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Wednesday, May 25, 2011

From the Literary Vesicle: Body and Soul by Frank Conroy

Body and Soul was written by a true musician. It is about a gifted young pianist's journey through music, through life, through maturity, through the professional music world and music business. It gets at the heart of what music making means, and puts into words the those inexpressible, wonderful, magical moments of music making.

The story is a fictionally rich and beautiful one.  But I'm actually not going to write about the plot (here's a nice plot synopsis). I'm going write about the parts that resonated to me, parts that express some experiences of music making that I've never known how to express. The music making that goes beyond the body--that is what music is all about, and this book gets across that wonderfully. Here's a rather lengthy passage, but I'm going to quote it in it's entirety, because it's my favorite from the whole book, and it's absolutely true. This is a dialogue between the piano teacher (Fredericks) and the student (Claude), in which the piano teacher has just told his student that there is an attraction, like magnetism, between two pieces of glass that were given to him:

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."

"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.
"Exactly."  (Body and Soul, p. 117-119)
The power of belief is magical, but not surprising. Psychology knows this well. The powers of the placebo effect are well-known. Just a couple of weeks ago, our health psychology professor showed us a video on the power of the placebo surgery. Patients underwent a sham surgery for knee pain. In other words, they underwent surgery without the actual surgical procedure, in which incisions were made, but no actual knee surgery was performed. After the "surgery," there was overwhelming improvement. Patients testified how the pain that had impeded their whole lives was gone, and they could go back living normally. Yet they never had an actual surgery, the improvement was all in their head. "So, it goes beyond the body." Here is the video our professor had shown us:

Placebo Surgery

Well, reading this, believing seems so simple. But it's not. Yet this it is the key that makes all the difference. Focusing on the music, not on your playing of it. But there's something further than just imagining the sound, you have to imagine the image, the scene, the thing you want to portray with the sound--what story you want to share with the audience. And from there, things take off.

Mark Steinberg, first violinist of the Brentano String Quartet, and my coach for one semester of "Projects in Musical Performance" once said something that I remember dearly. He told us at our last lesson together before final concert (I was playing a piano duo--Schubert Allegro in A minor), "How many people around you can do what you are about to do? You are going to take all those people on a journey together, and only you can tell that story." That's what music is all about, affecting those around you. That's what life is about too--inspiring others.

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