practising – not to imitate other people’s versions of our repertoire, but to get ideas and pique the imagination to create our own personal vision for the music.

I may not practise in my sleep per se, but as someone who tends not to sleep very well, I often replay the music I’m working on in my head in the middle of the night, hearing the sound in my “mind’s ear” and imagining the music as it would be heard by a listener. When I was working on Schubert’s penultimate piano sonata for my final Diploma I was, through this kind of practising away from the piano, able to create a vivid, perfect interior model of the sonata, and could replay huge parts of it in my head, such was my familiarity with it (though I never memorised the entire work).

Returning to Debussy’s drowned cathedral, I wonder if the improvement also had something to do with the fact that I’d been away in France for a long weekend break. On our return journey from Nantes to Cherbourg, I glimpsed le Mont St Michel emerging from a mist of rain and immediately thought of Debussy’s Cathédrale engloutie. Later, lying in my bunk on the overnight ferry crossing, I felt the boat pitch and roll and heard the strange deep bass groan and yawn of the sea (which Debussy imaginatively includes in his prelude). Perhaps the sounds and motion of the ocean infused my practising…

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Who knows, but I do believe that imagination and visualisation play a huge part in shaping our music, far beyond mere technical assuredness (and technique should always serve the music). Cues such as the view of Mont St Michel spark the imagination, help us bring our music to life, and communicate stories and images to the audience with expression, vibrancy and musical colour.