Happy Holidays, dear subscribers!
Today I have the special pleasure of introducing Mary Duncan, through her article “The Gift of Deep Listening.”
I met Mary when she attended the 2013 summer program of The Art of Practicing Institute. Since then, she has worked with me regularly on Skype, and she joined our faculty as an Assistant Teacher for the summer programs starting in 2014.
Mary is one of the kindest and dearest people I have ever known. She performs and teaches in Minnesota, where she is warmly received by audiences and well-known for the star performances of her students in local competitions. From the minute I started watching her teach in 2014, I saw that she is a seasoned, special, and brilliant teacher. She has great conviction and is enormously sensitive to her students.
Mary’s article here is deeply personal and intimate, telling her own experience of one of the listening techniques I teach. I find her description of it very touching, much like music itself. And I am grateful for her generosity in sharing it here.
I hope you enjoy it.
Editor of Fearless Performing E-zine
Founding Teacher of The Art of Practicing Institute
The Gift of Deep Listening
by Mary Duncan
I began studying piano with Madeline Bruser over two years ago. During that time I’ve worked hard and faced my fears and limitations, and have also discovered my joy, radiance, and brilliance as well. Today when I sit at the piano and play, I feel so different from when I first began the journey. I feel confident in my abilities, and much more relaxed. I listen with bigger ears. And I feel I understand the meaning of every note I play, and that I can translate that meaning into beautiful sound. My teaching has changed profoundly as well. I can appeal to each individual student’s desire to make music, and I can lead them forward according to their own perceptions of their playing.
In the light of these changes, it was interesting to recently discover some journal notes I wrote 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. I offer them humbly as a holiday gift to you.
Christmas Day, 2013:
I had a lesson with Madeline Bruser yesterday, Christmas Eve, at 11 a.m. I played the Ocean Etude by Chopin, after practicing it 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 I still needed to sound like I was really enjoying the music. So she gave me a new assignment for deep listening – something she describes in her book, The Art of Practicing. She said I had to immerse myself, bathe myself, in the sounds I was playing. This means proceeding note by note, with the damper pedal held as indicated in the score, going extremely slowly, and letting every sound wash through me, filling my body from the top of my head to the soles of my feet, letting it enter my heart and noticing how it all felt. Madeline had said that this listening technique would enable me to know the music at the cellular level, so I could really 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 shovel some snow and to walk. 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 close companion, so I asked the Divine to be my companion, and to go for a walk with me. I headed across the parking lot and walked down a quiet country road through the woods for 45 minutes, sometimes feeling a sense of close Divine companionship, and sometimes forgetting all about it.
When I got back home, I turned on National Public Radio 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, Hoffman often tried to explain how music affects us – he tried using words to explain the inexplicable. The radio show described how he had tried to explain Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, writing the very first review of this amazing work without ever hearing it, working only from the score.
I found that story inspiring, and soon after hearing it I finally I sat down at the piano to try the deep listening technique.
Here is what I noticed:
Within about 20 minutes of practicing this way, my body became very calm, and I felt 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 that comes before weeping. This sensation occurred every time I played a new sonority. And whenever I got to that point, I knew I had listened long enough. Then I was ready to move on to the next one.
In the process, I noticed new things about the harmonic writing of these pieces. Both composers chose a range of chord tones in the accompaniment that created a specific tonal impact: sometimes it struck me as dense, but mostly it felt transparent, with enough space between harmony tones for each note to have individual impact within the chord. And I realized that as I was listening to these harmonies pile up with the pedal engaged, my fingers seemed automatically capable of effortlessly voicing each harmony, which created a warm, shimmering effect.
Because this exercise was such a rich, personal, and powerful experience, I wondered if it were an answer to the request I’d made of the Divine to be my companion. The experience felt so private, as though I could never explain it or share it with anyone else. But now I wonder, If I can’t share it in words, can I share it in my playing? Is this what Madeline means by playing “from the heart?”
So, on that Christmas Day, that lonely Christmas Day, two years ago, I received three 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 invite you to try this kind of deep listening yourself and see what gifts you receive.
With warm holiday wishes,