Other Excerpts

A lesson in legato

The essence of a stable structure can be discovered thuswise: you stand on one finger so firmly that all other fingers just dangle from the hand assembly – the next finger can drop in with no pressing; you can exactly control the degree of ‘attack’. Then this finger becomes the standing finger, the next portion of the melodic strand now drops in. ‘Firm and drop’. ‘Consolidate and drop in’. Whatever formulation works for you.

The corollary in T’ai Chi is the very first thing you learn in studying that most ancient of the Chinese martial arts, the basis upon which the whole T’ai Chi form rests: the walking. Before learning any T’ai Chi movements one must first learn a whole new organization and feel in walking, one which frees and empowers one’s center of gravity, the D’an Tien, three centimeters below the bellybutton. Stand with the feet shoulder width apart, pointed slightly inward so that the third toes are parallel. Sink down, bending the knees but keeping the torso erect, leaning neither forward nor back (if you check in the mirror you’ll probably find at first you can’t even do this well!).

Now comes the crucial moment: lift your left foot and place it on the ground in front of you, at a 45 degree angle from the right foot. Do this without shifting the weight! Aha! Your right leg should be able to function like the suspension springs on a car, bobbing you up and down a little, the weightless left foot lightly slapping the ground. Only when you feel the integrity of this position and can clearly discriminate: one foot weighted, the other free (yang and yin), then allow yourself to shift the weight.

On the keyboard, can you really drop a finger in while the stabilizing finger and the rest of the hand do not collapse in  the slightest?

Another physical lesson: the hand as suspension spring (x design)

Put your thumb on a key, then ‘standing’ on it, stretch the four fingers as high as you can, all the while letting a considerable amount of weight press down through the thumb into the key. As you bring the second finger ever-so-slowly down to play the adjacent note, keep lots of pressure on the hand, as if there was some huge weight exerting itself on the hand, and the thumb must work hard to keep that weight from crushing the hand down. In addition, act as if there is some huge force keeping the thumb and forefinger apart, and you must work against this force to bring the forefinger to play. I believe this is called isometrics. Notice how this gives you unbelievable exactitude and control over the sound of this note. When you release the note, still holding the thumb and maintaining pressure, let the forefinger spring up again to full extension.

This exercise adds function, strength and flexibility to underlying structural integrity: a structure that is not functional is dead, rigid – useless!

Sensitivity: the key to power

The pianist’s aim for each work he performs should be to present an interpretation which is definitive to the limited extent that any performance can be – that it touches previously undiscovered levels of emotional fulfillment or completion, previously unheard levels of tonal discrimination and richness, that all this is achieved with the utmost elegance of phrasing, ease and command of execution. The complexity and uniqueness of expression  which he wishes to extract from each new composition he approaches should be such that to learn it could even become akin to learning a new instrument.

When one studies the nature of piano technique in the wider context of a general understanding of physical movement, an essential element comes into clear focus: the more tactile discrimination we cultivate, the  more exactly we can control and know what we do. Physical clarity in its turn cultivates emotional and mental clarity, and a clarity of overall perception which in its actualization resembles the trance-meditative state of the mystics.

In Tai Chi Chuan the same form of choreography or series of battle movements is done each day for years upon years, slowly, gently. The goal is in the quality of what one does, the process is of discovery and heightening sensitivity; one is never bored or finished but always enriched. ‘Sensitivity’ takes on an eminently practical meaning, as it is through one’s ability to hone one’s kinesthetic sensing ability that improved use of one’s skeletal structure occurs. The T’ai Chi master can throw an opponent across the room while barely appearing to move his little finger, because his cultivation of sensitivity has allowed him to purge himself of the tensions which prevent the average man from achieving exceptionally refined levels of power.

Translated to piano, a heightened kinesthetic sensitivity to the instrument ensures that one indeed ‘never plays the same way twice’, because the literally thousands of subtle variations in physical and aural circumstances are enough to ensure that each performance becomes indeed an experience of  creating  a composition anew. Thus the repeated practicing of one composition can be anything but a repetitive process: rather one of ongoing research, investigation, discovery, refinement. These rehearsals, to be effective rather than strangulative or inhibitive, counterproductive, must have suitable pauses between them, several hours, a day or several days, allowing the natural subconscious assimilation process full manifestation.

The Wrist

… is a hinge joint whose function in piano playing is to transmit the force vectors* acting on it or rather through it precisely, cleanly, completely. It cannot do this if it is either “broken” or locked. If the wrist “breaks”, the force vectors sheer off at an angle, their energy nullified. If the wrist is locked, the bones may well be lined up correctly but the forces simply can’t get through – they’re blocked at the joint.

* the results of forearm “weight” or arm activity moving in the direction of the key, or of forces travelling back up the arm as a result of contact with the key