Sunday, June 3, 2012

Fear, Part II

In a previous post I talked about fear, especially the fear of "wrong notes," which keeps our playing from being fully expressive, fully satisfying, and which creates a host of other technical problems.

Here I'd like to discuss some of the ways fear shows itself as we play, and what we can do about it in our practice, to gradually develop a technique based on freedom rather than fear.

One of the things I see some beginners and less experienced players do is what I call "clinging to the keys." For example, the technique of substituting one finger for another on a note while holding the note: this technique is occasionally needed, but only in a slow passage where the hand has to be moved and lifting off the note would produce a disconnect that is clearly not intended in the score. However, I see inexperienced players doing this finger substitution constantly, because they are really afraid to move! It's as if their body is saying "I found this key and I'm not letting go of it until I find the next one!" It creates a kind of "crawling" around the keys. It doesn't work at all in a passage that is to be played with even moderate speed, so by over-using this technique you are truly preventing yourself from acquiring the technique needed to play rapidly. In addition, it is impossible to have good phrasing with this means of playing; just as you wouldn't sing without taking a breath at the ends of phrases, so too you must breathe when you play. The pianist needs to learn to move the hand and the arm smoothly, efficiently, and quickly with great ease, to get from place to place on the keyboard as required by the particular piece. If you watch great pianists (Martha Argerich comes to mind), you will see their hands and arms fly over the keyboard, not crawl. I teach a technique I call the "flip" which helps you learn to very rapidly move to any place on the keyboard. Continued practice of this technique produces a high degree of accuracy on any jump.

The whole matter of learning to play large jumps is one where you have to have either fantastic natural ability, or great training, to be able to do it. I didn't have the former, but I was lucky enough to get the latter from my teacher, Joseph Prostakoff. I have learned, and now teach, great methods of what I call "target practice" to enable my students to learn to play large jumps with speed and accuracy. Let's say you are working on the left hand part of a fast ragtime piece. This type of bass, sometimes called a stride bass, fills many players with fear. Because of the fear they learn to play it in a way that uses what I call "preparing;" the body (arm/hand) plays each note or chord with two distinct movements, one to find the note(s) and another to actually play them. There is a fraction of a second stop between the locating of the note (the "preparing") and the playing. If you become very sensitive to what your body is doing, you may even be able to feel yourself doing this. I teach the student how to play this type of bass with more of a "windshield-wiper" movement; in this movement there is a steady arc back and forth with the arm and no preparing, which stops the flow of the arm, if only for a nano-second, and changes the sound. Everything we do physically effects the sound we produce. Therefore you get a smoother sound when this type of passage is played with continuous movement rather than movement that has tiny "stops" in it.

One must develop a high degree of kinesthetic (body) awareness for accomplishing large jumps. If the music is slow, then of course it is easy, but if it is fast, the body must know the distance to go, and you cannot always depend on your eyes. For this reason I do a great deal of practice with eyes closed, and recommend my students do this as well. At first of course you will hit a great many wrong notes, but with continued eyes-closed practice, the body learns to judge the distances and you will have greater accuracy. Learning to depend on your body, not your eyes, is necessary for great technique. The added benefit of eyes-closed practice is that it chips away at the fear of missed notes and gives a wonderful feeling of freedom and confidence, as your hands and arms go exactly where you want them to without feeling like you are "controlling" them. This is true mastery, in my opinion.

As I observe my students' playing, I am watching their hands, arms, torso (and to a lesser extent their legs, head, eyes) to determine what is happening in the body which is producing the resulting sounds. Quite often, a problem with the sound comes from a faulty technique and quite often this problem with the technique has fear at its root. There is no point in practicing any kind of "exercise" or technique unless you first address the fear that causes you (your body) to move in that particular way. Try to become aware of the ways in which fear of wrong notes, or fear of expressing yourself, is affecting your playing, and then address that problem. It is best, of course, if you can find a teacher who can help you on that profound and wonderful journey.

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