I started the Prokofiev sonata last week. It’s the first brand new solo work I’ve started in several years, and it’s been fun to try and apply best practices and really enrich the experience. Here is my process, thus far:
Listen, away from the score. I love Misha’s playing, but honestly this is all about Martha. I’m focusing on the first movement for the next few weeks.
Then I’m listening with the score in front of me. I also really love this version with Sol Gabetta and Polina Leschenko. Their communication makes me miss playing chamber music so much! This version has some ads, but it’s the full sonata, and totally worth enduring.
Then I’ve been trying to get a sense of where in Prokofiev’s arc this was written. As it turns, out, he composed it in 1949, just a few years before his death. He lived abroad for much of his career, never losing touch with the growing cadre of Russian expats in the enclaves of San Fransisco, New York, and Paris. As Russia became the Soviet Union, artists were enticed (sometimes forcefully) to come back to the motherland and explore the promise of the radical new system. Prokofiev moved back to Moscow in 1936, writing prolifically for the next decade. Alas, the Zhdanov Decree was set forth in 1946, which was supposed to prevent art that was deemed un-Soviet from reaching the public. So he was writing this thing unsure if anyone would actually be allowed to play or listen to it. Still, with Rostropovich as his inspiration, this music was going to get written. It was first published in 1951. Here’s Slava with Richter on the piano:
Last, I’ve been working with some of the techniques in Effortless Mastery, particularly focusing on simplicity in the left hand and a clear, easy frame of mind. I realized the other day that my playing was not as free from fear (one of the main reasons Werner asserts causes musicians to become dysfunctional or fall short of their potential) as I thought. Sure, I’m vulnerable with my students and routinely do things like sightread in front of workshop audiences and make mistakes just to show attendees that you don’t actually die from doing it. I even talk about it candidly. But I’m discovering that this is not the absence of fear, only an acknowledgement of it. And that’s useful, to an extent. But life really is far too short to take something that is meant to be freeing and brine it in fear and ego. It’s wonderful and terrifying work, and I am definitely feeling better about it. And for now, that’s all I care about. How do I feel physically, emotionally, when I play? That is the source of art and of understanding. It’s been wonderful to practice getting out of my own way.
Have you checked out Effortless Mastery yet? The podcast discussion with Dr. Benjamin Whitcomb will be recorded next week, and hopefully it won’t require too much editing and will be out shortly thereafter. It’s certainly a provocative take on practice and performance.
Okay, back to the woodshed. Chop wood, carry water.
PS: I’m slowly adding stuff to the new shop. One of my favorites is this shirt, featuring the distinctive outline of Rostropovich. ❤️