Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Why Playing (or Practicing) a Piece of Music is Like Taking a Walk

I have been thinking about thinking again. But today I was "thinking of some thinking" while practicing Bach. Like my student, I tend to think some of the time, most of the time, or, perhaps, my attention darts from one thing to another while I am practicing. Sometimes I find myself noticing things I have never noticed before as the notes of a familiar piece go by my eyes and get translated, through my arms and fingers (and all the little nerves and muscles that connect them to the rest of my anatomy) into something filled with detail. Sometimes I find myself at the end of a piece, and it is as if I had been transported in time from the beginning to the end, without the slightest memory of the journey.

Sometimes I get an idea for a blog post.

Playing a piece of music by yourself is sort of like taking a walk by yourself along a familiar path. The notes, rhythms, harmonies, dynamics, and indications of articulation put in by the composer are the details of the landscape that do not change (under normal circumstances) like the pavement, the beginning and end points, the trees, the houses, the hills, and the obstacles that can't be avoided. If a log runs across your path, you need to be careful, every time, to avoid stubbing your toe or tripping. When you know that the obstacle is coming up, you can prepare yourself ahead of time. Eventually you learn not to think about the obstacles, and simply avoid them out of habit.

But I digress. Let's both take a moment to contemplate obstacles you could find in walking paths and in music.

Now I'll get back on track.

There are variables that make it possible to say with complete confidence that you can never walk the same path exactly the same way. There are big things like temperature, light (which itself is always changing), wind, and weather, and there are our ways of reacting to them by what we are wearing. Footwear is usually pretty important. It is a different experience walking a mile in heels than it is in sneakers, but if we are used to walking in heels, we make adjustments (we must labor to be beautiful). It is far more difficult to play certain pieces on the French Horn than it is to play them on the piano, but we make adjustments (we must labor to play the French Horn beautifully). Sometimes, for expressive reasons, string players choose fingerings that are difficult to play easily, but we must labor to play stringed instruments beautifully.

There is a walking speed that is comfortable and habitual, but we can always walk more slowly (if necessary) or more quickly (if necessary). Walking slowly we might observe more of the things that change along our path like the particular state of the trees, the birds, the squirrels, human beings that we might see and might see us (perhaps they might see us walking slowly and observing details about the pavement, and they might think we're a bit nuts). Walking quickly, we might enjoy the physical challenge of moving fast, we might enjoy the way our heart rate goes up, or we might be trying to work off anger or express the joy we feel being part of nature. We also might be trying to get somewhere fast, and we might be in a panic. In that case we often miss the landscape.

Sometimes we count steps. Sometimes we play games. Sometimes we kick rocks.

When we practice familiar pieces (or scales and exercises), we free our mind to take in what it wants to. When it is a complicated or particularly well-written piece, like a piece of solo Bach, the landscape is rich, and we can see whatever patterns we want to see at a given moment. We can observe the way the rhythm relates to the harmony, we can pay attention to the consistency of the sound we are making, we can pay attention to a particular element of technique, and observe the way it applies to what we are playing. We can stop, go back, and play something again. We can listen for intonation. We can mess around with agogics, we can mess around with syntax, and, with Bach, we can mess around with dynamics and articulations. We can observe the vast number of possibilities available to us in our musical landscape, or we can pay close attention to the details of the "pavement."

Changes in weather are analogous to changes in our moods, the state of our health, the level of our blood sugar, the amount of sleep we get (or need), the amount of caffeine we had (or need), the amount of time we have (or need) to practice, the comfort of our clothes, the comfort of the room. There are thousands upon thousands of little things that contribute to the way we might play a piece of Bach at any given time.

This is why playing Bach never gets old. The path may be familiar, but there is so much to observe and experience that the path is never the same.

2 comments:

Quodlibet said...

Elaine, it is essays like this one that bring me back often. Thank you for inviting us to walk with you.

brad said...

Beautifully written. Now I want to go practice!