A series of recent lessons with the same beginner.
September 8, 2021
Working with a beginner on coordination between the hands and some other things.
B.M.’ s lesson.
“Orchid Blooming” from “A Day In The Jungle” by Jon George (publisher Summy-Birchard Inc.).
The hands want to act together. Let them. “Fuse” the rhythms of the two hands.
Step one: Isolating “parameters”.
Change all the notes written for the right hand, so that end up being one and the same pitch, c5 for instance. Do the same thing to the left hand notes, so they all come out on the same pitch, c4 for example. The simplifications apply only to the pitches of the notes. Their rhythm remains the same as on the written page.
If we call ‘rhythm’ and ‘pitch’ as being two “parameters”* of the music, and if the normal condition in the music is that these two parameters are mixed together in many different ways, then what we have achieved in step one is to ‘separate the parameters’ so they no longer automatically work together. One of the two, in this case the pitches, have been held to the simplest and most unvarying thing one can do with pitches: repeat the same on over and over.
Thus, so far, rhythm and pitch, which are usually fused together on the page and in the music, have been separated. One is held in stasis, the other varies as usual. This enables us to do both together, but only have to concentrate our attention on one of them. In this case we ‘neutralized’ the pitches so as keep most of our attention on the rhythm.
We could have just as easily changed the rhythm into a ‘degenerate’ case (to borrow a term in math) by maximally simplifying the rhythm, until it is a series of notes of all the same duration and thereby be able to focus most of our attention on how the pitches change.
Step two: create a “fused rhythm” on an unvarying pitch.
We make a list of all the spots rhythmically in the flow of time of the piece where a new note starts, regardless of in which voice or hand. It doesn’t matter if a new note happens in the right hand or the left hand, or in both simultaneously.
On our varying pitch (or pitches if using both hands at once) we create the rhythm that occurs from the superimposition of one hand’s rhythm on the other. We play our note, always in the right hand, or if we choose only in the left hand, or possibly in both hands once, whenever according to the score a new note begins in either hand.
A note written as a whole note, for example, may be suddenly eclipsed by a new note in the fused rhythm, a note originally written in the score for the other hand. Wherever a new note occurs, in either of the hands, it is added directly into the ‘fused’ rhythm. Whenever it is put in, it automatically terminates any previous note being held.
Let us go into some detail to better show how this works.
In this passage from “Orchid Blooming”, the right hand had the following rhythm as originally written in the score:
| half, quarter, quarter | whole |.
(The ‘|’ sign shows where a measure begins and ends).
The left hand had this written rhythm:
| quarter quarter quarter quarter | quarter quarter quarter quarter |.
The ‘combined’ rhythm of the both hands is represented in the middle of the following three lines. Which of these notes originates from the right hand of the score is indicated on the top of the three lines, and which notes originate from the left hand in the score are indicated on the bottom of the three lines.
| R R R | R |
| quarter quarter quarter quarter | quarter quarter quarter quarter |
| L L L L | L L L L |
This is the ‘fused’ or ‘superimposed’ rhythm of both hands’ rhythms. It can be clapped, drummed, or played on the piano with one hand or both hands.
Next we want the student to return to the originally written version of the score. It means separating back out the fused rhythm into two strands. If that is not easy to do, one can insert this in between step. It may help smooth out any bumps in the transition from one to the other:
Still play only c5 for any and all all right hand notes – in the first step, but allow the left hand to vary its pitches in accordance with the score. I’m guessing that for most students it will be easier to cope first with the left hand’s regular rhythm and the not too arcane pattern of pitches.
Either reverse the situation or go directly to all the notes, in both hands, written in the score.
If it is still difficult for the student to play it in its original form, then we need to use the principle stated by Descartes: we can always add in another step between two steps that are currently the closest to each other. In fact we can put in as many mid points as needed between any two other points that still seem too far apart for the student to make the transition.
In step 3A above, we inserted just one extra step to smooth the way. If that is not enough, then it is incumbent on our creativity as teachers to find even more mid points, and thereby close the gaps between what we had thought were points that were as close as possible to each other. This is where the metal of the teacher can really shine. What is the one missing piece? How to define it? Where exactly to position it: closer to the starting point or closer to the ending part. What variables or parameters are there left that can be altered? Would using two percussion instruments help? Would it help for the two hands to be different from each other but in less varied ways, for instance, let one hand have steady quarter notes while the other has steady half notes. Etc.. Etc..
We’ve done several things here. We invented two “variables”: pitch and rhythm. Then we allowed one to still vary but but not the other which was held constant. In particular kept the rhythm as it was, but held the pitches constant.*
The second thing was to “fuse” the rhythms of two hands. Though simplified pitch-wise the rhythms retain their differences.
In “Orchid Blooming” we ‘fuse’ the rhythms in the separate hands into just one rhythm, initially played entirely on one note (say middle C). It ended up being four quarter notes in a row, irrespective of whether the left hand or right hand was asked by the composer to play on a given beat.
If the second step did not serve to make the original version any easier for the student to play, then one can begin to interpolate even more points of subdivisions until the change from one point to another represents the minimum possible increase in complexity and difficulty.
* if you are in college math, think of “partial derivatives”
Additional thing to try:
Narrate out loud a ‘guided tour’ of the first measures. “I’m going to start on beat one playing a C in both hands”. Then proceed to do the deed at the keyboard. “Then on beat two, i’m going to replay the C in the left hand, but continue to hold the C in the right hand. After you have said that then again play what you jsut described. It is best as you go from one “point of interest” to the next, your hands hold on to the notes from the previous spot, so that when you do play this next spot, it will have been connected legato from the previous spot.
In this manner, give a guided lecture through the first couple of measures of the piece. Notice that the thinking of what to say, and then the saying it out loud, will take a good deal longer than if you simply played without being interrupted by the dialogue. This disparity of in time is part of what makes this method so effective for certain students.
Focus and awareness.
Some students annotate their pages of music, writing in markers and signs that mean things like “I always forget something important at this point”, “this is the moment to think about moving the right hand”. Or in our case today at the lesson: “it is right here that I should first fuse the rhythms of the two hands together, and once their union is in my mind, then farm back out* the component tasks to each hand”.
* Joe: if we fuse two rhythms together, low and behold, we simply get
another rhythm. BM: that’s crazy!
His version of hell: boring lessons in school class room. A class of 45 minutes seems to last for several hours (but piano lessons don’t seem long).
Try to keep the subject on the music you are playing and not how you are doing playing it.
I can understand that frustration with yourself can become chronic and disabling. Not just to part of your self, but with your self as a whole. So, never let frustration grow for too long. Find a way of interrupting it.
For instance, if you feel yourself being frustrated, then automatically stop what you are doing at the piano, and for a while do something else with your mind and body. A nice compromise: ten seconds of sitting and doing absolutely nothing. No thoughts; no playing.
Focus and awareness.
If you succeed in being focused on one thing as it occurs, what happens when you try to focus on the next thing. BM: I can’t focus on the next thing.
Me: So a renewal of focusing doesn’t mean something like holding your breath for several minutes under water in the sense that once you start concentrating you have to continue doing so unabated (until you run out of “breath”).
Focusing requires repeating in a cycle these steps in time.
1) to be able to summon up the focus in the first place, no matter what you’ve been doing up until then.
2) after a bit of focusing, during which time it does not alter in intensity, be able to let go gently of that focus. This is to clear your mind, and basically set things back to where you were before step one.
3) focus again as in step one: on the next thing requiring focus, or on the same thing which hasn’t yet been figured out.
This cycle is repeated as many time as sustains you through the passage on which you are concentrating. It is not one indefinitely sustained, long single step. Each of the fundamental two steps is important. Step two, the letting go of the focus, is more important than you may consider, because the ‘tension’ of mental focusing cannot be sustained indefinitely, it must go back into a rest state, a “neutral” state. And this must be followed by the ability to go from the relaxed state, the state without focusing, back to full attention. And we want this transition to occur in an ever briefer amount of
It’s like a strobe light, one that is timed to illuminate an evolving form at just the right moments when we notice that some change has happened internally to the form.