One night I was playing my part, listening to the part of another musician. All systems were running smoothly, and we were in sync. Then, suddenly, I had a sense that the other musician was pushing the time, just a hair.
My ears perk up: Oh, this is interesting.
I was sure of my sense that the problem was with him, not me. Why? Because I felt my sensation to be well, true. Then it occurred to me that maybe the problem is me. Why? Maybe my sensation could be misleading me.
So: Is he pushing the time or am I dragging it? The more I thought about this issue the more it became vexingly interesting.
It would be easy to tell you, with some confidence, that I can trust my sensations of musical time because I have experience playing this particular piece not a few, but thousands of times. I know how it’s “supposed” to feel and sound, and my perception of the piece’s tempo and flow is by now pretty acute. I could even back up my claim of knowing the time feel of the music with recourse to a sense of what my hands are doing on my instrument. “The feel in my hands doesn’t lie!” I might tell you. And there is something to that.
But all this just brings us deeper into the issue: How can we judge the musical time of others from the vantage point of our own imperfect sense of time? How can we have any objectivity at all–aren’t we essentially trapped within our own time perception? And how can we accurately make judgements about the time of others while all of us are inside the temporal flow of our making music together?
Having said this, it still feels like I was right–more on than off, not dragging but in the pocket. But who can know for sure?
I’ve had analogous experiences while running and wearing a GPS watch. I feel swift, yet the watch is telling me that I’m incrementally slowing down. I can’t perceive this slowing accurately because in my fatigued state my perception of pacing–the musical time that is one’s running tempo–has been altered. There are also days when I feel like I’m just hobbling along, yet my GPS–the runner’s metronome–tells me that I’m actually flying fast.
Whether playing music or running, in each case I mainly rely on my hands and my footwork to give me a sense of my time. But I also get feedback from that other musician whom I perceived to be dragging and the GPS watch that measures relentlessly (and tells me I’m dragging). This feedback comes up against my own sensibilities and awareness of what I’m doing as I’m doing it. In the end though, while musical time and running speed can certainly be measured, and while our own sense of our unfolding actions is certainly not perfect, sometimes we still just want to go by feel.