Category: Dynamics

Can You Bring Two Things Out at Once? Guiding the Listener

An advanced student with superior musicianship said at their lesson “I want to hear this passage in a certain way and part of this way is to have certain  things stand out in particular. However I can’t succeed bringing them out; or at least not just the things I want to bring out.”

Number one: you haven’t leveled the playing field so that the  notes that you don’t want to bring out are uniformly softer than the notes you do want to bring out. The reason they are not so, is that often you have specific but varying desires as to how loud each of these ‘background’ notes should be. You are musical, so you have specific intentions regarding each  stratum of what you are playing simultaneously.

Now, in piano playing it is generally very difficult to “bring out” two different things at once, because what you do to direct attention to one is occluded in the listener’s ear by what you are doing to pay attention to the other. “Too many cooks spoil …” It is not  impossible to succeed in having the listener be more aware of two things at once, when there are more than two things to choose from – it’s just very difficult. If the ‘things’ we are talking about are individual voices amid tonal polyphony, then succeeding relies less on different (or similar) degrees of loudness assigned to each of two voices. Then, it is a matter of lending an individual character to each of the two voices.

The safer course is to prioritize only one among the things you want to bring out and always direct the listener’s ear in that direction.  The listener needs a clear road map as to what to listen to. The most reliable course is keeping all but the desired voice in the shade.

P.S. Once, at a masterclass, someone was playing the development section of the first movement of the Brahms second piano sonata (Op. 2). Her listeners were confused as to what was going on to the music. I asked her to explain  in words ‘what was going on in the piece at that point’. She gave a brilliant verbal analysis. I then asked her whether she thought her listeners were hearing (or “getting”) all the things she just described. She assumed the answer was that they did. The listeners objected that they did not, and had no idea that the things she had mentioned were actually happening. “But they are so obvious,” she said.

Then I proposed a new tactic. Pretend the listeners are in a state of perfect nescience, or ideal ignorance. Unless you go out of your way to point something out to them, to exaggerate it, they will not recognize that that thing is happening (they will not recognize for  instance that there is a series of sevenths each resolving to a sixth according to a standard species of counterpoint). So she went into the modality of lecturing about the music by playing it. Now her listeners all said, “We hear it now; we get what is going on in this development section.”

The conclusion is that sometimes, no matter the quality of the audience, sometimes you have to play things as if you are saying: “What don’t you get! Don’t you hear these things that are happening in the music?! Can I make it any more obvious? I’m already exaggerating it as it is.”

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The Newness of Time Itself

“Les sons et les parfums tournent dans l’air du soir” (Baudelaire courtesy of Debussy).

Notes, sounds, meld and melt in time. Memory and anticipation interpenetrate each note heard in the present tense. And memory also coerces the immanent future to follow the patterns of the past.

Sometimes, in our performing, this leads to a sense of taking a piece for granted: we’ve heard it all before, nothing is new to us, no surprises are left for us. The piece starts, we dutifully endure through its time span playing each note in its place. The piece ends, we stop playing, we bow and go through the ritual of accepting the praise of the audience.

Are there steps we can take to bring life, spontaneity and freshness, back into the performance. We cannot re-order the notes; we seem to be chained to an ineluctable sequence of cause and effect.  And though we are free to pick up the implication of where the current note seems headed,  when we do get to play the note and hear it through our outer ears, it can remain essentially a surprise. Though we expect time to repeat, we are nonetheless free to consider each next moment an open question. We live in in immanent cloud of possibilities where there is always more than one  direction the music might head next.  When we ‘finally’ get to hear it, all the  possibles are wiped away, effaced in the blatancy of the bright light of  the actual present.  This is no less true when we have wagered on one  particular note and we win the hand: the note we thought would happen did happen. We find that we were ‘correct’ in our assumption of what sound  (not manifested yet in time), does indeed become manifested in the richness of time as it flows into the present.

Yet this bright light of the present, though it remains shining as long as we remain in the present, shines only briefly on any particular note. As far as  the note is concerned, this light is good for only one transient moment.

So if we don’t want to fall back into the darkness of the non-present, somehow we must live within the light of this omnipresent present.

To offset the staid performance is the conviction, remaining in our consciousness, that every note we take the trouble to hear is the first note of the piece. Like a true beginning, like the promise of each day’s  sunrise, it opens up for us a world of infinite possibilities. And for us to maintain this through the very last note of the piece (which itself could have  been followed by another – but just wasn’t).

To the extent that we can we let each note within the piece shed at least some of its accumulation of the past, an accretion that is rapid and inevitable under normal circumstances, the piece fights its way back into a state of alertness and freshness.

Mental presence is the key.

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Shaping an Ostinato-like Section of Repeated Groups of Four Sixteenth Notes

S.E.’s lesson on 9/7/19: Rachmaninoff 3rd concerto. first movement: when the endless sixteenths begin after the first statement of the main theme.

There is a lot of “interlacing” of the hands. I don’t mean simultaneous interlacing, I mean within four consecutive sixteenths some may be with the left hand some may be with the right hand.

This requires laying down a foundation of groups of four clearly stated sixteenths, whose musical contour, crescendo and decrescendo, is always sculpted the same regardless of what the notes are and which hands are playing particular notes. I spoke the words “one two three four”  monotonously, over and over, as S. played through the passage.  This should be done prior to any attempt at phrasing. The one of the four should always sound like the first of a group of four. The two of the four should always sound the second of a group of four. Etc..  This establishes first an unyielding base, over which the more musical details can then flicker and modulate.

While doing this first phase it was noticeable to me exactly where his playing of a sixteenth note was not exactly together with my count.  At today’s session, this took place mostly with the placement of the two following upon the one, of the four sixteenth note groups.

As a way of ‘shading’ from the first stage (mechanically and
metronomically) to stage two, where music ideas played over that surface of rigid evenness, I started counting, not mechanically or in an uninvolved or apathetic tone of voice, as if it were my job, or duty, simply to count evenly, but with shaping, phrasing and expressivity in my voice. I made this  transition without abandoning the syllables “one”, “two”, “three”, “four”. I “rounded” each spoken four note group into a resonant, glittering shape. But rather than shape the phrase in response to inner meaning of each group of pitches, I was more at using a “one size fits all” (one shape fits all) method. My voice was full of emotional expression but it was as if each time I repeated the four syllables, it was less a repeat, but more at an attempt to perfect one, constant, musical shape.

Stage three is to let the two meanings blend, the more idealized emotional and structural content of each perfectly shaped group of four, and how each group different from the others in terms of musical meaning when one added the specific pitches Rachmaninoff chose. The most convenient analogy for what the result is, is seeing an early Italian Renaissance painting by a master, in which the body, for instance of the Virgin, is fully clothed, but the folds of the drapery of the clothes perfectly intimate the shape of the body beneath it.

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An Unbroken Persistence or Continuity of Sound

J.M’s lesson around Friday June 14, 2019 on the Beethoven “Andante Favori”

#1. The beginning of the piece.

Stated ideally there should be no difference between, on the one hand, playing and sustaining a single chord throughout the first measures of the “Andante”, and, articulating all the written notes (in their written rhythms). It is as if the latter “lived inside” the former, but that the former is where the unbroken continuity of the sound comes from.

At first these two ways of playing the opening will strike the pianist as sounding extremely different. There will be a constant feeling that something is missing in the former that can only be supplied by the latter. However, by making several “side by side” (sequential) comparisons of the former with the latter, the perceived difference between the two will gradually seem to subside, as the former begins to inhabit the latter, and
the latter seeks the stability of the former.

The goal is to play the written passage with an absolute connectivity of sound, sounds that fuse together in spite of time, which in turn brings on changes in pitch and rhythm.

It is perhaps more realistic to say that former and latter are descriptions of two ideally defined end points of a continuous spectrum of possibilities that lie between the stasis a single, enduring chord, and the interruptiveness, or disjointedness, of one single note replacing another.

At the beginning of the lesson J.M. was too close to the latter end of the  spectrum, and we wanted to seek a position more in the middle, that preserved the best qualities of both ends.

What we’ve said about the opening measures of the “Andante Favori” can
apply as well at any point along the course of the piece. While playing through the work, as soon as one feels they are loosing the connectivity in the flow of sound, perhaps attained in the earlier measures of the piece, as soon as one hears that the measures begin ‘breaking up’ disjointed parts, one can form a new series of side by side comparisons of the two extreme
states, bringing them closer together, until even changes in rhythmic values from longer notes to sixteenths or thirty seconds. Still, feel that they emerge out a non-change, a constancy, a prolongation of the fabric of sound-as-sound.*

Here is a tip on how to bridge the gap between the two ends of the spectrum: disruption and continuity in sound. Take the first chord of the piece and repeat it exactly, in the rhythm of the opening passage.  Instead of changes in pitch, only rhythm remains, with a droning over and over of the same chord. When repeating the chord, do not let its sound ever disappear. Play the notes of the chord in the balance (or aftertouch) of the keys so that each new intonation of the chord fits, like a tongue and groove, into a  prolongation of the previous chord. An unabated, yet murmuring sound.

#2. The measures with ascending and then descending parallel thirds
in the right hand.

Play c2-c3–c4-c5 and hold it. Once that sound is imprinted on the musical memory, imagine that that is all you hear when playing the written notes. All the thirds seek their home in this prolonged unison. I held her right arm, pressing downwards with medium pressure: so something physical was constant that underlay the changes that were happening in pitch and  rhythm.

I said: if you were able to play all the thirds at once, creating a cluster based on an extended C-major scale, that cacophonous cluster could or would act as a model for the constancy of sound that persists and underlies the activity of the changing thirds which show up as an archipelago of islands in that sea of sound.

*  The pure presence of sound: what is left to sound when one discounts the pitch of the sound, its loudness, timbre and duration.

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Concert Pianists, and their Performance Arcs

“A. B.” came for his regular Thursday lesson.

Today we examined how a particular pianist puts together their experience of being  in control of a musical passage while performing.   The pianist forges their experience and control of a piece through various parts.  For diagnostic purposes we did these preliminary exercises:

We played a Bach Chorale, looking at the keyboard only for the placement of the beginning chord of the chorale, and then not looking at the hands at all from that point on.  The purpose of the exercise is for the pianist to discover how they form their intuitive sense of where their hands and fingers are on the keyboard, and if they get off course, whether they can find their way back without looking at their hands.

Next we did the same for a I-V-I in all keys.  We used this particular chord-spacing: c3-g3–c4-e4   g2-g3–b3-d4   c3-g3–c4-e4 (Root-fifth-root-third, root-root-third-fifth, root-fifth-root-third).

I asked him not to look at is hands, neither when going from one chord to the next within the three chord progression in one key, nor when moving each of the notes of the third chord up a half step to begin the progression in the next key.  This proved difficult for him.  I said “I think we are starting to hit ‘pay dirt'”.

Then we did the same for the first prelude from Book One.  This was relatively easy for him.  So I added this twist.  “Pick a random measure, make a simultaneous chord out of the notes in the measure, release the chord, send the hands to some far away place, then without looking at hands or the keyboard, find your way back to that chord.”  As it turned out this was quite easy for him!  I said: “I think there is a moral to this story.”

We moved into the second movement of the Bach Italian Concerto, a piece he knows well.

I have come to understand that A. normally bases his  performance of a piece mostly on muscle memory, with his ear standing vigilantly as a guard against any wrong note.  I said, “You have spent a lifetime carefully building this relationship between muscle memory and the ear.  Now I am going to ask you to go into an uncomfortable place.  Take any spot in the movement, and as you play the notes, say the names of each note you play in the right hand.  If there is any hesitation in your voice, we’ve uncovered even more pay dirt.”  We want gradually to shift the identity of a note to something due to a union of a sense clear placement of the hand on the keyboard joined with a clear sense of the name of the note being played.

He said: “I can’t say the note I’m playing play at the same time that I play it: not if I try to say it, not if you do it for me, and not if I say it only in my imagination.” Boom. “I think we just hit the mother lode because of how difficult this is for you to do.” And what an incredible discovery–to find the missing link in the mind, and work towards an exercise to correct it.

To put this in perspective,  consider that doing this is not an unusual thing to ask of the student.  For example, whether playing either from the score or by memory, I am always conscious of what note I’m playing, even when I steer myself through a group of notes by following the ascending or descending pitch curve of the notes. This awareness keeps me from getting lost in a piece, even when I am struggling. I am not playing by rote or muscle memory and relying on habit: I am choosing what I play and when.

Considering the difficulty of naming the notes as you play them, I recommend that he try to perfect a particular measure in this regard.  It is the ‘trying’ to do that is more important than doing it correctly.  It is the trying that opens up new possibilities in your mind.

Later in the lesson we went back to the I-V-I exercise we did earlier without looking at his hands, and I asked him to try to name the notes in each of the three chords in each of the three note progressions starting with the bass voice of each chord and proceeding to the soprano voice.  This  proved far more difficult than he imagined it would.  I was pleased with this: he was gaining a direct insight into how his musical brain works.

Returning to the the second movement of the Bach Italian Concerto:

How many, “rhythmic words: are there in the ‘vocabulary’ of this movement.  It is a limited set.  A word a distinct rhythmic pattern, for instance a word might consist of series of four sixteenths, or a dotted eighth followed by a series of sixteenths, or some other combination of rhythmic note values that repeats frequently in the movement.  Note that there is only a limited number of such combinations in this movement. Be aware of which such ‘word’ you are saying at every moment in the movement.” Playing this movement is like speaking a language of rhythmic words, a vocabulary consisting of just a dozen or such words (although they can be put together in many different ways to create different meanings).  When I  play it I ‘speak’ each such word with its own definite and unique form of expression and inflection – one that pertains just to that rhythmic word.

He objected that the expression of each word would change dependent on the varying setting of the musical context. To which I replied, “I agree that the same word in different settings should be spoken differently, but at first make all the same ‘words’ sound the same“.

He tried this and was surprised that this added to his musicality in playing rather than making it seem less musically nuanced.  I said, “The final musical result needs to rest on something solid before the nuances are added.  This might not be true of other pianists who can manage both at the same time right from the start, but you often get bogged down coping with the details of the musical meaning that you want to convey before attending to first principles.  Start with the language and the vocabulary.  Wait until later on before you change it into Shakespearean English.”

We turned next to Mozart’s Adagio in B Minor:

“You and I often have different agendas as to what to work for and what needs the most reinforcement.  Today will prove to be no different.”  What is missing for me is the basic and constant “flow” wherein you carry each note through its duration of time to the next note, and then that next to its next, etc..  Each note is directed to the next note.   I hate to use an analogy that uses the word ‘weight’, which is usually anathema to me, but it as if the note has heft and you have to pick it up and move it through time (or space if it helps to think that way) to the next note*.  Every note should  experience the full pressure of time – which I call the ‘flow’ of time – to bring it to the sound experience of the next note.  Each note has to experience that dynamic sense of motion to the next note.  It is hard to describe how to do this other  than my making certain gestures as you are playing, but though these are spatial motions, what we are looking to experience is the motion of consciousness through time, without abatement, and mostly felt between the beginning of one note and the beginning of the next note.  It is the inevitable and relentless pressure of passing time.

* If you do think of this spatially then let the direction always to the right and not in the direction of the pitches as the arrow of time in Western math and physics is usually depicted rightwards (as it is in the convention of the musical score).

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