Happy Holidays, dear subscribers!
I’d like to give you a special gift today from my former student Mary Duncan. In this article of hers from 2015, “The Gift of Deep Listening,” she offers a magical description of how we can listen with our whole hearts to every sound we make.
Mary 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 first minute I watched her teach at the Art of Practicing Institute’s 2014 summer program, I saw that she is a seasoned, special, and brilliant teacher. She has great conviction and is enormously sensitive to her students.
I hope you enjoy her article.
Editor of Performing Beyond Fear E-zine
Artistic Director 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 on Christmas Day, 2013, 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,
Q & A of the Month
I’ve been trying to apply some of the ideas in your book, and I’m surprised how hard it can be to just notice how my hands and arms feel, or notice how sounds affect me. Why is this difficult, and how can I make it easier?
I love this question. We typically go through our lives all day, every day, without really being that aware of our own experience much of the time. It’s a habit we get into over the course of our life, especially if people around us haven’t encouraged us to pay attention to what we see, hear, or feel. This is how most of us grow up. We live in a culture dominated by speed and focused heavily on goals and measurable results, and it’s not so easy in the middle of all this to slow down and simply notice what’s happening.
But if you think back to a time in your childhood when an adult showed special appreciation of you, you can probably remember being keenly aware in that moment. It stopped you in your tracks. That’s because such a moment meant a lot to you, so it awakened your heart, mind, and perceptions all at once. This is the kind of acute awareness we need to cultivate in our practicing, and in our lives in general. And it does begin with an appreciation of who you are. You need to appreciate yourself in order to awaken your perceptions.
Most of us have way to much on our plates every day to enjoy a rich appreciation of ourselves from moment to moment. Countless things distract us from a full-bodied, clear-headed, open-hearted appreciation of ourselves and of what we are perceiving and doing. And music is particularly complicated! We have to use our bodies, ears, minds, and hearts with such ease and command in order to master a piece of music.
So I would start by taking a moment to appreciate yourself. Appreciate what you are up against in trying to cultivate more awareness of all those sounds and sensations in practicing. Appreciate your good intentions and that music demands a lot of all of us. If you actually take time to extend that kind of warmth to yourself, it can work wonders in relaxing your whole body and mind, and allowing you to more easily take in what you are doing. And realize that, like all of us, you will continually fall off of the horse of awareness, and that all you have to do is climb back on. With no self-criticism! This is just how the ride goes, especially when you’re first trying to get the hang of it. Or if you do find yourself criticizing yourself, keep letting go of that! You can actually do it. Just keep going.
This kind of gentle attitude toward yourself will then keep growing, and as you get more comfortable with yourself, your practicing will get easier.
Submit a question for possible inclusion in next month’s issue of Performing Beyond Fear.