Category: Musicality

Can You Bring Two Things Out at Once? Guiding the Listener

An advanced student with superior musicianship said at their lesson “I want to hear this passage in a certain way and part of this way is to have certain  things stand out in particular. However I can’t succeed bringing them out; or at least not just the things I want to bring out.”

Number one: you haven’t leveled the playing field so that the  notes that you don’t want to bring out are uniformly softer than the notes you do want to bring out. The reason they are not so, is that often you have specific but varying desires as to how loud each of these ‘background’ notes should be. You are musical, so you have specific intentions regarding each  stratum of what you are playing simultaneously.

Now, in piano playing it is generally very difficult to “bring out” two different things at once, because what you do to direct attention to one is occluded in the listener’s ear by what you are doing to pay attention to the other. “Too many cooks spoil …” It is not  impossible to succeed in having the listener be more aware of two things at once, when there are more than two things to choose from – it’s just very difficult. If the ‘things’ we are talking about are individual voices amid tonal polyphony, then succeeding relies less on different (or similar) degrees of loudness assigned to each of two voices. Then, it is a matter of lending an individual character to each of the two voices.

The safer course is to prioritize only one among the things you want to bring out and always direct the listener’s ear in that direction.  The listener needs a clear road map as to what to listen to. The most reliable course is keeping all but the desired voice in the shade.

P.S. Once, at a masterclass, someone was playing the development section of the first movement of the Brahms second piano sonata (Op. 2). Her listeners were confused as to what was going on to the music. I asked her to explain  in words ‘what was going on in the piece at that point’. She gave a brilliant verbal analysis. I then asked her whether she thought her listeners were hearing (or “getting”) all the things she just described. She assumed the answer was that they did. The listeners objected that they did not, and had no idea that the things she had mentioned were actually happening. “But they are so obvious,” she said.

Then I proposed a new tactic. Pretend the listeners are in a state of perfect nescience, or ideal ignorance. Unless you go out of your way to point something out to them, to exaggerate it, they will not recognize that that thing is happening (they will not recognize for  instance that there is a series of sevenths each resolving to a sixth according to a standard species of counterpoint). So she went into the modality of lecturing about the music by playing it. Now her listeners all said, “We hear it now; we get what is going on in this development section.”

The conclusion is that sometimes, no matter the quality of the audience, sometimes you have to play things as if you are saying: “What don’t you get! Don’t you hear these things that are happening in the music?! Can I make it any more obvious? I’m already exaggerating it as it is.”

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The Newness of Time Itself

“Les sons et les parfums tournent dans l’air du soir” (Baudelaire courtesy of Debussy).

Notes, sounds, meld and melt in time. Memory and anticipation interpenetrate each note heard in the present tense. And memory also coerces the immanent future to follow the patterns of the past.

Sometimes, in our performing, this leads to a sense of taking a piece for granted: we’ve heard it all before, nothing is new to us, no surprises are left for us. The piece starts, we dutifully endure through its time span playing each note in its place. The piece ends, we stop playing, we bow and go through the ritual of accepting the praise of the audience.

Are there steps we can take to bring life, spontaneity and freshness, back into the performance. We cannot re-order the notes; we seem to be chained to an ineluctable sequence of cause and effect.  And though we are free to pick up the implication of where the current note seems headed,  when we do get to play the note and hear it through our outer ears, it can remain essentially a surprise. Though we expect time to repeat, we are nonetheless free to consider each next moment an open question. We live in in immanent cloud of possibilities where there is always more than one  direction the music might head next.  When we ‘finally’ get to hear it, all the  possibles are wiped away, effaced in the blatancy of the bright light of  the actual present.  This is no less true when we have wagered on one  particular note and we win the hand: the note we thought would happen did happen. We find that we were ‘correct’ in our assumption of what sound  (not manifested yet in time), does indeed become manifested in the richness of time as it flows into the present.

Yet this bright light of the present, though it remains shining as long as we remain in the present, shines only briefly on any particular note. As far as  the note is concerned, this light is good for only one transient moment.

So if we don’t want to fall back into the darkness of the non-present, somehow we must live within the light of this omnipresent present.

To offset the staid performance is the conviction, remaining in our consciousness, that every note we take the trouble to hear is the first note of the piece. Like a true beginning, like the promise of each day’s  sunrise, it opens up for us a world of infinite possibilities. And for us to maintain this through the very last note of the piece (which itself could have  been followed by another – but just wasn’t).

To the extent that we can we let each note within the piece shed at least some of its accumulation of the past, an accretion that is rapid and inevitable under normal circumstances, the piece fights its way back into a state of alertness and freshness.

Mental presence is the key.

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Shaping an Ostinato-like Section of Repeated Groups of Four Sixteenth Notes

S.E.’s lesson on 9/7/19: Rachmaninoff 3rd concerto. first movement: when the endless sixteenths begin after the first statement of the main theme.

There is a lot of “interlacing” of the hands. I don’t mean simultaneous interlacing, I mean within four consecutive sixteenths some may be with the left hand some may be with the right hand.

This requires laying down a foundation of groups of four clearly stated sixteenths, whose musical contour, crescendo and decrescendo, is always sculpted the same regardless of what the notes are and which hands are playing particular notes. I spoke the words “one two three four”  monotonously, over and over, as S. played through the passage.  This should be done prior to any attempt at phrasing. The one of the four should always sound like the first of a group of four. The two of the four should always sound the second of a group of four. Etc..  This establishes first an unyielding base, over which the more musical details can then flicker and modulate.

While doing this first phase it was noticeable to me exactly where his playing of a sixteenth note was not exactly together with my count.  At today’s session, this took place mostly with the placement of the two following upon the one, of the four sixteenth note groups.

As a way of ‘shading’ from the first stage (mechanically and
metronomically) to stage two, where music ideas played over that surface of rigid evenness, I started counting, not mechanically or in an uninvolved or apathetic tone of voice, as if it were my job, or duty, simply to count evenly, but with shaping, phrasing and expressivity in my voice. I made this  transition without abandoning the syllables “one”, “two”, “three”, “four”. I “rounded” each spoken four note group into a resonant, glittering shape. But rather than shape the phrase in response to inner meaning of each group of pitches, I was more at using a “one size fits all” (one shape fits all) method. My voice was full of emotional expression but it was as if each time I repeated the four syllables, it was less a repeat, but more at an attempt to perfect one, constant, musical shape.

Stage three is to let the two meanings blend, the more idealized emotional and structural content of each perfectly shaped group of four, and how each group different from the others in terms of musical meaning when one added the specific pitches Rachmaninoff chose. The most convenient analogy for what the result is, is seeing an early Italian Renaissance painting by a master, in which the body, for instance of the Virgin, is fully clothed, but the folds of the drapery of the clothes perfectly intimate the shape of the body beneath it.

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Sight Reading Gets in the Way of Learning a New Piece

S.B’s lesson on August 27, 2019

S.B. who is quite musical and is in his early thirties, has great physical coordination at the piano even though he is playing only at an intermediate level. He could be playing at a much higher level, doing more technically challenging music. What is preventing this is his sight reading. If I were to try to place his sight reading scales on a scale from one to ten, it would approximately 2. At the same time, his ability to get around the piano acrobatically is at least an 8. We have tried all sorts of approaches to improving his sight-reading-alacrity; all with minor progress. As he puts it, “Each time I play or practice the same piece again, it is almost like sight reading it again.”

If we wanted him to undertake much more difficult and musically rewarding pieces, we would some have to set a goal of somehow getting rid of the sight reading stage in his learning process, or to put it more  practically, get rid of it to whatever degree possible. To move ahead in this direction we will depend on a third variable in addition to physical  coordination and sigh treading. This variable is his ability to memorize.

His usual method to memorize is to play the entire piece over and over again. However, because his sight reading skill is low, and since each repetition is more like sight reading it again, he does not get gradually more familiar with the piece; his memory doesn’t kick in very much.

We tried a new procedure.

I gave him a random score. I asked him to carefully sightread the first measure, and pay close attention to what notes were being played in his hands. Then, without further ado, try to play that measure by heart. It took just a couple of tries until he was able to do that. At that point we simply played the measure number of times by memory. When it seemed to be locked into place, which was about after the fourth repetition, I asked him to play the measure faster (by memory). Then even faster. This proceeded fairly effortlessly (the physical coordination ability kicking in with its  contribution).

Instead of reading-on in the piece (his usual procedure is try to play through an entire piece), we cleared his mind by talking for a minute on some  irrelevant topic. Then we went through the same exact procedure that we used for the first measure, but this time for the second measure. This proved harder than measure one but not by much.

Then we went into a phase in which I would say in some random order, something like: “play measure two”, “play measure one”, “play measure one” …

After that we began fusing the two measures together into one  continuous unit. The difficulty in this was finding a smooth way of getting from the end of measure one into measure two. This was due to less to an unfamiliarity in how to start measure two and more in doing so when immediately preceded by measure one. I suggested he first try measure two alone, followed momentarily by playing measure one and two.

At the conclusion of this process, he pronounced that on a scale from one to ten, his memorization ability was about a five. So, with the 5 for  memorizing together with the 8 for physical coordination, they will  hopefully, on their own, help him wipe out the 2 for sight reading, simply  because we are minimizing its presence in the learning process.

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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.

#1. Beginning

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
double whammy.

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.

A.

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.

B.

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
the next.*

* 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
easier too”.

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