A Chopin Nocturne; the Boundary Between Heard and Imagined Sound
S.B.’s lesson on 7/11/19: Chopin: Nocturne in C Minor, Op. 48 / 1.
The piece begins with two solitary c-s (c2-c3). A beat later C is joined by other notes belonging to a C Minor chord. At what point do we begin to hear or sense the full C Minor chord? We may think that one beat is not a long time. That very soon after we play c2, any ambiguity as to identity of the harmony during the first half of the measure will disappear, as the hands complete the C Minor chord on the second beat. But subjectively that first beat can last a long time. Either the pianist, or the listener already quite familiar with the piece, must imagine the rest of the C Minor chord sounding (c2–g3-ef4-g4–g5) before the second beat arrives, while only the C naturals on the first beat are still in the outer ear.
The same applies for all the other half measures in the opening. The pianist should have a pre-vision (sic) – a “pre-audition” – of the full chord in their imagination, as if it is already fully sounding into their outer ear. One of the most subtle and masterly things a pianist works with when constructing with sound is the middle ground between heard and imagined sound. Memory and anticipation are always weaving together in the consciousness of duration in time. The boundary between the two should not be fixed and definite, but blurred. What the pianist imagines has a tangible effect on what the listener thinks they are hearing.
#2. Things that can spoil a legato in a long phrase.
The first phrase is four measures long. There are several places within it where it requires increased additional focus to keep the sense of legato flow alive.
A. Measure one and the first half of measure two
The presence of a rest can indicate two very different things. One
is to force a break in a melody: to consider something as being two
separate things rather than one continuous thing. The other is to
increase the sense of connection in the melody by having to overcome
an obstacle or gap that has been superimposed upon the melody. It is
like the electric charge crossing the gap in a spark plug. It is like
water building up behind a dam. A pressure, or force, builds up
behind the stoppage of the first note which makes going on to the next
note even more inevitable and accomplished with greater momentum.
B. The first two notes in measure two
The g5 comes in as a quarter note but starts on the and of one. If
you think of this quarter note as two eighth notes tied together, the
easiest place to loose the legato is as the first half of the quarter
note ties over the end of beat one into the first part of beat two.
It is in effect a tie to connect two beats. The force of the flow of
that sound has to spill over the boundary between the two beats. It
is not enough to hear one note, but as if that note began a sudden
crescendo just prior to its second half. It is the rhythm and the
meter that forces this imaginary crescendo upon the otherwise formless
sound that lasts two eighth notes.
C. The tied d5 in measure two going to the ef5.
Immediately after the imaginary crescendo during the first d5 in
measure two, we encounter another situation which can attenuate a
continuous legato. It occurs when a relatively long note is followed
by a relatively short note. In this case the first d5 of the measure
is the longer note, lasting for three sixteenths, and the following
ef5 not only is one sixteenth long, but it also comes in after a tie. A
We normally rely on there being enough resonance left to a note to
effect a soldering of one note in a legato to the next. Otherwise the
sudden change from the end of a longer note. which has already
decayed, to the sudden attack of the next note sounds too much like an
sudden accent and defeats the attempt at the legato. To overcome this
difficulty, the pianist’s ear must track the full duration of the
longer note, instant to instant and, in their imagination, sustain
(prop up) the loudness of the note so as to counterbalance the
decrescendo of the decay. Then they must connect this heightened form
of the end of this note not to the attack of the following note but
the level of sound the next note will have a moment after the attack.
Even when it is just a short note.
D. The repeated c5-s in measure three.
When playing the same note several times in row, do we let the legato
come solely from the pedal? Or do we use the more cumbersome but
elegant way of controlling the key dip and not resorting to the pedal.
Or perhaps some of both? This is the pianist’s decision. The purer
legato is always attained by manipulating the key in question so that
at the instant that the key is released, and a minimal fraction of
inch before it reaches the top of the key dip, the arm is already
overriding the upward motion of the key with a strong downward force
to send the key down again.
E. The g4 in measure four going to the the grace note bf4.
This falls under the heading of a relatively longer note going to a relatively shorter note (see letter ‘C’ above). Pianists will often inadvertently make the legato connection occur from between the note before the grace note to the note to which the grace then goes to. The more sublime legato connection is from the note before to the grace note itself, in spite of its very short duration.
#3. Other things contributing to maintaining constancy of flow in the piece.
The way the pianist releases a chord unintentionally affect the way they
attack of the next chord. Thus, when playing the chords on the offbeats in beginning of the piece, don’t “telegraph” the release of the left hand chords into the attack that started the same chord. Regardless of the duration the pianist wishes to hold these chords (some editions show them staccato) there should be two physically dissimilar gestures, one for the attack, one for the release, with a stasis in between them.
The middle section of the Nocturne, where a series of wide chords is
arpeggiated from one hand into the other. The broken chord is
difficult, regardless of the distances between the notes and fingers,
if the chord is first rendered as a melody of single notes, starting
with the bottom note written in the left hand for that chord, and
ascending leisurely a pitch at a time until finishing the melody with
the highest note of the chord that is written in the right hand. The
pedal can be kept down. The finger that has just played one of the
notes can come off that note the moment the next finger has started
its note. This discourages over-stretching the hand when the melody
is turned back into a chord.
C. The section with double octaves.
S.B. has a small hand and was reluctant to learn the piece.
She pointed out that her fingers are hyper-flexible. Watching her
carefully as she played the octaves, I found myself wanting to say, for
the first time to a student, “You may want to not use all that flexibility.”
I called her attention to the shape of her hand and wrist when playing
an octave, in particular along the length of the fingers and a projection of that axis through the hand and wrist. Her wrist was elevated. The third knuckles of her fingers were at a lower altitude in comparison to the wrist, but because the third knuckles hyperextended to a strong degree her second knuckles were at a much higher altitude than the third knuckles.
I suggested that this contour had innate disadvantages when seeking the greatest extension between the fingers without inducing tension. That without coercing anything, she could encourage a shape from wrist to fingers that was more in the spirit of being like, or in the direction of a
straight angle. To coax her hand into that shape, she could rest the
three middle fingers on the surfaces of random keys lying in between
the pinky note and the thumb.
This improved the sound of her octaves, as well as their quality of
resonance, evenness, and her alacrity in changing from one octave to
* Often when I said I noticed a difference she did not. Sometimes it
wasn’t so much that she didn’t notice the improvement, but that the
improvement was short of her ultimate goal and desire. This time
however, she smiled and said, “Oh, that was much better, and much
The Fusion of the Hands
A.B. playing Albeniz: Orientale
As a general principle the left hand should always be playing with and encouraging the right hand. When nothing is written for the left hand in a particular measure, then, for practicing purposes, the left hand can either provide notes that support the right hand harmonically, or make gestures as if playing these notes but without sounding them – as long the physical effort involved is tantamount to or greater than the effort that would be made to sound the notes.
In the section where A3 is held and the remaining fingers play a series of parallel triads in inversion, AB’s right hand feels insecure; he says that it doesn’t feel balanced; the fingers feel awkward trying to play the exact notes of the triad. I asked him to play the octave a2-a3 in the left hand, and to re-play with each triad in the right hand. “Miraculously”, his right hand no longer felt out of balance. The reason that it is best when both hands are lending mutual support to each other is because we are bilaterally symmetric creatures – our arms and legs are mirror images of each other.
If we interlace the fingers of our two hands and then move our hands conjointly around in space (up and down, sideways, it doesn’t matter), we are no longer automatically conscious of what one hand is doing versus what the other hand is doing. They have lost their individual identities once fused together in a larger, single, natural entity. Starting with this larger unit, we can then farm out assignments to each hand. There is a ‘pulse’ generated by the center of the body that travels like an electric current down both arms in concert. This pulse can also cross from arm to arm in analogy to how the optic nerves crisscross on the way from the eyes to the brain. We should assume, in both cases, that each gains support from the other.
The hands form a unity such that each hand suffers when that unity is broken.
A chord is the same regardless which hand plays it:
In the same section of the piece, where a sequence of parallel triads occur over a held a3, A.B. says that if he uses his right hand to play all three notes of each triad, his ear is more able to be aware of the chord that is formed by the three notes. I said that ideally, we want to reach a point where what we hear is not dependent in any way on which hand is playing which notes of the chord. The chord exists as a single sound unit regardless of which notes in the chord are played by the right hand and which by the left hand – it’s always the same chord with the same sound. Physical differences are secondary.
An Unbroken Persistence or Continuity of Sound
J.M’s lesson around Friday June 14, 2019 on the Beethoven “Andante Favori”
#1. The beginning of the piece.
Stated ideally there should be no difference between, on the one hand, playing and sustaining a single chord throughout the first measures of the “Andante”, and, articulating all the written notes (in their written rhythms). It is as if the latter “lived inside” the former, but that the former is where the unbroken continuity of the sound comes from.
At first these two ways of playing the opening will strike the pianist as sounding extremely different. There will be a constant feeling that something is missing in the former that can only be supplied by the latter. However, by making several “side by side” (sequential) comparisons of the former with the latter, the perceived difference between the two will gradually seem to subside, as the former begins to inhabit the latter, and
the latter seeks the stability of the former.
The goal is to play the written passage with an absolute connectivity of sound, sounds that fuse together in spite of time, which in turn brings on changes in pitch and rhythm.
It is perhaps more realistic to say that former and latter are descriptions of two ideally defined end points of a continuous spectrum of possibilities that lie between the stasis a single, enduring chord, and the interruptiveness, or disjointedness, of one single note replacing another.
At the beginning of the lesson J.M. was too close to the latter end of the spectrum, and we wanted to seek a position more in the middle, that preserved the best qualities of both ends.
What we’ve said about the opening measures of the “Andante Favori” can
apply as well at any point along the course of the piece. While playing through the work, as soon as one feels they are loosing the connectivity in the flow of sound, perhaps attained in the earlier measures of the piece, as soon as one hears that the measures begin ‘breaking up’ disjointed parts, one can form a new series of side by side comparisons of the two extreme
states, bringing them closer together, until even changes in rhythmic values from longer notes to sixteenths or thirty seconds. Still, feel that they emerge out a non-change, a constancy, a prolongation of the fabric of sound-as-sound.*
Here is a tip on how to bridge the gap between the two ends of the spectrum: disruption and continuity in sound. Take the first chord of the piece and repeat it exactly, in the rhythm of the opening passage. Instead of changes in pitch, only rhythm remains, with a droning over and over of the same chord. When repeating the chord, do not let its sound ever disappear. Play the notes of the chord in the balance (or aftertouch) of the keys so that each new intonation of the chord fits, like a tongue and groove, into a prolongation of the previous chord. An unabated, yet murmuring sound.
#2. The measures with ascending and then descending parallel thirds
in the right hand.
Play c2-c3–c4-c5 and hold it. Once that sound is imprinted on the musical memory, imagine that that is all you hear when playing the written notes. All the thirds seek their home in this prolonged unison. I held her right arm, pressing downwards with medium pressure: so something physical was constant that underlay the changes that were happening in pitch and rhythm.
I said: if you were able to play all the thirds at once, creating a cluster based on an extended C-major scale, that cacophonous cluster could or would act as a model for the constancy of sound that persists and underlies the activity of the changing thirds which show up as an archipelago of islands in that sea of sound.
* The pure presence of sound: what is left to sound when one discounts the pitch of the sound, its loudness, timbre and duration.
More Beautiful Sounding Octaves: for the Medium-Size Hand
When I play octaves, there is a tendency, at least in my-sized hand, to have the pinkie and the thumb move towards each other when contact the keys. But it is worth sometimes practicing in way so that the tip of the pinkie as well as that of the thumb should move in a line along the longitude of their key. This requires my attention, because the hand is already spread for the octave, and the first and fifth fingers moving slightly towards each other happens naturally. Especially for the thumb it is a more natural movement. So, just once in a while, practice octaves so that those fingers move in a plane so that they go directly and horizontally towards the body in an extension of the longitude of their keys.
The muscles needed to move the thumb and pinkie in this direction move in these constrained directions require first, in the case of the right pinkie, an extreme flexion of the third knuckle, down and aimed to the right as it moves in the direction of the body, aided also somewhat by a flexion in the right side of the wrist. In the case of the right thumb it should practice its motion by slowly tracing over an imaginary straight line extending beyond the lip the key aimed towards the body. The third knuckle, where it attaches to the wrist, is prominent in keeping the thumb congruent with this line. As the motion is made the thumb is always compensating for the desire to move outwards and away from the second finger.
Even More Thoughts on How to Play a Bach fugue
A.B.’s playing of the first fugue of book one of the Well Tempered has improved by leaps and bounds. Due to the high quality of his mind he can contemplate and at the same time be in wonderment at the amazing things, small and large, going on in the piece.
Here is what arose on Thursday, May 16, at his latest lesson.
When he is physically tense, the first place it shows up is in the form of movements with his lips and mouth. He usually makes one such motion per note .
Last week we worked on doing away with these mouth motions. Sometimes such motions help generate pulse and flow but just as often they force the piece to come out uttered in little tiny pieces. A phrase cannot flow through time if it is comes to a stop and then resumes with each new note. Frequent mouth motions can cause unintentional separations between one note and the next. A note should be like each new bead on a necklace. Without gravity and the string holding the beads together the necklace looses its shape and meaning.
He was able to control this for a measure or so before the mouth motions obstinately crept back in.
We worked out a compromise. If he is to make a separate mouth motion for every note, let that motion be that of the expelling of puffs of air. Later on the air can be let out more continuously. The continuing flow of air is the physical equivalent of the flow of sound in a phrase – just ask any singer. The piano, and many other instruments, model their flow and expressivity on the human voice.
Joe: If you think of the physical actions you make while playing, now that they are not the cause of the sounds. Nor are you yourself the cause of the sounds. Sounds just “pass you by”, flowing by your consciousness.
The general question arose of how do we stay on course if we make a mistake and deviate from the printed score. We have to find a way of getting back on track as rapidly as possible – hopefully the the next note. An important component of the alacrity with which you get back on track lies in the answer to the question: how do you react, both morally (I’ve made a mistake and a mistake is bad thing) as well as emotionally (what does it to our self confidence , our self worth). Any negative reaction of either type makes it more difficult to find your way back onto the tracks, and makes it harder, in space-wise in terms of finding where we are in the score, and time-wise, to resume the correct flow.
Here is another way of stating the problem of getting back on the tracks. How quickly can we begin at any random point in the piece (whether at the beginning of a measure or even at an arbitrary point within a measure) and resume the ease and flow that we have at the place if we started the piece from the beginning.
It is good to lard the piece with a plethora of random spots from all of which you want to learn to be able to start up the piece, and ideally take no time to get on board the moving train and flow ahead with the correct notes and rhythms.
Just like coming in at the middle of a conversation and quickly figure out what is being talked about, every note in a piece is (or can be) the beginning of that piece. B.A. summarized how hard this was for him to do: sometimes when I start from a random point in a piece it doesn’t even sound like it is from the same piece. And, where did these notes come from and where are they going … how quickly can one become aware of the answers to these. The answer to the last part: as instantaneously as possible. This reminds me of the famous Gauguin painting “D’où Venons Nous / Que Sommes Nous / Où Allons Nous” (Where are we coming from, what are we, where are we going?”. To put it in another way: how very important it is to spot the common character and individuality of a piece even just within a single minute detail from that piece.
When you practice starting the piece from a random point, just play until you are back on track, don’t keep playing to the end. You want to leave practice time for starting from other points in the piece.
Fingers getting tangled:
There are times when the hands draw very near to each other, touching, overlapping, interfering with each other. In particular the thumbs (and even the second fingers) will cross over each other and afterwards uncross. This situation must be coordinated down to tenths of a second. It is a “pas de deux” between two fingers / hands, wherein the bodies of the ‘dancers’ need to fuse as much as possible into one entity that is constantly changing shape as a whole. Every motion on the part of one dancer must be fused with a simultaneous motion from the other dancer. It is as if there is a common consciousness among the two.
The general question arose as to where does one phrase ends in a Bach fugue and another phrase begins.
This can become marvelously complicated because, in a fugue, two or more voices may be in the process of sounding the main theme, yet, at a given moment one of these voices may be at the beginning of the architectural shape of the theme through time, while another somewhere in the middle of the architecture of the theme, and a third voice might be in the midst of concluding the end of its theme statement.
How does the pianist simultaneously make one voice sound like it is ending while another is beginning when the two voices are clearly both stating the same theme. B.A. had a nice way of putting this: how does a voice say that it’s ending.
Put in terms of the chords that underlie the passing notes in the voice melodies – frequently the shift from one such note governing chord in the harmony of the fugue to the next such chord, does not occur simultaneous in all the voices. One voice may enters the domain of the next chord before the others. They are harbingers of the next chord; pathfinders. Another voice may arrive into the new chord not until the other voices have clearly established the chord.
Situation: one finger is holding an extended note while other fingers in the same hand are enunciating a series of changing notes. This requires that the finger holding the note be very flexible and can change its overall stance in response to changes in what the other fingers are doing. The key to clear articulation often lies less in the equalization of the fingers playing the changing notes, and more in the ability of the finger holding its note to suddenly change it’s alignment with the keyboard, and its stance relative to the other fingers of the hand while, at no instant, losing its the overall equilibrium.
Sometimes a student is confused when the main theme starts on a different note compared to the opening of the fugue. If the change of starting note represents a change of harmonic region, then it makes makes sense to the modern player. However, it is harder situation to make sense out of when when the theme entrance is still in the original harmonic region. Thus a theme entrance, instead of starting on the original series of notes at the beginning (C D E F …) begins instead with D E F G, or E F G A, etc.. That instead of representing a modulation, it represents the desire of the theme to enter on a different note of the C Major scale but cling obstinately to the same scale. Some of us may think of this as a hark back to the Catholic Church modes of the middle ages, in which case D E F G is simply the beginning of the “Dorian” mode, E F G A the beginning of the “Phrygian: mode, etc.. But it is not always clear that this was how Bach may have been thinking. Perhaps the underlying constant is the C Major scale (or tonic of another harmonic region of the fugue) and how it stubbornly controls things even a theme entrance tries to start on a different note of the scale than the tonic.
A part of fugue technique is to instantaneously move one finger left or right, from one note to another, regardless of how far apart those notes are on the keyboard. This is not something mastered by gradually practicing such a motion faster and faster. It is more the absolute determination ahead of time to be on the second note zero seconds (zero fractions of a second) after the first note ends. In other words: for the finger to find itself already on the new note, without any travel time in between. This is quite possible. The body is capable of doing this if one insists this be the case, a determination that starts before one starts moving the finger at all. Such instantaneous change of by just one fingers promotes a greater clarity and crispness in the consecutive notes of a voice. The goal is that no connection of one note to the next be any more sluggish than any other.
This itself is a component of the general ability of the entire hand snap from one hand position to another position. Sometimes fingering alone will not provide a sense of connection (even if allows for singer substitutions). It may require an action like the triggering a mouse trap: with little or no preparation, no anticipation, and seemingly no time at all taken to make the change in position.
To achieve such alacrity in changing the shape of the hand it is necessary for the arms as well as the hands to be weightless, and the muscles in the hand being ‘at attention’ but when the moment comes for the change in the shape of the hand, offers no resistance to the onset of that motion. It as if the muscle is passive and is being moved from an external source of power. Even the forces that initially raise the arms to the keyboard can be felt in the body as if the arm was being moved not by its own muscles, but a force external to the entire body. This feeling can be induced by imagining the arm belongs to a puppet, and an unseen puppeteer moves the arms upwards by pulling on the strings that connect the puppeteer the puppet’s arms.
At a lesson the teacher can literally provide this external force. For instance supporting the student’s hands so they will feel to the student as if they are floating on the keyboard rather than pressing down on the keys. Additionally, should their be any pressure downwards (other than to activate a key) it is more easily detected by the student if they are pushing down on another person than an inanimate object like the keyboard.
We noted a connection between the technique of finger substitution on a held note (in anticipation of using a more convenient finger on the next note) and the technique exercise found, as in “Hanon”, of using the fingering 4 3 2 1 (in the right hand) to repeat the same note four times in a row, and then to do the same on other notes, throughout the exercise. Though the overt purpose of this exercise is to learn fast repetition of the same note (on the assumption that changing from one finger to the next is faster than using the same finger over and over again) it also prejudices the hand for doing a quick substitution of one finger for another on one note without re-sounding the note.
A.B. brilliantly put many of the above points into a common perspective by saying: it is all about who is doing what to whom and when.
We concluded the same lesson by working briefly on the companion prelude in C Major from Book One.
Part of A.B.’s quest has been to play the notes in the prelude as evenly as possible. So much of this depends the balance between the notes of the common chord that is outlined by the succession of notes in each measure.
To make these chord more obvious to the ear let the player while playing, “densify” each chord. For instance, if there is an opening between the written notes for an additional note of the chord, add that note to the chord and play all the notes that now belong to the chord all at once as a vertical sonority. For instance in measure 2, there is room for an f4 between the d4 and a4, so that we create a five-note chord: c d f a d. Or taking it a step forward we can also add a c5 between the a4 and the d4, forming a six-note chord. The chord, has been a D Minor-7 chord the entire time, but the additional chord tones just make the chord stand out more clearly to the ear. This can be done, at one time or another, for every chord in the Prelude when Bach’s written notes allow for such additions.
Note that the additional notes mentioned so far all lie in the range defined by the lowest note of a measure and the highest note of the same measure. An equally valid technique, and one more vivid to the ear, would be to add additional notes belonging to the same chord that are lower than the printed lowest note and the same for the highest note written in the measure.
This way you can generate chord of 8 or more notes, and, if you add the use of the pedal. chords of any number of notes (culling notes from the bass range of the keyboard and the high treble). If you play such a chord then play the chord made up out of just the written in the measure, you will gain a sudden sense of how the written chord is a just a part of the larger chord. And whatever the sound and mood characteristics of the larger chord, they are transferred into the more compact form of the chord without any loss resonance and character.
In terms of this grouping every note of the measure into the unified sound of a single chord (versus hearing just separate notes), it is the pinkie note in the right hand that is “furthest” from the left hand note that is the first note of the measure. And not so much in space as measured on the along the keyboard but in time that has passed since the first note. For some this creates a feeling of the pinkie being a dangling participle after the previous four notes . The feeling can occur even more so when the pinkie plays the last note of the measure prior to the unseating of the current chord and succession by the next chord. Some pianists have a tendency to have their pinkie ‘separate’ from the rest of the hand when an articulating a note that is beyond a certain distance from the thumb, with the result is that there is less rather than more control of how the pinkie notes fits together with the notes the other fingers are playing. There is sometimes a poker “tell” observable by the teacher when the student is singling out the pinkie and feeling like it is not part of the hand. It is if the pianist raises the pinkie higher off the keyboard than the other fingers before playing its note – an attempt on the student’s part to gain better physical control over the pinkie but usually with the result that the pinkie sounds disconnected from the other fingers.