Play Piano Today With Dr. J

A Compelling Rhythm

Posted on: March 1, 2012

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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  • 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.

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