“Everything there is to know about playing the piano can be taught in half an hour.”
And by this time I was getting a great laugh—they regarded this whole thing as a routine, which it was not. I was trying to make quite a serious point, which was: that if this thing were done, you would be free of the entire tactile kinetic commitment. No, correction—you would not be free, you would be eternally bound to it, but so tightly bound to it that it would be a matter of tertiary interest only. It would be something that could be "disarranged" only by a set of circumstances that would confuse it.
—Glenn Gould from Conversations with Glenn Gould by Johnathan Cott
Gould goes on to talk about preparing for a concert in which he hated the piano at the performance hall and becoming increasingly nervous about the upcoming performance, but overcame his difficulty with it. “I decided that the only way to save this concert was to re-create the most admirable tactile circumstance I knew of...and first of all to imagine myself back in my living room...And I tried to imagine where everything was in the room, then visualize the piano, and...got the entire thing in my head and tried desperately to live with that tactile image throughout the balance of the day...I was absolutely free of commitment to that unwieldy beast”
I read this a few years ago and sort of glossed over it, but then I read it a few months ago while I was embroiled in trying to solve an articulation problem I was having with a particular piece of music and trying to figure out why, it was a really difficult thing that was very fast and had a lot of non-idiomatic fingerings for the guitar. I spent a ton of time on it and at one point it just clicked and became no longer about dealing with the notes and the fingering, but was the tactile experience of playing the music itself.
It really got me thinking about what it is to play any instrument in the most basic sense: a set of tactile and sound experiences; if I move particular muscles in this way it will make this specific sound. It’s a tactile feedback loop: imagination of the sound, muscle movement, sound is created, adjustment of the muscles to refine the quality of sound; a constant interplay between imagination, what it feels like in the body, and the sound that comes out, but there is an emotional component as well: it feels good when all of these elements are working together.
For tonight’s improvisations it would be great if folks could try to:
- Be aware of their own tactile/ sound feedback loop, being subjective emotionally about playing and a careful third person observer of their tactile experience of making music.
- Visualize their own “most admirable tactile experience”, that feeling of “being in the zone”. What does that feel like physically and emotionally?
- Pay attention to different aspects of the tactile feedback loop and try to experience those aspects as if they were something brand new. What did it feel like the first time you picked up your instrument? What did it feel like the first time you felt that you were actually making music with it?
- Play with intentionally changing the focus from individual notes or sound events to larger phrases as a whole. What does that feel like?