My teacher is preparing for a recital, and yesterday she played her entire program for me.
She wanted feedback on the harp’s sound and projection. Wanting to give her useful information, I tried to pay particular attention to string tone, to the balance and evenness of volume between the two hands and between the different registers, to the dynamics, and to the overall flow of melodic lines in the music.
These are all aspects of playing that she points out and has me work on. Just this week I spent a large part of my lesson on only two measures, experimenting with how to bring out what would be the first soprano voice so that it would not be overshadowed by the second soprano voice. I had to figure out how much additional thumb pressure I needed to make the thumb string sound with the same tone and volume as the string being simultaneously plucked with my fourth finger. Too much pressure resulted in a loud, harsh twang. Too little pressure and the thumb note could not be heard at all. Finding the right touch resulted in lovely harmony supported by a little duet in the left hand.
Listening to my teacher with ears alerted to notice specifics of her playing, I could experience kinesthetically and emotionally how tone, balance, dynamics and melodic line impacted me as a listener, and how they contributed to my whole experience of being immersed in and bathed by the sound and the music. Listening to her play motivates me to learn to do as a player what I experienced as a listener, motivates me to learn to pay attention to all these technical elements and incorporate them in my playing. Listening to her play created living, breathing models of harp sound for me to learn to match. It’s this listening that inspired me to practice creating crescendos and decrescendos with my arpeggio practice today.
Yet there is quite a paradox between developing technique and creating music, another variation of the do-ing/be-ing conundrum.
I know about the musical decisions my teacher had to make about how to perform her pieces, decisions about tempo, color, dynamic range. I understand the technical skills she had to bring to the harp to create the variations in tone and dynamics that created the melodic lines that allowed the different voices in the music to sing. I know that she had to decide how she would play the powerful rising chords in the Hindemith harp sonata, that she had to work out how softly she would start the chord progression and exactly how much pressure to apply to the strings for each chord to create the crescendo. But my experience of listening to these pieces was that everything was organic to and emanating from the music, and not from decisions my teacher made about the music or about how to use her hands on the harp.
The paradox is that the music would not have form or exist for me to hear without all of the choices and decisions and technical work my teacher did to be able to play it, yet all of that becomes transparent and disappears when she plays. The music would not be possible without her “doing,” yet her doing, her technique, her decisions become invisible. There is only the music coming alive through her and saying “This is how I want to sound, this is what I want to say, this is what I want to be.”
It appears my goal as a musician must be to develop such flawless technique that it completely disappears. And to do that I must be able to hear every nuance of sound that the union of my fingers and the harp strings create, and discern if the “doing” of that sound allows the “being” of the music to emerge. Head and heart must be present on the harp bench. Fingers and ears must be equally skilled. Listening is practice.