THE GIFT OF DEEP LISTENING
by Mary Duncan
December 8, 2015
Two years ago, after many years of not studying piano with a teacher, I began studying piano with Madeline Bruser. She has shown me how to implement ideas from her book The Art of Practicing: A Guide to Making Music from the Heart. During these 2 years I’ve worked diligently. A wonderful transformation has taken place. I’ve faced my own fears and limitations. I have discovered my own joy and radiance and brilliance as well.
Today when I sit at the piano and play, I feel so much different than I did when I first began this journey. I appreciate myself. I am grateful for the music I get to play. I touch the piano gently, caressing it like a friend, or a child or a lover. I make much softer sounds, and a larger range of dynamics. My body is so much more relaxed. I listen with bigger ears. I have learned ways to understand the meaning of every note I play, and have learned techniques to translate that into beautiful sound. My teaching has changed profoundly as well. I now know how to appeal to each student’s heartfelt desire to make music. How I lead each student depends on finding out how each of them is responding to their own playing.
So it was revealing to me recently when I read in my journal some notes I took two years ago about this Art of Practicing process. The notes were titled, “What do I notice when I listen to myself play the piano?” They revealed something deep and elemental about this process. Therefore, with the holiday season now upon us, I offer them humbly as a gift to you.
"Christmas Day, 2014: I had a lesson with Madeline Bruser yesterday, Christmas Eve at 11am. I played for her the Ocean Etude by Chopin the way she had asked me to in the weeks previous (singing the right hand part while playing the left hand part, and vice versa). After she heard it, she said that what I needed now was to sound like I really was enjoying the music. And so, she gave me an assignment for deep listening. Something she describes in her book. She said I need to immerse myself, to bathe myself, in the sounds of my music. This means proceeding note by note, with the damper pedal held, extremely slowly, and let every sound wash over me, feeling it from the top of my body to the bottom of my body, and let it enter my heart and notice the feeling. She said that would help me know my music at a molecular level, and that was what was needed to play from the heart.
Because it was Christmas Eve, and I had family celebrations in the afternoon and evening, it wasn't until the next day, Christmas Day, that I had a chance to try this deep listening. But before I sat down to practice, while the light was still good, I went outside to walk and do some snow shoveling. THere I was, out in the parking lot, with no traffic, no students, and the adjacent business closed. I was aware that I was alone on a Christmas day. I longed, right then, for a soul companion, so I asked the Divine to be my companion, and to go for a walk with me. (This may not seem to relate to practicing the piano, but bear with me: I’ll get there). As I walked, I said, “I’d like your company.” I felt a prompt: “Tell me what spiritual things you’ve been seeing or doing lately”. Before I could answer, something else caught my attention, and I immediately forgot that I was on a walk with the Divine. When it came back to me, after I headed across the parking lot to walk down a quiet country road through the woods, I said, “Show me something about yourself. I want to know more about you”. I walked for 45 minutes, and found myself alternately remembering I was walking with the Divine, and forgetting about it. “I want a stronger presence of You” I said at one point.
Back at home, I turned on the radio to NPR and heard a piece on All Things Considered about ETA Hoffmann, the original author of the story of the Nutcracker. As a representative of the German Romantic school of literature, he was concerned about explaining how music affects us. Using words to explain the inexplicable. He had written the first review of Beethoven’s 5th Symphony, even though he hadn’t heard a performance, working only from the score.
Soon after hearing that story, I sat down at the piano.
I followed the instructions to play extremely slowly and let the sound wash over me. Here is what I noticed: I noticed that I had to go so slowly that I would forget where I was in the music, unless I had it in front of me. Playing the Schumann Romanze in F Sharp Major from memory required that occasionally when I got lost I had to back up and play faster to the spot where I had gotten lost, just to remember the order of the notes. I wondered if this was because I did not have a cognitively secure memory of that spot. Could be, since I had let go of the muscle memory in order to slow down so much.
I also noticed that in order to let the sound waft over me and feel its vibrations through my body, I had to wait two or three seconds on each sonority. Invariably I noticed that the initial sonority bent as the sound waves receded in volume. Because I have a beautiful sounding instrument, the harmonies were excruciatingly beautiful, especially the seventh chords.
After working this way for 20 minutes or so, I noticed that my body got very calm, and I was feeling that I was being physically touched by the music. A sensation of melting started first in my ears and proceeded to my heart area where I experienced a dropping sensation. That led to a sensation behind my eyes that was almost like the feeling you get before you start to weep. This sensation repeated every time I played a new sonority. I knew that I had listened to each sonority long enough when that point came. Then I moved on.
I noticed some things about the composition of the piece: That both composers (Chopin and Schumann) chose the range of the chord tones in the accompaniment for a specific tonal impact: sometimes a dense impact, but mostly it was a transparent effect with space between harmony tones separating them enough for them to have individual impact even when sounded simultaneously, or when adding up one at a time while the pedal was being held.
I noticed that as I was listening to these piled up harmonies with the pedal engaged, that my fingers adjusted almost automatically to voicing it to create a warm shimmering effect.
Because this exercise was such a rich experience, I wondered if it were an answer to my prayer of the afternoon. It also puzzled me, because this “knowing” that I was experiencing was something only I could sense. It seemed that it wasn’t explicable in words, and couldn’t be shared."
That’s what I thought then, last Christmas day. I felt that I could only share the fact that I had been touched. But now I wonder, like ETA Hoffmann, Could it be shared? Could my playing convey that same sense of being touched? If I can’t share it in words, can I share it in my playing? Is this what it means to play “from the heart”?
I am comfortable now living these questions of “knowing”, of being visited by something bigger than myself. That in doing so I am also “expressing” myself, something more. Big mysteries they are, big responsibilities they are. Like Yoda I sound. And The Art of Practicing has given me a portal to this marvelous space.
So, on that Christmas day, that lonely Christmas day, two years ago, I received 3 gifts. The gift I gave myself: the time and space to practice deep listening; the gift Madeline gave me: how to practice deep listening so that I could enjoy my music more; and the gift of being visited by the Divine, through Sound.
I wish you much joy and success in exploring your musical heart-space,