In an earlier post, I described how a nasty accident with a food processor blade helped me to understand a passage about the history of piano technique in Nicholas Cook’s Beyond the Score, in a particularly visceral way. Since then, I have also had a nasty accident with a pair of secateurs (I nearly cut off the end of my left index finger), and learned that cycling with a heavy rucksack is bad for you (I’ve trapped a nerve so badly, I can’t feel the end of my RH index finger).
These things have illuminated another passage in Beyond the score. The LH finger just hurts, so I have to be careful what I do with it, but the RH numbness is one of the most annoying things I’ve ever done to myself, and much more of an impediment to playing the piano. Until this happened, I had no idea how important “touch” as a sensation was when you are playing the piano. I don’t mean what you do to the piano keys, but what comes back to you from the keyboard. You don’t know what you’re doing, unless you can feel it. You think that controlling touch is about considering the amount of weight or force that you will give to a particular finger, but your judgement depends on getting feedback from your finger on the key. When you can’t feel it, you don’t know what you’ve done, like walking in the dark. The strangest part is that I can’t hear what I’m doing with my RH now. Whenever I put my index finger on a key at the moment, I have no sense of how hard I’m hitting it, and it’s like someone just blocking my ears.
As this problem persisted, it reminded me constantly of chapter 10 (p. 308 onwards) in Beyond the Score that deals with the role of the body in music-making, and how playing an instrument is not all top-down motor control, but an interplay between that and your bodily constraints and possibilities. The first time this really came home to me was watching someone play gospel on a hammond organ, and seeing him use his left forearm like a seesaw on the keyboard from left-to-right in order to give that characteristic sweep up to a note in the right hand. You hear it as a voice-like musical gesture, but there’s no way that this started off as an idea in a composer’s head – this is a style and a sound that is an affordance of elbows, forearms and Hammond keyboards. You couldn’t imagine that sound unless you’d physically made it, and the only way to make it is to do what no piano teacher would ever teach you to do.
I’m fortunate to have been treated for that nerve problem by a brilliant Czech physiotherapist, and the treatment has cast even more light on this top-down/bottom up issue. He has encouraged me to think of playing from the fifth finger rather than the inside of the hand. It’s not to do with piano technique, but about sending messages to your brain that engage muscles in your upper body to such a degree that immediately changes your posture and weight placement, as if by magic. It changes you from resting your hands on the keyboard, to placing them there from a completely controlled position. The control in the back comes from a movement that starts in the hand, it doesn’t end there, and it doesn’t come from thinking about your back. I was enthusing about this to one the ballet teachers here, and said, “It’s amazing, you think your mind controls your body…” and before I had finished the sentence, she burst out laughing and said “Oh no, we’re not that clever!” The mind-body problem in a nutshell.