Aaron Brown (arundelo) wrote,
Aaron Brown

Frank Conroy on piano playing and the wall

This essay on mistakes has some stuff about playing the piano that inspired me to type in a favorite passage from one of my favorite novels, Frank Conroy's Body and Soul. Claude, the main character, is a young pianist, and Fredericks is his teacher.

One morning in the castle, after a year of lessons, Claude played the Mozart B Minor Adagio he'd been working on for two weeks. Fredericks nodded. "Coming along, coming along." Then Fredericks played it himself, and the boy shook his head.

"What?" Fredericks said in mock alarm. "No good?"

"It's beautiful. I just wish my fingers could, I mean, when I try to control them to the extent I can feel it just so far and then I can't feel any further. Touch. I'm talking about touch. At a certain point I hit a wall."


"What do you mean? It's awful. It feels awful. I can't do anything about it."

Fredericks rose from the piano. "Let's go into the library." He surprised the boy by gently taking his arm. "It's good," he said as they moved across the great bright room, "because very few players ever get to the point where they realize the wall is there."

The sudden physical intimacy made the boy blush. Fredericks was a fastidious man, and the gesture was so out of character it seemed to suggest that Claude had risen to some new and higher status. "Then there is a wall."

"Of course," said Fredericks. "For all of us."

In the library Claude stood by the French windows while Fredericks went to his desk. The boy glanced at the bright river and then saw some movement outside on the balcony below. A short, slender young woman with black hair, wearing a red bathrobe, walked to the railing and paused there. She raised her hand to her mouth and took a puff of a small, thin cigar. The blue smoke drifted over the stone railing.

"Come here," Fredericks said. "Stand here." He held something in his hand.

The boy walked over and faced him. He received a glass ball about the size of a peach pit attached to a string.

"Hold it like this." Fredericks also had a glass ball. He held the string between thumb and forefinger, the ball hanging motionless below. The boy did likewise. "You will find there is an attraction between these pieces of glass," Fredericks said. "Like magnetism, even though they are glass."

Fredericks reached out and pushed Claude's glass ball in such a way that it swung in a circle. "Do not move your hand or your fingers. Remain absolutely still and let the ball swing. All by itself."

Claude obeyed, watching the glass ball go around.

Then, very gently, Fredericks swung his own ball so that its circle came within two or three inches of the path of Claude's.

"Now keep still and watch."

When, after a moment, the orbits of the two pieces of glass brought them near each other, Claude both saw and felt his ball move slightly out of its orbit toward the other one. It was quite distinct. A little jump.

"You see?" Fredericks said. "You held perfectly still?"

"Yes." Claude was amazed. "Magic. Is it magic?"

Fredericks took the glass balls and put them back in his desk. "Some people would have you believe so, but it isn't. It only feels like magic."

"Well, what is it, then? What made it do that?"

"You did."

"No, I didn't move. Not one bit. Anyway, I could feel it. I could feel a little tug when it jumped."

"You believed the pieces of glass were attracted to each other."

"Well, you said they, I mean, I didn't actually know whether --"

"Listen to me, Claude," Fredericks said. "This is important. It's because you believed."

"But that's like magic. You said --"

"I said you did it. You did it without knowing it. Tiny micro-movements in the pad of your thumb and the pad of your forefinger. Infinitesimally small movements below your level of physical awareness, magnified because of the length of the string, making the ball jump."

Claude looked away and started into the middle distance for several moments. "Are you sure?" he asked finally.

"I'm absolutely sure. I'm positive." Fredericks moved back and sat on the edge of his desk.

Claude turned up his hand and looked at his fingers. He touched his thumb and forefinger together.

"You understand the implications?" Fredericks asked.

"I'm not sure." Claude continued to move his fingers. "It seems so strange."

"It's the other side of the wall."

The boy looked up.

"I've just shown you that your fingers can do more than what you physically feel them doing." He made a little arc in the air with his hand. "The other side of the wall."

Claude thought about it. "Yes, but how? How do you do it?"

Fredericks got up from the desk and stood directly in front of the boy. "You must imagine the music in your head. Imagine it shaped and balanced the way you want it. Get it in your head and then believe in it. Concentrate, believe, and your fingers will do it."

"My God," Claude whispered.

"Anything you can imagine clearly, you can play. That's the great secret."

"So it goes beyond the body," Claude said.


Tags: music, quotes

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