Play Piano Today With Dr. J

Archive for April 2012

Jess Smith

Jess Smith continues his observations of one of the wonders of worldly possibility — a compelling rhythm in music. 

In an earlier blog post, we discussed the idea of  a “compelling rhythm” which becomes the very substance and source of a successful musical performance at the piano, or the organ, or any orchestra instrument.   Do we, in our more modern and ego-centered world actually tap into an available power of rhythmic flow, or even more finely articulated as the very notes of a performance?

In the late 1970’s there was an American woman who claimed that she could “channel Franz Liszt”, and actually wrote down compositions that were declared by Liszt experts to be in the authentic Liszt style.  Did she simply contact a source of musical substance which could be articulated in the style of Liszt?

A great British Actor, being interviewed for the New York Times after a great success in a play on Broadway, said that “when I’m at my best on the stage it’s as if I’m not there.”[3]   This echoes what great Olympic champions say of their super-human performances.  They rise in the scale of human skill to a point where they say they are “in the zone”—in a sweep of perfect control of body and mind for one highly focused feat of athletic accomplishment.

Tim O’Brien, a member of the U. S. Armed Forces, and  later a writer for the Washington Post,  served in My Lai, and tells of an experience out in the jungles of My Lai[4] when “A six-man patrol goes up into the mountains on a basic listening-post operation.  The idea is to spend a week up there, just lie low, and listen for enemy movement.  They keep strict field discipline.  Absolute silence.  They just LISTEN.  They don’t say boo for a solid week.  They don’t have tongues.  All ears.”  They do this for seven straight days.  “Like you don’t even have a body.  Serious Spooky.  You just go with the vapors—the fog sort of takes you in.  And the sounds, man.  The sounds carry forever.  You hear stuff nobody should ever hear.”  “After a couple of days [we] start hearing this real soft, kind of wacked-out music.  Weird echoes.  Like a radio or something, but it’s not a radio.  It’s this strange music that comes right out of the rocks.  Far away, sort of, but right up close too……This is wilderness, but there it is, like the mountains are tuned in to radio.”

“These six guys are pretty fried out by now, and one night they start hearing chamber music.  They hear violins and cellos.  And the rock—it’s talking.    And the fog too, and the grass and the mongooses.  Everything talks.”

 “Around dawn things finally get quiet.  Like you never even heard quiet before.  One of those real thick, real misty days…..They’re off in this special zone—and the mountains are absolutely dead-flat silent.”……

In a true war story, if there’s a moral at all, it’s like the thread that makes the cloth.  You can’t tease it out.  You can’t extract the meaning without unraveling the deeper meaning.  And in the end, really, there’s nothing much to say about a true war story, except maybe ‘Oh’.”

Did these American Service Men experience something of the primitive force which animated the Native American Indians before a battle, or contact “Songlines” laid down by an Aborigine in a My Lai Jungle, or simply tap into some kind of universal source of music, which can be directed in any way that a contemporary mind can envision,  as a piano or violin solo, or a performance of a great symphony orchestra, or a brilliant acting tour de force on Broadway, or a Gold Medal-winning performance by an Olympic Athlete?

To anyone who devotes his life to the pursuit of musical excellence, both in his own performing process, in watching the rapid growth of developing students,  or the marvel  of truly great artists, surely at some time in his career there must come the suspicion  that the source of his delight is something greater than himself.   The very substance  of the transport that comes to us as the vivid experience of music realized,  can appear at any place and at any time, and must be counted as one of the wonders of worldly possibility.”

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


1…..ABBY WHITESIDE On Piano Playing:  Indispensables of Piano Playing; Mastering the Chopin Etudes. Amadeus Press, Portland, Oregon.1997.

2…..From Bruce Chatwin’s SONGLINES, quoted in LAPHAM QUARTERLY, for Spring 2012, “Means of Communication. Page 35.

3…..The British Actor being interviewed was either Donald Wood, or Ian McKellan.  The review appeared in the New York Times.

4…..LAPHAM QUARTERLY, for Spring 2012, “Means of Communication”. Article page 137, by Tim O’Brien



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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
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