Some years ago, I had the privilege of sitting in on some lessons taught by a colleague who specialised in teaching talented youngsters. Because she also had a background in dance, she managed to bring to each lesson some of the qualities of a classical ballet class where every gesture counted and no sloppiness of any kind was permitted, ever. The lesson began when the child walked into the room. Formalised greetings were exchanged, and there was a tangible sense of occasion in each lesson which bordered on the ceremonial. There was certainly a feeling of specialness and magic about it all. Nothing was routine about the lesson, everything was focussed on the meaningfulness of every sound and gesture, and the beauty of what was being engaged in – music as art and self-expression.
I am certain this attitude of mindfulness and respect in the learning environment has a knock-on effect in the day-to-day practising of the student. Young pianists brought up in such a way learn to love and respect music – doodling at the piano or hacking away at a passage during practice would be as foreign as a slouched seating position.
Gesture is defined as the movement of part of the body, especially the hand or the head, to express an idea or meaning. We all know that gesture is vital to piano playing – our gestures at the keyboard are translated immediately into sound. If we use smooth and flowing movements, we get a smooth and flowing sound. An actor friend uses the gestures and body language associated with a particular state of mind or emotion to get into character, to evoke a particular emotion and then to communicate this. Lang Lang makes full use of gesture, not just with his hands but also in his face. This not only helps him to tap into the spirit of the music but is also part of the theatre of performance. We must never forget that an audience listens with their eyes too! The last thing we want, of course, is a player who flails their body around, using excessive motions that have nothing to do with the music and that impede not only their playing but also communication. It’s almost impossible to watch such players. And yet we do need to feel energy in our body as we play, and to engage with music and our instrument on a visceral level as well as a mental one. In other words, we need to be able to move, to allow our body to be free, engaged and available.
THE INTERNAL CONDUCTOR
When I play a Bach Gigue, the energy in my body is very different from when I play a Chopin Nocturne, even though I may appear to be sitting rather still in both cases. We might think of our torso like the trunk of a tree, supporting the branches not in any rigid way, but able to bend.
I often think of the conductor’s upbeat when beginning a piece – the tempo, the energy and character of the music and the dynamic level are all present in the upbeat. We summon the inner conductor so that when we lift our hands to the keyboard, we are already fully engaged and energised. We are in character even before making our first sounds.
Practising involves repetition. In order to form a habit, we need to repeat something a number of times. As regular readers of this blog will know, our repetitions might need to be varied. We can repeat a passage in various different ways – perhaps extremely slowly, or one hand alone, or bringing out a particular voice in the middle of the texture, or using a different rhythmic pattern. One thing I strive for is that each repetition should be as perfect as possible. Never let anything we play be of inferior quality or second best. Thus, if we are practising something in a different rhythm, don’t just go through the motions of doing it, do it perfectly! All this takes is a bit of extra effort, which I assure you will be amply rewarded.
I often ask a student to play a line imagining it is written not for the piano but for a cello, say. We take it a step further and imagine one of the great cellists of the world playing it. How would Casals shape the line? What sort of timings and colourings might he make? The repetition is practised until the LH is worthy of being filmed and uploaded to YouTube as the very paragon of how this passage should sound, even if it is just a couple of bars of the LH played under tempo.
We can summon as many parts of ourselves as possible during a repetition of a passage: the mind and our critical faculties as well as ear. Not only that, we need to have an antenna out for how our body feels – what we play not only has to sound good, it has to feel good too.