A pianist’s view on harp playing
What I wish the sound of the harp would be like.
Usually listening to a harpist is like listening to a pianist who is keeping the pedal half way down, so that it seems that every note being played is trying vainly to escape from a general sonic blurriness.
As with any other instrument, what the sound of the harp should be like should never be dictated by what is technically possible, but entirely driven by an inner ‘vision’ of the harpist as to what the instrument should or could sound like. To overcome the general blurriness the sound of the instrument should be the creation of the harpist’s personal imagination. There is no reason, then, that a harp should not be as articulate as a violin, a coloratura soprano, or a piano.
Each note should match each other note in its resonance, and the clarity of its intention. Any difference between one note and another should be solely the result of a musical intention to have them be different, not the result of a lack of technical attention.
Granted that the harp has acoustical features that dispose it to be a blurry instrument, one must still overcome that. The least interesting harp players are those who only create “harp-like” effects.
The greater importance of rhythm on the harp.
Rhythms should be enunciated clearly, carefully, and understandably, so as to be almost like a drummer demonstrating what they would want to have be the ideal model or prototype for any musician playing that particular rhythm on any particular instrument.
It doesn’t matter when in the passage a note occurs, in what measure, on what beat, or location off a beat, all notes should be equally clear, have a space carved out for itself by the musician’s imagination in which it can fully resonate, and not be impeded by the sound of the other notes. This should remain true even if the strings of a particular harp are not as inherently brilliant as each other, or every single string is as brilliant sounding in every pedal position.
Even when playing what might not seem like much of a rhythm, for example a running passage of sixteenth notes, the effect should still be that of the revealing to the listener of an interesting, “dynamic” experience based solely on the properties of the rhythm. A rhythm in spite of any repetitiveness should be kept alive at every moment. Every note should be as audible and clear to the listener as every other, and fit into the shape of the rhythm. Not achieving this is a common failing among harpists.
Great harp players don’t play the ‘harp’, they play ‘music’. They will tend to gravitate towards the music written for the harp that is most musically substantial and worthwhile from a musical point of view. I confess that composers for the harp are not always cooperative in providing this sort of material.
Always take care in sculpting the ‘connection’ between one note and the next. No matter how fast the notes are going by, each connection should be as beautiful as if it were part of a slow melody.
The two hands should play as one melded entity. And the two hands plus the two feet should work as one united unit; no different than walking outdoors and simultaneously swinging your arms.
Any physical differences between the fingers should be resolved by their being mutually reabsorbed into the oneness of hand, where they become equal.
All physical limitations must be transcended, more so perhaps on the harp perhaps than any other orchestral instrument. Transcendence is not the result of working on making one finger as strong as another. Transcending means all is directed by the ear which in turn is driven by the imagination. Evenness doesn’t come from finger equality, but from an inner vision of what evenness itself should sound like, and the determination of hearing things come out of your instrument as conforming to that vision.
Every sound comes from the center of the body, not from the ends of the
outstretched hands. It is not only the string that vibrates it also
vibrates in the sound-box of the body.
Energy never sags. It is never anything but at its maximum.
Be as devoted to the passage that is of the least interest to you as to the passage that turns you on the most.
The energy you produce should not be blocked by any part of the body on its route from the body center all the way into the conjunction of the fingers with the strings. The fingers never do anything by themselves.
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.