How To Speak Music

A Juilliard professor teaches me to play the piano like a child.

Over the last two and a half years, I traveled across the country in search of life-changing teachers and mentors from all different walks. I met race-car drivers, Indian potters, ballet dancers, rappers, research scientists, law professors, Montessori teachers, aerobatic pilots, master carpenters, and many others. The book that emerged from those travels is called Guiding Lights. It tells the stories of several of these remarkable people and the ways they transform their apprentices. And it’s the basis for a series of four pieces on Slate and NPR’s Day to Day in which figures from the book teach me to do something new.

Learning how to feel the music

Robert Abramson teaches eurhythmics and improvisation at the Juilliard School of Music in New York. That’s his official job description. But really, what he teaches is feel. Bob deprograms his highly trained, technically perfect musicians and reminds them how to feel the music again: in the fingers, in the feet, in the solar plexus and the back of the neck. And sometimes he takes amateurs like me and makes us realize we have more music inside us than we know.

Recently I went to Bob Abramson’s studio on Manhattan’s Upper West Side to take an unusual kind of piano lesson. Bob’s voice rarely rises above a labored whisper, the result of throat cancer and surgeries. Hearing him on the phone when we first spoke, I pictured an ailing, bedridden man on a respirator. What I found instead was a 69-year-old who dances and prances like a boy, a campy performer who plays his one remaining vocal cord like an instrument of great range. He makes stylized hand gestures like a Balinese dancer. He flops and bends like a vaudevillian.

Though I am not a newcomer to music—I played violin as a kid—the piano is still foreign to me. Bob’s purpose this morning is to teach me how to improvise. In 60 minutes or less. Now, this may seem like an oxymoron—teaching someone to improvise, preparing someone to be spontaneous. But in classical music, it’s a venerable, if neglected, tradition. Bach, for instance, would give his sons the stolid chorales from a Lutheran hymnal and show them how to unpack the chords and fill the interstitial spaces with melody and musical ornamentation.

Today, however, the teaching of music—even at the great conservatories—is often a more mechanical affair. The problem, Abramson says, lies in what these students have been taught about what matters musically—not experimentation, but repetition; not invention, but perfection. His students come to Juilliard knowing how to decode the symbols of music but not knowing how to infuse them with meaning. “We teach reading without literacy,” he says.

The disease of dead ears and dull senses is not simply a musical malady, in his view. Young people well outside of Juilliard deliberately adopt a flattened affect in speech and sensibility—yeah cool whatever—and disregard the natural ups and downs of intonation in everyday life. People are forgetting how to hear.

Bob’s way of reminding his students of their senses is indirect. He has me sit at the piano bench next to him, and he starts me off with some motions that seem to have nothing to do with music. He asks me to sway my arms up and down, as if I were doing “the wave” at a ballgame, and then pound my hands down on the closed wooden keyboard cover. First with the whole arm. Then just the forearm. Then wrist. Then straight fingers. Then curved fingers.

It’s what he calls, “The dance of the piano.” It’s an unusual exercise, but I am now conscious of my whole upper body as I play. And that was the point: Bob had helped me rediscover my limbs, the sense that movement and meaning are connected; that music is the movement of sound.

Next, Bob works to develop my inner ear. He opens up the keyboard and asks me to do something deceptively simple: Say my name, and at the same time, play it on the piano. Playmyname. The first time through, I realize I’ve never paid much attention to the sound of my name. I say, “Eric Liu” like DA-da-DAAA. But the way I bang it out on the keys sounds like da-da-da. The rhythm is robotic and all wrong. So Bob has me try again. Listen, he says in his urgent rasp. Really listen.

I do, and I try again. By and by, I learn how to hear the cadence of my own name—to feel it—and to express it with my fingertips. So now, Bob starts nudging me forward, from rhythm to intonation. He asks me to notice how “Liu” is a higher pitch than “Eric.” We both sing it—E-ric Liu, E-ric Liu—and then we play it on the keys, and the idea is for me to play. The more we play, the more natural it all seems. No one is judging me for hitting the “right” notes. When I make a “mistake,” like getting the rhythm slightly wrong, Bob asks me only to hear what I did wrong and to do something with it. Before long, Bob announces to me that I have learned to speak a language.

That, in fact, is a key message of Bob Abramson’s teachings: that playing music is just as easy—and just as hard—as mastering a spoken language. Bob breaks down music in exactly the terms you’d use to break down a language. There are commas and periods and dashes. The sentences have implied centers, points of balance. There is syntax. Bob’s Juilliard students usually focus on the musical notes on the page. This shift in focus, to what is suggested between the notes, can be disorienting for them.

To combat this, part of what Bob tries to instill in his students is an awareness of the differences between languages, and the unique requirements of each. He demonstrates for me the difference between German and French—musically—by playing a squarely built Beethoven sample and then a willowy wisp of Ravel. I’m absorbed in his mini-lecture when suddenly he takes the opportunity to get me to glide, to play something like Ravel even though I can hardly play the piano at all. Like a toddler, I began to pass my fingers up and down the keyboard, creating a watery kind of sound. It’s thrilling to create this sound.

As he senses something opening up in me, Abramson pivots back to what we’d been experimenting with before—my name. But now he wants to do variations on the theme. Play my name slowly, then quickly. Flick my fingers, then pound the whole hand. Low, then high. Extend the motif, play with it. Sing as I play. We get into it, he rocks back and forth beside me, a broad smile working across his face. And there it is. It’s snuck up on me, but 22 minutes into our lesson, I have improvised. I have composed. I have invented music and didn’t even realize I was doing it.

There’s something absolutely fitting about the way Bob used my name as a teaching tool. It was there. It was right there, waiting to be used. My name, his name, your name out of a phone book—all these are Lego blocks lying around, waiting for a child to pick them up. Ultimately, what Bob Abramson does—whether with me or with his virtuoso students—is to turn us into children. He gives us a child’s ear, a child’s mind. And he helps us make sense again of our senses. From there, it’s up to us to feel our way forward.