A pianist’s view on harp playing
What I wish the sound of the harp would be like.
Usually listening to a harpist is like listening to a pianist who is keeping the pedal half way down, so that it seems that every note being played is trying vainly to escape from a general sonic blurriness.
As with any other instrument, what the sound of the harp should be like should never be dictated by what is technically possible, but entirely driven by an inner ‘vision’ of the harpist as to what the instrument should or could sound like. To overcome the general blurriness the sound of the instrument should be the creation of the harpist’s personal imagination. There is no reason, then, that a harp should not be as articulate as a violin, a coloratura soprano, or a piano.
Each note should match each other note in its resonance, and the clarity of its intention. Any difference between one note and another should be solely the result of a musical intention to have them be different, not the result of a lack of technical attention.
Granted that the harp has acoustical features that dispose it to be a blurry instrument, one must still overcome that. The least interesting harp players are those who only create “harp-like” effects.
The greater importance of rhythm on the harp.
Rhythms should be enunciated clearly, carefully, and understandably, so as to be almost like a drummer demonstrating what they would want to have be the ideal model or prototype for any musician playing that particular rhythm on any particular instrument.
It doesn’t matter when in the passage a note occurs, in what measure, on what beat, or location off a beat, all notes should be equally clear, have a space carved out for itself by the musician’s imagination in which it can fully resonate, and not be impeded by the sound of the other notes. This should remain true even if the strings of a particular harp are not as inherently brilliant as each other, or every single string is as brilliant sounding in every pedal position.
Even when playing what might not seem like much of a rhythm, for example a running passage of sixteenth notes, the effect should still be that of the revealing to the listener of an interesting, “dynamic” experience based solely on the properties of the rhythm. A rhythm in spite of any repetitiveness should be kept alive at every moment. Every note should be as audible and clear to the listener as every other, and fit into the shape of the rhythm. Not achieving this is a common failing among harpists.
Great harp players don’t play the ‘harp’, they play ‘music’. They will tend to gravitate towards the music written for the harp that is most musically substantial and worthwhile from a musical point of view. I confess that composers for the harp are not always cooperative in providing this sort of material.
Always take care in sculpting the ‘connection’ between one note and the next. No matter how fast the notes are going by, each connection should be as beautiful as if it were part of a slow melody.
The two hands should play as one melded entity. And the two hands plus the two feet should work as one united unit; no different than walking outdoors and simultaneously swinging your arms.
Any physical differences between the fingers should be resolved by their being mutually reabsorbed into the oneness of hand, where they become equal.
All physical limitations must be transcended, more so perhaps on the harp perhaps than any other orchestral instrument. Transcendence is not the result of working on making one finger as strong as another. Transcending means all is directed by the ear which in turn is driven by the imagination. Evenness doesn’t come from finger equality, but from an inner vision of what evenness itself should sound like, and the determination of hearing things come out of your instrument as conforming to that vision.
Every sound comes from the center of the body, not from the ends of the
outstretched hands. It is not only the string that vibrates it also
vibrates in the sound-box of the body.
Energy never sags. It is never anything but at its maximum.
Be as devoted to the passage that is of the least interest to you as to the passage that turns you on the most.
The energy you produce should not be blocked by any part of the body on its route from the body center all the way into the conjunction of the fingers with the strings. The fingers never do anything by themselves.
Lack of self confidence affecting playing
J.M’s lesson on 6/18/21
Return to live lessons:
Having students back in the house is a wonderful change. What a difference it makes being able to sit physically next to the other person in the same shared space. So much is conveyed by me to the other person through subtle gestures that accompany my words, subtle tones of voice that mimic physical actions and techniques. In general, just more quality interaction between two people.*
J.M is an adult student of fine ability who has lately been feeling stymied and uninspired. As we talked it through, I realized that certain chronic issues were affecting how she presently felt, including undervaluation of herself and her ability, and the not always appropriate criteria by which to measure her progress. She all too easily finds specific reasons why not to believe in her true capacity. She is also dead set against playing in front of anybody else.**
In contrast, it is striking how good she feels about herself when she feels that she has excelled (“I got to the front row of the Zumba class this week!”).
At today’s lesson she said that it had been less than a year since she played the Debussy prelude “Ondine”, but when she looked at the music this week she has no remembrance of the notes or how it sounded. I decided to xisprove this. I asked her try to play it. Don’t worry about the whole piece. Just try the first few measures. I’m just a friend spending time with you. Don’t put me in the role of a teacher. There is no test to pass or expectations to live up to.
She had no difficulty playing the piece. Her body remembered where to go as her ear readily remembered the sounds of the work.
I noticed how, when encountering the fast sally of very fast notes, she tried to play the notes as fast as possible with the result that there was a visually obvious sudden increase in muscular tension causing her physical mechanism to seize up and making unpredictably scattering the sounds, ehich came out blatant sounding and uneven.
I steadied her course. You are in charge: you can say “I will play no note, in a slow or fast passage, before I’m good and ready to play it”. Every finger is free of the others and can play its note how it wants to have that note sound.
When there was a sudden jump in pitch, or to a very different chord in the same range, she again strived to do it as fast as possible, almost guaranteeing that a mistake would happen.
As a friend and not a teacher, I found myself saying to her numerous times “slow down, there’s no rush. Speed is not an issue for you, it will come back naturally.”
A couple of times I offered her technique advice. About arpeggios and the changes in octaves it contained. If it were downward pitches in the right hand I suggested that first she let the finger leading the way into the next octave, stop and float around for a while, then trust it will have no trouble getting to its designated note. I recommended practicing in the abstract first, to rotate her torso and arms slowly and steadily to the left.
We added ‘space’ between her fingers so they all felt like they were mutually floating apart from each other. This caused a great decrease in tension while playing the notes, with the result that her articulation was clear and timely.
We got through the entire prelude. Her success was in contradiction to the worry she expressed beforehand.
Self confidence affects all players in one way or another. So of teaching is getting to know the individual student, to discover in what situations this lack of confidence takes up residence, and to find specific actions that can alleviate it for that person. I discuss this is in many of the blog entries.
She is a wonderful Debussy player and I look forward to her bringing back Ondine (one of my own favorite preludes).
* An aside: Zoom sucks, not only because of its distortion of piano sound, and the infernally omnipresent delay so we can’t count out loud together or play together. I was hoping zoom would rise to occasion of the pandemic and make changes and improvements. Maybe they have, but I don’t see it in the context of music lessons. I do however admire my students, especially the younger ones, who have succeeded in creating the feeling that we are in the same space, that who are fully present as complete people within their screen manifestations.
** I said that playing for people helps you hear what you are doing. It’s also the luck of the draw. You may play terribly or wonderfully on a given day. If you play the same piece for different people on a number of occasions, the odds will eventually be in your favor. You will playas well or better than you wanted to. What my therapist used to call a ‘corrective emotional experience’. One that would color future experiences in a different way.
The first time play just for your husband. If, as you have said, you consider him somewhat difficult as a person, just tell him ahead of time exactly how you want him to react during and after playing for him, to try to maintain a look of interest.
A few days later, play again, this time just for a friend.
Repeat the experience in a series. Gradually include more people. Maybe do it once or twice at my house for people we would choose to invite.
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.”
Commitment to Every Note and Its Meaning
C.R.’s lesson on 7/9/19: Beethoven’s Rondo in C Major, Op 51 / 1.
This lesson was about total dramatic, musical and emotional
commitment to the work one is playing.
Take for example the left hand at the beginning |: c4-e4 g4 :|. This is no trivial Alberti-like bass figure. It is no simple or gentle oscillation. It is Atlas with the world on his shoulders, shifting its weight from one shoulder to the other and back and forth. As a result, people on earth are first washed into the sea, and then hurled on shore again.
Never let your personal dislike of or disinterest of a passage, affect your ability to be a dedicated advocate if that passage. It is the same as being a
“Paraclete”, or a great defense attorney, who still puts on the best defense regardless of any personal feelings about their client. Or, think of yourself, as a great actor who regardless of their feelings about a particular line says it as if it were a great line. When I listen to you play this piece in concert, I would be able to say to someone at intermission, “Well, I happen to know she doesn’t really like the sound of those diminished chords, but portrays every one as being something wonderful. It is as if she takes what is
disagreeable in the sound of that chord, and magnifies it in its disagreeableness until striking the essence of the effect of the diminished chord.”.
The piano is a marvelously safe place to “act out” at the same time as “hide”. For no one in the audience knows whether whether the effect of what they hear at any moment is due to Beethoven or to you. In fact if you are playing the piece well, you are eclipsed as an entity leaving just the music.
In the piece where there is a long quasi-chromatic scale upwards in
groups and fours and then downwards in triplets.
“Is the way down usually the same as the way up”. Do you subscribe to the view of the ancient Greek philosopher, Heraclitus, who said “The way up and the way down are one and the same.” I feel that in music the way up and the way down are substantially different in aesthetic and in structural meaning.*
The scale up, because of its use of chromatic, non-scale tones, is
like the first long, slow incline up a roller coaster, a time during
which one’s anticipation of the rapid descent to follow builds and
builds in one’s apprehension and/or excitement. And when it changes
direction at the top, we get sea sick. Afterwards, for a moment here
and there we may level off, but it is those minimum and maximum points along the curve of the track that keep us clinging to the coaster – to the melody. One the way down, the scale of the melody, faster and less chromatic this time, pushes aside all obstacles on its way to is eventual goal.
As your listener, I want you to make me seasick, just from the changing direction of the pitches, slowed and sped up by the melody’s rhythm. If you don’t make me sea sick I’m just not that interested in the kinetic motion of the passage.
* There are exceptions of course, some passages are designed to simply
move away from something and then return in an inevitable circle.
Where the meaning lies in the starting point / = ending point and not in the
The Balance Between Hands
B.A.’s Lesson on 3/21/19
His piece: Mozart: Adagio In B Minor:
Sound and time:
Though you are playing the piece, there is no physical intent on the body’s part at any time. The piece just flows through time as if carried along by the inner pressure and necessity of time itself. No note that sound wants to ever stop sounding!* This is true of short and very short notes as well as long notes. Every note wants its day basking in the sunshine of listener awareness.
Balance of sound between the hands:
A.B. is concerned that his left hand isn’t dexterous (sic) enough to balance with what the right hand is doing. The only solution that he could think of was that he should practice the left hand alone until it is the way he wants it to be. But I felt that there is no way of knowing what the left hand should sound like until it is heard together with the right hand. The sounds of one hand color the contemporary sounds in the other hand. There is no way of observing how the left hand will sound in ensemble with the other hand, when it sounds alone.
The balance of sounds between the hands has its mechanical side. Imagine a point in space midway between the hands and on the keyboard. For the hands to sound balanced, everything having to do with one side of the body needs to be balanced with everything having to do with the other side of the body. The imaginary point midway is the balance point to regulate the two sides. Or you can think of it as the imaginary center of gravity of the two hands. Sometimes it helps to imagine that it is the point at the center of gravity, and not the separate actions of the hands, that is going up and down to produce the sounds, and when you do this the sounds will occur absolutely simultaneously and in balance. All this hands, without, or because of avoiding trying to do anything special to regulate one hand or the other.
Balance of sound within a single hand:
A.B. had to play an Alberti-like bass where the following notes are repeated in the left hand |: d3-fs3 a3 :|. I said you will never know how to balance the a3 with the other two notes until you have already heard the a3 sounding with the other two notes – before you first play the a3. This is “gestalt-ing” the chord (in this case d3-fs3-a3 or even a grander D major chord spread over many octaves). Though time fragments it, the whole is nonetheless always there; both in your hand and in your ear.
Control of the fingers comes from further up the arm (who controls whom):
There was one place where B.A, said, no matter how he tried, he couldn’t balance a certain two notes. They were a third apart, and were played together in the left hand. My solution was eclipse what the individual fingers were trying by putting the hand into a loose ball or fist. With the fingers thus neutralized in the presence of the entire hand, flex and un-flex the fingers, all ten at once. Now, at this point, without any other preparation or intent, play the third that is troubling you.
If the piano mechanism has a center in the torso and then has interconnected parts leading away from that center to a periphery at the fingertips, then the controller of each segment of that mechanism is the next segment closer to the center and further from the fingers. When things are not coming out how you want, seek further up the arm (forearm, then elbow, then upper arm, then shoulder…).
Fusing the arms together – putting them into another plane of action:
To demonstrate to him that control of one part of the mechanism often lies in another location, and in particular how this principle applied to the behavior and activity of the hands and fingers, I had him fold his arms in front of his chest (right hand to the left and left hand to the right). With the arms thus fused, and lying along a horizontal plane, take particular notice of the two elbows. Gently and weightlessly transport the elbows to the keyboard, with the help of the leaning over the piano. Now start moving the fused mass of the arms in a way that causes the elbows to push down random clusters if sounds on the piano. Then, without further thought, without planning anything that your fingers are going to do, play the current passage in the piece. The difference was striking. The piece moved in a stately and even flow, which manifested the very flow of time itself. Every note was subsumed in this inexorably moving flow that brought along with it every note – every note in its right place.
Fusing the arms together – so the hands act as one:
Another means to the same end, that of making the sounds cohere within the flow of time, is to have two hands move absolutely together as if fused, even if there is a separation in space between them. Have them play random notes that imitate the feel of the rhythmic coordination of the passage. “But what about rests in one hand”, he asked. There is no reason to stop the motion of the hands, though at one moment or another, one hand, though moving, does not produce a sound.
Where did your pinkie go?:
Sometimes your right pinkie, gets detached (figuratively speaking) from the rest of the hand and this causes it to play a note without good control over how it sounds. Try placing your pinkie silently on the note it is to play. Now see if, by using mostly the muscles in the pinkie, you can get your entire hand, and even your entire arm, to move around in space. This will help reestablish an equilibrium between the pinkie and the rest of the hand. And the entire hand will control how the pinkie makes it sounds.
The persistence of a chord:
Sometimes a chord (or even just a single note of a chord), that sounds at the beginning of a measure, wants to persist through the entire measure as if that measure was nothing more than a comment upon the existence and persistence of that chord.
* Unamuno, the Spanish writer and philosopher, in his book “The Tragic Sense of Life” refers to a passage in Spinoza in which the latter says something to this effect: every being, in that it is a being, strives to persist in its own being. And that this is the essence of that being (to persist as such through time).