Category: Performance

Playing Between the Opposites

Stylistic Balance.

A pendulum swings back and forth.  The period of the swing sometimes takes years, sometimes months, sometimes days, sometimes just seconds.

For instance: sometimes the pianist is more aware of the harmonies than the melodies, and on another occasion the other way around.  The teacher’s job is to keep the two in equilibrium.  It is an example of the “Goldilocks” principle: not too hot, not to cold, but just right.

We want to try to maintain, over a prolonged period of time, a balanced position in the middle between two extremes, just as a pendulum set into motion eventually comes to rest in a middle position.*

In talking about this, I like the use of the word “spectrum” because, in addition to the end points, which are the most easily identifiable points, it embraces every possible proportion of blending of the two.   While it is easiest to think in terms of the ends, in this melody and harmony, it is actually the middle positions that are most relevant for the pianist.

Here are some other examples of the idea of spectrum applied to piano playing:

playing too softly                 . . . .              playing too loudly

playing too slowly                . . . .             playing too fast

playing too legato                . . . .             playing too staccato

playing too mechanically    . . . .          playing too dramatically/emotionally

having too much variety     . . . .          playing with too little variety

having too many contrasts     . . . .    playing monolithically

If we wanted, we could add to this list.

It is the nature of thought and language that whenever we come up with one term to describe a person’s playing that there is usually also a term that would be its opposite.

First example:

I told my student Rachael that she was laying too much attention on melody at the expense of harmony.  She took the comment to heart and gradually changed her way of playing in this regard.   Two years later I told her: Rachael you are laying too much attention to the harmony at the expense of the melody.  She responded: “But! two years ago, in fact on October 1st (she has an eidetic memory) you told me I wasn’t laying enough stress on the harmonies.  Which is it?  Logically, they can’t be both true.  Aren’t you contradicting yourself?”

I said: “Is it possible that both statements are true if we take into account an additional reference point: time.  Time passes and things change.  Two years ago I had to exert a lot of force to pull you away from a sole preoccupation with melody, and in the direction of harmony.   Once enough energy is exerted by the teacher to dislodge the student from a frozen position on one end of a spectrum, movement can continue away from that end, pass the midpoint where harmony and melody are balanced, and continue until she finds herself stuck a second time, this time on the other end of the spectrum.

Switching to the analogy to a pendulum, the hope is that once the student “dislodged” from extreme position pendulum, the pendulum will swing back and forth until eventually settling down in a position of relative rest near the midway point between the pendulum’s two extreme positions: so that harmony and melody are in balance.

Staying in the middle is a difficult state to maintain when it comes to human behavior.  Time is the bringer of change.  You’ve continued to change until you find yourself in an extreme position again, only on the other end of the spectrum.   This is but one half of a cycle that repeats and repeats, over days, months or years, until finally settling down at a point of balance, which combines the virtues of both ends of the spectrum, of harmony and melody.*

Second example:

Here is another case for what, in this blog, I am alternately calling an example of a “spectrum” and an example of a “pendulum”.

The spectrum would represent all the positions between bringing out the likenesses between two similar passages, on the one hand, and the bringing out all differences between the two similar passages.  In terms of the pendulum analogy it is the swing between the maximum sameness and maximum difference between two passages that relative to each other have both similarities and differences.**

We can overemphasize the similarities in sound, we can overemphasize the differences in sound, or trying to find that golden mean where the listener is made aware by our playing of both the similarities and differences.   This golden mean between is most manifest in the works of the great composers, and it is incumbent on the pianist to make this apparent.

I asked Irving today at his lesson: “where would you locate yourself right now on this spectrum.  Are you more captivated by the subtle differences between things that are otherwise alike***, or are you more captivated by overlooking such differences and seeing the underlying similarities between things.  Each is equally important, so doing one does not automatically mean that you are attending to the other.”  “In my opinion, right now, at this time, this day and date, I feel that you are extremely focused on minute differences, more so than the qualities which act to unite all the passages and in the general the many different parts of the movement that are woven together into one cohesive whole.”

I wanted the left hand to always exhibit the same ineluctable motion in half steps despite the various melodies in parallel thirds that those eighth notes outlined one and another measure.  My solution was to play along with him in the bass on the same piano.  I played an unending series of eighth notes, like an ostinato****. all on the same pitch, starting with the tonic note in a low octave*****.   The overtones of this bass tone created the necessary “glue” to hold the voices together in the soloist’s two hands.  Another way of saying this is that the main strata of the piece were now enveloped in a larger, common sonic aura.  The voices in these strata could now move around more meaningfully in relation to each other in the shared sound-space.

A last comment on this second example.  Sometimes, only sometimes, and then only with the music of a great composer, you can strike up a “deal” with the composer and share responsibilities: “I will take care of all the samenesses if you can take care of the differences…after all I trust you completely to have chosen  the best pitches and rhythms.

* The pianist is a dynamic entity, rarely the same twice.  We are always traveling back and forth between one pole and the other.  We do not remain in a “golden mean” too long, but that we drift to one side or the other. Some students are very good at tracking their location from day to day, or month to month. Others need the application of an outside force in the form of the teacher.   The golden mean was Aristotle’s definition of morality.   For instance: not cowardice, and not rashness, but courage.

** This situation arises frequently when there is something in the recapitulation of a sonata-form movement that is like, yet not like something in the exposition.   Even in the extreme case where the notes are exactly the same in both places, there is still a subtle difference between something we heard once, and then being reminded of it, or calling something we have experienced in the past.  It is as if we have “grown” or “matured” through time, not through the years of our life, but in the extremely condensed maturation process of a single movement of a piece.  The result is that we can “look back” with at something that occurred “many, may minutes ago”, and see it (hear it) with a greater understanding and familiarity.

*** The piece was Bach’s Italian Concerto, second movement.


“In music, an ostinato [ostiˈnaːto] (derived from Italian: stubborn, compare English, from Latin: ‘obstinate’) is a motif or phrase that persistently repeats in the same musical voice, frequently in the same pitch.”

***** I changed the pitch of my ostinato sometimes to one that was more in concord with the passage he was playing, when it modulated, when it a spent a brief time a new harmonic region.  I could of also done this interaction at the second piano.   In that case I might have exaggerated the effect of what I was doing by playing not single notes appropriate chords in root position containing four notes Root-Fifth-Third-Root.  It would be a D-minor chord at the start of the piece, then later varying it with the piece’s modulatory ambitions.  At times I allow the upper two notes of the chord to articulate in a different rhythm than the ostinato rhythm, just enough to give a suggestion of the rhythm of the soloist’s right hand melody.

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Finding A Balance Point

A balance point or pivot point to regulate two different motions

…so there were these two giants, and they were sitting on the ends of a very long see-saw.  And the first one said to the other: “been to any good piano recitals lately?”

Whenever any two points in the body happen to be moving at the same time,  there exists the possibility of coordinating these motions.  There is a simple way of bringing the two motions into balance with each other.  The way it’s done is through a mechanism analogous to a see-saw.  The common, reciprocal motion of the people or objects positioned at the two ends of the see-saw plank, bring these two into a controlled relationship with each other.

The two points of the body can be near each other (in the same hand, in the same finger) or further from each other (one hand with the other, a shoulder with an elbow) or still more distant (a hand and a foot, a shoulder and a finger, the buttocks and the wrists), etc., etc..

Neither of the two points on the body need to be at anatomical points of articulation.  They can be any two randomly chosen locations on the body, for instance points chosen that are midway through the length of a bone and not just at the joints at the ends of the bone.

Depending on how randomly the points are chosen, at first, though we are aware that two parts of the body are both in motion at the same time, we may assume that one motion is independent of the other.  If there is to be a relation between the two motions the two have to be separately executed, and then there should be additional eye to bringing them some sort of relation with the other.

What we want though is direct connection between the two body parts, a pre-established harmony, not a relationship that is engineered after we note the existence of the two motions.

There is an obvious advantage to dealing with one automatic correlation than two separate motions that we are additionally trying to coordinate.

Key to establishing this relation is the concept of a balance point: the finding of some point in the body, somewhere between the two body parts, which can act as a fulcrum, or coordinator, of the actions that would be brought into harmony.  This balance point need not even be within the body.

Consider reciprocal motions occurring between two adjacent fingers, such that as one finger goes down the other goes up.  And have it repeat cyclically.

If we connect the tips of the two fingers with an imaginary ‘beam’, and if half way across the beam we imagine placing a fulcrum or pivot point, we will have created an imaginary, very small sized spanning and filling the space between the finger tips. The two fingers are now like two people sitting on the opposite ends of the see-saw.  As we move the fingers reciprocally, we have the new option of visualizing the action occurring not at two different places at the same time, but only in one place.

Wherever the balance point is located, we can conceive of a shunt or connecting member that runs through the fulcrum as well as the two body parts that are to be linked.  And, as in the above case of the two fingers, to regulate the two motions of the two parts, it is only a matter of shifting our awareness away from the one or the other part, and instead into the real or imagined connecting member that possesses a center of balance where we experience both motions simultaneously.  We are no longer thinking about moving the two fingers, we moving the common connecting part.

Both end parts partake of the same overall motion.  Moreover each of the original parts find that their motion is enhanced by the motion of the other because of the regulatory beam.  The two, original, separate motions have combined synergistically.  No longer are we trying to regulate the actions of two different fingers or parts, by seeking to put them into balance.  The balance is automatic because they are just the two ends of a single motion.

We can further extend this image in our imagination.  Let the length of the two halves of the beam that connect the two parts extend beyond each part.  The beam is made longer, the two original parts are no longer at the ends.  Now at the ends of the newly expanded see-saw beam, we imagine two large people sitting down.   And if we extend the beam still further, to activate the see-saw we would require two imaginary giants working on pushing up and down at the extended ends.  In this imaginary situation the relative motion of the two original parts becomes supercharged with mechanical energy.

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Connections between notes separated in time

Music and Memory: Connections between past and present.

Summary: The relationships that we notice most between notes are those between two consecutive notes in a melody or two notes sounding in the same chord.  If one tries to notice the relationship, for example, between the first note of a melody, and the fourth note of the same melody, it isn’t as easy to hear or be aware of.  In effect, we have to ignore the notes in between.  The first note has already happened; it has largely slipped out of memory.   To experience this relationship as sounds rather than merely as ideas requires that they be more proximate in time.

The most tangible form of connection in sound is that between two notes that come one right after the other in time, the second beginning as the first, ends.  In such a case the presence of the first note is still viscerally present in the finger and hand as the second  note begins.  We feel and hear how the second note changes, continues, distorts, deforms the first note.  These latter qualities are not exactly present in the sounds themselves, but hover as an emergent form just outside of the conscious embrace of the sounds.

In the space of a painting, two objects adjacent in space remain side by side regardless of when we choose to look at the painting.  In music, time defeats, or abolishes, space, because one moment in time eclipses another.  The longer we wait between starting the current note and the next note, the harder it becomes to make a tangible, felt, as well as audible, connection between the notes.

The relationship between two sounds is harder to grasp or feel when there is one or more additional notes in between the two sounds.  Physically, it is hard to make a connection or relationship between two such separated notes in time.

A simple example of this is the first entrance of the fugue theme in the Bach Toccata and Fugue in D Minor (the one Disney used in the first “Fantasia” movie and not the “Dorian” Toccata).  The sense of the melody “A G F E D C# D…” is present and clear although there an A is constantly being interpolated between each pair of melody notes: “a G a F a E a D a C# a D…”.

This is a case wherein it is relatively easy to connect the notes of the “hidden” or camouflaged melody, which our ear forges on the spot out of notes that are separated by the presence of other notes. In the case of the Bach, the interpolation of an A-natural.

If short term memory can create a tangible and sensual link between every other note in a passage, then why not between notes that are more remote from each other in time sequence.

A good friend or spouse may be currently wearing clothes of a particular color, when we next see them be wearing a different a color. When that happens, we know two things: 1) we are looking at the same person, and 2) the outward color is different than the last time.

It is the same with music.  At a later time in a piece we can hear something that we immediately recognize or, intuitively sense, as being the same or related to something heard before.  At that moment, the past is suddenly brought very close to the present.  This effect is fundamental to the creating a structure of sounds that exist in time only without space.

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The emotion within every chord

There is an emotion that can be unlocked by the sounds of every chord, in fact by any combination of tones.

It is for philosophers to argue whether this emotion is already in the soul waiting to be triggered by the sounds, or is a new ‘effect’ dependent on the presence of a ’cause’ that lies in the sounds.    The important thing is that emotions can as varied in quality as there are ways of combining sounds, and our job as pianists is to search for that emotion.

Summary of what follows:

The type of emotion I am talking about isn’t the common type of emotion with reference to which  saying someone is  playing “with feeling” is at best a semi-compliment and at worst a put-down for one who indulges in bathos instead of pathos, melodrama instead of drama, or who uses too much schmaltz  (excessive sentimentality).

Emotion of a single chord:

If our internal emotional resonators are sensitive enough, then every different version of  a chord  or every different type of chord will evoke a different shade of emotion.  In the first case, every position or inversion, every registration (in what octaves the notes are sounding), every spacing of the chord (what are the intervals between adjacent notes in the chord) yields a different mood.

This next sentence needs to be long, so I give it first in its entirety and then parsed into parts.

Here is the sentence in one continuous glob of words:

Is it possible that the complex matrix made up of the many consonances and dissonances produced arising out of specific pairs of overtones* of the notes in a chord, being too complicated for consciousness to keep track of, combine and are unified in our affective system as a feeling or emotion generated by that chord instead of as an arrangement of pitches.

Here is the sentence parsed:

Is it possible that …

… the complex matrix

… made up of the many consonances and dissonances

… produced among specific pairs of overtones** …

… of the notes in a chord, …

… being too complicated for consciousness to keep track  of …

… combine and are unified in our affective system …

… as a feeling or emotion generated by that chord.

… instead of as an arrangement of pitches.

Statistically, no two chords would have the same exact arrangement of internally generated consonances and dissonances (degrees of  agreement and disagreement) among its overtones.

It is through this matrix of overtones of each different chord that, if we train our aesthetic sensitivity, we can become aware of a unique feeling-tone generated by the sound of that chord.

Taking the conclusions of a previous blog a step further:

In a previous blog entitled “Sound, Hearing, and the Brain“, I spoke of certain conscious illusions without which we would have no perception or awareness of music.

One illusion was that what we perceive as a steady and continuous pitch, is the result, in the physical world, of a rapid series of separate puffs of air.

A second illusion had to do with the fact that what we perceive as the tone quality of an instrument playing one steady pitch is in fact the result, in the physical world, of many different pitches sounding at once.   Instead of hearing a chord, we hear a single note with a certain tone quality (clarinet, oboe, violin, voice, etc.).***

It would seem then that philosophically as well as musically, the illusion is far more important aesthetically than the objective reality.   The sensations of the objective reality are related to discontinuous puffs of air, and different instruments all sounding to us the same.  In contrast to the former, the latter seems impoverished of qualities (though replete with measurable quantities).

Is there also an emotion of how one chord changes to another chord:

In my book “The Spectrum of the Arts,”

I talk about the difference between the literal shape or form of a single and static image, and the more figurative ‘shape‘ or ‘form‘ that underlies or explains how a shape changes shape through time.****

A similar distinction can be made about chords. The feeling-tone of one chord is one thing, the feeling-of-the-progression from one chord to the next is another thing.   We can be aware of one, or the other, or we can be aware of both.  Both are there to attract our aesthetic souls.  Regarding the more figurative usage of shape or form, here is an example: “How a C major chord changes to a G Major Chord” has a different aura of feeling about it than “How a C Major chord changes to an E Minor chord.”  Progressively adding silence between the end of the first chord and the beginning of the second gradually diminishes and finally eliminates this aesthetic effect.

Here is another spatial analogy to this musical effect in time: putting a patch of blue next to a patch of green produces a different aesthetic effect as putting a patch of blue next to a patch of red.

*the different overtone pitches have to be related in a certain mathematical way

** Each musical tone, though recognized in consciousness as being what we call a ‘single’ pitch, is in fact the result of an amalgam of different ascending pitches or frequencies.  These are called ‘partials’ of the sound.  The first partial is called the ‘fundamental frequency’ and the others the ‘overtones’ of the fundamental frequency.

If two sounds are close to each other in pitch, they produce a noticeable dissonance, something we might call an aesthetic interference pattern.  The intensity of this effect varies with how close or far apart the pitches are from each other.   When we have a chord of notes sounding at the same time, each one produces its own overtone series.   Any one of the overtones belonging to one note of the chord might be close in pitch  an overtone of one of the other notes of the chord.  If so, the result is dissonance.  We are likely to find such dissonances between overtones even in the most ‘consonant’ sounding of chords (like a Major or Minor chord).

*** An “oscilloscope” is a device that depicts a sound as a wave shape in space.   A clarinet playing middle C produces a wave of a certain shape on the oscilloscope.  A bassoon playing middle C results in a wave of a certain, but differently shaped, wave on the oscilloscope.

Here is where it starts to get interesting.  A clarinet and a bassoon both playing middle C results do not display on the oscilloscope two different wave shapes, but just one shape, one whose spatial appearance is different than that of the clarinet alone or the bassoon alone.

Something even more interesting occurs if we examine just the shape of the clarinet sound alone, as shown on the oscilloscope screen.   We have already said that what we perceive as a single pitch on a single instrument is actually the result of many different pitches sounding all at once.  Each pitch would produce its own wave shape on the oscilloscope, but the shape would be much simpler than that of the clarinet.

If we could sound each of these separate partial sounds, but cause them all to sound all at the same time, the result would once gain be the more complex shape of the clarinet’s wave on the oscilloscope.

Four clarinets playing four different pitches will result in our hearing a “chord”: the simultaneous presence in our consciousness of four different notes or pitches.   In contrast to this, when we the clarinet produces the various, different component pitches within the sound of a single note, we will not hear a “chord”, instead we hear a single pitch or note – but, importantly – it will have a unique “tone quality”.   We can change this tone quality by changing how “loud” each partial pitch is relative to the others.  Make certain adjustments of this type and we may hear the same pitch but with a new tone color, for instance that of a violin, an oboe, or a human voice.

**** A triangle can gradually morph through time until it appears as a square.  But it can do so in many different way.  Perhaps a baby fourth side appears in one of the three sides of the triangle and then gets larger.  Perhaps the triangle first morphs into a circle and then the circle gets pinched into a square.

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Coaching an instrumentalist for an orchestra audition

In today’s incarnation, “Irving” is a bassoonist rather than a pianist.   He is about to audition for a local orchestra.  The required excerpt for the audition is the opening of the second movement of Scheherazade.

I listened to him play the solo through.   The notes were there, but overall it lacked a sense of the presence in his imagination of the other instruments playing at the same time, and the effect that would have on how he sounded the passage.

He had played the same solo a year or so earlier in an orchestra.  So I asked him “what instruments were accompanying you during the solo?”

He thought about and said “the woodwinds?”

I said, “No, it is actually four solo double basses.”*

He played the solo again, but this time I played on the piano the chords played by the four double basses.  This caused a sudden change in his playing.  One thing that happened was that he fine-tuned both the pitch and the feeling of his notes to better fit in with the chords.  In tonal music, no note has a single, abstract, or ideal pitch.  It varies in small amounts to best fit in with the harmonic context in the form of the chord that is sounding at that moment.  Each chord in turn has a certain feeling, which if recognized and felt fine tunes the timbre or tone quality of the bassoonist’s note.

No longer was his playing an island to itself, it had a broader context.  The trick, I said, is to make these modulations to the sounds even when you are playing by yourself without the other instruments, which can only be heard in your head.  The person auditioning you is listening to see whether this broader musical context shines through the notes that you play.

“How do I do this,” he asked?

Let’s start with knowing when in the solo the chord in the basses changes.  He didn’t know.  I said: let’s play through it again, this time listening specifically for the changes in the chords.  It shouldn’t be too difficult to do because, based on how he had played the passage when I played the chords at the piano, he was already subconsciously responding to them.

Next I asked him if the first chord in the basses seemed to last a surprisingly long time before changing.  If so, what beneficial effect did that harmonic inflexibility have on the effect of the solo?  He said that it made the bassoon solo seem more “frozen and static.”  I agreed.

Was he, I asked, aware that this first chord contained only root notes and fifths and lacked the third of the chord, the note that which would determine whether the chord was a major chord or minor chord.   It was incumbent on the bassoonist to make that choice clear to the listener, and to be especially aware of when the bassoon made up for the deficit of the third by momentarily playing the third himself.

Later in the session I wanted to demonstrate, in a more general way, how the ‘color’ of a note depends on the chord to which it belongs.  And how this color could change, depending on whether he was playing the root, third, fifth or seventh of the chord.

I had him hold a single note for as long as he could, while I surrounded his chord with first one chord then another.  I started with the three major chords and the three minor chords that contained the note he was holding.  Then I went on to seven-chords that contained his note.  Then I gradually shifted to chords that didn’t contain his note, which therefore caused his note to be dissonant – but always dissonant in a specific enough way to create a definite and peculiar color to the dissonance.

Though he held the bassoon’s pitch relatively constant, he instinctively changed the timbre and the intonation to reflect the way his note fit (or did not fit) in the chord.

* albeit an odd orchestration, but an inspired choice given the shape and mood of the solo.

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