Practice Listening with Your Body

A Deaf Composer on How to Hear the Piano

Photo of Jay Alan Zimmerman by Barbara Norman.
Ever practice piano… without the piano? It may seem strange, but in order to make richer, more expressive music, you need to use all the tools at your disposal. And I want to give you a few that you may have not thought of before. In the first article of this series, I asked you to put down your scores in order to practice listening with your ears in a new way. This time, I want you to not only put down your scores, but walk away from the keyboard too. Because today I want you to start learning how to listen… with your body.

I’ve played piano my entire life: from a fully hearing child pianist to a moderate-hearing-loss professional musician to a profoundly deaf composer. And just like I acquired the skill of lipreading through necessity but without realizing it, somewhere along the way I also picked up the skill of playing piano without hearing most of the notes. It took the constant queries of “how the heck do you still play so well?” to force me to step back and articulate the techniques I’m using.

Essentially, when you play the piano, your body’s movement creates music.

Here’s in essence what I’ve learned through doing. Your body is both a receiver of music and an expressive tool for creating it. A receiver via your ears of course, but also throughout your entire human form. At the same time, your body generates music not only in the way your fingers strike the keys, but in how your wrist rotates, your arms fall, your torso leans. Essentially, when you play the piano, your body’s movement creates music.

Take a walk to see this in action. Listen to your natural rhythm. Change it up with a brief skip, a short dash, a slow stride. See how quickly you’re making music?

As the theoretical neurobiologist Mark Changizi explains in his book Harnessed: How Language and Music Mimicked Nature and Transformed Ape to Man, solid objects interacting create most of the sounds in the world—like your shoes hitting the sidewalk. Since every gait has rhythm and beat, and because humans needed to track movement around them, mimicking these sounds formed the basis for all language and music.

You can see this movement = music equation most clearly when watching percussionists play timpani, cymbals, and bells. Each swing of the mallet and cymbal crash translates movement into music directly. The piano, which is technically a percussion instrument, does the same thing with its hammers.

As you walk, also notice how movements driven by different emotions create distinctly different sounds: a contented stroll sounds lighter than an angry stomp or an impatient tap. These same movements in miniature create the piano’s tone and volume as your fingers walk, dance, race, slam, stomp, and caress the keys. Practice these motions in the air or on the piano lid, and you’ll soon “hear” the notes even without making a sound.

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Copyright © 2018 Nancy M. Williams. All Rights Reserved.

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