I spent Sunday morning in bed with my coffee listening to Chopin’s complete nocturnes playing on my phone beside me. Think of that. Music created centuries ago played by a pianist years ago streaming in my room, my consciousness, here and now.
Each keystroke playing me as if I was the instrument it played. As if the music arising in the room with no piano in sight were fingers keying notes within the body of some vast collective consciousness.
Aside from the way the notes rippled through me, thrilling and caressing and demanding, was that crystalline silence between each song and each hovering note. The silence that held thought at bay as I listened. The silence that allowed feeling to be all, to allow me, whatever this me is, and this music, whatever this music is, to be one entirely inseparable thing.
As I’ve begun learning to replay the piano, I’ve been amazed to realize what a complicated endeavor it is. It seems your mind has to be actively engaged full-tilt in at least nine different directions at once.
Learning to sight-read again is difficult enough in itself, memorizing all the keys and flats and sharps in the treble as well as bass clefts, then adding in the kinds of notes and how long to hold each, when to rest, when to repeat, when to go to an octave higher.
But all that’s child play compare to actually playing the notes as you scan the score, each hand going off in a different direction at the same time, while remembering the complex fingering of keys, as your fingers scamper up and down the keyboard, sometimes crossing over each other.
Then try adding the pedal to that, remembering when to press down to sustain the notes, when to let up. Never mind remembering where to speed up, slow down, play louder or softer. And all that with feeling, to express the emotional content of the score.
The thing we’re after, of course, is to learn to play the piece so well that our muscle memory takes over and the fingers themselves know what to do, where to go and how to play. Then you become the instrument through which the piece plays itself, so to speak. How peaceful that is. No wonder we go into ecstatic rapture when that happens.
But to get to that point is extremely difficult and complex, and time-consuming, requiring tons of discipline and dedication as well as pure love for the instrument and the music you are attempting to master.
Which is why performances like that of Martha Argerich, considered the finest living pianists today, is so mesmerizing. Watch how her hands fly over the keyboard, how her body leans into the score, how her face expresses the depth of her feelings as she plays.
Watching this, I wasn’t surprised to find in an article on Brain Pickings last week how “playing music is the brain’s equivalent of a full-body workout.”
Playing an instrument engages practically every area of the brain at once — especially the visual, auditory, and motor cortices. And, as in any other workout, disciplined, structured practice in playing music strengthens those brain functions, allowing us to apply that strength to other activities.
Robert Jordain in his book Music, The Brain, and Ecstasy agrees:
No human undertaking is so formidable as playing a musical instrument. Athletes and dancers may drive their bodies to greater exertions; scholars ma juggle more elaborate conceptual hierarchies; painters and writers may project greater imagination and personality. But it is musicians who must draw together every aspect of mind and body, melding athleticism with intellect, memory, creativity, and emotion, all in gracious concert.
A properly trained pianist plays all at once from fingers, wrists, elbows, shoulders, and spine, every joint in exquisite coordination as legs support and pedal. When the torso sways upon the bench, every joint continuously adjusts its relationship to every other in an enormously complex running calculus . . . Accurate movement requires that the brain monitor every result of its efforts in a perpetual loop of feedback and adjustment.
So every sensory system except those for taste and smell is put to work reporting what has happened after a movement is made. . . . . Meanwhile, the visual system runs helter-skelter, one moment decoding dozens of dots on a printed page, the next aligning hands to keyboard, then darting off to gather timing cues from fellow musicians.
None of this commotion would be worth much were it not for emotions welling up through the mind’s floorboards. It is the joy of so pure an expression of emotion that draws musicians to the profession.
The musician at once commands the notes and is ravished by them.
Certainly all of this can be seen in Argerich’s playing. I am in awe when I watch her. And I wonder why I never heard of her until I was doing research for this post. Rubenstein, Horowitz, Glen Gould, Van Caliburn, all great classical pianists, all household names, all male. But the greatest of them all, according to so many lists I’ve seen, is this beautiful, Argentine woman who I had never heard of before. How can that be?
She’s private, moody and unpredictable. She’s wildly beautiful, with a long, thick mass of hair — once dark, now gray — and a radiant, quick smile, and at 75, she still wears the peasant blouses and cotton pants of a teenager circa 1968. And she plays the piano brilliantly, ferociously and, perhaps, better than anyone else on Earth.
Some say that her performances on U-Tube are responsible for a new resurgence of interest in and accolades for her work among the general public. I’m happy that I found her there. She demonstrates so beautifully what that full-body workout of the brain looks and sounds like.