I was prepared for today to really stink.  And for a long time, it did.

 

I got up and normal was gone again.  I felt the usual pull in my legs and knees.

 

The ATM that Alan did was a three-ATM hodgepodge of some of the lessons that I found hardest 14 years ago, the Dead Bird Series.  Yes, they were easier now, but still challenging enough to leave me mad at the end.

 

I watched the lessons.  I kept seeing the same things, but not really having enough of an understanding of what I was seeing.  I THOUGHT I understood, but I had no idea how to put it on the piano.  I went back to the practice room thinking, "I've got to bring this to some kind of conclusion.  The workshop is ending.  I have to make some use of whatever knowledge I've gotten."

 

But it didn't seem like I had much knowledge.  Yes, I was playing better.  But it seemed to be a result only of freeing my back and pelvis, and those were still chimeric.  I had no sense of what "playing through the skeleton of the hand" meant.  I was doing what I thought was right, but who knows?

 

I was beginning to wonder if it was all just a sham.  I talked to the world class pianist.  She's taking it all in and using it daily.  She missed getting her PhD by one paper.  She's had eight-plus years of piano instruction at Indiana and Oberlin, studied with Pressler, teaches at U. Mass.  But she never really had to study technique except for some Taubmann.  She was finding it all quite legit and useful.

 

I practiced.  I got mad.  I went and got some ice-cream.  I went home.  I took a nap.  My lesson was coming closer.  I practiced.  My back hurt.  I was mad, because I didn't know where my pelvis was, where it was supposed to be.  I went to my lesson expecting the worst.

 

Me and another of the participants have this running gag.  She'll ask me, "What are you playing today?"  I'll answer truthfully, "I don't know."  Because I've gone to each lesson with no idea what I was going to play, and the lessons have had almost no music in them, just these attentions to detail.

 

I played Alan some jazz.  He steered my left arm around, followed it, followed my right arm, followed my back.  I came into focus, out of focus, I engaged my head.  After five minutes of this we stopped.  He asked me what I felt.  I told him I was in a fog and didn't really know what I was feeling.


He sighed.  Then he started teaching me like I was six.  Which was okay, because that's about where I last thought about piano technique.  He laid it all out for me.  "Push up your hand with nothing but your thumb.  Push ups.  Puuuuussshhhh!"  It went on from there.  The thumb has to differentiate from the fingers, he said.  And each of the fingers does their thing while the wrist is loose.

 

"No!"  he said.  "You're falling into the key with your thumb.  Push with the thumb!"  He took my hand.  He guided it.  He pressed.  He prodded.

 

And little by little I began to get it.  Next thing I know, he's starting to say, "Yes" and "Good," and I'm feeling what he's talking about.  I'm not just engaging the head, I'm actually FEELING SOMETHING IN MY HAND that's different when he says "Good."  I'm actually feeling what the heck he's talking about.

 

He takes me through some of the classical pieces, really slowly, two notes at a time, played together so that I can hear the dissonance.  Each time, play the notes and move the hand forward into the keys.  That movement keeps the wrist from engaging, keeps me from doing it the old way.  Mozart movement one.  Mozart movement two.  Chopin.

 

Ah.  Yes.  And now I'm understanding how you can play different volumes and colors on the piano, I'm feeling it, I'm hearing it, I'm doing it.  Sounds are coming out of the piano that sound like Bill Evans, like Duke Ellington, not their notes, but their sound, their tone.  Oh, I think.  I get it.  I get this.

 

Walking for the first time.  Walking on the piano.  My hand actually working, the fingers actually pressing into the keys of their own accord.  Like a real pianist.

The morning ATM was pelvic clock, where, you move your pelvis left and right, forward and back while you're lying on your back.  I did this in my training 14 years ago, but as I did it now I noticed three things:  One, it's important your legs are balanced, standing over your feet, so that you don't have any unnecessary strain as you move.  Two, even though I could feel more and more of my pelvis as I rolled it, at first I thought the new sensations were pain.  They weren't pain, they were just unfamiliar.  Three, my pelvis is LOWER than I thought.  14 years ago I hadn't been rolling my pelvis, I'd been rolling my lower back!

 

Unfortunately as I stood up I didn't have the amazing sensation I had lying down.  Practicing wasn't great either.  In fact, it seemed like it had gotten worse since yesterday.  Some of my revelations were fading now and I had to make an effort to remind myself how I had been so loose and open.

 

I approached my lesson with some dread.  I wouldn't be able to show off, would I?  I'd reverted.

 

As it turned out, I hardly played at all.  Alan was determined to wake up my hand to a skeletal feeling.  He had me playing flat on the black keys with the bottom part of my fingers.  He was showing me where the hand stands up in its arch position.  He was getting my wrists to realize they no longer had to bear the weight.

 

At the end of the lesson I walked out of the room and something amazing happened.  I floated along, across the floor and up the stairs.  There was no strain, no pushing on my legs to get up the stairs, no twinge of irritation in my right knee.  It felt effortless.  I walked along through the rain towards town feeling something I haven't felt...ever?  I felt "normal."

 

That might mean that the piano lesson itself consolidated what I learned in the morning ATM.  Something about what I'd had to do deliberately at the piano helped me make sense of the increased sensation I'd gotten earlier on the floor.  That's a nice reason to play the piano.

 

Our world class pianist got some real finesse today.  She watches more lessons than anyone and is so attentive during her own.  There's never a sense that she "knows it already."  She treats everything Alan tells her like it's new, and she always gets better even when you think she can't!

 

Our organist is struggling with the idea of "grasping" at the piano.  He doesn't seem quite to know what he's listening for.  To his credit, he totally gets the concept of this work as being about "learning" rather than simply playing.  He's willing to go to the unknown, and even if he can't make sense of it all yet, it's making a difference.

 

Our host got her lesson last, and it added some very controlled and elegant legato to a bubbly Scarlatti, all managed by hands that were deliberate and working through the bones.

 

The lessons all continue to get more and more interesting, and the players are getting more and more interested!

This morning's ATM (Awareness Through Movement lesson, in which we lie on the floor and follow Alan's instructions) was something I probably did during my Feldenkrais Training years ago.  It was probably harder then.  This time it was doable.

 

Alan began with a description of the sacrum.  The most salient point Alan made about it was that there is actually a little movement in these fused bones.  I remembered all the lectures we had on the sacrum in my training, how we moved the model pelvis to see how it had a little play in it.

We lay on our backs and reached around our torso with our right hand to hold our shoulder blades with our left.  We examined the shape of the shoulder blade, which is slightly different for everyone.  Then we did a movement where we pulled the shoulder blade with the hand, so that we were in effect rolling ourselves to the right using the impetus of the pull.  We also did this movement on the opposite side.  I was fascinated with how low the base of the shoulder-blade is, and I remembered how I've long struggled to bring sensation and movement into the ribs in that part of my chest area.  I wondered if this ATM would help.

 

An important constraint of this activity is that the knees be bent and the feet standing.  This way the pelvis remains stationary so that as the torso rolls, it differentiates from the pelvis, so you feel how the two are connected yet separate entities.  At some point Alan made a nice comment that I might want to put my feet a little farther apart.  I did so, and then I remembered his point about the movement in the sacrum.

 

Suddenly a light went on.  I began to see a massive relationship between the shoulder blades and the sacrum, like points on a triangle.  I made a frame with my two forearms holding onto each other, and I rocked left and right, but I kept my pelvis on the ground instead of letting it follow the roll.  I began to feel, or imagine, the little play in the sacrum that made more movement possible.

 

Oh, wow.  When I got up something was different.  I took a quick walk.  I consciously walked down the hall with my legs a little wider apart.  As I walked, I wiggled my pelvis, and I thought that I could wiggle it lower, where the sacrum is.  Sure enough, I could.  I went to the bathroom and looked in the mirror.  There it was, a movement I've never had before, a dance move.

 

I've always looked stupid when I dance.  I hated disco dancing, because it wasn't pleasurable for me and I didn't think I looked good either.  Yet I looked in the mirror and I was shaking my booty in a slightly different way.  My ribs were staying stationary, and I could feel the shoulder blades as reference points.  My shoulders were down and my chest was up and out.  It felt GOOD.

 

I didn't want to go to the piano yet, so I watched some lessons.  One of our world-class pianists was getting a lesson, and I watched the way she moved while she played.  I watched her pelvis and her shoulders, wondering what I could see now that I was feeling something.  While I watched, I noticed that I could sit more comfortably with my sitzbones farther part...again, more play in the sacrum.  Why didn't I think of that before, I wondered.  This was new.


I went to the piano, but I didn't want to stay there long.  I decided to take a walk.  I went outside and wiggled and strutted like a cowboy.  I kept my sacrum and my shoulder blades in mind.  I felt light, my chest remained open.  I began to think about all those things I've had trouble doing: dancing, throwing a ball, keeping a hula hoop going...these were things that really required a knowledge of sacrum and shoulder blades.  I sat on the ground and, although I've always had trouble sitting with my legs straight out in front of me, I discovered that, again, by widening my sitzbones, it was a little easier.  Again, why didn't I think of that before, all these years?

 

I watched some more lessons, and then I decided I'd better go back to my host's house and have lunch, and maybe take a nap, let my mind consolidate this information.  So I did.  All the way home I was noticing smells of the flowers that had never registered.  I was noticing that with my shoulder blades in my awareness I could turn around easier to look behind me when I heard a sound.  I felt like I was open to people passing by, like I could look at them and smile and say hello.

 

I had my lunch.  I read.  I slept.

 

When I woke up, I went downstairs and sat at the piano in my host's living room.  For the first time I had the thought, "I think I'd like this bench lower."  Before, I was always mystified as to what height the bench should be.  I set the bench down lower that I usually have it, and I began to play.

 

It was easy.  Oh, my GAWD it was easy!  No heaviness, no effort.  I played through some of the Chopin C-major Etude.  I wasn't hitting all the right notes every time, but my fingers were dancing across the keys, and they were going faster with less effort.  My hand seemed to be naturally moving in the directions that Alan had suggested two days ago.

 

I started playing the Mozart.  I had a light touch, not jazz-heavy.  It sounded like a classical pianist.  I experimented with different touches, different textures, and different SOUNDS came out!  I was creating those sounds.  And I was doing it by making all those artistic movements in my torso, like I had seen our world-class pianist making.  I was feeling like those great pianists looked.

I played some of the Chopin a-minor Etude, the one that used to hurt.  It didn't hurt.

I stopped for a minute and looked around.  Was I dreaming?  Was this really happening to me?  Was I delusional?  I couldn't have gotten THIS much better overnight.  But it felt like I had always been able to play this way, not like I was a different person.  The heavy-playing person, that was a dream.  This was the real me.

 

It occurred to me that I've had 35 years to register the way pianists look when they're playing beautifully.  I know what genuinely artistic piano playing LOOKS like.  I think there have been times when I was by myself, maybe late at night, when I fell into that kind of playing, when I moved in an artistic way and the playing was easy.  But never in front of anyone, and never with any understanding of why I was doing it then and not other times.

 

Now I was making a conscious choice to move, and I could do it because I had stability in my widened sitzbones, a little play in my sacrum, some differentiation between my pelvis and my ribs, and a sense of my shoulders which went all the way down to the middle of my back.  I could FEEL myself, and so I could move on purpose.

 

This didn't go away when I went to practice later.  I kept it.  I still took frequent breaks, but I found that I was sounding pretty good, and that I was enjoying playing.  When my previous habits of freezing and locking crept back, I could feel it and I had a choice.

 

The only issue I noticed was that my lower back began to hurt.  I remembered that I had a big problem with this when I was playing the piano at sixteen, and it remained with me for a number of years.  Maybe this was a regression to a previous state of organization, a more open one, and now I'll have a chance to solve that problem another way.

 

As a coincidence, Alan says tomorrow's ATM will be great for lower back pain.  How about that?

 

Dinner tonight at one of our local participants' house.  She has a 200 year old cello, and she let me play it!   Everyone is starting to get to know each other.  We talked, and a number of us went to the pianos and sang choral arrangements.  So many of us are good singers and readers that we were able to sing in tune, acapella, very quickly.  What a nice gift.

 

 

Tonight it happened, my second lesson, I came face to face with the gap, the huge unknown.  The work begins now.

 

Last night I had anxiety dreams about today.  In my dream several women were putting me through psychological testing, making me look at a TV screen through my peripheral vision and identify whether someone was wearing shoes, making me ask 3 out of 12 questions and deduce a scenario.  They wouldn't tell me why I had to do it.  I was disoriented and felt compelled to keep going.  When I awoke it didn't take me long to figure out that this was a lot like doing an ATM when you don't know where it's going.

 

The morning ATM was fine.  I was a little anxious beginning it, as I always am when I lie on the floor.  I noticed my hands were lying the same way, which they didn't used to.  Funnily enough, after the ATM they were again a little different.  We were taking our extended arm up and over our bodies.  I noticed when I engaged my head/neck a little I was able to roll better and with some presence of mind.

 

I went to the practice room and wondered if I would be able to recapture my grounding.  At first I couldn't find it, but then there it was.  A few bars and I pushed into the piano, felt the weight.  Then in addition to the weight I engaged my head.  Suddenly I felt this enormous wonderful sensation.  It was orgasmic, a huge rush of pleasure that gradually filled me up like a balloon, but it wasn't sexual at all.  There was no erotic quality, no arousal.  Simply this gratification, a sweetness.

 

I spent some of the day working on trouble spots in the Chopin C-major and the Mozart, some of the day watching other lessons and bits, and a lot of the day walking around, enjoying feeling solid on my feet and connected.  I felt very present and comfortable, secure and even happy.

 

Later in the day I began listening to more lessons.  It's daunting listening to many of the other players.  Some of them are truly world class.  Those of you who don't play the piano have a hard time telling the difference between good and amazing, but when you're way up on the mountainside like me and you look up to see the mountaintop miles in the distance above you...well.  It's enough to make you wonder if you've really gotten started.

 

Our 60's beginner played a beautiful Traumerei.  Alan helped him continue to refine his movements.  What's extraordinarily great about Alan is that, because he's focusing on function and structure, he's able to work with absolutely all of us, from beginner to genius, and meet us all where we are.  He has a language to speak to all of us with, and we don't have to have memorized fantastically difficult pieces to be helped, nor are any of us without gaps or blind spots that can be addressed from a functional point of view.

 

I watched our organist, who told such a sad story about his inability to manage difficult piano pieces, glide through Schubert's Improptu in E-flat so beautifully.  Alan helped bring his attention to particular gestures that would emphasize what he wanted to bring out in a much easier way.

 

I was last tonight, and I got more and more anxious as we got to it.  One woman had asked which of my pieces I'd be playing.  Lord knows I didn't want anyone expecting anything of me!

 

Alan asked me what I wanted to do, and I didn't know.  So I played him some of the first and second movements of the Mozart.  It was clear from his reaction that he could really see what was missing, and he had to get it to me.

 

All this weight I've been feeling and enjoying, it's just the first step.  It's the enjoyment of awareness.  But in reality, I've been playing all my life with the enormous weight of my arm and my shoulder pressing down on my hands.  Alan said I've been playing with an "apartment complex" on my hand, and he wants me to have the experience of playing without all the weight.

 

Alan thinks the combination of Feldenkrais having released a lot of my tension, and my habit as a jazz player to throw my arms at the keys with less premeditated thought has contributed to this state of affairs.  We both marvel that I'm able to get around as well as I can having borne the weight, and that I've never developed tendonitis given just how stressed the wrists are.  Some of that may be my tendency to take frequent breaks when I practice and to pay attention to myself.

 

So the lesson was nearly 40 minutes of Alan holding the weight of my arm and beginning to get my fingers to stand.  At first I felt afraid that the straightened fingers would snap like a green bean, but soon I could feel more secure.  He is looking for the interossials, the in-between muscles of the fingers, to take much more of a role than they have been.  The lumbricals, the curling muscles that go straight through the tendons, have been doing more than their fair share.

 

It was a terrible lesson to watch from the audience!  There we sat, me with my arm in his palm, him moving my fingers to stand, noticing when the wrist tensed up, easing it.  I was listening to my shoulder, asking myself what my ribs might need to do to organize to hold the arm up so he wouldn't have to.  Engaging in the neck made a difference.  So did focusing the eyes.  I couldn't feel it so much in my hands, but those were the moments (neck, eyes) that he called out, "Yeah!"

 

After a while he let my hand go and rest.  We didn't do left hand at all.  I could feel the shape of my right hand.  My left hand felt like much more of a blob.

 

I asked for Alan to bring it back to the music so we could integrate.  He held my arms and guided them while I played the slow Mozart again.  At certain moments he cried, "Up up up up up."  I began to understand that he wanted each note to articulate up into the hand shape instead of down into the piano.  When I did that I felt a marvelous lightness and facility for just a moment, a gliding sensation.  After the lesson was done, I held my music in my hand and the music felt much lighter, as if I was holding it better!

 

I can't do this yet, I can't feel it, can't describe it.  This is at least one of the major things that has blocked me since I was four, and it's right in front of me now, blinding me.  I have to go into it bravely, look at it, love it, accept it, and begin to move within it.  Will it change in five days?  I don't know, and I don't really care.  I'm glad to have met it.

Oh my God!  I can play!  I can play!

 

I went to the practice room an hour this afternoon.  I sat down at the piano and began working through the movements that Alan had suggested.  I started playing the Chopin C-major, adjusting my hand every time I forgot.  My extended pinky no longer felt "icky" or isolated.

 

In fact, very soon, within minutes, I started feeling very connected to the keys.  I could imagine the idea of my joints not as stopping places, but as junctions for the power to pass through, that the power could bypass all the muscles of my arms and go straight through the bones of my arms to my shoulders.  I got the feedback in both directions.  Suddenly I was powerfully connecting to the piano.  I was grounded.

 

I implemented the legato between two notes.  Now I wasn't guessing where my fingers should go anymore.  I could take a smooth, uninterrupted path between two notes.  When I didn't maintain the arch, didn't keep the integrity of the arch of my hand, that marvelous connection vanished.  When I brought back the awareness, the integrity, it returned.


And the sound!  The SOUND!  It changed.  I was playing so loud!  My first impulse was to pull back.  Then I thought, "What are you doing?  You've always wanted to be able to produce a loud sound, and now you're doing it without even having to push or throw.  Enjoy it for a few minutes!"  So I played loud.

 

And then I played fast!  It wasn't accurate.  I haven't played slow enough and long enough, I don't know the piece, but oh my gosh, my fingers flew, and I didn't have to do anything!  They just went.  They went so fast I had to check myself.  "Okay, now I know I'll be able to play fast, really fast.  Nothing more to worry about.  I can slow down now."

 

And playing slow wasn't boring.  It felt good!  It was like drinking the piano.  There was always something to think about, a sensation to follow.

 

I started to overdo it at that point, so I stopped playing and took a walk.  What a great walk.  Somehow, thinking about the hand made me connect to my actual hip joints.  I was standing straighter.  The force was going through my knees, not stopping at them, straight into my pelvis!  I felt weighty and solid.  I looked at the people walking the other direction and I could feel their weight and solidity through my eyes!

 

At 5:00 all guests were registered.  We had dinner together on the lawn in front of Morris House.  Then we all went over to the recital hall.

 

Alan spent some time introducing himself and the Method, and then everyone talked about themselves.  We have a nice group of 11.  The youngest is 18, has studied since he was 5, and is taking a year before college to study music and do service projects in India.  Many of them were piano teachers or conservatory students.  Some have been injured.  One woman has learned four different techniques.  Some are former musicians who have left the instrument for twenty years.  One gentleman always wanted to play the piano but never could get started to his satisfaction and now, in his early 60's, has decided he's ready.

 

We all had one thing in common.  We all took a look at what Alan Fraser is doing and decided that he can help us find what we're looking for, what no one else so far has been able to show us.

Sunday, June 19, 2:30 PM

 

"You have so much facility when you play, but then there are these holes..."

 

That was the kicker that Alan Fraser gave me, the spot-on observation that I've been looking for.  It's what I came up to hear.

 

Yesterday I arrived at Hartford and took a van through Springfield into Northampton.  I got acquainted with Christine and Jim, my hosts (also Alan Fraser's hosts).  I got to observe some of Christine's lesson with Alan as he gently held her arm and moved it forward and back, keeping an eye on the way the hands constructed themselves on the keys, and having her breathe with the motion.  She wants to learn how to offer that kind of physical support to her own students.

 

Later that night the three of us took a look at some anatomy, getting to know the three sets of muscles that operate the fingers, how different they all are and what you would need three sets of muscles for.  One set serves more to open and close the fingers laterally.  Another works through the tendons to contract the fingers.  I'm woefully ignorant of all this anatomy, and I found it fascinating for the first time.

 

This morning was my first lesson.  On the way to discovering the "holes" in my playing, Alan found a way to have me engage my pinky, bending at the highest set of knuckles on the hand, what he calls "the hip of the hand."  It felt so vulnerable, not at all safe, even though there was no pain and no physical discomfort.  I was simply "out there" with my finger.  It was quickly obvious to me that this was a movement many pianists did that I never did, and I quickly saw how the collapse of my own musical lines could be directly attributed to this gap in my understanding of how to make this motion with my finger.

 

Upon resting, Alan asked me to notice the difference between the way my two hands felt.  I was surprised that they DIDN'T feel that different.  Then it occurred to me how much cleverer my left hand has always been than my right, and that perhaps I was already doing this kind of thing in my left hand much more than in my right, so that now the two hands felt more alike then ever before!

 

As we moved past this initial discovery and Alan really began having me move in and out of the keys, focusing on the structure of the arch of my hand.  Moving into this strange, exposed area, I began to realize that I have wanted more than anything to feel safe at the piano.  This has led me to get very good at what I could do as a way of overcompensating for my refusal or inability to put my hand in this "scary" position. 

 

Alan reviewed the idea of dynamic instability, which is another way of saying "balance in the service of movement in any direction."  When we walk, we are balanced on our feet and ready to move, not super stable like a block.  It should be possible for me to learn to play in this less stable space to have my fingers dance in the openness.  Then I might be more open to all the possibilities that are inherent in that space regarding tone, weight and motion.

 

We began to talk about the Chopin Opus 10, No.1  C-major etude.  I didn't have to play much for Alan to see that there were a lot of things I could be doing with my hand to make it easier.  The most revelatory was this sense of legato between each pair of notes as opposed to each group of four.  There's a certain shape that occurs especially between thumb and forefinger when one transfers stability gradually and fluidly from one digit to the next, just like the shift of weight in walking.  This fluidity of the other fingers coming from a stable base of the playing finger may provide the speed I've been lacking.

 

Finally I watched Alan give a lesson to another Adam, this one right out of high-school.  He plays very well, but he was remarkably receptive to Alan's comments, which completely changed his hand position and, as a result, his sound.  He really heard and felt differences and implemented them immediately.

 

It's amazing how tiny a shift in the use of the self can create a radically different sound at the piano.  Electronic pianos, no matter how good, cannot respond in this way.  They only provide recordings of someone else's tone based on a few variables.   The real piano gives an exact response for every movement you make.

 

Listening to Adam change the way he put his hands on the keys, he went from sounding "good" and "fast" and "clean" to sounding pure, like his voice was speaking through the piano.  Remarkable, and even more so for the fact that he was only just beginning to try these ideas for the first time.

 

If it hadn't been for the Feldenkrais Method, I would never have attempted to audition for piano at Georgia State.

 

When I was a teenager, taking lessons from Mr. Chagy, I was convinced that if I just kept doing the same thing again and again I'd eventually improve.  It never dawned on me, while I was failing to improve, that my strategy might be wrong.

 

I was trapped by my limited range of thinking, trapped in my body, in my mind and in the directions I could conceive of to go.  Those limitations dogged me through college, though I compensated for them.  They eventually caught up with me when I got home.

 

About a year after returning to Atlanta, having played in the Capital City Ballet for about a year, I began experiencing sharp pains in my finger joints.  No doubt a sudden increase in the amount of time I was playing, coupled with the terror I was in while playing, contributed.  I had to stop playing for about a month.

 

During my hiatus I attended a Ballet Workshop with the company.  Among the presenters was a woman named Ginger McLeod, a Feldenkrais practitioner.  Not being officially part of the workshop, I was just going to observe, but she invited everyone in the room to lie on the floor and participate.  I did so.

 

When I got up, I felt completely different.  Weird, but happy.  I had to know more.  So I got Ms. McLeod's card and made some private appointments.

 

We did 12 sessions together, at the end of which I felt like I needed some time to assess what if anything had changed.  A couple of months later she informed me that there was going to be a training for new practitioners in Gainseville, Georgia.  This was a real stroke of luck, since many people travel hundreds, even thousands of miles to attend a training.

 

I felt like becoming a practitioner would open up worlds for me that I had previously been unable to access, but it was a scary commitment.  Eight sessions four weeks in duration, 10 AM to 5 PM.  Basically a four year deal, and it wasn't cheap.  Still, once again I felt I had the means and the opportunity, nothing holding me back.  So I went.

 

Some of the changes I experienced going through the training were big and fast.  Some took twenty years to manifest.  I've chronicled many of them for the last ten years in my Feldenkrais Newsletter.  As far as the piano went, I had a major breakthrough during one of my Feldenkrais lessons.  I describe the entire experience in the article:  "My Eyes Uncover My Hands," which is also available at the Feldenkrais site above.

 

The work has opened me up, made me a much cleverer learner, and given me insights into other people's worlds as well.  I couldn't have prepared my Georgia State audition, couldn't even have managed the moment, without everything I'd gained in my Feldenkrais training.  And when I started working at State, I was able to quickly integrate the things Dr. Haydon was teaching me.

 

Since my training, I've had a couple other advanced trainings.  But to this day, I've never had the experience of combining Feldenkrais and piano.  Until now!

 

Next time:  The Alan Fraser workshop, a preview

I had a vision of myself as a pianist that I held on to for dear life all through those years with the support and the challenges.  Two things helped me come closer to that vision by shattering those things I had been holding on to most tightly.

 

When I got married and began building a family it quickly became clear that a musician's life wasn't going to work.  No insurance, dicey pay and terrible hours.  My wife and I discussed it and we agreed that I should go out and get "a job."  When corporate didn't work, we made an agreement.  I'd go back to school to get a Masters in Music Education from Georgia State while she worked to support us, and then I'd get a job as a music teacher.


It turned out in order to get a Masters in Music Ed I'd first have to get the Bachelor's in Music that I'd missed at Oberlin.  That meant another 2 years of school in addition to whatever the Masters' might require.  My wife agreed to this, too.

 

In order to get a Bachelor's in Music Education, you have to choose a "primary instrument."  Most choral teachers choose voice.  I could have done that.  I wasn't afraid to sing for people.  But I chose the piano.  This was a terribly scary thing for me to do.  It meant that I would have to audition for the professors and then eventually give a piano recital.

 

I started preparing my audition a year in advance.  I chose some very difficult pieces because I needed to show the professors, and myself, that I was a "real" pianist.  I managed to learn my audition repertoire, but as the date of the audition got closer and closer I began to experience a crisis.

 

I have never been more afraid than I was in that last week before the audition.  I was in intense emotional pain, afraid, so afraid, that I wouldn't be able to show them who I was as a musician, what I could do.  I was beside myself with terror.  I had some good support from one of my professional music friends, Darcy Hamlin, that got me to the day, but I can't pretend I was ready or confident.

 

The audition wasn't great.  It certainly wasn't as good as the preparatory recordings I made.  I fumbled.  I didn't express the music.  And in the end, I got in.

 

Yes, I got in.  I found out that day that there is such a thing as "good enough."  And while it didn't satisfy me, it was a vital lesson for me.

 

The professor I auditioned for, Dr. Geoffrey Haydon, was an old jazz acquaintance.  He had heard me perform with Marion McPartland in an open masterclass at Spivey Hall.  He said a very kind thing that day, that he'd been waiting for me to take this step.  He would become my teacher and would teach me many of the things I'd never managed to learn on my own.

 

I had been hoping to eliminate most of my piano requirement with my audition to save time, but in the end I was placed as a first semester Sophomore.  As it turned out, those 2 1/2 years studying at State were some of the best experiences of my life.  As terrifying as it was to play in front of the other students that first time in piano lab, I discovered over time that everyone was in the same boat as me, just at different levels, and that I genuinely had something to offer both as pianist and listening colleague.  I made pianist-friends and I worked on interesting music, and I got better.

 

I began working as an accompanist at two Atlanta churches, The Tabernacle and Leland United Methodist Church.  Once I began playing in front of people, reading new music every week, the terror began to abate.  Soon I was able to focus on the music I was reading and put thoughts of the audience in the background.

 

I also took a stage-fright workshop with visiting American composer Michael Colgrass whose work with NLP helped clue me into some very interesting things about the way I approached the stage.  Mr. Colgrass' workshop was terrific and I'd highly recommend it to anyone.

 

My recital was scary, but not like my audition.  I certainly didn't play up to my hopes, but it was good enough.  I remember having a conversation with Dr. Haydon in a moment of despair.  "What if it's the last time I ever play these pieces?" I asked him.  "It's never the last time," he said.  That was a complete opposite way of thinking about life than I'd ever tried before, and it steadied me then and from then on!

 

My experience at State was one of the two things that helped me get to feeling "normal."  The other was Feldenkrais.

 

Next time:  Feldenkrais and the elusive obvious.

I came back to Atlanta with the intention to become a professional pianist and composer.  I was vastly underqualified and I knew it.  While my reading and playing was better, it was far from the standard.  I still had never given a public recital of just piano playing.  And I didn't know what I needed to know to play jazz.  But I had some money from a family trust that would keep me for a while, so I knew that if I failed I wouldn't die.  I figured few people had this kind of opportunity and it was my responsibility to take it.

 

I had a very good stroke of luck when I got back.  Tom Pazik, with whom I took ballet lessons for a few months in high school, was starting a new ballet company.  I heard from a friend that he needed an accompanist.  He couldn't pay, but it would be good experience.  I went and played a class or two for him.  Ballet accompanying is unique in that, if you can improvise, you can play class.  I could improvise, and the kind of improvising I did well fit their needs.  Even though I was terrified from the class beginning to the class end, Tom told me he thought I had a knack for it and asked me to stay. 

I played for his company for more than a year, until his death in 1993.  By that time I had learned the ropes and was asked to play for the Atlanta Ballet.  Because very few pianists in Atlanta knew how to play for Ballet Class, I was actually a hot commodity!  I got a job as company pianist for the Atlanta Ballet, and eventually worked for their new school playing a nearly full-time schedule.  I liked the job because I had a chance not only to practice improvising, but reading as well.  It was a very forgiving environment.

 

At the same time I was starting to work with Capital City Ballet (Tom's company) I found out about a new jam session opening up in Decatur.  The pay was supposed to be awful, but they were willing to take anyone who would hang around, so I did it.  I was taking lessons with a high-powered jazz teacher in Atlanta named Ted Howe and this was a great opportunity to practice what I was learning.  The jam session paid badly, but a lot of fantastic musicians played there regularly, including Johnny O'Neal, Thad Wilson, Danny HarperNeal Starkey, and many many others.  Dan Whittiner was the drummer and he took good care of me, like all of the mentors I've been lucky to find.

 

In the 5 years I studied with Ted I made the most of those contacts to build a jazz trio.  I played a lot of solo gigs at hotels and restaurants, and started marketing myself as a bandleader.  I discovered that I could play with people who were a lot better than me as long as I got the jobs and paid them!  Having missed the opportunity to play a lot of jazz in college, this was my best shot at an education as an ensemble player.  The Adam Cole Trio did reasonably well.  We only did classic jazz, so we never made the big bucks.  But when people hired us, it was because they really wanted to hear jazz, so we always had fun and I always made what I asked for.  I paid my guys a little more than the usual, so they tended to always be available for my jobs!

 

So here I was ten years later, playing jazz, ballet accompanying and the occasional theater gig.  In a way I'd accomplished my goal.  But the truth was that I could still hear a huge difference between my playing and the other players in town.  The same things still dogged me.  I couldn't open up in front of an audience.  Unless I was improvising classical music I couldn't get in the groove.  I remained terrified to play jazz or to read classical pieces.  And at the end of five years with Ted I could read any chart and knew my theory back and forth, but I still couldn't solo worth a flip!

 

So here I was ten years later, a professional pianist, but I still felt like an imposter, a faker.  I was always apologizing, covering up, because I felt I had this deficit that was obvious to everybody, audience, fellow musicians, whoever was listening.  I was beginning to think my belief about my potential was wrong.

 

Two things changed my belief and finally put me over the top, but it cost me plenty.

 

Next time:  Those two things.

I spent the last three years of college (I was there for five) pretending I was in the Conservatory.  I spent so much time there that I fooled lots of people.  I created my own curriculum, made up of conducting, music history, and time in the practice room composing, singing and, of course, playing the piano.

 

As my playing level failed to improve, I began to realize that I was developing a fear of playing in front of people.  My realizations about my inability made me hyper-alert to anyone and anything around me.  Instead of focusing on the playing, I found my attention divided.  I was listening to myself through the ears of my worst critics, and whoever was near became that critic. 

 

But there were two people whose generosity saved me from giving up and propelled me to the next stage of my adventure.  The first was Neal.

 

Neal Creque is one of the great unsung heroes of jazz.  He had just begun teaching at Oberlin when I sought him out my fourth year.  I was determined to study with him, even though I wasn't in the jazz program and probably wasn't supposed to ask.  I played him the tune I knew the best, "Monk's Dream," and he agreed to teach me.  It wasn't that I was particularly good, just that he was nice and I suppose he could see how badly I wanted to learn.

 

We spent two years together, and even though I struggled through my clumsy solos, he continued to encourage me.  His strategy given my limited skills was to teach me "as many tunes as possible."  He taught me some great ones, a number of which were in the Real Book but off the beaten track.  Even more importantly, he set an example for me by the way he played.  He smiled, always, when his hands were moving, and that smile came out through his music.  If I could take anything from him, I'd want it to be his joy.  Sadly, he passed away before I could return to him and show him that I'd been worth his trouble.

 

While I did become a better all-around musician in those three years, I didn't become a better pianist.  At least not to the extent that I wanted.  I was acutely aware of my fear, especially where sight-reading and soloing were concerned.  The worst of it was that my right hand simply wouldn't play fast enough.  My left hand was okay, even sort of clever.  I could walk a bass-line better than a lot of people.  But my right sounded clumsy and awkward, and that was the one that counted.

 

My fifth year Claudia MacDonald, one of my favorite musicology professors, began acquainting me with her husband, Ivan Waldbauer.  He was a retired musicology professor from Brown University with a thick Hungarian accent.  We went to Cleveland Orchestra concerts a couple of times and I enjoyed talking with him about music.  Claudia hinted that if I asked, he might give me piano lessons.

 

Classical lessons?  Gulp.  I had just finished my fifth year at Oberlin and was beginning to wonder if I'd ever actually leave.  But I thought I might stay one more summer to study with Ivan.  I screwed up my courage and talked to him about it.  He understood where I was at, suggested Haydn and Bach, and especially Bartok Mikrokosmos Book 6.  Ivan was a family friend of the Bartoks, and was an expert on his music.

 

The piano lessons were amazing.  I went about once a week to Ivan's home.  The lessons would last anywhere from one to three hours.  Ivan was very kind and patient, took me exactly where I was, and got me playing music that was much harder than I should have been able to manage.  Even more, he would talk and talk about all kinds of things...Beethoven, Wagner, Brahms.  After each lesson I would race to a private place and write as much down as I could remember.

 

Ivan never charged me a penny for those lessons.  I had an occasion to write him a long thank-you many years later, but you can never thank someone for something like that.  At last, the summer came to an end and I told myself I had to leave before the next batch of students came, or I'd never leave.  I had gotten as much from Oberlin as I could, and it was time to go home and see if I might be able to make it as a musician after all.

 

Next time:  Masquerades and Lucky Breaks

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