Fifth Business: DORIS KEYES

Mrs K Fence picIn every young musician’s development, there are giants in the landscape, central figures whose polar influence helps transform a soft lump of unrealized possibility into a stronger and more viable form that can move forward with focus, discipline, and a sense of purpose. Some of these giants forge this transformation with force of personality, some with fear of disapproval, some with a rigorous methodology that must be adhered to at all costs; Doris Keyes, who would have been capable of wielding  all of these tools, used none of them. Instead, she inspired her students by showing us the results of applying a seemingly inexhaustible combination of curiosity, wonder, humility, and dogged self-reliance to the subject. In her teaching, each new piece of music was not a problem to be solved (although each would present plenty of these along the way), but a beautiful landscape to be explored reverentially and with the knowledge that one lifetime would never be enough time to discover even a small fraction of the treasures that it contained.

Within this paradigm, every performance is not a recitation but rather an exploration. The point of the performance was not to find, but to seek, and to let anyone listening hear you searching for new meaning in every moment even if you’ve played a passage or piece a thousand times before. Once this concept is ingrained, the student comes to understand that the only thing more exhausting than approaching every piece of music in this way is not approaching every piece of music in this way; by comparison, the latter is tantamount to going through life with eyes, ears, and heart either partially or completely closed. On this subject, Mrs. K was passing on a fundamental truth that she knew all too well – that life is too short and too precious to waste.

Not that there wasn’t lots of technical instruction going on in the process; there was, but it simply wasn’t the main point. The goal was always to bring the life already present in the music out through your own unique perspective and voice, and technique was simply the physical means to do that. In a sense, she tricked me into a lifelong fascination with physical technique by exemplifying a universal truth about physical technique in any endeavor: in short, that the core is the center of relaxed power. How else could a woman barely five feet tall and 100 lbs soaking wet produce a sound that was exponentially more powerful than mine when I stood over a foot taller and weighed nearly twice as much as she did? Early on, I asked her how this could be and she just smiled and said (putting one hand on her belly and the other on her lower back), “because I play from here, and you (then placing her hands around my fingers) play from here. You see, we don’t play the piano* with our fingers any more than we digest our food with our teeth. They are just the first things to touch it. The real work is done much closer to the center.” For me, this began a lifelong obsession with the study of how to transmit the force to do anything – play any instrument, lift any object, throw a ball, or even walk – from the core to the target without weakening the signal by inefficient use of the mechanism. This message has been one of my greatest life lessons in many areas (but that’s a subject for another day).

In the end, while a thousand words could never begin to scratch the surface of all of the lessons I learned from Mrs. K and all the ways that she is still with me every single day when I play music, I’ll leave this little testimonial with the greatest compliment I know how to give anyone and then seven words from Mrs. K, posed as a question, that have shaped the course of every even marginally successful attempt at music making I’ve been a part of since I met her.

The Compliment –  when I met her, she was in her mid 50’s, her children were grown, and as far as any of us could see, she had little if anything left to prove as she was already a master of the very thing which the rest of us were just beginning to get a taste of. In spite of this, she seemed as or more enthusiastic than any of her students about the subject of making music and playing the piano. I’m pretty sure I was not alone in thinking this thought once I got to know her: “That’s what I want to be when I grow up”.

The Seven Words – “What does the music* want from you?”

* (Somehow, when Mrs. K spoke the words “the piano” or “the music“, they always came out in italics, and were sometimes bolded as well)

(for an explanation of why the title of this blog begins with the words “Fifth Business”, click here)

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