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Wednesday, 1 June 2016

Listening vs. visualisation- exploring the link (or lack of) between musical intention and real-life results

 (Nb. I wrote the vast majority of this post some two years back. Although I've not yet completed the associated practical exercises, I thought it was probably about time I did something with it. I'll look to publish a part ii in the future)

This will be in a very different vein to most of my posts. This has zero to do with making objective analysis of how movements translate into control over sound. Rather, it's specifically about how the inner musical conception and listening relates to the sound that a pianist conveys to the audience. Here, I'm simply going to illustrate issues that may play an enormous role in how accurately we are able to listen to ourselves. This first part details a rather remarkable aural phenomenon, whereas an upcoming follow-up post will demonstrate a few related exercises (both in listening to yourself objectively and understanding how to better project qualities of sound, not merely into your own private thoughts, but also into the ears of a listener).

Firstly, I want to set the scene with a little story about an experience I once had. A few years ago, I recall hearing a pianist tell me that, in his opinion, the secrets to technique and sound production lie primarily in the ear and in the depth of musical conception. This is not an uncommon stance by any means and it's a view that is shared by such virtuosi as Arcadi Volodos and many others. He spoke with such confidence and assurance that I naturally imagined that he must be among those lucky "talented" pianists- for whom difficulty doesn't seem to exist and for whom the limits of what they can do really are the same as the limits of their imagination. At least, that's what I imagined until I heard him play a simple lyrical piece! Rarely had I heard a pianist pound out melody and accompaniment notes alike with such incessantly brutal percussive force! With every note of the melody came an individual thrust of the arm- that produced lump after lump, without a trace of binding logic or musical fluidity. Even the accompaniment notes were scarcely less aggressively forced out. How can a serious musician hold such a belief system, yet hammer out a simple melody on a note-by-note basis- as if he is quite deaf to his own sound?

On a less extreme note, a phenomenon I have sometimes noticed in the past is performing artists who give fantastic masterclasses, yet comparatively ordinary and uninspiring concerts. In the masterclass, scarcely a bar goes past where they do not have some kind of interesting insight to offer. It becomes evident how deeply their musical thought processes run- with attention to all kinds of musical details. However, when the very same musician plays in concert, all too often they sound like a totally different pianist- producing relatively ordinary effects, that show few signs of those profound musical thought processes that they had been describing to the students. They have all manner of ideas about how to sculpt the music, when teaching. However, come concert time the very same players sometimes fail to transmit more than the merest outline of the ideas that they had expressed verbally, within their actual realised sounds.

So, why? What is it that causes this disconnect between the understanding and the audible results- to the point where they can be so far from the internal conception? Well, this post is entirely about those issues. However, before progressing onto this directly, I want to start by directing you to a practical demonstration of some very interesting scientific background about the nature of listening- and the sheer difference between what the ear collects and what we actually "hear".

The demonstration in this film shows how deeply what we "hear" will necessarily be distorted, if we have a sense of expectation.

The full demonstration lasts for around 5 minutes from the point I've linked to (you'll need to skip manually to 23:50 if opening on a mobile), but it really is quite astonishing and thus well worth the time. Listen to the song being played backwards without looking at any words, and your brain will hear gibberish. Then listen again whilst looking at the words, and your brain hears them rather clearly. Put them away again and you're straight back to hearing gibberish (provided that you have now forgotten the lines- although in the event that any words were consigned to memory, that too would be enough to trigger the distorted listening).

I first read Mlodinov's excellent book "Subliminal" on these issues a good few years ago, but I only recently came to experience the actual startling effect via this demonstration. Expectation literally transforms how the brain processes the information received by the ears- and it's quite impossible for the conscious mind to override that expectation. If you're reading the words, your brain will "correct" the sounds received to match to expectations- provided that they approximate reasonably closely (ie. presumably it doesn't automatically work for literally anything that the brain is told to expect). I don't know whether Adam Buxton had any conscious awareness of this phenomenon, when he made the following comedy video:

Either way, the humour stems from how easily the brain is fooled- leaving the listener both surprised and amused at quite how genuinely (the majority of) what we hear there seems to match precisely to written words, that are clearly altogether inappropriate to a church hymn. Again, listen without looking at the subtitles and you simply won't be likely to mishear in the same way. You'll just hear very muffled singing, scarcely any of which either suggests the made up words or even gives much hope of deciphering the real ones. Expectation is what specifically determines how severely we mishear in this way. The unconscious part of the brain literally distorts what the ears perceive- producing a sound that has been altered in order to align itself to expectation. But the hearing itself SEEMS objective- we don't in any way perceive the fact that the aural information is effectively being "doctored", in order to create our impression. We experience the dubiously interpreted version as if it were nothing more than the original raw data that comes via the ear.

So, let's bring this back to the musical issues that I started out on. It should be pretty clear by now how significantly this objectively proven phenomenon might be expected to influence how we "hear" music. Consider those performers who hear something wonderful in their head- for example, a beautiful full-bodied singing tone that rings out all the way to the back of a hall. It's not hard to put such an image in your head, particularly if you've spent much time listening to such phenomenal artists as Emil Gilels or Alfred Cortot. All the better still if you're also acquainted with the real deal, through such great singers as Callas or Caruso.  But does that internal image of how you want to sound necessarily translate into execution of that sound? Or does it translate into an example of the same phenomenon? What if the internal intention for the sound is truly wonderful, but a level of expectation distorts the accuracy of listening? The brain could quite feasibly succeed in turning something relatively dull and ordinary into the experience of hearing something rich and colourful. Could it allow even a pianist who thumps the piano like he's trying to tenderise a steak to "hear" a beautifully rich vocal cantabile? I honestly think that the level of delusion created by a strong internal expectation could potentially go so far as that.

At this point, I want to make it absolutely clear what I am definitely NOT arguing, before anyone might severely misinterpret where this is going. Doubtless, some readers will already be absolutely irate that I've dared to utter such blasphemy as the notion that a strong internal conception for how you want the music to sound could prove to be a negative thing. Well, that's not actually my point. A pianist's sound is most certainly limited by the scope of his musical imagination. If no musical conception is present, the pianist could not produce any musical results. We certainly should strive to develop an internal image of how we wish to sound. However, the fact remains that strength of internal conviction does not automatically translate your conception into an actual sound. If you are too lost within your inner intention to be experiencing the ACTUAL sound that comes out of the piano, you will be limited in terms of what you can achieve. To truly listen with accuracy, live and in the moment, what if we must also counter that with time spent simply listening, driven by relatively few expectations?

Now, I did already state that you can't consciously decide to try not to hear those written words out of the gibberish, once they are there inside your head. Here, however, I feel the situation differs. If you step back momentarily from the strength of the inner conception and try to listen to yourself without expectations, I am confident that you really can grow to hear the results a little more objectively and in a manner that is less clouded by whatever you are hoping to hear. In many circles, we are given a simplistic and definitive assertion that we must ALWAYS intend a specific musical result. Is it actually such an unforgivable thing to sometimes play a passage with a slow and exploratory feel, listening in on an interval by interval basis- without cast iron expectations? Wouldn't we become more accurate listeners if we regularly tipped the balance towards OBSERVING what results during such an approach, rather than always be trying to force a completely predefined idea to arise in that precise form?

Stephen Hough once made an excellent analogy about how automated player pianos might never truly convey the "sound" of a pianist, when played back upon a different instrument at a different time. He says it's like recording all the details of a car journey between two cities and then expecting to program a fully identical drive on a different day, in a different car. Even for someone for whom such a journey may have begun to feel habitual, there are all kinds of adjustments which have to be made as live responses. Sometimes something unexpected happens and you simply can't press on according to a rigid plan. You have to observe it by being as present as possible and then make whatever adaptation is necessary. Player pianos are utterly incapable of making ANY adaptations to that record of a particular "journey", which is why they rarely give more than a hint of a player's personal sound. They are a pure preordained auto-pilot that comes with no corrective intelligence- either to adapt the details in order to stay in line with an originally intended vision, or to adapt in more experimental ways that would create something spontaneous and fresh.

Coming back to real life performances, it was said of Horowitz that not only did he make such adaptations around what he heard coming out of the piano, but that he even took it so far as to adapt his ideas according to what he "sensed" of the audience's mood in a given moment. Elsewhere he described his approach as planning the basic colour scheme in advance, yet picking all of the particular shades in the moment. It's a nice way of putting it- to clarify that while not every single detail has been rigidly planned out, it's not a matter of completely random ideas either. It's a balance between planning and living/listening in the moment- in order to sense what best matches the specific sound that is being heard in the present. Whether a pianist wishes their concert performances to accurately correspond to a strict plan, or involve spontaneity, I believe that practise sessions have to involve some degree of experimentation and flexibility.

Particularly when a rather rigid conception is bound into strictness of metre, I believe it's incredibly hard to actually hear yourself with any accuracy. The inner rhythmic conception can become quite so driven, that there's never an opportunity to linger momentarily- in order to listen for that little bit longer to anything that grabs your interest. One of the problems with the backwards words is that they're gone before you know it. You can't stop and linger on a single syllable, in order to confirm what you really heard. Well, in music you can, as long as you make it possible for yourself. I feel confident that this is how we can correct the delusion of expectation- by spending a little longer to notice what you're truly hearing from a note or chord. For me, the best listening practise frequently incorporates "stolen" split seconds, in which you can be truly engrossed in the actual moment of sound that exists there and then, before going on to both "feel" and hear the characteristic of the particular musical interval that leads to the following tone. In a follow-up post, I'll give a far more detailed description of how you can use such practise techniques as extreme rhythmic flexibility- in a way that will both expand on your repertoire of tonal colours and improve upon your ability to listen in to your true sound. While sticking primarily to the musical theme I'll also tie in a few aspects of physical technique, in order to show how closely the tonal continuity between notes is linked not only to the ear, but also to an appropriate feeling of physical continuity.


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