Category: Speed and Tempo
Speed: various notes culled from different lessons and practice sessions
B.N.’s lesson. He is an intermediate level player.
Who is making the sounds happen?
He has great difficulty speeding pieces up into their customary tempos. There is a firm barrier in speed which if tries to exceed it even by the tiniest bit, it leads to chaos and a breakdown.
In the past I’ve suggested that he not approach it incrementally, because the barrier will always be there to stop him. But if he jumps way over the barrier and lands in the opposing team’s volleyball court, he may find himself suddenly, and mysteriously, able to play faster.
However, there was much resistance to doing that, and a need on his part to prove to himself and to me that it was not possible for him to play faster. Eventually I gave up on this particular approach.
Today we tried something different sa a way of increasing speed. And for the first time we got some positive results. Quite a number of measures were flowing smoothly and in the wonted tempo.
This is what we did.
We listened together to a performance of the Ab Major Schubert Moment Musical; the piece he was currently working on. We listened to the entire piece.
After that, we started the recording again from the beginning, but this time he sat at the piano and pretended, or mimicked the gestures he thought would cause the piece to happen; always staying in tandem with the recording. Moreover he would pretend that his intentions and motions, such as they were, was the objective cause of the sounds he was hearing.
Things he did at different times during this miming of the piece:
– Making vague but sometimes large gestures in the direction of the keyboard.
– Making contact with the keys only occasionally, and then only with lightest touch and without producing any sound.
– Using his torso, the full length of his arms, and the large muscle groups of the body in general, to make broad gestures that he was to convince himself were tantamount to making the sounds that were coming from the computer.
– Making the gestures that he though a conductor might make to lead an orchestra if they were playing that piece.
To cause my body to make all the right gestures, at the right times, in order to play very fast I pretended that I was freezing outdoors, and saying brrr!”, “brrr!”, and as I did I watched my hands shaking laterally in a very fast vibrato near the keys, in a tremor, going right and left an inch or so in ambit.
As I was shaking I plopped my hands down on the keyboard and started playing a current passage. What happened was that all the small details and coordination of the muscles fell into place so that I could play the piece much faster than I could otherwise.
This occurred to me while playing Mozart, K. 333: First Movement : Measure 20.
I looked at each group of rapid notes and isolated those pairs of notes, regardless of where they were located in the rhythm of the measure, that could be turned into a very fast tremolo. I would practice those two notes as a tremolo and afterward superimpose the idea of a tremolo onto those notes when playing the entire run.
Sometimes I would a ‘tremolo’ of three consecutive notes..
When I practiced the tremolo of each pair or trio of notes I went into a continuous loop in extreme speed as if shaping those notes on a mechanical lathe until those few notes developed a perfect shape and contour.
I did this for instance with c5 e5 and with b5 c6 (the latter with the fourth and fifth fingers).
When I played the entire passage as written I felt like I was running these tremolos together one into the other.
Speed specifically with scales.
Let us assume that the scalar passage is written for just one of the hands. That allowed my to use the hand not playing the scale as a “helping device” that physically could aid the hand actively playing.
I will use some examples from the Goldberg Variations.
Take for instance variation 23.
In measure 16, the two D Major scales.
My left hand came over the right hand, and the latter to the left, as I played the descending D Major scale. The left hand applied sideways pressure to the right hand, pressure applied only to the side of the pinkie of the right hand; using just a couple of fingers from the ‘helping hand’.
The helping hand did not push against any of the other fingers playing the scale in the right hand. I applied constant, linear pressure to the left hand, not a lot, but constant. The steadiness of this push from the right towards the left helped the left hand organize all the tiny ergonomic details among the motions of all the other fingers of the right hand, not just the pinkie where the point of application of the pressure was made. Everything just fell into place at the micro-instants when they were optimally timed to play their notes.
Similarly, later in the same measure, the ‘helping’ hand became the right hand, which reached over the left hand, past it a bit, and then came back and pushed the left hand to the right as I played the ascending D Major Scale. I applied steady, subjectively unvarying pressure just on the pinkie of the left hand with a couple of fingers of the right hand.
It reminded me of how the linear momentum of a well-released bowling ball, though itself making contact only with the center pin in the front of the ten pins, causes the exact sequence of subsequent effects and collisions that make all the ten pins fall over.
Here is another example of the same basic procedure also from the Goldberg Variations.
Variation 24 : measure 19
The same idea as before, except this time the helping hand (the right hand) pushes the left hand downwards in pitch (leftwards) by applying a constant sideways pressure against just the left thumb.
Or, in Variation 27 (the canon in ninths).
Given that the general pitch-shape in the two voices repeats in each complete measure, we can use measure 1 as an example for the entire variation. I divide the measure into two parts. In the first half of the measure, the right hand, as the helping hand, pushes the left pinkie steadily toward the right. It does not matter if it is the pinkie or the fourth finger playing the first note.
In the middle of the measure the pitch-shape changes. It is no longer scalar, but shaped in an arc. At the point of the change, the right hand pushes leftwards against the right side of the thumb of the left hand, This is an awkward shift to accomplish physically but it yields up to the ear of the listener a finely carved delineation of the shape of the pitches.
The general procedure of pushing one hand steadily to the left or the right with the other hand, using a linear action that doesn’t speed up or slow up, solves many of the intricacies, details and anomalies of scale playing. It causes all the fingers in the ‘target’ hand to integrate organically in space and in time, their respective motions throughout the entire hand, even though the pressure is applied only onto on the extreme left or right side of the target hand.
The next step is for me to describe how to do this for two hands playing a scale at the same time.
Concert Pianists, and their Performance Arcs
“A. B.” came for his regular Thursday lesson.
Today we examined how a particular pianist puts together their experience of being in control of a musical passage while performing. The pianist forges their experience and control of a piece through various parts. For diagnostic purposes we did these preliminary exercises:
We played a Bach Chorale, looking at the keyboard only for the placement of the beginning chord of the chorale, and then not looking at the hands at all from that point on. The purpose of the exercise is for the pianist to discover how they form their intuitive sense of where their hands and fingers are on the keyboard, and if they get off course, whether they can find their way back without looking at their hands.
Next we did the same for a I-V-I in all keys. We used this particular chord-spacing: c3-g3–c4-e4 g2-g3–b3-d4 c3-g3–c4-e4 (Root-fifth-root-third, root-root-third-fifth, root-fifth-root-third).
I asked him not to look at is hands, neither when going from one chord to the next within the three chord progression in one key, nor when moving each of the notes of the third chord up a half step to begin the progression in the next key. This proved difficult for him. I said “I think we are starting to hit ‘pay dirt'”.
Then we did the same for the first prelude from Book One. This was relatively easy for him. So I added this twist. “Pick a random measure, make a simultaneous chord out of the notes in the measure, release the chord, send the hands to some far away place, then without looking at hands or the keyboard, find your way back to that chord.” As it turned out this was quite easy for him! I said: “I think there is a moral to this story.”
We moved into the second movement of the Bach Italian Concerto, a piece he knows well.
I have come to understand that A. normally bases his performance of a piece mostly on muscle memory, with his ear standing vigilantly as a guard against any wrong note. I said, “You have spent a lifetime carefully building this relationship between muscle memory and the ear. Now I am going to ask you to go into an uncomfortable place. Take any spot in the movement, and as you play the notes, say the names of each note you play in the right hand. If there is any hesitation in your voice, we’ve uncovered even more pay dirt.” We want gradually to shift the identity of a note to something due to a union of a sense clear placement of the hand on the keyboard joined with a clear sense of the name of the note being played.
He said: “I can’t say the note I’m playing play at the same time that I play it: not if I try to say it, not if you do it for me, and not if I say it only in my imagination.” Boom. “I think we just hit the mother lode because of how difficult this is for you to do.” And what an incredible discovery–to find the missing link in the mind, and work towards an exercise to correct it.
To put this in perspective, consider that doing this is not an unusual thing to ask of the student. For example, whether playing either from the score or by memory, I am always conscious of what note I’m playing, even when I steer myself through a group of notes by following the ascending or descending pitch curve of the notes. This awareness keeps me from getting lost in a piece, even when I am struggling. I am not playing by rote or muscle memory and relying on habit: I am choosing what I play and when.
Considering the difficulty of naming the notes as you play them, I recommend that he try to perfect a particular measure in this regard. It is the ‘trying’ to do that is more important than doing it correctly. It is the trying that opens up new possibilities in your mind.
Later in the lesson we went back to the I-V-I exercise we did earlier without looking at his hands, and I asked him to try to name the notes in each of the three chords in each of the three note progressions starting with the bass voice of each chord and proceeding to the soprano voice. This proved far more difficult than he imagined it would. I was pleased with this: he was gaining a direct insight into how his musical brain works.
Returning to the the second movement of the Bach Italian Concerto:
How many, “rhythmic words: are there in the ‘vocabulary’ of this movement. It is a limited set. A word a distinct rhythmic pattern, for instance a word might consist of series of four sixteenths, or a dotted eighth followed by a series of sixteenths, or some other combination of rhythmic note values that repeats frequently in the movement. Note that there is only a limited number of such combinations in this movement. Be aware of which such ‘word’ you are saying at every moment in the movement.” Playing this movement is like speaking a language of rhythmic words, a vocabulary consisting of just a dozen or such words (although they can be put together in many different ways to create different meanings). When I play it I ‘speak’ each such word with its own definite and unique form of expression and inflection – one that pertains just to that rhythmic word.
He objected that the expression of each word would change dependent on the varying setting of the musical context. To which I replied, “I agree that the same word in different settings should be spoken differently, but at first make all the same ‘words’ sound the same“.
He tried this and was surprised that this added to his musicality in playing rather than making it seem less musically nuanced. I said, “The final musical result needs to rest on something solid before the nuances are added. This might not be true of other pianists who can manage both at the same time right from the start, but you often get bogged down coping with the details of the musical meaning that you want to convey before attending to first principles. Start with the language and the vocabulary. Wait until later on before you change it into Shakespearean English.”
We turned next to Mozart’s Adagio in B Minor:
“You and I often have different agendas as to what to work for and what needs the most reinforcement. Today will prove to be no different.” What is missing for me is the basic and constant “flow” wherein you carry each note through its duration of time to the next note, and then that next to its next, etc.. Each note is directed to the next note. I hate to use an analogy that uses the word ‘weight’, which is usually anathema to me, but it as if the note has heft and you have to pick it up and move it through time (or space if it helps to think that way) to the next note*. Every note should experience the full pressure of time – which I call the ‘flow’ of time – to bring it to the sound experience of the next note. Each note has to experience that dynamic sense of motion to the next note. It is hard to describe how to do this other than my making certain gestures as you are playing, but though these are spatial motions, what we are looking to experience is the motion of consciousness through time, without abatement, and mostly felt between the beginning of one note and the beginning of the next note. It is the inevitable and relentless pressure of passing time.
* If you do think of this spatially then let the direction always to the right and not in the direction of the pitches as the arrow of time in Western math and physics is usually depicted rightwards (as it is in the convention of the musical score).