Friday, November 2, 2012

A Missing Perceptual Link

You may perhaps have noted a contradiction in the last post about the relative slowness of the visual compared to the auditory response: For many players this is the rationale for playing from memory--remove the visual from the picture in order to free the ear.

That, however, is not the way it works for everyone.  

I have had to learn to hear independent of the score.  I have learned it mostly from listening to my students.  When I hear as they hear I know I am really listening.  I notice that when they know they are being heard with that precision they respond to sounds before they make them.  I see them anticipate sounds; I  note the subtle changes in touch that reflect their certainty that the piano keys do not produce uniform sounds.  

Reading music is no longer a matter of discerning theoretical definitions and functions at work, but rather an invitation to engage my ear, one sound at a time, in propositions I cannot imagine, much less identify.  This new reading is what enables me to revisit Schubert's F minor Impromptu, utterly transformed in the process.

Memory: A Perceptual Trap?

A listener at my last recital asked why I do not play from memory. 

My immediate reply referred to two early experiences of blackouts during professional performances on the organ.  Spooked by that, I was not willing to risk any interference or distraction while making music.  

Thinking more about the question I realize its implications in terms of my life-long involvement with visual response and with motor memory: both are problematic.  Let's consider one at a time.

Visual response:
I am very quick to respond to visual stimuli: I like to solve puzzles that rely on visual cues, I improvise visual responses in my improvisational needlework.  But how rapidly I am bored by visual repetition was evident to Hans Neumann, the brilliant musician with whom I studied piano at Mannes back in the day.  He spotted right away that I, a crack sight-reader, was incapable of reading and listening at the same time.  (I had noticed that, having once read a composition, the only way I could stay interested in it was to play it ever faster....)

Motor memory:
Given the strength of my eye-hand coordination, reliance on muscle memory as a major factor in memorizing music followed naturally.  Though in many ways at a high level of competence, my vision and motor-based memory, as it did not fully engage my ear, depended on reliability, i.e., on repetitive function. 

Certainly there are many components to the problem, none of which I can identify objectively.  Be that as it may, the writings of Viktor Zuckerkandl (notably
Sound and Symbol and The Sense of Music) compelled me to undertake the challenge of strengthening my ear to the point of making it the basis of all my playing and of my teaching.  

The ear response has been scientifically measured (see James Hudspeth, Rockefeller University) as being 200 times faster than any other sense perception, based on the activity of 32,000 vibrating sensor-tipped hair cells in our inner ear.  I go in pursuit of that speed, not motor speed or visual speed.

Thus, I play with the score because doing so frees me to move more spontaneously, with greater daring and passion, than is accessible via my memory--I do not want to be burdened with anything that smacks of repetition.  

That said, I realize that these balances are different for different players. 

Mastery in an 11-year old

It is probably difficult for any 11-year-old to believe that he or she should be any different from all other 11-year-olds.  I recall wondering at that age whether I was supposed to sound like everyone else who played the piano.  It was not a pleasant question and it was a highly isolating one to ponder--it could certainly not be expressed aloud.

But I have seen an 11-year-old student become fascinated with the vivid drama of sounds in a composition that I found too troubling to play myself.  Her insistence on the piece despite my cautions demonstrated to me as few other instances have in the course of my teaching, that there is a deeper level of mastery than simply being able to play the notes.  In fact, one of the more amazing things about her selection was that the notes were awkward, involving complex hand positions and subtle fingerings as well as challenging dissonances of both tone and time (rests with fermatas are not comfortable--they are, indeed, not supposed to be). 

I call this mastery; perhaps the better word would be self-possession.  How old were you when you experienced that while playing your instrument?  

This child was taught in the manner I described in my last post: to give primacy to her responses to sound, whether from a printed score or in music that she improvised.