Play like a lover, not a scientist

This article first appeared on No Dead Guys, the blog of pianist and writer Rhonda Rizzo


It starts with fascination and attraction. Sometimes it happens slowly; other times it’s all at once. You want to spend every moment with this person. You want to know everything about the object of your desire, big and small. No detail is unimportant. No story is boring. And one day you realize that you know this person almost as intimately as you know yourself. This is what we commonly refer to as falling in love.

It starts with analysis and observation. Everything about the specimen is studied, examined, catalogued, and dissected. You draw conclusions based on findings. You write dispassionate observations. This is what we commonly refer to as scientific analysis.

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Making music, when it’s done right, is like falling in love. We tumble helplessly, passionately into a relationship with a piece of music, and in our effort to understand everything we can about it, we discover things about its structure, the composer, the circumstances in which it was created, others’ ideas of how best to play it, and (crucially) all the ways we can share our insights and love of what we’re playing through every note we play.

One of the greatest disservices a teacher can do to a student is to teach music like a scientist, not a lover. When this happens, it’s usually because the teacher has never had the experience of falling in love with music, or has shut out that love for one reason or another. In their hands, music is no longer alive, but is a thing to be dissected and coolly studied. Everything stays clean and scientific, there are safe “right” and “wrong” answers, and no one makes poor musical decisions in the heat of passion. Music becomes clinical, and (as a result) dead.

No one can think oneself into being in love. The magic is either there or it isn’t. Music is a sensual art first—we hear the notes being struck and then dying away; we feel the smoothness of the keys under our fingers; we see the play of light and shadows on the piano and the score; and we sense the interplay of sound, silence, composer markings, and our own hearts in the phrases we help shape. Analysis, observations, scholarship? These serve the senses, not the other way ‘round. This is what many of the late great pianists knew, which is why their recordings frequently offer more depth and humanity than many modern players, who play quickly and oh-so-correctly, but have little to say. We can read, memorize, study, and analyze everything there is to know about a piece, but until we abandon ourselves to the experience of playing the notes, the music lacks life. That doesn’t mean that playing the piano should be an anti-intellectual act; it means balancing head and heart; it means acknowledging that the heart part of this equation must come first.

If I could wish one thing for every pianist, it would be this: let yourself go. Let yourself be seduced—ravished!—by the music. As my undergraduate piano professor once told me, “make love to the piano.” Let the music teach you about itself through loving attention to the score, to historical writings, and to others’ experiences with it, and then abandon yourself to it. Hold nothing back. This is what it means to bring a great piece of music to life.


rhonda_rizzoRhonda (Ringering) Rizzo is a writer and a former performing and recording pianist. Her novel, The Waco Variations, was released in the summer of 2018, and her numerous articles have appeared in national and international music magazines, including Pianist Magazine, American Music Teacher, Clavier, Piano & Keyboard, and Flute Talk. A specialist in music that borrows from both classical and jazz traditions, Rizzo released four CDs, Made in America, Oregon Impressions: the Piano Music of Dave Deason, 2 to Tango: Music for Piano Duet, and A Spin on It.

She holds a BA from Walla Walla University and a MM from Boston University and is a passionate advocate of new music and living composers.

4 Comments

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  1. Hi Rhonda,
    As a scientist (and pianist/composer), I was disappointed to read your standard presentation of science as entirely dispassionate. Whilst I agree that “falling in love” with a piece of music is a wonderful way to learn and be inspired as a musician, and something I have certainly experienced myself, you should not assume that scientists do not also love their work. Scientific research is a highly creative process that does not simply include dissection of facts into “right and wrong”, but is an exciting exploration into questions that lie at the edge of human knowledge. The best scientists are passionate about their work, questioning their findings with an engrossed curiosity, an open mind, and – yes – a rigorous approach. Surely, this process of being absorbed in a creative endeavor is actually a very similar to learning and loving a new piece of music?
    Best wishes,
    Caroline

    • Caroline, thank you. I learned something important today. Most of the scientists I know (granted, just a few) have stressed the importance of a dispassionate approach. You have shown me that my view of the process isn’t as cold as I’d assumed. Thanks!

  2. Hello Rhonda,
    As a composer I LOVED your post. It’s beautifully written and reflects the spirit and passion that composers (hopefully) infuse into their works. P.S. There’s a nice descriptive text on the Orlando Contemporary Chamber Orchestra site for their upcoming “Reverie & Reflection” concert. https://www.occomusic.com/upcoming-concerts
    It perfectly synchs up with the raison d’être for my music.
    And, thanks to The Cross-Eyed Pianist for all the great postings and for sharing your No Dead Guys blog post.
    Cheers,
    Rain

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