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The Dotted Note

By Michael Krugman, GCFP

Twenty-some years ago, at the very beginning of my career as a somatic educator, I was invited to give a lecture-demonstration on the Feldenkrais Method® before a group of a hundred or so pianists attending a two-day master class at a professional music school in New York City. “The Master”—he who would present the master class—was an eminent pianist, pedagogue and scholar already in the ninth decade of life, himself the son of one of the most highly regarded pianists of the twentieth century.

As the hour of my presentation approached I found myself getting a bit nervous, but I suppose it could have been worse. The Master was a towering figure in the world of music; he would have been a nearly impossible act to follow. Fortunately for me, I was to precede him on the podium. I was, as it were, the opening act.

It went well enough, I thought. My presentation met with a friendly reception followed by a heartening round of applause. Then, after a short intermission during which I shook a large number of extremely intelligent hands, I took a seat in the audience and The Master took the podium. By way of introducing himself—though of course everyone there already knew exactly who he was—he told the following story.

“As a little boy of five or six,” he began, “I had just begun my musical education. Somewhere, I don’t know whether I got it from a children’s book or heard about it in church, or somewhere else, I learned that there was someone called The Devil. The Devil, as I understood the matter, was the most evil person there was. At all times and in all places he worked unceasingly to bring suffering, discord, and disaster into the world.” This charming and very personal revelation drew titters from amongst the admiring crowd.

“Well,” The Master went on, “I found that very puzzling, very disturbing. Who was this person, this Devil, who, instead of trying to be good like the rest of us, did everything he could to be bad and to make others suffer? How could that be? What did it mean?” The Master paused, breathed in, slowly exhaled, swallowed ponderously, and breathed in again.

“Of course, my father was the person to ask,” he continued. “To me, at that tender age, he was the highest authority, not only on the subject of music, but on every subject imaginable. I went to his study and knocked on the door; he opened it and ushered me inside. He had been working on a musical manuscript of some kind; I could see the pages laid out on his desk, his fountain pen lying nearby. He helped me into a chair opposite the desk, then resumed his former place in that great leather chair of his, which to me was like the throne of a king.”

“’What is it, my boy?’ my father inquired. He appeared ready to hear my question, whatever it might be, with every fiber of his being.”

“’Papa,’ I asked, ‘who is this person called The Devil?’”

“At that, he was silent for a long moment, lowering his eyes as if deep in contemplation. Then he took a sheet of music paper from a drawer and wrote on it like so.”

The Master turned to the backboard behind him, picked up a stick of chalk, and quickly drew an oval-shaped, filled-in note-head with a vertical stem bearing three elegantly curved flags. Then, with a sharp gesture, he tapped the chalk on the board immediately to the right of the note-head—the loud crack riveted all eyes there—and circled it slowly, several times, to produce a clearly visible dot.

“Like so,” repeated The Master, “a dotted thirty-second note. He turned the paper around and pushed it across the desk for me to see.” The audience was hushed, as enrapt as if, instead of telling this story, he had begun to play the Moonlight Sonata.

“And he said, ‘The Devil is the one who tempts you to ignore this dot.’”

There was a moment’s pause, followed by gales of laughter. For this group of musicians, the meaning of the story was clear. A thirty-second note is a note held for precisely one thirty-second of a beat, a very brief interval; an accompanying dot indicates that the note, if it is to be played correctly, must be held half again as long, an additional one-sixty-fourth of a beat, for a total of three sixty-fourths of a beat—no more, no less. To the untrained ear, the difference between an undotted thirty-second note and a dotted one, between one thirty-second of a beat and three sixty-fourths, is barely perceptible, if at all. To the finely-tuned musical ear, however, it is the difference between Good and Evil, between true musicality and mere noise, rubbish, junk.

Music has long been regarded a portal to the sublime, and for the believer, to the sacred, to the Lord Almighty. In that context, the idea that The Devil would actively seek to muddle the execution of a dotted thirty-second note made perfect, though diabolically skewed, sense.

As a somatic educator, it made perfect sense to me, too. Fundamental to the teachings of Moshe Feldenkrais is a very important concept called reversibility. “Reversibility,” he said in The Potent Self, “is a feature of all correct action.” It means that once we have initiated an action, we have the ability to stop it, restart it, reverse it, or drop it all together, according to our needs. “The test of reversibility,” Feldenkrais asserts, “holds good for all human activity whether it is viewed from the physical or the emotional standpoint.”

But Feldenkrais ascribed a deeper meaning to reversibility, one that is often overlooked. In order to achieve reversibility at a behavioral level, in the realm of action, we must also have reversibility at a neural level, in the realm of the nervous system. Stripped to its basics, the nervous system operates on just two core principles. There is excitation, the activating principle that impels every action or process, and there is inhibition, the constraining, regulating principle that gives shape, coherence, and timing to those same actions and processes.

One can easily see these two principles at work in the involuntary, reflex-based action of the heart or the breath, both of which exhibit an active, excitatory phase (the systole, the inhalation), as well as a passive, inhibitory phase (the diastole, the exhalation). The same basic principle is at the core of all neural activity, from the firing of a single neuron to the highest-level functions of thought, action, and expression. The accuracy and effectiveness of all our actions, the degree to which they bring us success and satisfaction, depends on the ever-changing play of excitation and inhibition in the nervous system from one moment to the next.

To me, that dotted thirty-second note was, and remains, a great example of this concept of reversibility. To play a note on the piano requires coordinated activation of the entire frame—an excitatory process par excellence—culminating in a press of a finger on the key. But that action also requires an inhibitory component to ensure that, for example, the key is pressed only so hard, or that other keys are not unintentionally pressed at the same time. Once the key is pressed, it must be held for a very specific interval of time. The player must refrain from further action until precisely the intended interval has expired, no more, no less. That is an inhibitory process par excellence. And as you can imagine, the correct enactment of that interval—especially one so devilishly exact as three sixty-fourths of a beat—requires exquisitely refined command of one’s inhibitory and excitatory faculties. In a word, full reversibility.

Of course, there is much more to be said about musicianship and the brain, and the account I’ve given here is highly schematic. Even so, it is my hope that the next time the reader attends a concert, listens to a recording, or performs a composition, he or she will recognize not only the sound of the music, but also the unceasing ebb and flow of excitation and inhibition that make music—and life—possible.

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Michael is presenting Too Strange to be Believed: The Foundations of Reversibility at the Feldenkrais Method® Conference in the San Francisco Bay Area on September 1st, 2012. Find out more at:
http://www.feldenkrais.com/events/conference/2012_public/

Michael Krugman, MA founded the Sounder Sleep System in 1999, now taught by over 250 instructors in twelve countries. He teaches, lectures, and consults on sleep, alertness, relaxation, and industrial safety issues. He is the author of The Insomnia Solution and the “Rest Assured” insomnia self-help program available from http://www.soundersleep.com.

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