Play Piano Today With Dr. J

Posts Tagged ‘musical rhythm

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


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




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