Vertigo and Bach

In the last couple of years I have been dealing with a kind of proprioceptive vertigo that seems connected to a dystonia that involves my spine. Every so often, I get out of bed in the morning and I find that the floor has shifted under me and is slanting about 45 degrees down to the right. Almost every time it catches me by surprise, and I fall into the wall next to my bed. It feels like a kind of unopposable force that pushes me in that direction, as though it really were gravity and not my brain’s illusion. It’s like walking around in a fun house, except that it really isn’t all that fun. I can sense in myself how all of the parts of me are shifted by my contact with the floor through my feet or on my sitting bones if I’m sitting, and I intellectually understand that my body is creating this shift and somehow telling my brain that there is an alternative reality.

This happens every 4-6 weeks on average, and it lasts for 4-10 days, so I’ve had some chance to study it. What I’ve noticed is that if I allow myself to start to function as if the floor is actually slanted and let myself lean into the wall or into the floor the way I already feel that pressure rather than trying to insist on what I know is right, things start to settle down, and I can sometimes find my way more easily. It doesn’t fix the problem, but it seems to create a compromise so that I can see things both ways: I know how things should be, so I can manage to get around, but I know how I have to be to relax into it in that context and even start to figure out how to find some ease.

The repeated experience is rather frustrating, but at the same time, like other challenges in life, it yields some new perspectives, seeing things in ways that we might never discover if we didn’t have to meet those challenges face to face.

This week, I found the new perspective emerge in Bach E Major Preludio, which is no surprise, because there is always more to find in Bach. If you listen to this recording, there is a non-melodic passage that starts after about 30 seconds that is famous among violinists for its unique pattern of fast, repeated, string crossings with the bow and the concurrent, but not rhythmically connected, timing of changing position in the left hand. If you listen to this passage, try to figure out where the real beat is, and then check yourself when the passage ends and see if you ended up in the right place or if you had to make some adjustment to get back on track. When it comes back at around 1:30, see it you can try to find the beat again…is it in the bass, the A pedal tone, or is it in the descending middle voice? Can you identify it?

As a violinist who has played and taught this many times, I intellectually know where the beat is, but once this passage gets going in a fast tempo, my sense of the pulse shifts and I am immediately lost in the middle of the illusion that Bach has created. To play it, it feels like the musical floor is slanted at 45 degrees and you somehow know you have to right yourself and find that beat again to step out of the passage at the end without faltering, even if you have been able to stay out of your own way long enough to keep the timing of the left hand and bow functioning throughout.

Over the years I have come up with many strategies for understanding, navigating myself through, and teaching this passage successfully. Most of these strategies have involved trying to find new ways to keep the real beat clear, by reducing the weight on certain strings, making small accents, singing it in my head loud enough to drown out the distraction of what’s happening. I’ve also worked to teach students different techniques for making the movement of the bow more fluid in the unusual pattern and then figuring out how to organize the timing of the left hand to reduce the complexity.

This week I had another student who came in with all of these usual issues. She has worked on organizing her bow arm, figuring out how and when to shift her left hand, etc., but each time she tried to speed it up and just let it go, confusion would set in, and all of the things she had worked on so thoughtfully and attentively would fall apart as the beat shifted under her. It’s even funny because I can always feel the shift even as someone else finally plays it in tempo, so I am again just as lost as any other time!

This time, though, I had that sudden clear recognition of sensation of the musical floor shifting under both of us as she was playing, and it brought to mind my repeated experience with the vertigo and what I had learned. I stopped her and asked her where was the clearest place she heard the beat shift to; like me, and I’d wager most of us, it had shifted to the bass note. So I asked her to shift the bar line and slowly play the pattern as though it started on that note. It’s a technique that is sometime useful in other patterns, but I never thought of it here, because I had always been so focused on helping clarify the “right” way, lining up the real beats with the timing of everything else. When she did this, it became an obviously easier and quite familiar string-crossing pattern that I had never recognized before (and I’m a pattern fanatic!). If you are a violinist, try it…maybe it’s always been obvious to you, but this was a revelation to me! Well, it suddenly was so familiar to both of us, that she was able to do it with remarkable ease, and she started to do it faster and faster with no difficulty. How ingenious of Bach to imbed something very familiar in such a disguised way.

But still, I thought, well, that helps the bow tremendously, but it doesn’t solve the shifting of the beat problem. So then I said what happens if you turn that pattern upside down and think about the left hand coordination. We quickly discovered that if we did that same easy pattern starting from the top string rather than the bottom, and changed the perspective, but stuck with what was still an easier grouping, that the left hand timing became simple, and it remained easy for the bow. I started to realize that even in listening to her, because I wasn’t struggling to find the beat, but instead to relax into the ease of the more familiar and less complicated pattern, that I could fairly easily shift my perspective and hear the pattern starting from both the bottom and the top. I asked her to do this back and forth, one time hearing it from the bottom, and the next hearing it from the top.

In reality, the difficulty is that the beat in this pattern is in the middle voice, and there is a strong pedal provided by the a repeated open string (which always sounds louder than the other strings), and a bass line that actually sounds, uncharacteristically, on the last 16th note of the group, just before the real beat, so that by the end of the passage, you either end up thinking there are too many or not enough notes. After doing these experiments in changing the perspective to the “elusivel(y) obvious” (as we discuss in Feldenkrais) easy way, I asked her to just play the passage through in tempo. It was no problem, and for both me as a listener who has spent years getting lost in this passage and struggling to find stability, and for my student newly experiencing the difficulty, there emerged this amazing ability to shift perspective not only into the imbedded illusions of the passage to find ease in the playing, but because the struggle was gone, the beat emerged with great clarity whenever it was needed. I put on this recording just to check myself today, and I find that I am, indeed, hearing it with a different brain!

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