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.
Fusing the sounds of the two hands
2 different entries:
A physical approach to ensure that the sounds from the two hands blend. Regardless of which notes are played by which hands.
Before we learn how to play a melody and an accompaniment, or two or more voices from a contrapuntal work, we should first know how to create a blend of sounds, so balanced, that there is no clue acoustically as to which hand is playing which notes.
Here is an interesting approach.
Imagine an apparatus, see-saw like in nature, where by pushing down on one end with one hand, causes a transmission of fluid through a uniformly wide pipe to the other end causing the other hand which is automatically pushed up.
Either hand can thus cause either hand to rise or fall, depending on whether that hand, respectively, falls or rises. There is a tangible connection established between the hands through the medium of the fluid in the interconnecting pipe. Each push down is against resistance, which in this case also forces the other hand upwards. Not having such an apparatus available, I simulate having the experience of see-saw by miming the motions of the hands going reciprocally up and down. In my imagination, one hand seems to be the direct physical cause of the other hand moving in the opposite direction.
As I make the downward stroke in either hand, I remind myself of being in a rural setting pumping the handle of a well to get drinking water.
I practice this activity with the hands separated by two to three feet, and floating not too far above the keyboard.
I increase the speed of the up and down motion, trying ultimately to attain almost a vibration, like of a string on an instrument, but one that borders on being a blur to the eye. The speed of the oscillation is such that it should feel like the two hands, if lowered down onto the keyboard, are virtually playing notes at the same time,
I like to think of playing simultaneously with both hands as always retaining a sense of a back and forth vibration between, vibration going faster than the notes I’m playing; creating an ongoing, and constantly renewing, feeling of inseparable balance between the sounds. Today, at least, I was stunned by the sounds I was drawing out of a now fully cohesive sounding piano.
I’ve been experimenting lately with redistribution of hands. If my left hand is repeating an accompanimental chord while the right hand plays a melody, I will sometimes use the right hand, if there is a spare finger, to play the topmost of the left hand chords. This serves to keep the chord alive, and helps me not loose control over the sound characteristics of the chord.
I can easily reverse the situation, and for greater comfort and control, play one or more of the lower pitched right hand notes with any unoccupied fingers of the left hand.
There can even be a boundary note between the hands that is played by both hands.*
Doing this helps me distinguish between, in one case, the separate physical motions that the two hands are required to execute in order to make a composite sound, and in the other case, the fusion of the sounds originating from the two hands into a single tonal blend, where nothing about how I play the sound reveals which tasks have been assigned to which hand (unless I deduce it somehow from the pitches).
The fact that, as anatomical beings, we play with two hands can easily leave a trace of difference between the quality of sounds emanating from the right hand and the left hand, differences that are not due simply to the difference in timbre between lower and higher pitches. The sounds between the hands don’t always automatically reach across the keyboard to each other to form an indivisible union of sound. That is why learning to fuse with the ear the sounds on the piano is such a vital skill.
Getting back to the case of repeating a left hand chord. The now and then or periodically alternation of which hands play which notes chord, may seem like a nuisance, an unnecessary complication, but it is actually simple once one is used to doing it. And it serves to “refresh” the sound each new iteration of the chord.***
The ear’s task is to maintain a vigil over the compound sound of the hands, `so that the listener does not know what, if anything, the pianist is doing to redistribute the hands on the notes.
* For instance at the opening of the Gavotte movement of the Grieg Holberg suite, I play both the b3 and c4 with fingers from both hands. It adds to my sense of stability (two is better than one?) and my sense of stability in hands which no longer enjoy doing repetitive actions because of my ‘intention’ tremor (a medical term)**.
** An intention tremor is defined as a rhythmic, oscillatory, and high amplitude tremor during a directed and purposeful motor movement, worsening before reaching the endpoint. Google: Jul 12, 2021
*** It reminds me of the dynamic state of the nucleus of an atom, wherein one subatomic particle is always and unpredictably changing into another or vice versa. On the piano, it keeps things ‘alive’ due to an ‘inner’ process of sound creation.
Physical anticipation, tension, and melody.
(with thanks to “Odessa”)
R.M.’s lesson on July 5th, 2021.
We found that too much of his physical energy was devoted to preparing physically for the next note, sometimes long before that note was due to sound. This led to tension and resistance in the body and in a diminution in the cohesiveness of his sounds.
We did an aural ‘meditation’ on a bass note to offset this physical anticipation, by providing him with something else to do throughout the entire duration of the current sound.
Find a note in the deep bass, whose sound you like very much. Play it ‘forte’. and then, just continue to listen to the sound until it disappears to your ears. And then release the finger holding down the note. A bass note will last a long time compared with a treble note. A minute, sometimes more, sometimes less.
With regard to how to hold the key down during this time, float on the key with the absolute minimum of downwards pressure that will suffice to keep the key depressed (so that the note doesn’t suddenly stop sounding).
When you near the end, if you think the sound is gone, hang on to the key another moment or two to see if the sound reappears in your ears. It may: it’s just changed its character so much that you don’t recognize it for what it is: the same note – but in a different manifestation of timbre and degree of softness.
Among the other intents of doing this exercise is that we are trying to stretch the sound’s duration towards infinity. And we do this for the very reason that, ineluctably, the piano sound acoustically dies away (“decays”).
Another intent of the exercise is it to answer the question “what is keeping the note alive during this entire minute.” Is it because of vibration of strings? Can we reject that scientific explanation and instead believe that the only reason that the note continues to sound at all, is that we are sustaining it from within us, from moment to moment, by renewing our recognition of the sound in our ear. As if, were we not to re-focus all the attention of the ear on the sound every moment, the note would fail to continue to sound.
Another way to conceive of it is that the note in question was not sounding even an instant earlier while we were holding the key down, but suddenly at this new moment comes into consciousness. It is we who have to revive it.*
How to make a melody.
The moment when it is most difficult to distinctly hear a note’s pitch and its orchestral timbre is not at the end, but rather at the beginning, at the instant of its onset (the ‘attack’ of the note). The hammer, powerfully but briefly, hits the string. It sets off a brief explosion of overtones that confuses the ear. If the pianist focused most of their ear’s attention on the attacks, we would never hear a melody. However, if you go beyond the attack, that percussive cacophony dissipates a moment or two later, and the remainder of the duration of the sound is similar to that of a lyrical, rather than a percussive instrument.
Lyrical players at the piano thus live in the “middles” (time-wise) of the durations of the notes. It is there, I should say ‘then’, that their ear dwells, and is most alive and fulfilled by the sound. It is thus not at the beginning of the sound, when the ears are jarred, and most significantly where normally it is simultaneous with a physical expenditure of energy. It is misleading to make the sound an ‘expression’ of a sudden ‘physical’ gesture, which then idles until the next note onset. The physical mechanism fades into the background when we listen more to the evolution of the sound and concentrate less on the onset. Think of a melody as a matched set of pearls (middles-of-notes) that are strung one into another along the rope of the necklace of time. The listener becomes oblivious to the attacks (and the final decay of the notes).
Tension at the piano: Newton’s First Law.
We wanted to lessen the high degree of tension that was endemic throughout his body. Since it was a very hands-on lesson, I could often feel, myself, the tension. Sometimes in his fingers, sometimes switching to his shoulders, or his torso. It was if he was protecting himself from a sense of danger due to where, physically, the music wanted to propel him next.
We began with an examination of his thumb. We explored every possible direction and distance the thumb could move in, in a fully three dimensional space, and not just in the one plane of action in which it habitually moves at the piano. We then ‘summarized’ all these motions by making broad circles with the tip of the thumb, with as wide a radius as was possible, limited only by bunking into a different part of the hand, and avoiding any over straining in the muscles of the thumb.
Even when in the midst of playing, when a finger seems to move predominantly in one direction, or speed, the full possibility always exists of it being to move in any different direction, at any speed. Every posture and shape to the body retains the potential for every other posture and shape to the body to arise out of it – without resistance. In any plane of motion the ‘life force’, so to speak, is already vibrating, and informs every momentary shape the limbs and fingers take. Freedom of choice of motion, even if latent, is more important than being coerced into a single, fixed attitude of motion.
According to Newton’s First Law, a body at rest wants to continue to to be at rest. Therefore, it is during the very first instant of motion, when resistance to that motion is at its maximum. We want to keep this resistance to a minimum. Imagine a blade of grass. There is no wind, the blade is at rest. At a random moment, a breeze starts blowing. The blade of grass seems to offer no initial resistance to being moved, it begins to sway in the breeze – as if it had no choice but to be moved by the air. Can we recreate this scenario from inside our body? Instead of the wind, there is a mere thought or whim to move, which can be to sufficient to have a finger or body part start to move, without muscular resistance that attempts to keep the finger or body in the spatial position it was a moment earlier. It’s like blowing on a feather. It’s previous position of rest seems to offer no resistance to its now being in motion. This same consideration applies to every motion we make at the piano in any spatial plane, whether downwards, sideways or upwards.
* Here is another version to the meditation, which changes what you do at the end of the sound. As the sound finally fades out, start hearing the same sound in your imagination, so that even when another listener no longer hears it, you are still hearing it, and could go on hearing it for as long as you want.
The memory projection of the previous note into the next note
When a chord repeats twice in a row exactly, can the past itself repeat without a new present.
Sometimes the past is so forcefully projected on the present that all newness has been drained out of the new iteration. Time has been made to stop flowing. It is not a ‘new’ iteration of the previous chord, it is, in a fundamental way, the ‘same’ chord, so thrall to the memory of the previous iteration that it doesn’t feel like a new chord at all (regardless sometimes whether its notes are the same or even different than the previous chord).
While music can embody the most radical changes in time, sometimes in our playing we fail to balance things out by superimposing the past on the present. It may be a second chord but make it feel, seem, and sound like the chord before it. It is still under the control of the previous chord.
Op 2 / 2 : I : m114 (first ending)
Have the memory of the first e major chord be so present in my imagination, that all I’m doing on the next two chords is repeating, re-averring what I hear. It’s still an attempt to ‘play the memory’ of the first one. I didn’t say that very well. Try this: but when I do have a repeat of the same chord, what the memory is doing to ‘sustain’ the chord between the iterations is important.
Op 2 / 2 : I : m133…
I hear c6 and af5, in fact three times in a row if I manage to ignore the change in octave range. Each C then A-flat, is a memory repeat. with the same intent, with the same feeling that they are the first iteration, not heard before, and not a second or third iteration.
op 22 : I : m71…
This is the beginning of a pattern notes sound three octaves at once and going up a scale and back down it (f2-f3–f4 g2-g3–g4 etc.).
I take the first iteration of the three-note octave (f2-f3–f4) and repeat it identically, in ictus and in sound, in the rhythm of the passage (never changing pitch). Soon afterwards I try to recreate this effect even though physically I change the pitches according to the score. I want there to be a memory image’ that projects from the first note of the scale to the last note.
When I only played repeating F naturals. I am fulfilling the wish of any memory projection, which if it had its druthers, would overwrite any attempt to change to a differernt pitch. I let memory become so alive, so “stuck”, that it puts the ear into an endless loop, manifesting the reach in time of the F.
For some reason, when I try to do this, the effect to my outward ear is that of extreme evenness and cohesiveness among the notes, which I don’t think I could have achieved just by physically trying to repeat the same physical feeling on every three-note octave.