Can You Bring Two Things Out at Once? Guiding the Listener
An advanced student with superior musicianship said at their lesson “I want to hear this passage in a certain way and part of this way is to have certain things stand out in particular. However I can’t succeed bringing them out; or at least not just the things I want to bring out.”
Number one: you haven’t leveled the playing field so that the notes that you don’t want to bring out are uniformly softer than the notes you do want to bring out. The reason they are not so, is that often you have specific but varying desires as to how loud each of these ‘background’ notes should be. You are musical, so you have specific intentions regarding each stratum of what you are playing simultaneously.
Now, in piano playing it is generally very difficult to “bring out” two different things at once, because what you do to direct attention to one is occluded in the listener’s ear by what you are doing to pay attention to the other. “Too many cooks spoil …” It is not impossible to succeed in having the listener be more aware of two things at once, when there are more than two things to choose from – it’s just very difficult. If the ‘things’ we are talking about are individual voices amid tonal polyphony, then succeeding relies less on different (or similar) degrees of loudness assigned to each of two voices. Then, it is a matter of lending an individual character to each of the two voices.
The safer course is to prioritize only one among the things you want to bring out and always direct the listener’s ear in that direction. The listener needs a clear road map as to what to listen to. The most reliable course is keeping all but the desired voice in the shade.
P.S. Once, at a masterclass, someone was playing the development section of the first movement of the Brahms second piano sonata (Op. 2). Her listeners were confused as to what was going on to the music. I asked her to explain in words ‘what was going on in the piece at that point’. She gave a brilliant verbal analysis. I then asked her whether she thought her listeners were hearing (or “getting”) all the things she just described. She assumed the answer was that they did. The listeners objected that they did not, and had no idea that the things she had mentioned were actually happening. “But they are so obvious,” she said.
Then I proposed a new tactic. Pretend the listeners are in a state of perfect nescience, or ideal ignorance. Unless you go out of your way to point something out to them, to exaggerate it, they will not recognize that that thing is happening (they will not recognize for instance that there is a series of sevenths each resolving to a sixth according to a standard species of counterpoint). So she went into the modality of lecturing about the music by playing it. Now her listeners all said, “We hear it now; we get what is going on in this development section.”
The conclusion is that sometimes, no matter the quality of the audience, sometimes you have to play things as if you are saying: “What don’t you get! Don’t you hear these things that are happening in the music?! Can I make it any more obvious? I’m already exaggerating it as it is.”
The Newness of Time Itself
“Les sons et les parfums tournent dans l’air du soir” (Baudelaire courtesy of Debussy).
Notes, sounds, meld and melt in time. Memory and anticipation interpenetrate each note heard in the present tense. And memory also coerces the immanent future to follow the patterns of the past.
Sometimes, in our performing, this leads to a sense of taking a piece for granted: we’ve heard it all before, nothing is new to us, no surprises are left for us. The piece starts, we dutifully endure through its time span playing each note in its place. The piece ends, we stop playing, we bow and go through the ritual of accepting the praise of the audience.
Are there steps we can take to bring life, spontaneity and freshness, back into the performance. We cannot re-order the notes; we seem to be chained to an ineluctable sequence of cause and effect. And though we are free to pick up the implication of where the current note seems headed, when we do get to play the note and hear it through our outer ears, it can remain essentially a surprise. Though we expect time to repeat, we are nonetheless free to consider each next moment an open question. We live in in immanent cloud of possibilities where there is always more than one direction the music might head next. When we ‘finally’ get to hear it, all the possibles are wiped away, effaced in the blatancy of the bright light of the actual present. This is no less true when we have wagered on one particular note and we win the hand: the note we thought would happen did happen. We find that we were ‘correct’ in our assumption of what sound (not manifested yet in time), does indeed become manifested in the richness of time as it flows into the present.
Yet this bright light of the present, though it remains shining as long as we remain in the present, shines only briefly on any particular note. As far as the note is concerned, this light is good for only one transient moment.
So if we don’t want to fall back into the darkness of the non-present, somehow we must live within the light of this omnipresent present.
To offset the staid performance is the conviction, remaining in our consciousness, that every note we take the trouble to hear is the first note of the piece. Like a true beginning, like the promise of each day’s sunrise, it opens up for us a world of infinite possibilities. And for us to maintain this through the very last note of the piece (which itself could have been followed by another – but just wasn’t).
To the extent that we can we let each note within the piece shed at least some of its accumulation of the past, an accretion that is rapid and inevitable under normal circumstances, the piece fights its way back into a state of alertness and freshness.
Mental presence is the key.
Two Shorter Blogs: 1. Two Types of Staccato 2. Playing a “Vamp” to Bring Out the Rhythms of a Piece
There are two basic types of staccato depending on how the pianist executes it physically.
In one type, the physical action that is used to push down the key contains within it the action that in a moment will release the key. Sort of a “follow through”.
In the other type, instead of basically one action, as in the above case, there are three different actions: pushing the note down; holding it down even if for a very brief time; and releasing the key.
In the first type the release lies inside the attack. The initial motion telegraphs the release. In the second type there is a neutral body posture in between the attack and the release. The effect of these staccatos on the sound of the phrase is very different.
Generally, staccato does not imply any specific ratio of duration of silence to sound, but covers all cases from the shortest of staccatos, bordering on being unheard or unnoticed, and one that is just shy of being played détaché. Regardless of these variations in the length of the staccato, it can be executed is such a way as to fall into either of the two types above.
A ‘long’ staccato can be of the first type. All it means is that the downward motion, while transitioning to upward motion, gets stuck for a while; gets absorbed into the key, before the finger can get away. But, when the finger does get away from key, it is still a component of the overall motion begun when the note began.
Human consciousness is capable of awareness down to very small durations of time. Thus a ‘short’ staccato can be of the second type. All this means is that, pauses in a neutral, inactive position, for a very small fraction of a second. During this moment, all sense of motion recedes over the mental horizon, so that the release, when it comes, has nothing to do with the attack.
#2. “Vamping” to bring out the rhythm and pulse of a piece
I’m thinking of the vamps played by the pianists or pit orchestras for old-time vaudeville shows. A singer is waiting in the wings to come on stage. There is introductory music that is meant to accompany her while she walks out on stage. The vamp is obvious and blatant in nature, with a very stressed rhythm. It recycles for a while until the singer is ready to sing the first note. At this point the vamp morphs into the proper accompaniment for the song.
Often I will sit at the second piano and play a vamp while the student is playing their piece. It almost seems as if I were trying to turn the piece into something obvious like a Sousa march, like a German oom-pah band. I’m yanking out of the inside the underlying pulse, the meter, the chords, and depositing them onto the outside of the piece.
The general effect of this procedure is that the student becomes more aware of some of the most basic qualities of the piece they are playing, by hearing them emphasized in an accompaniment into which they have no choice but fit their performance. The playing transforms itself so as harmonize and “get along” with the vamp. If effective, when my vamp ceases, the student continues playing in a very alive fashion. Once the outside of the piece is enlivened and comes to life, the more subtle aesthetic effects of the piece can be relied on to come into focus.
Sometimes I will take a vamp that is based on one chord alone, and play it continuously and unchanged as the student’ plays through his piece. Why do this, when there will be many places in the piece where the vamp does not conform harmonically to what the student is playing? Because that makes the pulse and rhythm stand out even more obviously (as the harmony clashes with piece).