Thursday, September 5, 2013

Cans of Word Worms: Now, Weight! Part Two

As musicians, a large part of our learning is experiential. In fact, that's a large part of all human learning. Very strong sensory experiences become memories, while untold numbers of sensory experiences are fleeting. Giving sensory experiences names helps us to recall them as needed. A restaurant that serves very "salty" food may be one I avoid, for example, as it isn't my favorite taste experience, while one that balances flavors toward "umami", a delicious savory taste, will get my return business.

When I returned to the piano business after meeting Chris Stevens (see Part One), I was in a bit of a jam. For almost three decades I had used the word "weight" to tell my sensory memory how to play dynamics on the piano. If I took away that label, I would surely have to replace it with something else. But first, I had to figure out what I was doing at the piano that seemed liked adding weight.

1. I was pulling down through my arm structure. 
To me, that was the way I could get more arm weight into the keys. I had probably seen this same movement dozens of times when watching other pianists. This I discovered on my first meeting with another wonderful British Alexander Technique (AT) Teacher, Elisabeth Walker. She took one look at me and said, "You're a pianist, aren't you?" I thought she had learned mind-reading from her training teacher,  F.M. Alexander himself! What she had learned to recognize was a general habit of pianists to pull down through the arm structure.

2. I was leaning forward from my "waist".
Because, of course, if I could get more arm weight into the game by pulling my arms down, just imagine what I could do with my whole torso! In addition to the fallacy of arm weight, I was also abiding by the fallacy of a waist. This was something I was beginning to change through AT lessons, but it was certainly part of my earlier attempts to add weight to the keys.

3. I was gripping with the muscles of the palms of my hands.
Why, I don't know, as I don't recall anyone ever advising this in terms of weight. It probably just felt like more weight in my hands, actually the crux of the whole experiential part of my exploration, which is this:

4. I wanted to "feel" something different when applying "weight" to the keys.
Unfortunately, what this something different amounted to was overwork in the muscles. Overwork, tension, forcing, pushing, pulling, gripping - there is a long list of things I can identify that amount to excess movement effort. By calling these movements "weight", I had a sensory tag that I could easily resort to whenever needed.

All of this takes me to another lesson with another wonderful Alexander Technique Teacher, this one American pianist and composer Linda Babits. After having a lesson with her in which I was able to let go of a huge amount of tension, I struggled to find a word for the effortless feeling I had when playing. "Weight" was not going to work, not as I had used it before. I remember saying that it felt like energy. She said, "Well, the only way to change sound is by changing the speed of the key movement."

Oh. Something about the physics of the piano to learn. Meet me at Part Three.

1 comment:

  1. I STRONGLY identify with 4.
    Not that I'm an aggressive person, but I try to make my play aggressive and give it 'attitude'...But I believe I have spent to long approaching that sound in the WRONG way, I.e. putting lots of 'weight' into the keys.