Performance and Auto Suggestion

A fortnight ago I wrote a post about deliberate practice. Whilst writing that post I was thinking about Sergei Rachmaninoff.

I had read about his anxiety after the premiere of his first symphony. Maurice Kougell quoted Martin Bookspan:

The year was 1897 and the place was St. Petersburg. The occasion was the premiere of the First Symphony of the twenty four year old composer, Sergei Rachmaninoff. It was a complete fiasco; Rachmaninoff himself described how he sat in rapt horror through part of the performance and then fled from the concert hall before it had ended. At a post concert party which had been arranged in his honor for that evening, he was further shaken and ill at ease but the crowning blow came the next morning when the reviews appeared in the News. Cesar Cui wrote: “if there was a conservatory in hell, Rachmaninoff would get the first prize for his symphony, so devilish are the discords he places before us.”

Maurice Kougell observes that “this combination of events was too traumatic for a personality as sensitive as Rachmaninoff’s. He was seized with a fit of depression and apathy from which he could not rouse himself. For two long years it lasted. Finally, friends persuaded him to see one of the pioneers in the field of autosuggestion, Dr.Nikolai Dahl.” Some years later Rachmaninoff dedicated his Piano Concerto No. 2 in C Minor Opus 18 to Nikolai Dahl.

Peter Chou adds the following information:

From the beginning of January 1900 until April, he went daily to Dr. Dahl to receive treatment while lying in an hypnotic doze in an easy chair in the doctor’s apartment. This treatment consisted of the almost ceaseless repetition to him of the words: “You will begin to write you concerto… You will work with great facility… The concerto will be of an excellent quality…”

So remarkable was the success of this principle of auto-suggestion over the inertia of his inner self that his creative powers began to function by the beginning of the summer. He wrote anew with increasing fluency. Ideas and thematic material welled up with all the facility of those now so seemingly far-off days when he wrote “Aleko” in little over a fortnight. The andante and finale of the C minor Concerto, Op. 18, came to him in this way, before the opening movement, and were completed by the autumn of 1900, and given their first performance at one of the Prison Charity Concerts organised by Princess Lieven in Moscow in connection with a prisoners’ aid society. Siloti conducted when Rachmaninoff played; and at these concerts as well as the composer other notable artists who appeared were the cellists, Pablo Casals and Brandoukov, the violinist, Eugene Ysäye, and Fedor Chaliapin.

The C minor Piano Concerto was completed by the spring of 1901, and also the Suite, Op. 17, for two pianofortes, briefly sketched out the previous autumn. As already mentioned the concerto received its first performance in England at a London Philharmonic concert of 1902, the soloist being Basil Sapellnikoff. Rachmaninoff dedicated the concerto to Dr. Dahl as an expression of his gratitude for the success of his care. As no one saving the doctor, the patient, and his cousins knew of the “cure” there was considerable speculation as to the reason for the dedication. The completion of this large work shattered whatever remained of an inferiority complex in the psychology of Rachmaninoff.

Marianne Tobias (2003) points out in a book with the delightful title Classical Music Without Fear that, after spending time with Dr Dahl, Rachmaninoff produced his second symphony “which weighd in at 320 pages in the original manuscript”. She observes that “herein you can find all the Racmaninoff hallmarks: luscious melodies, boisterous dances, passionate introspective writing, emotional fervour, and bold, rich orchestration.”

This story and the discussion of deliberate practice focus my thoughts on the confidence coaches and athletes need to perform. I am particularly interested in how coaches develop their narratives with athletes and how athletes themselves use (if at all) self talk. Perhaps this is why I am so interested in the possibilities of horse whispering.

Photo Credits

Like Whispers in the Fog

When photography turns social experience

Deliberate Practice: What Coaches Can Learn From Pianists

This morning on Classic FM (Australia) Margaret Throsby had a telephone conversation with Boris Berman about the Melbourne Festival of the Piano. Part of the interview was about a one-hour public seminar to be held on Wednesday 7 July. The seminar’s title is On Practice and will be presented by Boris Berman with special guests Paul Lewis and Ronald Farren-Price.

I cannot find a link to a recording of  the conversation but was struck at the time by Boris’s clarity about the role of deliberate practice. Quoting Rachmaninoff, Boris observed that “if I do not practice for one day … I notice. If I do not practice for two days … my friends notice. If I do not practice for three days … the audience notices.”

He talked in detail about:

  • Linking all practice to the artistic outcome.
  • Transforming practice environments.
  • The role of mental rehearsal away from the practice environment.

Once again I was struck by the lessons that coaches can learn from exploring the world of performing arts. I am keen to read Boris Berman’s Notes from the Pianist’s Bench.

One reviewer notes that the book starts:

where most diligent students hopefully find themselves presently: in the pratice room. But what a practice room this is! While yours (and mine) consists of four naked white walls with a big black piano in it, Professor Berman’s practice room is a laboratory of experimentation and consideration. His enormous experience in performance practice, spanning all styles from harpsichord to Cage, allows him to approach a topic from several angles at the same time. Berman is especially afraid of exaggeration and dogmatic advice and believes our faults to be the extension of our virtues: “My biggest hesitation about writing this book has been a fear that my advice will be misinterpreted or carried ad absurdum. Guided by the teacher, a young musician must learn to use common sense, both in making interpretive decisions and in deciding on appropriate physical actions to realize them.”

Boris Berman is clear about the role practice plays in performance excellence. His workshop with Paul Lewis and Ronald Farren-Price would be a great resource for coaches from a different kind of bench.

Photo Credit

Piano and/or keyboard