DISRUPTION OF SOUND WAVES
Updated: Dec 29, 2022
During a recent piano lesson on November 17, 2022, my teacher, Robert Estrin (livingpianos.com), wanted to help me fine-tune the piece I was working on, the Tchaikovsky Waltz from his Children’s Album, and I did, too. After a once-through play, he told me to start again from the beginning, but warned that he would stop me where a passage or phrase needed correction or refinement. I asked if he would give me some clues about where that would be, but he would not. I surmise that he had to first listen carefully to identify with precision where I went off.
Accordingly, as the obedient student that I was at the time (we often laugh together at how stubborn I sometimes become during class!), I started playing and sure enough, about 6 to 8 bars in, he practically yelled "STOP!" or "THERE!," or some such. I jumped sky high. Physically jumped a half-inch off the bench and sat back down with a thud! After my lesson I wondered about why I had jumped? I was startled because at the time Robert stopped me, I was completely involved in listening to what I was playing! By the time of this lesson after three months studying with Robert, I was finding it fairly easy to dismiss distractions, including the original distraction of being conscious of my teacher watching me on Skype😁. I was more frequently able during class to focus intently into a piece or a phrase I was playing. On this particular occasion when he stopped me, indeed I was lost in the piece. But later I was thrilled to realize that was exactly why I had jumped! Piano Lessons are strange critters. The student has to attend to multiple things happening at once in both hands, ears, and other body parts, plus employ memory, the active in-the-moment mind, and the spirit in the accomplishment of nuance that honors the composer's score and intentions (insofar as we can determine them). All this, not to mention trying to implement on the spot precisely what the teacher is trying to impart or demonstrate! To do that, we have to be able to jump into the middle of a piece to the specific part that needs refinement.
Jumping into the middle is usually difficult for me since I become easily confused and often rendered practically helpless. In part that is because now pieces I am studying and learning are beginning to seem like whole beings and not just a string of notes on paper, and any interruption is, well, disrupting! Even during lessons and as suggested above, I’ve learned that there is never an excuse to play mechanistically (this and the poem below are from Vol. I of Poetical Musings and Pianos, Music & Life):
I shouldn’t like to “play like a typewriter”
as dear Horowitz proclaimed,
about how some pianists pluck the strings
in a style he so disdained.
He meant the attack of a pianist’s touch
that transmitted not one whiff
of spirit, but elicited recoil
and Horowitz’s gentle fit.
I’m pretty sure that’s not my sin,
nor hunt and peck my style.
I’ve feeling galore, but need much more
to practice tempo with The General,*
then learn to bring a finer touch
to make my melody sing,
and tampen down the bass-most parts
to delicate nuances bring.
The name I gave my metronome.
I should never in practice or playing ignore my original, underlying love and feelings for a piece; one should always play expressively. To do that I have to listen intently to the sound of Rhapsody-Arabesque expressing the melody line. But lessons and attempts to improve my pianism invariably involve splitting my attention. My delicious realization that I was starting to really "enter" the piece I was playing, pleased me no end! Playing consistently feels like I am wholly going inside the piece, and more easily leaving behind all external distractions. That's a beneficial practice especially for a concert pianist if they have lost a bit of their original love for a too-well-rehearsed piece. (I assume no concert pianist chooses to play a piece that they hate!) As an aside, you might find it useful to read Juliard professor and psychologist-musician Noa Kageman's interesting blog on two types of performance anxiety and how best to address them by focusing on sound and expressive goals (not how to create the end product): cognitive anxiety and somatic anxiety; https://bulletproofmusician.com/the-one-thing-we-often-overlook-when-trying-to-beat-performance-anxiety/ Robert told me that when he attends a piano symphony or concerto, he can usually predict the featured pianist's upcoming mistake or going off in some way, by when he loses attention himself. That was a novel concept, but it made sense. If you, the listener, are connected in a deep and intimate way to the pianist and the music being presented, with ears and heart wide open, then the resonance of the sound waves will let you know when they are slightly disturbed, like those early warning systems a second or two before an earthquake hits! I think I shall listen intently to upcoming pianists when I attend our fall-spring season of the SF Symphony, including the much-anticipated performances by Yuja Wang, Lang Lang, and Beatrice Rana. (I hope to go backstage on March 1, 2023 to hand Ms. Wang a copy of "Poetical Musings on Pianos, Music & Life" because on page 70 I feature her in a complimentary and amusing poem sporting a feminist theme regarding what fashion style we choose wear to the symphony. Obviously anyone who knows me personally and any visitor to my blog will recognize that just like Ms. Wang--but absent the stilettos--I just adore wearing subdued, matronly all-black clothing (smile)...
The only solution I can think of to my problem of jumping at my teacher's interruptions during practice, is a seat belt. Anyone remember the hilarious video of Victor Borge precipitously sliding off his bench when soprano Marilyn Mulvaney hit a loud, high note? Borge got up off the floor, opened up the piano bench, took out a seat belt, then bucked in. I think I’ll rig up something like that for my next piano lesson! You may hear me read the poem below by on the title, or this URL:
Yuja Wang. Need I say more?
A music-loving friend and I
came to blows about her short dress–
antipathy toward it, he refused to hide.
“Unsuitable for a pianist!” he insistently declared.
Beyond the edge he could tolerate,
beyond concert decency as defined in his head,
and leading to loathing, perhaps even hate?
I pondered the fervor with which a gold dress,
mini in style, as Wang often wears,
showing gorgeous slim legs and wearing stilettos,
engendered his ire. As if anyone should care?
Such technical command! Such absolute precision!
(though one might complain of such perfect perfection?)
My curiosity piqued, I read with amusement
the raging debate over Wang’s image presentation.
But “times are a-changin’” as Dylan shrewdly said,
and styles, they must flow and not be mechanical.
The dress kerfuffle clearly boils down in the end
to nothing more or less than a history puritanical!
Oh yes. Don’t forget that men like to tell us
how to dress and think and behave, no less.
So ladies just ignore any misguided ire,
and pursue your own version of Wang’s little gold dress!