Subtleties of physical coordination
Lesson with A.B.: Grieg: Holberg Suite: I : measure 30…
When things arise that depend on control of our physical actions, there are then two considerations that are equally important. One is the scale or degree of the motion. The second is the exact timing of when the motion occurs.
The first is concerned with the strength, energy and ambit of the motion, and exactly which muscles in which parts of the body are doing the moving. We have to learn how to vary these parameters and not get locked into one setting. By varying we can experiment until the production of the sounds becomes easy.
The second is concerned with timing – down to fine subdivisions of seconds. A finger that lingers an instant too long on a note impeding the the motion to the next note. a finger that comes off of a key an instant (or more) too soon. We have to get used to controlling this timing (its instant of onset and instant of termination) and experimenting with varying this timing until any difficulty in the motions between the notes goes away.
These principles apply everywhere. Applying these principles to the passage starting in measure 30, we create a feeling of little bounces within bigger bounces, that develop out of experimenting with changing the subtle values of the timings and motions until the passage flows as we would like.
As for the “bigger” bounces, they are formed by
#1 fs5 on the fourth beat of measure 30, tripping over to g5 at the beginning of measure 31.
#2 e5 on the fourth beat of measure 31 hopping / swinging over to fs5 on the first beat of measure 32.
Distraction, as a practicing technique?
Please read this at your own risk -parental supervision recommended. 🙂
B.N. is an ‘upper’ teenager, a genius at math, who is very difficult to coax to the piano to practice. He waits long enough between practice sessions that he forgets a substantial portion of what he learned at the previous session. Progress is therefore unhurried and snail-like. I’ve tried a variety of disparate strategies and motivational techniques, all of which have failed; a fact that I strangely admire about him.
His knowledge of music theory is well beyond most of my other students. He composes on his own using an electronic synthesizer, and produces some stunning results. But it is his own thing, and shares very little of it.
Last week I tried out something new with him – what I would call a ‘distraction’ procedure.
It is not so new a procedure though for myself…which leads to this sad(?) confession on my part. I never liked practicing and did little of it. Things were too easy to learn. When I started my career, I was faced with a dilemma. I was being asked to perform solo pieces, chamber pieces and concertos that I was not able to learn with a just a short amount of time spent practicing.
Up until this period, twenty to thirty minutes of practicing was all I could do in a day. Frustration, but more frequently boredom, would set in. I learned best between one session to the next, in an unaware state. I let my unconscious learn the pieces, and spared myself the effort and bother of practicing.
I met my match when I had to learn two new pieces, the Tchaikovsky Piano Trio and the Franck Violin Sonata for a concert that was a month away. There was no way to use my ‘natural’ system of practice-avoidance to prepare myself for performance.
Shakespeare and the “Flintstones” to the rescue. Hitherto I had relied on insights and epiphanies to learn a piece: sudden discoveries, unusual but effective means of solving technical problems quickly. The Tchaikovsky and Franck were too long, too difficult, and not sufficiently interesting to me (unlike my wonted Bach and Brahms) for me to get to the goal line on time.
My solution was: take something that was very interesting to me, Shakespeare, and listened over and over to the “Marlowe Society” long playing recordings of the his plays, while I practiced for hours at a time. The Shakespeare kept me engaged in what I was doing with my fingers. In the month leading up to the performances, without being aware that I was doing it, I had learned by memory significant portions of Hamlet, Lear, the Tempest, Love’s Labor Lost and Macbeth. And the Tchaikovsky, it just kept getting better and better, by virtue of a procedure I had abhorred using in the past: sheer repetition, often accompanied by a metronome whose speed settings would rise in small increments over an hour or so. I repeated the music often enough, that I achieved the same results as my sudden insights – possibly less Quixotically, and more reliably (did I actually say this last thing?).
When I needed a break, I would switch to the TV and watch episodes of the “Flintstones” which required a minimal amount of attention on my part to get the gist of what was going on in the story line.
The blaring theme music of the Flintstones proved no distraction to me. I was immersing the Tchaikovsky in a “white noise”, a procedure not that different for me than studying or reading by a babbling brook, or in a wind-swept forest, or while listening to the waves on the ocean shore. If anything, it allowed me to play piano better. Something about the idea of my sounds contributing to the “universal solvent of sound around us”, which, if anything, helped me bring things out musically in the pieces I was practicing.
I later used a similar technique the breaks during rehearsal of the professional and semi-professional choruses I accompanied over the years. I dissolved the concentrated teabag of my potent musical piano brew into the liquid solvent of talking and laughter among the choristers on break. It only made me concentrate more on what I was doing, and rounded out the overtones of my playing into the general noises of humanity. My concentration on the sounds of the piano was magnified and not lessened.
I decided to use the same technique with B.N. I asked him to put his laptop on the piano and find something interesting to listen to or watch. A lecture by Feynman? A talk by a famous mathematician? Anything that would interest him. He used his earphones to listen to the computer, so that he would not be privy to what he was listening. I think that this was done in the way that allowed him the most privacy to his work process. At the same time that he was listening to whatever was on the laptop, I asked him to practice.
We started with something ‘brainless’ that he could repeat mechanically. Hanon leapt to mind. As he finished playing an exercise it I would ask him to repeat it. We did this for about fifteen minutes. He did not seem outwardly to mind the repetition. I was pleasantly surprised by the fact that his playing, if anything, immediately attained greater clarity and control than usual. Hmnn. Was that supposed to happen? Of course, why not! We ere not operating solely on logic.
Then we then switched to his Schubert Piece, one of the Moments Musicaux. We confined ourselves to just several lines of the middle section of the piece. He just kept listening to whatever he was listening to on the computer while repeating the passage of the Schubert. It got better. Not through concentration of his mind but by distracting his mind.
We stopped for that lesson with a semi-sanguine feeling on both of our parts that we might be onto something. What we would find out over the next few weeks was whether this would lead to more time at the piano between lessons.
I’m not recommending this technique for all students, but maybe for the occasional oddball or genius student it may offer success while more traditional techniques do not.
As a way to turn up the heat on the distraction-method, just before we
stopped, B.N. said, I think I want to practice the Schubert one more time today while listening to Brendel playing the same piece on you tube. I’ll practice the middle part slowly while I run his performance at the normal tempo from the beginning. Had he invented a heightened form of aleatoric music for himself? It proved more interesting than successful, but he was obviously in the spirit of the proceedings.
Emotional Expression; Changing from Flats to Sharps
CP’s lesson 8/29/19 “Claire de Lune”
C: Everything I do, both in general, and specifically at the piano I when practice, is rational, organized and methodological. This includes the fact that once I start something I must complete it regardless of the months it takes me. Moreover, I’ve never noticed any emotional expression in my playing, and I feel it is a lack on my part.
J: Your contention about emotional expression is belied by the natural beauty of your sound quality, and how unerringly you hit just the right feeling-tone of the piece you are playing.
(C seemed pleased that I thought so)
J: So if you believe that the last mentioned traits exist in your playing, where do think they come from; how do you get them?*
C: I don’t know. Partially because I don’t know when I’m getting them.
J: Exactly! You are not supposed to know, because they do not come from a part of you that is identifiable with words. If so, would you be OK if we use words like irrational or non-conscious, to signify why you cannot tell precisely where they come from within yourself. A bigger question: is it OK with you to have these two contrasting natures in yourself: one organized, under your control, and available to consciousness, the other, just as potent, but uncontrollable because inaccessible to your conscious or rational mind?
(She always knew about the organized one but had been very concerned that might not have the other. She was pleased to know she did have it, as well)
J: These two do not necessarily have to contradict each other or conflict with each other. Any conflict we sense comes from the rational side of our selves, when we try to define one in the terms of the other. In truth, each can amplify and encourage the other.
(She described an analogous situation in her life)
C: In my business life I frequently have to get to understand the
inner workings and organization of a large, international company.
The task seems daunting. There are too many interconnecting parts,
each pair seeming to interrelate in its own way and according to its
own customs. However, given enough time, I find that I begin to
grasp the whole and the parts.
J: My guess is that the foundational work you did was largely rational, but the insight that eventually came about how the company, despite its many parts, worked as an organic unity, came unexpectedly and was not directly
caused by its conscious antecedents in time. Again, we do not know from where this insight comes from, but it represents a direct intuition of the companies inner, organic unity.
In Claire de Lune there is a moment when the key signature changes
abruptly from five flats to four sharps. C. says this change causes
her great difficulty.
Here began a diagnosis.
1) I picked a passage in the flats section: in your imagination, rather than thinking about the key signature, just put, in your imagination, a flat sign in front of each and every note in the score. Note that this produces a somewhat different sequence of notes than what Debussy wrote. C had little trouble doing this.
2A) Then we picked a passage in the sharps section. Now do the same thing again, only with sharps. Put an imaginary sharp sign in front of every note you see in the passage and don’t think any longer about key signatures. This too, though producing a passage that sounded different than the piece she was used to, offered her no difficulty.
2B) Play the same passage again as in #2A, but this time, in your imagination, put a flat sign rather than a sharp sign in front of every note. She had little little difficulty doing this.
Just so you know, all of these three things are much harder to do than play the score as written. So you have all the mental equipment necessary to make a successful shift from flats to sharps. Yet it is still giving you trouble. We must explore further.
She said: the confusion occurs at the moment it changes key. It’s barely marked in the score. I’ve gotten so used to being in the flats for the last few pages, I need just as long a period to get used to the sharps.
I said: this is very useful. It’s time for me to ask a stupid question. Do you start practicing the piece starting from the change of key, or do you usually start at the beginning of the piece?
She: the latter. Remember, once I start something I have to see it through the end.
I think you have just diagnosed your problem as well as solved having found the solution to the problem. Simply get in the habit of sometimes starting your practicing from the beginning of the sharp section until you are used to that part as you are to the opening section.
She asked me how I handle this sort of situation. I said: it’s probably different for a professional musician, and different from one professional to the next. Here is a part of my process in handling keys and changes of key that had remained unconscious to me for many years, but which after starting teaching others, became more accessible to my consciousness.
Here is a simple example. I encounter a piece in G Major. One sharp. F sharp. I am sight reading the piece. I come, in the score to an “F”. It genuinely does not look like an F. It looks like something else: it looks like an F-sharp. There is nothing in the vicinity of the note on the page to cause it to look any different. But nothing you can say to me, will change the impression that it looks different than an F natural. There is little my mind can do to make it look again like an F and not an F#. It is as if its printed in a different color. It produces a different emotional state in my mind. It is as if the # sign was printed just left of the note.
That indicates how a strongly I am affected from the start by hearing the piece sound in the key of G major. It is the obvious presence to my ear that we are in a tonal world known as “G Major”, and how that affects every note in the piece, not just F#.
* With certain students I do teach things like being musical, understanding that inner thing-in-itself of the music. I am surprisingly successful in doing this. But when I have a student in front of me who does these naturally, the worst thing I can do is make them aware of it in a way that includes how I think they are achieving it.
Sight Reading Gets in the Way of Learning a New Piece
S.B’s lesson on August 27, 2019
S.B. who is quite musical and is in his early thirties, has great physical coordination at the piano even though he is playing only at an intermediate level. He could be playing at a much higher level, doing more technically challenging music. What is preventing this is his sight reading. If I were to try to place his sight reading scales on a scale from one to ten, it would approximately 2. At the same time, his ability to get around the piano acrobatically is at least an 8. We have tried all sorts of approaches to improving his sight-reading-alacrity; all with minor progress. As he puts it, “Each time I play or practice the same piece again, it is almost like sight reading it again.”
If we wanted him to undertake much more difficult and musically rewarding pieces, we would some have to set a goal of somehow getting rid of the sight reading stage in his learning process, or to put it more practically, get rid of it to whatever degree possible. To move ahead in this direction we will depend on a third variable in addition to physical coordination and sigh treading. This variable is his ability to memorize.
His usual method to memorize is to play the entire piece over and over again. However, because his sight reading skill is low, and since each repetition is more like sight reading it again, he does not get gradually more familiar with the piece; his memory doesn’t kick in very much.
We tried a new procedure.
I gave him a random score. I asked him to carefully sightread the first measure, and pay close attention to what notes were being played in his hands. Then, without further ado, try to play that measure by heart. It took just a couple of tries until he was able to do that. At that point we simply played the measure number of times by memory. When it seemed to be locked into place, which was about after the fourth repetition, I asked him to play the measure faster (by memory). Then even faster. This proceeded fairly effortlessly (the physical coordination ability kicking in with its contribution).
Instead of reading-on in the piece (his usual procedure is try to play through an entire piece), we cleared his mind by talking for a minute on some irrelevant topic. Then we went through the same exact procedure that we used for the first measure, but this time for the second measure. This proved harder than measure one but not by much.
Then we went into a phase in which I would say in some random order, something like: “play measure two”, “play measure one”, “play measure one” …
After that we began fusing the two measures together into one continuous unit. The difficulty in this was finding a smooth way of getting from the end of measure one into measure two. This was due to less to an unfamiliarity in how to start measure two and more in doing so when immediately preceded by measure one. I suggested he first try measure two alone, followed momentarily by playing measure one and two.
At the conclusion of this process, he pronounced that on a scale from one to ten, his memorization ability was about a five. So, with the 5 for memorizing together with the 8 for physical coordination, they will hopefully, on their own, help him wipe out the 2 for sight reading, simply because we are minimizing its presence in the learning process.
A Cluster of Thoughts
Getting lost in a large group of notes beamed together
When more than four notes are beamed together, it is difficult for
some pianists to keep their eye focused on each note of the group,
especially the notes that lie somewhere in the middle of the group.
Exercise for the eye alone:
Take any such group. Perhaps six or more notes sharing the same beam. Without playing any of the notes, see if the eye can parse through the group without loosing their place. It may be helpful to say:
“Now my eye is on the first of the six notes.” “Now my eye is on the second of the six notes.” The third, and so on.
If the eye gets confused it will tend to be starting around the fourth note.
It is helpful to mentally divide the group into two parts, and then gradually change the point of division. “Push” to left all the notes left of the the note we are currently looking at. “Push” to the right all the notes, starting with the current note and going through the end of the group. It is like a Mel Brooks version of the exodus, in which Moses chooses a spot to part the Red Sea, then changes his mind and parts it a bit further downstream, and still not satisfied continues parting it further and further downstream.
The reason for doing this exercise with the eye only, and without
playing or sounding the notes, is because it is sometimes helpful to take apart what the eye does from what the playing mechanism does. Otherwise there is numerous semi-conscious cross-influences between the two. Unless the pianist is still a beginner, the physical and the visual automatically fuse together so that it is very difficult and misleading to try to determine what the playing mechanism is doing from what the eyes are doing. Or, to put it in a more East Coast way: it would be like driving through the Lincoln Tunnel from Jersey to Manhattan, and after a while, loosing a specific geographical sense of how into the tunnel we’ve already gone and much is left to go, based solely on the visual appearance of
the tunnel without switching to a reliance on our sense of how much time duration has passed since we entered the tunnel.
JM’s lesson 8/2/19 on Debussy’s “Soiree en Grenade”. It helps to know that JM has a small hand.
A sudden jump in the left hand without loosing the continuity of a
Somewhat late in the piece there is a measure where the pianist’s left hand needs to go with alacrity from the single note e1 to the octave a3-a4. How do we execute such a leap without loosing the flow of sounds.
One thing that helps in such a case is to focus on the fact that no matter where on the keyboard the E is, and where on the keyboard the A’s are, E going up a fourth to an A. It doesn’t matter how many octaves intervene or whether there are multiple E’s and A’s.
Now, play the following series of 4-note groups:
e1 a1 gs1 fs1
e1 a2 gs1 fs2
e1 a3 gs3 fs3
e1 a4 gs4 fs4
Focus on just what feels and sounds identical in all four cases. If they feel or sound different in any way, you are still conscious of certain differences and you want to make these differences become unconscious. The objective was for J.M. is to feel that she was playing exactly the same thing all four times: focusing on only one type of difference and ignoring all others. Everything but the names of the notes E A G# F# in their most abstract form – without position in one octave or another in the keyboard, have vanished from consciousness, including any physical sensation having to do with left- right motion on the keyboard (except a rise of five half steps). Also ignore any sound information to the ears about change of octave range. An E, for instance, should sound like an E no matter where it is located on the keyboard or what other instrument is playing it. An E is an E is an E (apologies to Gertrude Stein). And the same for A.
The only thing that is kept in mind physically is the fact that the E
lies on the right side of the clump of two black notes and the A lies
in the middle left of the clump of three black notes. Even when
changing octave, that should be the only thing remaining in consciousness.
The only that is kept in mind sonically, among all the other sound
data coming into the ear, is that A (anywhere on the keyboard) sounds a “perfect fourth” higher than an E, no matter how far the E is from the A on the keyboard. It should never sound like an eleventh for instance.
Here is another example in the same piece of a sudden jump in the left hand that cannot interrupt the fluidity of the sound motion.
It is located in the score not far from the previous example. It involves Jumping in the left hand from some low sounds to a four note B minor chord (b4-d5-fs5-b5) in the treble.
We began by focusing on just the B minor chord.
Play b4 with the left pinkie several times in a row and play the last one in the series longer than the ones leading up to it.
Now play the b4 and d5 together – several times in a row holding on to the last one longer than the preceding ones. This last iteration helps the notes to “settle in”. Play the two notes with the fingers that you will use when you eventually play all four notes in the chord simultaneously.
The same for b4-d5-fs5.
The same for b4-d5-fs5-b5.
Approached this way, through gradual addition, you end up with a balanced four note chord, played without a forced, overstretched or awkward hand position.
If you look closely at the hand as you play this exercise, you should notice that each time one more note is added, the entire hand automatically assumes a different overall shape. Part and parcel of this change in the whole hand, is that a single finger, especially one that is used used in more than one stage of the exercise, will be curved differently, angled differently, and aligns itself with its note differently.
To transfer the benefit of this exercise into the performance of the passage, imagine that the hand is going through all these four stages, one at a time, in order, in the short amount of time while the left hand is moving from the bass to the treble. Finish the fourth (the last) stage before acting to sound the chord.
Four-hands: as a way of inspiring a student
Four-hands can give a student a new motive to practice. In part it’s due to our working together rather than alone: learning together, sight reading yogether, solving things together, trying things out together. When practicing on his own he often gets to a point with a new piece where he no longer notices a return in improvement that is proportional with the time he is investing in practicing. And he gives up on the piece. When we play together, no matter how many mistakes happen, he is suddenly transported to a state that is much closer to how we wishes the piece could sound.
Accompaniment and melody.
S.B. Chopin: D-flat major Nocturne
The Nocturne begins with the left hand alone. The right hand has not yet come in with the melody. She finds it difficult to get the first measure to sound as she would like it to sound.
All it took to bring the left hand to life without the right hand, was to copy and paste the right hand melody from measure two into measure one. The left hand now knows instinctively what to do. It relies of the synthesis, both physically and sound-wise, of the two hands. What had been missing, when she originally played the left hand alone, was a clear intimation of what was going to happen next: that the left hand knew already what it would need to do to fit in exactly with the immanent melody.
Richness of the sound: spongey fingers
S.B. Chopin: F# Major Nocturne
She couldn’t get the melody to sound how she wanted.
I made a radical suggestion to her: depress each as slowly as you can, so slow that, you shouldn’t be able to produce a sound when you reach the bottom of the key dip. It’s not that you should play exactly like that, it is more in the nature of a countermeasure to balance out a chronic stiffness and tension in your fingers. Imagine a continuous spectrum from the most stiff hand to the most flaccid hand. You have been dwelling near the stiff end of that spectrum. We want to do something to offset that extreme position, using a restorative measure exerted in the opposite direction along the spectrum. When this is combined with the propensity for stiffness you will reach a balanced point at the middle of the spectrum – not too stiff, not too flaccid.
She tried it. The results where soulful, rich, resonant sounds, and
not as she had anticipated: that there would be no sound at all. “Oh — I think this can be life-changing!”