Play Piano Today With Dr. J

Archive for March 2012

It is my privilege to share Jess Smith’s continued exploration of a “compelling rhythm” or a “sound substance”.

“When we drive a car, the point of action is where the tires meet the road, yet we know that the source and control of that dynamism is somewhere else, just as in playing the piano, the fingers “finding the appropriate keys” are an effect of a greater and more powerful surging force we call a “compelling rhythm”.  This was most effectively stated by Abby Whiteside in her book INDISPENSABLES OF PIANO PLAYING[1].  Sophia Rosoff, in her Dedication in the front of that book, says “Robert Frost said in an interview, ‘A sentence has a sound on which you hang the words.’  Through outlining with an emotional rhythm one can hear the sound of a phrase into which the notes of the music fall.”

Such statements suggest to me that the very substance of this “rhythm”, or this “sound substance” is something larger than Music itself, and instead is a more universal “essence” which manifests itself in music as only one avenue of outlet.

Bruce Chatwin, a British writer who spent many years in Patagonia and then in Australia became interested in primitive man’s beliefs about music and its place in the primitive view of life.  In his book    SONGLINES[2], he discusses the Australian aborigines, still living in Australia in a still primitive culture.  They believe that “to wound the earth is to wound yourself, and if others wound the earth, they are wounding you. The land should be left untouched, as it was in the Dreamtime when the Ancestors sang the world into existence.”…..”

To get to grips with the concept of the Dreamtime, you have to understand it as an Aboriginal equivalent of the first two chapters of Genesis—with one significant difference. Here in Australia, the Ancestors created themselves from clay, hundreds and thousands of them, one for each totemic species.  Each totemic ancestor was thought to have scattered a trail of words and musical notes along the line of his footprints.  These Dreaming tracks lay over the land as ways of communication between the most far-flung tribes, and a song is a kind of passport.  The distance between two such sites can be measured as a stretch of song.  A featureless stretch of gravel might be the equivalent of Beethoven’s Opus 111.  By singing the world into existence, the Ancestors were poets in the original sense of “poesis”, meaning “creation”.

If these ancestors “sang the world into existence”, then in their view of life, the world itself is a song, a musical experience, and it must be experienced as such in order to confront it in daily life.

Chatwin, in conversation with a member of an Australian Aborigine tribe, once asked “So the land must first exist as a concept in the mind?  Then it must be sung?  Only then can it be said to exist?”  “True”, was the answer.

The Native American Indians who occupied this country before it was settled by European Culture in the early 17th Century, had many ceremonies and dances which sought to make contact with a higher Spirit, a controlling and nourishing Power.   Putting on their warrior costumes, they danced a furious and all-consuming dance not to develop a power within themselves, but to become a channel for the higher power of “The Great Spirit” in order to defeat their enemies.”

Jess Smith, former teacher and Executive Director of the Brooklyn Conservatory of Music, resides in Seal Rock, Oregon where he teaches piano and writes.


Jess Smith, former teacher and Executive Director of the Brooklyn Conservatory of Music, resides in Seal Rock, Oregon where he teaches piano and writes.  It is his thoughts regarding the importance of rhythm in music performances that follow here.

By the time I was studying seriously in New York, a piano teacher named Abby Whiteside  was causing a sensation in the piano teaching world with her first book THE INDISPENSABLES OF PIANO PLAYING.   I was already firmly established in the “old school” of the piano world, but through childhood experience was very much aware that my basic approach was not “fingers” finding keys, but a surging rhythm coming from the entire body which flows through the trunk, the upper arm to the lower arm, and thence out through the fingers.

Abby Whiteside

Whiteside said that “it is the body as a whole which transfers the idea of music into the actual production of music.”2 This connected with my childhood perception of the movements of Cousin Bea’s hands over the keys, my own playing the drums, the bow-arm of the cellist, and the river of tap-flow from the tap dancer.

Whiteside said further that  ”A basic rhythm is the only possible means by which the entire playing mechanism (which consists of the muscles of the arm, the bony structure of the hand, and the fingers) can be brought into full play.  A basic rhythm is the only possible over-all coordinator, for it is not merely the instigator of beautiful musical production, but it is the sole factor that can successfully translate the image in the ear and the emotion which must be at the bottom of all beautiful music into a function of the whole body.”

Abby Whiteside had  discovered, enlarged, and made into a comprehensive Theory of Piano Playing the very impressions that gradually gathered throughout my entire childhood, and eventually became the basis for my turning to a Music Career.    She, too, knew that music making at the piano is not a note-by-note march of the fingers finding appropriate keys, but a surging, compelling, and controlling flow of rhythmic impulse which comes from the entire body.


Jeannine Jordan, concert organist and teacher of piano and organ



A colleague and I were recently discussing how important rhythm is to a musical performance.  His thoughts were so intriguing that I invited him to write an article for my Pro-Motion Music newsletter.   Jess Smith’s article,A Compelling Rhythm, is convincing in its description of why and how music making is not a note-by-note march of the fingers finding appropriate keys, but a surging, compelling, and controlling flow of rhythmic impulse which comes from the entire body.   The article will be quoted in its entirety in this and future blog posts.

Jess Smith, pianist and writer

A Compelling Rhythm by Jess Smith

“I was born into a family of piano players, all of whom played by ear, and quite well.  My father had five sisters, all of whom played.  My mother and her sister both played.  At that time in our history, almost every home had a piano, and they were played.   I was born with a love of piano playing, and my delight was to stand by the piano as these older folks—all related to me—played things that seemed magical to me.

When I was three years old, my favorite piano-visitor was a cousin of my mother’s, who was a tall beautiful girl of 18 when I was 3 years old, and my eye level was just about at keyboard level.  I am told that I used to meet Cousin Bea at the door when she arrived and led her by the hand over to the piano to start what was my delight—watching her long graceful fingers flow like a river over the keys.  So my first discovery of the physical part of piano playing was watching the graceful movement of the hands, propelled by the forearm and upper arm, moving gracefully over the keyboard.  Music was a delight to be heard, but also a visual delight to watch.  The fact that the movements were the result of the rhythms and the movements of the music seen by my 3-year-old eye at keyboard level became the foundation for my infantile perception of the  very substance of music as a living, fluid thing. 

Later, when I was 5 or 6, my parents bought me a miniature drum set, which enabled me to sit by the radio—no television then—and play along with the music I heard.  Rhythm became something akin to food for me, and was my primary love until school became a reality for me.

I started formal lessons when I was seven, with my mother, but when I was nine I was ready to go to a professional teacher in the city.  She taught piano and cello, and in our recitals I was fascinated by the cello as well as the piano, and saw that cellists had a physical delight that the pianists did not—they could draw the bow over the strings and feel a palpable stroke with the arm as they moved through the music  (or as the music flowed through them.)  The music came from the whole body with a cellist, and although I was hooked on the piano, the idea that the upper arm was the primary unit in cello phrasing was obvious.

When I was twelve, I became the accompanist for a tap-dancer, which further enriched the rhythmic capacities I had felt so strongly as a child.  Here again was a thrust of a palpable complex of rhythm from a major part of the body, as the dancer moved around the stage.  Later performances of  Ballet also fed the feeling that music furnishes a powerful force which drives the entire body, and traces movement through the air of the stage in marvelous patterns for the eye.  Who that has seen a great ballet performance has not risen from his seat at the end and walked taller and straighter and with more enthusiasm than before?   Rhythmic flow has transformed him.”

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Jeannine Jordan, concert organist and organ and piano instructor


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  • freeonlinemusiclessons: Hey nice blog. I just picked up you RSS FEEDS. Check out my new website, you’ll like it!
  • bhundley1: I'm interested in your elaborating on the "fingering" aspect of practice. Are you a fan of Czerny, for instance, in terms of building up dexterity wi
  • promotionmusic: Thanks for your response. Congratulations to you on the work you are doing in the piano world.