This month I am delighted to introduce a special musician in the The Art of Practicing Institute community, Tracy Stuchbery. Tracy came to our summer program this year from Penticton, British Columbia, where she is on the piano faculty of the Penticton Academy of Music. She performs regularly as a piano soloist, accompanist, and choral conductor.
Tracy’s short article is designed to give you a fresh perspective on our approach to practice and performance—the perspective of a fine musician for whom the Art of Practicing is a new experience. I have tremendous admiration for Tracy, who has really taken these teachings to heart and has absorbed an enormous amount in a short time.
Tracy is currently training with me to become an assistant teacher at our summer program. She has a deep understanding of both music and human nature, and it has been an honor and pleasure to work with her. I hope you enjoy her beautiful article.
And I wish all of you a joyous Thanksgiving holiday!
Editor of Fearless Performing E-zine
Founding Teacher of The Art of Practicing Institute
Dissonance and Tenderness
by Tracy Stuchbery
Every piano sold should come with the following warning sign. “Caution: Practicing Piano May Lead to Deep Insight.”
There is a popular poster in many elementary schools and libraries, titled: “All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten.” Perhaps you have seen it? Share everything, play fair, don’t hit people, clean up your mess, etc. For years now I have been contemplating writing my own take on that poster and calling it: “All I Really Need to Know I Learned Sitting at the Piano.”
The more I practice, the more I perform, the more I study, and the more I teach, the more I have new and ever deepening insights. These insights are rooted in a physical awareness that invariably points to a deeper human truth. An example of this would be my recent experiences practicing the Chopin Nocturne in D flat, op.27 No.2.
Chopin’s music is achingly beautiful to me. The word “tenderness” comes to mind when I try to describe its unique quality. In working on this particular Nocturne, I’ve been practicing singing the left hand, without playing it. Those of you who are familiar with the piece will understand what a challenge this poses! You have to repeatedly transpose the octave and make leaps that, while incredibly pianistic, pose a considerable challenge to the voice. It’s remarkable how difficult it is to hear each note well enough to vocalize it, while on the piano, it’s very easy to play the notes without actually hearing them.
Once I have found the notes with my voice for a measure or two of the left hand, I then sing that part while playing the right hand. I rest on each note until I feel deeply connected to the sound and can clearly hear the relationship between the two lines. It’s slow work, but I feel like I am luxuriating in each sound.
This practice is one of many illuminating instructions that Madeline Bruser outlines in her teaching and in her book, The Art of Practicing: A Guide to Making Music from the Heart. Working with the Nocturne in this way, I was surprised to discover a huge number of dissonances in the piece. I wondered, how could a piece of such beauty contain so much dissonance? And how is it possible that we can listen to this piece, play this piece, and be so moved by its beauty without fully appreciating the sheer number of dissonances in any given measure? The contrast of these dissonances with the many consonant harmonies must be what creates the aching tenderness in this music.
Take a moment to reflect on some of the most tender and beautiful moments of your life, moments that have taken your breath away. Falling in love, the birth of a child, the wedding of a dear friend or relative, the gathering of family around the bedside of a dying loved one, the splendor of a Maple tree in October. Each of these events evokes tenderness, because it highlights the impermanence of life. Each of these events contains both longing and fulfillment, darkness and light. And it’s the balancing of the two that brings that aching, tender beauty.
If we consider that the dissonances in Chopin’s Nocturne resonate with pain and death, and that the consonances resonate with joy and life, then this music can reveal to us that dying is hidden within living. Thomas Merton, the great spiritual writer of the 20th century, described this as a “hidden wholeness.” And educator Parker J. Palmer elaborated on Merton’s concept: “In the visible world of nature, a great truth is concealed in plain sight: diminishment and beauty, darkness and light, death and life are not opposites. They are held together in the paradox of ‘hidden wholeness.’” This was my discovery in Chopin’s Nocturne—a great truth concealed in the music, waiting for me to discover it.
When I play this Nocturne now, fully aware of both the dissonance and consonance it contains, I feel I’m participating in this great paradox, of death hidden in life, which brings a powerful sense of wholeness that sustains life in me and in the world around me. And the music is more achingly beautiful than ever.
I invite you to contemplate what insight might be hiding in the music you’re working on right now. If you’re a pianist, you could try the singing technique described above. Or if you play another instrument and are practicing chamber music, try singing the part of another instrument that goes with it.
Be prepared for a revelation.
Q & A of the Month
I have a new piano teacher who has helped me a lot by giving me finger exercises to strengthen certain muscles—especially those near the pinky finger. As a result my sound, facility, rhythm, etc.are all becoming much more assured. I know that you are generally not in favor of such exercises, but I don’t know if I could have gotten to where I am now without these exercises. How do you recommend achieving hand strength?
If you enjoy doing finger exercises, I see no problem. But I recommend doing them in a musical and enjoyable way.
It’s important to use each part of your body the way it is designed to be used. Your fingers are designed for precision, sensitivity, and refined control. And finger strength comes from moving your fingers a lot, which you can do in all kinds of pieces. But if you try to force your fingers to get strong, by playing loudly, it’s easy to overwork and to lose the sensitivity that the fingers are designed for. Since the arm is designed for power, you need to combine finger movement with appropriate arm movements to get power.
I have never come across finger exercises that are musical and enjoyable. What I do recommend are pieces like Chopin etudes, which are great compositions. Or if the etudes are too difficult, you could try working on the Chopin preludes, or on pieces like Beethoven’s 32 Variations in C minor. These all provide excellent training in finger dexterity, strength, and speed, and the music is great.
Also, when you are learning any difficult passage in a piece of music, you need to take it apart and analyze exactly what and where the technical issues are. Often, when I take a close look at a tricky passage and try different technical approaches, I stumble on a solution by trial and error. And typically, the answer lies in some novel combination of finger and arm movement.
And sometimes when a passage feels awkward in the right hand, when I really examine it, I discover that it’s the left hand that isn’t working ideally. Once the left hand issues are straightened out, the right hand coordination can suddenly become smooth.
In my experience, piano music is loaded with all kinds of athletic demands and complicated technical problems. Simply by repeating a passage enough to acquire the ease you want, your fingers will get stronger and more dextrous.
What really counts is how curious and creative you are about technique—about solving problems and training your hand to do more and more intricate things. If you are truly fascinated by the process, you will end up repeating things so many times that your hands will get great training anyway. And instead of the repetition being boring, it will be full of interesting new discoveries. It will be fun.
If you find that doing finger exercises is really interesting and enjoyable, you will experience a kind of vitality that can feed your entire musical and creative experience during practicing, in addition to strengthening your fingers. But for me, such vitality is greatly increased by the joy of practicing real music.
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