“Dissociation” as a virtue
Practice notes for 11/23/21
I am saying this mantra over and over each time I play a key. It refers to the intentionality, or i should say lack of intentionality, of the motion of the fingers on the way to the keys.
Mantra: |: “it comes out of nowhere” :|.
The “repeat” bars mean that I say it over again for each finger in a melody, or in a chord or interval.
It comes out of nowhere and all it leaves behind is a sound.
Unlike the “strong” force in physics, which gets stronger the closer one particle gets to another in the nucleus, the conscious ‘intention’ on the part of the finger to end up on a given note, gets less and less as it gets closer and closer to the key surface, and does so preferably not in a linear fashion (so that there is a proposed final velocity as the finger and the key make contact) but exponentially, asymptotically, as if the finger and body are more and more loosing intention to play the key. Contact arises out of nowhere and for no reason at all, and thus there is a maximum reduction in stiffness and tension at the end causing the sound to ‘open up’ and the technique to become more fluid.
There is less and less direction and intention in the finger as it approaches the note. The finger loosens up, it drifts off at the last moments. All the other joints and muscles have simultaneously lost intention, althought the fingers are the most important in this regard. at the very last instant the finger tips seem to be going in tiny circles horizontally to the keyboard creating a probability cloud as to where on the key it will make final contact, the latter event being the least important in the process.
Is there then zero intention in the body. Not really. It’s just that any conscious degree of intention is magnitudes too much intention.
As we continue to play, there is no intentional movement designed to get the ‘next’ finger to its note, no matter what the distance is on the keyboard to that note, and regardless of where that note is situated left or right of the current note. This last part is hard, since we must loose intention at the very moment where it would seem the most important. And loose it more and more in the last fractions of a second before the sound.
Intention lies in the muscles, and even when we first reduce it, it still remains in the body, where it must be discovered and dealt with. And if it does sufficiently diminish in one part of the body, some other part of the body responds (“comes to the rescue”) by stiffening to make up the difference in ‘loss’ of tension.
Losing a specific path or direction to the key does not imply substituting in another direction or path of approach in its place.
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.
Repertoire: Debussy: “La terrasse des audiences du clair de lune”
J.M.’s lesson back a month or two.
measure 1: Opening chords:
We shouldn’t be able to distinguish by ear the line of demarcation between the notes played by the fingers of one hand and the notes being played by the other hand. We want a perfectly homogenized chord.
Look for the crease in the skin along the underneath side of the thumb, that lies across the diameter of the thumb from the first knuckle. Find the same crease on the other thumb. Hook the thumbs together at these spot. Allow the two hands as a whole feel yoked together like a pair of oxen. While in this position pull the hands (and arms) away from each other in opposite directions. This will provoke a direct sensation of the fusion of the two hands into one mega-hand. Mow play the opening chords of the piece. Not only will the two notes of each hand be blended better sound-wise, but there is also no longer any way for my ear to tell one hand from the other by their sounds. Every sound of the four notes in the chord is perfectly blended and balanced with the others.
beginning on the sixth beat of measure 1:
The place where the notes in the right hand suddenly double their speed into thirty second notes. “Clean out your ears” after listening to each thirty second note. Remember that each note counts. Counts for more, rather than les, than the slower notes that preceded them in the first measure.
For instance, the second note (af6) sounds just as distinctly with regard to its pitch as the first note of the series (g6) with regard to its pitch. And so on through every twist and nuance of the passage, until the notes pour into the bass.
During its entire course downwards, don’t loose track of where you are and of the unique contribution the current note makes to altering the quality of the sound of the passage.
Every time the left hand punctuated with an eighth note the series of right hand thirty-second notes, I tapped on the currently playing finger of J.M.’s right hand, to ‘remind’ it that there was a note to play even though the right hand was distracted at that moment by what the left hand was doing, either by the latter’s playing at the same time as the right hand, or being in the process of searching out the location for its next eighth note ‘punctuation’ point.
Measure 3: The cs1 in the bass:
When you lift your finger prematurely off a key, it is usually accompanied by sense in your playing of loosing interest in the sound of the note. In the case of the cs1, a loss of interest both its rich resonance, and the ‘lowness’ of its pitch. The sound should spread in waves over the entire pitch-space from bottom to top. The sound should “rEpand”* (spread, light up the atmosphere around it to the very horizons).
Measure 4: beats 5 and 6:
Feel your shoulder blades moving apart from each other. This will connect the the chords just in the left hand with the chords that are in both hands.
measure 7: first note:
This note is a portal into a new universe, it is a ‘surprise’ in an almost cosmic way: the clouds parted and in the gap lay a new reality.
measure7: the chords
Don’t favor certain notes, in loudness, or in temporal alacrity. Sometimes you play a chord as if the notes nearest each other in the two hands should sound first and the notes in the pinkies should sound last.
Try it first so that your left hand lies neutrally on the obverse of palm of the right hand. the former acts to settle the latter down onto the keyboard: it tells each finger of the right hand that it plays together with the others.
Now reverse the roles of the hand.
measure 7: the chords
Briefly, cross your hands so that the right hand is to the left of the left hand on the keyboard. Just take in that sensation for a moment or two, then play the measure as written.
measure7: the eighth note chords
Whenever a series of eighth notes succeed upon a series of sixteenth notes, as in the middle of measure 7, don’t loose the flow that connects one note (or chord) to the next. It is as if you are a painter whose brush, overladen with pigment, smears colors from one place on the canvas to an adjacent place. In the same sense, take the sound of one chord and smear it around. Don’t think of each next chord as if it is a “new” sound, but more as if it is a distorted or smeared version of the previous sound, which somehow has persisted in spite of the changes wrought upon it.
measure7: last chord followed by the first chord of m8:
When you play the former, feel like it already “contains” the latter (even though the latter is octaves away in the bass). You have taken it and ‘smeared’ its sound pigments down into the deep bass. The object is to ‘complete’ the first chord.
measure 8: the left hand chord: f3-bf3-d4-f4:
We took the second finger of the left hand “out for a walk” before playing the chord. We did this by holding the other three notes of the chord down, while flexing and un-flexing the index finger. as it glided over the full longitudinal axis of the d4 key. This form of “practicing” just in advance of making a sound, provides greater control over that finger when it sounded its note in the chord, and so adjust it sound-wise with the other notes of the chord.
‘Smush’ your hands down on a flat surface, as if they were a single lump of dough. This will tend to unify the two hands into a single mass. It is then a matter of sub-dividing this unity into two, virtual parts. A part that is more to the left and a part that is more to the right. you can shake your torso and shoulders about as a way of shifting emphasis between the left part of your mega-hand (chords written for the left hand) and the right part of your mega-hand (chords written for the right hand).
Don’t sense the connection between one chord or note and the next as a physical analog to the sound effect you are aiming for in the connection. Although it is OK if you consider that sensation, if it is in addition to sensation coming through your ear, and both are present.
measure 21 – 24:
I took hold of the top of her torso and shifted it, shook it, back and forth, made circles with it, to stimulate the motions needed for each hand to make through this passage.
m24: last two chords:
As Ives does in the midst of last movement of the “Concord” Sonata, the most consonant chords (from a traditional point of view) are, given the harmonic milieu of, the most “dissonant” sounding.
Joe to JM: Today I have shaken you, yanked you,** expanded the size of your hand and especially of the thumb ***
* The uppercase ‘E’ in rEpand is meant to suggest the French accent ague .
* *I pushed from the left side of her left hand as she played an upward arpeggio. I pushed faster than her hands wanted to move, because only
in that way do the necessary muscle groups kick in and are forced to do what is necessary to play the arpeggio seamlessly.
*** when the thumb wants to move to further from the pinkie (as for octaves with J.M’s smaller sized hand), it is not the part of the thumb from the finger tip to the second knuckle that leads the motion of the rest of the thumb, but as if one glomped on the mound of flesh on the palm that is adjacent to the thumb’s second knuckle to its ‘third knuckle’ near the wrist. That mound of flesh is propelled outward and away from the rest of the palm. The tip comes along for the ride. Before trying this J.M. could, with some effort span an octave; now she was spanning a ninth.
Using the ear to full advantage
Grieg: Holberg Suite: IV: “Air” (lyrical movement)
Here is an exercise for balancing chords, and also for hearing the separate voices in the chord. This is a purely listening exercise. There is nothing you have to do by way of altering or adjusting the sounds.
Take any chord. How about c2-g2–e3-c4: a nice ‘juicy’ C Major chord? Play the chord once, holding it long enough to enjoy its resonance. We are now going to ‘extract’ the single notes from the chord. Once the chord has finished sounding, feel as if you are going to play the chord a second time, but instead sound just one of the notes from the chord. We’ll start by repeating just the note c2 from the bottom of the chord. Question: did the c2 by itself sound as you expected? Was it as loud as you expected it to be given that there had been three other notes present a moment earlier? Another way of asking the question is: Was the c2 “in balance” with the rest of the chord as played a moment earlier? Do you think that’s how loud it sounded when it was inside the chord as a whole. If you repeat the experiment with the c2, try not to play the c2 intentionally louder or softer to offset any imbalance that you anticipate might happen when the full chord is no longer there; try rather play the note exactly as you played it in the full context of the chord. This exercise is only about awareness.
Repeat the same process for the g2; then the e3; and c4 (the tenor, alto and soprano voices).
Now that you have ‘extracted’ each note from the chord, play the original chord and see if you hear, with equal ease, every note in the chord, including those buried on the inside of the chord. There is no passing or failing grade.
Another hearing exercise is to compare the sound of two notes that are not immediately sounding one after the other. For example you can compare the sound of the note that is current in the piece with the note that is not the next note after it, but the second note after the current note, by leaving out the note that comes between them so that as the first note ends the third note begins, with no silence, or ‘rhythmic padding’ to stand in as a rest or placeholder for the missing note.
Or you can leave out two notes from a melody and compare the sound of the current note with the note that sounds three notes after it. Etc.. You are a spider establishing cross links in the web of a melody that will hold the adjacent pieces more tightly in their overall frame.
To pedal or not to pedal.
I mentioned the fact that at a certain point in the “Air”, A.B.’s pedaling was interfering with the cantabile of a diatonic melody. A.B. said: “the pedal is supposed to do that”. I say: if one has a good ear, then it doesn’t matter if you are or aren’t using the pedal. The same effect can be achieved in either way. For there is a way to make the sounds ‘sound’ pedaled even if the pedal is not down. The difference we perceive, at bottom, is more than a change in the quality of the sounds, the quality of their connections, and how the artist’s near term memory of the previous sounds still resonate together in their head, that makes it sound pedal-like or non-pedal-like.
The timbre-space of every note we play
Brahms: Rhapsody in B Minor, Op 79 / 1. The increasingly dense and complex section ending the first section of the piece and leading up to the change to key to B Major.
How quickly can I find an isolated niche of consciousness for each sound, even when these sounds succeed each other so rapidly, almost erasing each other?
We often just place one sound ‘next’ to the another in our ear according to its sequence in time and then have done with it. It seems to us that ‘time’ creates the niche in consciousness in which the note falls, and not the aesthetic qualities of the note which determine and construct that niche that gives each note a place in which to live.
We might feel that if two successive notes differ only by one step pitch-wise, how important could that difference be on an aesthetic grounds? I prefer having an ear that will first ‘create’ a space for the appearance of the next note* , which fails to hear its uniqueness, and lops it into the same box or container as the previous note, instead of creating a new, unique residing place, one that has its own aesthetic and timbre, not just that of a “D” or an “E”. I want the ear to do this, not so as to ignore how the notes combine into a melody. The creative act of consciousness and memory to to fuse notes into a melody is such a natural, and strong inclination, that we may not want to be forever locked into it, but be able, if we want, to establish something else beside melody to balance it out: something more in the direction of there being a sound-world contained in each sound, which is an individual phenomenon.
Let us turn our attention now from melody to chord. This same balancing force, or desire on the part of the conscious brain, would make us want each note of the chord to live in its own sound-timbre niche: still interacting with the other notes of the chord to form the sound phenomenon of a ‘chord’, but essentially alone in its own ecological niche. Just as two different species in an ecosystem try to carve out a niche in which there are no other species competing with it for the same food.
How quickly can my ear change registers: fully recognize the difference between a C-natural in one octave and a C-natural in another octave, before hearing that they share the identity of C-ness?** Or recognize how a C differs from an F or a G, not because the other note is “higher” or “lower”, or has ‘already’ formed the aesthetic effect of an identifiable interval (which produces its own, aesthetic phenomenon), but because for even a fleeting moment, we appreciate the difference in the two notes solely on the basis they are “different” in “sound“.
This difference in sound alone may in turn be based on loudness and softness, on difference in pitch, but perhaps most significantly, difference in timbre, by which the aesthetic effect of the sounding of the note is mostly evoked. Have you noticed that when altering the loudness of a note of a certain pitch, there is a change, secondarily, in its timbre? So timbre will be changed by loudness alone and not by pitch or by what instrument is playing. We should notice that the timbre of a sound is changed as whenever we change the pitch of a note.
* Ignoring for the moment the working of memory while listening to a piece, the next note hasn’t been heard yet, and in that sense is new. Once we hear it, if we are so inclined, we can identify it and store it in a memory bin along with other notes singled out for sounding the same. But if we concentrate on the aesthetic effects of the ‘new’ note in the piece, we may find that no two notes bearing the same letter name and octave, ever ‘sound’ the same. I want to create a place on the keyboard for the ‘new’ note that has just been discovered for the first time, not just sitting there in the space of the keyboard awaiting the note to be sounded.
** How quickly can I play notes of the same letter-name in different octaves, and actively, “situate” each in a unique a timbre-stratum. How far can I go to recognizing what is different about one of these notes and the next, as if I were trying to be unaware of the commonality they both have for bearing the same letter name.
I’m not sure I create this stratum just as I play the next note, or whether I have already formed it, in potential, before physically going to and sounding the note. My preference is to believe that a sound should bloom in a space that has not existed yet, not one that lies there waiting for it along the keyboard. I want there to be something very “new” about where I discover the note with my ear.