Finding the underlying meaning below the surface of the notes.
Some of the things that have come to me as the deepest discoveries about playing the piano are the hardest to put into words and the hardest to recreate when I would will to recreate them.
One of these has to do with the idea that the notes are symbols of deeper meanings, and that we must transcend the notes into those deeper meetings.
I got the first inkling of this idea when I worked for the first time on the Goldberg Variations when I was a teenager. I was using the Ralph Kirpatrick edition. In the introductory notes, he said something which I interpreted as “one rhythm can contain within it other rhythms”. It was as if, were one to orchestrate a passage from the Goldberg, several instruments, playing different rhythms, could combine to just one of the voice lines.
A trivial example would be to think of a whole note as consisting internally of different contemporary threads: a dotted half note followed by a quarter; four quarter notes; a breve that would swallow two whole notes in a row; and so on without any limitation to the number of these threads. There were certain such inside rhythms that, rather than occluding the musical purpose and flow of the originally written music, would actually help bring out and make more alive the voice in its originally written form.
Discovering which these were and then somehow feeling certain of these rhythms inside the written rhythm was a key to ‘unlocking’, ‘bringing to life’, ‘animating’, ‘adding to the purpose and flow of’, the written rhythm.
The klangfarbenmelodie of Schoenberg was another example. Something kept evolving and changing through time though the voice in the piece remained intact and that voice and not another.
As I grew older I had other more personal insights that revolved around the same theme that more was going on than meets the eye (or ear) when we play what is on the page.
Lines were driven through time by pulses, systoles of a heart pumping system. One pulse could go a long way to bring organization and meaning to a group of separate notes. I noticed that this was a secret of the way many great conductors communicated with their bodies and batons to the orchestra.
Like Dr. Frankenstein, if there was a strong enough electrical pulse, the inert matter of the piece would would suddenly come alive. A qualitative change which could not be foreseen. The pulse sends the blood through the arteries and carries with it all the proteins that upon deliver create the syntheses of the thousands of molecules that the body must produce to remain alive.
A simple change of chords in a harmonic progression can often be banal. But if they are turned into the esoteric meaning of a more complicated array of notes, where the written notes provide just the exoteric (immediately obvious) meaning of the passage. Which makes of these notes symbols for, manifestations by way of accessible ‘shadows’, of the transcendent Platonic ideas of the piece that remain hidden to the eyes and ears as long as we sense only what is on the surface and not what the surface is hiding. The exoteric message is understood by all, the esoteric* meaning is known only to the few, and communicated more widely by the artists that in real time are working to reveal the esoteric meaning.
The more esoteric meaning let the notes convey a hidden harmonic message. It’s like the esoteric meaning (known by only a few) versus the exoteric meaning (easily known by many). In this case the esoteric meaning is the imprint of the harmonic rhythm* on the individual notes.
We can distill the underlying harmonic chorale or pattern from the rest of the notes, as long as we don’t loose the individuality of the written notes. It is like when we see eternal beauty in a particular face. The chorale, rather than seeming simplified or banal now contains all the essence of the individualities of the passage.
A “harmonic rhythm” is created out the moments when the underlying chords change. Wait, this is too simple. Rather, a synthesis is created of a nexus of pulse rhythms and harmonic rhythms. Sometimes the needs of the pulsations will require an identical chord to repeated in the harmonic rhythm before another chord appears. The harmonic rhythm doesn’t always have to rely on when a chord changes. It is the beauty of relationship between the prototype and the seemingly endless manifestations of notes that that can arise out of the that prototype. To see the universe in a grain of sand (Blake).
This combined harmonic and pulse rhythm embodies the spirit of the written notes, that which holds by higher compulsion the notes in their place. That which gives it life and meaning.
* Esoteric, by the way, does not mean in this context something that is hard to understand, but something that strikes us as so obvious that we don’t know how we missed it and was misguided by the surface reality.
Somehow I’ve worked towards a personal combination and synthesis of all of these, and others that still become newly apparent to me at this stage of life.
Don’t be captive to the notes. Be captive to the underlying meaning of the notes. Don’t let the physical mechanism be captive to what the notes say to do on the written page. Let the body create impossible things, impossible syntheses
Lyricism, Connectivity and Shaping of Sounds
At B’s lesson today, he was playing Mozart’s Adagio in B Minor
He plays a series of notes from the piece, and stops because he is frustrated with how it just sounded. He says: “In order for me to even it out, ‘this’ note needs to be a little louder, and ‘that’ note needs to be a little softer.” He makes physical adjustments in how he plays each of those two notes. The result is a new set of inconsistencies in the sound. I try to explain that any difference in muscular action for which one can consciously in control will over-compensate for the problem. The only ways that reliably control evenness in sound, whether in a melody, or in a chord, are based on either the ear or finding a lever further up the arm that controls all the fingers alike.
Here are some of the spots that we worked on.
#1. The first chord in the piece: es3-b3- -gs4-d5.
If the chord is not coming out the way you want it to, do the following:
a) Play the es3, three times in a row, while doing nothing other listening to them. For, without your realizing, your playing mechanism is going to adjust the resonance of es3 your figurative, “inner” ear is satisfied with the sound. Just by gradually playing it over and over it comes closer to having the quality of sound you want. Hold the third one longer than the others.
b) Then pause a couple of seconds. Now play es3 and b3 together, three times in a row (as before). Again your instinctive ear is going to automatically cause the body to unconsciously change the enunciation of the two notes until both are equally resonant and well balanced.
c) Pause again for a couple of seconds, and play the es3, b3 and gs4 together several times. Let the same automatic balancing of the sound occur through the ear. You don’t have to do anything more than listen to the triads. You don’t have evaluate the balance each time you play it. It will simply gravitate towards an idea position. It’s an unconscious process of “practicing” something over and over until it pleases you or sounds the way you want.
d) The last stage is to play all four notes together – three times. Then, aslmost as an afterthought, play the four notes together again. Through the silence that elapsed between the last of the three iterations of the four note chord, and the ‘fourth’ one you just added on, you will have preserved, without the slightest change, the balance of the notes. It simply sounds the way you just heard it a few moments ago.
What we’ve done through this process is “taken apart” in time something that is meant to be heard “together” in time. Rather than that changing the nature of what we hear because we have broken it into repeating parts, we actually gain more automatic control of how the notes will sound when ‘together’ in time. One might say we have created a figurative lever of to gain a mechanical advantage of consciousness over simultaneous in time.
#2. The first three notes of measure one: b4, fs4 and d5.
We use a similar process to what we used in number 1. Play the b4 three times. Just listen to it. “Get to know it”. “What does it sound like when it sounds like a B”? Or, as in Ireland: “who is he when he is at home” (who is he really).
Pause and then play the b4 together with the fs4. Same principle, three times; getting to know the full tonal implications of the interval of the fourth between the notes. And something new: that there is an implication in that fourth that there is, latently, or about to be realized, another note that will complete the fourth and turn, as in this case, into a B Minor chord in second inversion.
Now ‘confirm’ your expectations, that have built up further and further during the last few moments in time, that you have patiently kept in check through the previous eighth note, and with an air of satisfaction / relief / puzzlement, etc.: any emotion will do, by playing the missing note (d5). If, for example, it meets your expectations, say to yourself something like “I knew all along it was going to sound this”.
What we are discussing in the last two paragraphs falls under the heading of “hearing the missing sounds”. Or, play it in such a way that even the listener can sense, vaguely, or more specifically, what the missing note or notes are.
If all we heard is the fourth between the fs4 and b4, and no other sounds from the universe, including from what we have stored in our musical memory, any of the following note (or notes) will complete the empty fourth:
fs4-b4-d5 or fs4-b4-ds5 or ds4-fs4-a4-b4 or d4-fs4-a4-b4 or d4 f4-af4-b4
Here is another approach to the same opening three notes. It is sort of the reverse of the process just described. Don’t begin with just one note, but with a B Minor chord of many notes (for instance: b2-fs3-b3–d4-fs4-b4-d5. Follow that by the single note with which the piece starts. That single note will still retain the coloring, or mood, that it possessed by virtue of the presence of the other notes sounding with it.
Or, we can start with the same, full chord, and then gradually strip away notes from that chord, until at the end we leave just one note, for instance the first note of the piece. Through each stage in this process the notes that are left remaining retain the full power and effect of a B Minor chord.
The end goal is, without physically playing the other notes of the chord, sound the b4 just as it would sound within the chord.
What applies to one note from a chord compared to a full orchestra, let us say, playing that chord in many voices and ranges, can apply to any chord we play in the piece, as compared to that same chord being elaborated over many octaves in a full symphony orchestra.
The process reminds me of the beginning of a poem by Wordsworth.
“There was a time when meadow, grove, and stream,
The earth, and every common sight,
To me did seem
Appareled in celestial light,
The glory and the freshness of a dream.
It is not now as it hath been of yore;
Turn wheresoe’er I may,
By night or day.
The things which I have seen I now can see no more.”
This is from the poem: “Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood”. The rest of the poem has to do with the possibility of retaining that celestial light or illumination that bathes even everyday things.
There is yet one more way of talking about this. It is also quasi poetical but scientific as well. When we play the piano, the sound of each individual note is already rich and complex in sound. Each such sound contains within it a firmly held together chord made up out of what are called the “partials”, or more commonly, the “overtones” of that note. So if we compare what we hear, when we listen to that note, to what, for example, a tuning fork (which has few overtones, and the ones it does last very briefly), sounds like intoning that sound, each individual piano note is found to be already rich and complex in sound. Bass tones evoke the higher overtones of heaven. And when our ears are open we hear the full panoply of pitches throughout the range of the piano.
When we play more than one note at a time, the higher notes in our chords often correspond to overtones of the lower notes in the chord, and these higher notes in the chord take upon them a fullness and resonance that they would not have minus the presence of the lower notes sounding with them.
5 Shorter Blogs on General Technique and Jazz
How to start a run (#1). Scales can help us execute arpeggios and vice versa (#2). Symmetric motions in the hands (#4) Jazz improvisation (#4). A deeper meaning to a group of notes (#5)
#1 How to start a run
It’s the second note that precisely defines the tempo of the run.
How quickly does a listener determine the tempo of a piece. Not by the first note, but they can judge the tempo by hearing the first two notes. It is the precise duration from the beginning of the first note to the beginning of the second note that is the clue. This proves to be important for the pianist when starting a run, a scale, etc., any series of notes that are all share the same rhythmic value. If we are careful to play the second note at exactly the right moment after the first note, then we know what precise duration to give to each of the notes follow.
#2 Using arpeggios to help play scales, and vice versa.
When I am playing a scale, and it isn’t coming out the way I want, I play instead an arpeggio starting on the tonic note of the scale.
For instance, instead of: C D E F G A B c
I play C E G c
If at that point, without any time taken off in between, I play the scale again, the scale sounds more evenly and controlled.
The arpeggio in effect seems like a scale that has been sped up. I just have to fill parenthetically the notes the arpeggio left out.
The reverse situation applies as well. When I am playing an arpeggio, if it isn’t coming out the way I want, I play stead a scale whose tonic is implied tonic in the arpeggio.
For instance, instead of: C E G c
I play C D E F G A B c
This slows down the arpeggio because I am filling in the notes between the notes of the arpeggio. It now takes longer to get from one note of the arpeggio to the next. I just have be aware of the notes that I’m leaving. Especially the interval is more than a third, as well as when I bring over thumb, or come under the thumb.
#3 Mirror motions. The “target hand” and the “helping hand”
The body is freest and happiest when the two bilateral side of the body (the arms in particular) are moving in opposite directions. The physical sensation in the arm when moving away from the a central position (I.E. rightwards with the right hand, leftwards with the left hand) is different than the physical sensation in the arm when moving towards a central position (I.E. leftwards with the right hand, rightwards with the left hand). The body is happier when the two sensations are more alike. This is one of the reason that scales played in opposite motion in two hands seems easier than the usual practice of both hands moving rightwards, or both hands moving leftwards.
One hand helps the other: the helping hand and the “target” hand
In my playing, if I feeling awkward playing a passage or group of notes in the right hand, In what follows the right hand is the “target” hand and the left hand is the “helping” hand. The situation can be reversed if one is having difficulty with a passage in the left hand.
I will take the helping hand and move it in the empty space above the keyboard in a course that is a mirror image of the the directions that the right hand is going. It goes leftwards when the target hand goes rightwards, It goes rightwards when the target hand goes leftwards. As i said, the helping hand traces in empty space, just above the keyboard, the mirror motion of the target hand.
After doing this for a brief time, I go back to having the helping hand play the notes indicated for it in the score. The helping hand can retain the sensations of trying to mirror the target hand even though it is restrained from doing it fully by the notes it has to play that are in the score. But that doesn’t stop it from “trying” to start making such motions to mirror the other. Muscles can contract as if attempting a motion in one direction even if the hand at the same time busy playing notes that go in a different direction.
#4. Jazz improvisation
Not stopping the flow of notes every once in a while simply because you are not sure where to go to next.
During one year I had a jazz pianist come for lessons. He thought he would gain some additional perspectives on jazz by working with a classically trained teacher.
At first I showed stuff about classical music. It went OK. However, then I decided that it would be more interesting to work with him while he was improvising. My absence of technical knowledge in jazz would not prevent me from evaluating his improvisation on more general musical grounds such as sound, musicality, and motion.
I asked him to improvise for me on a standard tune. What I noticed was that when he would begin to play a series of rapid notes, after a certain number of notes went by he paused, but then went on. The pause to me always sounded artificial: not done for a musical reasons. I was curious to determine whether the pause was for stylistic reasons or occurred because his fingers were momentarily ‘stumped’ as to what to do next. It turned out to be the latter. Ideally he would have preferred continuing the series of notes in the improvisation.
I invented a curious exercise, one that is good for classical as well as jazz pianists. I had him wiggle his fingers rapidly in the air and simply do so without stopping. That set up the notion that the note-stream does not ever need to stop. The next step was to bring that finger motion to the keyboard and to play random notes. The notes need not have any musical significance. It was purely for him to get used to the idea that it was technically possible to generate an indefinite series of notes. In the last stage he applied that technique to improvising on a standard melody and, every time he was on the verge of stopping because he hadn’t yet figured out the following notes, he was to use stage two and to continue playing notes they were random notes. This opened up for him the possibility of creating a stream of fast notes at any speed, one that would last as long as he chose.
#5. A deeper meaning to a group of notes.
Sometimes it is not enough for me to play through a group of notes, just once, a part of a theme or a motive. It is as if I am taking a cursory swipe at what I think is contained in those notes: looking especially for something that is consistent with all the notes around it. But with repeated swipes I begin to unmask what is really going on in that group of notes. And that something is often easily glossed-over by me to make it seem like it is just another neutral, undifferentiated part of the whole nexus of notes of which it is a part.
By the second or third time I repeat the target group of notes (usually anywhere from 2 – 8 notes), I begin to see that it has a life of its own, one that is easily submerged in the general flow of the measure. Would I be encouraging anarchy on the part of those notes to give special care to bring out its authentic properties independently of what the rest of the surrounding passage is trying to state musically.
The answer I find is usually that bringing out the individuality of a group of notes, based on its shape, rhythm and harmonic implications, only adds, and does not detract, from the general flow of the piece; that it enriches meaning in the passage and not goes off on a tangent.