Category: Lesson

A Cluster of Thoughts

#1

Getting lost in a large group of notes beamed together

When more than four notes are beamed together, it is difficult for
some pianists to keep their eye focused on each note of the group,
especially the notes that lie somewhere in the middle of the group.

Exercise for the eye alone:

Take any such group. Perhaps six or more notes sharing the same beam. Without playing any of the notes, see if the eye can parse through the group without loosing their place. It may be helpful to say:

“Now my eye is on the first of the six notes.”   “Now my eye is on the second of the six notes.”   The third, and so on.

If the eye gets confused it will tend to be starting around the fourth note.

It is helpful to mentally divide the group into two parts, and then gradually  change the point of division.  “Push” to left all the notes left of the the note we are currently looking at.  “Push” to the right all the notes, starting with the current note and going through the end of the group. It is like a Mel Brooks version of the exodus, in which Moses chooses a spot to part the Red Sea, then changes his mind and parts it a bit further downstream, and still not satisfied continues parting it further and further downstream.

The reason for doing this exercise with the eye only, and without
playing or sounding the notes, is because it is sometimes helpful to take apart what the eye does from what the playing mechanism does.  Otherwise there is numerous semi-conscious cross-influences between the two.   Unless the pianist is still a beginner, the physical and the visual automatically fuse together so that it is very difficult and misleading to try to determine what the playing mechanism is doing from what the eyes are doing. Or, to put it in a more East Coast way: it would be like driving through the Lincoln Tunnel from Jersey to Manhattan, and after a while, loosing a specific geographical sense of how into the tunnel we’ve already gone and much is left to go, based solely on the visual appearance of
the tunnel without switching to a reliance on our sense of how much time duration has passed since we entered the tunnel.

#2

JM’s lesson 8/2/19 on Debussy’s “Soiree en Grenade”.  It helps to know that JM has a small hand.

A sudden jump in the left hand without loosing the continuity of a
melody.

Somewhat late in the piece there is a measure where the pianist’s left hand needs to go with alacrity from the single note e1 to the octave a3-a4. How do we execute such a leap without loosing the flow of sounds.

One thing that helps in such a case is to focus on the fact that no matter where on the keyboard the E is, and where on the keyboard the A’s are, E going up a fourth to an A. It doesn’t matter how many octaves intervene or whether there are multiple E’s and A’s.

Now, play the following series of 4-note groups:

e1 a1 gs1 fs1
e1 a2 gs1 fs2
e1 a3 gs3 fs3
e1 a4 gs4 fs4

Focus on just what feels and sounds identical in all four cases. If they feel or sound different in any way, you are still conscious of certain differences and you want to make these differences become unconscious.  The objective was for J.M. is to feel that she was playing exactly the same thing all four times: focusing on only one type of difference and ignoring all others. Everything but the names of the notes E A G# F# in their most abstract form – without position in one octave or another in the keyboard, have vanished from consciousness, including  any physical sensation having to do with left- right motion on the keyboard (except a rise of five half steps).  Also ignore any sound information to the ears about change of octave range.  An E, for  instance, should sound like an E no matter where it is located on the  keyboard or what other instrument is playing it. An E is an E is an E (apologies to Gertrude Stein).  And the same for A.

The only thing  that is kept in mind physically is the fact that the E
lies on the right side of the clump of two black notes and the A lies
in the middle left of the clump of three black notes. Even when
changing octave, that should be the only thing remaining in consciousness.

The only that is kept in mind sonically, among all the other sound
data coming into the ear, is that A (anywhere on the keyboard) sounds a “perfect fourth” higher than an E, no matter how far the E is from the A on the keyboard. It should never sound like an eleventh for instance.

.

Here is another example in the same piece of a sudden jump in the left hand that cannot interrupt the fluidity of the sound motion.

It is located in the score not far from the previous example. It involves Jumping in the left hand from some low sounds to a four note B minor chord (b4-d5-fs5-b5) in the treble.

We began by focusing on just the B minor chord.

Play b4 with the left pinkie several times in a row and play the last one in the series longer than the ones leading up to it.

Now play the b4 and d5 together – several times in a row holding on to the last one longer than the preceding ones.    This last iteration helps the notes to “settle in”.  Play the two notes with the fingers that you will use when you eventually play all four notes in the chord simultaneously.

The same for b4-d5-fs5.

The same for b4-d5-fs5-b5.

Approached this way, through gradual addition, you end up with a balanced four note chord, played without a forced, overstretched or awkward hand position.

If you look closely at the hand as you play this exercise, you should notice that each time one more note is added,  the entire hand automatically assumes a different overall shape.  Part and parcel of this change in the whole hand, is that a single finger, especially one that is used used in more than one stage of the exercise, will be curved differently, angled differently, and aligns itself with its note differently.

To transfer the benefit of this exercise into the performance of the passage, imagine that the hand is going through all these four stages, one at a time, in order, in the short amount of time while the left hand is moving from the bass to the treble.  Finish the fourth (the last) stage before acting to sound the chord.

#3

Four-hands: as a way of inspiring a student

Four-hands can give a student a new motive to practice. In part it’s due to  our working together rather than alone: learning together, sight reading yogether, solving things together, trying things out together. When practicing on his own he often gets to a point with a new piece where he no longer notices a return in improvement that is proportional with the time he is investing in practicing.   And he gives up on the piece.  When we play together, no matter how many mistakes happen, he is suddenly transported  to a state that is much closer to how we wishes the piece could sound.

#4

Accompaniment and melody.

S.B. Chopin: D-flat major Nocturne

The Nocturne begins with the left hand alone.  The right hand has not yet come in with the melody.  She finds it difficult to get the first measure to sound as she would like it to sound.

All it took to bring the left hand to life without the right hand, was to copy and paste the right hand melody from measure two into measure one.  The left hand now knows instinctively what to do.   It relies of the synthesis, both physically and sound-wise, of the two hands.  What had been missing, when she originally played the left hand alone, was a clear intimation of what was going to happen next: that the left hand knew already what it would need to do to fit in exactly with the immanent melody.

#5

Richness of the sound: spongey fingers

S.B. Chopin: F# Major Nocturne

She couldn’t get the melody to sound how she wanted.

I made a radical suggestion to her: depress each as slowly as you can, so slow that, you shouldn’t be able to produce a sound when you reach the bottom of the key dip. It’s not that you should play exactly like that, it is more in the nature of a countermeasure to balance out a chronic stiffness and tension in your fingers. Imagine a continuous spectrum from the most stiff hand to the most flaccid hand.  You have been dwelling near the stiff end of that spectrum. We want to do something to offset that extreme position, using a restorative measure exerted in the opposite direction along the spectrum.  When this is combined with the propensity for stiffness you will reach a balanced point at the middle of the spectrum – not too stiff, not too flaccid.

She tried it. The results where soulful, rich, resonant sounds, and
not as she had anticipated: that there would be no sound at all. “Oh — I think this can be life-changing!”

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Deciding What is Controllable. Also: Transforming the Polyphony of a Gugue

Well Tempered Klavier, Book I, C Major, Prelude

#1

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.

#2

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.

#2

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.

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A Few Thoughts About Satie’s “Gnossiennes”

S.B. is in love with the Satie Gnossiennes. He is learning the first four.

#2

When he had a long string of the triplet notes, I tried to push him ahead as if I wanted him to go faster.  Notwithstanding, he successfully resisted the impulses I conveyed.  But, the combination of my push and his resistance (with the flow of the tempo) resulted in a perfect union of not speeding up on the clock but still having a feeling to the listener of moving ahead.

And the same thing for any other musical ‘feeling’ that you have about the piece.  Inject that feeling like you are injecting into the inside of a turkey with a “solution” prior to cooking.  The flavor remains on the inside, but the cooking ‘metronome’ continues to tick evenly.

The little differences.  Satie is creating a severely controlled universe, a minimalistic universe.  Satie wants to draw the listener in until they are sensitive to every slight difference amid the hypnotic flow of the notes.  For instance at one point, instead of a twelve note series of triplets, it is fifteen notes.*  Or, this time it was an A-natural and not an A-flat.  And things like this.

#3

The melody is filled with repeating notes.   First play it without repeating any of the notes, then switch to repeating them, but be very “annoyed” that something, some outside force, is making you, as it were redundantly, to have to play each note twice.  Once established at the beginning, never loose that initial feeling of annoyance as you go through a string of these note repetitions.  If it helps, say out loud or to yourself in a nagging tone of voice: “do it twice … do it twice … , or “do I have to do this note twice also … do I have to do this note twice as well … and this note … “.

Because it happens so often, your inner musician will constantly want to assert itself to make it sound ‘better’, more ‘natural’.  You will start giving a phrase or shape to the notes in order to avoid the starkness of the repetition of each note.  It is hard for you to play through the whole piece as we have described because you are so sensitive and may think that what you are hearing is in some way ugly.  At such times just consciously make it ‘uglier’.  Make each note ‘stutter’.

#4

Turning off a natural ability.

No note in the left hand ‘bears the memory’ of what preceded it, though it is natural to hear a group of notes as outlining a particular tonal chord.  If there is a D minor chord in the left hand at the beginning it’s “news to me”.  Perhaps I’ll come to realize it after it’s almost done.

This is very difficult to do: suppressing a natural conscious reaction.  It would be like advancing a film one frame at a time, looking at it for a while, and then a long pause between the end of the first frame and the beginning of the next to allow some of the short term memory to forget what the preceding frame looked like.

* Try to frustrate the listener because there is a group of notes, and then something else, and then another group of notes.  Make the listener upset as to why there were only n number of notes and then it stopped, and then, why did we have to wait before that flow notes resumed, and not being sure how for how long, for how many notes, that flow of notes will continue this time.

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Six short blogs about Beethoven’s “Andante Favori” in F Major

#1.  Key Signatures

Some advanced students have trouble changing from one key signature to another, even when they are finished playing one piece and are starting to play another.  The previous sharps and/or flats in the previous piece’s key signature “bleed over”, or persist into the next piece.  For this type of student it is not enough to suggest that they practice scales and get to know key signatures.  One has to reach back further in time to re-build conscious awareness of keys.  Using just one hand, and just one finger from the hand, have the student play, very slowly, one octave’s worth of a scale.  As each note is played the student should say out loud the name of the note being played.  This has less to do with teaching the hand what notes are in the scale and was more about raising to a high state of conscious awareness the “name” of each note.

Only two preliminaries were required to begin this procedure for the major scales in particular:

review of: whole-whle-half-whole-whole-whole-half

the “law of the alphabet”: that each letter in the musical alphabet must show up once in the scale.  The letters should appear, in order and without any omission or doubling.

#2. The use of “Least Common Denominators” to gain control of  rhythmic details.

Counting “beats” out loud is often as difficult as it is unhelpful to straightening out rhythm details.  It is better to “count” the passage of one of the shorter rhythmic values.  J.M. is having difficulty counting the rhythm: dotted sixteenth – thirty second – eighth – eighth.  This appears at the beginning of the Beethoven Andante Favori. Instead of using a counting-ruler that was marked in eighth notes we used a ruler marked in thirty-second notes, four of which equaled one of the eighth notes.

J.M was not used to counting out loud.  She would encounter these obstacles.  1) She couldn’t coordinate doing two things at once, playing a rhythm, and saying a counting.  Even getting the voice to begin speaking while the fingers were playing was difficult.  One took attention away from the other and both would suffer.  2) when she did have her voice and her fingers activated together, the voice tended to follow any inaccuracy in her fingers’ playing of the rhythm.  The fingers were leading the mouth, so to speak.  For counting out loud to work, the voice must take a higher priority than the fingers, so much so that eventually the sounds themselves appeared merely as shadows of what the voice was doing.* They were entirely under dictates of the voice**. 3).  Understanding that what we were counting was not ‘counts’ (I.E. beats), that we were actually counting repeating groups of four thirty-second notes.  That we chose thirty-second notes because 1/32 is the least common denominator if one wants to add together 1/2-s, 1/4-s, 1/8-s, 1/16-s, 1/32-s, and dotted versions of all but the last.***

* I said to J.M.: The louder you say the numbers out loud the better the fingers will cease trying to dictate things to the body and the more the voice takes control so that the notes arrive with the counts.  Also the louder you count out loud the more likely you will notice if there is any unevenness in the way your voice is counting.

** To form a bridge or meeting place between never having counted while playing and doing so competently, as she played the opening notes of the piece I played the notes of the melody an octave higher but I repeated the same note as 2 or more thirty-second notes when the note in the melody was a sixteenth or longer.  As I did this I was using my voice to encourage her voice by my counting the thirty seconds out loud (1 2 3 4).  By relying on following both the notes I was playing and saying the counts I was saying, she broke through the barrier of merging counting and playing.****

*** Funny thing about me and least common denominators.  In grade school I used to think that the phrase least common denominator, meant least-common denominator, and not least common-denominator.  For instance 1/4s seemed to have too much in common with 1/2s to be the least common denominator for the two of them.  Perhaps  something less common, like a 1/16th or a 1/32nd.  I used the term correctly but always with a bit of puzzlement in my mind.

**** I noticed that I changed the inflection of my voice depending on whether she was holding an eighth note, or playing a dotted sixteenth and a thirty second.  In the first case my word ‘one’ was the loudest syllable, and the other three drifted off quieter (though still promptly on time).  Sort of like as if I were taking the 2 3 4 for granted.  In the second case, after putting a certain emphasis on the word ‘one’, I made a crescendo in my voice through the words ‘two’ and ‘three’ as if handing to her, or pointing the way to the word ‘four’.

#3. A tricky rhythm in measure 47.

This is a place where the right hand basically enunciates a scale, two notes a time, each a thirty-second there are the places in the piece where the right hand enunciates a scale, two notes a time, each a thirty-second, but also pauses for two-thirty seconds in between the end of one two note group and the beginning of the next.

I said that many pianists had difficulty with enunciating this correctly (as do certain orchestra conductors in similar sections of works like the slow movement of Mozart’s 40th Symphony in G Minor.

Why is it difficult?  Because when we play two consecutive notes of a scale rapidly, followed by no further note, the first one tends to act like a grace note to the second, with the result that the second gains an emphasis defined the former.  But this is rhythmically incorrect.  It is not the second which should be emphasized.  If anything it is the first note with the second tapering off form it.

#4. A scale like passage in parallel thirds in measure 43.

Rather than getting lost in how to finger such a passage, it is best if the entire arm moves, as a single unit, over and over again regardless of which notes are played and which fingers are used.  As for how to activate the arm to make this identically repeating gesture, I suggest feeling as if the arm is being moved by an external force applied at a particular spot along the forearm.

I demonstrated that this was possible by my moving her entire in repeated groups of four each time by my applying force from a different location along the arm.  I showed her that I could make her entire arm move by moving just one of her fingers through space.  I did something similar with the wrist, the forearm, the elbow.  I even did it with the upper arm, but the result was clumsier (the “tail wags the dog”).

The actual activation point we chose was for the purpose of playing even thirds was underneath of the ridge of the wrist.   I had her create even, soft, random note-clusters with the heel of her wrist.  Then I asked her to switch to articulating the thirds but to feel, as it was happening, that she was activating the entire arm as a unit, and always from the underneath surface of the wrist.

To help her along, I lay my second finger, lengthwise, underneath the span of the ridge of her wrist.  I then asked her to repeatedly push down on my finger with the arm, while all the while I offered resistance to her pushes.

#5.  A scale like passage in parallel thirds in measure 43.

Rather than getting lost in how to finger such a passage, it is best if the entire arm moves, as a single unit, over and over again regardless of which notes are played and which fingers are used.  As for how to activate the arm to make this identically repeating gesture, I suggest feeling as if the arm is being moved by an external force applied at a particular spot along the forearm.

I demonstrated that this was possible by my moving her entire arm in repeated groups, and switching where I was applying my force from group to another.  I showed her that I could make her entire arm move by moving just one of her fingers through space.  I did something similar with the wrist, the forearm, the elbow.  I even did it with the upper arm, but the result was clumsier (the “tail wagging the dog”).

The actual activation point we chose was for the purpose of playing even thirds.  This spot was ridge of her wrist.   I had her create even, soft, random note-clusters with the heel of her wrist.  Then I asked her to switch to articulating the thirds but to feel, as it was happening, that she was activating the entire arm as a unit, and always from the underneath surface of the wrist.

To help this along, I lay my second finger, lengthwise, underneath the span of the ridge of her wrist.  I then asked her to repeatedly push down on my finger with the arm, while all the while I offered resistance to her pushes.

#6. In measure 41, a note held in one voice is interrupted, mid stream, by the same note sounding in a second voice.

Here is a brief example of when one voice of several moves onto the same note that is already being held by another voice.  It occurs one sixteenth note into the measure.  The middle voice has an eighth note g4 on beat one.  One sixteenth note into that beat, the bottom voice sounds the same g4 for one thirty-second note.  The issue, with all such situations, is how to allow the two voices to stay sonically independent of one another.

This is the series of steps through time required to keep the voices separate.

Step 1: start the eighth note g4 in the right hand.

Step 2: immediately  before it is time for the left hand to play the same g4, the right hand partially or completely  lifts the g4 key, so that, an instant later…

Step 3: the left hand can begin the thirty-second note g4.

Step 4: during the duration of this thirty-second note, the right hand silently takes over for the left hand on the g4.

Step 5: after the thirty second note has passed, the right hand goes on holding down the g4 key till the end of the eighth note.

#5. measure 141 for example: a rapid melody in octaves in one hand, in particular a smaller hand.

Because of her small hand, I suggested to J.M. that regardless of how brief each octave is, she not hold onto it its full duration but release before her hand had an opportunity to seize-up, or tried to maintain hold of the octaves by a gripping action.

As a preliminary exercise I asked her to flex the joints in her pinkie and her thumb that are not usually actively flexed when playing octaves.  Just hold out her right hand in front of her, and slowly flex, back and forth, the first knuckle of the pinkie and the first knuckle of the thumb.  Feel like those fingers are growing in length, and have become like fronds of a sea plant that are being stirred by gentle currents in the water.  Then, when playing the passage, try not to loose the feeling that these joints are actively flexing while one octave is being held – even if they are not so doing.  This virtual flexion in the first knuckles is not to be used to push the two keys down to sound the octave, but should occur independently of when and how we activate the keys.

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The Effectiveness of Repetition

S.B. came for his weekly lesson yesterday.  He is an intermediate student.  The piece we worked on was Beethoven’s Six Variations in G Major on “Nel cor piu non mi sento” by Paisiello.

Variation One:

Historically, S.B. has often not had the patience to repeat a passage as often as would lead him to experience confidence in playing that passage.  Rather, he gets to a point where he thinks that he has played it often enough that the passage should already be going better, and is then discouraged that it is not getting better faster.  This derails his internal process of mastering the piece.

Joe: “We need to overhaul your practicing habits.  I would summarize the changes that are necessary as follows:

1) shorten the chunk size that you repeat in practicing until it is mastered.

2) use a touch that demonstrates a high level of confidence rather than a touch which suggests uncertainty about the notes.

3) adjust downwards your practicing tempo to support greater accuracy.

4) increase somewhat your tolerance for playing more repetitions of a group of notes as a prerequisite for attaining the degree of confidence that you deserve when playing those notes.

These four things are all tied together, the success of each depends on the all four being observed.    The failure of the passage to proceed smoothly even after a lot of practicing may not be due not to any fundamental inability, but something more subtle: a slight misalignment among the four factors listed above.   Currently you arrive at the conclusion “that I should be playing the piece better by now” but you may be speaking a bit too prematurely.  First work on equalizing the four factors above  Not by a lot but by just enough to assure further progress towards the goal of playing the passage with confidence and accuracy.  Rather than being a scenario for discouragement, it is just tweaking the four variables until things come into focus.  Instead of an un-crosable barrier, it’s just a habit in your way of practicing that needs a modest adjustment.  It is then just a matter of equalizing the variables so that their values are more in accord with one another.  Instead of coming up against a perennial state of defeat in each This failure in confidence with regard to having the ability to play new piece, you will feel a steady stream of modest gains.

More about the four variables:

#1. Definition of “chunk” size. How far do you go in the piece playing the same notes again?  Do you go from start of the movement to its conclusion?  Do you focus in on a smaller group of measures?  Perhaps just one measure?  Perhaps even just part of a single measure?  If you keep experimenting with shorter ‘chunk sizes’ you will inevitably come to one that is of the right size to ensure a sense of mastery over the notes it contains when you choose to repeat those notes, a second time, a third time, etc..

#2. “Confidence” is a subjective emotion. Some of us are bound by ethics to play in a way that sounds confident only if indeed we have mastered the passage.  I have found, with many students, that simply acting confident often increases the accuracy of the next iteration of the passage.  We didn’t have to earn the privilege of feeling confident.  We are like an actor, who is real life lacks confidence, but has undertaken a role in a play of someone who has extreme confidence.  In such a case sounding confident is only a matter of acting.  The gods are not standing in the wings waiting to punish the actor for such hubris.

S. gave a curious reason why his touch might be less even:  he thought that the result would be mechanical sounding and not musical.  I suggested that at this stage, prioritize confidence over musicality.  The goal  of playing more musically may be coming in too early in your process of learning a passage.  I propose you first want to get an even layer of notes, and then you can start allowing it to vary according to taste (it’s the part of the recipe that says “now salt and pepper to taste” – which of course may be the most crucial step).

#3. Experiment with the balance between tempo and note accuracy. It is possible that you have chosen a tempo that you think should lead to an accurate and confident rendition of the passage, only to be discouraged when you encounter difficulties with the passage in spite of the chosen tempo.  This requires a tweaking in the tempo.  Continue to gradually slow it down, and usually sooner, rather than later, you will find a match between the tempo and the accuracy of the results.

#4. Concomitant with the other adjustments you may need to increase you tolerance for repetition, but not by a lot, a minor adjustment is often all the is necessary to open the gateway to accuracy.

To summarize, chances are that the four variables is only slightly out of quilter with each other.  A major adjustment is not necessary.  For instance you do not need to increase dramatically your tolerance for repetition.  Often the new setting for each variable is close to the old one; that only a subtle adjustment to bring the four factors into balance with each other.

Over the course of the hour lesson, there were other things we incorporated into the new practicing procedure.  When repeating the same passage trick the hand into playing somewhat faster without its noticing that it is doing that.  Repeat the process as long as you can sustain the illusion.

Or, saying the names of the notes in your right hand as you are playing them.  This raises to a higher level of awareness the identity of the notes in the passage.  Or, saying out loud or to yourself your intent to play a certain notes, then pause a very brief amount of time, and then play that note as if to say “I always keep my word.”

We put these principles into practice at the lesson, which turned into a ‘practicing’ session that lasted a full hour, an hour that went by quickly and with a constant stream of self validation.  At the end of the lesson I ventured my opinion that: I don’t think you encountered the same boredom factor, from doing things over and over again, that you might usually experience at home when practicing.  If you can raise the duration of the practicing of the repetitions, so as to coincide with what you can achieve, you will be in harmony with yourself.

I try to place the emphases in different places, so it doesn’t sound as if all I’m saying is “just keep repeating this portion of the music”.  I try to make it sound like: if you shorten the chunk size, then you might be inclined to perfect that chunk, before going on to the next chunk.  It’s all ‘disinformation’, or misdirection as in the motions of the hands of a magician.

As you reduce the chunk size step by step, inversely raise your patience reducing the chunk size.

When you create a chunk that is half a measure in size, always “round it off” into the first note of the next group of notes, the next note that would ordinarily be emphasized.

When you first start a new ‘chunk’, try to remember what I said at this same stage in each previous chunk.  “Yes”. “I was sounding the notes too  tentatively for the results of my intention to register on me.”  Remember we can settle for the delusion of confidence.  As long as the other person thinks you are confident it doesn’t matter what your internal state may be.

At this juncture S.B came to a realization: “If I’m not really confident in the note I am playing, I will play it softly and tentatively, and even if it is the correct note, I am not getting as much confirmation of its correctness…my body is not feeling as much “vibration” from the note.  I said: “what I am calling confirmation and what you are calling vibration, is a crucial aspect of the process. I made the following analogy: “it’s like I gave you three different mediums out of which to make a sculpture.  One of the mediums is just soapy water, capable of forming transient bubbles of different sizes.  This wouldn’t give you much feedback as to whether you are creating a certain shape, because the shape would disappear or dissipate as you were creating it.”  S.B.: “I would have to sculpt a vessel”.  Yes, you have to sculpt it out of a material that resists and yet complies.  You are not going to sculpt it out of concrete, because that resists too much being formed under pressure.  You can’t shape it.  But if it is wet clay of some sort, then, yes, it will offer enough resistance to give you that “vibration”, as you call it, inside your hand, and between the fingers, but will also yields to your intentions. In sum, you want there to be enough ‘resistance’ in the sound to make it clear whether it has yielded to your musical intentions.

In the past I have hesitated to see all the way through a lesson like this S.B.  He gets frustrated; and I correspondingly lose heart in my goals.  Today was different.  I made a decision before we started.  If we didn’t get positive results I wouldn’t give up but would stay the course.  Although he may become bored, today I wanted to create all the circumstances for a definite practicing breakthrough.  “If you got bored, I decided to still persevere.”  Like reluctant seeds in the ground, in need of just a little more moisture in order to sprout, I wanted to give the new habits the greatest chance of establishing themselves.

S. also figured out that the rate of increase in mastering a passage might come slower if the chunk size was bigger.  And there is even a possibility that by the time you get to the end of the bloated chunk, you will have forgotten what you learned or corrected at the beginning of the chunk.  So there is actually a negative possibility of getting worse with each repetition of the chunk.  I confessed that I would find this totally demoralizing.  And I wouldn’t want to practice any more.  “I just don’t see what I’m doing wrong!”  But using today’s new tactics, negative feedback was almost eliminated.  You may be practicing at a slower tempo, undertaking smaller ‘chunks’, but you are getting more positive feedback, and this can only feel good.  And it’s not artificial feedback like the typical new-age parent who gives their child a reward for every everyday thing they do.  It is bona fide, deserved reinforcement.

At this point in the lesson we switched from variation 1 to the theme.  I said “let’s see if we can combine some of the things we were doing in variation one, and see if by any chance it all comes together quicker.  Adjust your speed downwards, but just enough to get the majority of the notes to come out correctly.

At one point he used the thumb on two consecutive notes).   I said, the main obstacle to changing to a different fingering is a stubborn resistance on the part of the pianist – they don’t really want accept the necessity of changing the fingering.  So, here, take this pencil, and put in a new fingering to try.  Note that it is not the teacher saying “change your fingering to such and such”.  It’s you yourself, overcoming your own resistance, saying I am going to find a better fingering for that passage.  You are in control and are not capitulating to someone else’s voice or even the voice of the “good” person in yourself.

Another splendid thing happened.  He played something and said: “I played it at the speed I thought I should be able to play it at by now.  Instead I will revised the speed to one that presents the highest degree of probability that I will play correctly all the notes and with confidence.”

The time of the lesson was up.  I said: maybe the main point today is that everything you are doing is under your control.

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