Category: Musicality

The Ear is the Best Detective

Sometimes the fluency of a group of notes may seem somehow off to us, but we cannot detect just which note is the cause, so we just try to practice the entire group again and, if necessary, yet again.

A well trained ear, however, divorced from the kinesthetic sensations of moving the fingers,  may be able to pinpoint exactly the location of the difficulty: for example that the second note of a rapid group of four notes is not timed correctly (starts late or has a different duration than the first)) ; or that the third note of such a group is not connected to the fourth note as the second was to the third.   It is the ear that can detect such slight discrepancies, and can do so more directly than any through kinesthetic awareness of a change in the muscular sensations we experience executing the notes.   In fact, often our muscle awareness tells us that things are perfectly even when a deviation from evenness is apparent to the ear (just as sometimes our left hand physically feels as if it is playing just as fast as the right hand has just played, but in fact is playing slower).

Notes that occur at various time intervals from emphasized notes sometimes are hard to pay attention to, because our attention, having been roused by the emphasized note (like a down beat, or any important beat of a measure) may now go into eclipse briefly on the way to the next rhythmically important note*.  Our awareness dims or shuts off for a split second.

If the ear cannot be specific in identifying between which two notes the sound linkage is failing, or sounds different than the other connections, then a slightly more statistical process can be applied.  If there is a six note group, for example, one can practice the connection from the first to second note, doing this once, or few, or may times.  Then similarly for the  connection between the second and third note, and so, through the connection between the sixth note and the next first note.  This is a more democratic procedure, each connection is brought under the microscope.  In reference to what we said about the emphasis a note gets and its position in the rhythmic group, this puts, first one and then another of the six notes, in the position of being a “first” note or emphasized note for the nonce.   For just the shift of emphasis onto a note not usually emphasized in a group, makes it easier for us to detect any minor problem in how we are playing that note and connecting it to the next note.

* In the case of a six note group for example, the most obvious note connections are made between 1 and 2, and 4 and 5.  the connection between 2 and 3 is harder to keep track of, as well as 5 to 6.  Perhaps the easiest ones to slip our attention is 3 to 4 and 6 to 1 because our attention may already bet set on 4 when we are still dealing with 3, or if our attention is already set on 1 while we are still dealing with 6.

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Brahms: Large Spans – Small Hand

Sometimes what appears to be a single technical difficulty located in a very specific place in the score, turns into, upon closer inspection, a series of  separate but sequential technical issues that happen to cascade by in a short  mount of time.   Somehow, we need to be able to separate one step  from another.

The situation is not unlike something that often happens to our moods.  We feel happy at one instant and then sad at the next.  This may distress us doubly because not only do we find ourselves sad, but because we have no  idea what caused such a sudden change from being happy.  Why this sort of  thing happens is often because between the happy state and the sad state there were, flying through our mind, a series of thoughts, each one  triggering an association with a thought, or memory, a bit more sad than  the last.  A second or two later, at the end of the train of thoughts, we feel  that our mood changed as rapidly as being at the high point on roller coaster, and then finding ourselves hurtling downwards in space.

Understanding how we got there requires capturing in mid-stream each of these thoughts as they occur, and bringing them to full awareness and not leaving them semi-conscious.  This blog entry presents an instance of this related to the piano, from a lesson yesterday when Irving played the  opening of the Brahms Third Piano Sonata, Opus 7, first movement,  specifically measure one, specifically beats two and three.

If you don’t have a big hand, this measure, and the ones following, can be difficult to play.  What follows is on behalf of the person with a more average sized hand.

What at first seemed to be a matter just of coping “somehow” with the large spans, turned out to be a series of difficulties encountered one right after the other. You may solve one, thinking it is the only one, only to find for some reason that you haven’t solved the measure yet. The fact is there is more than one difficulty for the smaller sized hand in this measure.

A more careful analysis is required, with close attention in real time to what different parts of the playing mechanism are in the midst of trying to do.  Playing in tempo obscures each step in the process.

The identity of these steps may not be apparent until we significantly slow down the measure, the same way high speed photography allows us to see a humming bird flapping its wings up and down, even a bullet traveling  through space.

In our case, we slow down the measure to a crawl, and observe what each finger (and the hand too), at each instant, is trying to do.

During the bare second or two it takes to play the measure in tempo, each difficulty needs to be dealt with, separately, and in the order in which it arrives.  Coping with one difficult a moment to early will throw off the  entire process.  It is like an assembly line, each worker takes care of a specific task and then passes things on to the next worker who then does their step.   A worker cannot do their step in the process until the worker before them in the line has completed their step.

What follows are details of the steps that Irving and I found – once he played the measure at an extremely slow tempo.

I do not think these same steps would work for every individual, with every shape of hand, with every complement of fingers.  But it is illustrative of the process itself, which each pianist can then tailor to their own  circumstances.

Beat two going into beat three.

#1: Play the three notes in the right hand on beat two.

#2: Release the lower two notes while continuing to hold the top note.

#3: Substitute another finger for the pinkie on af5.

#4:  Step 3 allows for a more legato execution of the af5 to the g5 to the f5.

#5: One now finds the hand in a position from which it is much easier to get to the particular hand distribution needed for the chord on the third beat.

If it is still difficult to get from the last thirty second note f5 back to the g5 that lies within the chord the chord on beat three, there is a second fake: when playing the thirty second note g5, continue holding down while playing the next thirty second note, f5.

As a further step, you can even hold the g5 into and through the chord on beat 3.

These steps, done in that order, will solve that measure for many pianists who have been intimated by the opening of this sonata.

The segue from one step to the next, however, needs to be handled with an exquisite sense of timing, a rhythm of its own independent of the rhythm of the notes, the rhythm of the body doing first one thing and then another.

When attempting to do these steps in order for the first time, do not try to do it in tempo.  Put a fermata, as long a pause as you would like, after you have done each step.  Don’t worry about going on to the next step until you  feel completely ready.  We a series of motions need to be executed rapidly, it benefits from spreading out the required motions in time, almost as if you are setting them side by side in space, which permits you to dwell for as long as you like on each part.

What we have done for this measure is an analysis that is just a matter of mechanics (though not requiring a degree in physics).  It requires careful and genuine regard for the details of one’s anatomy and how each part wants to behave if it could have its ‘druthers’.  If we observe the process carefully we will find just what motions are appropriate and as well as the time that should be given to each.

(I am going to try to import a photo of the first measure)

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Where Does Sound Come From?

Stranded on a dessert island.

Imagine a person born blind, living alone, on a proverbial deserted island, out of touch with society, surviving through what she can grasp with her hands.  Sight has never had an influence on her notion of reality.

From a hidden vantage point we notice that a bird is singing near where she is standing.  We assume she hears it; but cannot see it.   For her there is only a certain quality of sound, to which only we can give the name bird.  For her, it never gets beyond being just a sound, although she can distinguish one sound from another on the basis of its quality.

Thus she is someone who 1) has never seen, 2) never seen a bird, and 3) wouldn’t be able to conceive that there is something called a bird.  There are simply no past connections between the sense of sound and the sense of sight.  There is nothing linking the sound of the bird with the sight of a bird.

If the question “why” arises in her mind, probably in the form of “why this sound and not another sound”, the question can only be posed by her within the domain of time and not space: “why do I hear that sound now and not at another time.”

At this moment, a miracle occurs.

Our subject can now see.  One of the first things that happens is that she sees a bird, although it is not at that moment singing.  Thus at this point  there is no reason for her to form any sort of link between the sound of the bird and the image of the bird in front of her.

Some scientists now enter the scene.

They introduce themselves, and present her with a series of pictures.  Included is a picture of the same species of bird that she has been hearing.  She is asked to choose from among the pictures the one she thinks would be most closely associated with the sound she already knows.

This request perplexes her.  She cannot even understand the general form of the question.  At this stage of the story, sight is still new to her.  She knows of no reason why a sight and a sound should be related to each other, even that they could be related to each other.   While the sound, for the scientists is the “sound of a bird“, she has no need to make, or even conceive, such a statement.

She has no grounds for choosing one picture as against another.  This makes it arbitrary which picture she chooses.  If she is “artistic” by nature, perhaps she may form an aesthetic comparison: which sight feels like it goes with this sound.

Her judgment in this matter cannot yet be based on cause and effect.  And even if she has a notion of cause and effect from her previous experiences in which there was no sight, sound as far as she can tell, needs no cause.

She expostulates.

“Excuse me”, she asks, “are you saying that a sound requires a sight to cause it?  That among all the random lines and shapes I see, which seem aimlessly distributed in space, there are certain lines and shapes that for a reason I cannot conceive ‘belong’ to each other, stand out from the other lines and shapes because of a mysterious relationship, which in turn you call the cause of the sound I have been hearing – not just now, but whenever I hear it.

When you speak of this mysterious connection between just certain lines and shapes, you use the strange word  ‘object’, as if by saying that word it should be obvious to me why just those lines and shapes clump together with each other.  And then, now that I supposedly believe in something called ‘the object’ whatever an object is, it is also the cause for the sound – something that never seemed necessary to me for the sound to occur.   Why should there be such a complicated and seemingly arbitrary way of connecting things in my mind, based on an invisible (at least to me) concept called ‘object’, without which, you say, I would not hear my sounds.  Furthermore that I have to choose among several of these objects, and pronounce the words ‘this object is the cause of what I hear?’  That sounds like an enchanter’s spell.  My universe was full and complete without sound requiring a cause.  Being sighted is sure a complex thing.”

At last she picks one of the pictures. “If I pick this picture today can I pick another picture tomorrow to be the cause of this particular sound in my head?  I ask you this because for now, none of the pictures that you show me bear any inner resemblance to the sound that I know.”  The psychologists say: “No, you must believe that a sound arises in your consciousness because of a certain event happening in space, which something has to do with a particular object that you see, and always that object and not another.”

She comes to her “senses”.

She is left alone for a few days to ponder this perplexing situation, a situation that until now, without sight, had no reason or necessity  to exist.

During one of these days she just happens to hear the sound of the bird at the same time that she is looking at a bird.  This may have happened on the preceding days, but this time she notices that the beak of the bird moves in tandem, in time, with the occurrence of the sound.  She knows this much more because of time rather than space.  The togetherness of the sight and the sound is based on a common moment in time.

This forms the basis of a series of ongoing experiences by which the sound of the bird is gradually linked in her mind to the image of the bird.

As with the pictures of shown by the psychologists to the girl, sights that are visible to a growing, young child at only at certain times, during for example a concert, are only gradually coordinated by that child with something seen in space in the concert hall.  It turns out that the people who are holding musical instruments in their hands seem to make motions that are most consistently synchronous in time with the changes of the qualities of the sounds.

Here’s the first important point.  Once such an association is made by the child, he or she forgets that there was a time when no such association had been made.

The second point is: was either the woman on the island, or the person in the concert hall, missing anything crucial when they was unable to relate the object ‘bird’ or the object ‘violin’ with a certain specific sound quality of sound?  I say no.  Nothing essential to our understanding and appreciation of sound is added to by the tacking onto the sound a relationship with sight.  And in the concert hall, it adds nothing important to essential qualities of the music as sound alone.*

For those of us who do not need such distractions as sight offers, and can remain glued to the sounds of the piece, we enter an ideal realm of pure relationships between pure sounds, closed off from everything else, and not lacking a thing.

* It is for some but not all of the concert goers, that visual impressions can serve as a distraction or refuge from just having to listen to sound from one moment to the next.  For them there are the distractions of the appearance of the concert hall.  For them, too, there is the all important information in the program notes, which they are relived to believe captures something essential that they miss in the progression of the sounds alone.  But thanks to the program notes, they are able to go up to someone at intermission and say, wisely: “wasn’t it wonderful how the composer used the brass section in the second movement of the symphony to create a delicate halo of sound around the rest of the orchestra!”.


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Chords; Plus a Tip About Legato

Irving is playing the prelude in C Major from Book One of the Well Tempered.

Do the notes of a chord need to sound simultaneously or need at least to have sounded in sequence, for the chord to be there in our aural consciousness?

The goal I propose is to realize, with the ear, that the chord is already there at the very beginning of each new measure.   How many notes does the student need to play in the new measure before they “hear a chord”, as a whole.   At first one might think it is from three to five notes.  Indeed, at five notes every note of the chord has had a chance to sound.

What we hear when we perform is a delicate balance of sounds arriving through the outer and sounds coming out of our musical imagination.  When we consider it from this point of view, a chord is already present, in its entirety, as soon as all its notes are sounding either to the outer ear or to the ‘inner’ ear.

Irving and I worked on his “hearing” the chord at, or even before, his playing the first note of the next measure.   Or, at least for it to translate from expectation to sound as early as possible in the measure.    The chord, rather than materializing itself during the measure, instead “reaches out” and “embraces” the notes of the measure as they sound.  The notes from ‘outside’ feel the attraction of the chord from the inside in a way analogous to how iron filings are bent into alignment to a magnet’s lines of force.

Our ultimate goal was to play the melody (in this piece all the melody notes are chord-tones) as if we already heard the entire chord.  That the chord is ‘there’ the moment the melodic phrase began.  To put it somewhat dramatically “the chord is always there”.

Another points of view on a chord:

Another way we looked at a chord was to think that the separate chord notes, and the order in which they would sound sequentially through, time ‘held’ or ‘contained’ in the simultaneity of its notes sounding together at once.  The beauty of the situation is once the chord is compressed into a simultaneous experience, all sense of the order in the chord tones will sound is lost to the ear.  The joy is to undergo the process by which we learn in what fashion the chord unfurls itself into a sequence of notes in time.

We practiced extracting single notes, one by one, from the simultaneity of the chord.  We allowed the same note to be pulled out of the chord more than once.  We allowed for some of the chord notes, once liberated from the simultaneity of the chord, to be connected, in this ‘outer’ space of time, by passing tones, and other tones of embellishment.

Tricks with time:

A way of retaining the effect of the notes sounding together while playing the melody, is to hold each note of the melody over into all the following notes of the melody.  Much like playing the melody with the pedal down.  At first the notes emerge separate and liberated from the implied simultaneous chord, but only to start accreting again into a simultaneous sound.   The melody is then an intermediate phase between the simultaneous chord and the simultaneous chord.

A more “chordal” way of hearing an arpeggio:

Play an arpeggio over several octaves holding the pedal down throughout.  Usually when we reach the final note of an arpeggio, we simply move on to the next notes printed in the score.  But in this case, the final note is not the end of the sound of the arpeggio, just the beginning of the point when all the notes in the chord are resonating together.  topping point, we keep the right pedal down so we can here all the previously made sounds resonate together.  We can continue to let this chord or cluster ring for seconds or more until it has slowly died away.  It’s an entirely new aesthetic experience: a decrescendo-ing chord, with ample time to hear conjure with the effect of all those notes sounding together.


After a while Irving could play a melody in such a way that one almost was convinced that he was hearing a chord sounding throughout the duration of melody, accompanying each of the notes.  From time to time it was apparent from his playing that the current chord had just ceded its presence a new chord, which in turn reached out to embrace and enclose the current notes of the melody.

A related tip – about legato:

If you want to create a legato sound in a series of sequential notes, first play a group of the adjacent notes in the melody as a simultaneous cluster.  It doesn’t matter if the cluster is dissonant or consonant.   Now extract the notes one by one from that cluster.  Think of the melody notes as already latent already in the cluster.  Our job, as legato players, is to feel the glue between the notes that comes from, not just from how the end of one note connects to the next note, but by the fact that hear them already connected as in the cluster.*

For a legato connection between just two notes, just play first the two notes together, and then play them in sequence, but in your inner ear keep them glued together.

Sometimes I will think of legato as a group of notes that leave behind them in time a “thick trail”.  Like the ice crystals trailing behind a jet that is already at a high altitude.  Like your hand is a large paintbrush which, as you move your hand in space, leaves a thick sinuous line on the canvas.

*As we start the melody it is as if we have a “pre”-memory in time of what the cluster will be when we finish the last note in the group.

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Maintaining Control of Both Hands

Cross fertilization of the hands, bordering on hybridization

Bach: The Italian Concerto: II

Irving is having difficulties maintaining control over both hands at once.  I attribute this to the very different rhythmic character of each hand (in general, the right hand has faster notes while the left hand has relatively slower notes).

He has been trying to maintain separate but simultaneous control of each hand.  This wasn’t working.  To solve this, we established a process in which the notes in one hand could flow back and forth into notes in the other hand.

An example:

A frequent occurrence in the movement is for the left hand, as part of its melody, to play an eighth note on the first beat of a measure, and then, after a pause of a thirty-second note, the right hand plays three thirty-second notes as part of its melody.*

In this situation, we connected legato between the left hand eighth note at the beginning of the measure and the right hand thirty-second note that followed a thirty-second later.

There were also the analogous occurrences when the right hand melody contained several thirty-second notes followed by the left hand playing an eighth note.  We formed a sonic bridge between the last right hand note and the left hand note.

Unlike the more usual procedure in Bach, which is to separate the voices, we did the opposite.  We fused two voices together to create a single, new voice line: one that was a hybridization of each of the two original voices.

In this way the sound of one hand could cross-fertilize with the sound of the other, creating a series of “shunts” interconnecting their notes.  The next note in one hand could derive its momentum, both pulse-wise, and melody-wise, from the note just prior to it in the other hand.

It was the ear that forged these unions, and the body responded by organically connecting the two hands.  Each hand took renewed life from the other hand.

*In many of these cases the right hand had just tied the last note of the previous measure over into the downbeat of the new measure.

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