Body and Soul


It never occurred to me how potent this classic jazz number's title actually is.  Your body (fingers) and your soul (emotional centre) are the only two components of the Purposeful Pianist, such as you and I.  What more is necessary in playing great jazz piano when you already have your Body, and your Soul?




Please spare me the thought that I might be a little soppy, for I am not.  Actually, the more I think about this title, the more I have begun to ponder over the connection between my fingers and my thoughts and feelings (body, and soul).  I wanted to explore this idea and share it with you in this post in as much clear detail as possible.

Through the teachings (diaries, letters, students' documentation) of Franz Liszt, I was already aware of the need for the coming together of the body and soul at the piano, but it has taken me quite a while to really understand the deeper meaning for myself.

Analysing first the Body, the fingers, take a good look at your fingers in open-hand position, palm down.  Those 5 long things are what represent your soul; with them, you can technically do anything you want in the same way that, with language, you can say anything you want about anything, at any speed and in any register.  Those fingers are merely an extension of your soul, your thoughts, your ideas, your experiences and your musical tongue.  Over time (months), I have come to appreciate their existence in this way and somehow, I play better.

It might take a long time to develop a high level of precision and velocity with your  fingers but after much deliberation, I have come to the conclusion that it is only possible to reach such a standard if you ignore the idea that your fingers 'just aren't good enough'.  They are only bones and flesh and they move only thanks to your brain sending them signals.  Those signals travel at the speed of light (don't they?) and the only thing making your fingers slow, I'm afraid to say, is the pianist's lack of connection with his body and his soul, and his disbelief in the possibility of playing with great velocity and technique.  In other words, it is absolutely possible for any pianist to play exceptionally well; the fault lies in the lack of connection and belief with the pianist's mind and fingers.

When sat at your piano, play a major or the chromatic scale but do so very slowly because I would like you to look at each finger as it pressed the note and, whilst pressed, look at your other fingers; they are just waiting, at your command, to press another note.  There is absolutely nothing stopping them playing fast and precisely, only your lack of belief that it is possible.  Go on, look at those fingers waiting for you to do something with them that you have never done before because you did not acknowledge their unique existence.  When you play, close your eyes and feel every single muscle moving inside, the tilt of the bone joints, the pressure on the tip/pad of your finger.  They seem to reward you by performing very well when you acknowledge their existence.

Moving on to Soul, you must draw on your experiences and emotions (as well as those of your audience, when applicable) before and during your performance.  I once heard a student play Liszt's 'Leibestraum' and it was technically ok (although you knew she was a student), but my goodness, it was like she had never kissed a boy in her life, never been touched in a sensual way, never heard the words "I love you" and never even dreamt (Liebestraum = Love Dream in German) about a boy... and it showed  I wanted to jump up on stage and give her what for and give her a reason to play it with passion, but I refrained to spare the audience a heart attack ;)  But jokes aside, my point still stands.

By using your soul to provide all the emotion to your body, you can't make a mistake.  You will be honest and Purposeful.

Two examples of how to connect your body and your soul come from Chopin and Liszt.  Chopin used to practice works in the dark so that he was distracted by nothing at all.  The piano recieved what his fingers extended from his soul; he didn't need to use his eyes and in a way, it could be said that his fnigers didn't actually 'exist'.  Liszt, quite annoyingly but not surprisingly, use to practice his phenomenal technique whilst sat at the piano and reading Shakespeare.  He had a complete detachment from the outside world and his musical world.

Think about those.

Any feedback about your experiences welcome!

Dan.