Category: ensemble

Staying in synch: with others and with oneself

B.N.’s lesson:

Schubert: Op 90/2 in E-flat Major

I played the Schubert along with him at the other piano. As a preliminary I asked him to choose what seemed like a doable tempo for him. His principal task was to stay with me, to disregard mistakes and any uncertainties about what notes were just coming over the horizon. I wanted him to stay in synch with me, in particular not fall behind me.*

Until this point in time N.B. would always come to a half in front of any uncertainty as to what to play next, and allowed himself an indefinite  period of time to figure it out, and which point he would simply go on playing from the same spot in the score.

The first useful result in our attempting this was to highlight in his mind just how often he ‘exited’ the flow of the music, to allow himself to do his own thing of figuring out the next note(s).

Each time he would hear me moving on in the piece instead of resynchronizing with him, my playing on served as a magnet to draw him
out of his own present tense. Or perhaps it was just an annoying ‘interruption’ on my part reminding him to go on playing (one way or another).

It gradually instilled the idea that any time spent figuring things out had to occur ‘inside’ and not ‘outside’ the flow and pulse of the tempo. Those two ‘times’ had to coincide with each other, and be completed by the time the next note was due, cutting short any time spent on speculating about the future in the piece, for that future was no future, but now. It was like a merger of the present and the future.

The fact that he had been looking at music as something for which there was a ‘pause’ button, during which he could studiously “figure out” what came next, seemed to me to be in natural accord with the fact that he is a very good mathematician. For in math, the time it takes to figure something out has no dependence on, or relation with, the amount of time elapsing on a clock. In an equation, for instance, the relationship of equality between the two sides of the equal sign, is not now discovered for the first time, it has always been so, and forever will be so.**

In music, specifically under today’s “rules of engagement”, he had to try to stay with me “sans rumination”. Any figuring out of what he had to do next had to occur within, and not outside, the time-flow of the piece. The ‘figuring out time’ was now under the control of the time of the piece. There was no stepping out of that time flow, as with math, during which one could take as long as one wanted to get from one thing to the next. In contrast, with math, even taking an unlimited time to figure out the next step,  without ever reaching the desired conclusion, can still be a time filled with much richness.  Time made no demands on the student (except for “trivial” secondary considerations like turning in homework on time or taking a test). In math, time was excluded. Time had no pretense of being in charge of what was going on. In music, as Heraclitus*** said: you can not step in the same river twice.

During the time he spent in this new ensemble situation (with me at the other piano), B.N. gradually changed his way of handling time. He had begun to accept, a priori, that he no longer had recourse to stopping and thinking. Situations that normally brought on a pause in his play, he began to solved in real time. And if not, he was developing the ability to come back in with me a few notes later.  The beginning of the process was simply to become more consciously aware of when he was hesitating. He then got rid of any emotional baggage that arose in the form of self deprecation because he needed to pause. What begins as a hesitation, can grow into a   rumination, which with regard to the on-flowing of time of the piece  represents a paralysis, although it is a safer emotional place than self-deprecation.

For whatever reason, when he got behind, he had to become aware of that  fact on his own, and then had to learn the skill of jumping ahead suddenly to catch up. The latter involved what was a new skill for him: trying to keep an ever updating awareness of where the other pianist was in the  score.****

During the course of the lesson, his ability constantly improved in terms of finding the place in the score at which he should be. Eventually he would come back inn synch with me after I had gone on without him for just several notes. This requires a sort of splitting of the brain: at the same moment one part knowing where the other person is, and the other part knowing where he himself was. This is followed by an understanding of the relation between these two as mapped as locations in the score. Then having to constantly update both of these locations, as more notes ensued, until the moment came when we were back in synch.*****


Time had been flowing for B.N. at whatever rate suited his consciousness independently of the rhythm and time demands of the piece. If he  encountered a problem he automatically assumed he could go into a time flow within himself unrelated to the ‘metronome’ of the music he was playing. This private time span could be untethered at will from the flow of time implied by the music score. During this time he could ruminate slowly and carefully before reentering the flow of the piece.

Comparison with Painting:

Let us contrast this with another fine art, painting. While engaged in  looking at a painting, we can choose, at any given time on the clock, to look specifically at one particular part of the painting. Any order of time with regard to space can only be suggested to us by the formal structure of the painting. We can choose to look at this part for as long or short a time-span as we want. Painting is, in that sense, a ‘spatial’ art: time has been locked up inside of it, as something immanent, or virtual, until someone starts viewing and experiencing it. Music, on the other hand, is a time-art (a ‘temporal’ art), in which the structure of the work is already a time-structure and not a locked into any spatial structure.

For the music performer, time and space can get easily mixed up in the mind. When we read a ‘score’, for instance to learn a new piece, this score is something spatial (with lines and dots and circles). Looking at the score leads some pianists to think more spatially than temporally about the music and thus miss the heart of the music (the particular and changing quality of an inwardly experienced duration). The human brain is accustomed to thinking spatially rather than temporally, in accord with with our common sense ability to survive in the the world. For those who are turned on by philosophy, I suggest reading any of the great works by French philosopher Henri Bergson (I am happy to provide a list, just ask).

* We made the tacit assumption that I was doing a good job in keeping a steady tempo.

**, though there may have been a time on the calendar of history when no one had yet thought of the relationship, and just as possibly a time in the future when everyone will have forgotten about it.

*** Heraclitus quote and summary information

Heraclitus (literally, the glory of the goddess Hera) lived circa 475 BC – 475 BC in Ephesus. A philosopher predating Socrates, his cryptic utterances earned him the epithet “The Obscure”. Only fragments of which have survived. Heraclitus believed the world is in accordance with Logos (literally, “word”), and is ultimately made of fire, suggesting a condition of continuous and radical change (“No man ever steps in the same river twice”, “everything flows”). He also believed in a unity of opposites; a harmony in the world. Change restores balance, only to bring on further imbalances.

Taken from Wikipedia with a couple of my own thoughts about him.

**** There was the less common case when he sped up and got ahead of me. He had to become aware of the fact, on his own, and calculate the best method of getting back in synch with me: perhaps leaving a note or two out?; perhaps slowing his tempo down until we gradually fell back in synch?; or ideally by being able to know exactly where I was in the score and jumping directly to that place.

*****It makes me think of what a marksman may be doing as they aim their rifle at a rapidly moving target, so that the bullet will reach the target at the point in space where the target willl be some moments in the future.


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