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.
Legato – the second half of notes
The piano is technically unable to link notes in a legato manner
because a note is at its softest at the end of its career, and the
succeeding note is at its loudest at the beginning of its career.
Yet we can easily tell when a pianist is playing legato. So that the
note seems to sustain throughout its duration and the next note
doesn’t suddenly start with a ‘bang’. What can the pianist do to try
to transcend the factual limitations in the piano’s sound?
In essence, if the note is growing softer and softer after the attack,
some compensating factor or factors have to offset the acoustically
predestined decrescendo in loudness. This compensating factor must
grow louder and louder in proportion to how the notes grow softer and
A note must be broken down into several experiences and not be just a
single experience. No later than about halfway through a note’s
duration one should begin an inner crescendo, a crescendo that is real
in every sense of the word except if being measured on an
oscilloscope. This ‘inner’ crescendo can be enacted by any movement
of the body, any sound made by the pianist’s voice (inwardly or out
loud), or purely through the pianist’s feelings.
This crescendo is like an ineluctable wave that sweeps up the note as
it nears the shore of its decay but carries it away instead to break
to spill on the shore of the next note. What can happen in the body
and in the imagination has an unanalyzable effect on what the
listener hears. This crescendo sweeps aside all obstacles that are
put in its way by the piano’s objective acoustics.
This compensating crescendo may be created through various means. It
can be enacted by the body. Or as a conductor might direct an
orchestra. It can be imagined actively in the pianist’s inner ear. It
can be manifested by the pianist’s singing or speaking voice which has
no such limitation of decay imposed on it. If counting out loud, it
can be led by the inflection of the syllables. Any or all of these can be
used on the current note. The only measurable effect will be on how
the next note starts, but through a curious form of ‘back’ formation,
the listener will assume that there was no decay in the sound leading
up to it. It is like a mime at work who is so good that their
movements create in the viewer a believable external reality.
Sonic Glue – Sameness And Difference
We have defined “sonic glue” to mean hard to find sonic connections between notes: in different voices, in successive chords, between non temporally adjacent notes within certain melodies. These are often
overlooked, with the result that the piece does not flow or sound in the way we expect it to.
Here I want to mention some of these sonic connections in the Brahms, Rhapsodie, Op. 119 / 4 in E Flat Major.
Measure 254, nine measures from the end of the piece.
On the first chord of the measure, there are three E-Flats
(ef4-ef5–ef6) which are the root notes of an E-Flat Minor Chord.
In the chord that begins the second beat of the measure, there are also three E-Flats to be found (ef4-ef5–ef6) which are the fifths of an A-Flat Minor Chord.
I continue following the trail of E-Flats through measures 255, 267, 257, and the beginning of m258. They stand out to me regardless of what octave they sound in, and regardless of how many E-Flats show up in any given chord.
The only chord lacking an E-Flat is the dominant chord, B-flat Major, on the second beat of measure 257. 6 bars from the end of the piece.
If I now play those measures, and let my ear focus particularly on the reappearing sounds of the E-Flats, bringing the E-Flats out a little louder than the other notes of the chords (but just enough so that I
‘find’ them with my ear amid Brahms’ thick and active chordal texture) I will notice the effect of those E-Flats as glue linking together otherwise disparate chords. They form a sonic glue to weld the passage together, amid the din and clutter of the notes.
I imagine a continuous spectrum made up of varying proportions of sameness and differentness among the successive sounds. On one end of this spectrum, everything sounds the same as everything else. On the
other end, everything sounds different than everything else. Neither limit nor end, of the spectrum, is ever reached in normal music. But the exact point along the spectrum which expresses at a given moment the ratio of the degree of sameness and difference can be made to alter somewhat, obviously by the composer, but as well
by the pianist.
In the present example, as a pianist, I am trying to move the cursor a little, if not a lot, over in the direction of sameness on this spectrum.
Having found this constant (E-Flats) amid the changing notes, a second quality emerges when I play the passage. As the chords change that contain the E-Flats, the sounds of the E-Flats change as they leave one chord and enter the next. Like the same dancer or actor on stage who is lit with spotlights of one color and then in another color. We notice, in quick succession, that something important has changed in the quality of their appearance, followed a moment later by the recognition that despite the change of lighting aesthetic it is nonetheless the same person as before.
Such effects abound in this composition. Cathedral bells are ringing, and the sound of one has not yet ended when the next sound begins. There is a sort of resonant din that remains constant throughout the recitation of the sequence of bell sounds.
Look for E-Flats in measures 258 – 262 (the end of the piece). I can obsess over the E-Flats even though they appear in so many different positions in the chords and in such a variety of pitch ranges.
In general, in this piece, there is a combination of drone notes that refuse to change from chord to chord and notes that will vary widely from chord to chord, like a magician’s sleight of hand: things change but how did she do it – I saw no movement on her part.