(02. 12. 2019, made by Ellen Moysan in Pittsburgh, PA, USA; transcribed and edited by Joel & Dana Boyer)
Interviewer: Ellen Moysan
Interviewee: Dr. Stephen Neely, Carnegie Mellon University Assistant Professor of Dalcroze Eurhythmics
EM: I always start interviews by asking “What is the inner song?”
SN: Do you know the term audiation? There are four or five primary ways of teaching music. One is Dalcroze, which is the oldest. Another is named after Carl Orff, which is called Orff Schulwerk. The third is Suzuki from Japan. Out of Hungary is Kodály, and Duquesne has a long history of Kodály training. Those are the main four. There is a fifth that is newer and not as respected, but respected enough to be named, called Gordon after Edward Gordon who coined the term ‘audiation,’ which is his word for inner hearing.
Any good music training is going to be training the inner musician or the inner ear and I have a very specific bias as a Dalcrozian. Any useful core curriculum at a conservatory would be all about inner hearing. So much of what I teach (Dalcroze method) and what is taught in a solfège class is performance based. It’s not just talking about music; you have to sing out loud. You have to hear and recreate things. It’s not theorizing about music, it’s actually trying to replicate or demonstrate skills.
EM: My training was pretty theoretical, or I was too young, I don’t know, but it took me a long time before seeing why it was useful. It was so theoretical that it did not match the practice.
SN: Well maybe your experience was a little different. When we teach solfège here it is a class in sight reading and sight singing. And one of the goals is that you can read it like a book so you know what it sounds like just by seeing it.
EM: I personally learned languages later and I learned the grammar without knowing how to apply it in the normal life.
SN: In the worst versions, which are not hard to find, people separate the practice from the theory and we’re left wondering why are we even doing this at all? It happens all throughout music education and that’s why so many students quit—it never started to feel like music; it felt like torture. In my opinion, and Dalcrozian opinion, the only reason for those lessons would be to get you closer to music rather than to just talk about some theoretical concept.
One of the big things we are doing in our core classes especially in solfège and Dalcrozian Eurhythmics is asking them to be able to be aware of their inner song and then even more so to be able to manipulate their inner song. At a basic level it’s just to notice that you start to hear the music inside and pay attention to it. So we’ll do lots of games in my class where we will do things out loud and then we will recreate things in silence. They have to hear it inside their head and manipulate the feeling of the music inside them without there being sound in the room.
EM: I met a musician last week and he was saying, “well I hear that,” then I was asking him, how do you know you hear it if you don’t sing it?
SN: I think that it’s not just hearing. It’s feeling, in a literal tactile, weighted, touchy, visceral sense. So I think Gordon’s term ‘audiation’ is a bad term because it gives the impression that music is sound and I disagree. I don’t think music is sound. I think that music often uses sound, but it also uses silences. It uses in-tune pitches, but it also uses atonal pitches, scratches, whispers and noises of different sorts and that you can make music from those. And what all musical settings have in common, in my opinion, is less about the sound in the room and more about the feeling that the sound creates in you.
Then we can talk about Merleau-Ponty and the body and about the visceral, the touch and the participatory. Those are things that the Dalcrozian classroom values highly. I’m not an expert in Gordon, but in the States all types of people use his term ‘audiation’ because what they are trying to talk about is inner hearing. I do think that there is a hearing component to it, but the sterile hearing of this pitch versus that pitch is not yet music. Music is the reason for the study of music. What makes it music is when what I hear starts to become something that I feel. When I can feel the shifts of weight in my body, at that point we have shifted from something that I’ve heard into something that is aesthetic and that I feel. I can also recall traffic sounds and dogs barking.
EM: A jazz saxophone player I met a long time ago said “Anything is part of my inner song, even the sound of the street.”
SN: That leads to the question of what is art, and at what point does anything become music. To some crowds you can make a symphony out of traffic noises. But that becomes a separate set of things we can discuss.
EM: So if audiation is not a good word, what do you think about ‘inner song?’ For me, finding an expression was very hard. There was ‘oralization,’ ‘audiation,’ and ‘music thought,’ but it’s not about thinking. ‘Song’ poses some problems, ‘inner’ poses some problems too because feeling is not just within versus without. Its not inside versus outside. The expression is not the best.
SN: I’m okay with it. I was asking this exact question within the last five months, trying to think, well if audiation is inner hearing, and I don’t think it’s about hearing exclusively, I think it’s about feeling, then what is this idea of inner feeling? The inner versus outer? I think I’m okay with saying it’s inner. That what we are describing is something that is in me. Because I’m sitting here experiencing and I haven’t shared it with you, then it’s not outer. I’m experiencing it in me. Now there is a way I can manifest, by making sound, by making gesture, or by engaging you in some manner where now it’s shared inner-outer. I don’t think it’s ever only outer. If they are going to play music in the other room while we talk and I don’t pay attention to it, then that is outer. That is distant from me and I’m not even paying attention to it. Then, I can just sit here and bring myself to tears by the music I’m experiencing and you wouldn’t know why I was crying. Then, if I share it with you, that is a mixture of both what I feel and what I share, so that’s inner-outer. And that is what performance is. Performance would be in and out. ‘Inner song’ isn’t bad. If I were using the term ‘inner song,’ I would need a chapter in my dissertation that explained what I meant by ‘song.’
EM: I’m moving towards saying that its embodied. With inner hearing, the problem is, philosophically, what part of my body—what organ—is hearing that? I started to investigate the hearing system and there is no way that you can say there is an out and an in. Hearing is letting things pass—it’s a vibration so there is no disconnection with the world.
SN: So it’s a recalling of hearing, maybe. When we think of inner hearing, that has something to do with a rehearsed vocabulary, so again if I try to hear that, I’m not remembering the last time I heard that and I’m not remembering the time I heard it out loud. It’s as if I’m sight reading it, but I’m sight reading it inside me. So I’m playing a script. I’m improvising a script. It’s about imagination. But it’s still bounded. It’s specific, because I’m trying to hear that script, those specific pitches. I don’t know the answer, but it’s fun to think about. Because it’s not the same way of recalling a past memory. It’s not like remembering the last time I went to the store.
EM: Well for many years I was hesitating between, is it a perception or is it imagination? I was thinking it cannot be perception because perception would be something kind of objective, or is it imagination as a reshaping of previous material? That’s what it is, I think. My imagination is reshaping the sound that I have in my memory that I am perceiving when I actually hear it. Because if I practice my cello, it’s not just about my memory. I’m hearing here and here at the same time and going back and forth between the two. So it means that ‘inner hearing’ is too small for what it means. Is it just about perception? No, it’s more than that, I think.
SN: I’m pretty sure there are studies out there that say, when you play the cello, the fMRI shows these motor cortex parts in your brain lighting up. And then when you just sit and imagine playing the cello those same parts light up. You’re still participating even if you are not overtly gesturing and pulling your bow with your arm. You can put yourself in a state where your imagination lights up the same motor cortex. And you can rehearse and get better without the bow in your hand just by playing it and working through.
EM: But also, what was bothering me before with imagination is that when I was interviewing musicians they were saying, “well, I hear it”. So it’s not just creating something voluntarily. There is something passive here. So, for Rousseau it doesn’t matter because he says that imagination has something that is about receiving. I remember one cellist I met in France was telling me (he is a soloist and spends a lot of time in the airport), “well I just sit there and start hearing stuff in my mind.” So it’s not just that I’m trying to create something new. You can just receive it. So there is both something active, this reshaping of something, and something I receive almost without being conscious of it. If you share your daily life with a musician, it is someone who would sing without even noticing it sometimes.
SN: There is an interesting component that I teach, and it takes a while to get to this level. One component is where I catch myself hearing music, where I surprised myself that I was singing. I don’t even know where it came from. There is another one where I recall the music that I’ve been working on and I could play it back in my head. There would be a third one where I could sight read in my head, or in my inner song. So I could look at this score and I could play it. And there is a version where I could rehearse, which implies I could make mistakes and could fix my mistakes. So there is a way to be skillful in your inner song, which is different than anything you’ve mentioned yet. And it’s very useful to my students when I can finally show them what I am describing. There are many aspects of their conservatory education that they can improve on by making no sound out loud at all. They don’t have to pick up the violin to get better at this part of the violin. Obviously for some parts, you have to hold the bow and learn, but not every part of the concerto requires that you hold the instrument in your hand.
EM: That is what my second teacher told me, “You spend so much time on the metro. Just pick up your suite and read them on the metro,” but at this point I was not as advanced so I couldn’t see how interesting it was. When I see my bother composing, I could see that he composes without anything. So it means that yes there is something like that, but how do you develop your skills?
SN: There are lots of ways. That’s very much of what I think a good solfège class and a good eurhythmics class are going to be able to do. If you want, we can brainstorm exercises or talk about the kinds of things we do. Have you witnessed a Eurhythmics class?
EM: I watched some videos.
SN: I think the basic strategy—and this is way too condensed—is a make you do stuff. We have a visceral experience. An actual out loud, out front, visual experience that is performative. You have to do things not only in your head or in stillness or in minuscule little gestures. We do gross body motion. The eurhythmics course work starts with an assumption that music is supposed to feel, and I challenge my students regularly: is what you are trying to do try to make sound or a feeling? And my bias is, the sound is just a vehicle to actually make you feel things, not to make sounds. There are noise makers in the world, and traffic and dogs barking, that generally we don’t think of as music. The point where it turns from noise into music is when it somehow gets into the body and you feel it. It makes you feel heavy, it makes you feel light, it creates a sense of motion in the felt body. When you get to that threshold is when you start to open the door to what I’ll call musical experience.
EM: That is why that is one of the questions I would start my research with, because I would witness people coming to my house to rehearse before auditioning for the Paris conservatory, because my dad was a teacher, and some were musical and some had a very good technique, but nothing was happening and I was wondering how you could be so good technically but have nothing happening.
SN: Right, so that is the rationale for the Dalcroze classes. Jaques-Dalcroze was hired to run the theory program in the Geneva conservatory as a young man in his 20s. And when he met his eighteen-/nineteen-year-old students he determined they were very technically proficient. They played their instruments well—very fast, very technical, they knew all the notes and could play them quickly—and yet they were missing a major series of attentions, and then he recognized that the curriculum had no place to address these attentions—teaching the feeling side, the aesthetic side, the reason for playing all these technicalities. And so, little by little, he started to come up with these strategies for awakening and revealing this other attention in their music making. Over fifty years he developed the class that I now teach, which is groups of people in motion, usually without their instruments in hand, usually barefoot. I sit at the piano a lot of the times. I improvise and create small exercises, little experiences, of all different versions. I set up a very simple, little thing to do which we’ll do together. Through participating, you now have a visceral understanding of that experience, not just a theoretical one, because your body was forced to be in motion, and almost everything we do involves some kind of gesture. Some of them are wild and crazy, but at the beginning, extremely simple, just simple walking and clapping and noticing, seeing the room and very polite simple things. But it’s very different to experience a steady pulse in a piece of music by watching a metronome click versus your body walking that beat. Once we’ve gone through any number of bodied experiences, then we look for ways to re-experience it without pushing the body into big gestures, and we try to recall, do you remember what that felt like? We look for ways to recall that.
EM: So, the inner song would be a body memory?
SN: I’m fine with that statement. Even to the point of pitch. In solfège where they spend almost all their time working on pitches and harmony. So they’re thinking about intervals and they sing every class. And they use rhythm, but they’re not teaching rhythm. In my class, I use pitch, but I’m teaching rhythm. So we separate them out. And that’s the way the university, the school of music ended up doing it. It wouldn’t have to be set up that way.
There’s a version of Dalcroze solfège. It’s a bodied memory, and they use the feeling of the individual pitches to help learn the pitches. In the traditional version of it, it’s fixed Do, where Do is always C on the piano regardless of what key you’re in. Some of the rationale for that system is that C does not feel like D. Mi-flat major (E-flat major) does not feel like Mi major because it’s tied to this specific pitch. In a Dalcrozian solfège, we go out of our way to try to build connections between this particular exact pitch and the bodied reaction that we claim is not the same as a half step higher or lower. Whereas in a movable Do, in the American system, they just say that all these keys—yes there are some that are higher and some that are lower—but tonic feels like tonic and dominant feels like dominant no matter what key you’re in. They are trying to tie it to the function of the harmony rather than the exact pitch.
EM: I think solfège made no sense to me for a long time because it was disembodied. We would spend two hours, which is long for kids, just doing things at the table. I was feeling things but my playing was not producing any feeling. So there is something to unlock, I guess, that can be locked by years of practice without paying attention to the body. When you start solfège at five years old, you move around the classroom, but when you grow up a little and reach seven, ten, or eighteen, you don’t move anymore.
SN: The Jaques-Dalcroze methodologies have everybody moving all the time, however long you’re studying—you could be eighty years old, you could be three years old. We say, “The body is the first instrument”. Before you have a piano or a cello you have a body and the only reason to have a cello—why does a cello even matter? A cello is a vehicle—to share what you feel in your body. So I first have to find the music in me. I have an understanding, a belief, a feeling, of what the music means to me. It feels like this, and now I don’t need a cello if all I want to do is experience music. If I want to experience music, I can experience music inside me. But if I want to share with you, I need a cello, or a piano, or a voice, or something. And so the only reason for a cello is to share with someone else.
EM: So how is it possible for you play flat but sing musically? I would sing with my teacher and she would say, “Well, it’s musical. You understand the music. But why, when you have this instrument with you, then nothing is happening anymore? Where is the disconnection?”
SN: I think the answer is just that—that there just is a disconnection. Maybe in your case, singing was intuitively embodied. It intuitively, musically made sense to you. It tipped into the threshold of, it feels like music to me. Whereas, maybe, in a ten year old version of your cello, it was a piece of wood in front of you that you could manipulate but you hadn’t figured out how to make it be a translator of you.
EM: So, for you, voice is not always working or functioning intuitively. So I was thinking, well it might be that the voice is my body.
SN: Well, there is some argument for that but that’s not the case for everyone. There are some people that have very beautiful voices and yet can’t make music with them. And in the same way you could have a very beautiful cello but haven’t quite figured out how to make music with it.
EM: The way I relearned was by closing my eyes and moving with my cello and having more body motions. Some musicians I met—and those were the musicians who mentioned Dalcroze—were telling me that I needed to connect with the instrument.
SN: The way I teach it is I try to convince my students that their instrument is nothing but a tool to share what they are already experiencing. So it’s always driving their attention to their inner song. That is a huge part of what I teach, maybe everything I teach. Notice your inner song. Then get so good at noticing it that you can manipulate it. You could be skillful in your noticing of the inner song, so that you can rehearse and be better and notice when it’s off versus when its on, when it’s accurate versus when it is inaccurate. So that you can continue to be virtuosic at inner song, is really what I’m trying to do. Then you have a reason to learn technique. Why do you need more technique on your cello? It’s useless if you don’t have a song to play. But if you are passionate and understand what you would like to accomplish musically, then the appropriate frustration for a conservatory student is “I know the music I want to play, but I’m not good enough to play it.” That is a good frustration. Musically I’m awake and have a reason to practice more to make my technique stronger. Because I have realized I have more to say than my instrument technique allows.
EM: That is the point, I think, when conservatory goes wrong: if the teacher never draws attention to the inner song it makes no sense to learn all those things.
SN: Well, I think that is why many students never get to level five, or never get to whatever the level is. It’s not because they necessarily couldn’t have learned the technique. It’s because they were like, ‘Why would I learn the technique? I hate learning the technique.’ Because the technique doesn’t afford expression. You can’t express what you don’t already possess. And so Jaques-Dalcroze said you shouldn’t pick up an instrument until you’ve had three years of eurhythmics. We don’t subscribe to that exactly, but to the idea that you need to have a reason to play the instrument. It’s not just to be a very good robot who can play many notes. The computers do that now with no effort. I can get a computer to play things that no human could ever play. And so what good is that? It’s no good.
EM: What is the pleasure of the technique? Because you still have students who would find pleasure in just learning the technique.
SN: I agree with that but it’s not true of everybody. And still, from my bias, it’s not enough. I only get a small thrill out of watching you conquer the laws of physics. That is not an artistic payoff for me. That is a technical payoff. So I guess in the same way I can watch somebody draw a perfect zero. You know, “Just draw me a perfect circle. Wow. Look, you had the arm control to draw a perfect zero.” But it doesn’t actually express anything. It’s just a technical feat. I agree with you though, it is exhilarating sometimes to watch people to pull off technical feats.
EM: Well, it’s impressive. You have thousands of videos of kids on YouTube who can play things you would never…
SN: Yes, I just watched a five year old little girl playing amazing Bach. But I think it isn’t what we claim to teach. I think the purpose of a conservatory isn’t to create better robots—to create better technicians who can play faster notes—it’s to share belief, to create culture, to create tension and release. It’s those more artistic pursuits, rather than the technical pursuits. The technical is very important, but it’s only important if it permits you to share something that you couldn’t have shared without it. Otherwise there is no reason.
EM: So the goal is relational? Not just technique and expression, but to put me in relationship with someone else.
SN: Oh, absolutely. We could argue that you’re allowed to play the cello just for yourself. I tell all my students who are performance majors the whole premise of their study is that they will share it. I believe it is always relational, but there are four ways I categorize those relations. And the one that we’ve been talking is what I call ‘self-with-other,’ meaning, my body with somebody else’s body. I don’t just want you to sit in my concert and hear me play. I want you to feel what I feel. So I’m looking for a literal empathy. I feel tense, I want you to feel tense. I feel release, I want you to feel release. And I claim that it’s possible. That it’s quite possible. It’s rehearsed in fact. And so, if you’re a good audience member, if you’re in the game, if you show up ready and have enough training to notice what you’re paying attention to, you have a good chance of feeling what I feel when we play self-with-other. Then there is self-with-thing. I can engage with my metronome. I can engage with my cello. I can engage with my car, where I drive the car as though the car is an extension of me. And so, in self-with-other, the fact that you feel what I feel means that we are the same. You feel me. You’re an extension of me. Or I’m an extension of you. We become a synergistic communion. We become one for a period of time. And it happens on a spectrum of course. But even right now, to the extent that you understand what I’m saying, you nod and you breathe in a particular way. There is already a sharing going on where we are sort of trying to feel each other as we try to make sense. So my claim would be that understanding in this version is not the logic of it, but it’s the shared feel. It’s the shared body. And so that is what is what I think of as embodied self-with-other.
Then there is self-with-thing, where, for instance, the blind man’s cane is not just a stick, it’s an extension of his arm. It is his body. He feels through it. That is self-with-thing. I can do that with my cello, with my car, or with my cane. And the dentist with dental probes.
Then there’s self-with-environment. There is a way of ‘bodying’ the environment. That has to do with dressing appropriately for the weather, getting in the cycles of circadian rhythms, and light and dark, and so all of those would be sort of environmental things. For instance, the way that all of a sudden, twenty degrees doesn’t seem that cold. Whereas in another time of the year, twenty degrees is terribly cold. But if you come through negative four degrees for a week and then all of a sudden it’s twenty degrees, people aren’t even wearing coats. Those are ways we body the environment and we sort of find a union or a communion with it.
Finally—the one I think is really interesting—is that there is always a way to embody with self. Self-with-self. You can be out of sync with yourself or in synchronicity with yourself. A lot of my teaching with my conservatory students starts there. I have them do multiple things at once, and we look to see if they are able to do them in sync with themselves or if they were out of sync. We do very simple things where they all have to learn conducting patterns—four pattern or three pattern—and we use them constantly. One of the things they have to do is sway inside their conducting. So that they have to do two at the same time. And then I’ll have them sing or read over that. Sometimes we just have a conversation. For some students… one out of five students in an earlier class will start off okay, and then all I have to do is distract them with some task and all of a sudden the body and the arm get apart from each other. And it’ll separate. What I’m doing is then looking for ways to bring that back together. So that their entrainment, or their embodied self-with-self, starts to lock in and be tight. That is the beginning of what I would call an inner song.
EM: So do you think that this last one is the condition for the others?
SN: I think it would have to be, because if you don’t have that first, then it’s really hard to know if you’re with the other if you don’t even know if you’re with yourself. Anybody can learn a four pattern, and yet not everybody knows what it feels like. Even though they’re doing it. So they can make their arm make a shape in the air and yet it doesn’t have to carry any weight with it.
EM: Because I think it needs more than just your hand. It needs your whole body.
SN: That’s the point. The reason I make them sway, walk, lean, and gesture in all kinds of ways is because I’m trying to say that this isn’t just a shape outside of you. It’s a model for a hierarchy of weight in you. And so, the whole reason for meter is not so we would learn to count to three or four or whatever the beats in the bar are. The number is the last thing that matters. Most important is that that down beats feel heavy. If it’s a four pattern, a beat two is less heavy. A beat three, heavy arm across the body, secondly heavy, and then the upbeat is light. And so, I m not asking you to learn to count. I’m asking you to feel a hierarchy of weight, where down beats are quite heavy, and then not so much, and then more, and then the least. When you actually know the conducting pattern, what you know is not the shape of a plus sign. What you know is this sensation. And when I ask them to conduct and sway, I’m trying to get them to pay attention to the bodied performance, not the logical, visual, or listening performance. It’s not an auditory thing. I think that the sound is to just encourage the feeling. So of those four, self-with-self is the first thing I’m teaching.
EM: Don’t you think that the inner song requires being shared? I’ve been looking for a partner for a long time, because pianists are busy. Don’t you think at some you need to share with someone, and you need to enter a discussion.
SN: I very much do. I very much need community and want collaboration and want back and forth. I’m not sure if everybody does. That’s what I want for everyone—for my students—to have the experience. I hold up chamber music as the ideal, even more so than the orchestra or the opera. If you can play in a trio or in a quartet with others, that’s intimacy. Actually, once it gets very large it’s sometimes harder to create intimacy. Again, it’s about feeling. I want to feel with the other, where we become the same. And in my writing, I cite the church a little bit. And we talk about communion, and unity, and sort of holy unities, just because I think it’s to that level.
EM: Your PhD research you mean?
SN: Yes. And I really think that’s why the Church over ages has at different times had trouble with live, performed music and with secular music. Because it can be so intimate, so passionate, and so deeply felt, to the point where you could be unsure, ‘Is what I’m feeling God, or is what I’m feeling just intimacy with someone else?’ And the Church over the ages has been very fearful that you could get confused because it feels just as good and as rewarding to play chamber music with another person as it does to be in communion with God. And so I think the church would see that as heretical.
EM: Do you mean that music might make God not as necessary?
SN: Not as necessary. Not as important. Or maybe that’s just fake and what’s real is me and you playing chamber music with each other. There have been multiple times in history, and it is continuing now with the most conservative Islamic Sharia Law, where they say you can’t play, you can’t do all sorts of things. Sometimes in those cases, it’s just this fear that you could somehow confuse one thing with another thing. And there have been certain crowds of the most conservative religious orders that say that the easiest way to not get confused or worship an idol is to not let you get anywhere near it. So music has been very volatile. There are a number of researchers in ethnomusicology who are looking at music as activism. They are asking what the role of music has been in pivotal moments such as in the civil rights era or why they sang on the Capitol steps at 9/11 when the Twin Towers had just come down. It’s because there is something really powerful, and I think there’s an intimacy. So I think its possible that some people would be alright with playing for themselves—they might be selfish or arrogant enough to believe that they don’t need anybody else—but what I yearn for is intimacy. I want safe, shared communion with others and with things.
EM: There are two issues. First is that performing chamber music doesn’t necessarily need a public. Playing for public and playing together don’t need the same thing.
SN: Agreed. In fact, I think the one I care about is playing with each other. If the public happens to click, that’s fine, but that’s much harder. Intimacy is much easier when it’s just two of us—me at the piano and you at the cello—in my parlor. We can have a moment together. And, I think our odds are good that we could create a moment or create something. Whereas to have an audience watch is a literal chasm. Now they’re twenty feet away, fifty feet away, a hundred feet away, and it takes a much greater effort on their part to feel what we feel. I’m a singer. I spent years on the opera stage. I’ve been in fifty main stage operas over the years, and I love performing. I don’t really care that much to watch an opera. If it’s a special repertoire and it’s certain singers and a certain house, I’m tempted to go, but I’m not passionate about it. The amount of effort it takes for me as an audience member to feel the intimacy with what’s going on on stage is so much more than what happens when I’m actually on stage. If I’m a part of the cast, we’ve rehearsed, and I’m actively participating in and contributing to it, that is a rush; that is amazing; that’s the coolest thing ever. But the average audience member has no idea that there are two different versions. They think they’re going to the opera. “This must be it. This must be the opera”. From my perspective, that’s not it at all. If you really want to know what the opera is like, you have to get on stage and sing, and you have to sing with the other singers. It’s the same with the chamber music. If people want to know what it’s like to play a cello piano duet, they think about going to see a cello piano duet. ‘It was very pretty. She played many fast notes. He wore a tie.’ And they think they’ve participated, but they don’t have any idea what it actually means to be the player.
EM: Well, actually, it’s so intimate that—and that was my problem with performance and I think maybe why there is performance anxiety—it’s like being naked in front of everybody.
SN: I work with a church musician who, almost every time she plays the piano, she cries. If she’s really rehearsed, and she is ready to perform, she just can’t hold it in: she’s always at the edge of tears. And she plays very well. But she catches it so deeply that it’s hard for her to contain.
EM: And I think that’s the inner song. I want to get back to the spiritual aspect of it. I interviewed an organ player who, as he was talking, just started crying. I guess for some musicians it’s so intimate that they don’t want to talk about it. In interviews, musicians focus on their career, what they did, where they were, with whom they played and so on. But I want to know what you feel; what is your intimate connection with music? Because the inner song is an intimate part of music. A really good musician is the one who is able to open that to a public—to disclose something that is extremely intimate. And maybe that’s why the self-self connection is the first one, because that’s what you share. You share what is happening between you and yourself.
SN: That’s right. And so in my teaching one of the things that I’m always looking for and trying to point out is when I think somebody is only putting up a facade—only doing what they think it’s supposed to look like. They haven’t actually engaged themselves. But often the student didn’t know how to get something deeper than that, because they’re going though the motions. “You told me to play those notes. I played them. Why are you still giving me a hard time?”
EM: How do you notice that a student is putting on a façade?
SN: Well, it’s not so easy on a concert stage, but in a Eurhythmics class it is immediately obvious because I’ll catch the parts of their body out of sync with themselves. They’ll be doing one thing—working really hard to make one part of their body perform—and the other part of the body will fail them. And obviously if you’re out of sync with yourself, then by definition or objectively you are not performing the music as intended.
EM: But there is something cultural too because a musician I interviewed told me that in the old generation, you were not supposed to move.
SN: They don’t have to move. I agree.
EM: There can be something fake in moving too.
SN: Absolutely. I don’t mean gyrating on stage. My students do lots of big bodied motion through my class. But we also talk about what they are going to do in the audition, the orchestra stage or recital, and there is no expectation at all that they would break the traditions of their craft. So, for cellists, if your studio allows you to lean, then lean. But what I want them to have is the experience of knowing what feels heavy and what feels light, because it should come out in their playing. In their performance for me though, when we are doing eurhythmics exercises, I can very easily see if they’re faking it. I can see if you’re pushing yourself through something that isn’t yet brought together. So, if we only listened to the speaking or clapping part of the performance, then it seems accurate. But when you put the whole package together we say, “Oh actually, you’re totally out of sync with yourself.” It’s a facade because you’re ignoring the back side, or the deeper experience. So, then we sort of bring them back and I make them feel it again. I’ll break it down to smaller parts for them, and point out the spot that they faked, because they often don’t know they’re faking it. They’re faking themselves out as well.
EM: Yes, but that is the same in social circles. You can be fake with someone because you are not aware of what you actually feel for this person.
SN: Right. And if no one ever redirects, trains, or alerts you—maybe you didn’t even notice it—you’re just labeled a shallow person, or a fake person, or as someone who cannot be authentic. And it might not be that you’re immature. It’s just you were never around something that was deeper than that. And so that’s what happens with my students. They’re trying their best. They’ve worked really hard to prepare auditions. They’ve been playing their instrument for fifteen years. Yet there are aspects of their performance that they don’t always know to look at. All that I’m trying to do is help them see that there are other angles or ways of evaluating their performance that would let them bring it more together and make it richer.
EM: So in some way you have to be able to access your own feelings, and unlock them.
SN: Which I would describe as becoming skilled in your inner song. First you have to notice it. I begin with doing stuff together. Then you’ll have felt it, and labeled it. ‘That’s the beat. That’s ahead of the beat. That’s off the beat.’ At a more advanced level, I can make myself feel. There are these illustrations where, if you look at it one way you see a vase, and when you look at it another way it looks like two faces. There’s another that is a rabbit and a duck. There’s a skill to looking at such illustrations. If you didn’t know it was one of these, you’d say it was just a duck. But someone might say, “No, no, no, there’s a rabbit in there,” and you then you look again and you could get to a point where you’re really good at flicking back and forth. You can practice to the point where you’re good at it—seeing the vase, seeing the faces, seeing the vase, seeing the faces. That’s a skill of attention. You don’t even know how you’re making the switch, but you can make it seem like this, then make it seem like that. You can do the same thing in music. And I can do it with sound in the room or without sound in the room. I can just do it inside me. Easy examples are the meter of 3-4 versus meter of 6-8. They both share 6-8 notes in a bar. But I can will myself to feel it in 3 or in 2- which is what 6-8 is. So, I can feel it as 3 plus 3—one-da-da-da-da-da-da-da-da-da—or I can feel it as 2 plus 2 plus 2—deekey-deeky-deeky-deeky-deeky-deeky. I can become skilled in it. And actually, you can come up with really tricky versions of it to test how flexible you are.
EM: I’m thinking about the Gardner book on multiple intelligences. Is there something like a feeling intelligence?
SN: There is a musical intelligence in his theory, and there is one that has to do with kinesthetics and bodied movement. He doesn’t put them under the same category.
EM: But I think it’s kind of genius to be aware of your feelings. Like to have the ability to see clearly or to feel clearly. It’s a certain…
EM: …a gift.
SN: Yes. I do believe you can develop it though. I believe that strongly. In fact Jaques-Dalcroze believed everybody could develop it. He started with conservatory students, but then very quickly went to young children, and to senior citizens. Now Dalcroze method is taught at all ages. Unlike any of the others. Orff only works with kids. Suzuki only works with little kids, maybe to high school. Kodaly mostly works with adult choirs. Gordon is a beginning music education. But the Jaques-Dalcroze method is for everybody.
EM: That’s the point. Why should we stop learning a particular way when we are no longer kids? The other point I was curious about has to do with music and church. How would you connect the inner song with with the more spiritual connection or faith? Because for some musicians it’s a mystical experience but it doesn’t connect with God. But for others—and that’s the point of the liturgy—that you actually connect with someone.
SN: I grew up in an extremely religious, evangelical Christian household—my father is a Christian minister. I love my family very much. And I still attend a church. My degree will be through the school of design. And the version of design that I’ve been playing around with is interaction design which has to do with making you feel stuff. If I can make you love this water bottle because it engages you—like in the way it fits your fingers, that it makes a click that is rewarding, and that it gurgles out smoothly—if it’s a pleasing experience to use it, then maybe I can make you love it. Then I can sell many more of these. I’ll get very rich because I make you love this water bottle. Or the Facebook app that never stops: you just keep looking and looking. Those are the things that designers care about. They are looking at the ways that you engage and recognize that there are ethical implications.
EM: I’ve been researching that.
SN: There are all kinds of resources. Evil by Design is the name of a book which goes through a hundred different ways that people are probably unethically manipulating you to make money. They don’t care about you. In fact, they’ll totally use you up if they could just get some money out of you. You know, they’re all preying on and playing on our human inclinations—the things that we yearn for. Once the designer or the whoever—the marketer, the manipulator—once they have an idea of your psychology and the way you view your world, they can play into that or against that and it has ethical implications. Our bodies want things. They want engagement. They want intimacy or communion. We love entrainment. We like to sync-up.
EM: What is that?
SN: To entrain is to be in synchronicity. So, if you and I walk down the hallway together some of the time, we’ll actually end up getting our gate to match. We’ll take common steps together. And so, separate of what I think about my world—and I mean very clearly, separate of that—there is a bodied tier of living where my body pushes me to do some things that I didn’t even think about, but which meet body level needs and desires. For instance, you stay on the sidewalk, you don’t start walking up the embankment because that would be uncomfortable; it takes extra effort. We like things to be easy. Sometimes I plan out these things, but other times they’re unplanned. Somebody put a door there and not over here, so I went to the near door not the far door. Not because I thought about it. It was just easy. There are a whole bunch of things that are like that. Once we know something of that, we see that we are manipulable. We can be nudged to behave or to notice certain things.
I think embodied experience can amplify or diminish the feeling of me. To embody, which is to find intimacy or to share—self-with-self, self-with-other, self-with-thing, and self-with-environment—lends to either a binding of me that makes me less than me, my experience of myself is diminished, or—in more famous examples—it makes me feel amplified. Like, to play music with you: I couldn’t have done that by myself, I couldn’t get the same rush of being more than me, the same enhancement of myself, except by playing with you because we found intimacy or embodiment together. Again, the blind man’s cane is an extension of me. With the cane I am more than me, and if I don’t have the cane, I’m just me.
EM: But you cannot have someone as an extension of you because it’s another person, right?
SN: No, I disagree. I think so. I think if we share an experience, that’s what intimacy is.
EM: You don’t think there’s a resistance? I mean that’s the philosophical debate.
SN: A resistance?
EM: Yes, in the sense that I don’t allow you…
SN: Well, you would have to allow me.
EM: To take me as an extension of yourself in the sense that I can do that with an object. I mean that’s what Husserl says if I understand him well. There is a resistance because the other is another consciousness, and so because of that the extension is never possible; there is something that resists my desire.
SN: I don’t know. I think that’s possible. I think that you can resist me and then we can’t play together. But I think there are other cases where both parties are trying very hard to find communion—whether it be lovers or chamber musicians or any two or a group that’s trying to commune, I think they’re actively trying to push the barriers down. Now, maybe it can never be perfect; I’m happy to admit that: that you can’t have perfect union. But you can get close when there’s true trust, true skill, and there’s an opening. That’s why love hurts: because I opened for communion and then you broke the communion. What you broke was me. We were shared and I was as intimate as I could be, and then, when we were one, you broke it. What you broke was not your part of it; you broke me because you’re an extension of me. And so I feel pain—the pain of me broken, not the pain of something that isn’t me. If you break my water bottle, that stinks, I have to buy a new water bottle. But if you break my leg, that’s one step to actually severing my leg from me. The pain of unrequited love, or the pain of divorce, or the pain of a child dying is a version of breaking me. I feel broken.
EM: But communion is different than fusion, right?
SN: I don’t know.
EM: Fusion doesn’t allow two people to stay who they are, whereas communion is being together but preserving who we are. You don’t think so?
SN: I haven’t thought about that one. Is it possible—and I’m not saying it’s healthy—to get so enveloped in someone else that you do lose who you are?
EM: Well, when we play music in a chamber ensemble we are in communion, not in fusion, because it circulates, we aren’t all smashed together.
SN: Right, so I’m happy to say that there’s a spectrum. There’s a really lovely version of communion where we’re playing on the same team, we work well together, make good music at that level. But when we think of the spiritual, though, we’re pushing further. The goal of the spiritual, as I was raised, is to be in an absolute holy union, to be one with God. I don’t mean that the goal is to become God. But still, how close could you get to God? That’s the goal in most religions: Can you get closer to God?
EM: Well, mystical experiences are this fusion.
SN: Yes, so if you shave your head, would that get you closer to God? If you stopped eating on Tuesdays, or if you went to Church all day long, would that get you closer to God? Whatever it takes to get you closer to God. And what does closer mean? I think it’s just more intimate.
And as for the idea of embodied—my belief is that what embodied is is somewhere on the spectrum of feeling the other or empathy. I share communion, unity, union, or a shared connection. To embody something is to enter into a shared connection where I don’t just see my water bottle over there but it actually behaves as an extension of me in some way. For instance, the blind man’s cane or like in chamber music where we played so well together that little by little you met the need that I never said out loud. I think these things then become an amplified me. Someone might say that it’s a terrible idea to have children—I have three sons by the way—they just break your things, they make everything dirty, they cost a lot of money, they’re really bad housemates, and they’re really annoying in all these ways. And yet there’s something about either having a life-partner or having a child where I’m no longer just me; I’m me amplified by this relationship.
EM: But what I wanted to say before with Husserl was that your kids are more than just an amplification of you. This is what the resistance is in the sense that, maybe yes, they are some amplification of you, but they transcend that because they are another being. The blind man’s cane is just nothing.
SN: That’s right, I don’t think they’re on the same par. The cane is just a rudimentary example of what we strive for with others. Maybe I’m very wrong, but I’m willing to fight about that. There’s an idealization of the cane wherein it is perfectly an extension of me. And when I participate with others, there’s something in common there. I reap a benefit. Maybe they don’t: the stick doesn’t have a mind at all, and my son maybe doesn’t care what I think; he’s twenty-one and off doing his own thing. He doesn’t recognize how deeply I love him because he’s twenty-one. He’s in his own world, but yet I feel him as an extension of me. And so if he gets hurt, I feel pain. I feel it like it’s a part of me that’s broken. So embodied experience can have this sensation of amplification. It can also have a diminishing. And that amplified experience is what I think the mystical or spiritual experience is. People talk about going to the Church of the symphony. They’re making a joke that they don’t need Jesus, what they need is more time at Heinz Hall with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra because they’re going to get the same rush. They’re going to walk out feeling amplified. They’re going to walk out feeling like they had a spiritual experience. They participated in something bigger than themselves. If they had just sat at home and done nothing, that would be a very mundane version of themselves. If they’d sat at home and thought Mahler—maybe they open the score and sing it in their heads—they could get themselves to tears. And then if they go to the hall and hear it with one hundred and fifty players on the stage and the acoustics of Heinz Hall, all of a sudden it’s amplified to where it can be overwhelming. And I think what the Church has done with music over the ages has co-opted that instead of using it for secular purposes. If they make the music really beautiful and get the acoustics with these kinds of reverberation, and lead in these ways, there is a chance that they can spur the mystical experience in you and then titled it ‘God.’ That’s what I think is going on; and I’m okay with that. I don’t think it’s bad. It is a way of getting the individual to feel amplified. I don’t think it’s specifically a Jesus thing. I think it’s a music thing. It’s an embodied experience. The charitable version of it would be to say ‘I’ve hired a minister of music, we’ve got a string quartet to play on Sunday, and we’re going to play the most beautiful music you’ve ever heard so that you would have an example of what it means to be with God. It’s just an example. It isn’t God, but an example of how amazing it can feel to have intimacy with the other—again, self-with-other. Here you felt the music touch you, you were tingly all over and it brought you to tears. You could have that every day if you just develop a relationship with God, and you don’t need the sound. That would be the charitable version. The Machiavellian version would say, ‘no, that is God.’ You had the experience in Church. This hall is magical. If you come here more often you’ll be more likely to have that experience.
I think that embodied experience can also diminish. There are versions of torture that are about diminishing your embodied experience. Some tortures are amplifying into awful things, but others are about robbing you of the ability to embody. So if you just bind somebody, you don’t have to poke them with knives to torture them. If you put me in a straight jacket and tie me to a table, it would be torturous, but it would be so because you’ve removed my body from me rather than expanded my body. You’ve made me less than me. So I don’t even get to be mundane me. I can hardly breathe. And so those feelings of losing my breath, tension, anxiety or stage anxiety come from my body robbing me of me; I can’t even take a real breath. I don’t even get to be in sync with the normal healthy version of me.
EM: So the embodiment is not just through rhythm.
SN: Embodied is feeling; and feeling requires motion which we experience as a shift of weight. The only way you recognize that you’ve moved is by experiencing a shift. I had to feel heavy here, then light, then heavy again. There’s no digital version of me moving there. I can’t feel digital: I can only feel analog. Analog is the sine wave. The only way I can move is to recreate a sine wave in my body. I pick up my foot, I toss it into the air, so for a moment I lift off the floor, and then for a moment I’m heavier as I land. That’s motion; a shift of weight. To move is to create a shift. This requires a lightness and a heaviness. So a shift of weight is, I think, the base experience of all experience. An experience cannot occur except that you felt motion which is a shift of weight. So rhythm is one way of feeling a shift of weight. So if I say ‘di-di-di-di-dee-di-di-di-di-dee’ you lean into all those longs. That’s called the agogic accent. The accent of duration. The thing you find yourself gravitating towards are all those heavies. Whereas if I just go ‘di-di-di-di-di-di-di-di-di’ it just feels like nothing. But if I give you any long note, that will attract your attention. That’s the experience of a shift of weight in rhythm. All rhythm is is a bunch of longs and shorts. If all we were listening to was a rhythmic piece without pitch or harmony and only one timbre, then all you would be able to do is gravitate towards things that were long and look for patterns. The patterns would be experienced as heavies and lights. When you add pitch to it then you have two layers that create heavies and lights. If I play a melody for you with no rhythm, there will be certain notes that will feel heavier and others that will feel lighter in their relativity to each other. And then if I play harmony for you—either implied or explicit—this is a third tier that creates weight. Timbre is another tier. So if we orchestrate it, having flutes play one thing, bassoons play another, and cellos play a third, the different timbres will create shifts of weight. All these things are just trying to make you feel. And what I think all those things are doing is not trying to create sound but to create shifts of weight. If you stack them all up together where you make a long note on a tonic harmony on the highest note of the line, where everybody in the orchestra plays it at once, that’s going to be a very heavy note. And if you take the long note and put it at this point in time, and tonic pitch at another, and orchestration that scatters it at other points in time, the audience will feel lost. They won’t know what was heavy. You can obscure the heavy by diffusing it. That’s what composers do. That’s their game. They draw your attention here and take it away from there. They make this moment feel impactful and then they make you feel scattered and lost, loose and tense. They create the up, like when I lift my foot from the floor, where you suspend for a while. They haven’t resolved the chord yet. And in some cases they’ll make you hang up there for a really long time and wonder if this piece is ever going to end. Then, finally, ta-da and you get the heavy and come back down. And so what I think is going on in music is not so much about the sound but it’s to make you feel heavies and lights.
EM: That’s why the expression ‘inner song’ is not so bad. If it’s just ‘inner hearing’ there’s something missing. I think the ‘song’ part—even if it isn’t perfect—gives you this impression of continuity and shifting.
SN: I think the critique of ‘audiation’ is that it could be understood as only hearing pitches as though that was the point of hearing music. If that was what Gordon was arguing—and I don’t know if that’s true—then it misses the whole point. So I’m looking for inner feel or inner shift and ‘inner song’ is, I think, a poetic way of expressing it.
EM: Well, thank you very much. I am looking forward to the workshop next week !
SN: I love the premise of your studies so keep in touch and see you next week anyway.