On Teaching

April 1, 2015

Listening Carefully II 

As I wrote last month, I want to continue to muse about aspects of listening carefully to one’s own playing while actually playing. I say “muse” because this is not cut-and-dried. It is about the psychology of playing, of motivating one’s self, of being honest with one’s self, of trying to shape the playing beyond what can be planned for or expressed through specific ideas. At least that is what it is about in part—it is also about just plain knowing what is going on and keeping things together. 

At the end of last month’s column, I said specifically that I wanted to muse about “the project of listening for the overall impact of what you are doing.” This is, I would say, the most potentially fascinating part of listening closely while playing, the most philosophical or theoretical, and perhaps the most controversial or subject to being thought about very differently by different players, teachers, and students. I myself divide it into two components, clearly related to each other but somewhat distinct: first, listening to make sure that what you are trying to do interpretively (rhetorically, expressively: there are a number of ways to describe it) is coming across; second, listening in such a way that you yourself are actually moved or affected by the expressive/interpretive impact of what you are playing, in a way that is analogous to what you hope and expect that the (other) listeners are experiencing. 

It is the second of these that I think is actually potentially controversial. I should say that it is also something that greatly intrigues me, and that I try to do myself, when I think that I can. I believe that it is actually an integral part of my performance process, and that I would have trouble playing effectively without being—at least much of the time—open to experiencing directly the feelings, moods, thoughts, affects, etc., that I hope that my playing will create in other listeners.


Rhythmic inflection

Part of the reason for this is specific and concrete as a set of performance techniques. Some of the time—not at every instant during any piece, but recurrently and frequently—I try to create (or enhance) expressiveness through the use of rhythmic inflection. This happens on both a small scale—individual notes of small rhythmic grouping being made a little bit longer than other notes, for various sorts of emphasis—and on a longer scale—stretching the rhythm or timing of phrases or sections, slowing down the tempo, cranking it back up, and so on. (I should acknowledge that I didn’t create this idea. I think that I do more of it than many players, especially with Baroque keyboard music, where a tendency has existed for many years to deny or limit these sorts of interpretive possibilities. That is a large subject, and one for another day.) 

These are all gestures that cannot, as far as I can tell, be completely defined or measured or completely planned out in advance. It is necessary to get them right at the very moment that you are performing them, on a quasi-improvised basis. (Or planned up to a point and refined on a quasi-improvised basis). Since the goal of these sorts of gestures is affective or emotional, at least one way to gauge the rightness of the gesture is to let yourself experience the emotion and to shape what you are doing accordingly. 

There are two other, less technical or concrete, reasons why I am interested in embracing the idea of trying to experience the emotional content of what I am playing while I am playing it. One of these is that I know that if I am getting something meaningful out of what I am playing, then it is possible for someone else to do so. If I am not, then I can’t be sure. I can try to know. I can rely on people telling me that they got something out of a performance. I can make predictions about what ought to work in performance and then try to do that in such a way that I can know that I did it. (Both of these are very real and important). There’s the faith in the music, the pieces: if I am playing a great piece, and playing it basically well, with appropriate sounds, and so on, then most likely something good is going to come across. I suppose that the desire to allow myself to be caught up in or swept up by what I am playing is in part a desire to go as far as possible towards making a performance as powerful and effective
as possible.



The second of these two other reasons is one of motivation. Of course I can be motivated by “professionalism,” by a sense of responsibility, by wanting to be seen to give good performances (“heard”, really), by finding it gratifying to get reports from listeners that they got something out of a piece or a concert, and so on. (Also to justify whatever I am being paid!) However, actually experiencing directly a version of what I think I can get out of the kind of music that I play is an important component of what keeps me wanting to do it, and what motivates me to work hard at it and to accept the inevitable tension that comes with public performance. This may be selfish or self-indulgent. It is powerful, however, and probably does no harm, even if selfish. (It does have pitfalls, however, which I will get to below.)

Here’s a very personal story about this—one that has an essential component or two missing because of the lapse of time, but that I still find important. One of my two graduate degree recitals consisted of The Art of the Fugue. I played the whole work on the organ (the Fisk organ at Westminster Choir College, just for the record). It was by far the hardest thing I had done up to that point. It is almost certain that I “shouldn’t” have done it. My level of skill and experience at that point was such that it would have been difficult to predict with any confidence that I could pull this off, even at a minimal level of success. However, I was highly motivated in advance by my existing very strong—and very emotional—relationship with that piece as a listener. Clearly my teacher, Eugene Roan, thought that I could do it or that it would be worth trying. I believe he had a lot of respect for the motivation factor, and in general believed in letting people do or try that which interests and excites them the most (as do I). 

The main moment that I remember from that performance is the very end. The Art of the Fugue is incomplete: Bach died before he could compose (or perhaps just before he could dictate) the final section. The piece actually breaks off in the middle of a line. Everything is unresolved. To me at the time (and still now) this moment when the counterpoint abruptly breaks off and there is silence where there should have been music is one of the most powerful moments in all of the arts. Of course it is a moment that the composer didn’t intend. It was created by a coming together of random things, not all of them good. And it is certainly possible to debate whether it is a good idea to finish the piece, as many people have done over the centuries. Clearly any such completion is not, cannot be, what the composer intended, but the abrupt breaking off that I find so powerful is not what the composer intended either. I recall being essentially overwhelmed by the effect of the premature end of the long piece that evening. I was in a state of collapse and had to spend quite a while collecting myself before I turned around to the audience. Now, amongst the things that I can’t re-capture from that day is whether my performance was in fact particularly effective—of the piece as a whole or of the moment that I found so powerful. I also don’t know whether I was in a similar state of enrapture with the emotional content of some or many earlier passages in the work: probably so, but I don’t have a vivid memory of it. I also don’t know how well I avoided the pitfalls of being that caught up in what I was playing: very possibly not very well. (I didn’t record that performance, or else I would know some of this.) 

So I am telling this somewhat unsatisfyingly incomplete story because of this: the memory of how I felt as that performance of The Art of the Fugue ended has been a significant and very specific motivating factor for my work as a player ever since, including through various moments of frustration or what seemed to me like loss of direction. Therefore, to return expressly to the world of teaching, I encourage students to allow themselves to create this same sort of motivation for their work. 

I often suggest to students the following practice tool. Once they have identified a spot where they want to make a rhythmic gesture (usually of the sort that might be described as “rubato”) they practice that gesture, in the privacy of the studio, in as exaggerated a manner as possible: take the risk of executing a gesture that is utterly tasteless, mannered, “schmaltzy.” This is to counter the fact that we usually only visit the gestures that we think we want to make “from below” (so to speak), that is, only compared to and judged in comparison to not making such a gesture, or to a modest version of the gesture. This stems from and then reinforces a philosophy that teaches a kind of reluctance about such gestures. If you hear a rhythmic inflection from both sides, you get a different sense of exactly how it might be effective. I mention this because the only way I know of to make that judgment as to when something is exaggerated, when it is too slight, and when it is just what you want is by experiencing the actual result. Only if a student is willing and able not just to listen, but to feel, to experience, can that student say “Yes, that was effective,” or “That was too exaggerated: the intensity burst and was lost,” or “That wasn’t enough to do anything for me.” The ability to do this is a step in moving away from too much reliance on other people’s reactions to your playing—not that those can’t then also be taken into account. 


Other opinions

So what are the drawbacks? Well, I have recently been asking fellow musicians, “What do you think about actually experiencing the emotional content of what you are playing, while you are playing it?” And when I have gotten concerned or skeptical responses, the reservations expressed have been mostly one of these: that if you are looking to experience the emotion behind the music directly yourself, you are likely to make that emotion come across too strongly, and this sort of listening and reacting can distract you from just plain accurate playing. In other words, if you get too caught up in what you are hearing, you will forget to stay on top of the notes, fingers, and pedalings. (I should say that it surprised me what a large percentage of the responses to this question were skeptical or negative. My own desire to embrace this sort of approach to the player as listener is by no means shared by everyone.) 

I think that my own response to these concerns is something like this. As to the first one, I would suggest not worrying about it until there is a reason to. I think that most listeners want more expressive rather than less expressive playing, and that the dynamic that might lead some players to overdo emotion in performing if they are caught up in hearing that emotion themselves is perhaps in fact just a corrective to a common tendency for reticence and shyness about expressivity. If there is feedback from trusted listeners—or from your own experience listening to recordings, assuming that they are accurately engineered—telling you that what you are doing is overblown, then you can take that into account. It would be a shame to assume in advance that this will be the case.

As to the second concern, I think that preparation is the main key. If a piece or passage is solidly learned, then the need to think consciously about the next fingering or pedaling or note is limited, and the vulnerability to distraction is small. The particular kind of distraction that comes from the content of the music itself is also at least correlated with what is going on in the notes of the piece. It is always necessary to be ready to pull back and shift focus to just keeping it going, and an emotional or affective involvement in the content of the music is only one sort of thing from which a player might sometimes have to pull back. I don’t think that there is any particular reason to be afraid of being unable to do so when the need arises.