19 November 2014

What am I saying? The dilemma of the inner dancer

(young piano student plays piece without dynamic variation)

Me: “I guess you forgot about the dynamics this time."
Student: "I did SO not forget. I thought about it the WHOLE time!"

In my piano teacher's studio at the music conservatory, there was this picture: a portrait of a man leaning forward with one hand cupped behind his ear, like he was trying to hear something. The picture was placed on the wall vis-à-vis the person seated on the piano stool, so the man would always be in front of whoever was playing. "He's there to remind us to listen", my piano teacher explained, "Not to hear, but to listen to how we really are playing."

I think this is the most important thing I've learnt about performing: that the idea of what you want to say could get in the way of your ability to see whether you're really saying it. When I'm playing a piece, I might become so absorbed in the music and in my feelings for it that I forget to listen objectively. I might feel the dynamics very strongly inside - so strongly that I don't notice that my playing isn't dynamic.

It's every artist and performer's dilemma. And it’s also a dilemma for tango dancers.

"But I'm not an artist," you might argue. "I don't do performances. I just want to go to a milonga and be in the arms of a lovely person and move my body to the music."

The thing is: this dilemma does not only apply to performing as such. It applies to all kinds of communication. It's my dilemma as I'm writing this post, even. Every time I want to convey a message, the question arises: Am I capable of looking at my communication from outside my body and brain and heart? Am I expressing what I want to say in a functional way, with precise tools, so that there are chances of being understood correctly?

Am I expressing anything at all, or do I just feel?

This is where things could get impossibly philosophical. But I believe that this is just as much a technique question as a philosophical one. Let’s say that dancing is communication WITH my partner ABOUT the music (or maybe about how the music makes us feel - to me, this is basically the same thing). To do this, I need to learn to know the music, and I need to learn techniques for how to change the quality of my movements so it describes the different qualities in the music.

And then I need this thought with me: am I communicating?

There’s nothing wrong with just feeling, of course. But the moment we want to express ourselves, or express the music, this thought becomes one of our most important tools.