The Principle of Nested Parentheses
In simplifying algebraic expressions, one starts with the innermost
pair(s) of parentheses, simplifies and reduces it, then works
gradually outwards to the outermost parentheses, i.e. the full
Today, I want to advocate the opposite process for piano
practicing, one that begins, figuratively speaking, with the outermost
parentheses and works inwards until all the details are presented.
A.B. is playing a piece called “Orientale” by Albeniz. We set up our
first, our outermost parentheses, to surround 5, 6 and 7 of the piece. We left the parentheses empty except for the first chord of measure five
and the first chord of measure seven. Everything in between was omitted. We tried to effect a connection between just these two chord/islands in time, a connection that was crafted to make those two chords in sequence sound musically self sufficient and meaningful. Bear in mind that, as with any good parenthetical statement, the words (notes) inside the curved brackets are of less importance than what lies outside the brackets.
We next subdivided the outermost parenthesis into two two nesting
parentheses. The first nesting parenthesis goes from the beginning of
the fifth measure to the beginning of the sixth measure, the second
from the latter to the beginning of the seventh measure.
Each of the new, nested parentheses is of less importance than the original, surrounding parentheses. Thus the chord at the beginning of measure six is of less importance than either the chord at the beginning of measure five or the chord at the beginning of measure seven. The presence of the sound of the chord at the beginning of measure six should in no way interfere with the way that the chord in measure five connects with the chord in measure seven. This inner chord is not quite trivial, but it is at a different order of magnitude than the other two. This difference in magnitude should be noticeable both in terms of the amount of physical action and exertion used to sound it and in terms of its musical importance.
We continued the process by further dividing each sub-parentheses into
more numerous shorter parentheses. This process continued until, at
the last stage, every note in the original passage is present and
sounding. Gradually all the chords and melody notes appear.* At each
stage the full, or final, picture becomes more and more fleshed
out. The new material added by way of detail is, as in the stage prior
to it, stepped down in terms of the magnitude of physical action and
exertion made to execute it.
In this system the final details, including all the individual notes
in the score which we insert at that last stage are, strangely
enough, the least important. At each stage we discover that we can
make a convincing musical phrase out of just the material constituting
that stage.* Though eventually there will be more notes present, the
notes that are there in each each level sound entire and musical, as
if nothing is being left out – no note or chord missing, each should
note in no way depends for its musical character on any implied notes
we will hear in the future.**
At the final stage, when all the notes are sounding, all the other steps which we have previously enunciated are still “there” in some sense, enriching the overall texture of the passage.
* In one possible stage, we discover, for instance, that playing just the first two of each group of right hand triplet notes, creates its own independent melody without requiring the third note.
** Generally speaking, it is too easy to make connections between two
things that come one right after the other in time. It is their very
proximity that calls our attention to the relation between them. But
who is to say that the current music note in time should not form a
relation with a note that occurs two or more notes later, or later
still. And if there are such medium and long distance relationships,
they are the building blocks of nascently growing organizational
units of the piece until the whole piece is interconnected. As these
units grow longer in time the beginning of the unit is only partially
retained in memory, first as an ‘after image’, and then deeper and
deeper in memory, until they back to mind if they are in some way
reiterated or altered.
When Practicing is Emotionally Painful
S.B.’s lesson on 6/25/19
S.B. is sensitive to good music, his soul clearly derives sustenance from it. Part of him loves being at the piano. The fly in the ointment is his sight reading.
Because of his love for music he periodically subjects himself to prolonged periods of discouragement by trying to learn pieces. The discouragement stems mostly from the difficulties he experiences in sight reading.
He could possibly become better at sight reading if he did more of it. But without a proximate aesthetic reward to be gained from the playing of the piece, there is little incentive to practice sight reading.
Reading pieces that are simple enough for him to sight reading produces apathy on his part. The music has little to offer his rather refined artistic sensitivities.
Difficulty in sight reading leads to prolonged practicing time before
the musical qualities of a piece begin to emerge in the player’s consciousness, which can then be savored by our aesthetic sensitivity. The longer this delay, the more bogged down the pianist gets in the tangled web of a forest–with no apparent way out. Just more and more forest, without
Eventually, the displeasure of making gradual, fitful, disconnected small gains in learning the piece, that cumulatively don’t seem to be leading anywhere, outweighs any pleasure, even anticipated pleasure, that the learned piece would bring him. Thus a lot of work is continuously required without the goal of enjoying the piece seeming to get any closer. This is compounded by the growing feeling that he is incapable of learning the piece. Eventually one is forced to the conclusion: “this piece, musical as it is (when I first heard it in performance), may not be worth the effort I have to put into learning it.” With great patience, discipline and fortitude, one might hold out against this discouragement, even for a long time, but time always wins in the end … the discouragement does not go away.
A tall order:
As a first step in dealing with these issues, I suggested that during the coming week’s practicing, he should take notice of the moments of
pleasure that may occur, even if they are in the minority. To identify to himself that THIS is the state he wants to experience at the piano; the one that makes it all worthwhile. Then to stay with that a moment before going on, to stave off heavy and seemingly ineluctable drift of displeasure that is waiting to take over.
Shifting Perspective to Play Easier
Albeniz: Orientale (At A.B.’s lesson of 6/20/19)
A.B. begins his process of learning a new piece by getting ‘hooked’ on
a detail: what did Albeniz mean here, near the beginning, by joining
two sets of notes with a slur mark but, under the first of the two puts a staccato – it is illogical. He’s seen the staccato on the second of two notes under a slur but never the first.
I get instantly trapped into his way of framing the issue. So I come up with a spread of possible explanations ranging from general comments about the inexactitude of that part of music notation that doesn’t deal with pitches and rhythms, to a mistake by the printer. The latter A.B. corrects: but, he says, it is a Henle edition and the edition is based directly on Albeniz’s manuscript. Being thus cut off at the pass, I attempt to turn his entire process upside down. Why don’t you, I said to him, start with the effect of the piece as a whole. Once that effect is clear to you, extrapolate from this
overall effect to any specific detail you happen to pick up. Make a judgement about that detail that keeps it in line with the overall mood and effect of the piece.
He becomes fixated on the different possible ways of playing the repeating D minor chord at the opening. It is too big for his hand. Should he roll the chord? Play the top note with the right hand? Meanwhile, over inside my head, the only thing I am noticing, as he tries one technique after the other, is that at no time does he effect a balance and unity between the notes of the chord and the notes of the upper melody. Eventually I say this: listen instead to the effect of the d4 (at the beginning of the melody) with the d2, a2 and f3, in the chord that sounds with it. Do all four notes unite into a
balanced, D minor chord? And the same question about the second melody note, the e4, and the chord that is still sustaining. Would anything be gained by keeping your ear on the formation of these overbraced chords between all the notes in both hands, both when the melody in the right hand has a chord tone in its melody and when it has a tone of embellishment. Hear the latter, as being the latter: a purposeful dissonance adding to the richness of the complexion of the chord.
A way of snaking up on this effect is to separately practice the connection between just the d2 and the e4 in the melody. Additionally, if you care to, practice the connection between the a2 (extracted from the chord) to the e4 in the melody (or the same for the f3 and the e4). When A.B. tried this, suddenly all the other problems which he had both went defined and then worried about, went away.
As in number 1, above, often the solution to a perceived problem lies in a shift of perspective, an approach coming from an entirely different point of view than first used. We get stuck with our way of perceiving a problem in our playing the piece, and magnify rather than eliminate the problem by focusing in greater and greater detail on problem as seen from this perspective. Yet often has to wave an arm and dispel the view one has of the passage. To form a new perspective on so that it appears in a totally new light.
There are in this piece frequent passages in which a note is held in the bass while the remaining fingers of the left hand in conjunction with different combinations of fingers in the right hand play a series of parallel triads (often in inversion).
As is his wont, A.B. searching for the fluidity of connection between these triads in the fingering that he is using. I suggested a shift of point of view. Think, I said, of the enunciation of each triad as being broken down into two distinct parts. One is the physical action causing the onset of the sounds of the triad, and the other, a separate, equally specific physical action causing, at a specific moment after the first, the release of those sounds. It is as important that the three sounds of the triad terminate at exactly the
same moment in time as each other, as it is for them to start at exactly the same moment. Without the terminating motion, the different fingers playing the triad all have their own habitual way of letting go of their sound.
Suddenly fingering was no longer an important issue. We had side stepped it. Releasing the notes of the triads at a specific moment unconsciously caused him to control what fingering he was using on each next triad.* The way the pianist ends a triad unconsciously controls the physical way they start the next triad.**
* In the case of number #3. we also experimented with making a single motion (a “heel-toe” motion ***) to play two consecutive triads. This
falls under the heading of the principle of the using the fewest possible motions to execute the largest series of notes.
** Two additional and semi-related points came up while working on
this passage of parallel thirds.
#1 There is a basic difference in effect between a legato achieved
through the use of the pedal and one achieved without the use of the
pedal. It is always best to practice a legato first without pedal: as
best as you can effect it, even when the composer has indicated in the
socre the use of the pedal to sustain one sound into the next. We
want to hear the legato is its purest state before dealing with all
the extra ramifications sound-wise of adding the pedal. Then, feel
free to add the pedal – as much as you want. Just be aware that the
heart of the legato resides in the use of the muscles throughout the
body as well as in the fingers in particular.
#2 on Henle page 1, line 4, measure 2, When one of the fingers playing
the current triad has to, en route to the next triad, ‘dislodge’ from
its current position one of the other fingers playing the current
triad. Feel as if the former finger is able to exert a pressure
through a vacuum to cause the other finger to move out of the way.
*** I refer you here to my forthcoming blog “two or more notes from
one continuous gesture through time”. Among the gestures described is
the one that I refer to here under the nickname of “heel-toe” (a
borrowing from organ foot technique).
Poetry and Emotion
Mozart: The C Minor Fantasie (K. 475):
-the piece in general:
The piece as a whole is very cohesive and organic n spite of being made up of many small parts, parts that are very different from each other musically, tempo-wise, rhythmically, and most of concern to the piano, requiring very different technical masteries.
Some of the contrasts in the piece are vividly displayed in a way that suggests an almost tangible sense of change of orchestration, as if referencing a full orchestra, sometimes strings, or strings deepened by the sonority of french horns, sometimes winds, sometime voices.
-the opening measures:
Of all the ways I’ve tried to start this with piece so as to achieve a sonorous, commanding sound (similar to the C-s played by the piano alone at the very beginning of Brahms Third Piano Quartet) these have worked, albeit not consistently and not every time I try them.
Practice elevating the arms quite high, and then, very slowly, then lowering them back down. Keep lowering them. past the key slip until the arms and hands are lower than the keyboard. To transfer this feeling into actually playing the opening c-s, subjectively feel the arms descending very slowly, and be un-conscious of where, in the arms’ downward course through space, the notes start sounding. We simply notice unexpectedly that the notes have begun to sound. We just don’t know why. “Somewhere” in the slow descent of the arms. the sounds just begin, but we are unaware of where that happens, and when it happens. Somehow, at some point, the fingers have depressed the keys. We’re not even sure how fast the fingers moved to depress the keys.
If we want to know for certain whether the first note of the piece is resonant enough, it is not what we hear at the onset of the sound that provides an adequate way of determining this. It is more at being what we hear at the end of the sound or, perhaps more useful still, what we would still hear of it if it continued to sound indefinitely, with a next note happening. It is only by delaying our appraisal of the sound of the c-s, that we can first know whether the sound had begun resonantly enough. We are trying to make the ‘decay’ curve of the sounds occur as slowly as possible.
Unconsciousness of how we start the first sound plus waiting at least a second or two before fully listening to the sound. How strange! We control best the present tense by the future tense, at a point in time when arguably we should have no control of how the notes started. This is one of the paradoxes of time that occur in many hidden aspects of music and the performance of music.
She tried first to control the sound at its onset, and then, after a pause, she tried to ‘control’ the first sound after it was already attacked. Comparing the second try to the first, in the second the first instant of her sound was less ‘brash’ and ‘angry’ but the decay curve was slowed down, with the result that the duration of the sound was, as a whole, more resonant than the first time.
The first measure in general.
Let us make in our body’s imagination, a subjective analogy between pitches ascending along the keyboard (I.E. movement horizontally to the right) and the pitches somehow moving upwards a vertical direction, higher and higher off the keyboard. C is now “ground level.” The more the pitches rise through the measure, the stronger the build up of potential energy to return the notes to the ground (C).
As the pitches travel (vertically) “UP” from the C, it is as if we are trying to stretch a very strong spring, and the more we stretch it (as we go through Eb F# G and Af) the greater the resistance of the spring and the harder it is to raise the pitch any further. When we have reached the A-flat we have exhausted our strength, and sink back down to C. We are so exhausted that even C-natural does not stop things but we slide to new ‘ground level’ a half step below C (namely B-Natural).
Measure two. The sixteenth note followed by the sixteenth rest.
possibly Mozart’s way of insuring that the emphasis goes on preceding eighth note chord, which represents distress and tension, and not on the chord which follows it, which represents a letting go, a surcease. an emotional giving in.
-the left hand starting measure 5
So here’s the deal: you are only allowed to play one note at a time, but you must get, starting with the first left hand note, the effect of all four notes sounding together. These ‘sustaining’ chords assimilated from the sixteenths in the bass fructify and enrich the glow of the sound of the melody notes in the right hand. The left hand is not simply an Alberti Bass, it generates warmth that baths the right hand.
-starting measure 10
how to control the repeated thirds in sixteenth notes in the right hand:
Sometimes the ultimate form of control to get each third balanced with the next, and each balanced internally between its two notes, is the most passive method.. Sometimes when playing this passage I simply look at the notes going down and then back up. Nothing more than to look carefully at the keyboard and witness the specific keys in each third going down and then back up. For many of us, just watching the keys move vertically allows the body with its many subsets of muscles to perfectly coordinate among each other and achieve the desired quality, evenness, and balance among the sounds.
In your imagination add a vibrato on each and every note as if the thirds were being played by the first and second violinist of a string quartet. There is nothing you can do physically to create the effect this vibrato, a vibrato that seems to crescendo and decrescendo in warmth within the small compass of time of each sixteenth note.*
The fortes in the left hand at the beginning of the measures, can suggest added warmth and emphasis more than sudden, sheer loudness. It is the effect we get in orchestration when we double an instrument in the bass range with another instrument an octave lower.
-measure 16 and 17
…squeeze “the universe into a ball”…To roll it toward some overwhelming question,” (T.S. Elliot)/
“To see a World in a Grain of Sand” (William Blake)
Such are the microcosms formed by the first two sixteenth notes of each quarter note beat. Within each two notes one runs the gamut of human emotions.
-measure 17 going into 18
The last three notes of measure 17 are d4-s and they sound inside a B-Minor chord (as the third of the chord). Then, suddenly, at the beginning of the next measure, through the d4-s continue to sound, they now appear in the setting of a G-Major chord (as the fifth of the chord). This is no mild switch of mood. The entire meaning and sound quality changes. I make this contrast of chord quality as extreme as possible. Enough that the listener truly thinks the note they are now hearing is not the same note (d4) as the note they were hearing just before.
-measure 25 going into 26
If there is a more extreme example of the last item, it is here. Can we, in our musical imagination, hear the D major chord sounding before completing the fourth, even before completing the third, of the four repeated fs4-s that sound with the F-sharp major chord in measure. So, when it changes to an fs4 in a new chord, a D Major chord, in one way we are very surprised (like a new day has dawned, the sun has just risen and bathed the landscape,but in another feel) but in another, harder to figure way, that somehow we had received an adumbration of that D Major chord.**
J.M said something very nice at the end of the lesson: sometimes my experience with you at lesson is more that of a master class .
* Some string players who also play piano can be seen using a finger on the piano keyboard making the same gesture as on the violin when creating a vibrato.
** A thanks to David Garner at the S.F. Conservatory of Music who, when coaching recitatives at the Bay Area Summer Opera Institute (many years ago), told the singers that when singing the last few notes that are under the control of the current chord from the harpsichord or piano, they should already be hearing those notes as if sounding together with the next chord to come. Thank you David… : https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/David_Garner_(composer).
Deciding What is Controllable. Also: Transforming the Polyphony of a Gugue
Well Tempered Klavier, Book I, C Major, Prelude
After finishing the piece I simply asked A.B. what he liked and disliked about his rendition. He mentioned several negative things and then struck on the one thing that I had primarily noticed: that he stopped the harmonic flow of the piece every time he went from the end of one measure to the beginning of the next. I missed sensing that inexorable connection that energetically pushed me from the chord in one measure to the chord in the next measure.
He said that he had previously tried condensing the piece into a chorale of whole-note chords (each chord took the place of one measure). However, he had trouble because he couldn’t do it with any speed. I said that the speed was of the essence of the procedure. Ideally, each eighth note’s worth of the piece, in terms of its duration, became the duration of one of the chords of the chorale.
Since it was difficult to shift chords that quickly, I recommended to him that he play just the chord a single measure followed by the chord of the next measure, and then stop. I asked him to play the first chord as if it were a grace note going to the second chord – the latter being held longer.
This he could do. We repeated the process for each measure going into its next measure.
Now that we had merged two amino acids into a somewhat longer chain of molecules, I asked him to play as written, while I, in the higher treble, waited until he was near the end , but not at the very end, of one measure only then played the chord of that measure as a grace note followed the next measure’s chord. Only I would get to the second chord before he finished playing the current measure. That anticipation of my chord connection gave him the necessary push and energy to keep the piece’s harmonic flow going across the bar line. Then I would remain silent at the second piano until he reached nearly to the end of the new measure at which point I would break in with the chord of the new ‘current’ measure played as a grace note to the chord that governed the measure that was about to start. And so on.
A.B. remained worried in particular that the pinkie sixteenth note in the right hand at the end of each measure does not connect smoothly to the next sixteenth note in the left hand at the beginning of the next measure.
His default solution was to figure out exactly how he wants his pinkie to play that note. I solved his issue by stepping entirely around his approach. As he played the piece I sang “la la la…”, but starting with 6th 7th and 8th sixteenth notes of one measure and ended with the fifth sixteenth note of the next measure. on notes to the first note. I then waited too the 6th note of the new measure and began the process of again singing along for 3 + 5 or 8 notes.
In the form I was singing it, with the way I was grouping the notes that I sung versus those I did not sing, I purposely glossing over the connection between the two notes on either side of the bar lines.. It happens automatically. By spreading a solder, or flux over the end of one measure and the beginning of the next, I effectively made less important the connection of the bar line.
I noticed in my singing that I helped things along by making misplaced crescendo starting on my first note and ending towards the eighth note. This helped smooth over A.B.’s faulty connection over the bar line.
At this point we moved on to the fugue: transforming the polyphony of a
fugue in C Major, Book One, Well Tempered:
A.B.: why do I find it so difficult to not hold a voice note longer than it is supposed to last, when the note is already meant to continue sounding through a certain number of the next notes in some of the other voices. For example if the target voice is a quarter note, or longer, and the other voices are enunciating sixteenth notes.
I gave a brief answer: remembering when to lift a sustained note in one voice is the requires the opposite of everything you do right when knowing when to start a note. It’s the “dark side” of piano technique: it requires doing everything the wrong way; or is it now the right way?
A.B.: why did you do that? Why was it working?
Joe: I think it is important to have a distinct pre-vision, pre-conception, of what the beginning of the next measure is going to sound like before you get to it. It is a strange balance of knowing what’s coming and still being surprised by it.
Can we transform the sound the sound of the fugue in the student’s ear?
We experimented using two pianos with re-registering one of the voice of the fugue. He would choose one voice to play, and transpose either an octave higher or lower than it was written, while I played the remaining three voices (without the fourth) at the other piano.
Results: A.B. said:
My voice sounded different than before. I head it saying and meaning other other things than I had before, but then realizing that it was the same voice with the same names to its notes, just transposed, and that there was at the same time an abiding identity between both versions of the voice, an identity which was preserved, was eternal and fixed and was impervious to change of octave. The new stuff that suddenly I heard, in how that voice combined with the other voices, must have been there latent to the note’s names themselves alone, or to say it in another way were just as present as aesthetic and sonic effects when I played that voice in its original octave.
In the future we will have A.B. play just one voice, but in the octave higher than written and the octave lower than written without playing it in the octave is written. Later again we can transpose one voice by more than one octave. If it is the soprano voice we can have it sound in the tenor voice’s range or even below the bass voice. In the case of the bass voice, we can have it sound in the alto voice’s range or so that it is the highest sounding of all the voices. At any time I can choose to play all four voices and not just three, leaving one voice to him. Or, he can choose at random to play just the voices, while I play the other two. Or, three voices.