Listen, Feel, Play – It’s not just for piano improv
Just got back from a dog walk, amused by the way in which one alpha can shift to… beta? (non-alpha? anything-but-alpha? who me—alpha?) in the presence of another. My charge went bounding after a dog clear across the park as if, upon arrival, they would both go flying across town from the sheer momentum of the impact. Instead, as he got a clearer view, the brakes went on from about 50 feet away, just in time to come to a full stop within licking distance of the somewhat larger, older and female German Shepherd. For the rest of the 15-20 minute park encounter, his acquiescence and deference during their stick fetching was either the stuff of wimpy-ness or gentlemanliness, and on this point I’ll just give him the benefit of the doubt. Regardless, his flexibility in the midst of a heightened moment beautifully illustrates one of the characteristics encouraged by my listen, feel, play approach to piano improvisation.
As I rolled this event into my current experience with pulling together the pieces of my upcoming launch (to help people uncork the bottle and unleash their genie through piano improvisation), I was struck with how often the “holy trinity” of piano improvisation works for other kinds of situations where we’d like to initiate creative, well-integrated and resonant action. This listen, feel, play holy trinity doesn’t have to be a chronological experience in practice, but it can help to think of it that way. Before I do something (or play notes on the piano), I tend to listen to what else is going on. Then notice how I’m feeling about what I’m hearing, and then play something that emerges from the gestalt of that internalized experience of what’s going on around me. That way I’m most likely to play something that will feel resonant with the room I’m in and the people (and dogs) I’m with.
What I noticed about what my canine friend did is that he responded to his listening (perceiving), felt his desire to connect with that other dog as soon as absolutely possible, and took off after her as if both their lives depended on it. But the story didn’t end there. He kept listening and perceiving and paying attention, and when he got close and watched and listened and felt the presence of the other dog in THAT moment, his actions shifted to an entirely different orientation.
Oh, the musicians (and partners and parents and politicians and bloggers named Daniel) who could learn something from this example!
I’ll close with a story I heard at an EST event many moons ago (remember EST? Erhard Seminars Training). It was told that someone once did an experiment on rats in which they were presented with 3 doors that led down complicated mazes, one of which ended with some cheese. After several trials the rats eventually learned to consistently pick the maze with the cheese. This was reinforced numerous times until it was completely reliable. After a time, though, they moved the cheese to one of the other mazes. The rats kept going down the same old path over and over again. The presenter then said that the researcher concluded with a salient difference between rats and humans. The rats eventually started going down different paths.
Powerful story, with a lot of truth in it, for sure. I’m not sure I completely believe that conclusion, ultimately. At best, the jury is still out. But when we listen to what’s going on around us, notice how we feel, and then “play” something that seems resonant with what we most deeply want to contribute, then maybe we can play a different note.
What do you think? Or, perhaps more importantly, what do you do?
(Please submit any comments below.)