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· Pianoforte-Style: Russell Sherman on Spontaneity and Tension ·

When I last wrote on music in November I collected in my Soul Music of the Night some random thoughts on pianists, classical and modern, black and white — all the way from Ray Charles to Rachmaninoff — and I have thought to extend my theme by focusing on Russell Sherman, a player whose book I've been reading recently.

Long with the New England Conservatory, Sherman is also a fine teacher and, for me, in Piano Pieces, his rare gift of bringing theory to practice is what makes his writing appealing. Take these elegantly, neatly styled two paragraphs on "fluid sponaneity":

 · Piano Pieces · Heralitus said that you can never step in the same river twice, a chilling insight into the evanescence of all things. But even the flow of water abides by certain principles, an illustration of the more comforting perception that chaos itself has laws.

The sponaneity of Artur Schnabel or of Thelonious Monk does not flow from unrehearsed consciousness, or because they never thought about things. It flows because they thought about things so hard and honestly that they were attuned to the puzzles and contradictions which demand a leap of faith, or play. Only from a thorough preparation which teaches all and the limitations of all can the conditions arise for inspired "accidents." Only the anguish and amusements of hard work can train one to perceive the charms of chaos, the dynamics of its properties and improprieties.

One sees here that Sherman asks much of his students, and rightly so. But in such cerebration look also on what he asks of their working a "distributive tension" into their performing bodies. It reminds me of Frank Conroy's Body and Soul (1993), a fine novel by another pianist, and, indeed, by yet another teaching writer.

The bouncing up and down of happy hands [Sherman writes] represents the physical analogy to feel-good methods for boosting the psyche. The bogeyman here, as always, is vile tension, lean as Cassius and mean as Iago. But, in fact, how does tension develop?

Tension arises from insecurity, and insecurity arises from ignorance. Ignorance, in our line of work, means not knowing the notes — an umbrella charge covering a multitude of sins, such as not knowing how the notes are organized, related, structured, and composed. That is, one's not knowing the composition leads to a good deal of insecurity even if all the tactile and mnemonic devises are functioning. Spurious gestures of liberation superimposed on a shaky foundation and insufficient grounding in the detail provide only a film of authority.

If, however, the notes are securely fastened and the mechanism is orderly, the answer lies not in the elimination of tension, for tension is the sword and glue of music, but in the distribution of tension. The spine, the arms, the shoulders, the legs, the torso all must share in the musical enterprise, and by their breathing and coordination convert it into a statement of convictions. Tension, nerves, psychic and metaphysical uncertainty are in fact the actual ingredients of musical pathos if properly balanced and exploited. Russell Sherman, Piano Pieces (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1996), 33-34;  above, 29.

Today I've thought to note Sherman's book not so we can perform on his keys, but so that we can grasp "the keys to performance" — in writing and music alike.

The two go hand-in-hand, don't they?


As a pianist and writer, I know that the craft comes in the practicing/rewriting. I compose my own music and am occasionally called upon to perform warm-up music in front of hundreds or thousands at seminars. How much I have rediscovered my own music and remade it my own again through diligent study and practice means the difference between a "nice" performance and one that approaches "inspired."

The same is true in writing. Often I post spontaneously on my blog, fully aware that more rewrites would result in a finer product. But I also know that because I have invested so much time in writing, both fiction and non-fiction, that I can often do "well enough" on a single draft (with many minor hurried corrections after it's been posted and reread).

Of course, I do feel a fairly constant pull to go back and recraft some of the older ones, knowing that they are unlikely to be read. But sometimes recrafting can make a very big difference to a few readers or even to one's own self in the rethinking.

Posted by
Mark Alexander on March 10, 2005 04:04 PM

Thanks for these thoughtful, and thought-provoking, observations. I'm no pianist, but I understand the analogy. It's apt to all creative processes, is it not?

Posted by Aunt Huldah on March 11, 2005 01:12 PM

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