OPENHEIMER, TAUBMAN.2, & MEDITATION
Updated: Aug 6
What do these three things have in common? Well, music for one thing.
Openheimer and the A bomb have been in the news recently not only because of the new movie on the man written and directed by Christopher Nolan, but because of the existential threat to humanity to which Oppenheimer contributed. (You can read the story of Oppenheimer in an article by Dennis Overbye, “Brilliance Against Naïveté” in the New York Times' Opinion Section on 7.31.23).
Today that threat is relevant and brought to the forefront of consciousness courtesy of A.I. It’s not far-fetched to my mind that the day will soon be here when artists and art will be gone as if exploded, and then replaced by computers and A.I.
Of course, some (perhaps the most bold and imaginative of all artists?) may try different ways of capitalizing on and incorporating A.I. with their music. I read in the article "A Reassuring Voice on Tech in a World of Upheaval" by Kashmir Hill in the same New York Times, that the singer Grimes invited people to use A.I.-generated versions of her voice in exchange for half of any royalties; how she enforces or makes money flow to her is beyond me, but I imagine she has her experts to figure that mystery out.
Becoming irrelevant is exactly what happened to me. I was a calligrapher formerly having a delightful and productive, if modest, 17-year part-time side business to my full-time lawyering for the State (that art kept me sane in the repressive bureaucracy) - until potential clients turned to the computer to create "original," perfectly symetrical and robotic, honorific or print certificates, letter art work, and wanna-be "hand-written" calligraphed wedding envelops. Composer John Adams wrote the opera Dr. Atomic which premiered in San Francisco in 2005 about the existential threat to humanity that Openheimer created (when will there be a followup opera on A.I.?). The several arias I’ve listened to are powerful, but the opera doesn’t solve the particular earthshaking problem then, or today.
Dorothy Taubman, of course, is the piano teacher who sought to solve the problem of injuries from inappropriate use of the bodily-playing apparatus when it comes to the piano, By now I’ve had three lessons in the technique from my local teacher, Amy Brookes. Learning seems to be a laborious, simplified process akin to how a baby learns to crawl, stand up, and then walk. Expressing frustration with my initial lessons to a friend, he suggested that I treat it like a meditation, and upon reflection, I decided this was perfectly appropriate advice. As I’ve studied and learned transcendental meditation, I find it involves a process of simplification, focusing, and letting go. Essentially, one does one thing at one time, mainly sit still and comfortably, close the eyes, allow thoughts to come and go, and simply "be" for 20 minutes, then go about one's business. What a contradiction is transcendental meditation as I practice it, compared to the past 20 or 30 years of my work life, as well a contradiction to the way work is organized in, and the values of, American society. But being retired since 2020 and no longer imprisoned in the need to serve a master and please a boss - including the customer boss - I still find it a challenge to keep returning constantly to the idea of one thing at a time. That and simplification are desirable because they will likely be the most productive processes of all to help me reach my present goals of living a calm, positive, creative, happy life, including slowly and deliberately achieving better pianism over time with effort. Learning to take time in order to accomplish the Taubman technique requires me to let go and focus, first on one key, playing it in a particular gestural manner over and over again with only one finger, looking at my elbow, forearm, wrist, hand and fingers and being aware of what they look like and are doing (am I emulating my teacher's use of her bodily apparatus?), then progressing to playing the same note with the three middle fingers, each in turn. Now after my third lesson, I'm learning how to implement what Taubman teachers call forearm “rotation“ when playing individual notes. You can find examples of rotation and a number of excellent videos on the technique on YouTube The thumb on one hand, and both pinkies have been left out of my rotation practice for now; those fingers come in the fourth lesson - if I can first accomplish some stability in my left wrist, the least-stable one. I am assigned to play notes with my forearm-wrist-hand and fingers "remaining as one unit" with no evident wrist wobble or flopping about. Stiffness is not exactly the goal, but stability, balance, and a feeling of freedom in striking the notes are the goals.
Relaxation is also not the goal, but rather "feeling free" when I play. This accords precisely what I have learned in my Alexander Technique lessons with Elyse, my teacher of over four years. She talks about "ease" at the piano - before beginning to play or perform, during playing, and in the later evaluation process. And ease does not come easy for me when I am distracted with a million other thoughts or concerns and am multitasking in my mind. It’s well known and a lot of reputable research has proved that humans are very poor at multitasking. Christopher Nolan ays that he works on one film at a time, and never has anything firm lined up as the "next thing," as many other hard-driving and striving movie directors do. He admits he’s never been any good at doing three things at once, and that seems to reflect the wisdom of focus and simplification. Another great article is by Oliver Burkeman, “Today’s superpower is doing one thing at a time,“ also appearing in the same New York Times paper. He says that philosophers and spiritual teachers have long understood that the human urge to avoid giving ourselves fully to any single activity goes to the core of our struggles as finite human beings. He’s learning to give up multitasking not from any great spiritual enlightenment or prowess, but from the realization that he could only ever be here now, anyway, “so I might as well give up the stressful struggle to pretend otherwise.“ In deciding to pursue Taubman lessons I’ve had a terrific struggle over letting go of playing the few pieces that lift my spirits, and which I’ve memorized over the past year in my piano studies. I can’t say I’ve been entirely successful doing that, although that’s my stated goal in order to achieve the fastest progress in learning the Taubman technique, according to my piano teacher.
I guess I’m having a struggle as any typical finite human being would experience, wondering if I have sufficient time in my life to learn this dreadfully slow technique while avoiding playing compositions that thrill me, as well as those still in my "to do" file that I aspire to learn to play. Meanwhile, it’s time for my 10 tries on each of three or four fingers to get three solid properly formed note–playing gestures and firm piano tones. I think I’ll give it one more go while I try to forget about what I’ve had to give up.
After all it could be the giving up that’s the most difficult part of this process and not the learning of the technique. As I might have said in my former career as a lawyer, “the jury is still out.“
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