This post will continue the discussion of how to know whether the source you are communicating with is a reliable one. In this case, I was given a concept that has proven to be so useful that I want to throw it in now and give you a chance to play with it, rather than waiting to include it in a longer chapter.
I’ve been practicing the slow movement of Chopin’s third sonata. I don’t sound like this* yet: http://www.box.com/s/e6ijt05ecfpzb1do9e3s
As is so typical with Chopin, this piece contains much more than meets the eye or ear at first. It had seemed fairly transparent to me in the past, but I’ve come to realize how little I really understand about it. At a recent lesson, on 2/7, my teacher brought up a question about the phrasing of the middle section, which is not at all regular or predictable. While looking at the piece that evening, thinking about this question, I felt that the cosmic WiFi was on, and I decided to ask the composer how he would like us to handle it.
As I may have said before, I am relieved, even while being confused, when I get a message that doesn’t make sense to me. That means it’s unlikely that I’ve thought it up on my own– one check mark in the “probably genuine” column. This was one of those times. I heard something like, “Wait for the sound to occur, and then experience it as a complete entity.” To which I replied, “Huh?” I was sure I must have heard wrong. This answer didn’t seem to have anything to do with the question about phrasing, and besides, how could I wait for the sound to occur, since I had to produce it myself? I tried to clear the inside of my head, and carefully asked again, only to be given the same concept with slightly different wording.
I still wasn’t seeing the connection, but soon there was more. I was told that I shouldn’t ask about the phrasing in linear terms because the music was three-dimensional, something that turned out to be true in more and subtler ways than I might have thought. (Four-dimensional, really, but that’s a more modern concept.)
Then I found myself inside a sort of bubble or egg, pink-melon colored for some reason, that represented the sound. I was inhabiting this warm, pleasant bubble of sound, and it moved with me throughout the piece, which was a kind of landscape or environment in which I could travel in any direction I wished. The vision and its kinesthetic components were unusually robust, and felt almost like a physical substance surrounding me, even when I opened my eyes to try out playing sections of the piece. The idea was that the piece was “already there” for me to experience– I didn’t have to actually play the notes in order for them to exist.
I never received any specific, prosaic direction about the phrasing, nothing like “this phrase ends here,” but I had plenty to chew on. The next evening, when I played the same piece, things fell into place in a new way. I realized that all I had to do was show up when it was time for the notes to happen. I just had to have my hand over the keys at that time, and the notes would “play themselves.” Next I tried the Fantaisie-Impromptu, where I’d been stuck at a speed plateau, and found myself going at nearly the required bat-out-of-hell tempo– for a while, anyway– without any effort. One more reason to think the advice was genuine– it actually worked. I hadn’t realized the degree to which I had been fighting each moment of my life as it arrived, existing in a state of tense and even painful anticipation, even though I thought I knew how to Be Here Now. I don’t know how that habit got started.
You will not be too surprised to hear that I haven’t been able to stay in that new state of mind for very long. However, when I’ve managed it, I’ve found that just about everything is easier. I’ve tried thinking this way while driving and while dancing, for example. When dancing is challenging and I feel I can’t keep going, I try to visualize the space my body needs to fill with each new move, and then to simply be there in the space. I’m not wasting so much energy straining to get there. I’m still experimenting, and probably will be for some time to come.
My daughter asked, intelligently as usual, “How does this relate to improvisation?” Meaning that the notes are not “already there” in the same way that they are with an already-composed piece. I’m not sure, and haven’t had a chance to ask, but I suppose it’s like my experience with dance. Trust that the notes will be there when you need them, then show up to meet them, without struggling.
I’m interested to know if any of you have had this kind of experience. When I mentioned it to a couple of my dance and movement teachers, they gave a decidedly “duh” response, because it was already obvious to them. Maybe I’ve just been a little slow.
*I hope Yundi Li and Deutsche Grammophon will forgive me for posting this, since I am enthusiastically promoting them by doing so.