Staying in synch: with others and with oneself
Schubert: Op 90/2 in E-flat Major
I played the Schubert along with him at the other piano. As a preliminary I asked him to choose what seemed like a doable tempo for him. His principal task was to stay with me, to disregard mistakes and any uncertainties about what notes were just coming over the horizon. I wanted him to stay in synch with me, in particular not fall behind me.*
Until this point in time N.B. would always come to a half in front of any uncertainty as to what to play next, and allowed himself an indefinite period of time to figure it out, and which point he would simply go on playing from the same spot in the score.
The first useful result in our attempting this was to highlight in his mind just how often he ‘exited’ the flow of the music, to allow himself to do his own thing of figuring out the next note(s).
Each time he would hear me moving on in the piece instead of resynchronizing with him, my playing on served as a magnet to draw him
out of his own present tense. Or perhaps it was just an annoying ‘interruption’ on my part reminding him to go on playing (one way or another).
It gradually instilled the idea that any time spent figuring things out had to occur ‘inside’ and not ‘outside’ the flow and pulse of the tempo. Those two ‘times’ had to coincide with each other, and be completed by the time the next note was due, cutting short any time spent on speculating about the future in the piece, for that future was no future, but now. It was like a merger of the present and the future.
The fact that he had been looking at music as something for which there was a ‘pause’ button, during which he could studiously “figure out” what came next, seemed to me to be in natural accord with the fact that he is a very good mathematician. For in math, the time it takes to figure something out has no dependence on, or relation with, the amount of time elapsing on a clock. In an equation, for instance, the relationship of equality between the two sides of the equal sign, is not now discovered for the first time, it has always been so, and forever will be so.**
In music, specifically under today’s “rules of engagement”, he had to try to stay with me “sans rumination”. Any figuring out of what he had to do next had to occur within, and not outside, the time-flow of the piece. The ‘figuring out time’ was now under the control of the time of the piece. There was no stepping out of that time flow, as with math, during which one could take as long as one wanted to get from one thing to the next. In contrast, with math, even taking an unlimited time to figure out the next step, without ever reaching the desired conclusion, can still be a time filled with much richness. Time made no demands on the student (except for “trivial” secondary considerations like turning in homework on time or taking a test). In math, time was excluded. Time had no pretense of being in charge of what was going on. In music, as Heraclitus*** said: you can not step in the same river twice.
During the time he spent in this new ensemble situation (with me at the other piano), B.N. gradually changed his way of handling time. He had begun to accept, a priori, that he no longer had recourse to stopping and thinking. Situations that normally brought on a pause in his play, he began to solved in real time. And if not, he was developing the ability to come back in with me a few notes later. The beginning of the process was simply to become more consciously aware of when he was hesitating. He then got rid of any emotional baggage that arose in the form of self deprecation because he needed to pause. What begins as a hesitation, can grow into a rumination, which with regard to the on-flowing of time of the piece represents a paralysis, although it is a safer emotional place than self-deprecation.
For whatever reason, when he got behind, he had to become aware of that fact on his own, and then had to learn the skill of jumping ahead suddenly to catch up. The latter involved what was a new skill for him: trying to keep an ever updating awareness of where the other pianist was in the score.****
During the course of the lesson, his ability constantly improved in terms of finding the place in the score at which he should be. Eventually he would come back inn synch with me after I had gone on without him for just several notes. This requires a sort of splitting of the brain: at the same moment one part knowing where the other person is, and the other part knowing where he himself was. This is followed by an understanding of the relation between these two as mapped as locations in the score. Then having to constantly update both of these locations, as more notes ensued, until the moment came when we were back in synch.*****
Time had been flowing for B.N. at whatever rate suited his consciousness independently of the rhythm and time demands of the piece. If he encountered a problem he automatically assumed he could go into a time flow within himself unrelated to the ‘metronome’ of the music he was playing. This private time span could be untethered at will from the flow of time implied by the music score. During this time he could ruminate slowly and carefully before reentering the flow of the piece.
Comparison with Painting:
Let us contrast this with another fine art, painting. While engaged in looking at a painting, we can choose, at any given time on the clock, to look specifically at one particular part of the painting. Any order of time with regard to space can only be suggested to us by the formal structure of the painting. We can choose to look at this part for as long or short a time-span as we want. Painting is, in that sense, a ‘spatial’ art: time has been locked up inside of it, as something immanent, or virtual, until someone starts viewing and experiencing it. Music, on the other hand, is a time-art (a ‘temporal’ art), in which the structure of the work is already a time-structure and not a locked into any spatial structure.
For the music performer, time and space can get easily mixed up in the mind. When we read a ‘score’, for instance to learn a new piece, this score is something spatial (with lines and dots and circles). Looking at the score leads some pianists to think more spatially than temporally about the music and thus miss the heart of the music (the particular and changing quality of an inwardly experienced duration). The human brain is accustomed to thinking spatially rather than temporally, in accord with with our common sense ability to survive in the the world. For those who are turned on by philosophy, I suggest reading any of the great works by French philosopher Henri Bergson (I am happy to provide a list, just ask).
* We made the tacit assumption that I was doing a good job in keeping a steady tempo.
**, though there may have been a time on the calendar of history when no one had yet thought of the relationship, and just as possibly a time in the future when everyone will have forgotten about it.
*** Heraclitus quote and summary information
Heraclitus (literally, the glory of the goddess Hera) lived circa 475 BC – 475 BC in Ephesus. A philosopher predating Socrates, his cryptic utterances earned him the epithet “The Obscure”. Only fragments of which have survived. Heraclitus believed the world is in accordance with Logos (literally, “word”), and is ultimately made of fire, suggesting a condition of continuous and radical change (“No man ever steps in the same river twice”, “everything flows”). He also believed in a unity of opposites; a harmony in the world. Change restores balance, only to bring on further imbalances.
Taken from Wikipedia with a couple of my own thoughts about him.
**** There was the less common case when he sped up and got ahead of me. He had to become aware of the fact, on his own, and calculate the best method of getting back in synch with me: perhaps leaving a note or two out?; perhaps slowing his tempo down until we gradually fell back in synch?; or ideally by being able to know exactly where I was in the score and jumping directly to that place.
*****It makes me think of what a marksman may be doing as they aim their rifle at a rapidly moving target, so that the bullet will reach the target at the point in space where the target willl be some moments in the future.
A series of recent lessons with the same beginner.
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.
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Beginners: Perception of the note on the music score
Different Perceptions of the same physical fact.
A student at a particular lesson fails to recognize a3 as the identify of the note on the top line of bass clef. However, I know he knows both where that is on the keyboard and what it looks like in bass clef.
I may tell a student several times in the course of a minute or two that that particular note in the score is on the top line of bass clef. The student is confused. It is indeed possible that in this particular case, in this particular edition of a score, they have that day an altered perception of the note: it does not “seem” to be on the top line of bass clef. With patience and closer examination I can probably, eventually convince the student to perceive the note differently. But it can be confusing, for both student and teacher. Why is it that no matter what the teacher does and says, the student’s original perception of the note as not being on the top line persists. The student is sure that the teacher is wrong in their claim it is on the top line. The teacher is vainly trying to figure out why the student sees it differently than they do. Is it a conceptual failure on the part of the student; optical, psychological. Is the teacher making a mistake, is there something obvious that the teacher is missing? Is it a sign of opposition and rebellion – the student is just trying to make the teacher frustrated.
The first step is to acknowledge that neither the student nor the teacher is doing anything incorrect. A perception is a perception. There is no arguing what a perhaps thinks they see. Perhaps the student’s perception will morph back into the other, more traditional perception, as when they next have occasion to look at the same note on the page.
The importance of gathering data.
When a student plays a wrong note, the first thing I ask is “what note do you think you are playing?”. Often the student gives the correct name of the note. If so, the problem is not misreading the note on the page but an inaccuracy in where the student has located their hands or a finger on the keyboard or, perhaps, a momentary forgetfulness as to the names of the keys by their relative position on the keyboard.
It is important, in such a case, to give the student “partial credit” for what they just played. “Let’s see what the half is due to. But for now, you are definitely half right.
“Let’s start by looking a little closer as to where your finger is located on the keyboard.” But then there is the possibility that the student read the note incorrectly and is playing the note they intended but misread it on the page. Can I distinguish one situation as against the other, unless I check in with the student and find out what was going on in their mind during the process of reading and playing that. It takes patience, for both people.
And then there is the further possibility that the student both misread the note and failed to put their finger on the note that corresponded to what they thought the note was. In this case, it is often possible that the result is that the two mistakes canceled each other out, with the result that the student plays the correct note, and the teacher may never know there was any problem at all. If these complex occurrences are not diagnosed the student may make similar “non” mistakes in the future.
We do not know what is going on in another person’s mind. We should analyze each situation to determine if possible which of several different causes could have given rise to a particular note error. We can also accumulate evidence as we get to know the student better until we have a list of most likely suspects till for this individual in this situation.
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Socratic Method with a beginner.
B.M.’s lesson on 6/19/21
We sight-read “Jungle Vines Growing” from Jon George’s “Day in the Jungle”. The first reading of any piece, for him, is intimidating. His self-critical forces come to the fore, rendering the experience of reading the piece into an ongoing feeling of uncertainty, confusion, stopping to avoid embarrassment, then bravely summoning up courage to continue on.
I helped him by becoming his study buddy rather than his teacher, dropping in comments and suggestions as we went along, without ever resorting to telling him the exact notes to play next. For example, in the very first measure, I didn’t tell him the first note was a C, only to remember G is on the bottom line of the bass clef.
I suggested he go through each note of the first line, pausing as long as he needed to figure out what the note was. Where necessary I provided clues or useful information, but never specifically naming a note for him. The effect was that his confidence level seemed to rise.
After completing this, I asked him in what ways were similar things happening in each of the four measures of the line. He said, the rhythm. Anything else? The hands take turns playing two notes each, first the left hand then the right. He seemed finished with the list. I said anything else?
i asked him to count the number of half steps between the first two notes of the first measure (c2, g2). He counted then and said “seven”. I said as an aside: if you don’t find today we’re going to use a different name for 7 half steps, we’ll say in its place the phrase “perfect fifth”*. Without explaining why I called it that, I asked him to arbitrarily say ‘perfect fifth’ if further on in the piece we found other pairs of two notes 7 half steps apart.
We went on to measure two. I asked him again to count the half steps between the first two notes (ef2 to b2). And then similarly for the first two notes of the other measures in the line. Each time after he counted he said: “ah, it’s a perfect fifth.” That gave him another thing to add to his list of
similarities between the opening measures.
In a minute, I said, we are going to play straight through the first four measures. First, though would you identify the name, and then play, the first note of each measure (the note played by the pinkie of the left hand), and skip the other notes. It took him a while but, over the course of a minute he had said: C, Eb, F, Ab. He then memorized it, by repeating the names a few times until it became automatic. This took only a small amount of time.
Then we looked at the intervals in the right hand, and discovered that they were also perfect fifths.
He intuited that the rhythmic values of the notes in each measure were designed so that by the end of the measure all four notes were sounding together..
Having seen all these patterns, I asked him to play through the first four measures by thinking his way through: to apply as we went, his memory of the various patterns he had discovered. Me: as you start each next measure you might say out loud for yourself the name of the first note in the measure, so as to relate it back to the single patter: C Eb F Ab.
The reward of the 7 or 8 minutes we had taken to go through all the above, was that had no trouble or uncertainty playing the first line. This, in contrast to his first visual impression of the piece: that of chaos and hopelessness. The line was now solidified in his body and his memory. He wouldn’t have to repeat this process again and again each time he practiced the piece.
We went on to line two, which he soon discovered was a repeat of line one, but played one octave higher. The realization came after playing through the first couple of measures , stopped, had a sudden epiphany as his fingers were playing the same notes as before. And said: I think this is the same as the first line.
I then alerted him to the ‘shortcut’ through these notes the composer was about to take in the first two measures of the next line (just the c-s and g-s without the other notes, thus skipping right away up to the next octave).
One last example. In the first couple of measures of the last line, the composer intones, one by one, all the C-Naturals on the piano from the lowest to the highest.
I asked him if he recognized any of the notes anywhere within the se measures. It didn’t matter, I said, if he skipped over certain notes; we only wanted him to mention the notes that were already identifiable by him. He
found c2; he found c4; and some moments later we found c3. I said: stop now, and tell me what the other notes of these two measures might be if god was in a particularly kind mood and wanted to follow a simple pattern. He guessed the truth, that it was just one C after another along the keyboard.
In this fashion I led him, Socratically, through the entire piece; I always let him discover things on his own, and not simply telling him what notes to play.
In this way he “thought / played” through the entire piece twice more during the time left to the lesson. There were few hesitations or uncertainties.
I asked him if this way of our working together was useful to him. Did he like it? He: Yes, but it takes too much of your time, and it adds a lot to the time I spent reading it through. I said: yes, but now you know the entire piece. You will not have to spend this amount of time again. You have understood your way through the piece. Think of all the practicing time in the future you’ve saved by having already a feeling of certainty about the piece.
He understood the benefits.
Earlier in the lesson we had talked about improvisation.
Me: I know that when you get frustrated with practicing you like to start playing randomly at the instrument looking for sounds and patterns that you like and sort of drifting off that way. Why don’t we welcome some of his random playing officially into the lesson. He: yes, but I get very self conscious in front of you because I do not know what notes to play next.
Don’t worry I said**. When most people first try to improvise, it is actually a sustained sense through time of not knowing what to do, especially what to do immediately next. Every once in a while you may stumble on something you like the sound of. If you can remember the gist of what you ust did at that moment, then this will inform all your subsequent improvisations, until you begin to know in general what things to do at the keyboard to produce sound groups and patterns that you like.
* it was too early to introduce enharmonically equivalent intervals that shared the same number of half steps. Talking about doubly augmented fourths and doubly diminished sixths would only unsettle the information he had already learned.
** I’ve spent a lot of time improvising for dance classes and aleatoric performances, as well as having done a lot of composing. When I was getting my masters degree, the trumpeter Bill Dixon*** and I would improvise a couple of hours a week. It was always a process of exploration; starting with hints, and experiments and adumbrations. He told me, if after an hour of improvisation we find one good thing of value, it has been a good session. I was pursuing at the time a classical music degree. One day after a classical concert, he came over to me and said: you seem to know how to do this classical stuff, why don’t you try something you don’t know how to do yet. That is how we started improvising.
*** From The New York Times:
Bill Dixon, the maverick trumpeter, composer, educator and major force in the jazz avant-garde movement of the 1960s, died on Wednesday at his home in North Bennington, Vt. He was 84.
In the early 1960s, when rock was swallowing popular culture and jazz clubs were taking few chances on the “new thing” as the developing avant-garde was then known Mr. Dixon, who was known for the deep and almost liquid texture of his sound, fought to raise the profile of free improvisation and put more control into musicians’ hands. In 1964 he organized “The October Revolution in Jazz,” four days of music and discussions at the Cellar Café on West 91st Street in Manhattan, with a cast including the pianist-composers Sun Ra and Cecil Taylor, among others. It was the first free-jazz festival and the model for present-day musician-run events including the Vision Festival. …