LPI'23 - What is it all about?/Some "Aha" moments
by Sandra Low
So for those of you that have never been to an adult piano camp and would like to know what it is like, I will write about just a few of the many "aha" moments that I experienced. On the first day, I had my first private lesson with Cheryl Emery-Karapita. I was having problems with pedalling in my Chopin piece, Cantabile. She gave me a few tips on the proper use of the pedal which was to make sure that I lifted my foot to completely clear the chord and to ensure I played the chord before I depressed the pedal to sustain the new chord.
I think it is one thing to have my own teacher and Cheryl tell me but quite another thing to actually be conscious and strive to incorporate it so my pedalling is effective. She also told me that I can move earlier with my left hand so I can be prepared ie move my hand into the next position quickly before I needed to play it. She also impressed upon me, her support of my music learning as an adult. I actually was really thankful to hear her words as I had been battling self-criticism and doubt in the few months leading up to LPI.
Armed with these two learning tips and the salve of her words, I went to practice. The fact that my free practice time was immediately after my lesson was probably another key to me being able to really put into practice what I had just learned. The result was that I was able to perform "Cantabile" relatively well at the masterclass at the end of the day which was an incredibly powerful feeling! And it was interesting that I noted that I was feeling nervous and even my hands started to shake a bit near the end of piece but I was still able to play. I haven't felt that nervous for quite a while. So I wonder if perhaps when you do feel very nervous but can still perform if it adds that bit of adrenalin/excitement to your playing to elevate the overall performance? My contemplation of this actually became a huge "aha" moment for me which I will discuss later.
And for those that have never experienced a masterclass and wonder what the 'heck' I am talking about. A masterclass is a learning experience where a group of students each take turns to play their pieces for the masterclass teacher and then immediately afterwards are given mini lessons in front of the other students on ways to improve their pieces. In this way, all the students learn collectively from the teaching. The student who is playing or getting feedback at any given time is the active participant and the ones who are listening are the passive participants. I have taken many of these kinds of masterclasses at previous years at LPI and other piano camps. And ALMSG has organized these kinds of masterclasses, four to be exact, in our mandate to create educational opportunities for our members.
But what sets the LPI apart is that the piano clinicians (which this year numbered five) attend the workshops, lectures and the end of the day masterclass. They are with the students for the entire day. In this way, the teaching team really get to know and observe the students' different modes of learning and their unique personalities. And the students in turn also have the opportunity to learn more about each teacher and benefit from all the teachers's different perspectives and ways of teaching.
During the adult LPI, each student receives two 45 minute private lessons with two different teachers. However during the masterclass, we are able to learn from all five of the piano clinicians which is of such a great benefit to all the students. (I found it interesting that at lunch, Cheryl told me that she is also learning during the masterclasses so she can pass on the learning to her own students. So the piano clinicians themselves are also benefitting from seeing different perspectives and tools that the other clinicians have. So a lot of intensive learning all around.) During the LPI masterclass, the piano clinicians will work as a team where they will take turns to give feedback. And usually at least two of the five clinicians will give feedback to each active participant.
So back to me in the masterclass. After the performance is of course, is the feedback portion. This is the part that I feel uncomfortable with and it is not because the masterclass is not a psychologically safe space, because it is. As I stated before, these five piano clinicians are the most supportive of adult students that I have ever come across. And of course, the other adult students, your peers, are always cheering for you. I think that I feel uncomfortable because usually what happens in a private lesson is now on display for everyone in the room to see. "What if I don't understand what the teachers are trying to teach me?" "What if I come across as a complete idiot?" Yes, the typical "insecure thoughts" that all of us have from time to time were surfacing. (More on this later.)
First, Brad Parker gave me a really quick instruction session on pedalling in two problem areas where I was depressing the pedal during the grace notes and trills of the Cantabile piece, that resulted in "muddying" the sound. What I needed to do was to remember to lift my foot during the grace note or trill and to depress right when I hit the chord that comes after. I had not been able to coordinate the timing or the simple mechanics of lifting my foot which would be already down from the previous chord. Brad just simply spent a couple minutes with me to walk me through it and "voila", the light went on. I can now do it everytime and I no longer have this problem. And I will digress here a moment to point out that Brad's lecture "The Art of Pedalling" that he presented earlier on this first day of the piano camp, was a real eye opener for me. I have been learning piano for 10 years now and I have had minimal instruction with the pedal. Brad pointed out all the different ways that you can use the pedal from controlling a decrescendo, controlling the decay and enhancing the rhythym to name just a few. It was a very insightful lecture. With my notes and Brad's handouts, I will now be able to do a lot of exploratory work on my own with regard to pedalling. Yay!
Now, back to me in the masterclass. The next clinician to give me feedback was Deanna Oye. She spent a lot of time with me during the masterclass to improve the fluidity of my playing. She had me play the right hand by myself for the first 8 bars and then she had me do it again multiple times with her playing the left hand. And at first, she followed me but later she gradually started leading me and by the last time, I really felt her pushing and pulling me and realized, surprisingly, that I was actually responding. It was quite thrilling. This "aha moment" felt surreal because I knew something extraordinary was happening, However, the next moment it it also felt weird because when I took notice of the "extraordinary moment" , I thought that it was someone else playing and not me. It felt like an "out of body" experience (I will revisit this later.) At the end of her mini-lesson with me, Deanna said to me "You actually know this piece way better than you think you do." I did not understand exactly what she meant then but now while I am contemplating it, I have come up with an answer.
When you actually dissect it, your brain/body is really occupied with all the mechanics of what you need to do when learning and polishing a piece. You need to ensure you play the right notes, you have the right rhythym and that you are pedalling "cleanly" in all the right places. Moreover, you must ensure that you play your piece with the expression you envision for that piece - whether it be a a mood or a story you are creating for your audience. This last part is actually the most important and really what you need to focus on during your performance. The mechanics that we mentioned earlier have already been taking care of, in the previous mind-body work you did when you learned the piece and in the many hours that you spent polishing this learning. But while performing, we have an extra factor to contend with - the pressure that we place on ourselves to perform well, which of course, induces anxiety. When your negative thoughts take control of your body, it interrupts the flow of what your body" knows". And when this short-circuit occurs, the mind-body connection is lost and that is where the problems start.
When I felt the thrill of us actually making music together, it was me letting go of my head and just being "present" in the moment with Deanna and the music. I was actually feeling free and was in the "groove" during those brief moments. But it was fleeting, and it was due to something that I did, that quashed it. The best metaphor that I have is perhaps somethng you experienced in childhood (or me in adulthood with regard to swimming) when you mastered a difficult task like riding a bike or swimming. Those first few moments when you cycle or take those first strokes is so thrilling. You are so astonished when you realize that you are doing it - that you take a second to register it in your brain - "Hey, I am actually doing this!" - then you promptly fall off your bike or end up snorting in water, gasping for air.
So, when I made that observation of "it cannot be me that is actually doing this" and subsequently described it as an "out of body experience", that is the exact moment, that I lost the "groove" and the body "knowing" moment was gone. I thought it! So it came to be! Kind of existential and weird but so real. Our thoughts are very powerful! They can totally derail you during a performance. Our thoughts about our insecurities are not good at anytime but when they come up during performance, they are downright destructive. The other challenge for us is developing that trust that our bodies DO "know" what to do during performance. So trusting and enjoying the moment is the key! That is what Deanna wanted to impart to me in her wisdom.
And the very last thing that I want to touch on, is the question I asked earlier. Does that little bit of adrenaline/nerves elevate your performance? I think it totally does! When you have that bit of adrenaline in your body, your senses are heightened.
So if you trust your body to "know" and keep your mind in the moment, you will definitely be able to channel that heightened sensitivity into an outstanding performance! Long standing LPI participant and current ALMSG member, Karen, has some good advice about how to stay "present" during a performance. She sings the melody in her head while she is performing her piece. And I agree, doing this gives your brain something to "focus" on so those destructive thoughts don't have a chance to drop in at all. I hope you will give her great advice a try, for your next performance. I wish you all to experience the "body-knowing" and "enjoyment" of performances in your future! Because when you experience that magic, there is nothing like it - it is pure joy! And please contact me via the Contact Page to let me know if Karen's advice worked for you or if you have other methods to prepare yourself for performances. I would love to hear from you!