The pianist in the video is me, 35 years ago. And although I understand how I practiced this piece to make it look so fluid and free, I’m still a little baffled by it. I even teach my students, at every lesson, to use their hands and arms like this. And I help them focus intently on the sounds they’re making, just as I did in practicing this piece. Yet this video always looks mysterious to me.
Making music is a mysterious process—partly because we can’t see inside the body, where the musical impulse is coming from. We can’t see the liquids and tissues inside the body that are literally being moved by musical vibrations. We can’t see the emotional energies flowing through our system as we respond to the sounds that we love.
Changing Our Focus
Such stillness looks strange to us because in our culture, we are doers. We focus a lot on being active and accomplishing things. Of course, it’s good to get things done. But we over do it a lot—we overwork, overexert, over-practice our instruments. Tension and injuries often result. And on the deepest human level, we often miss out on discovering our full expressive potential.
The culture has begun to change a little. Many musicians are getting help from bodywork specialists in the Alexander Technique, Feldenkrais, and other methods. And we have begun to learn about injury prevention and recovery. We still need more training in these areas.
We also need to focus much more on our experience of sound. This invisible aspect of our process is central to being a musician. As important as it is to master the outer body mechanics of using our instrument, the inside of the body—in our organs, nerves, and bloodstream—is where the music lives.
What It Takes
Chopin created an incredible challenge for any pianist who wants to master the Fantaisie-Impromptu, and it took a lot of work for me to become free with this complex little masterpiece. Although of course, the hands have to work completely efficiently and smoothly to negotiate this section at tempo, the biggest issue for me was to hear everything that’s happening in this intricate musical texture. While the right hand is playing scalar passages in sixteenth notes, the left hand is playing arpeggios in triplets.
In order to clearly hear both parts simultaneously, I spent countless hours at the piano playing one hand while singing the part of the other hand, going very slowly and gradually stretching my listening capacity. As I became conscious of the impact that each melodic and harmonic interval had on me, inside my body, whole phrases began to come to life and to flow naturally and easily from my fingers.
Nevertheless, every time I picked up the piece after a break from performing it, I found I had to do this work anew. I had to focus again on every interval and harmony in order to bring the music fully to life all over again—to keep it fluid and free. “Mastering” it once didn’t mean I’d permanently nailed it. It meant I continued to be its humble servant.
Becoming Less Active and More Receptive
Listening with such focus takes effort, but this effort is not physical. In fact, if you’re busy moving your torso around a lot while you play, it’s hard to be aware of how the sound is affecting you inside. It’s like trying to appreciate what someone is saying while you are busy moving your body. It’s just easier to listen if you are more still.
But if you practice listening with great focus, your inner, receptive capacity will develop, and you’ll probably feel much less tendency to lean forward or sway around while playing. There’s just so much satisfaction in being deeply engaged with sound.
It is this inner satisfaction that explains how I could sit so still while playing so freely. Although I may appear detached and uninvolved in this performance, it felt like magic. I felt extremely alive inside, filled with the beauty of this amazing music, with waves of sound in all colors flooding my system. Because I wasn’t so caught up in being physically active, I could experience the joy of being deeply receptive.
How Listening Improves Coordination
In addition to the musical effect of such close listening, it’s important to understand that when you hear music clearly, your coordination improves. The reason lies in your nerve cells, also known as neurons.
Our movements depend on our motor neurons. These are the nerve cells that connect the brain to the muscles. But we also have sensory neurons, which connect the brain to our sense organs. What makes it all work together is a third kind of nerve cell—the inter neurons. These communicate between the other two types of neurons.
What this means is that when our muscles are more relaxed, we can hear better—the absence of unnecessary muscle tension reduces static in the nervous system, and it’s easier for the sensory neurons to do their job. By the same token, when we hear music more clearly, we also reduce static in the nervous system, so our muscles get clearer signals from the brain. Our coordination becomes more refined. This is why my listening work with the Fantaisie-Impromptu not only gave me a deeper connection to the music, but also resulted in my fingers working with more sensitivity and precision.
I find it very helpful and reassuring to have this knowledge about how the body and brain work. We are whole beings, and each part of us affects our other parts. So it’s understandable that we find practicing so challenging. We often try to improve our playing by focusing on one particular aspect of practicing—such as hand movement or dynamics—when what really helps may be something else, such as listening intently to each sound. We’re always feeling our way and learning as we go. It’s a creative process, and solutions to musical problems are often not where we expect them to be.
But in addition to this challenging aspect of practicing, we can also find great rewards in our work process. When we engage every part of ourselves in it, the results can be astonishing. This makes us feel more alive and motivated to work further.
What IS Freedom?
I once received an interesting reaction to this video. A young pianist told me that although it was perhaps the most fluid piano playing he’d ever heard, he didn’t want to look like that when he played. It looked stiff and rigid to him—not free. It didn’t fit his concept of what making music should look like. I felt sad about his reaction—I know what he is missing in rejecting what he saw. Yet I also saw intelligence in what he said. He was afraid that if he gave up his familiar way of thinking, he would lose something he cherished—his freedom of expression.
I knew that his reaction came from the same place as my feeling of being baffled. Somehow, true freedom doesn’t always look the way we think it should look. Somehow, freedom often means giving up who we think we are in order to discover who we really are. Way, deep inside. Beyond trying. Beyond showing off. Beyond everything that isn’t completely genuine and unforced.
When we experience real freedom, our habitual self, our ego, disappears. We can become one with the music. We can fulfill our talent. The vastness and depth of great music can flow freely through us, unimpeded by blocks in our listening.
You know it when it happens, even if it’s just for a moment. And audiences know when a performer is engaged deeply like that. They can feel the music striking their hearts and minds as the composer intended. Everyone feels their humanness, together, when great music is given to them authentically, unfiltered by the performer’s habitual concepts.
Becoming a Virtuoso Listener
It’s true, it takes a lot of focus to practice this way, but it gets easier the more you do it. And it’s actually the shortcut to wonderful playing, because you’re going straight to the point—you’re connecting directly to what the composer gave you. It’s incredibly gratifying to really let the music go deep into your system like this, And your playing opens up way beyond what you thought it could become.
I invite you to take the opportunity to experience such freedom. Allow yourself the time to notice how every pitch and harmony in a phrase affects you inside. Go super slowly and give yourself the luxury of enjoying every sound you make. See what happens in a week’s time. You could jot down a few of your observations during the week as you discover what it’s like to expand your receptiveness—to become more deeply acquainted with your magical gift for responding to musical sounds.
Special Opportunity for Pianists
And if you’re a pianist and you’re ready to jump in and receive guidance in this approach to opening up your playing, along with wonderful group support, I invite you to apply for my upcoming piano master class series, starting June 1.
Here’s to more expressive freedom in your performances!