October 17, 2015

The Other Side of the Curtain

When well done, piano performances have a sense of glamour and mystery. It can feel like heightened reality – and so it is. Behind the curtain, and before the event, lies much hard work and stress. Tomoko knows both sides of that curtain.

Performance starts with the wise selection of the pieces to be played. Tomoko works with her students to find a piece that both interests and challenges them. Those same criteria apply to herself.

Then the hard work begins as the pianist analyzes and masters the piece. "Here is where technique provides a solid foundation," says Tomoko, so the pianist can follow the composer’s notation, and determine the correct fingering and dynamics. Attention to those details helps the pianist to concentrate on the interpretation of the piece. In a sense the pianist acts as a conduit for the composer, bringing to the piece her own experience and feelings as they resonate with the piece. This internalization of the music is part of the memorization process. The pianist has to over-prepare so that the physical action is almost automatic, and the spirit of the piece can be freely expressed.

Even if the performer does not have to take care of the performance venue itself, she still has to prepare herself. What message does the pianist want to convey through her clothing and hair style? What shoes facilitate playing? The pianist needs to be in good physical health and condition, including the immediate hours before the performance. Even the act of getting to the performance venue needs to be planned and smoothly implemented.

What seems to be calm in front of the stage current hides the activity backstage. The stage crew are busy moving props, including the piano. Cues for entrances and lighting are conveyed. If several performers are involved in the event, then each needs to be guidance and sequenced. Each aspect can be stressful, and the performer has to keep an inner calm, especially if other performers get nervous. "The stress doesn’t change over the years," remarks Tomoko. Only with time can the pianist learn how to deal with that stress.

Then the performance! The pianist lives for this moment, and is IN that moment. All the components are there, "But reaches a higher energy plane," Tomoko explains. The playing itself is both automatic and intentional, precise and personal, deliberate and freeing. It is ultimately a universal yet intimate conversation with the audience. It is not like daily life. It is a  heightened reality. Tomoko asserts, "It can be a mystical experience. An 'out of this world'performance."

That experience is the ideal, and is what keeps the pianist going through the long days.

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