I bought a new piano recently. The one I grew up with (a hand-me-down from my great aunt) has done sterling service, but I have grown out of it. Since I’ve stopped working in a music college, where I had a lovely Yamaha upright in my office, I’ve been finding I miss being able to play a good instrument. It’s a long time since I’ve been playing at anything like a professional level, but pianism is still an important part of how I think.
Anyway, I had a mild revelation while talking to my mum about the quality of my old piano – the ways in which it’s okay, and the ways in which it’s limited. It made quite a sweet tone quite easily, but it didn’t have much depth or power to it. The action was light to the touch, but didn’t give much feedback – it rewarded nimble fingers, but didn’t ask for much by way of arm-weight. I was just going on to explain that the big transformation of technique I had at university was precisely in the use of arm-weight and playing into the balance-point of the mechanism, and how I wanted to have a piano that give me the opportunity to keep that dimension of my technique alive, when the revelation struck.
The way I had described the strengths and limitations of the piano I had learned on from age 6 to age 18 sounded awfully like the way my piano teacher at university appraised the strengths and limitations of my playing when I started lessons with him. It shouldn’t be surprising that I spent my childhood and youth developing skills that matched the capabilities of the instrument I was playing, but I had never noticed before quite how exactly my technique had adapted itself to its pianistic environment.
And this got me thinking about how many other skills, habits, ways of being we develop in dialogue with the material circumstances we find ourselves in. For example, I worked with a choir a few years ago that rehearsed in a very generous acoustic and had learned to sing into the space so that it showed the voices to best effect. But they were only ever pleased with their performances in that venue – going elsewhere they were always rather disappointed. (We worked on vocal support and developing the resonance of the voices so that they didn’t have to rely on that room to add bloom and ring to the sound.)
You also get patterns of behaviour forming between people; social groups develop quite stable habits surprisingly quickly. And just because they’re stable, they’re not necessarily healthy. Over-conducting can be like this: you quite often see a very dynamic young conductor flailing about like crazy, because their choir has got into the habit of not responding until they do. (Indeed, I have been that director in my time.) The choir kind of sits back to enjoy the spectacle, while the director’s behaviour gets reinforced by the choir’s eventual, belated response – they get the idea that they have to do this for the choir to respond.
The difference between this kind of co-dependent relationship and the way instrumental technique develops in dialogue with the instrument is that people can change. Oh, they resist doing so, for sure, but even the most hidebound group of people is more susceptible to persuasion than a 1930s piano. Which is just as well, since you can’t go to a Yamaha show-room and buy a whole new group of singers.
(P.S. In case you wondered, my old piano has been passed onto my second cousin who has never had a piano before and is quite excited at the prospect of learning.)