Paws or Claws?
Though I’ve never heard him play a lick of repertoire, Chris Brown always inspires me with his piano playing. Now known more as a composer and computer-music pioneer (and professor of music at Mills College), Chris trained seriously at the piano in his formative years. He utilizes his knowledge of the instrument by incorporating it in many of his interactive electronic pieces. I have heard him in that context two or three times and also as an improvisor, both solo and with others. Because he plays in this free improvisation style (even, I presume, when he is reading his own notated scores), he is a very different pianist from me, yet I learn so much about technique when I watch him play. He sits completely at ease at the keyboard and uses his whole hand, elbow, arm, shoulder, and back. The knee-jerk spontaneity of these broad physical gestures translates into seemingly effortless pianistic passagework that is musically delivered, with no pinched off ends. Does his hand look “like a crab” scuttling up and down the keyboard? Or is it more like a paw? A big, plodding, soft paw that, contrary to its design, somehow elicits precise tones and delicate filagree. I look at my narrow, surgeon’s fingers and worry that they might cut a musical idea short or clip what should be a perfect hairpin. Snip, snip. I play as if with little claws, a nimble but rather dicey affair. Hmm. Disconcerting.
Do people with paws have the advantage at the keyboard? Are the best musicians more flesh than bone? Mack McCray and Paul Hersh, two of my teachers at the Conservatory: fleshy hands. Fats Waller and Thelonius Monk: fleshy hands. Fred Frith and William Winant: fleshy hands. Rachmaninoff’s hands: legendary, statuesque. They are huge. They shaped his music (and much piano music written since) and cracked open the true symphonic sound that a piano is capable of producing. Big, huge, fatness of sound. Of course, one ought not agonize over genetic structure. Sometimes I tell myself that claws can articulate where paws can not, and that even by visualizing a pair of soft, plodding paws at the end of my arms I can find a tone production on the other side of my natural inclination. Visualization is essentially the practice of the imagination, a practice beyond mere notes, rhythm, technique and musicianship but just as important. So I must go practice, thinking paws or claws, claws or paws?