Practicing Classical Piano Music in Your Mind
Learning a Chopin Nocturne Away from the Piano
I did know the melody, I told myself, and that would become evident with an additional week of practice. But the following Tuesday, Stephen posed a question: “If I asked you to sing the melody right now, could you?”
My shoulders sunk. “Probably not.”
Stephen prescribed an approach, which he had suggested before, but I thus far had managed to avoid: practicing the music in my mind.
In the days following my lesson, I procrastinated (a skill, as a member of the Adult Children of Alcoholics tribe, I do astoundingly well). I already had taken Stephen’s advice to study the score away from the piano; now to surrender not only the piano but also the score while I practiced was going too far. I could not conceive how I would muster the concentration to practice in my mind.
At the gym on the weekend, with only three days remaining until my weekly piano lesson, I hesitated in front of the magazine rack. What if instead of reading a magazine, I were to practice the Chopin Nocturne?
The internal tones I summoned were faint, barely audible over the whirring machines and grunting exercisers. The Nocturne’s rhythm was jagged, forced in time to the motion of my feet on the cross-trainer, interrupted when I inhaled a deep breath of air. In order to separate the music from these competing rhythms, I would focus on one phrase at a time.
I closed my eyes to concentrate. In the second phrase, the sweet repeat of the opening melody, my attention wandered, so I forced myself back to the beginning of that phrase. I hung for a long time on each note in the forte section with its slightly dissonant harmonies, trying to conjure each tone. In cases where I could not remember what came next, I made a mental note to look up the music on the piano at home.
While my arms and legs windmilled on the machine, I plinked out the Nocturne’s translucent pianissimo section, rung out the grand octaves, and, with a sense of accomplishment, hummed the three final E-flat chords.
When my eyelids fluttered open, dampness fringed my lashes. I had trudged through the music in my mind at half the rate I would have played it on the piano, yet I already had completed 12 of the 20 minutes of my workout. I liked the idea that I could practice the piano at the same time that I exercised.
Practicing in my mind helped me to learn the melody to this bewitching music, and a year later, the Nocturne was one of the pieces that I performed at my Carnegie Hall piano recital. I still need to coach myself to practice in my mind. Yet whenever I do so, whether exercising on the cross-trainer, waiting in line, or riding the subway, I move the music forward.