Geometry, Pool and Piano Playing


I’ve heard that music and mathematics are related; I might believe it, but I don’t feel it.  I don’t like math very much… well, let me rephrase that:  I don’t like REAL math.  Real math would be, in my mind, algebra, and all the related abstractions.  I could do algebra; I got B+ in most of my math courses, and I actually took more than four years of math in high school.  The kind of math that I did like was geometry.  Geometry is math, but it’s probably math for those people who don’t like math.  Thank you, whoever invented geometry.

What I feel is related to music, especially piano playing, is athletics.  Of course I was not very good at athletics, but I know and feel a real relationship to my piano playing and various sports at which I failed miserably.  Like baseball; and like basketball.  Or pool!  Now, that’s a sport for people like me.  I’ll never forget the little guy that showed me how to bank a shot, and actually plan where the cue ball would be after my shot.  That opened up new vistas in the noble sport of billiards for me, full of plane geometry.  The angles were beautiful to me; I could see them, almost as if they were holographic projections.  I assume that I was blessed with excellent eye-hand coordination.  That serves me well in both pool, and piano playing.

I was especially terrible at basketball.  It moves way too fast for me to process the plays.  I was driven to basketball, however.  Most of my friends played basketball.  I even, in my senior year in high school, went out for the basketball team.  I wasn’t even on the second team; my skills were reserved for one or two games, when we were either so far ahead I couldn’t hurt my team, or when we were so far behind it didn’t matter.  What drew me to basketball was shooting the ball.  If I didn’t have to dribble, and I didn’t have to put up with a defense, I really could shoot well.  I was the HORSE champion of Jesup, Iowa, for at least one short period of time.

It occurred to me, in my performances and in my teaching of piano, that pool and shooting basketballs and playing the piano have several things in common.  They all use geometry, they all require eye-hand coordination, and they all use rebound.  All are athletic in their use of efficient motion, controlled musculature, and the ability to be “in the zone”.  I use the athletic concepts of rebound, pivot and the geometric concept of angles in my playing and teaching of the piano.  All are indispensible.  I find myself teaching my students that the real problems in piano playing are not the notes and rhythms at all, but the balanced, aligned and free movements of their playing apparatus IN BETWEEN THE NOTES.  Every time I begin the process of communicating these concepts, I meet a blank stare.  Students think it IS about the notes, about their fingers, about those keys that they strike, one at a time, sequentially.  I do my best to convey that what they are thinking of is typing.

Ergonomics, the science of efficient motion is related equally to geometry, pool and piano playing.  I find that when I can teach my students how to move… what it feels like when they are balanced and relaxed in motion, and aligned properly upon landing, they begin to excel at playing.  The last concept that occurs to most students is that any journey has both a beginning and an end.  When they work with the concept of efficient movement at the piano, most students are fixated solely on their “landing spot”.  Unfortunately, this leaves a few holes in their movement process.  “First”, I say, “you have to know exactly where you’re coming from; then, you have to know the route to get where you’re going.  Find the landing spot with your eyes, before you begin any motion; then simply aim and bounce to your location!”  I have found that those who are trying to find their destination while they are moving stiffen and miss.

Two vignettes from my family are appropriate, somehow, to this whole discussion.  The first was when my dad and I were tossing a baseball around.  I went across the street to the school grounds, and my dad stayed in our yard.  He was trying to help me refine my catching abilities, I think.  As he threw the ball higher and higher, I got more and more afraid.  The last time, he threw the ball as high as he could… pop fly!  I like to think that the ball got lost in the sunlight.  But, actually I made The Big Mistake!  Trembling, wishing the ball would never fall, I stared at my glove.  The ball came down directly on my forehead.  You could see the indentations of the baseball’s seams on my forehead for a week.  Keep you eye on the ball, Rory, and keep your eye on the piano, where you intend to leap in virtuosic brilliance.  The baseball seams helped me with that.

The second vignette has to do with my poor mom getting lost on her trip to Minneapolis from small-town Iowa.  When I first moved to Minneapolis, I wrote out detailed direction to my house.  They worked for twelve years, until the Minnesota DOT tore up most of the highways that my mom was used to.  Due to poor signage, and the construction mess, mom ended up lost.  She called, and the first thing out of her mouth was, “I think I’m in Minneapolis, but I got lost.  How do I get to your house?”  “Where are you,” I asked.  That didn’t go over very well, since she was lost.  I tried to explain to her that I couldn’t tell her how to get here if I didn’t know where she was.  I guess she was too flustered to care about MY problem.  She finally found her way to a convenience store, and I talked to the manager.  When I found out where the store was, I knew what route to give.  My family got here, finally, in one piece, just a little the worse for wear.

This last story has been important in my teaching, and has made lots of sense to my students.  I usually don’t tell them that the “star” of the story is my mother (once in awhile, just for fun, though); but the story itself leaves an impression.  They get it!  Without considering their location on the keyboard, they can’t get proper bearings to get where they’re going.

By the way, mom… the highway construction is done.  It’s safe to come back!



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