A personal confession (though not quite like St. Augustine or Rousseau)
Is there a “Joe’s System” to playing the piano?
I am perpetually looking to crystallize the main points about piano practicing and performing that are strewn among my many years as a musician and teacher. I would like to be able to put them all “in one place” so I can state them all at one and the same time.
Sometimes I feel like I’m getting closer this goal, but then a few days later I seem to go back into a holding pattern, as over an airport, and continually circle around. I visit one principle or insight for while, thinking it has lasting, basic value. But then, in as little as a few days, I am attracted to something else of as much importance. I’m seventy-four, so I would like to be able to corral them and get them all in the same place. Like the game where you try to get all the balls into holes, without dislodging any ball that is already in a hole by the motions you take to put the next one in its hole.
I’m not sure what I want to ‘corral‘ them into: a “system?”; a briefest possible “list?”. Do I know yet where each part of my insights fits into the whole of them? I don’t want to be a perpetual wanderer in search of truth,, without every saying: ah, good, I’m at the without final destination. It is the process though that keeps me alive, that keeps my creative fires alight (“…consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines” – Emerson).
Over weeks, months and years I realize that what arose as separate categories of teaching principles, often joined with other such principles, into a more basic category. I am pleased to be getting to a more fundamental expression of my practicing and playing ideas. But in the background I have a chronic, nagging fear that all that I am capable of saying, and which I have said over the decades, deflates into a single trite statement when revealed in its ‘final’, distilled form. Like what happens to a shining pebble at the beach, which when taken home now shows itself to be dry, plain, like all other pebbles without the gleam of water on their surface.
So I am envious, especially of the great philosophers whose total work forms a synthetic whole. And of great teachers in general who have put things into a coherent system and written books and have many followers. I don’t know if I can do this. Yet I do exhibit my own valuable personal habits and ways of going about things (which I have been stuck with all my life).
Permit me a one paragraph summary of my life:
While growing up and into my twenties, I was told that everything I felt or articulated was “wrong” in some way or another. If I was lucky it was only wrong by a little, but often it was alleged to be by a lot. The common thread to all the criticism was that what I was thinking was not the norm among thinkers. I had not done enough research into the field, not thoroughly compared my thoughts with those my contemporaries, and should have not uttered a word until I had studied the great minds of the past and what they had said about the same matter. At the time this struck me as very valid criticism. Then something interesting happened. People started seeking me out to work with, and they were specifically seeking my “wrong” theories and my “wrong” teaching techniques, and my “wrong” ways of doing and expressing things- all things which over the years had mysteriously turned into the “right” ways.
My closest friends tell me I’m uniquely creative and should always remain as I am. That I come very close to the truth, something which often gets lost and snowed under in a more traditional approach. That I find what is unique in my piano students and give help give them the voice to express it (musically and otherwise). I don’t know if all of that is true. It is a big question in my life. Sometimes I still wish it would enough just to be different.
In spite of doubts, I soldier on, and continue to make notes about my
lessons and my practicing, and feel driven to publish them in my
Is forgetting a part of learning? A very personal blog.
Finding the underlying meaning below the surface of the notes.
Some of the things that have come to me as the deepest discoveries about playing the piano are the hardest to put into words and the hardest to recreate when I would will to recreate them.
One of these has to do with the idea that the notes are symbols of deeper meanings, and that we must transcend the notes into those deeper meetings.
I got the first inkling of this idea when I worked for the first time on the Goldberg Variations when I was a teenager. I was using the Ralph Kirpatrick edition. In the introductory notes, he said something which I interpreted as “one rhythm can contain within it other rhythms”. It was as if, were one to orchestrate a passage from the Goldberg, several instruments, playing different rhythms, could combine to just one of the voice lines.
A trivial example would be to think of a whole note as consisting internally of different contemporary threads: a dotted half note followed by a quarter; four quarter notes; a breve that would swallow two whole notes in a row; and so on without any limitation to the number of these threads. There were certain such inside rhythms that, rather than occluding the musical purpose and flow of the originally written music, would actually help bring out and make more alive the voice in its originally written form.
Discovering which these were and then somehow feeling certain of these rhythms inside the written rhythm was a key to ‘unlocking’, ‘bringing to life’, ‘animating’, ‘adding to the purpose and flow of’, the written rhythm.
The klangfarbenmelodie of Schoenberg was another example. Something kept evolving and changing through time though the voice in the piece remained intact and that voice and not another.
As I grew older I had other more personal insights that revolved around the same theme that more was going on than meets the eye (or ear) when we play what is on the page.
Lines were driven through time by pulses, systoles of a heart pumping system. One pulse could go a long way to bring organization and meaning to a group of separate notes. I noticed that this was a secret of the way many great conductors communicated with their bodies and batons to the orchestra.
Like Dr. Frankenstein, if there was a strong enough electrical pulse, the inert matter of the piece would would suddenly come alive. A qualitative change which could not be foreseen. The pulse sends the blood through the arteries and carries with it all the proteins that upon deliver create the syntheses of the thousands of molecules that the body must produce to remain alive.
A simple change of chords in a harmonic progression can often be banal. But if they are turned into the esoteric meaning of a more complicated array of notes, where the written notes provide just the exoteric (immediately obvious) meaning of the passage. Which makes of these notes symbols for, manifestations by way of accessible ‘shadows’, of the transcendent Platonic ideas of the piece that remain hidden to the eyes and ears as long as we sense only what is on the surface and not what the surface is hiding. The exoteric message is understood by all, the esoteric* meaning is known only to the few, and communicated more widely by the artists that in real time are working to reveal the esoteric meaning.
The more esoteric meaning let the notes convey a hidden harmonic message. It’s like the esoteric meaning (known by only a few) versus the exoteric meaning (easily known by many). In this case the esoteric meaning is the imprint of the harmonic rhythm* on the individual notes.
We can distill the underlying harmonic chorale or pattern from the rest of the notes, as long as we don’t loose the individuality of the written notes. It is like when we see eternal beauty in a particular face. The chorale, rather than seeming simplified or banal now contains all the essence of the individualities of the passage.
A “harmonic rhythm” is created out the moments when the underlying chords change. Wait, this is too simple. Rather, a synthesis is created of a nexus of pulse rhythms and harmonic rhythms. Sometimes the needs of the pulsations will require an identical chord to repeated in the harmonic rhythm before another chord appears. The harmonic rhythm doesn’t always have to rely on when a chord changes. It is the beauty of relationship between the prototype and the seemingly endless manifestations of notes that that can arise out of the that prototype. To see the universe in a grain of sand (Blake).
This combined harmonic and pulse rhythm embodies the spirit of the written notes, that which holds by higher compulsion the notes in their place. That which gives it life and meaning.
* Esoteric, by the way, does not mean in this context something that is hard to understand, but something that strikes us as so obvious that we don’t know how we missed it and was misguided by the surface reality.
Somehow I’ve worked towards a personal combination and synthesis of all of these, and others that still become newly apparent to me at this stage of life.
Don’t be captive to the notes. Be captive to the underlying meaning of the notes. Don’t let the physical mechanism be captive to what the notes say to do on the written page. Let the body create impossible things, impossible syntheses
A Few Thoughts About Satie’s “Gnossiennes”
S.B. is in love with the Satie Gnossiennes. He is learning the first four.
When he had a long string of the triplet notes, I tried to push him ahead as if I wanted him to go faster. Notwithstanding, he successfully resisted the impulses I conveyed. But, the combination of my push and his resistance (with the flow of the tempo) resulted in a perfect union of not speeding up on the clock but still having a feeling to the listener of moving ahead.
And the same thing for any other musical ‘feeling’ that you have about the piece. Inject that feeling like you are injecting into the inside of a turkey with a “solution” prior to cooking. The flavor remains on the inside, but the cooking ‘metronome’ continues to tick evenly.
The little differences. Satie is creating a severely controlled universe, a minimalistic universe. Satie wants to draw the listener in until they are sensitive to every slight difference amid the hypnotic flow of the notes. For instance at one point, instead of a twelve note series of triplets, it is fifteen notes.* Or, this time it was an A-natural and not an A-flat. And things like this.
The melody is filled with repeating notes. First play it without repeating any of the notes, then switch to repeating them, but be very “annoyed” that something, some outside force, is making you, as it were redundantly, to have to play each note twice. Once established at the beginning, never loose that initial feeling of annoyance as you go through a string of these note repetitions. If it helps, say out loud or to yourself in a nagging tone of voice: “do it twice … do it twice … , or “do I have to do this note twice also … do I have to do this note twice as well … and this note … “.
Because it happens so often, your inner musician will constantly want to assert itself to make it sound ‘better’, more ‘natural’. You will start giving a phrase or shape to the notes in order to avoid the starkness of the repetition of each note. It is hard for you to play through the whole piece as we have described because you are so sensitive and may think that what you are hearing is in some way ugly. At such times just consciously make it ‘uglier’. Make each note ‘stutter’.
Turning off a natural ability.
No note in the left hand ‘bears the memory’ of what preceded it, though it is natural to hear a group of notes as outlining a particular tonal chord. If there is a D minor chord in the left hand at the beginning it’s “news to me”. Perhaps I’ll come to realize it after it’s almost done.
This is very difficult to do: suppressing a natural conscious reaction. It would be like advancing a film one frame at a time, looking at it for a while, and then a long pause between the end of the first frame and the beginning of the next to allow some of the short term memory to forget what the preceding frame looked like.
* Try to frustrate the listener because there is a group of notes, and then something else, and then another group of notes. Make the listener upset as to why there were only n number of notes and then it stopped, and then, why did we have to wait before that flow notes resumed, and not being sure how for how long, for how many notes, that flow of notes will continue this time.
The Sad Decline of My Absolute Pitch
I have a love and hate relationship with my ear.
For a person with absolute pitch, it is often the case that each individual key (C Major, C Minor, C# Major, etc.) has its own special character and aesthetic, which strongly colors any music that I play or listen to. What I don’t know is if others with perfect pitch experience the same thing, and perhaps more importantly, whether the character or aesthetic of a particular key matches those of mine.
I learned that I had absolute pitch in gradual stages. When I was about three years old, I would listen to my older bother play pieces from “For Children” at his lessons. I knew enough to know that there were qualities about each piece that didn’t vary from one time to another, and that these had to do more than with the particular notes and their sequence.
It was many years before I understood what absolute pitch was and that I possessed it. Actually it was my friend Jeffrey Rothenberg who discovered it for me. We were in Mme. F’s French class in our junior year at high school. I remember two particular events in that class that year. The first has nothing to do with absolute pitch but is just nice: in the middle of a class meeting, Jeffrey got up from his chair, said somewhat ecstatically “Spring is here, and the cherry trees are in blossom in the quadrangle”, at which point he drifted, almost floated, out of the classroom.
The other, was when my friend Jeffrey was trying to discover if he had perfect pitch. He would lean over to Edward Goldstein on his right, sing a note into his ear, and ask him to sing it into my ear (I was to Edwards’s right) , and whisper into my ear: Jeffrey wants to know if you think this is an “A”. The fact that I could do that somewhat surprised me. I thought: so I guess I must have absolute pitch.
About one out of ten thousand people in the world have perfect pitch. Most are not musicians and probably do not realize that they have perfect pitch.* I figure they just assume that everyone else in the world hears sound the way they do, and that includes a merger of the effect of the up and down-ness of pitch with the effect of a changing coloration to the sound. Only if these people study music they will learn, perhaps to their surprise, that every time they hear a note, they are able to give it a name.
In school I began a phase of showing off my absolute pitch. I wasn’t good at sports, so this was my way of being “macho”. For instance, I got a telephone call from my friend Linda who said. She said: “Do you hear the piece I’m playing in the background, what is it, I can’t identify it.” I listened for a few moments. I that point in my life I had never heard it before, but I knew it was by Bach, that it was a concerto, that there were two pianos playing, and that it was in the key of C Minor. So I said to Linda: Well I’ve never heard this before, but I would say it is the Bach Concerto for two pianos in C Minor, the first movement. We hung up. Ten minutes later, when they probably announced the piece over the radio, I get a call again from Linda. She said, “show off!”.
One of my favorite spots during my High School years was the Brooklyn Botanic Gardens. I probably spent more time there than in classes. I even had one teacher who would ask one of the students: when you walk home would you look for Joe in the Botanic Gardens. He is probably sitting by the stream. If you find him, would you give him the homework assignment.
Yes, I was by the stream, bent over, listening intently to the gurgles of the water, and trying to figure out what the pitches were of this sound. I never could get them right. I would notate what was in effect a chord of many notes and would then try it out on the piano when I got home. There was no similarity (even after allowing for the difference in the sound quality of a piano and a brook. It wasn’t until another year or two that I learned what “white noise” was. That the reason I could not notate the brook was because there were so many pitches, all at once, that there was no way for the ear to untangle them each from the other. Additionally, at every moment the interval pitch make-up of the white noise would change slightly change, but in such tiny degrees that were measurable only in microtones. Microtones are the unlimited number of pitches that exist, for instance, between a C and a C-Sharp – or a ‘distance’ called a half step or semi-tone.
My experiences at the brook awakened my interest in microtones and today I am using the computer to compose microtonal pieces. I’ve even trained my ear to detect a difference of two hundredths of the distance between a C and C-Sharp. But they had to be isolated tones and not in a mixture or hundreds or thousands of tones all closely ‘spaced’.
Which brings up the clarinet. I had been playing the B-flat clarinet since the fourth grade. The clarinet is a “transposing” instrument. When it plays the note which the clarinetist identifies as a C on the clarinet, it does not match the C on other instruments. A C on the clarinet was a B-Flat on the piano. Though I didn’t know it until I was a Junior or Senior in High School, I had developed unconsciously two separate but parallel senses of perfect pitch, one that names the notes as they were called on the piano, and one for the notes as they were called on the clarinet.
In my twenties and thirties, if I was scheduled to teach a lesson, and I felt like I was coming down with a cold, I would protect the student by sitting on the other end of the room from the student. It somewhat freaked out the student when they noticed no difference in my interaction with them, as when I would say something like: “Irving” you just played an F natural instead of an F sharp” (yes Irving existed even back then).
So, everything was going along swell between me and my absolute pitch, until the invasion of original instruments. The difference is: why listen to a clarinet play, in tune, the solo in the slow of movement of Beethoven’s 3rd Symphony, when we could hear it played out of tune on an instrument created during the early 1800s. I grant that this is just a humorous way to describe the early music movement, but there was something more sinister for people with perfect pitch. The orchestra tunes the “A above middle C”. That ‘A’ would vary in pitch through the centuries. In Bach’s time, the A was almost a half step below normal today’s concert pitch. Thus began a process that was sully my pristine world of pitch.
At the beginning, when I heard a performance on original instruments, I would say “this is a piece in B Major”. The piece had all the aesthetic qualities of that were characteristic of the key of B Major. At the end of the performance I was of confused to hear that it was a piece in “C” Major. Sometimes it was even a piece I knew but which I suddenly could not identify because it was in a different key. However the worst thing was that after decades of original instrument performances, my “B” started sounding like a C. And I was too old apparently to develop a second sense of perfect pitch to go along the first. Talk about being confused. I could not really tell any more if the piece I was hearing was in C major, tuned down, or C as I grew up with it.
And so performances on original instruments spread like a virus over my entire nexus of absolute pitch. This was the beginning of the sad decline of my perfect pitch.
But the next step in this sad story totally befuddled me. I was in San Francisco giving a lesson over the phone to a student in Oregon. I did a lot of long distance phone lessons in those days – now I use skype. She was playing the C-sharp minor fugue from Book One of the Well Tempered Klavier. I got tired of holding the phone to the same ear (my right ear), so I switched quickly to my left ear. And lo, the pitch of the piece dropped by about an eighth tone (25 cents). At first I thought I was imagining the difference, but wasn’t, on further experimentation the difference persisted.
I wondered whether the ears, like the eyes, consist of a dominant one and non-dominant one. I knew that with my eyes, if I closed one eye and then the other, an object in the near ground or mid ground, would change its alignment with the objects in the far ground. When I used both eyes, what I saw was what I had seen through my dominant eye. I splendid musician I know, Wendy Loder, has confirmed having the same experience, with an even larger pitch difference than I experience.
Now I was faced with something similar with my ears. Two pitches, one in each ear, but the higher of those two pitches was the one I head when I was hearing with both ears. In my case the pitch that I heard through my right ear alone was the same as the pitch I heard with both ears. That was freaky because I wondered where did the other pitch go. It must still be in my brain somewhere.
I was offered this explanations. The cochlea, in the inner ear, shrinks as one ages. The cochlea in both ears might be aging at different rates. Analogous single nerve endings in the two cochlea, that had always responded to a middle C still, in a sense did so, but now responded to pitches near middle C, but not exactly at the same.
As I write this, I am seventy-one years of age. My original perfect pitch has survived through the years in only one case: notes coming from the piano. Only occasionally for the other instruments of the orchestra. But at least I’m never off my more than a semitone.
So, things couldn’t get too much worse – right?
Recently, the next nail in the coffin of my absolute pitch occurred in the form of how I was hearing octaves. I used to object to the “stretching” of octaves that many tuners did when tuning the higher range of the piano. I used to hate tuners who would tune the high octaves sharper than the mid range octaves. Suddenly, though, I was now experiencing a distortion in the pitch of the high notes of the piano that made me wish I could stretch the octaves. If I played a lower C, in the octave of middle C or an octave lower, together with one of the highest C-s on the keyboard, the higher C sounds a half step lower than the lower C. It was like hearing a C and a B. To be honest, this phenomenon had been creeping up on my over the years. At first it was a curiosity. Now it was intolerable. The string for the higher C would have to be stretched tighter, almost up to a C-sharp, for it to sound like the same note as the lower C. Now i know why some tuners stretched octaves.**
To be honest, I would have much rather had my absolute pitch go away entirely rather than in agonizing stages. But there was always enough left of the absolute to know that something was amiss in my perception. It was a more benign form of when a patient is consciously able to trace the course of her illness. Now I am starting crave the bliss of ignorance of not having absolute pitch at all. I can sense that my ability at relative pitch is asserting itself in situations where absolute pitch made relative pitch unnecessary.
I can now sit and contemplate what might be the next stage in the sad decline of my absolute pitch.
* Research at the University of California in San Diego found that while many may be born with it, discovering the gift is likely more the result of nurture than nature.Sep 18, 2012 (from a Google search)
** About ten years earlier I was offered another more ‘scientific’ and objective reason for stretching octaves. In physics the string is often considered as a one dimensional object. This allows the math to be simpler. But a string is three dimensional. It has length, width in a horizontal plane, and width in a vertical plane. There is a “nodal” point at the half way point along the string which as result divides the string into two parts, each part sounding an octave above the string at full length. A nodal point is a place along the string where, under certain circumstances no vibration takes place. But if the nodal point is three dimensional, rather than a nodal ‘point’ we have a nodal ‘sphere’. This causes each of the remaining, vibrating halves of the string to be slightly less than half the length of the full string, and thereby have a pitch that is slightly higher than one octave above the pitch of the string vibrating as a whole.