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Playing By Heart

We should cherish leisure technologies (think piano, not PlayStation) that are hard to learn.

It came and went almost without notice: a small musicale at Rockefeller University last winter that was part of a symposium called “Meet the Polymaths.” Ten amateur pianists performed favorite pieces, playing by heart for the most part, and afterwards engaged in a panel discussion on ways that music and the sciences seem to go hand in hand. The correlation is striking. It is hard to find great scientists or technologists who don’t have some flair or at least passion for music. Einstein played the violin. Artificial intelligence guru Marvin Minsky loves to play fugues. Claude Shannon, the recently deceased father of modern information theory, tried to make computers compose music. MIT has a terrific orchestra. Yes, MIT.

Actually, the New York Times did notice the concert-where I was, incidentally, among the participants. Reviewing the event (in the paper’s science pages, naturally), Bruce Schechter hit the nail on the head by including the following anecdote.

Two of the most towering piano virtuosos of all time, Josef Hofmann and Leopold Godowsky, were schmoozing at a party. Aside from being phenomenal pianists, the pair had something else in common: both were very short in stature, with remarkably small hands to match. After reverently shaking hands with the pianists, a fan was struck by their tiny hands. “How can you great artists play the piano so magnificently with such small hands?” she asked. Godowsky (a good friend of Einstein’s) replied, “Where in the world did you get the idea that we play the piano with our hands?”

I’ll second that. Now, as it happens, my own hands are better sized for pro basketball, but I play the piano passably. My piano duet partner, Mary Farbood, has rather small hands. We’re proof that, in piano playing, size really doesn’t matter. Godowsky was right: the piano is not just a tool for the fingers. Mind and heart matter a lot more.

Like all great artistic instruments-a paintbrush, pen and ink, a violin-the piano is a tool. It is a piece of technology. It has adapted over the centuries to fit the hands beautifully, but it is primarily a tool for expressing and exploring emotions, not finger exercises. And more than any other musical instrument, the piano is a universal channel. Almost any kind of music can be adapted to it. It is an SUV for touring through a wealth of literature, an amplifier of creativity. Yet in today’s world of technological plenty-with infinite channels, disks and downloads, and with all the world’s music increasingly available with a point and a click-it is easy to lose track of what makes music making so vital and so deeply humane.

Suppose you’re in the audience at Carnegie Hall. At 8:07 p.m., the house lights dim. The stage lights brighten. The audience hushes, then bursts into a thrill of applause as a performer in concert dress strides onto the stage toward a large instrument. Bowing warmly, the soloist pulls a silvery disc out of a pocket, slips it into a slot, pushes a big red button and sits down. Everyone listens intently to a perfect recording.


This scenario is not hypothetical. Such automated “performances” are common in avant-garde computer-music circles. Progress in music certainly didn’t stop with pure, unaccompanied Gregorian chant. At clubs, deejays who spin or scratch vinyl albums are more common than live bands. There’s a vast armamentarium of technologies that mediate between performers and listeners, bridging gaps of time and space. And Glenn Gould, the reclusive pianist who famously abandoned live concerts in favor of perfection in the recording studio, might have approved. But he was an outlier. The best recording is like the memory of a kiss: something important is missing. Even in this era of MTV and the Internet, going to Carnegie Hall to hear someone play a CD seems like a pretty stale experience. It hardly compares to the thrill of watching Vladimir Horowitz or Art Tatum rip into a piano-or hearing Segovia turn a guitar into poetry. Or even watching Pete Townshend smash one. And yet, this scenario captures the difference between musical experiences of the not-so-distant past and those of today. In the 19th century, living rooms were live-music rooms. They were places where people made music. No longer.

The piano was a pretty high-tech machine for 1850. And I mean that “pretty” literally. It merged elegantly with beautiful furniture and became a staple of gracious living. Everyone had a piano. (Computers are on a slow path to domestication, provided your furniture is “strawberry” or “lime” or “titanium.”) Of course, it hardly seems like technology anymore. Personal computing pioneer Alan Kay once quipped that technology is anything that was invented after you were 25. Nevertheless, the piano was still a bit like the Internet of the 19th century. It was the home stereo/TV. It was a prominent social hub in the family room, the glue that drew society together. Instead of downloadable MP3s and Monday Night Football, one had a piano. Printed score sheets were the interactive software of the 19th century: Liszt’s transcriptions of Wagner, or Brahms’s duet versions of his own symphonies, made for a great evening’s entertainment.

Like a computer, the piano invites nimble fingers and a lot of mental dexterity. But unlike a computer, the piano requires you to put a lot into it to get much out. In the words of MIT’s Seymour Papert, this is “hard” play, as opposed to the easy play of pushing a button to hear a recording. Hard play builds self-esteem. You might be learning to cook, practicing figure skating, finishing a crossword puzzle or playing a musical instrument. All of those pursuits are so deeply satisfying because they are hard: mastery of them requires close attention and repeated practice. The more you do them, the better you get, the better you feel about yourself-and the better everyone else around you feels. Would you rather watch a friend or a child play a video game, or play music?

That clich about how learning a foreign language deepens one’s grasp of one’s native tongue really is true. And music, which comes in so many dialects and cultures, which moves through us with its strange, special air, is the language of emotion. Author Michael Crichton once said that taking the time and applying the discipline to write was the best way he knew to really connect with life’s experiences. In precisely the same way, studying music is a rewarding way to map human emotions.

I am by no means a professional musician. I’m an amateur. And love, as Einstein used to say, is a better master than duty. But I’ve always felt that English was my second language. Music is my first language.

Actually, music is everyone’s first language: it is the way we learn how to share our strongest feelings-feelings that begin in the gut, that we shape into sounds in ways that transcend words. Everyone responds to music in some way. Yet nobody really knows why. And it is no accident that so many of our most powerful and expressive life experiences are always accompanied by music. There are processionals at weddings, requiems at funerals, marching bands on the Fourth of July, carols at Christmas, lullabies for babies, national anthems at ball games, soundtracks for movies, and show tunes on Broadway. It is hard to find a powerful cultural experience that doesn’t have music woven into it. Even when you can’t hear it, music seems to accompany the best expressions of humanity. Bart Giamatti of Yale University used to say that all the noise that pours forth from universities-all the lectures, debates, classes, protests, all of that brouhaha-is perhaps, in the end, the music of civilization.

One of the things I especially like about the piano is the way it challenges both hands and brain, working both to the limit, and in a balanced way. All those fantastic physical and mental challenges frame the emotional message. Beyond the piano, that same sense of balance, of proportion, between the work of body and mind is vital to shaping a fulfilling life.

In thinking about what music adds to our lives, and in wondering how future technology might deepen our enjoyment of it, it might help to recall a bit of wisdom from the ancient Greeks. After all, they weren’t so different from us. They just weren’t as confused by so many dizzying technologies and ideas. Socrates summed it up cogently in the third book of Plato’s Republic: “There are two arts which I would say some god gave to mankind: music and gymnastics, for the service of the high-spirited and the love of knowledge in them-not for the soul and body incidentally, but for the harmonious adjustment of these two principles by the proper degree of tension and relaxation of each.”

Spectacular arrays of technologies and experiences will be ever more available to help us connect with the
music we love. It’s the food of love, after all, and our appetite for it is insatiable. But the lesson here, and the piano is a humble reminder, is that the best joy in music lies in making it. That is why, in the longer view, “easy” listening technologies (recordings, computer networks) will be taken for granted. We do show signs of growing out of the all-consumption all-the-time phase of our technical and cultural evolution. Interactive, communicative, sharable, engaging and expressive technologies are on the rise. And technologies that aim at the “hard” end of the spectrum of play-creative tools like pianos, and information tools that engage not just the mind and the fingertips, like today’s computers, but also the body and the soul-those are tools to cherish.

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