A voice from under the piano

by his nephew Jonathan D. Lettvin jdl@alum.mit.edu

Recollections of my uncle Teddy's playing and practice:
The wikipedia entry for my uncle is at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Theodore_Lettvin

The official page describing my uncle's professional life is at IPAM

This page contains my very unprofessional ideas concerning how he achieved his distinctive sound, and my personal recollections of him.

Although a novice, or even intermediate piano student will not understand everything I say, I hope something of the character of my descriptions will help them listen to their own playing and learn to love what they hear. After all, one loves a child who is only beginning to learn words, or one who has not yet learned Shakespeare.

Sometimes you hear someone speaking and your emotions are aroused. What has this speaker done that touched you? Was it art? Was it technique? Did they mean to touch you? When you read the text of their speech did the text touch you the same way?

The piano was my uncle's voice. He took the text of composers, learned the words, learned the ideas, learned the philosophy, learned the society of the composer's time, learned the text of his contemporaries, learned the text of his predecessors and followers. Then he taught himself how he could say those words and mean them with every ounce of his ability.

Practice
What does it mean to practice? Is it playing the notes over and over again, smoothing out the tempo and making the loudness transitions accurate to the score? For a beginner, this is what practice is, and should be. You may play a piece dozens of times until you are satisfied.

An intermediate player begins to see that there is more. Should there be pedal use in this phrase or that phrase? Perhaps the tempo can be advanced or retarded to sound a bit better.

For my uncle, practice was something else altogether. From my position under the piano, I would hear him repeat the same phrase hundreds or thousands of times. The notes themselves were not in question. The tempo was not in question. The loudness was not in question. So why would he play it a thousand times?

Each repeat was different. Often he would play a single voice over and over again until the voice could stand utterly on its own. You and I would take a single sentence of three words and, by changing the emphasis, change its meaning by repeating the three words over and over again.

Not only that, we could change our intentions while saying them, and someone listening to a tape recording of these repetitions will be very successful at grasping our intentions. But all we did was say the same three words. There are limited ways to change loudness. How can this be? You instinctively know that this works.

My uncle would do exactly this kind of practice. Take each voice, play the notes, get the tempo and emphasis right, then do variations on every aspect of that voice. Make it strong or weak, make it silly or serious, make it righteous or wicked. In other words, play it as if he were a thousand different people with a thousand different motives. To my uncle, playing the piano was no different than speaking. He spoke to all of us through the piano.

And then he would do a remarkable thing. He put the voices in the same room together and allowed them to interact, not as elements of a chord, but as voices talking with each other. Sometimes it was an argument, sometimes it was loving, sometimes it was technical. But always, each voice was distinct. Perhaps one voice was righteous, another conciliatory, and a third perfunctory; all in the same piece, and all at the same time.

When you listen to these recordings, listen very carefully. You will hear that the voices do not fuse together as chords but rather you will hear them "picked apart" by subtle changes in the starts and ends of notes, by subtle changes in loudness between notes, by subtle changes so beyond me that I cannot define them for you. After all, I do not play the piano. I only listen.

Oh, and one more thing. He almost never used the pedals. Pedals would blend the voices back together. And what good would that be after all the hard work to pick them out and give them independence? Voices are supposed to engage in a conversation, not assault you like a team of didacts.

No, wait, one more thing. From early morning to late evening my uncle practiced. Sure he would do other things. He ran a farm in New Hampshire with his wonderful wife Joan. He did many things. But if you have a notion to be good at the piano you must practice piano just as you practiced speaking as a child. Do you keep a dictionary in the bathroom? If not, why not. What new word did you learn today? Did you actually use that word when talking to someone? Do you know who first uttered that word, and why? Do you know its various meanings? Can you misuse it in amusing ways?

Shakespeare knew how to put awful words and ideas into a loving context. Read sonnet 130, and see how ugliness is turned pretty. It is not the words themselves, or the phrases, it is what is left behind in your awareness when they have been read or spoken. An amateur Shakespearean will get the words right. A professional will leave iambic pentameter behind and make you see a beautiful woman through his own eyes.

Okay, this really is the last thing before the breakdown. My uncle never, NEVER, played casually as if he didn't mean it. He put himself as totally into practicing as he did for a concert. He gave everyone his best effort every time with no exception. Children in schools got his best efforts, as did paying customers to concerts.

This is how you learn the piano from my uncle.

Voices
When a piece is played, a skilled listener can pick out "voices" or sequences of notes or subchords that can be played by themselves and sound like a single thought. Voices are not necessarily hands, although there are many pieces of music where the left hand plays one voice and the right hand plays another.

But there are composers who put many voices into their work. Bach often put 5 or 6 voices into his "Fugues". Next time you listen to Bach's Preludes and Fugues, listen for them.

So, one hand can actually be playing notes for several voices at a time. That's something I can identify, but it is beyond my ability to analyze.

Pedal
Don't use pedals unless the score tells you to. Let me repeat that. Don't use pedals. They may make the sound all smooth, but is that what you really really want? Listen to these pieces of music and think about it.
Fingers
The way my uncle held his hands and used his fingers was peculiar. It went against almost everything I ever heard from my piano teacher. Yes, when I was 11, I had a brief stint of learning of about 8 months, during which, I am told, my parents and everyone else shook their heads. I would never be a pianist.

My uncles hands were poised above the keys in an almost predatory manner. His fingers would come down from above like hammers. He perfected a technique of coming down on a key with enormous power that would be withdrawn at the last instant; producing a note so soft that it could be drowned out by a pin dropping. You'd have to hold your breath to hear passages played this way. Watching his hands, you would never guess a sound so soft was being played.

Pianos
Every piano is different. There are some pianos that a professional will not touch. I hear of a piano in New York called "Steinway No. 88" that no professional will play. Many have tried, and come away sobered by the experience. Perhaps I am wrong about its name or the details of the story. I am just a happy listener with a poor memory.

As you develop your skills, try different pianos. See if a different piano is more to your taste. And remember, although the brand name has something to do with the sound, each piano has its very own distinctive voice, just like each of your friends do. As soon as you hear that voice on the telephone, you know it's your friend. It's not the room, or the rug, or other detritus; it's the piano.

Piano Mechanicals
A high quality grand piano is a remarkable piece of engineering. You might think that the keys are attached to the hammers that hit the strings. They are not. They fly all by themselves to the strings after being hit by a loose intermediate hammer. But even this is not entirely accurate. I have been told that the hammers that strike the strings have loose mountings so that different ways of fingers striking the keys causes the hammers to hit different positions on the strings. This changes the higher harmonics of the note. So, pressing evenly on a key yields a different sound than pressing unevenly with the same total amount of strength and speed. I am no pianist, and take this statement on faith. But even if the technical description is not true, it may still be true that the piano makes different sounds when you press the keys with uneven strength. That is for the professional pianist to discover; not me.

I accompanied my uncle to a student's house one time. He sat at her piano and played in his usual manner for a minute or so. From that point on the entire lesson of many hours comprised dismantling the keyboard of a very expensive piano and improving it. He had a tuning fork, wrench, and a peculiar forked instrument in his pocket too. He used this fork to poke holes in the felt of every hammer. He made a few adjustments to the mechanisms for the keys. He made some small adjustments to the tuning. He hardly spoke a word. We all watched in disbelief and awe afterwards when he played the same piece as at the beginning of the lesson. It sounded utterly different.

Students
His students were always well beyond the mechanics of playing. They were, and continue to be, astounding players in their own right. They came to him not for piano teaching as you might know it; fingering technique, hand position, attack, and the like. They came to him for that almost unimaginable clarity that he had, to learn how to "speak" themselves.

Listen to these pieces, and then go listen to others playing the same piece. There are so many good pianists out there. I may be prejudiced, but I always want to come back to my uncle's playing.

Teaching
It's hard to describe his teaching. I don't think I ever heard him criticize a student. It was more like a gentle coaxing of their inner voice. No two students played alike. Many came in to his classes, already strong and professional. But then, my uncle brought out their inner voice. It was kind of like saying "It's okay, you can talk to me. I'll listen."
Brahm's Lullaby
I was under the piano, as usual. My uncle was teaching a master class. His children were in the other room being rowdy. He had his truly excellent students taking turns playing the Lullaby. Each one was so good that I would have liked to have a recording. And the kids kept at whatever they were doing.

After the students had all had their turn my uncle sat down and played it. From under the piano, I began to feel different. This was not piano playing; it was a calming voice in my ear. By the end of the piece, his kids were asleep in the other room. I was there. It happened.

That's what you get when you practice the phrase you already know, not to get the notes right, not to get the tempo right, not to get the emphasis right, not to get this or that right; but to speak what you truly feel using the piano as your voice.

As his students used to say to him in class "make love to us Teddy".

Salami
There must always be a salami on the table with a knife sticking out of it.

I am unsure of how piano playing is affected, but, hey, if it worked for my uncle, maybe it will work for you.

Actually, I halfway believe this. Something in the room in which you practice should be a love object that will give you that extra little something. Play your music to the salami to seduce it.

There is so much more to say. Perhaps I will get back to this another time.

My aunt Joan corrects me:

Only a minor disagreement. Your Uncle Ted definitely used the pedal, but always carefully. One of his favorites was the middle pedal. This pedal would be able to hold a single voice while the others faded away. He particularly loved to use it with Schubert and Beethoven. When he was feeling particularly friendly and like sharing a special secret, he'd explain to a student or colleague the special properties of the middle pedal and its bewitching effect(s). His greatest pleasure was in demonstrating a phrase or sound with or without this pedal in operation. It was a revelation.

Where fingers are concerned, he loved to do the 'forbidden': playing with straight fingers, flatly pressed onto the keys. He would get special sounds this way. I seem to remember that he caught Horowitz doing this, liked the sound, and from then on, he would use this posture for mysterious special effects.

The amazing thing about his teaching is that he rarely taught the same piece the same way to any student. He used the attributes and strengths of each student to bring out a unique sound for that person in that place at that time, on that day. One of his students at The New England Conservatory made it a point to come to his studio at 7:00 a.m. one morning and stay until after 10:30 p.m. that evening. He told me that he never saw or heard the same thing twice as he taught a different student each hour, and had a master class that evening. The only Lettvin 'method' was no method. Just as when he performed and practiced, it was not played the same way twice.