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  • Lynne Phillips

Pulling The Rabbit Out Of The Hat

light brown bunny sitting in black top hat

A recent lesson with a young beginner got me thinking about something that has fascinated me for many years: the art of illusion.

Is it our job, as musicians, to simply create something, whether that’s a story, an emotion, a landscape, or a dramatic effect, or is it our job to also be magicians, to create illusions, even to cheat?

Alfred Brendel has talked extensively about the ability of the piano as an illusionist, because of its immense range and its capabilities in terms of timbres and sonorities. Do you want your music to sound like a choir? With the right combination of imagination and technical understanding of the instrument, the piano can do this. Do you want your music to sound like a voice, accompanied by a harp? In the right hands, the piano can do this too.

It never fails to amaze me of the capabilities, not only of the instrument, but of my often very young students, to grasp the concept of the piano as not simply being a ‘piano’, but of being far more than simply the sum of its parts. I have a wonderful enduring memory of a teenage student who was working through a Mozart sonata (forgive me, I forget which one, I’m terrible at these things...) who ‘orchestrated’ the entire piece, not only in his head, but managed to somehow emulate the different timbres of the instruments through the touch he was using. It gave his performance an extraordinary and rather beautiful (and possibly unique) interpretation, and yet, everything he did was a trick of the mind, to get his listener to believe it was a clarinet here, strings there, a solo flute there, and BOOM! there is the Tutti.

Daniel Barenboim has talked, both in his publicly available recorded masterclasses, and his book Everything is Connected, of the art of creating an illusion of a crescendo on a single note at the piano – a musical concept that is technically impossible as the piano string, once struck, can only ever decay. But what a pianist does with the notes surrounding that single note can make a listener believe that the note in question is, indeed, getting louder.

And so we return to my young beginner from earlier this week. We were doing nothing as complex as orchestrating a Mozart sonata or attempting to create a mind-bending illusion of a crescending (if that is even a word) single note. No, my student was struggling with a marked crescendo that was only of a single bar in length, but needed to travel from a piano to a forte for the full dramatic effect. She couldn’t quite manage to get every right hand quaver along the route louder than the last. Or even most of the quavers louder than the last. So I suggested we cheat a bit, and use the left hand, which only had 2 accompanying notes. What if she were to only get louder using those two notes, would that make the music sound like it was actually getting louder much more gradually? Could she be like the magicians that Brendel and Barenboim were talking about? Well, she tried it, and after a couple of runs through, go the hang of it, and the effect was magnificent. She created an illusion of a gradual crescendo.

But here’s the real kicker.

In learning this little snippet of magic, after a few more attempts, my student inadvertently managed to actually create a true gradual crescendo. Sometimes, when we turn our focus to something attainable, and something a little (if you’ll excuse the cliché) outside of the box, a different sort of magic happens, and we manage what we originally thought we couldn’t do.

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