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.
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.
Complex counterpoint in Bach
Some of the most complex wonders of Bach’s counterpoint, such as the F minor Sinfonia or the first movement of the B minor flute sonata, result from a procedure that is structurally, surprisingly simple.
There are three voices in the Sinfonia and three in the flute sonata (two in the keyboard and one in the flute). At the same time, there are several distinct motives present, any one of which can appear in one voice or another at any time. There are often three different motives appearing simultaneously in the three voices.
This suggests a creative procedure similar to making a mosaic. In a mosaic, there may be only several differently shaped pieces, or tesserae. From these few pieces, the entire structure of the work is created.
Though there is great variety in the sound of the piece, the parts making it up at any one moment are just one of the severally shaped pieces of the mosaic.
The counterpoint is most effective when these basic pieces are as different from each other as is possible. The F Minor Sinfonia is the perfect example of this. There are just three motives: one is a series of slow, chromatically descending quarter notes; the second is a series of three eighth notes, a movement up of a third and then down of a second; the last is faster, moving motive in sixteenths and thirty seconds. Bach creates an entire universe, aesthetically full and complete, with these three motives that each take up abode in one voice and then another. What genius!
While artists may follow the procedure of “separating” the voices in their playing, sometimes the greatest separation effect comes from following a single motive as it migrates from voice to another. I first discovered this principle in the five voice fugue in C-sharp minor in Book One, especially after the eighth notes begin.
Quality distinguished from quantity
Quantity versus quality, the immeasurable versus the measurable.
Non-typically, Irving has chosen to start work on a piece by Debussy.
This affords an opportunity to revise his customary way of approaching a new piece.
Part One: Keeping score on the number of wrong notes.
Usually, when Irving begins a practicing session, he measures his improvement in direct proportion to the increasing percentage of right notes that he plays and the decreasing number of errors.
This means he is devoting his conscious effort to ‘measurable’ quantities (the pitches of notes) rather than other things that are, in contrast to quantities, best termed qualities that are evoked in his playing.
How do we sidestep his “pointillistic” application of correct notes to the piece?
The first step was a bit drastic. I asked him to leave the right pedal down until a large group of notes were all swimming around in a common and confusing sounding tonal pool.
We then refined this so the notes that were thrown in the pool were only those that were chord-tones according to the current harmony. By doing this, a chord was being gradually built up, one note at a time, until all the notes of the chord were sounding together.
Now came the leap of musical imagination together with a slight derailing of the forward arrow of time. “The sound of this chord-cluster in its entirety,” I said, “should be in your imagination from the moment you play the first sound of the group that is going to form the chord at the end of the process. It is like a magical pedal that not only combines the sounds left in the wake of each sound, but can also summon up the presence of the sounds that remain to be heard.”
Once this effect is achieved with regularity, the next step is to re-create that feeling at will, with or without relying on the literal application of the pedal.
Part Two: Some other the desirable ‘qualities’ to evoke in the Debussy.
One note then the next:
A new note doesn’t always ‘eclipse’ an old note. The new note should not be opaque, in time, to the memory of the previous note. Let each note blend into the next, yielding its essence as an inheritance to the next note.
Melodies should seem to leave thick ‘trails’ behind their advancing wave front in time. The combined presence of their notes persists in time. Even without the pedal, the melody should sound in the imagination as if it were sounding in a perfect echo chamber; each part of the melody is inseparably bound to the overall shape of that melody.
Even in the early stages of reading a new piece, the pianist sometimes should try to play a passage in the intended final tempo. Otherwise the pianist who is interested primarily in right notes will automatically exclude from his consciousness the unique musical qualities of the piece that will animate and give life to the performance that will only become manifest in the piece’s proper tempo. Make the piece yield up its secrets before all the notes are learned.
Quality is so fundamentally different than quantity that the notes, if they are merely correct, eclipse the ability to modulate and shape sound, create tonal imagery, and release – as a flower giving off an aroma – all that is non-quantitative and miraculous about the piece and its sound.
Tempo can be used generally as a tool with which to experiment for evoking the qualities inherent in a piece. Playing a passage in its final tempo* sooner rather than later in the learning process, including wrong notes, will bring us to a realization of the indefinable aesthetic essence of the passage, rather than repeating the passage over and over in a gradually increasing tempo. The downside of approaching the final tempo gradually and incrementally is that the desired tempo may never actually be reached. Why? Because the successful execution, in the final tempo, depends as much on a clear musical vision of the aesthetic qualities of the piece as it does on physical technique. We need the qualities of the piece to guide and lead the notes into yielding their musical essence that transcends the actual identity of the pitches.
* whether this final tempo is slower or faster than the initial practice tempo
Synchronizing with the student at the lesson
Synchronizing communication between the student and the teacher is a very important part of any lesson.
There is a tempo to the way the student and the teacher interact that varies from student to student and lesson to lesson. One of the most important factors in their dialogue is how well-synchronized their minds are.
1. Here is an example of lack of synchronization. Patricia is a dynamic and forceful person with an extremely active mind. She is used to taking charge of things. When I start expressing a thought to her about how to improve the current passage, perhaps trying to demonstrate it at the piano, before she has had a chance to understand the idea I’m conveying, she has already started playing the passage again. If she had waited another few seconds she might have understood the gist of what I was trying to communicate, but as it was, she formed a different idea of what I meant. My concern in this is not that I have been interrupted, but that no communication resulted.
We have working on this issue, and gradually we are learning to ‘tune’ ourselves to each other.
2. Rachael is a student who, in her professional life, in an executive. She wants information communicated to her quickly. Once she gets the gist of what she thinks I’m trying to say, she doesn’t care to hear the rest. In this case, most of the adaption has to come from my side. I have learned to sense the moment when she has gotten my idea, usually in the middle of a sentence, at which point I simply stop talking. It has become an easy habit for me, and she appreciates it.
3. With my student Irving, there is another type of timing related factor that effects communication between us. I usually start my feedback by referring to the place in the score about which I’m going to comment. Even if that spot is the one just played a moment earlier, Irving needs a long time to visually locate the spot in the score. Until he does, all that I say is vague or confusing to him. In this case, the best thing is for the teacher to wait for a sign, usually an eye cue, that the student has found the spot, and then start talking about the passage. The teacher cannot expect the student to speed this process up. Often the student is reluctant to inform the teacher that he is still trying to find the place on the page and experiences that terrible feeling of not understanding something that the teacher obviously thinks is simple enough to understand.
Another option with this type of student is to, by default, always point to the place on the page that he is about to talk about.
4. A sensitive time factor in communication is how long the student waits before putting the teacher’s advice into practice. This advice has a short “half-life” during which its effect will carry over into the student’s hands. This time is exceeded if, for instance, the student first speaks about something else, or goes back too far in the score to start playing.
Staying present with the student is a full time occupation, but one that is well worth the effort; the lesson will be more successful and the student will feel seen and heard as an individual.
A useful definition of piano teaching
Piano teaching: the use of a combination of demonstration (for the purpose of imitation) and metaphors (which at best convey something intangible to the student), which the student can internalize. The metaphors are aided by things like tone of voice, tempo of voice, cadence in the voice, enthusiasm, and gesturing.
To me, piano teaching involves:
A creative attempt to enter the student’s mind to see what point of view they are receiving the information you are trying to convey, and then spontaneously translating what you are saying into the student’s personal language.
Adapting the tempo of communication to a rate that neither bores the student or exceeds their rate of comprehension.
Being an advocate for all that is good in the student’s playing and being patient regarding all things that are challenging to the student.
Allowing the motivated and curious student to have varying degrees of control over the sequence of events during the lesson. And by the end of the lesson, although things may have been covered in a different order than the teacher planned, most of those things were dealt with.
Willingness to answer, as accurately as possible, everything the student asks having to do with music and teaching.
Distinguishing between these three types of information:
a. “Do it this way because it is correct.” For example, you played a C-natural instead of a C-sharp.
b. “Do it this way because it is the tradition to do it this way, handed down through generations of teachers and students.” For example, it is traditional to play this part slower.
c. “Do it this way because it is my personal opinion that it should be done this way.”
Otherwise, the student will conflate all three forms and the teacher takes advantage of being in a position of authority.
Not ‘getting in the way’ of the gifted student.