Category: Complete Lesson
Young Beginners” “Going for a ride” on the Teacher’s Hands
L.I’s lesson on 9/7/19. She began lessons when she was three and is now nine, going on ten. Chopin Waltz in C# Minor
In several ways, at several different places in the opening few measures she couldn’t get the rhythm correctly or the tempo. There were just too many issues, in very close order, to go over them separately and then link them together into one flow.
Joe: “I know that you are nine now, going on ten, but let’s do what we did when you were three: let’s have you ‘go for a ride’ on my hands.”
In this procedure L. would passively rest the palm of her then, very small hands, on top of my hand, as I played. The motions I made in my arms and hands were transmitted directly to her hands, and therefore her muscle memory. If she kept her hands alert and attentive, without any resistance to what I was doing, even the subtlest motions on my part become conscious kinesthetically to the student. In particular, rhythms and physical coordination between the hands. And it is transmitted as a continuous, and whole experience, rather than in disjointed surges of details. This procedure is useful to the young pianist, who hasn’t had time to develop a critical, analytical style.
Usually I exaggerate certain features of my playing so that they make a clearer kinesthetic impression on the student. For instance, where L. had suddenly doubled the tempo in parts of measures one and two, I made a ritard-like motion in my hand as would a conductor (in leading a large group of players) so as to ritard simultaneously in synch with the others. The same for when she had been too slow in measure 3 and 4. I dramatized slowing my motions so the notes began on time.
In general, the steadiness of the tempo soaked into her hand and through her hands into her entire playing mechanism. The same with regard to the specifics of the more complicated rhythms.
The second phase was like phase one, but she became more of a “teacher” trying to impress upon me, the student, physical dynamics of the mechanical playing the piece. Her role, on top of my hands, went from passive to active. J: “Show me” the rhythm, make it very clear; press down on my hands to make me make the sounds.
We switched positions. I “played” upon her hand as her hands made the sounds.
As a general habit in my teaching, I take a procedure like this, as well as many teaching procedures, and break them down into different shades, angles, stages, situations and perspectives. It is the attempt to form a gestalt out of a finite set of points of view, but the more points in the set (without overdoing it) the greater the likelihood that a whole is created that is greater than the sum of its parts. This keeps the student’s experience of the procedure alive for longer. It does not decay in effectiveness or stale through time by overuse of just one approach.
Even More Thoughts on How to Play a Bach fugue
A.B.’s playing of the first fugue of book one of the Well Tempered has improved by leaps and bounds. Due to the high quality of his mind he can contemplate and at the same time be in wonderment at the amazing things, small and large, going on in the piece.
Here is what arose on Thursday, May 16, at his latest lesson.
When he is physically tense, the first place it shows up is in the form of movements with his lips and mouth. He usually makes one such motion per note .
Last week we worked on doing away with these mouth motions. Sometimes such motions help generate pulse and flow but just as often they force the piece to come out uttered in little tiny pieces. A phrase cannot flow through time if it is comes to a stop and then resumes with each new note. Frequent mouth motions can cause unintentional separations between one note and the next. A note should be like each new bead on a necklace. Without gravity and the string holding the beads together the necklace looses its shape and meaning.
He was able to control this for a measure or so before the mouth motions obstinately crept back in.
We worked out a compromise. If he is to make a separate mouth motion for every note, let that motion be that of the expelling of puffs of air. Later on the air can be let out more continuously. The continuing flow of air is the physical equivalent of the flow of sound in a phrase – just ask any singer. The piano, and many other instruments, model their flow and expressivity on the human voice.
Joe: If you think of the physical actions you make while playing, now that they are not the cause of the sounds. Nor are you yourself the cause of the sounds. Sounds just “pass you by”, flowing by your consciousness.
The general question arose of how do we stay on course if we make a mistake and deviate from the printed score. We have to find a way of getting back on track as rapidly as possible – hopefully the the next note. An important component of the alacrity with which you get back on track lies in the answer to the question: how do you react, both morally (I’ve made a mistake and a mistake is bad thing) as well as emotionally (what does it to our self confidence , our self worth). Any negative reaction of either type makes it more difficult to find your way back onto the tracks, and makes it harder, in space-wise in terms of finding where we are in the score, and time-wise, to resume the correct flow.
Here is another way of stating the problem of getting back on the tracks. How quickly can we begin at any random point in the piece (whether at the beginning of a measure or even at an arbitrary point within a measure) and resume the ease and flow that we have at the place if we started the piece from the beginning.
It is good to lard the piece with a plethora of random spots from all of which you want to learn to be able to start up the piece, and ideally take no time to get on board the moving train and flow ahead with the correct notes and rhythms.
Just like coming in at the middle of a conversation and quickly figure out what is being talked about, every note in a piece is (or can be) the beginning of that piece. B.A. summarized how hard this was for him to do: sometimes when I start from a random point in a piece it doesn’t even sound like it is from the same piece. And, where did these notes come from and where are they going … how quickly can one become aware of the answers to these. The answer to the last part: as instantaneously as possible. This reminds me of the famous Gauguin painting “D’où Venons Nous / Que Sommes Nous / Où Allons Nous” (Where are we coming from, what are we, where are we going?”. To put it in another way: how very important it is to spot the common character and individuality of a piece even just within a single minute detail from that piece.
When you practice starting the piece from a random point, just play until you are back on track, don’t keep playing to the end. You want to leave practice time for starting from other points in the piece.
Fingers getting tangled:
There are times when the hands draw very near to each other, touching, overlapping, interfering with each other. In particular the thumbs (and even the second fingers) will cross over each other and afterwards uncross. This situation must be coordinated down to tenths of a second. It is a “pas de deux” between two fingers / hands, wherein the bodies of the ‘dancers’ need to fuse as much as possible into one entity that is constantly changing shape as a whole. Every motion on the part of one dancer must be fused with a simultaneous motion from the other dancer. It is as if there is a common consciousness among the two.
The general question arose as to where does one phrase ends in a Bach fugue and another phrase begins.
This can become marvelously complicated because, in a fugue, two or more voices may be in the process of sounding the main theme, yet, at a given moment one of these voices may be at the beginning of the architectural shape of the theme through time, while another somewhere in the middle of the architecture of the theme, and a third voice might be in the midst of concluding the end of its theme statement.
How does the pianist simultaneously make one voice sound like it is ending while another is beginning when the two voices are clearly both stating the same theme. B.A. had a nice way of putting this: how does a voice say that it’s ending.
Put in terms of the chords that underlie the passing notes in the voice melodies – frequently the shift from one such note governing chord in the harmony of the fugue to the next such chord, does not occur simultaneous in all the voices. One voice may enters the domain of the next chord before the others. They are harbingers of the next chord; pathfinders. Another voice may arrive into the new chord not until the other voices have clearly established the chord.
Situation: one finger is holding an extended note while other fingers in the same hand are enunciating a series of changing notes. This requires that the finger holding the note be very flexible and can change its overall stance in response to changes in what the other fingers are doing. The key to clear articulation often lies less in the equalization of the fingers playing the changing notes, and more in the ability of the finger holding its note to suddenly change it’s alignment with the keyboard, and its stance relative to the other fingers of the hand while, at no instant, losing its the overall equilibrium.
Sometimes a student is confused when the main theme starts on a different note compared to the opening of the fugue. If the change of starting note represents a change of harmonic region, then it makes makes sense to the modern player. However, it is harder situation to make sense out of when when the theme entrance is still in the original harmonic region. Thus a theme entrance, instead of starting on the original series of notes at the beginning (C D E F …) begins instead with D E F G, or E F G A, etc.. That instead of representing a modulation, it represents the desire of the theme to enter on a different note of the C Major scale but cling obstinately to the same scale. Some of us may think of this as a hark back to the Catholic Church modes of the middle ages, in which case D E F G is simply the beginning of the “Dorian” mode, E F G A the beginning of the “Phrygian: mode, etc.. But it is not always clear that this was how Bach may have been thinking. Perhaps the underlying constant is the C Major scale (or tonic of another harmonic region of the fugue) and how it stubbornly controls things even a theme entrance tries to start on a different note of the scale than the tonic.
A part of fugue technique is to instantaneously move one finger left or right, from one note to another, regardless of how far apart those notes are on the keyboard. This is not something mastered by gradually practicing such a motion faster and faster. It is more the absolute determination ahead of time to be on the second note zero seconds (zero fractions of a second) after the first note ends. In other words: for the finger to find itself already on the new note, without any travel time in between. This is quite possible. The body is capable of doing this if one insists this be the case, a determination that starts before one starts moving the finger at all. Such instantaneous change of by just one fingers promotes a greater clarity and crispness in the consecutive notes of a voice. The goal is that no connection of one note to the next be any more sluggish than any other.
This itself is a component of the general ability of the entire hand snap from one hand position to another position. Sometimes fingering alone will not provide a sense of connection (even if allows for singer substitutions). It may require an action like the triggering a mouse trap: with little or no preparation, no anticipation, and seemingly no time at all taken to make the change in position.
To achieve such alacrity in changing the shape of the hand it is necessary for the arms as well as the hands to be weightless, and the muscles in the hand being ‘at attention’ but when the moment comes for the change in the shape of the hand, offers no resistance to the onset of that motion. It as if the muscle is passive and is being moved from an external source of power. Even the forces that initially raise the arms to the keyboard can be felt in the body as if the arm was being moved not by its own muscles, but a force external to the entire body. This feeling can be induced by imagining the arm belongs to a puppet, and an unseen puppeteer moves the arms upwards by pulling on the strings that connect the puppeteer the puppet’s arms.
At a lesson the teacher can literally provide this external force. For instance supporting the student’s hands so they will feel to the student as if they are floating on the keyboard rather than pressing down on the keys. Additionally, should their be any pressure downwards (other than to activate a key) it is more easily detected by the student if they are pushing down on another person than an inanimate object like the keyboard.
We noted a connection between the technique of finger substitution on a held note (in anticipation of using a more convenient finger on the next note) and the technique exercise found, as in “Hanon”, of using the fingering 4 3 2 1 (in the right hand) to repeat the same note four times in a row, and then to do the same on other notes, throughout the exercise. Though the overt purpose of this exercise is to learn fast repetition of the same note (on the assumption that changing from one finger to the next is faster than using the same finger over and over again) it also prejudices the hand for doing a quick substitution of one finger for another on one note without re-sounding the note.
A.B. brilliantly put many of the above points into a common perspective by saying: it is all about who is doing what to whom and when.
We concluded the same lesson by working briefly on the companion prelude in C Major from Book One.
Part of A.B.’s quest has been to play the notes in the prelude as evenly as possible. So much of this depends the balance between the notes of the common chord that is outlined by the succession of notes in each measure.
To make these chord more obvious to the ear let the player while playing, “densify” each chord. For instance, if there is an opening between the written notes for an additional note of the chord, add that note to the chord and play all the notes that now belong to the chord all at once as a vertical sonority. For instance in measure 2, there is room for an f4 between the d4 and a4, so that we create a five-note chord: c d f a d. Or taking it a step forward we can also add a c5 between the a4 and the d4, forming a six-note chord. The chord, has been a D Minor-7 chord the entire time, but the additional chord tones just make the chord stand out more clearly to the ear. This can be done, at one time or another, for every chord in the Prelude when Bach’s written notes allow for such additions.
Note that the additional notes mentioned so far all lie in the range defined by the lowest note of a measure and the highest note of the same measure. An equally valid technique, and one more vivid to the ear, would be to add additional notes belonging to the same chord that are lower than the printed lowest note and the same for the highest note written in the measure.
This way you can generate chord of 8 or more notes, and, if you add the use of the pedal. chords of any number of notes (culling notes from the bass range of the keyboard and the high treble). If you play such a chord then play the chord made up out of just the written in the measure, you will gain a sudden sense of how the written chord is a just a part of the larger chord. And whatever the sound and mood characteristics of the larger chord, they are transferred into the more compact form of the chord without any loss resonance and character.
In terms of this grouping every note of the measure into the unified sound of a single chord (versus hearing just separate notes), it is the pinkie note in the right hand that is “furthest” from the left hand note that is the first note of the measure. And not so much in space as measured on the along the keyboard but in time that has passed since the first note. For some this creates a feeling of the pinkie being a dangling participle after the previous four notes . The feeling can occur even more so when the pinkie plays the last note of the measure prior to the unseating of the current chord and succession by the next chord. Some pianists have a tendency to have their pinkie ‘separate’ from the rest of the hand when an articulating a note that is beyond a certain distance from the thumb, with the result is that there is less rather than more control of how the pinkie notes fits together with the notes the other fingers are playing. There is sometimes a poker “tell” observable by the teacher when the student is singling out the pinkie and feeling like it is not part of the hand. It is if the pianist raises the pinkie higher off the keyboard than the other fingers before playing its note – an attempt on the student’s part to gain better physical control over the pinkie but usually with the result that the pinkie sounds disconnected from the other fingers.
Deciding What is Controllable. Also: Transforming the Polyphony of a Gugue
Well Tempered Klavier, Book I, C Major, Prelude
After finishing the piece I simply asked A.B. what he liked and disliked about his rendition. He mentioned several negative things and then struck on the one thing that I had primarily noticed: that he stopped the harmonic flow of the piece every time he went from the end of one measure to the beginning of the next. I missed sensing that inexorable connection that energetically pushed me from the chord in one measure to the chord in the next measure.
He said that he had previously tried condensing the piece into a chorale of whole-note chords (each chord took the place of one measure). However, he had trouble because he couldn’t do it with any speed. I said that the speed was of the essence of the procedure. Ideally, each eighth note’s worth of the piece, in terms of its duration, became the duration of one of the chords of the chorale.
Since it was difficult to shift chords that quickly, I recommended to him that he play just the chord a single measure followed by the chord of the next measure, and then stop. I asked him to play the first chord as if it were a grace note going to the second chord – the latter being held longer.
This he could do. We repeated the process for each measure going into its next measure.
Now that we had merged two amino acids into a somewhat longer chain of molecules, I asked him to play as written, while I, in the higher treble, waited until he was near the end , but not at the very end, of one measure only then played the chord of that measure as a grace note followed the next measure’s chord. Only I would get to the second chord before he finished playing the current measure. That anticipation of my chord connection gave him the necessary push and energy to keep the piece’s harmonic flow going across the bar line. Then I would remain silent at the second piano until he reached nearly to the end of the new measure at which point I would break in with the chord of the new ‘current’ measure played as a grace note to the chord that governed the measure that was about to start. And so on.
A.B. remained worried in particular that the pinkie sixteenth note in the right hand at the end of each measure does not connect smoothly to the next sixteenth note in the left hand at the beginning of the next measure.
His default solution was to figure out exactly how he wants his pinkie to play that note. I solved his issue by stepping entirely around his approach. As he played the piece I sang “la la la…”, but starting with 6th 7th and 8th sixteenth notes of one measure and ended with the fifth sixteenth note of the next measure. on notes to the first note. I then waited too the 6th note of the new measure and began the process of again singing along for 3 + 5 or 8 notes.
In the form I was singing it, with the way I was grouping the notes that I sung versus those I did not sing, I purposely glossing over the connection between the two notes on either side of the bar lines.. It happens automatically. By spreading a solder, or flux over the end of one measure and the beginning of the next, I effectively made less important the connection of the bar line.
I noticed in my singing that I helped things along by making misplaced crescendo starting on my first note and ending towards the eighth note. This helped smooth over A.B.’s faulty connection over the bar line.
At this point we moved on to the fugue: transforming the polyphony of a
fugue in C Major, Book One, Well Tempered:
A.B.: why do I find it so difficult to not hold a voice note longer than it is supposed to last, when the note is already meant to continue sounding through a certain number of the next notes in some of the other voices. For example if the target voice is a quarter note, or longer, and the other voices are enunciating sixteenth notes.
I gave a brief answer: remembering when to lift a sustained note in one voice is the requires the opposite of everything you do right when knowing when to start a note. It’s the “dark side” of piano technique: it requires doing everything the wrong way; or is it now the right way?
A.B.: why did you do that? Why was it working?
Joe: I think it is important to have a distinct pre-vision, pre-conception, of what the beginning of the next measure is going to sound like before you get to it. It is a strange balance of knowing what’s coming and still being surprised by it.
Can we transform the sound the sound of the fugue in the student’s ear?
We experimented using two pianos with re-registering one of the voice of the fugue. He would choose one voice to play, and transpose either an octave higher or lower than it was written, while I played the remaining three voices (without the fourth) at the other piano.
Results: A.B. said:
My voice sounded different than before. I head it saying and meaning other other things than I had before, but then realizing that it was the same voice with the same names to its notes, just transposed, and that there was at the same time an abiding identity between both versions of the voice, an identity which was preserved, was eternal and fixed and was impervious to change of octave. The new stuff that suddenly I heard, in how that voice combined with the other voices, must have been there latent to the note’s names themselves alone, or to say it in another way were just as present as aesthetic and sonic effects when I played that voice in its original octave.
In the future we will have A.B. play just one voice, but in the octave higher than written and the octave lower than written without playing it in the octave is written. Later again we can transpose one voice by more than one octave. If it is the soprano voice we can have it sound in the tenor voice’s range or even below the bass voice. In the case of the bass voice, we can have it sound in the alto voice’s range or so that it is the highest sounding of all the voices. At any time I can choose to play all four voices and not just three, leaving one voice to him. Or, he can choose at random to play just the voices, while I play the other two. Or, three voices.
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.