Questions at the piano


At the piano: feeling, hearing and thinking
Some endlessly helpful questions for pianists and all musicians about the experience of making music:

  • What does it feel like?
  • What does it sound like?
  • What are we thinking about?

How does it feel?

Through feeling we can explore sensations of relaxation and comfort. It’s good to recognise such things. Because a relaxed efficient technique–which surely is what we want–allows us to play the piano easily, without strain, and with a gorgeous, beautiful sound.

And when we’re relaxed at the piano we’re set and we’re totally prepared–we’re ready–to listen to and hear what we’d like to play. Listen to and hear referring to the internal sound image that drives the technique we use to play the piano.

We’re better off hearing something and playing it than the reverse which is playing it and then hearing it. It’s the difference between knowing what we want to say and saying it in contrast to saying something and figuring out later what it means.

Knowing how to generate relaxation, ease, and comfort at the piano–it’s a huge portion of what we can do at the piano.

What does it sound like?

Sound–it’s what we hear when we play the piano. So what does it sound like?–it’s a question about the tone we pull from a piano. Is it gorgeous tone? Is it the tone we’d like to hear?

Is it tone that could benefit from adjustment? From softening? From additional resonance from the sustain pedal? If adjustment’s needed what needed to be adjusted and how?

What does it sound like? goes also to what we’re hearing internally. Meaning: what do we hear in the inner ear? Navigating and negotiating between the internal sound we conceptualise and the external sound we hear–perhaps that’s what playing an instrument is about.

What are we thinking about?

In an ideal world what we’re thinking about at the piano is the music we’re making. That’s thinking that’s abstract. Because when we’re immersed in the music we’re playing–when the flow is there–it can seem like we’re watching the piano effortlessly play itself. It’s mindful experience.

Or thinking can describe another frame of mind entirely. It’s what we do when we focus on specific fingerings to play a particular passage. It’s what happens when improvisers decide that “this” scale goes over “that” chord”–a D dorian scale for example, fits to a D min chord.

There’s a pesky sort of thinking I refer to as the “inner critic. The IC is a critical voice–it’s not a friend. It exists, so it seems, to let us know whatever we’re playing isn’t great.

The question is do we want to focus on fingering, chords, scales, and the persona of the IC? Or do we want to zero in on the music we’re making? On the sound we’re producing?

It may be the difference between, on the one hand, climbing the mountain with eyes and thoughts on the peak or, on the other hand, climbing the mountain with eyes and thoughts on the path. Much easier and safer I’d say to enjoy the path. The path at the piano is to music and sound in the moment we make and hear it.

Thinking and improvising

There’s a book, Thinking in jazz, the infinite art of improvisation, that explores thinking while improvising. It’s a detailed well-researched academic study about how experienced top-level jazz musicians approach their art and the sorts of things they think about while playing. Mostly what they they’re about, as the book explains, are all things other than “let’s put this scale over that chord.” It’s a fascinating read.