Elevation attunement and systems intelligence in the practicing process of the Piano Etude op. 8 no 12 by Alexander Scriabin

Katarina Nummi-Kuisma, Dr. of Music, Pianist, Researcher

Excerpt of article (in progress)P7100582.JPG


In my dissertation The attunement of a Pianist in Performance. Intersubjective, Systems and Psychoanalytical View on Playing a Virtuoso Etude (Pianistin vire. Intersubjektiivinen, systeeminen ja psykoanalyyttinen näkökulma virtuoosietydin soittamiseen. Sibelius Academy, Studia Musica 43, 2010) I have studied a professional pianist’s, Kristiina Junttu’s practicing process of the Etude in D# Minor opus 8 by Alexander Scriabin. It is an empirical case study on musicianship, virtuosity, creativity and systems intelligence (Hämäläinen & Saarinen 2004, 2007, 2008, 2010). The aim of the present paper is to present some of the key results of that study and discuss their relevance.

The research in question focused upon the pianist’s experience of playing as a bodily, essentially multisensory event, with the aim of finding ways to make the pianist’s implicit knowledge reflective-verbal (Stern 2004). This was done applying a special vitality interview method that had been developed in the context of mental training for artists, to be discussed shortly.

The focal point of the analysis was the psycho physiological attunement that was present in situations where the etude was played through without interruptions. This led to a focus upon what I call elevation attunement, a phenomenon on fundamental significance in the study of musical performance, I shall argue 

2. Elevation attunement

2.1 What, when and where?

The proposition I make here is that there exists a phenomenon in the playing of a piece of music that can be called elevation attunement. By this I refer to a pianist’s particular kind of body-mind condition when she is performing. In the light of my findings, this phenomenon is present when a total entity of a piece of music is played uninterruptedly. She is elevated in the sense of feeling heightened, raised and uplifted in her mode of being. Many qualities in the pianist’s state of body-mind point to the fact that she perceives herself to be above the everyday state of being. She cannot manage to play well if she is not strongly directed to the future. She is not in the here and now, but mentally leaning forward in time. Figuratively speaking she is glancing over the whole piece of music with her minds eye. She is oscillating over the barrier of explicit and implicit experiencing as being lifted above both sides, as if in an over-conscious way.

The pianist is attuned in the sense of feeling connected and oriented with respect to the piece of music as well as with respect to an implicit or explicit audience. The notion attunement has the quality of intentionality, of being directed and protruding in time and space. Stern (1985, 138–161) uses the word attunement to describe the infant’s and the caregiver’s non-verbal communication. He also parallels attunement to synchrony, the tuning of persons to the same wavelength and mutual timing (2004, 95). Phenomenologically oriented music education researcher Kirsten Fink-Jensen (2007, 57) writes about a child’s orientation towards music as attunement. She mentions the German word Befindlichkeit in the context of attunement, but does not refer to Heidegger, even if her notion of attunement has to do with a person’s intentionality, bodily experiencing and understanding and does become visible in the ways a person interacts with her environment.

Elevation attunement is an orientational mode that relates the pianist as a whole to the totality of the piece of music as a whole. In the empirical work with pianist Junttu elevation attunement was present when the Scriabin Etude was played continuously without interruption. I hypothesize that the relating to uninterrupted playing of a musical entity is necessary for elevation attunement. The phenomenon stands in sharp contrast to what happens typically in fragmentary practicing, where playing can be stopped for the benefit of the repetition of short excerpts. However, it is important to observe that elevation attunement can take place regardless of tempo, the level of mastering the musical and pianistic material and irrespective of how well the pianist has memorized the music.

The concept of elevation attunement reflects the perspective that in the context of music, as-yet-unknown totalities call out a particular kind of approach from the performer who enters them. Of particular relevance are such capabilities of the human endowment that allow the individual to relate to a whole beyond what she knows of the whole. Thus a study of elevation attunement leads us to focus upon those aspects of the human endowment that are evolutionarily old, implicit, non-verbal, intuitive and associative, as opposed to evolutionarily new, explicit, verbal, analytic, controlled and rule-based. 


2.2 How elevation attunement came about?

The pianist became aware of the elevation attunement because of two reasons. Firstly, in order to have data of the pianist’s playing we included an uninterrupted, videotaped run through of the Etude in every practicing session. It became clear – from the first research interview on – that she used her body-mind in a different manner when playing the run-throughs as opposed to her fragmentary practicing. In the interviews the desired performance situation was mapped out as a multisensory experience. This also reinforced the notion of the elevation attunement and brought it to the present moment of the interview situation and from there on further to the following practicing situation. It is noteworthy and carries huge pedagogical implications that this elevation attunement – present and essential in performance situations – was present from the beginning of the practicing process, given that the piece was played through without interruptions.

2.3 Challenging the problems of mapping out experts’ tacit knowledge

In previous scholarly literature, the prevailing view is that an explicit, verbal description of a virtuoso performance by the performer herself is not likely to illuminate the fundamentals of the performance. More generally, it is assumed that experts cannot verbalize what they are doing in virtuoso contexts, because much of their know-how is necessarily implicit, procedural or automatic, and thus cannot be recalled or captured verbally. Lehmann (1997, 157) states that fully automated units may be part of an expert’s mental representations of playing and these are hard to investigate, being no longer directly accessible to the experts. Researchers tend to believe that playing is processed by procedural and semantic memory (see Chaffin et al. 2002). Procedural memory is described as unreliable, because if an error occurs, the player’s whole system is disturbed and it is hard for her to get back on track. So it is proposed, that the only help is semantic memory: exact reflective verbal knowledge of harmony and form analysis (see Chaffin et al. 2002, 26–65). It is hard to fathom, though, that a pianist can rely on the reflective thinking in playing situations, the playing going faster than reflective thinking.

The vitality interview methodology (Nummi-Kuisma 2010) challenges these commonly held views. The aim in a vitality interview is to make the pianist verbalize her process of playing by creating a particular kind of intersubjective system (Stern 2004) in the context of which tacit elements of her playing are made explicit. Exact and detailed verbalization of pianist Junttu’s playing was possible in this research context. Why so?

2.3.1 Episodic memory

In their work on neuro-psychoanalysis Solms § Turnbull (2006 [2002], 97, 160–167) propose the concept of episodic memory, by which they refer to subjective, lived past. Remembering episodically is like extending the present remembering moment to the past and living the past event anew in the present situation (see Stern 2004, 206), providing that the memory is not generalized and that the person remembering is anchored to the present moment. In elevation attunement during vitality interviews remembering seems to happen episodically: reliving past sensations anew. So it can be presumed that detailed musical actions can be remembered and rendered reflective-verbal because they are not mainly or solely in the procedural memory.

2.3.2 Forms of vitality

According to Stern (2010) the essential quality of rendering a memory explicit is what he calls the vitality form of the memorized experience. By this he means the quality how the experience appears, remains and disappears, plus its intensity contour. This is the how aspect of experiencing. For instance Stern argues that thinking involves always movement. It has “a temporal contour” and “a perception of force ‘behind’ or ‘within’ the movement”. Movement also produces a sense of space and directionality: time is experienced as movement in space (ibid. 6). So “movement, time, force, space and intention/directionality [--] give rise to the experience of vitality” (ibid. 4). By focusing on the vitality form of experiencing the totality of a past moment can be captured more fully and easily. According to Stern, “dynamic forms of vitality are part of episodic memories” and for instance in psychotherapeutic contexts provide an “access to non-conscious experience” by offering a “special verbal way to evoke a past experience” (2010, 11).

This is what happens during a vitality interview situation. The pianist focuses on the sensory aspects of her experience of a selected, real past playing situation. She ponders on in what way exactly she heard, sensed and saw her playing and verbalizes her multisensory, dynamic and moving mental images of her playing. Through this mental work she can recall also other aspect of her playing experiences, including her attitudes, thoughts, intentions and emotions.

To endorse the forms of vitality it is particularly crucial to reach a point in the interview where the pianist starts speaking in present tense and in terms of motility: how she is doing something and what this feels, sounds or looks like. Talking about a sensation brings it to the present: the sensation starts to actualize in the speaker’s body-mind providing important cues for the interviewer through mechanisms of the mirror neuron system (Hari & Kujala 2009) facilitating further the interview. The interviewer takes part in a shared feeling voyage (Stern 2004, 172–175) with the pianist.

The vitality interview thus works in two ways that complement one another. Firstly, it brings the parties to the present moment (Stern 2004) through actualizing sensations in the living present of the interview situation. Recall that episodic memory can only work when a person is anchored in the present moment. Only then can the experience extend to the past allowing the memorized experience to be relived in the present moment. The present moment can appear in the interview context in the following manner: Researcher: “– What happens in you when you start hearing in the light way you are describing? Junttu: “ – The centre of gravity changes … and when the hands become lighter they become a lot more precise, too”. Here the question is already in the present, indicating that the conversation is well on the way. The pianist further explains the actual process in her body in the present situation.

Secondly, the vitality interview enhances the pianist’s process of experiencing by focusing on the vitality forms of the experience, that is the how-aspect of the experience. As mentioned before, this in turn allows the experience to be remembered and rendered reflective verbal more fully and powerfully. Again, put in the pianist’s words: Researcher: “– If it (the playing) would continue in an optimal way, how do you exactly manage that it will not break up…?” Junttu: “– It has to do with the idea of the music… that you are interested and have a lightness and trust and on the other hand some kind of playfulness…” The idea of continuing movement and managing this continuation launches in the pianist’s mind utterly relevant, more abstract elements of attitude: trust and playfulness. The interview excerpts here and to follow are direct translations of the interview situations in the dissertation research material.

The vitality interview is a tool to capture implicit knowledge. It has also made it possible to talk about music – the unspeakable – in a way that did not trivialize music. We could talk about experiencing music, how it was represented to the body-mind as a phenomenon happening in time, instead of describing an objectified image of music.

2.4 Important features of elevation attunement

2.4.1 Aesthetic process and non-repetitious elements

One of the very essential qualities in elevation attunement in pianist Junttu’s case is the experience of the played music as an aesthetic process, as opposed to an aesthetic object. The idea of a sonorous object implies, that it can be moved from one situation to another. Musicologist Eleanor Stubley (1995, 1998) brings out the fact that in research contexts musical performances are predominantly approached as final objects or products (1995, 279). She sees this kind of objectifying approach detrimental as it can lead for instance to repressing teaching strategies (1998, 100). Her approach is to see musical practice as activity, from the inside, and to treat the moment of playing as unique every time (1995, 278–279). Dancer and phenomenologist Maxine Sheets-Johnstone (1999) introduces the concept of kinetic bodily logos (ibid. 508) that precedes developmentally verbal cognition and later exist parallel to it as another means to cope with the environment for instance in situations where verbal reflection is too slow. Repetitive attitude rules out this vital kernel of also a musician’s tacit knowledge and possibility to lean on it in situations that demand fast, unpredicted action.

The idea of a repeated sonorous object also rules out the subject’s process (Kristeva 1984 [1974], 58, 63). By this I mean how the work of music has to be drawn through the pianist’s body-mind over and over again, thus changing the pianist-subject’s conception and experience of the music fundamentally every time. “– Otherwise it does not become meaningful”. This process is what renders the experience unique and literally touching. It means that the pianist places herself in an intersubjective system with the piece of music. In this system the pianist defines what features of the music are being heard, the music defining what aspects of the pianists musical personality can manifest through this specific piece of music, neither being in the place of an object. When this intersubjective system is in the present moment it can extend itself and take in the listener, enabling her body-mind to take part in the shared feeling voyage of the pianist and the piece of music. “– It (the piece) is never the same but always recognizable as itself”.

2.4.2 In the not-totally-known system

The pianist fathoms the totality of the piece of music but it is not completely known to her at the moment she enters into the process of performing. There is room for improvisational elements that involve the demands of the acoustics and the instrument – for a pianist the instrument is different in every concert hall –, the possible co-players and the audience. The constellation of mental images evoked by the music is sloppy or loose in a way that gives possibility for new routes to emerge toward the desired performance gestalt. The constellation of mental images is nevertheless strong enough to pull the pianist forward in time and to direct her toward itself. So the implicit mental energy of desire is pushing the pianist to the process and the constellation of mental images of the desired performance are pulling her forward launching her like an arrow through the space and time towards the resolution of the music.

2.4.3 Leap of faith

To enter in a system that has unknown possibilities demands a leap of faith from the part of the pianist. This means she has to let go of excess control of her body-mind. “– When you allow to be drawn by it (the playing), that you don’t want to be in control all the time, but you trust that all kinds of risk situations come up, but you have lived through them before, so why couldn’t you live them now in some way”. If she wants to play in a certain way too badly the rigid will destroys elevation attunement by ruling out the possibility of new routes to emerge. “– You let go of a certain element of will altogether…the will is easily a hindrance there. It doesn’t give possibility to everything… then the piece is created again…there, so you don’t repeat something you practiced. Because it is not about repeating what you practiced… practice is practice and playing is playing”. By a repetitive mode she would thus be pushed to performing of an aesthetic sonorous object. The leap of faith permits that “–…you begin to be present with your every cell” and “it (the playing) has to be in service of the totality…if you only try to be faithful to a certain way you lose the moment…the importance of the moment, that is the most unique thing anyway”. The leap of faith calls for a certain aspect of humility: you cannot expect a flawless performance, although it can very well be the case. But with the presence of mind and ability to lean to her implicit, kinetic ability the pianist is better equipped to cope with the unexpected. The most vulnerable is the totally premeditated automaticity of a performance: with the slightest disturbance the whole system collapses (Lehmann 1997,152).

2.4.4 Directionality

The pianist’s elevation attunement feels to be strongly directed forward. She speaks of “…playing and going somewhere and always having a direction”. This directedness is manifold. The experience is protruding in time, never allowing the pianist to stop and reflect the past. The sound is being directed toward the audience, everywhere in the concert space. When the feeling of directionality is lost the elevation attunement collapses and this causes motoric and memory problems, as the pianist feels like falling into the here and now. This happens when “…you don’t trust the current of music, and you awaken to the everyday reality” and the “…conception of time in music breaks down”. “– You cannot reflect what you are playing in the moment of playing, because you are then late beyond help”. [--]