Saturday, February 20, 2010

No End to Listening

I read David Stabler's beautifully thought-provoking and insightful column in The Oregonian on Thursday, "A Year of Playing Bach".

He describes his resolution to re-dedicate himself to daily practice of Bach's "Well-Tempered Clavier" after many years away from not just that particular piece, but piano practice in general. Although, of course, the specifics of piano practice are different from those of ballet, the psychological drive, effort, and ultimately the effects of "the art of practicing art" are exactly the same, right down to the physical process and development.

Here are some of my favorite observations from his column:

"I wanted to make music in the first person after writing about it for so long. One reason to play an instrument-- or paint or write or act-- is to bring what is inside ourselves into play. The fact that musicians often do that by learning other people's music is no contradiction. What we hear and how we reproduce it is who we are."

I will add that that is the reason why we dance, as well. We too (for the most part, in the ballet world) are interpretive artists, and the artistic gratification comes from being given a choreographer's work to hold in your body. No matter how big or small the role, when you, the dancer, are performing those steps, they feel like your very own that no one can take away from you, that you have colored with your own personal set of tools.

"Practicing is meditation-- we're practicing a way of thinking; we're practicing consciousness."

We sometimes talk about going on "auto-pilot" when repeating some very familiar exercise or piece of work, but in truth there's no such thing. It's just that the brain has learned the motor patterns so well that the movements no longer take such active, conscious effort. But even warming up, taking barre, doing class work is meditative in that you turn your focus deep inside yourself and the outside world fades away.

David concludes with his realization that the reason he decided to bring Bach's music into his own body was in order to hear it better, and to remember how to listen to it.

"There is no end to listening".


  1. I love this, Gavin!
    I have often said dancers and musicians have a lot of similar actions and attitudes. I think that's why we are often friends with musicians. I love it!

  2. I agree with everything you say Gavin. It's never easy, even though musicians and dancers practice so that the end result looks, if not exactly easy, at least free and without any sign of the struggles we might have faced at the outset.

    Most other pianists I've spoken to about the Stabler article however, think that 30 minutes a day for the 48 Ps and Fs is a joke!

  3. Or, to put it another way, would you do a 30 minute barre and think you got it done?

  4. I agree about the 30 min. thing. I have a friend who spends hours playing his piano, Bach included.
    And as a dancer we need a 45 min barre and 30 min floor to be up to par.

  5. Yes, of course. If ONLY all we needed was half an hour a day! In his defense, though, he wasn't aiming for professional-level proficiency, just to become more physically familiar with the music again.

  6. We adult ballet students benefit from a similarly heightened experience when we watch performances, as our bodies and minds react in sympathy to what we see.