Notes on the Thumbs
The thumb has always been my bete noire. Always a problem to me. Short, stumpy, ‘unworthy’ to join in with the other fingers, as in scales and chords. I’ve spent many years trying to come up with one solution after another to cope with the shortness of my thumb, “short” of, that is, putting my thumb on a rack and stretching it.
Here is what I have come up with today in the next chapter of my ongoing question to tame the thumbs.
I started the day with Brahms’ Second Piano Sonata, Op 2. An incredible masterpiece in its own individualisitic way. A lot of momentary glimpses of the later Brahms that don’t resurface until quite while later in his opus.
It all began with the double octaves in the first movement (four notes at once).
I suddenly got the idea, more of an inner, physical urge on my body’s part, that I should let the part of my thumb that lay in between the its second knuckle and its third knuckle, along within the surrounding mound of flesh that is adjacent to it in the palm, “leak” … “ooze” … “flow”, in an amorphous way, en masse, in the general direction away from where the pinkie lay in the hand, and towards the key that the it was about to play in the octave. In other words the thumbs did not start positioned on their target notes in the octaves, but were in the ‘process’ of expanding away from the pinkies, only secondarily happening to reach the key in the octave. I wanted the thumb to ooze onto the note it was to play in the octave. It wasn’t the specific key or destination of the thumb’s motion that interested me, it was feeling, within that area of my hand, that it was in a continuous
process of being capable of oozing, extending itself, away from the pinkie. Perhaps like the pseudopod of an amoeba: still part of the amoeba as a whole and yet somehow not a part of it. I liked what happened. The thumb came alive, felt like it had a more vital role to play in the octave including its sound.
Next, I started extrapolating from double octaves to more general situations on the keyboard.
Even if it is not the thumb being asked to play a next note in the score, thus fleshy part of the thumb-mound in the palm can start moving, arbitrarily, sideways, away from the rest of the hand.
It even seemed to help if what I wanted to do was open one hand as whole; to bring the pinkie of that hand further away from the thumb, through the motion the thumb and its mound of flesh, in the same hand, moving in the opposite direction than the pinkie, trying to leave the pinkie behind.
This was useful if timed to the very time the pinkie was being asked to play a note.
This ‘motivating’ dynamic and impetus to motion, worked just as effectively on behalf of the pinkie of the opposite hand than the one whose thumb-area was in motion.
One thumb can help the other thumb by oozing and spreading over the surface of the keyboard away from the pinky in the same hand. This can occur in the helping hand even at moments when the helping hand is itself busy sounding notes.
Again. If I’m doing a trill with, say, the second and third finger in one hand, both hands should feel their thumbs oozing towards each other while spreading away from their respective pinkies.
In general, my thumb had been too sessile. I wanted to give it a general role role that would infleunce what was going on in both hands and all the fingers. I wanted the thumb to always be exploring the territory adjacent to where the rest of the hand was currently situated on the keyboard (and always in the opposite direction to where the pinkie in that hand was).
As a consequence of this sideways motion of the thumb-mound in the palm the hand, as a whole, tends situate itself closer in altitude to the surface of the keyboard. The fingers don’t curve as much. I’m not sure yet whether this a plus or a minus in general to the flexibility of the hand.
More miscellaneous thumb actions.
#1. Brahms Handel Variations: Number 3 : beginning:
When i go to play the first note, c5, which will be pushed down by the right pinkie, that can definitely be accompanied by, or actually become part of, what happens to the hand if the thumb area oozes leftwards away from the pinkie. As if the latter is the motion that would cause the production of the sound of the c5.
Let us say that we are playing a descending scale in the right hand.
Many years ago, when learning Mozart K. 488, I discovered that I could smooth-out a run or a scale in the right hand by keeping pace with the notes by repeatedly flexing the fourth finger of the left hand. Today I realized I could do an analogous motion with the thumb of the left hand. In the midst of this process the left thumb can migrate over to the thumb side of the right hand at the moment that the right thumb is playing a note of the scale, and add its action to that of the right thumb so that they are both involved in pushing the note down, after which the left hand can migrate away from the right hand again until the right thumb is due to play its next note in the scale, and repeat the process.
An extension of this idea is, if the left hand is free, it can tag along near the left side of the right hand, as the latter pursues its way down the scale, as if the left thumb would play every note for every finger in the right hand.
#3. All the fingers can ‘ooze’ away from each from all the others:
A carry over from today’s nexus is that: as the thumbs ‘oozed’ and got further and further away from the pinkies, it meant secondarily that I was adding more space between the pinkie and the thumb. This was a side effect, though, rather than the original intent which had to do with the fluidity of the thumb. But now, an hour after I started practicing, what i’m trying to do is to get any two fingers, wherever they are located in the same or two hands, whether they lie adjacent within one hand, when they are currently being used to play two consecutive notes, feel ‘that’ degree of remoteness in space, as the pinkie and the thumb felt.
This reminds me of a meditative blog entry I wrote a number of years ago about how a pianist might relax the hands and fingers. In particular of the final stage in the process.
What follows is a reprint of that blog entry.
[begin insert of earlier blog]
“We begin by sitting in a relaxed state, hands on the knees, palms facing upwards (but without any rotational strain). Curl the fingers slightly as a way of letting go of some of the residual tension in the fingers.
Close the eyes. Sit calmly for several moments and then direct your inner attention to the presence of your fingers. Try not to have an image in your mind’s eye of the fingers and how they attach to the hands. Try to experience the fingers from ‘inside’ themselves.
When you are comfortable with this sensation, make a sudden shift of attention away from the fingers and ‘into’ the spaces between the fingers.
Over the next couple of minutes keep the awareness focused on the spaces between the fingers as against awareness of the fingers themselves. It is as if we lent consciousness to those spaces rather than to the fingers. For some it might help to borrow an analogy from the artistic term ‘negative space’: the unplanned and un-sought-for shape of space between two intentionally shaped objects.
There is nothing to do during these next few minutes except to stay aware of the empty spaces between the fingers. There are certain sensations that are apt to occur naturally as you remain focused on these inter-digital spaces. Without purposefully seeking this sensation, you may feel as if the fingers rather than being immobile are, of their own accord, separating further and further from each other; moving further and further into the spaces between the fingers.
We have shut the eyes, there is no visual perception to remind us that there is a quantifiable limit to how far two fingers can move from each other. We can turn off our proprioception – the ability to sense, even when our eyes are closed, the relative position of different parts of our body in one homogenous space.
One might term what we are doing here as self hypnosis or deep meditation. This may well be.
At some point, due to cessation of proprioception, we may forget what the fingers are attached to anatomically. We may be aware of our fingers, and/or be aware of our hand, but be without any geometric sense of how far apart they may be. The fingers, no longer necessarily attached to anything else, may feel as if they are islands unto themselves. Un-tethered from the spatial necessity of being attached to the hands, they may start feeling like they are floating free in space.
We no longer know how far apart they are from each other. It can as easily true that they are inches apart or feet apart. My right thumb seems to have drifted so far away from my mind that it has exited the room and is now situated outside in my garden.
Both by being without visual images and by stilling the sensations of proprioception, there is nothing to prevent us any longer from sensing
that our fingers are always in the process of moving further and further apart from each other, flowing into an inexhaustible, internally sensed space, and that there is no limit to this process in time or in space.
Throughout this all, the fingers continue to feel as if they are drifting apart from each other.
Three steps remain.
When I am ready, and not before, I open my eyes, but stay focused on the sensation I had when they were closed. I am no longer a prisoner of my eyes ‘view’ of space. My fingers still are still receding from each other in an internally perceived space. If this is not possible yet with the eyes open, close the eyes and try again in a minute to open them.
Like a puppet being manipulated by an unseen puppeteer, my hands rise upwards until they are about at the same level as the piano keyboard. They may even be resting on the keyboard – but without any of the train of sensations that we immediately experience as pianist for being near the keyboard. I am still feeling the sensations of a minute or two ago, uninterrupted, despite my eyes being open, despite my hands being close to an object shaped like a piano keyboard.
I start playing. There is no change to the inner state of my hands and fingers. No action that I perform by playing the notes has the power to distract me from the continuance of this sensation.
With most students, especially more advanced students (I.E. those more inured to the physical states of playing) there is a striking difference in the sound they produce, the ease of flow of the sounds through time, and a general sense of astonishment on their part at how easy, how effortless, creating the piece has become.”
[end insert of earlier blog]
That last stretch: the sudden requirement to play a wide interval in one hand
A.B. says he cannot play g2 and b3 simultaneously with his left hand, but breaking the tenth spoils the flow of the 4 part counterpoint in the Grieg he is playing.
I catch him at a moment when, while complaining about the difficulty, his thumb idly wanders onto the b3 though his pinkie is still on the g3. And I say: look! At this particular moment in time you are spanning the tenth. How are you doing it? My hope was for a response of nescience: “I have no idea of how I did it”, but instead gives a mechanical explanation having to do with approaching the two keys from underneath them. It is a good explanation but like any other explanation, it is always going to be ‘short’ on some naming all the actual things going on at that moment. And by consciously thinking of their explanation, leave it hit and miss as to whether the tenth gets spanned. The real point is that maybe his mind does not need to know how to get into that position but that the body “knew” how to do it – when unencumbered with thinking and planning.
While it is fairly obvious that you cannot do this with an eleventh apparently you can do it sometimes with a tenth. The body, given a
nearly impossible situation, finds a way to do it, one that goes beyond the scope of the capabilities that one was previously already aware of having. Trust the body – it knows the way. Just consciously abandon anything else
you have tried in order to do something like this in the past. Then it will show up when you least expect it.
We worked gradually repeating the tenth until by some fluke or other the two notes started at the same time. Each time that would happen, I asked him to take it as proof that body knew how to span a major tenth.
The negative role of stretching and straining.
When one is straining to stretch as far as possible, muscles become tenser. But if one begins with a state of relaxation and refuses to add in even the tiniest tension at any step of the way to the goal, the final stretch will actually measure longer than the other way. It may not be much of a difference but, in our case, that of playing a tenth in one hand, often an extra millimeter or two is all that is required to turn the task into doable and comfortable rather than undoable and uncomfortable
Pinning down the moment of the onset of physical tension
A.B. plays the Grieg Holberg Suite with a lot of tension.
At what instant in time, down to tenths of seconds or less, does tension first enter your hand? If nothing else, we can assume it is before, even long before, we consciously aware of the tension. The longer it remains, the longer one becomes inured to it, until pain results and then one notices it.
The tense state is usually preceded in time by a less tense state. It seems logical that, at some previous point in time, the body was not as tense as it is now.
It is not so much a matter of not letting tension arise, but to become aware of it sooner, which will make dispelling it easier.
We want to become aware of the moment of transition from a state of minimal tension, to a state of having at least of some tension, but before it grows to a state of greater tension. We want this moment to come sooner into consciousness.
It is the best if can capture the moment when this transition first begins to occur. Among other things, this is the moment that yields the most information about the why and how of your tension. Tension has away of compounding and growing. Before the tension is too great, and involves too much body area, at the earliest detectable moment of the inception of the tension, your awareness may be able to uncover what the cause of the tension is, I.E. what the initial cause is. We want to spot the tension while it is still low on the horizon and and ‘far enough away’ for us to have time to take counter measures.
Was the initial trigger of the tension in the mind rather than the body? A moment of worry, or of uncertainty about what lies ahead? This moment often remains hidden because it is largely unconscious. We want to make of it something more conscious.
It is usually our “re”-action to something that has not happened yet, but which we believe will happen soon, once we are on the treadmill of the flow of time which eventually brings all the way to the end of time, with no exit ramps. Do we really not have the power to just stop in the middle of piece? Should we not have at least the state of mind that accepts the latter as a possibility – even if we don’t use it.
To find and bring to light this moment in consciousness so we see its content, is a challenge. Although it is not as difficult as a physicist to know just when a particular electron in an atom is going to jump from one energy state to another.
Sometimes the tension sneaks up on us so suddenly, that we don’t have ‘time’ to become aware of it. For instance during the brief moment when we ‘prepare’ to play the next note in the score though the current note is still sounding. Somewhere in that small interval of time, our consciousness has drifted off of the current note and is now concerned about successfully getting to the next note. This is a span of time that can be so short that we can figuratively blink an eye and go from a state of minimal tension to a state of maximal tension.
Can you track such fine distinctions in muscular feeling through such fine distinctions of time? Is it worthwhile to interrogate your body over and over on this question, until by happenstance you may start noticing a sort of pattern as to when exactly it happens and what it’s immediate antecedents are. Bear in mind that the next note doesn’t remain the ‘next’ note when you play it: an obvious but easily overlooked distinction.
So tension often lies in the anticipation, no matter how brief, of going on to something that hasn’t happened yet. This could even include the moments before you play the first notes of the piece. Somewhere in this stew of emotions that lie beneath the surface of consciousness, may lie feelings such as: a reluctance to abandon the safety of the present for the uncertainty of the future; the fear of how one is going to be able find the correct next note(s) in the “allotted” amount of time the music allows us.*
* An amount of time that actually we control, because without us no note will sound; regardless of what the score says, and what the audience expects. Even if we control this amount of time by just a few fractions of a second, that may be enough time during which to restore our security about how. and if. we will get to the next note(s).
“Time” and “Tension”
A.B’ lesson on 8/19/21. Grieg: Holberg Suite: Sarabande and Air.
At any given instant, A.B. is usually getting ready for the next note. He avoids the conscious duration of the present. There is a preponderant vector force, representing the arrow of time in his consciousness, that pulls him off the present, veers him off into the near future. This subdues his awareness of what is sounding at the present time, and creates a tension that impedes him from going on naturally to the next sound.
It helps to listen to the notes and not just play them! To the question: “what is more important, listening to the present note or getting ready to physically play the next note?”, the answer is the former!
And, just as important as not anticipating the future (physically that is), is to forget (physically), the past. It’s amazing how the body will hold on to a certain position, even if it’s been in it only for moments. This makes it harder to undo the tension that accumulates with the hands desire not to move to another position. Most often we are not conscious of this physical clinging to the past.
Over the past few weeks we have made some progress, especially in regarding anticipating the future. We’ve confined the moment, during the current sound, when he starts physically preparing for the next sound, sometimes to just the last half to a quarter of the note’s duration. On the other he still he gets just tense when he does start to prepare to move. And even if it he has held it off. At the moment of the change to the next note, his physical motion involves flinches and awkward jumps, and is often inaccurate as to the relationship of his fingers to the keyboard. In the worst case they are no more than ‘stabs’ in the direction of the next keys.
This urge or force within him to move him out of the present seems and into the near future, seems to increase rapidly the closer he gets to the moment of transition to the next note. So, even if he forestalls the physical anticipation of the next note to later in the duration of the current note, the resulting tension is still just as strong as it would have been if he had started physically preparing for the next note earlier in the duration of the current sound. The effect of the transition is therefore as great as if he started anticipating earlier.*
What we want is no anticipation at all. It must seem paradoxical that the longer one waits before thinking of moving to the next note, the smoother and more fluid and accurate the motion becomes connecting it from the present note.
Because A.B. is chronically worried about what is going to happen next, how he going to find the next note, he spends a lot of time on the present keys figuring out how he is going to get to the next keys, instead of listening to the music as it comes in through his ears. This figuring out has the immediate and unwanted effect of creating tension. His playing therefore goes from one tense state to another, in quick succession.
Don’t become a slave to the order in which the notes come. In the musical sound-space, any note can follow any other note. Don’t let all your thoughts and gestures, on an instant to instant basis, be committed to the obligation of going to a specific next note. The new note is a surprise. and is best played by the body when there is no physical ‘forethought’.
It helps if, instead having an attitude of planning and caring, remain in a state of simply wondering, of not knowing yet: “I wonder how I’m going to get there.” And as soon as that thought is finished speaking in your mind, say it again: ” I wonder how I’m going to get there.” And keep reviving that state of wonder and ignorance, until the allotted time of the note has elapsed elapsed and you just find yourself on the next note.
Be content where you are. Your body knows how to get to the next place without your ‘help’. It is as if you are a patient reporting back to the doctor the next day: “Doctor, doctor, last night I went to sleep and I was absolutely sure I was on a D-Natural, but today when I work up, somehow I found myself on C-Natural. I don’t know how it happened!”
If, while he is playing, I touch his body someplace to take notice of what state of motion that part may be in, it immediately stiffens up, and without being aware of it, offers resistance and opposition to the possibility his body may be moved as a result of that touch.
A peculiar case of this arose when I actively tried to move his arm around in space in order to free up its range of motion and train his body not to resist being moved. He let me move the arm an initial bit through space, but then he ‘figures out’ what direction he thinks I’m pushing in, and if, at that moment, i attempt to change that direction and move the arm in a different direction, he offers strong resistance and fights to keep moving the arm the way it had been over the previous few moments.
In one way he has improved because originally he would not let me budge is arm at all, from whatever position it was. Now we have opened up the new vista of being resistant to any change in the direction of a movement he is executing while the movement is happening. Especially if the change is attempted at a time he does not anticipate. At that instant he is in effect locked in the past trying whil3 on the way to get to the future. The ability to change at any unforeseen moment the plane of an action, its direction of rotation, etc., is essential to good playing. Movement should occur at the slightest hint of a cue from the music or the brain.
For musicians time is experienced in seconds and fractions of seconds. We are not historians who conceive time in eras, centuries and years. We are trained to see an event be born, develop, and end in a matter of seconds. We are trained to put ourselves directly into the flow of time as it occurs to our consciousness. No matter how finely we divide time up, we never find a moment but an ongoing process and flow.
Three specific examples of tension in his playing:
At one point in the Sarabande the left pinkie, on its own, dips down to play a solitary d2. He allowed me to guide and support his left hand and pinkie as it made the motion to the left in the moments leading to the d2.
The closer he got to the d2, the more his pinkie stiffened up. It turned into more of a fight than a joint enterprise. It seemed like he was getting more and more ‘worried’ that I would prevent rather than help him to get to the d2.
I made the experiment of guiding his hand until the pinkie was almost to the d2, but then tried to stop the motion of his hand from going any further. I wanted him to be aware of just how strongly he fought me in an effort to get the rest of the way. in order to complete the gesture. He used all of his strength against me. It was not within his ability to allow the motion to stop before it got to the goal, the goal that we originally mentioned at the top of this entry: “There is a preponderant vector force, representing the arrow of time in his consciousness, that pulls him off the resent, veers him off into the near future.”. He just couldn’t allow his activity to just suspend itself in time just before the goal (or at any other point in time).
In the “Air”, at the end of the first section the left hand plays a descending D Natural-Minor scale in octaves. At the end of the movement he plays a similar scale figuration this time using the notes of a G Natural-Minor scale.
He allows me to take a trip along with his scale, that involved my resting my and lightly on the pinkie of his left hand. Each time he is about to change to the next note of the scale, in the instants before the change is due, there is a sudden increase in the tension in his pinkie, as he tries to move the pinky ahead of the rest of his hand to already be on the next key the pinkie will play in the scale. The onset of this behavior occurs well before the current note’s tenure is over, less than half way through through the current note’s written duration.
I change my point of attachment with his body. During the scale I gently and constantly support his wrist from underneath. The result is that the scale occurs much more fluently and less choppily. He tries to do the same thing for himself, using his right hand to support his left wrist. This time there is no increase in fluency. His body is so tied up in tension, that using one of his hands to help keep the other at ease, is an example of instead of the blind leading the blind the “tense” leading the “tense”.
The existence of tension can be very transient, but nonetheless can impede the general sense of flow through a passage; enough to jar the listener.
When he has an ornament of three notes, two identical chord tones and an intervening upper neighbor note, he is so determined to get back as quickly as possible to the chord tone from the neighbor note that he hardly gives any attention to the duration of the neighbor note, to allow it to express its sound before being eclipsed.
Ways of reducing this tension:
To loosen the fingers. I gently raised the fingertips off the keyboard, by getting underneath them, and moving them upwards by the tiniest degree. This worked best if I did this to one hand while the other continued playing as written. I made sure that though constant the pressure I applied was gentle regardless of what changes there were in pitches.
I also tried to caress the upward facing side of the fingers to encourage them to gently flex and curve. Again I did this on an ongoing basis, to suggest that no finger should ever ‘harden’ into a single stance, especially. at the moment it is about to depress a key (or during the process of depressing a key).
It occurred to me after the lesson that another thing I might have done was to have used my fingers like a “comb” to separate and define the separate strands of his fingers. I would put my fingers (the teeth of the comb) in the interstices between his fingers and draw this comb from his fingertips to the vertices between the fingers near their third knuckles.
I suggested that the ‘purpose’ of there being joints in the body, in addition to creating points of articulation, was to soften and cushion any stiffness, suddenness, or stridency in a physical action.
I suggested that he assumes (consciously or unconsciously) that a difficult passage requires more physical effort than a simpler passage. That for me, coming into a difficult passage requires the un-doing of any and all vestiges of effort.
Several notes out of one continuous gesture in time:
I suggested that instead of each note being the result of a separate physical event, he try to ‘tie’ together several notes within one curvy arabesque-like motion, one that would “knit together” the different points in space on the piano keyboard where these notes will occur.
Repeating the same note or a chord (as in the left hand at the opening
of the “Air”):
First I played for him a series of C-naturals, each one an octave
higher than the one before. I pointed out that I obviously had to “find” each C in a different ‘place’ on the keyboard. My thought was that when one he repeats a note, even though from the outside it looks to an observer that he stays in the same spot on the keyboard, he should nonetheless feel like, each time he plays it, he can “look for it” as if it were not in the same spot on the keyboard as before. Repeating a note should not feel like staying in the same place, because any repeated gesture bears the risk of causing a build up of tension and a lessening of control over each sound. Instead, whatever he did to find the first instance of the note, he should re-enact when he plays it (finds it) the next time.
No sound in the piece should be any different, easier, or harder to play, than the first sound of the piece.
Don’t let the thoughts of the brain make the body tense, or put you
into a state of worry and anticipation.
* This anticipation reminds me in a way of the ‘strong force’ in physics, that holds the nucleus of an atom together so that the protons don’t repel each other because they all beat the same positive charge. It gets stronger, at an exponential rate, as protons get closer and closer.
Physical anticipation, tension, and melody.
(with thanks to “Odessa”)
R.M.’s lesson on July 5th, 2021.
We found that too much of his physical energy was devoted to preparing physically for the next note, sometimes long before that note was due to sound. This led to tension and resistance in the body and in a diminution in the cohesiveness of his sounds.
We did an aural ‘meditation’ on a bass note to offset this physical anticipation, by providing him with something else to do throughout the entire duration of the current sound.
Find a note in the deep bass, whose sound you like very much. Play it ‘forte’. and then, just continue to listen to the sound until it disappears to your ears. And then release the finger holding down the note. A bass note will last a long time compared with a treble note. A minute, sometimes more, sometimes less.
With regard to how to hold the key down during this time, float on the key with the absolute minimum of downwards pressure that will suffice to keep the key depressed (so that the note doesn’t suddenly stop sounding).
When you near the end, if you think the sound is gone, hang on to the key another moment or two to see if the sound reappears in your ears. It may: it’s just changed its character so much that you don’t recognize it for what it is: the same note – but in a different manifestation of timbre and degree of softness.
Among the other intents of doing this exercise is that we are trying to stretch the sound’s duration towards infinity. And we do this for the very reason that, ineluctably, the piano sound acoustically dies away (“decays”).
Another intent of the exercise is it to answer the question “what is keeping the note alive during this entire minute.” Is it because of vibration of strings? Can we reject that scientific explanation and instead believe that the only reason that the note continues to sound at all, is that we are sustaining it from within us, from moment to moment, by renewing our recognition of the sound in our ear. As if, were we not to re-focus all the attention of the ear on the sound every moment, the note would fail to continue to sound.
Another way to conceive of it is that the note in question was not sounding even an instant earlier while we were holding the key down, but suddenly at this new moment comes into consciousness. It is we who have to revive it.*
How to make a melody.
The moment when it is most difficult to distinctly hear a note’s pitch and its orchestral timbre is not at the end, but rather at the beginning, at the instant of its onset (the ‘attack’ of the note). The hammer, powerfully but briefly, hits the string. It sets off a brief explosion of overtones that confuses the ear. If the pianist focused most of their ear’s attention on the attacks, we would never hear a melody. However, if you go beyond the attack, that percussive cacophony dissipates a moment or two later, and the remainder of the duration of the sound is similar to that of a lyrical, rather than a percussive instrument.
Lyrical players at the piano thus live in the “middles” (time-wise) of the durations of the notes. It is there, I should say ‘then’, that their ear dwells, and is most alive and fulfilled by the sound. It is thus not at the beginning of the sound, when the ears are jarred, and most significantly where normally it is simultaneous with a physical expenditure of energy. It is misleading to make the sound an ‘expression’ of a sudden ‘physical’ gesture, which then idles until the next note onset. The physical mechanism fades into the background when we listen more to the evolution of the sound and concentrate less on the onset. Think of a melody as a matched set of pearls (middles-of-notes) that are strung one into another along the rope of the necklace of time. The listener becomes oblivious to the attacks (and the final decay of the notes).
Tension at the piano: Newton’s First Law.
We wanted to lessen the high degree of tension that was endemic throughout his body. Since it was a very hands-on lesson, I could often feel, myself, the tension. Sometimes in his fingers, sometimes switching to his shoulders, or his torso. It was if he was protecting himself from a sense of danger due to where, physically, the music wanted to propel him next.
We began with an examination of his thumb. We explored every possible direction and distance the thumb could move in, in a fully three dimensional space, and not just in the one plane of action in which it habitually moves at the piano. We then ‘summarized’ all these motions by making broad circles with the tip of the thumb, with as wide a radius as was possible, limited only by bunking into a different part of the hand, and avoiding any over straining in the muscles of the thumb.
Even when in the midst of playing, when a finger seems to move predominantly in one direction, or speed, the full possibility always exists of it being to move in any different direction, at any speed. Every posture and shape to the body retains the potential for every other posture and shape to the body to arise out of it – without resistance. In any plane of motion the ‘life force’, so to speak, is already vibrating, and informs every momentary shape the limbs and fingers take. Freedom of choice of motion, even if latent, is more important than being coerced into a single, fixed attitude of motion.
According to Newton’s First Law, a body at rest wants to continue to to be at rest. Therefore, it is during the very first instant of motion, when resistance to that motion is at its maximum. We want to keep this resistance to a minimum. Imagine a blade of grass. There is no wind, the blade is at rest. At a random moment, a breeze starts blowing. The blade of grass seems to offer no initial resistance to being moved, it begins to sway in the breeze – as if it had no choice but to be moved by the air. Can we recreate this scenario from inside our body? Instead of the wind, there is a mere thought or whim to move, which can be to sufficient to have a finger or body part start to move, without muscular resistance that attempts to keep the finger or body in the spatial position it was a moment earlier. It’s like blowing on a feather. It’s previous position of rest seems to offer no resistance to its now being in motion. This same consideration applies to every motion we make at the piano in any spatial plane, whether downwards, sideways or upwards.
* Here is another version to the meditation, which changes what you do at the end of the sound. As the sound finally fades out, start hearing the same sound in your imagination, so that even when another listener no longer hears it, you are still hearing it, and could go on hearing it for as long as you want.