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).
Concert Pianists, and their Performance Arcs
“A. B.” came for his regular Thursday lesson.
Today we examined how a particular pianist puts together their experience of being in control of a musical passage while performing. The pianist forges their experience and control of a piece through various parts. For diagnostic purposes we did these preliminary exercises:
We played a Bach Chorale, looking at the keyboard only for the placement of the beginning chord of the chorale, and then not looking at the hands at all from that point on. The purpose of the exercise is for the pianist to discover how they form their intuitive sense of where their hands and fingers are on the keyboard, and if they get off course, whether they can find their way back without looking at their hands.
Next we did the same for a I-V-I in all keys. We used this particular chord-spacing: c3-g3–c4-e4 g2-g3–b3-d4 c3-g3–c4-e4 (Root-fifth-root-third, root-root-third-fifth, root-fifth-root-third).
I asked him not to look at is hands, neither when going from one chord to the next within the three chord progression in one key, nor when moving each of the notes of the third chord up a half step to begin the progression in the next key. This proved difficult for him. I said “I think we are starting to hit ‘pay dirt'”.
Then we did the same for the first prelude from Book One. This was relatively easy for him. So I added this twist. “Pick a random measure, make a simultaneous chord out of the notes in the measure, release the chord, send the hands to some far away place, then without looking at hands or the keyboard, find your way back to that chord.” As it turned out this was quite easy for him! I said: “I think there is a moral to this story.”
We moved into the second movement of the Bach Italian Concerto, a piece he knows well.
I have come to understand that A. normally bases his performance of a piece mostly on muscle memory, with his ear standing vigilantly as a guard against any wrong note. I said, “You have spent a lifetime carefully building this relationship between muscle memory and the ear. Now I am going to ask you to go into an uncomfortable place. Take any spot in the movement, and as you play the notes, say the names of each note you play in the right hand. If there is any hesitation in your voice, we’ve uncovered even more pay dirt.” We want gradually to shift the identity of a note to something due to a union of a sense clear placement of the hand on the keyboard joined with a clear sense of the name of the note being played.
He said: “I can’t say the note I’m playing play at the same time that I play it: not if I try to say it, not if you do it for me, and not if I say it only in my imagination.” Boom. “I think we just hit the mother lode because of how difficult this is for you to do.” And what an incredible discovery–to find the missing link in the mind, and work towards an exercise to correct it.
To put this in perspective, consider that doing this is not an unusual thing to ask of the student. For example, whether playing either from the score or by memory, I am always conscious of what note I’m playing, even when I steer myself through a group of notes by following the ascending or descending pitch curve of the notes. This awareness keeps me from getting lost in a piece, even when I am struggling. I am not playing by rote or muscle memory and relying on habit: I am choosing what I play and when.
Considering the difficulty of naming the notes as you play them, I recommend that he try to perfect a particular measure in this regard. It is the ‘trying’ to do that is more important than doing it correctly. It is the trying that opens up new possibilities in your mind.
Later in the lesson we went back to the I-V-I exercise we did earlier without looking at his hands, and I asked him to try to name the notes in each of the three chords in each of the three note progressions starting with the bass voice of each chord and proceeding to the soprano voice. This proved far more difficult than he imagined it would. I was pleased with this: he was gaining a direct insight into how his musical brain works.
Returning to the the second movement of the Bach Italian Concerto:
How many, “rhythmic words: are there in the ‘vocabulary’ of this movement. It is a limited set. A word a distinct rhythmic pattern, for instance a word might consist of series of four sixteenths, or a dotted eighth followed by a series of sixteenths, or some other combination of rhythmic note values that repeats frequently in the movement. Note that there is only a limited number of such combinations in this movement. Be aware of which such ‘word’ you are saying at every moment in the movement.” Playing this movement is like speaking a language of rhythmic words, a vocabulary consisting of just a dozen or such words (although they can be put together in many different ways to create different meanings). When I play it I ‘speak’ each such word with its own definite and unique form of expression and inflection – one that pertains just to that rhythmic word.
He objected that the expression of each word would change dependent on the varying setting of the musical context. To which I replied, “I agree that the same word in different settings should be spoken differently, but at first make all the same ‘words’ sound the same“.
He tried this and was surprised that this added to his musicality in playing rather than making it seem less musically nuanced. I said, “The final musical result needs to rest on something solid before the nuances are added. This might not be true of other pianists who can manage both at the same time right from the start, but you often get bogged down coping with the details of the musical meaning that you want to convey before attending to first principles. Start with the language and the vocabulary. Wait until later on before you change it into Shakespearean English.”
We turned next to Mozart’s Adagio in B Minor:
“You and I often have different agendas as to what to work for and what needs the most reinforcement. Today will prove to be no different.” What is missing for me is the basic and constant “flow” wherein you carry each note through its duration of time to the next note, and then that next to its next, etc.. Each note is directed to the next note. I hate to use an analogy that uses the word ‘weight’, which is usually anathema to me, but it as if the note has heft and you have to pick it up and move it through time (or space if it helps to think that way) to the next note*. Every note should experience the full pressure of time – which I call the ‘flow’ of time – to bring it to the sound experience of the next note. Each note has to experience that dynamic sense of motion to the next note. It is hard to describe how to do this other than my making certain gestures as you are playing, but though these are spatial motions, what we are looking to experience is the motion of consciousness through time, without abatement, and mostly felt between the beginning of one note and the beginning of the next note. It is the inevitable and relentless pressure of passing time.
* If you do think of this spatially then let the direction always to the right and not in the direction of the pitches as the arrow of time in Western math and physics is usually depicted rightwards (as it is in the convention of the musical score).
Wandering Hands in a Performance
Certain pianists are so dependent on their physical sense of where their hands are on the keyboard, that if they go off track in a piece, by playing a note or notes incorrectly, it is difficult or almost impossible for them to get back on track so that they can continue into the next measure without having to stop and go back. This was the case with “B.” today.
We analyzed the situation, tried to think of remedies, but found that we had to reject one after another because they were too hard to implement. We finally distilled down the essence of the problem to a point where a first “exercise” suggested itself to us: a first, simple enough, and thus doable exercise to help with the general problem.
This is the procedure we concocted:
He closed his eyes, and reached out in a random direction with his right arm and played a single note on the keyboard. Now, often a person will “feel out the immediate neighborhood” of the physical key on which they have put their finger, to confirm its identity by seeing whether its nearest neighbors are black and/or white notes. But I advised B. to avoid any such almost instinctive exploration. I wanted the only thing to identify was sound of its pitch.
Next, eyes still closed, he brought his right arm back to his side and then reached out with his left arm to try to play a note that he thought might be in the same general area of the keyboard as the one his right hand played.
He listened to this new sound, and made just one judgment: is this new sound higher in pitch, lower or the same as the first sound. Repeat this exercise many times.*
When comfortable with this procedure, a next step could be begun: start making a series of corrections to the “second” note until it is identical with the first note. This is still done with the eyes closed. If the second note was recognized as being higher in pitch than the first note, then try another note after moving further left on the keyboard. If that is still higher, try another further to the left. If it is now lower than the first pitch, then try an adjustment to the right. Basically we are in what is a sound-driven feedback process of gradually better guesses as to the pitch of the first sound.
There are many more steps and gradations of exercises that we will have to invent over the next few months, but the ultimately the pianist, if they make a mistake in playing the current note or notes of a piece in a performance, will be able to course correct while as soon as they hear the wrong note and almost immediately recalculate how far they have to move on the keyboard to put things back on track by the next note.
What is gradually being developed is a close association of aural cues with a clear mental image of the keyboard. There will be less need of looking down at the hands to figure out what notes are being played instead of others, and then try to make course corrections.
* By the time he had repeated the first exercise about ten times he was able to add information to his feedback … such as: “the second sound is higher than the first but by a single half step”.
Playing Between the Opposites
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.
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.*
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.