Category: Phrasing

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).

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Six short blogs about Beethoven’s “Andante Favori” in F Major

#1.  Key Signatures

Some advanced students have trouble changing from one key signature to another, even when they are finished playing one piece and are starting to play another.  The previous sharps and/or flats in the previous piece’s key signature “bleed over”, or persist into the next piece.  For this type of student it is not enough to suggest that they practice scales and get to know key signatures.  One has to reach back further in time to re-build conscious awareness of keys.  Using just one hand, and just one finger from the hand, have the student play, very slowly, one octave’s worth of a scale.  As each note is played the student should say out loud the name of the note being played.  This has less to do with teaching the hand what notes are in the scale and was more about raising to a high state of conscious awareness the “name” of each note.

Only two preliminaries were required to begin this procedure for the major scales in particular:

review of: whole-whle-half-whole-whole-whole-half

the “law of the alphabet”: that each letter in the musical alphabet must show up once in the scale.  The letters should appear, in order and without any omission or doubling.

#2. The use of “Least Common Denominators” to gain control of  rhythmic details.

Counting “beats” out loud is often as difficult as it is unhelpful to straightening out rhythm details.  It is better to “count” the passage of one of the shorter rhythmic values.  J.M. is having difficulty counting the rhythm: dotted sixteenth – thirty second – eighth – eighth.  This appears at the beginning of the Beethoven Andante Favori. Instead of using a counting-ruler that was marked in eighth notes we used a ruler marked in thirty-second notes, four of which equaled one of the eighth notes.

J.M was not used to counting out loud.  She would encounter these obstacles.  1) She couldn’t coordinate doing two things at once, playing a rhythm, and saying a counting.  Even getting the voice to begin speaking while the fingers were playing was difficult.  One took attention away from the other and both would suffer.  2) when she did have her voice and her fingers activated together, the voice tended to follow any inaccuracy in her fingers’ playing of the rhythm.  The fingers were leading the mouth, so to speak.  For counting out loud to work, the voice must take a higher priority than the fingers, so much so that eventually the sounds themselves appeared merely as shadows of what the voice was doing.* They were entirely under dictates of the voice**. 3).  Understanding that what we were counting was not ‘counts’ (I.E. beats), that we were actually counting repeating groups of four thirty-second notes.  That we chose thirty-second notes because 1/32 is the least common denominator if one wants to add together 1/2-s, 1/4-s, 1/8-s, 1/16-s, 1/32-s, and dotted versions of all but the last.***

* I said to J.M.: The louder you say the numbers out loud the better the fingers will cease trying to dictate things to the body and the more the voice takes control so that the notes arrive with the counts.  Also the louder you count out loud the more likely you will notice if there is any unevenness in the way your voice is counting.

** To form a bridge or meeting place between never having counted while playing and doing so competently, as she played the opening notes of the piece I played the notes of the melody an octave higher but I repeated the same note as 2 or more thirty-second notes when the note in the melody was a sixteenth or longer.  As I did this I was using my voice to encourage her voice by my counting the thirty seconds out loud (1 2 3 4).  By relying on following both the notes I was playing and saying the counts I was saying, she broke through the barrier of merging counting and playing.****

*** Funny thing about me and least common denominators.  In grade school I used to think that the phrase least common denominator, meant least-common denominator, and not least common-denominator.  For instance 1/4s seemed to have too much in common with 1/2s to be the least common denominator for the two of them.  Perhaps  something less common, like a 1/16th or a 1/32nd.  I used the term correctly but always with a bit of puzzlement in my mind.

**** I noticed that I changed the inflection of my voice depending on whether she was holding an eighth note, or playing a dotted sixteenth and a thirty second.  In the first case my word ‘one’ was the loudest syllable, and the other three drifted off quieter (though still promptly on time).  Sort of like as if I were taking the 2 3 4 for granted.  In the second case, after putting a certain emphasis on the word ‘one’, I made a crescendo in my voice through the words ‘two’ and ‘three’ as if handing to her, or pointing the way to the word ‘four’.

#3. A tricky rhythm in measure 47.

This is a place where the right hand basically enunciates a scale, two notes a time, each a thirty-second there are the places in the piece where the right hand enunciates a scale, two notes a time, each a thirty-second, but also pauses for two-thirty seconds in between the end of one two note group and the beginning of the next.

I said that many pianists had difficulty with enunciating this correctly (as do certain orchestra conductors in similar sections of works like the slow movement of Mozart’s 40th Symphony in G Minor.

Why is it difficult?  Because when we play two consecutive notes of a scale rapidly, followed by no further note, the first one tends to act like a grace note to the second, with the result that the second gains an emphasis defined the former.  But this is rhythmically incorrect.  It is not the second which should be emphasized.  If anything it is the first note with the second tapering off form it.

#4. A scale like passage in parallel thirds in measure 43.

Rather than getting lost in how to finger such a passage, it is best if the entire arm moves, as a single unit, over and over again regardless of which notes are played and which fingers are used.  As for how to activate the arm to make this identically repeating gesture, I suggest feeling as if the arm is being moved by an external force applied at a particular spot along the forearm.

I demonstrated that this was possible by my moving her entire in repeated groups of four each time by my applying force from a different location along the arm.  I showed her that I could make her entire arm move by moving just one of her fingers through space.  I did something similar with the wrist, the forearm, the elbow.  I even did it with the upper arm, but the result was clumsier (the “tail wags the dog”).

The actual activation point we chose was for the purpose of playing even thirds was underneath of the ridge of the wrist.   I had her create even, soft, random note-clusters with the heel of her wrist.  Then I asked her to switch to articulating the thirds but to feel, as it was happening, that she was activating the entire arm as a unit, and always from the underneath surface of the wrist.

To help her along, I lay my second finger, lengthwise, underneath the span of the ridge of her wrist.  I then asked her to repeatedly push down on my finger with the arm, while all the while I offered resistance to her pushes.

#5.  A scale like passage in parallel thirds in measure 43.

Rather than getting lost in how to finger such a passage, it is best if the entire arm moves, as a single unit, over and over again regardless of which notes are played and which fingers are used.  As for how to activate the arm to make this identically repeating gesture, I suggest feeling as if the arm is being moved by an external force applied at a particular spot along the forearm.

I demonstrated that this was possible by my moving her entire arm in repeated groups, and switching where I was applying my force from group to another.  I showed her that I could make her entire arm move by moving just one of her fingers through space.  I did something similar with the wrist, the forearm, the elbow.  I even did it with the upper arm, but the result was clumsier (the “tail wagging the dog”).

The actual activation point we chose was for the purpose of playing even thirds.  This spot was ridge of her wrist.   I had her create even, soft, random note-clusters with the heel of her wrist.  Then I asked her to switch to articulating the thirds but to feel, as it was happening, that she was activating the entire arm as a unit, and always from the underneath surface of the wrist.

To help this along, I lay my second finger, lengthwise, underneath the span of the ridge of her wrist.  I then asked her to repeatedly push down on my finger with the arm, while all the while I offered resistance to her pushes.

#6. In measure 41, a note held in one voice is interrupted, mid stream, by the same note sounding in a second voice.

Here is a brief example of when one voice of several moves onto the same note that is already being held by another voice.  It occurs one sixteenth note into the measure.  The middle voice has an eighth note g4 on beat one.  One sixteenth note into that beat, the bottom voice sounds the same g4 for one thirty-second note.  The issue, with all such situations, is how to allow the two voices to stay sonically independent of one another.

This is the series of steps through time required to keep the voices separate.

Step 1: start the eighth note g4 in the right hand.

Step 2: immediately  before it is time for the left hand to play the same g4, the right hand partially or completely  lifts the g4 key, so that, an instant later…

Step 3: the left hand can begin the thirty-second note g4.

Step 4: during the duration of this thirty-second note, the right hand silently takes over for the left hand on the g4.

Step 5: after the thirty second note has passed, the right hand goes on holding down the g4 key till the end of the eighth note.

#5. measure 141 for example: a rapid melody in octaves in one hand, in particular a smaller hand.

Because of her small hand, I suggested to J.M. that regardless of how brief each octave is, she not hold onto it its full duration but release before her hand had an opportunity to seize-up, or tried to maintain hold of the octaves by a gripping action.

As a preliminary exercise I asked her to flex the joints in her pinkie and her thumb that are not usually actively flexed when playing octaves.  Just hold out her right hand in front of her, and slowly flex, back and forth, the first knuckle of the pinkie and the first knuckle of the thumb.  Feel like those fingers are growing in length, and have become like fronds of a sea plant that are being stirred by gentle currents in the water.  Then, when playing the passage, try not to loose the feeling that these joints are actively flexing while one octave is being held – even if they are not so doing.  This virtual flexion in the first knuckles is not to be used to push the two keys down to sound the octave, but should occur independently of when and how we activate the keys.

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A Well Shaped Phrase

Irving and I were working on the right hand in the second movement of the Bach Italian Concerto.

Botticelli’s paintings are praised for the sensuous lines which outline and reveal his shapes.  These shapes are more than simply visual, they can also be felt tangibly in imagined sensations of touch*.

The beauty of the shape of a musical a phrase can also have to do with the care the musician takes to communicate the outline each phrase.   There are many criteria for how to shape a phrase.

One way, though not always applicable, is on the basis of when the pitches are ascending and when they are descending.  More especially the places where the direction changes, for they are the places in the phrase where its outline is most sinuous.**

I remember in first year Calculus, that to draw a curve, it is sufficient to know only the points where the curve changes direction from rising to falling or falling to rising.  It is easy to connect those points with a smooth curve.  The pianist should similar trace the undulations of their phrases.

For the queasy of stomach (like me), the moments on a roller coaster ride that are most jarring are these sinuous points when up and down flip, and when left and right reverse.   They are the moments that stand out in my memory of the ride.

I am not one to apply metaphors from one art to another but sometimes, when I’m playing I feel like sound is a viscous substance that I can, like a sculptor, mold into a shape (through time).  Or another analogy that works for me is to take a sculpture that barely rises off a background surface and have it round itself into three dimensions.   Or, sometimes I will feel myself holding a somewhat stiff, yet flexible, rod in my hands and imagine it being bent into an arc.

*I learned this when reading books on the Italian Renaissance by art critic/aesthetician/historian Bernard Berenson.

** In first year calculus I learned how to sketch a curve on a graph given only information about where the curve changed from ascending to descending or changed from bending one way to the other.

 

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Three Mordants

In the first movement of Bach’s Italian Concerto, there are two places where one plays in series three identical mordants.*

Ideally, we want to play each of the three mordants with freshness and brio (liveliness or spirit).  To do this it is useful that each one of the three has a certain difference or freedom from the others.  When doing the second or third, there should be no memory either in the hand or in the ear of the exact nature of the one or two preceding it.  In an important way, each of the three should be created as the first one.   This principle can be generalized: every note is the first note of the piece.  The piece is being created by us on the keyboard on the spot: ex nihlio (out of nothingness).

When something new happens, especially if happens suddenly, it occupies our full attention at the center of our consciousness.  This is true of a sensation that repeats.  At first it takes over a large portion of our attention.  However if the sensation keeps on repeating, especially if with little or no change, we become inured to it fairly quickly: it recedes into the background of consciousness where it may remain unnoticed, or be forgotten altogether.  It is only if the sensation changes or stops entirely will we suddenly become aware (sic) of its absence. (aware of its absence … an interesting philosophical concept).

What is the advantage of being first?  The first has a quality of freshness, newness, that is often a prized quality (especially as we grow older).  It is like watching the sun rise in the morning after a night of darkness, versus looking at the sun in the middle of the day when we have gotten a number of hours to get used to its presence.

For the pianist playing the mordants, this ‘newness’ has several aspects.  In the repetition there should be no accumulated tension in the hand from the repetition before it.   More importantly, psychologically, there should be “no obligation to the past”: we do not need to feel that we have to make the second instance sound just like the first (or the third like the second, or like the first and second).  That it is an easier thing to do to do if we do it over and over exactly the same, than to look for newness.  However, for freshness,** we should want to have forgotten what is in the immediate past, what the first mordant sounded like as we craft the second one.

Some habits take years to form (and sometimes years to undo).  However, on a shorter time scale, one measured in seconds, our mind, always on the alert for a possible “pattern”, tries to create one, a pattern based on the immediate past which we makes us have a prediction of what will happen in the next moment.

At heart every iteration of the mordant happens in a new way.  We want to break the shackles***of memory.  Each mordant stands alone in time, perfect and new: as is the promise in the newness of a sunrise.   The pinnacle of being new is that of it being unforeseenNo obligation to memory.  Warding off comparison with the past.  And if it happens that something repeats, there was no obligation for it to repeat.

As pianists we are frequently asked to repeat a short phrase or a chord over and over.  Like the opening of the “Waldstein” by Beethoven.  Or like the oscillation between the interval of a third and sixth in Chopin’s, toccata-like Etude, Op 10, No. 7 in C Major.  Most of all, how we go about executing a long trill, with an obligation to make each next two notes sound like all the ones the preceded it in time.  A short two-note melody repeating incessantly, in which a portion of the past continuously overlay and replaces the new, next moment in time.***

But as for this ‘newness’ it can apply at all levels of time-scale.  As with the recapitulation of a Classical period sonata-form movement which often involves the literal repetition of material heard earlier in the movement.

Based on what we have said so far, it would appear that the secret to executing such repeating figurations, is for both the ear and the hand to forget that there is any repetition going on.  Each event is unforeseen; as if there has been what we might best term an amnesia of what came before.  A person with short term memory loss forgets that he has said something moments or minutes earlier.  It is odd, but we need to selectively cultivate this state when playing.  If we do not think that something is repeating, then every time we execute it, it is not effected by what has happened before.

* In this instance the mordant is an ornament that consists of a note in the score, then a note just below it, followed by the original note.

** The association between time and music is closer than the relation any other art has with time.  Time, at heart, is that which brings change and newness.  The closer we are to an ongoing sense of newness the deeply we live in the flow of time (see the writings of the French philosopher Henri Bergson).

*** The poem “London” by William Blake expresses what the absence of newness can do to our minds.  We are left with no choices, everything has been determined already by our actions in the past, or the actions of others.  Line 8 is especially relevant.

I wander thro’ each charter’d street,    Near where the charter’d Thames does flow.   And mark in every face I meet Marks of weakness, marks of woe.  

In every cry of every Man,   In every Infants cry of fear,   In every voice: in every ban,   The mind-forg’d manacles I hear

How the Chimney-sweepers cry    Every blackning Church appalls,   And the hapless Soldiers sigh   Runs in blood down Palace walls

But most thro’ midnight streets I hear   How the youthful Harlots curse   Blasts the new-born Infants tear   And blights with plagues the Marriage hearse

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