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November, 2001
Editorial Musings
Performing in "The Zone"

No, not the "Twilight Zone", but a state of awareness that performers occasionally experience in concert when everything "clicks" and they feel like the music is playing them. I don't know how common this label is, the first I heard it called "the zone" was by David Sternbach, a previous orchestral hornist, and current musical physiotherapist. At the end of a series of seminars in 1998 on avoiding performance injuries, held at the Levine School of Music in Washington, D.C., he stated that the next seminar would explore "performing in the zone". As far as I know the seminar never materialized, but my interested was sparked because in 1996 I had experienced this heightened awareness and soon after read a quote by Edwin Fischer which seemed to describe it:

But no amount of studying, no amount of talent, no amount of industry suffices if one's whole life is not dedicated to the idea of being the mediator of great thoughts and emotions. Every deed, and indeed every thought leaves its mark on the personality. The purity of one's life should even extend to the food one eats. Thus prepared, that which cannot be taught will come, the grace of the tranquil hour in which the spirit of the composer speaks to us, that moment of the subconscious, of rapture -- call it intuition, grace, or what you will -- when all tieds are loosened, all constraints disappear. One seems to hover. One no longer feels: I am playing. Rather, IT is playing. And lo, everything is right, as if led by the hand of God the melodies stream from your fingers. It streams through you, and you allow yourself to be carried along, humbly experiencing the greatest joy of the recreative artist, of being nothing but a medium, a mediator between the Godly, the Eternal, and human beings. (quoted in the Epilogue of Interpreting Bach at the Keyboard by Paul Badura-Skoda, trans. Alfred Clayton, pub. Clarendon Press, 1993)

Once experienced, performers seek to recreate the experience at each performance, but it cannot be called up at will, but rather magically appears when just the right inward and outward conditions coincide. Inward conditions include thorough preparation and comfort with the music as well as mental confidence, alertness and spontaneity, while outward conditions not only involve the absence of disruptions but the presence of encouragement and support. Is the audience aware of the performer's experience, in other words, does it always result in an inspired performance? In the 1917 book Great Pianists on Piano Playing (Dover reprint, 1999) Sergei Rachmaninoff writes:

In all good pianoforte playing there is a vital spark that seems to make each interpretation of a masterpiece -- a living thing. It exists only for the moment, and cannot be explained. For instance, two pianists of equal technical ability may play the same composition. With one the playing is dull, lifeless and sapless, with the other there is something that is indescribably wonderful. His playing seems fairly to quiver with life. It commands interest and inspires the audience. What is this vital spark that brings life to mere notes? In one way it may be called the intense artistic interest of the player. It is that asonishing thing known as inspiration. . . when the performer finds the same joy that the composer found at the moment the composition came into existence, then something new and different enters his playing.

Is Rachmaninoff describing the same thing as Fischer? Can a performer transmit this "vital spark" to the audience and not be playing "in the zone", and vice versa? Ruth Laredo has mentioned this sought-after phenomena -- during the question-and-answer session of a live concert of hers in Maryland several years ago she mentioned the occasional occurance of this experience, and further explains it in David Dubal's book, Reflections From the Keyboard (Schirmer Books, 1997):

Dubal asks: On the day of the concert, what do you find yourself hoping for?

Laredo: Something which happens very infrequently: a feeling of ease, of relaxation, of being one with the music and the audience so that I can rise above myself and make music on a different level than I normally do. When that happens, I feel wonderful. It is not like any other feeling on earth. So often the piano is lousy, or the audience is coughing, or you are nervous, or your concentration is off -- there are so many things that can go wrong in a concert situation. So when I have a concert like the one I just played in San Fransisco, where the piano was fine and I was relaxed, and the audience seemed very attentive and right with me, I felt that I could do more than I was ever able to do before. I guess that's called inspiration. That's what I hope for. I don't expect it, but when it happens, it is really something.

Later she mentions playing Rachmaninoff in her answer to Dubal's question:

What is the role of logic in your interpretations?

Laredo: . . . There has to be a combination of intelligence and intuition. As a performer and as a listener, I find that you miss an awful lot of the music's feeling if it is completely filtered through your intellectual processes. For instance, with Rachmaninoff you must really let yourself go, and feel what he is expressing. It's a mistake to try and analyze Rachmaninoff too carefully, there's so much emotion connected with him.

Please let me know what have you read, or experienced, about playing "in the zone"? Do you think it is the same as Rachmaninoff's "vital spark"? I plan to do another column on this experience and welcome contributions by readers on this subject.

by Rose Eide-Altman , editor
published November 1, 2001
copyright 2001 PianoWomen.com

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