Category: Complete Lesson
Further Italian Concerto Progress!
A.B. was here for his lesson yesterday. We were working on the third movement of the Bach Italian Concerto. We brought to the next level his ability of bringing things under the control of the ears.
I was reminded of medieval philosophers when they talk about god’s abilities: that god merely needs to think something and it becomes actual in the real world. So in piano performance the true controller over how a passage sounds is not based on intentional or controlled physical motions, but simply the ‘ear of god’ (actually the ear of the pianist) noticing how things are sounding – which, miraculously, transforms what is heard from potential to actual.
The more I was able to get A.B. to focus on his ear, the more contented he was to practice just a small chunk of the music and not, as is his wont, to continue on and on regardless of what happens in the passage. We should first ‘frame’ the chunk of the music being undertaken. That you will find that the smaller the chunk size, plus, the slower the tempo, the more the ear naturally takes over for the body.
Some other things that I said during the lesson to keep A.B. focused on what he heard rather than what he felt:
1) the notes never escape the reach of your ear.
2) wherever your hand goes, the ear follows.
3) the physical action of making a note often occludes the ear’s ability to hear the same note. This is an important reason why is it not such an easy matter to “just listen”.
Some of our work had to do with specific spots in specific measures:
In measure 2: the last two quarter notes plus the first notes of the next measure (in the left hand).
The principle here is, in order to get clear and crisp parallel sixths, don’t be content thinking of the three written sixths as being the “complete story”. I extended the passage by having him play a scale an entire ascending octave of parallel sixths using the notes of the F Major scale. “This is the ‘larger’, the more complete ‘whole, of which we have but a limited section being quoted. Once you conceive the part as representing the whole, then no matter how few sixths you play they will come alive. The listener will have a sense of where the sixths came from before the first one to be played (c3-a3) and where they are going to go if allowed to continue beyond the a2-f3. It is the “gestalt”, this organized whole, one that is greater than its parts, that should be the object of our perception, and be that which our hand wants to “embrace” when playing.
In measure 3: a2-f3 then f2, in the left hand.
Even though the thumb releases the f3 before the f2 is played, let the thumb nonetheless act to balance the pinkie.
Also in measure 3: the fifth eighth note in the left hand – bf2. No matter how he tried physical to control and balance the sound of the bf2 from the surrounding notes of the F major scale, he could never get it to sound how he wanted … until, that is, he recognized that the b-flat, though far removed from the right hand, functioned as the 7th of a third inversion C dominant-7 chord (bf2–e5-g5-c6). This allowed the bf2 to find its destiny as enabling a brief assertion of a dominant chord, in an unstable inversion , in the midst of an ascending F major scale.
Relating this to today’s major theme, if not by engaging with the ear, no matter how you to try to play something, it will always sound wrong. Which leaves the pianist to try one after another physical experimentation, all the time completely missing the sound-reason for the note.
In measure 5: the notes on beat one and the following eighth note. A.B. was having difficulty separating the two voices in the right hand. I made a suggestion that, agreeably, seemed to have nothing to do with the issue at hand. Listen, I said, to the f4 in the left hand and hear it meld into the f5 an octave higher (in the right hand’s lower voice). Sometimes we have to think ‘across the grain’ and find the solution to something in a different geometrical dimension than the one in which we first located the issue that required our attention.
Measures 30 and 31: the left hand
“Throw” the left thumb rightwards as if it would separate itself from the rest of the hand. Do this with more energy and momentum than would seem to be warranted by the physical distance the thumb has to travel away from the other fingers of the hand.
The principle here, is analogous in a way to the “gestalt” thing we mentioned concerning measure 3, when we spoke of completing the implied whole, not being content with only the notes that literally sound or are literally there. In these measures the distance the thumb has to travel is expresses a larger distance (subjectively) than the pitches of the notes seem to indicate (objectively along the keyboard). We sometimes have to ‘overreach’ in order to ‘reach’.
Special moments at a lesson
Special moments during a lesson. “Artistic Time” and “Everyday Time”
Rachael is taking a lesson.
I have come to realize that the times when I am most useful to the student is while they are in the midst of playing; not after they have come to a pause. Once the student has stepped back out of the river of time that flows when sounding the piece, it will be too late for her to take my feedback and transplant back into the living flow of sounds she created, where it will do the most good.
The time to strike is in medias res – in the midst of things. The student is then in what I call the “artistic time the flow of ” and not in the flow of what, in contrast, I call “everyday time”. When the stops playing, or a few moments later (although it can be much longer) she simply switches realities, and is back in the everyday. The transition is so automatic that usually the person does not know it is happening: “oh, there is piano again in front of me; there’s Joe again sitting by my side; there’s that awful looking chair he’s sitting in …”. But most of all — there’s “me” again, someone sitting on a piano bench: for if we are immersed in the artistic flow of time we may easily forget where we are, who we are, or even that we are. While playing all that seems to exist is the sound of the music.
During the artistic time the student is in an altered state. If there were a special “artistic-time-clock” available, she would notice it was set to zero when she starts playing, and then continues to marks off time during the duration of her playing. It stops a moment or a longer after she stops playing. At that point she looks at the real clock on the wall, and gets re-synchronized with the time flow of the real world: Oh, it’s 1:30, time for lunch.
The relation of these two times, “artistic” and “everyday”, is expressed by the poet Edna St. Vincent Millay at the beginning of the “On Hearing a Symphony of Beethoven”:
“Sweet sounds, oh, beautiful music, do not cease!
Reject me not into the world again.
With you alone is excellence and peace, … ”
Art (and I might say nature too) has the ability of putting the person into the flow of artistic time, who then may stay in it for a period of minutes, hours, or longer.
If I can join her in the artistic time, what I do or say has a good chance of being absorbed into the fabric of that artistic time, and of staying in that time whenever she plays.
Related to this, there are also brief moments during a lesson, when the teacher can speak directly into the innermost recesses of the student psyche. Moments like these do not occur at every lesson. I can best describe it as something that arises as an unforeseen crack in the fabric of time. A moment later and that opening usually seals over.
The teacher has to alert to when and if such an opening occurs. Something is said or done inside the lesson, that unexpectedly causes the student to let down all the shields and defenses, leaving them open for a moment to new ideas. At such a moment the teacher can carefully and compassionately say something that the teacher has, for some time past, been careful not to say to the student: things that hover near where the student’s personality and musicality intersect.
To take advantage of such a moment, the teacher has to be fine-tuned to the student during the lesson, and remain so as continuously as possible.