I want to share two videos with you.

In both videos, I’m playing the second movement of Stravinsky’s Les Cinq Doigts. This movement is titled “Allegro,” which means it could go fairly quickly if you wanted it to — but in the first video, you’ll note that I ended the movement by saying, spontaneously, “that’s way too fast.”

Pretty much everything in that performance was spontaneous, from my decision to start the piece over from the beginning (because I moved too fast and played a wrong note) to my decision to leave out a few of the notes at the end (because I was moving too fast to play them all).

I’m calling that one the “feelings” version. More impulse than control, as it were.

Here’s the focused version:

I told L that I took this one 20 percent slower, but I think it’s actually 40 percent slower if I did the math correctly; the “feelings” version took 50 seconds and the “focus” version took 70 seconds. Both still count as allegro, which translates more towards lively than it does towards fast.

But really, the tempo at which I took the “focused” version doesn’t matter at all. The tempo at which I took the “feelings” version only matters because I played the piece too quickly to play it accurately — which had everything to do with the fact that I wasn’t focusing on playing it accurately.

I wasn’t focusing on anything, really.

I was just playing. Feeling. Being!

Isn’t that what we’re all supposed to want? To let go and play and feel and be?

Well… go watch those two videos again.

(I’ve watched them several times.)

In the “feelings” version, I am clearly dissatisfied with my performance — and say as much, at the end. During the performance, I am physically tense; my fingers get stiffer, my wrists get tighter, and my neck (though you can’t see much of it in the video) gets a whole lot scrunchieder.

This is a beautifully presented example of how guessing takes more effort than knowing. “Letting go,” in this case, involves a whole lot of hanging on.

In the “focused” version, my fingers, wrist, and neck all remain relatively relaxed. I am in control; my whole body is saying “I’ve got this.”

And I do. It’s a clean, competent, musical performance.

Here’s the question: Does the “focused” version suffer from a lack of “feeling?”

I really want to know your answer — because mine is no, it doesn’t, but my opinion might be skewed.

It’s also worth noting that any feelings associated with the “feeling” version were along the lines of “wheeeeee!!!! whoops!!!!!! wheeeeeeeeee again!!!!!! wait wait wait it’s going too fast!!!!” It wasn’t like I was creating any kind of significant emotional experience to share with an audience; the feelings, as they were, were entirely self-directed and self-absorbed.

That said, there were zero feelings associated with the “focus” version. All of my energy was directed towards playing the piece as accurately as possible. I wasn’t trying to communicate a specific emotion, nor was I absorbed in my own emotional response to the piece.

I was, ironically enough, just playing.

And this pure, focused play might give an audience what they need to ascribe their own emotions to the piece, rather than getting stuck in “wow, she looks tense” or “wow, she’s taking that really fast, it almost seems like it’s out of control.” (It’s worth noting that when L and I watch a technically-accurate pianist on YouTube, we start talking about how the music makes us feel; when we watch a technically-inaccurate pianist, we start talking about how that person could have done a better job of problem-solving.)

BUT MAYBE YOU THOUGHT THAT THE FOCUSED VERSION SOUNDED ROBOTIC OR WHATEVER

I WILL NOT KNOW UNTIL YOU TELL ME

So go watch each video a dozen times and tell me exactly what you think.

You know I can take it. ❤️

(also, clever readers will notice that let this post run ALL DAY LONG before I realized that I had mistakenly labeled this particular Stravinsky movement “VIVO” instead of “ALLEGRO”)

(vivo is a totally different movement)

(I’ll play it for you later)

6 thoughts on “Focus vs. Feelings

  1. From my perspective (grain of salt! I don’t know this piece at all!), the controlled version is both clearer (I can hear every note as separate) and more confidant. It does also have a less spontaneous overall feeling. What fascinates me about this is how it’s the same piece, and recognizable in that the notes and their relationships are the same, but the two versions feel absolutely different. This will not be news to you, of course, but I wanted to call out how cool it is that you’re showing us HOW it works.

  2. I personally liked the focused one much better. It was more in the pocket. The first one felt rushed and sloppy, but I guess it was more fun. Still, the focused version was more confident, like you said.

    Fantastic! This inspires me to learn a piece or two. I grew up playing piano and transitioned to guitar, bass, and keyboards.

  3. Definitely the focused version. The feeling version flashed (pun intended) me to the tachistoscope drills of the 1960s when the teacher would flash words at the class, at high speed, and you had to see how many your could get correct. I remember doing well, but never 100%, so it was frustrating.

    BTW, I listened to a higher ed webinar yesterday in which Jose Antonio Bowen (a pianist cum college president cum commentator) offered that a piano teacher (in 30 or 60 minute lessons) must design practice that students undertake for many hours on their own. The teacher is teaching regulation and self-regulation, within which a goal is also for the student to find her/his/their own voice. He termed teaching piano as teaching change. And, then in line with what is clearly the thesis of his next book, he observed that all teachers during COVID had to teach more like piano teachers: build trust, design practice, provide feedback. I thought of you and Mary.

  4. I will never know if it was confounded by the order I first listened to them, but I get considerably more feelings from the “feelings” version! It is breathless and fun and, yes, _lively_. It specifically gives me the feeling of running down a grassy hill in the sunshine. The “focus” version gives me more the feeling of sitting in an auditorium listening to a piano recital, suspecting that I am not educated enough to properly appreciate what is going on. I am not, in fact, musically educated enough to hear the wrong notes, so I think I am just reacting to the fact that the runs played at such a reckless speed are pleasing to my ear and make me want to laugh.

  5. Since you asked: I watched them each ~3 times, and as a person who doesn’t play any instruments and isn’t musically educated, I much prefer the feelings version. The focus version is clearly more precise, but at the slower speed, the left hand reminds me of a metronome, or of soldiers marching. The feelings one was more *fun* and more enjoyable to listen to. I don’t know, however, if that’s due to the emotions you brought to it, if it feels a little more human because it’s not perfectly precise, or if it’s just the speed — perhaps a “focus” version at the same speed would be most pleasing of all?

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