Monday, April 25, 2005

John Carroll "On learning a piece on the piano" - A historical note from Jack's daughter

As I mentioned in a prior post, I was fortunate to be the last scholar to visit and work with John "Jack" Carroll during the last few months of his retirement in Fairbanks, Alaska. At the time he was living with his daughter (Melissa "Mimi" Chapin) , her husband, and their son.

During this visit I had the serendipitous opportunity to video Jack playing the piano one evening. Unfortunately, as I mention below in an editorial note, it was my first clumsy attempt at using the video feature on my new camera. I only captured a few minutes of his performance, and the picture quality was poor. But, I did capture a precious piece of history for those interested in the history of prominent psychologists.

Below is a post I'm making on behalf of Jack's daughter regarding this piano performance and subsequent private notes ( "On learning a piece on the piano") she discovered while gonig through his boxes of private papers.

Note from Jack Carroll's daughter (Mimi Chapin)

I was pleased to see that your blog readers had asked for more anecdotes about my father, In connection with your visit to Fairbanks, they may be interested in the .mpg of my father playing the piano that you made while there. He listened to it later and commented that it wasn't his best performance. Nonetheless, for me that evening when he played for you was poignant.

During my childhood, my father used to sit down at the piano every evening and play for relaxation, and for joy, usually after a concentrated stint of work, before going to bed. I hadn't heard him do this for years. I think when he played for you it was his way of expressing some of the relief he felt that night that he had passed on what he could of his programs and methods.

Perhaps your blog readers would also be interested in reading some notes my father had made about learning an Etude by Scriabin which I found in his file cabinet labeled "biography". I am fairly sure that the piece he was playing in your excerpt was an Etude by Scriabin, though I haven't found the music to confirm this. Perhaps the piece to which he alludes in the notes is the same piece we have recorded!! Perhaps someone with a keener ear than mine can follow the steps he took to identify the piece.

[Editorial Note to readers from K. McGrew. By clicking here, blogsters can visit a web page where you can find and view (if you have a proper media player) the mpg file of J. Carroll playing this piano piece on 5-25-03, approximately one month prior to his passing away. Unfortunately, the video is of poor quality as it was the first time I had ever used the video function on a new camera. I only wish now that I had learned the video feature before I had this serendipitous opportunity to video Jack Carroll at the piano.

Can anyone confirm Mimi's belief, as stated above, that the piece he was playing was indeed Etude by Scriabin?]

The notes start with a quote from Arthur Jensen about the nature of musical memory. My father describes becoming fascinated with an Etude by Scriabin, identifying it and marvelling at its composition. Then he starts to analyze the process by which it is learned, breaking it down into number of key strikings per second.

At the convention I attended with my father, I remember Arthur Jensen's description of experiments on intelligence measuring the speed of striking of keys....I wonder where my father was going with these notes. What is particularly interesting to me is the way these notes reveal the essentially romantic cast of my father's mind, which he then set about to codify and analyze.

I'll include the entire text of these notes below and have sent you a .pdf file of the original (blogsters can click here to view/download these type-written pieces of history. )

12/21/73 – the first day of winter, 1973 - notes by John "Jack" Carroll

Jensen, A.R. Social class and verbal learning. In M. Deutsch, I. Katz and A. R. Jensen. Social class, race and psychological development. NY Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1968.

p. 121. , The pianist who has memorized a piece of music later finds he cannot recall the notes unless he sits at the piano and begins to play. His “memory” of the composition seems to lie more in his motor behavior than in any symbolic representation of the music; he can play the piece at the piano even though at his desk he would be quite unable to write out the score. And if he makes a mistake while playing, he cannot easily spot and start again at just any point. He usually has to go back to some “beginning” point in the music and continue from there.

On Learning a Piece on the Piano

It is called an Étude, and that word is to be taken literally in this case: a study, something to be studied. But it is not only that—it is something that, when faithfully studied, practiced and perfected, can become what it was intended to be—a work of art, that, unlike a painting can be realized only its performance.

A conjunction of circumstances nudged me into testing my pianistic competence against this formidable piece—composed in about his twenty-second year by Alexander Scriabin. Fashions in music came and go, but it happens that in the last several years the music of Scriabin has once more come into favor and popularity—at least among that small minority of people whose ears are best attuned to what is known as “classical” music. New recordings of Scriabin’ piano works are being played almost daily on the classical radio station that I like to listen to, and it was on one of those broadcasts that I heard a recording of the Étude in G sharp minor, Opus 8, No. 9.

I was listening only rather casually, that afternoon, to the usual mélange of selections—ranging from Bach to Stravinsky—that had been programmed to occupy the 55 minutes between news broadcasts. The announcer’s mention of the name of Scriabin alerted me, however, to the possibility that I might be about to hear a rendition of one of the pieces in the collection of Scriabin's Preludes and Etudes that I had must acquired by mail-order from a well-know reprint publishing house. From the announcement I was able to apprehend the fact that the piece about to be aired was an Etude, but I was not listening carefully enough to catch the opus number or the key. A few seconds into the piece, however, I could tell that it had be in G sharp Minor, and a rapid scanning of the table of contents of the collection, which I had ready at hand, allowed me to know that it could only be Opus 8, No. 9, for there is only one Scriabin Etude in that key. Turning rapidly to the page where the score began, I was then able to have the rare double experience of listening to a new piece of music while at the same time watching its printed representation unfold.

Perhaps it is trite to say the music “cast its spell” on me, but that is the only phrase that I can use to describe what was happening. Whether it was the artistry of the pianist, the eerie quality of the music itself, or the particular mood I myself happened to be in—I do not know: something caused the piece to make a strong impression on my mind, such that I was to hear it long after the music came to an end. I marveled at the haunting yet simple character of the main theme, the rich harmonies that accompanied it, the subtle modulations through which it coursed, the calm assurance of the second theme, the passion with which the return to the main theme was gradually approached, and the crashing sound of the final section—sounds which in the end gave way to a faint, almost whimpering, desperate flight of rapid octaves terminated by a somber, sustained minor chord played twice, slowly. Throughout, I was impressed with the technical skill, on the part of the pianist, that had to be invoked to perform the piece in any reasonable way at all. It was truly an Etude, in the best tradition of Chopin and all who have essayed this genre.

Even as an amateur pianist, or perhaps precisely because I am an amateur pianist, I am challenged when I learn of a piece of music that offers stubborn technical difficulties but at the same time promises a rich artistic reward to anyone who can overcome those difficulties. This Etude by Scriabin struck me immediately as falling in that category. I wanted to learn to perform it, as well as I could.

Perhaps it is not the most difficult piece for the piano ever composed (at this level, I don’t know how difficulty can really be gauged), but it is difficult enough. Containing 103 measures, its performance requires 3665 separate strikings of piano keys in a space of about 220 seconds (if it is to be played at the slower range of the metronome marking of a quarter note = 120-136 proposed by the composer, allowing for a somewhat slower speed in the middle section), or about 16-17 strikings per second. (The rate averages actually about 18-19 strokes per second in the first and last sections, but about 12 per second in the short, slower, middle section.) The 3665 separate strikings are not like completely random events (as they might be in some contemporary music); there is much pattern and redundancy in them. Many notes are duplicated at the octave, or even quadrupled at further octaves; phrases follow systematic patterns, and segments of them may be repeated with no variation in different parts of the piece, groups of notes played simultaneously usually constitute harmonies which are familiar to the musician.


Anonymous said...

Yes, indeed, the "Jack Carroll tune" is Etude Op.8 No.1 in G# minor by Alexander Scriabin.

In case anyone wants to view the score or hear more of it, it can be found at this site:

Anonymous said...

Etude Op. 8, No. 9 (Not No. 1) in G-sharp minor...