Category: Lesson

L.I.’s lesson: Debussy and Chopin

L.I.’s lesson on 2/21/21
L.I. is a nine-year student who has been playing for more than five years.

Debussy: Dr. Gradus ad Parnassum:

#1: The “Pas de Deux” between the hands

The second measure of the “Tres Anime” nearest the end of the piece.

Play it slowly so you can watch the interaction of your hands; in particular, watch the part of the right hand and part of the left hand that is nearest each other.  Do you notice that the hands have a tendency to almost bunk into each other?

In particular, when the right hand has an e4, it needs to come ‘inside’ your
left hand’s fingers when the latter are playing c4-g4.  But at this
very moment, it becomes necessary for your left hand to find a route
that will bring into, ‘intrude’ one might say, into space just occupied by your right hand in order to migrate to bf4.

When the two hands are competing for the same territory on the
keyboard, each hand has to somehow “honor” the presence of the other
hand.  This reminds me of two dancers engaged in the “Pas de Deux” in
a ballet.  Due to their frequent proximity in space, each has to adopt
the position they would choose more naturally if they were alone on
stage.  Instead, they may be constantly making adaptive motions to the
other.  A slight turn of direction, a slightly different timing to
their movement, to accommodate the needs of the other.

As a result, they can ‘lift’ one another into the air, or make room for
each other, trying not to do anything that interferes with the
movement of the other, and yet abetting the movement of the other.
They can seem to join for a moment in space but separate a moment
later.  They can pass very closely by one another without bunking into
each other.  It requires great finesse and timing of their relative
motions down to small fractions of a second.

Exactly how does the left hand have to behave to let the right hand
into its middle, and exactly when does it do so?  How does your right hand have to behave, and precisely in what route and precisely at what time must it take advantage of the opening made by the left hand?

The reverse situation occurs a bare moment later, only now it is the
left hand that seeks the right moment and the right route to pass into
the middle of the territory just occupied by the right hand.

Just as the dancers have to practice their timing and tempo of
movement, over and over, to allow their two bodies to seem to coincide
in the same space at the same time, so do the fingers and hands of the
pianist in passages such as this from the Gradus ad Parnassus.  The subtle and precise intermeshing of mechanical parts in a machine-like
entity that fuses together the motions originating from two different
sources.  The two hands can seem like they can both occupy the same
place in space, though on closer examination first one is that precise
space and then the other.

#2  Making a decrescendo when a series of notes is descending downwards
into the bass.

Part One:

Dr. Gradus ad Parnassum: the downward scale in the two measures before
the change of key to two flats.

As pitches go downwards on the piano, their resonance increases.  If
you played all the notes at what you think is the same volume you
would be creating in fact an unintended crescendo.

Debussy adds a specific request to make a diminuendo through the notes.
I would think of this as actually requiring a ‘double’ decrescendo,
one part of which is to prevent the sounds elsewhere from getting louder and louder as their overtone mixtures get louder and denser due simply to
their descending pitches, the second part of which goes even further
and not simply balance out the crescendo but add over an actual
attenuation and softening of the sounds.

Here is one way for her to achieve this effect.

1) Sloppily, ‘blob’ the flat of your hand onto a group on a group of
neighboring notes.  Does this in the region of the keyboard in which
the written notes begin their descent.

2) Do the same with the other hand, and blob down again with a flat
palm on a group of notes that lie just adjacent and to the left of the
first group of notes.  The highest note of the second blob is just to
the left of the lowest note of the first blob.

3) Now bring the first hand into position just left of the second hand
and extend the blobbing cluster of notes downwards.

4) When the left hand replaces the right hand the thumbs of the two
hands are on adjacent keys of the piano and not spread any further
apart from each other.  Similarly, when the right hand replaces the
left hand, the pinkies are similarly close to each other.

5) Now, make the whole series of clusters sound legato, like part of a
simple, single-note melody.

6) As you begin to transfer this exercise into the actual notes of the
run, let each of the ‘smushes’ of the palms, down on the keys, produce not
one note of the run but four notes of the run  Each hand smushes the
keyboard and four notes magically appear sounding one after the other
rather than all at once.

Making a decrescendo when a series of notes is going downwards in

Part Two:

Dr. Gradus ad Parnassum: the downward scale in the two measures before
the change of key to two flats.

Because of her age, L.I. tends to drop her wrist down to facilitate
her thumb coming under the other fingers in a scale-like passage.  At
the end of measure 31, she uses the left hand and continues to use the left-hand at the beginning of m32 starting with her thumb.  The bf2 at the beginning of m32 comes out unnecessarily accented.

We tried an experiment.

I ask her to put the wrist of her right hand, the hand not then in
use, palm facing downward, underneath her left hand, so it could act
as a platform on which the right hand could rest.  At the moment she
brings the left thumb underneath her other fingers to play bf2 the
right rest, the platform for the left hand, rises upwards a little bit
to prevent the left wrist from sinking down.  The action of the right
hand in support of the left hand can feel analogous to the bouncing of
a baby up and down on one’s lap.  The baby can benefit from extra
support at certain moments in its vertical course.

If the wrist doesn’t sink down too much as the thumb articulates the
note, the thumb will have to dangle down more from the rest of the
hand.  And at the moment it is trying to push down on its key while
dangling, it is steadied, anchored, and supported by the other hand.

Making a decrescendo when a series of notes is going downwards in

Part Three:

Dr. Gradus ad Parnassum: the downward scale in the two measures before
the change of key to two flats.

She has a tendency to accent the bf2 on the way down. We want the run
to be more of being one cohesive whole.  So I ask her to play the
notes backward from e2 back up to f3.  “As you get on the f3, don’t
stop, but circle around, that is, play the f3 just once and follow it
with e3, then d3, etc. until you back on e2.  There is now one complete cyclic gesture with a rise and a fall.  The notes on the
page, f3 to e2, are now just ‘part’ of a more natural, more complete
gesture.  The missing upwards portion of the cycle may be thought of
as having already occurred in an interior gesture and feels of the
muscles before the descent part begins.

Making a decrescendo when a series of notes is going downwards in

Part Three:

Dr. Gradus ad Parnassum: the downward scale in the two measures before
the change of key to two flats.

I mentioned in passing the notion of ‘flutter pedaling’ describing
it as being a motion of the right foot that is like the flapping of a
bird’s wings, via which one can depress and release the piano in
quick, small, steps.  This, however, I said is for the future,
especially since your legs are not long enough yet to comfortably
control the pedal.  In the meantime, when you have nothing better to
do, without playing any notes, practicing pushing the pedal down
slowly and then releasing it slowly.  This process will help in coming
years to create a decrescendo in the bass when from note to note
during a run, especially one that is descending in pitch.


Trusting that there is always a direct and simple solution to a
seeming difficult technical problem.

Joe to L.I. I want you to know, and trust, that there is always going
to be a simple answer to any technical problem that will make it
easier to play.  Sometimes this answer however involves strange things
like the “smushing” thing we did we did above. just.  But no matter
how difficult a passage is, there is usually an easy solution, arrived
at through analysis, and use of the right body parts at the right
time, and in the right proportion.


Dr. Gradus ad Parnassum: maintaining evenness while playing in speed.

I stop her and ask her to play it more softly and evenly.  Until the
entire piece suddenly organized itself into a subtle sea-scape of
waves as far as the eye could see (as the ear could hear).

Though at her stage of development, she might not hear or notice when
she is playing the sixteenth notes unevenly, all I have to do is
request that she do play them more evenly.  Nothing more than that.
And then somehow she is able to affect the difference and play the
piece without unevenness.  She may not know what she is doing to make it more even, instinctively she just does so.

This made me think that we could skip, for now, the detailed study of body
mechanics that foster even playing.  She grasped it intuitively, made
the change, without knowing exactly what she may have changed or done

And yet…

Dr. Gradus ad Parnassum: measure 13…

Later in the lesson though she asked: what happens when my fingers are
not under control?

I thought quickly about where to start in such a large topic, and I
chose to start at the periphery and with just one finger: her right
hand pinkie.  We will have plenty of time to get to the other parts of
the body involved in evenness: the rest of the finger, the palm, the
wrist, forearm, elbow, upper arm, shoulder, back, and torso, and the

I asked her to slowly flex the right pinkie in the air. And try to
note whether the first knuckle, the one nearest the tip of the
finger, is flexing at all as she flexed the entire finger.  It’s a
knuckle we don’t ordinarily think about on its own. However, it is
capable of adding that final touch to the cooperation of the parts of
fingers and is the joint that is closest to where the finger makes
contact with the key.  It adds the final touch of finesse to the way
you depress the key and sound the note.


Dr. Gradus ad Parnassum, measure 7

Referring back to part one of #2 above, I ask her to “smush” down on
the keyboard alternating her left hand over her right hand. This will
control the transfer of energy from one arm to the other, Don’t let

the listener know that there are two hands playing each at a different

Practice just the connection between the e3 (the last note the left-hand
plays before the right-hand plays) and the f3 (the first note the right-hand plays after the left-hand plays),  by going forth between those two notes until it sounds like a seamless trill.

Sometimes, as in measure 11, the technique is the same but the speed at
which the hands take turns smushing down onto the keyboard increases
in velocity.  Only two notes go by before the other hand takes over
for the current hand.  There would be a certain desperateness and
frequency to this back and forth action of the arms, like a cat in the
woods, who has gone up a tree trunk and now has to figure a way back
down to the ground.  Not wanting to fall suddenly, it lowers itself a
little bit at a time by grabbing with its nails onto the bark of the
tree; no sooner than she has grabbed in one place, but she slips down
a few more inches and must grab again at a new place on the bark.  The
cat tries to combine these separate acts in as “legato” a fashion as

Dr. Gradus ad Parnassum, measure 11

This is another example of the ‘smush’ technique we used before.
Only the rapidity with which one hand smushes over the other hand is
considerably faster.  There are now only two sixteenth notes per
smush, left hand then a right hand then left hand then right hand …  Move across the keyboard like that with
clusters, fast, and legato.  One hand imploding upon the other.

Dr. Gradus ad Parnassum, measure 13…

Controlling the pinkie of the right hand so it doesn’t seem to
‘intrude’ its way into the passage.

I worry that her hands are getting too stiff and that pain will ensue.
So I have her stop and ‘shake out’ her wrists and fingers through
fast and almost uncontrolled motions.

Sometimes turn your hands upside down and pretend that your fingers
have to reach up rather than down in order to make contact with the
piano keys, as if the keyboard were on top of your hands and not below
the hands.  This change in the ‘gravity’ of the situation promotes a
more uninhibited flow of finger motions.

Dr. Gradus ad Parnassum, measure 1, et al.

Hold down the g3 and the e4 in your right hand and while doing so try to
play a trill between the c4 and d4. I did this because those inner
notes are not exactly even with the overall intended speed in which she
is playing.

Dr. Gradus ad Parnassum, measure 35  (left hand bf1 ef2 …)

Do you have a church about a half-mile away from your house?  And
sometimes, maybe at night when there isn’t much traffic, can you hear the
church bells in the distance?

Dr. Gradus ad Parnassum, measure 57,

you’re like a child going wild; uncontrollable.

Dr. Gradus ad Parnassum, measure 6 measures from the end

Practice an even trill between c6 and e6

Now from c6 to e5.

Now all three right-hand notes.  but don’t lose control over the c6 which
mediates between the e6 and the e5.

Dr. Gradus ad Parnassum, measure 6 measures from the end

Put your right hand on top of your left hand, and your left hand on
the piano.  and lean your right hand on your left hand.  now, when you
play this passage, the left hand is the first hand to play, a sixteenth note
before the three right-hand notes.  I want you to feel like your right hand
can stabilize itself by relying on the left hand.  the left hand is
somehow supporting the right hand, anchoring it, giving it a
foundation to lean on, even though it is not really learning on the left hand
by touching it.

keep the speed and the excitement to the end.


Chopin: Posthumous Waltz in A Minor.


L.I. is entering the “Marin Music Chest Competition” Junior, Division
and Chopin is the ‘required’ piece.

Joe: I’d like you to sit, without thinking about the piano, and take a
deep breath.  Then let it out slowly.

Think of the air moving out of your body as being the equivalent of
time itself flowing in a current that sweeps the notes forward. and
fills up the ‘atmosphere’ of the piece.

Right now I am hearing you play individual notes, first one then
another, that are trying to relate to each other, but because of their
individuality, fail to cooperate and act harmoniously together into
forming and sustaining an overall mood of the piece.

The piece will sound better, be more “in character” if you take in
deep breaths and then let each one out gradually over the next measures.
Let the breath weld the notes together into longer, and even longer

Then it will be less about moving fingers, one after another, in
discrete actions, and more about using notes to weave together a web
of mood and a tapestry of texture.


The softer you would like a passage to sound the more distant can
place yourself in your imagination from the source of the sound.  It
can almost reside more in your memory of something that happened
earlier in the piece.  A gradually fading memory.


Can you learn to “play out’ more without playing any “louder”?


Grace notes are deceiving.  Often the more important connection to
make smoothly. or legato. is between the note just before the grace
into the grace note itself, rather than the connection between the
grace note and the notes to which the grace note is attached and which
follows it.  The grace note does not belong only to the note that
follows it, but to the preceding note as well.  The note before the
grace note is usually longer in duration in comparison with the grace
note itself, and it is easy to overlook the connection between the end
of that relatively longer note and the comparatively shorter grace


The ‘climax’ of the Waltz, such as it is, occurs when harmony
the progression moves from A minor to B Major, so it can apply a dominant
to E Major.

In the measures which follow see if you can’t have feelings of more
and more ecstasy growing within you.  This passage is an excuse for


In spite of your youth you have been starting to develop what I am
calling an ’emotional palette’ in your playing.

A painter fills her brush with one color from one place on the
palette applies it to the canvas, and later fills the brush again,
perhaps with another color from another location on the palette.
Sometimes she wants the two colors to mix into a third, and different,
color that is the result of combining them both.

I’m proud of how you are developing an emotional palette at the

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A Cluster of Thoughts


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.


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

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.


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.


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.


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


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.

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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.


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.


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’.


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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