When we are young and first learning an instrument, our training focuses on the tangible: reading lines and spaces, identifying notes on the page, playing the corresponding key, string, or position, using specific fingers, identifying dynamics, articulation, and phrase markings, incorporating the pedal, discovering our head or chest voice, etc. Even learning about composers, their works, and stylistic conventions is a matter of concrete study. Teachers easily assess "right" from "wrong" and guide us to correct the mistakes, and, perhaps because we are young, we do not question the severity of this approach; maybe we even like it. There is no mystery, and no argument, when "this is middle C" and "this is not middle C." "Yes" or "no" is kind of satisfying. Until later.
So...what I am about to tell you must remain our secret.
In my mind, gesture is the most powerful performance technique a musician possesses. Like "being musical," gesture is an elusive element, difficult to teach, and sometimes hard to comprehend. I wasn't that highly aware of my own use of gesture at the piano until my friend Michael Lowe (a top-notch choreographer and former Oakland Ballet dancer) commented on it, every time he saw me perform
. He first compared how I used my hands to Uma Thurman's "Bride" in Kill Bill Vol. 2
, specifically, the scene where she frees herself from the buried coffin. Ouch. But Michael enthused, "it's all about the intention of movement! Even when you're not playing the keys, your gestures make the music...somehow...continue." He gestured
, "like the Zen master whose death jab kills you three days later!" I didn't know how to take this "Zen master" analogy, but later I accepted his observations as high praise; that my unplanned choreography communicated the musical performance to a dancer
was maybe something I should be more conscious about!
When I teach, I find myself referring over and over again to gestural actions. I watch students type out their scales and rub their aching wrists and hands, and I say, "try making one gesture, like this, instead of tapping the keys individually, finger by finger." My favorite gestures (the ones I neurotically contemplate while in line at the coffee shop or driving around town) include the rotational "turning the broken Victorian doorknob" gesture, useful in Alberti bass lines or any sort of rapid tremolo between the thumb and outer fingers, and the constant, tensile, "as if sewing with yarn" gesture, applicable to both the meandering lines of John Cage's In a Landscape
and the slow back-and-forth left hand in Satie's Gymnopedie No.1
. Then there's the gesture to turn those froggish, computer-keyboard influenced scales into beautiful legato lines. I say to my students, "you know those big inflatable balls that you see everyone carrying around under their arms these days?" (Ok, ok, I spend a lot of time at a dance studio
where this is not an uncommon sight!) "Imagine there's one right here, under the piano keyboard, and you just rest your whole palm on the enormity of the sphere and roll it from side to side. Now try playing the scale, kind of like that, from side to side." For a more baseball-sized image there's the decisive "throw" or relaxed forward snap of the wrist that sends a focus of energy to the keys and easily produces staccato or other released articulations but, more challenging for me, can also give sustained chords a big, full resonance. Yes, to sustain
; that one's still hard.
The thing is, while I could ramble the day away going through a whole catalog of gestural imagery (and a whole catalog--a range--of physical motions is as necessary as an extreme range of dynamics or articulations), I am regularly confronted by the fact that many people prefer a concrete
musical practice. Images or concepts of the physical action need to be personally conceived, unlike accepting the universal "it's the second line of the treble staff; it is G." Many of my students say, "yes, yes, those are nice images, very expressive, but at this point I really just want to learn the right notes." Then I crawl home not liking teaching at all and wondering how I grew from my star-stickered ("yes, correct!") theory and musicianship books to this strangely nebulous approach.
We do not learn how to gesture in the way we learn the order of sharps and flats, but for high-level players, gesture is inseparable from other technical matters. Reading notes and counting rhythms, so audibly assessed as "right" or "wrong," is almost easy compared to a practice of movements, movements that often arise intuitively. Perhaps I never thought consciously about my own gestures because
of that intuitive element; the theatrical flight of my hands might have been the easiest way to play or the only way to make the passage smooth and pretty--musical. Is it only after many years of concrete learning that one realizes that a great deal of imagination--some choreography--at the keyboard is not
just superfluous but necessary? Maybe that's the big secret, and now I've gone and revealed it.