I don’t like the sound of my hands.

It’s common knowledge that our voices sound different to others than they do to us. Have you ever recorded yourself, then listened and though, “No way! That’s me? Yuck.”

Or perhaps you liked your voice.  Either way, surely you noticed that it was different than the sounds bouncing around inside your own head for you to hear.

I believe that the science of acoustics accounts for some of this. All that mushy smartness between my ears and the various windy pathways for sound to travel and vibrate in my head contributes to the production of a sound very different in my perception than what others hear.

What baffles me

There is a phenomenon, though, that has baffled me for years, and within the past couple weeks I have been reminded of it twice.  It is never pleasant to be reminded of this.

When playing piano, I would think that everyone in the room is hearing the same thing, right? Brain mush and sinuses are not involved in the space between the strings and the ears, whether your ears or mine.  Keys are being played.  I hear them.  You hear them. Can’t we talk objectively about the sound?

Apparently not.  Apparently, it is possible for me to attempt to play something the way I want it to sound and think that I am accomplishing a certain result, but discover that what I heard in my head was indeed NOT what was actually happening.

For example, when I used to record myself playing through piano pieces, I would be shocked to find that I was cutting notes shorter than they were supposed to be. I hate when people do that!Yet there it was, objective evidence that I was not counting right. Such a rudimentary skill and I couldn’t even hear it in my head while I was playing.  Weird.  Since then I have taken it upon myself to help educate the world (via my couple of students) that one should never…ever…ever get lazy about holding notes for their full value.

During my first organ lesson a couple weeks ago, guess what happened. Upon completion of the simple and super-familiar hymn “Amazing Grace” my teacher reminded me to be sure to hold out the last note of that middle phrase.

Say what? Seriously, someone has rigged up a little tape recorder in my brain that plays one thing for me to hear while the rest of the world hears something else while I play. Erg.

Today was another reminder. I’ve been sitting in on some ballet classes to learn about playing piano for them.  I got a chance to play for one of their routines (exercises, numbers, steps??…I’m not sure what they call them yet). It was a simple waltz. Waltzes of course have three beats per measure.  ONE, two, three, ONE, two, three, ONE, two, three….etc. “One” is the strong beat. The big movements happen on beat one, so, naturally, it is especially important to reflect that emphasis in the music.

It didn’t take long to sense that it wasn’t all fitting together right. The instructor had to walk by the piano and count along with the music, visually and verbally demonstrating the extra emphasis on beat one.

Yup. Thanks.

A little embarrassing.

The reason I mention these is not to just blab about my mistakes.  I’m over it, really. What strikes me more is how intriguing the brain is.  There is something psychologically fascinating about this issue.  The pressure, the nervousness, the focus, the multitasking – they all create this sort of vortex that messes with reality. For those moments myreality and the listeners’ reality were totally different.

So what do I do?

Unlike the example of the voice*, learning to hear ourselves playing the piano is something achieveable. I think that part of maturing as a musician involves learning how to step out of yourself while you are playing your instrument.   There are some things that have helped me grow in this area.  (Yes, despite the above anecdotes, I have improved drastically in the past 5-8 years in particular.)
*There probably is more to the whole voice issue than what meets the ear, but I’ll leave that discussion to my hubby.
  1. Mental practice. If I can’t hear the music in my head without playing with my hands, there is no way I’m going to be able to hear anything other than whatever my hands end up deciding to play.  I developed a love for this technique while recovering from tendonitis. My inability to play at the keyboard necessitated my opening up a whole world of mental preparation that I have continued to find incredibly affective. Just today I was reading through a choral score on the bus.  My students are reminding me that this is harder than it seems, but it is so so worth it.
  2. Try to hear what they hear. This one is abstract. As I am practicing I try to teach my mind to listen as if it is somewhere else in the room, just observing what I’m doing.  Get out of your head, Naomi.  Try to hear what other people hear. It is a subtle difference, but very satisfying to achieve.
  3. Move. This one is big. Music isn’t just static black notes on a black lines on a white page. It’s not even just the keys on a piano.  It’s not even just the sound in the air.  In most cases, music is a force that moves. Most music that I play or hear in the world around me has a consistent beat pattern with a strong beat every two or three notes.  What does this make you want to do? Move. Something. Anything.  Even a lullaby promotes rocking.  Whether your muscles move or not, there is probably some sort of visceral response in you. When a CD skips and jumps ahead in the song, you notice because it feels weird. So, as a pianist, I try to think of that concept as I am creating music at the piano.  Walking to the beat, waving my arms  – you get the crazy picture, right – actually moving my body to the music helps me to retain the needed consistent structure. Inertia doesn’t lie as easily as our stressed out brains do.

Whether you are a pianist, a dancer, a music student, or my big brother getting ready to drive his motorcycle, I hope you have appreciated this little peek into the mind of a growing musician.

Our perspectives are our own, but we can learn to see – and hear – things the way that others do.

Musicians – what do you do to help bridge the gap between what you hear and what others hear?
Or am I the only one dealing with this? …


2 thoughts on “I don’t like the sound of my hands.

  1. This is very interesting, Naomi, and fun to read. I am trying National Poetry Month (which is April) this year and so am attempting to write a poem for each day in April (I’m a little behind, presently). I have been reading my completed poems aloud to one or more family member before posting them to FB, and often they will point out something that doesn’t sit right with them. I try to get at the root of their qualm and then modify either the concept or the wording of the concept to strengthen the poem. The outside perspective is so helpful.

    • Thanks, Christina. Good for you doing a poem a day. I like the idea of those task-a-day projects. So, when you hear yourself read the poem is it different than what you heard in your head? Now, as a musician, do you relate to my issue? I bet that people who perform frequently (eg. gig with their family :)) can bridge the gap more effectively than others.
      I look forward to checking out some of your poems. We would love for you to bring some poetry to Arts at the Aviary some night – I think the 29th would be the next opportunity.
      Happy poem-ing!


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