Ornaments, and the Seeming Length of Quarter Notes
A.B.’s lesson on 8/8/19
Prelude in Eb Minor, Book I.
Interpreting the rhythmic notation in this Prelude and its reliance on half note beats rather than quarter note beats.
In this Prelude the difference between the shortest duration notes and
the longest duration notes spans an unusually wide variety of
intermediate rhythmic values. The shortest duration note is the 32nd
note as in measure 38. The longest a dotted whole note in measure 40.
This wider than usual range may have been one factor in Bach’s choice
of half note beats rather than quarter note beats.
Historically, with the passage of the centuries, a note like the whole
evolved from being a note of relatively shorter duration on a clock to
a note of a longer duration on the clock. Reflecting this change is
the difference between the older name for a whole note, that of
“semibreve”, or half of a brief note, to whole note, which is more at
suggesting the nature of a “whole which is the sum of the parts”.
During this historical process, at no time, did a whole note equal
anything more or less than the duration of two half notes (assuming a
constant tempo). The RATIO of durations between rhythmic note values
(quarter to half, half to whole, whole to half, etc.) has always been
While this relative ratio never changed, the ‘absolute’ values of the
notes, on the clock, as the decades and centuries passed, underwent a
sort of slow continental drift, making the difference in absolute
values get further and further apart from each other, each note itself
becoming longer and longer. A note originally intended to portray a
subjectively short duration in consciousness, grew and grew in until in
our century it is usually meant to portray a much longer duration on
the clock. Other notes grew similarly, only they kept their fixed
ratio of duration when looked at from one to another.
A thirty-second note would not have even shown up on the chart at the
time when whole notes were ‘semi brief’, the thirty seconds lay beyond
the horizon, out of radar range, existing only mathematically in the
realm of possibility, perhaps coming to tangible existence sometime in
In addition to the whole note being called ‘semi’ (in the sense of shorter than) a ‘brief’ note, the following notes all had names that reflected the
fact that a various times each one in turn had a name suggesting
Whole note semibreve semi brief, shorter than a short note; half note minim the least or most minimal duration; eighth note quaver a quiver, single flutter of a bird’s wing; sixteenth note semi quaver less than the briefest flutter – almost undetectably short; thirty-second note demi-semi-quarter shorter than the shortest of the shortest
The original name for a quarter note, which was ‘crotchet’, had more
to do with its visual appearance than its subjective duration (possibly a “hooked” note – the hook I’m assuming being the stem).
Of course, all of this is varied by the ‘tempo’. No note, at any
historical time, had a fixed duration. A fast tempo would render, for
example, a sixteenth note, into a note of very short duration, while a
slow tempo will take the same sixteenth notes, and stretch its
One might imagine a line of notes from long to sixty-fourths, and
over the centuries the “Ancient of Days” acknowledges, or anoints,
first one than the next, with the epithet “you are the shortest of
notes in duration”.
With such a wide range of durational values to choose from, it is
sometimes difficult to maintain a single, even tempo through out the
piece, especially when rhythm switches back and forth from relatively
longer notes (whole notes and longer) to relatively short notes
(sixteenth notes and shorter).
Let us assume that as the pianist you are counting out loud while you
are playing this prelude, and your particular goal is to use the voice
to steady the tempo. One way in particular of defining this goal is
to say that no quarter note, anywhere in the piece, is longer or (in
particular) shorter than any other quarter note in the piece.
Many people encounter difficulties counting out loud and coordinating
the notes with the spoken counts. There is however one sure fire
principle to help things along. Be suspicious if you notice that your
voice momentarily fades out while playing. This is almost always a
sign that there is uncertainty about the rhythm at that moment. It
usually occurs when shifting to longer notes from shorter notes or vice
You need only to be aware enough of the sound of your voice to hear
that it is fading out or disappearing altogether. You can reliably
assume that these are the moments when your tempo has sped up or
When the rhythm in the prelude switches from sixteenth notes or
thirty-second notes abruptly to quarter notes or half notes, an almost
‘existential’ crisis may develop in the player’s mind. The quarter or
half notes seem to be unusually long, almost “too” long. They seem
naked and alone and want to cover up their full duration by a bit of
shortening. “No, these notes couldn’t possibly be meant to last as long as this”. The result, without usually being conscious of its happening, are that the longer notes speed up. In fact, the longer the pianist holds out the note, the faster an inward tension builds up urging the note to end so that the next note may start.*
It is like, in special relativity theory, the player’s local clock,
when traveling faster relative to another observer, goes through a
relativistic shift compared to the slower observer. To this observer
the notes seem to grow shorter and shorter, while to the pianist’s
observations are that no apparent change in duration has occurred.
What can the pianist do to ameliorate this situation? After all, it would be awkward to have a metronome loudly ticking on the piano when
performing the work.
There are several things that can be done by the pianist on a
subjective level to keep the tempo even. They share the common idea
of the longer notes being subdivided mentally into a string of shorter
When playing quarter notes, for example, sixteenth notes can be felt
to be pulsing inside the quarters. The outside observer may not hear
these separate sixteenths, but they are quite vivid to the performer,
so much so that the pianist can ‘hear’ the sixteenths as vividly as the
Here is one particular technique that I use at lessons. As soon as
you the pianist’s voice is about to loose its certainty in
enunciating the counting syllables, have the pianist try eliding,
that is, prolonging the sound of one syllable into the beginning of
An example. If, in a particular measure, the voice falters or fades
out, at just the time when the pianist is supposed to say the counts
“three and four and”, do as follows.
Change the word “three” into a series of three separate elongated
sounds (thhhhhh, rrrrrrr, and eeeeeee), Moreover, have each of the
each sound gradually morph into the next
(“thhhHHHH->rrrrRRR->eeeeEEE). And, if we prolong the “eeeeee” sound
right up to the boundary with the word “and”, then the entire third
beat becomes (voice-wise):
Doing this serves a double purpose. It makes the pianist more, rather
than less, aware of the sound of their voice when counting out loud.
Secondly, if a count is parceled out among a series of short duration, this system of counting and eliding allows the pianist to keep better track of when exactly each shorter note is supposed to begin and end.
What about ornaments. Should we add them in right from the start?
Every rhythm, whether or not that an ornament, can be reflected through a prism that will separate it into smaller component rhythms. each
component rhythm sheds light on the printed rhythm both musically and
in terms of physical ease of execution.
Let us take a banal example: four quarter notes.
Using these abbreviations:
w = whole note
.h = dotted half note
h = half note
q = quarter note
And by tying together certain of the quarter notes to others, we find
these rhythms ‘inside’ the four quarter note rhythm.
h q q
q q h
and by subdividing certain of the quarter notes we find these rhythms
as well ‘inside’ the four quarter note rhythm.
e = eighth note
e e e e e e e e
h e e e e
e e e e h
Each has its own sense of pulse and emphasis. The ideal rendition of
the original rhythm (q q q q) would reflect the special properties of
each and every one of the sub rhythms.**
#2 Ornaments in particular:
The first thing to do is leave out the ornament entirely, Simply hold
out the single note out that the ornament is applied to. Hold it for
its full written value. This accustomed the body to the exact duration in which the various notes of the ornament will unwind through time plus any remaining duration of the main note. Adding in the notes of the ornament later, feels to the body like filling in a pre-made compartment of time.
The next step is to actually play the ornament without any rhythm to
it at all, or in effect, with every note of the ornament held for the
same duration as every other. And, at the same time, elongating that
common duration, so that the ornament will sound like a slow melody.
Expanding the ornament into a lyrical melody is related to what we
said above about rhythms containing rhythms, plus its reverse: that
smaller rhythms join or fuse together into larger rhythms (in our
case, until the ornament turns into one held note whose duration is
the sum of all the shorter notes plus the written note). Or to misquote a favorite satirical poem in biology and bacteriology books: big fleas have little fleas, and little fleas or littler flees, and so on to infinity.
As we proceed on towards playing the complete ornament, begin by
combining groups of notes in the ornament together into just one held note. Then stage by stage add in more of the details of the ornament. Each stage
nestles inside or embedded into the previous stage.
* Sometimes this anxiety increases exponentially with time rather than
** It is like the color of a star. It may be emitting light at many
different frequencies (or colors) but the predominant effect of all of
them together is a single color.
A Cluster of Thoughts
Getting lost in a large group of notes beamed together
When more than four notes are beamed together, it is difficult for
some pianists to keep their eye focused on each note of the group,
especially the notes that lie somewhere in the middle of the group.
Exercise for the eye alone:
Take any such group. Perhaps six or more notes sharing the same beam. Without playing any of the notes, see if the eye can parse through the group without loosing their place. It may be helpful to say:
“Now my eye is on the first of the six notes.” “Now my eye is on the second of the six notes.” The third, and so on.
If the eye gets confused it will tend to be starting around the fourth note.
It is helpful to mentally divide the group into two parts, and then gradually change the point of division. “Push” to left all the notes left of the the note we are currently looking at. “Push” to the right all the notes, starting with the current note and going through the end of the group. It is like a Mel Brooks version of the exodus, in which Moses chooses a spot to part the Red Sea, then changes his mind and parts it a bit further downstream, and still not satisfied continues parting it further and further downstream.
The reason for doing this exercise with the eye only, and without
playing or sounding the notes, is because it is sometimes helpful to take apart what the eye does from what the playing mechanism does. Otherwise there is numerous semi-conscious cross-influences between the two. Unless the pianist is still a beginner, the physical and the visual automatically fuse together so that it is very difficult and misleading to try to determine what the playing mechanism is doing from what the eyes are doing. Or, to put it in a more East Coast way: it would be like driving through the Lincoln Tunnel from Jersey to Manhattan, and after a while, loosing a specific geographical sense of how into the tunnel we’ve already gone and much is left to go, based solely on the visual appearance of
the tunnel without switching to a reliance on our sense of how much time duration has passed since we entered the tunnel.
JM’s lesson 8/2/19 on Debussy’s “Soiree en Grenade”. It helps to know that JM has a small hand.
A sudden jump in the left hand without loosing the continuity of a
Somewhat late in the piece there is a measure where the pianist’s left hand needs to go with alacrity from the single note e1 to the octave a3-a4. How do we execute such a leap without loosing the flow of sounds.
One thing that helps in such a case is to focus on the fact that no matter where on the keyboard the E is, and where on the keyboard the A’s are, E going up a fourth to an A. It doesn’t matter how many octaves intervene or whether there are multiple E’s and A’s.
Now, play the following series of 4-note groups:
e1 a1 gs1 fs1
e1 a2 gs1 fs2
e1 a3 gs3 fs3
e1 a4 gs4 fs4
Focus on just what feels and sounds identical in all four cases. If they feel or sound different in any way, you are still conscious of certain differences and you want to make these differences become unconscious. The objective was for J.M. is to feel that she was playing exactly the same thing all four times: focusing on only one type of difference and ignoring all others. Everything but the names of the notes E A G# F# in their most abstract form – without position in one octave or another in the keyboard, have vanished from consciousness, including any physical sensation having to do with left- right motion on the keyboard (except a rise of five half steps). Also ignore any sound information to the ears about change of octave range. An E, for instance, should sound like an E no matter where it is located on the keyboard or what other instrument is playing it. An E is an E is an E (apologies to Gertrude Stein). And the same for A.
The only thing that is kept in mind physically is the fact that the E
lies on the right side of the clump of two black notes and the A lies
in the middle left of the clump of three black notes. Even when
changing octave, that should be the only thing remaining in consciousness.
The only that is kept in mind sonically, among all the other sound
data coming into the ear, is that A (anywhere on the keyboard) sounds a “perfect fourth” higher than an E, no matter how far the E is from the A on the keyboard. It should never sound like an eleventh for instance.
Here is another example in the same piece of a sudden jump in the left hand that cannot interrupt the fluidity of the sound motion.
It is located in the score not far from the previous example. It involves Jumping in the left hand from some low sounds to a four note B minor chord (b4-d5-fs5-b5) in the treble.
We began by focusing on just the B minor chord.
Play b4 with the left pinkie several times in a row and play the last one in the series longer than the ones leading up to it.
Now play the b4 and d5 together – several times in a row holding on to the last one longer than the preceding ones. This last iteration helps the notes to “settle in”. Play the two notes with the fingers that you will use when you eventually play all four notes in the chord simultaneously.
The same for b4-d5-fs5.
The same for b4-d5-fs5-b5.
Approached this way, through gradual addition, you end up with a balanced four note chord, played without a forced, overstretched or awkward hand position.
If you look closely at the hand as you play this exercise, you should notice that each time one more note is added, the entire hand automatically assumes a different overall shape. Part and parcel of this change in the whole hand, is that a single finger, especially one that is used used in more than one stage of the exercise, will be curved differently, angled differently, and aligns itself with its note differently.
To transfer the benefit of this exercise into the performance of the passage, imagine that the hand is going through all these four stages, one at a time, in order, in the short amount of time while the left hand is moving from the bass to the treble. Finish the fourth (the last) stage before acting to sound the chord.
Four-hands: as a way of inspiring a student
Four-hands can give a student a new motive to practice. In part it’s due to our working together rather than alone: learning together, sight reading yogether, solving things together, trying things out together. When practicing on his own he often gets to a point with a new piece where he no longer notices a return in improvement that is proportional with the time he is investing in practicing. And he gives up on the piece. When we play together, no matter how many mistakes happen, he is suddenly transported to a state that is much closer to how we wishes the piece could sound.
Accompaniment and melody.
S.B. Chopin: D-flat major Nocturne
The Nocturne begins with the left hand alone. The right hand has not yet come in with the melody. She finds it difficult to get the first measure to sound as she would like it to sound.
All it took to bring the left hand to life without the right hand, was to copy and paste the right hand melody from measure two into measure one. The left hand now knows instinctively what to do. It relies of the synthesis, both physically and sound-wise, of the two hands. What had been missing, when she originally played the left hand alone, was a clear intimation of what was going to happen next: that the left hand knew already what it would need to do to fit in exactly with the immanent melody.
Richness of the sound: spongey fingers
S.B. Chopin: F# Major Nocturne
She couldn’t get the melody to sound how she wanted.
I made a radical suggestion to her: depress each as slowly as you can, so slow that, you shouldn’t be able to produce a sound when you reach the bottom of the key dip. It’s not that you should play exactly like that, it is more in the nature of a countermeasure to balance out a chronic stiffness and tension in your fingers. Imagine a continuous spectrum from the most stiff hand to the most flaccid hand. You have been dwelling near the stiff end of that spectrum. We want to do something to offset that extreme position, using a restorative measure exerted in the opposite direction along the spectrum. When this is combined with the propensity for stiffness you will reach a balanced point at the middle of the spectrum – not too stiff, not too flaccid.
She tried it. The results where soulful, rich, resonant sounds, and
not as she had anticipated: that there would be no sound at all. “Oh — I think this can be life-changing!”
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Shifting Perspective to Play Easier
Albeniz: Orientale (At A.B.’s lesson of 6/20/19)
A.B. begins his process of learning a new piece by getting ‘hooked’ on
a detail: what did Albeniz mean here, near the beginning, by joining
two sets of notes with a slur mark but, under the first of the two puts a staccato – it is illogical. He’s seen the staccato on the second of two notes under a slur but never the first.
I get instantly trapped into his way of framing the issue. So I come up with a spread of possible explanations ranging from general comments about the inexactitude of that part of music notation that doesn’t deal with pitches and rhythms, to a mistake by the printer. The latter A.B. corrects: but, he says, it is a Henle edition and the edition is based directly on Albeniz’s manuscript. Being thus cut off at the pass, I attempt to turn his entire process upside down. Why don’t you, I said to him, start with the effect of the piece as a whole. Once that effect is clear to you, extrapolate from this
overall effect to any specific detail you happen to pick up. Make a judgement about that detail that keeps it in line with the overall mood and effect of the piece.
He becomes fixated on the different possible ways of playing the repeating D minor chord at the opening. It is too big for his hand. Should he roll the chord? Play the top note with the right hand? Meanwhile, over inside my head, the only thing I am noticing, as he tries one technique after the other, is that at no time does he effect a balance and unity between the notes of the chord and the notes of the upper melody. Eventually I say this: listen instead to the effect of the d4 (at the beginning of the melody) with the d2, a2 and f3, in the chord that sounds with it. Do all four notes unite into a
balanced, D minor chord? And the same question about the second melody note, the e4, and the chord that is still sustaining. Would anything be gained by keeping your ear on the formation of these overbraced chords between all the notes in both hands, both when the melody in the right hand has a chord tone in its melody and when it has a tone of embellishment. Hear the latter, as being the latter: a purposeful dissonance adding to the richness of the complexion of the chord.
A way of snaking up on this effect is to separately practice the connection between just the d2 and the e4 in the melody. Additionally, if you care to, practice the connection between the a2 (extracted from the chord) to the e4 in the melody (or the same for the f3 and the e4). When A.B. tried this, suddenly all the other problems which he had both went defined and then worried about, went away.
As in number 1, above, often the solution to a perceived problem lies in a shift of perspective, an approach coming from an entirely different point of view than first used. We get stuck with our way of perceiving a problem in our playing the piece, and magnify rather than eliminate the problem by focusing in greater and greater detail on problem as seen from this perspective. Yet often has to wave an arm and dispel the view one has of the passage. To form a new perspective on so that it appears in a totally new light.
There are in this piece frequent passages in which a note is held in the bass while the remaining fingers of the left hand in conjunction with different combinations of fingers in the right hand play a series of parallel triads (often in inversion).
As is his wont, A.B. searching for the fluidity of connection between these triads in the fingering that he is using. I suggested a shift of point of view. Think, I said, of the enunciation of each triad as being broken down into two distinct parts. One is the physical action causing the onset of the sounds of the triad, and the other, a separate, equally specific physical action causing, at a specific moment after the first, the release of those sounds. It is as important that the three sounds of the triad terminate at exactly the
same moment in time as each other, as it is for them to start at exactly the same moment. Without the terminating motion, the different fingers playing the triad all have their own habitual way of letting go of their sound.
Suddenly fingering was no longer an important issue. We had side stepped it. Releasing the notes of the triads at a specific moment unconsciously caused him to control what fingering he was using on each next triad.* The way the pianist ends a triad unconsciously controls the physical way they start the next triad.**
* In the case of number #3. we also experimented with making a single motion (a “heel-toe” motion ***) to play two consecutive triads. This
falls under the heading of the principle of the using the fewest possible motions to execute the largest series of notes.
** Two additional and semi-related points came up while working on
this passage of parallel thirds.
#1 There is a basic difference in effect between a legato achieved
through the use of the pedal and one achieved without the use of the
pedal. It is always best to practice a legato first without pedal: as
best as you can effect it, even when the composer has indicated in the
socre the use of the pedal to sustain one sound into the next. We
want to hear the legato is its purest state before dealing with all
the extra ramifications sound-wise of adding the pedal. Then, feel
free to add the pedal – as much as you want. Just be aware that the
heart of the legato resides in the use of the muscles throughout the
body as well as in the fingers in particular.
#2 on Henle page 1, line 4, measure 2, When one of the fingers playing
the current triad has to, en route to the next triad, ‘dislodge’ from
its current position one of the other fingers playing the current
triad. Feel as if the former finger is able to exert a pressure
through a vacuum to cause the other finger to move out of the way.
*** I refer you here to my forthcoming blog “two or more notes from
one continuous gesture through time”. Among the gestures described is
the one that I refer to here under the nickname of “heel-toe” (a
borrowing from organ foot technique).
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The Importance of What is Not Heard
Brahms: Intermezzo: Op 116 No. 4 in E Major
Often in a well constructed piece, the meaning of something lies in how it stands out in contrast, or in relief, to something else. Much of this has to do with memory, and what the listener may expect to hear at a certain time.
In the recapitulation of the Classical sonata movement, the second theme comes back in the in the tonic, not as we remember it, in the Exposition, in the dominant (or relative major). What happens at that moment is that an expectation is momentarily revived and enhanced by the composer but a new present reality is superimposed upon it. For a moment the two tenses interact*, but a moment or two later our ear has taken up its bearings in the new.
The ears of a sensitive listener will even prick up before the second theme, at the exact moment when the composer deviates from the harmonic path that led to the second theme in the exposition.
One of the things that makes late Brahms difficult to hear lucidly is that when something stands in relief with something else, we often haven’t had an opportunity to hear that something else earlier in the piece. So how does the pianist make a contrast with something that is not ever heard, but whose meaning lies entirely in its contrast to this unheard base or reference?
An example from the Brahms Intermezzo:
Consider the passage in measures 10 through 14. Contrapuntally, what is going on has less to do with the triplets in the right hand but in implied, but not literally heard, duplets, which are formed from the second and third triplet notes, if the first triplet note is put back onto the beat, omitting the first triplet note entirely, and playing the third triplet note as the second note of a duplet. If we do this, we suddenly hear a very conspicuous appoggiatura. In measure 12 for example the e5 is clearly heard as an appoggiatura to the d5.** As we shall see, this perception need not become vitiated by the delay of the restoration of the appoggiatura to its original position in the measure (one triplet eighth later than the sounding of the chord in which it functions as an appoggiatura).
The same relation of appoggiatura applies to the c5 to b4 and the a4 to g4. When performed successfully, this passage haunts the listener with the sustained feeling that something else is going on other than what is most obvious to the ear (delayed triplets). There lurks this implication of regularly arriving appoggiaturas on the beats. Similar appoggiaturas occur throughout the passage.
Brahms doesn’t stop there. Once he establishes to the ear that this comparison to the implied simplified counterpoint, he is able to take a further step to hide the actual appoggiaturas by attracting the ear, in measures 11, 12 and 13, to a descending scale in the top voice. But let’s pause for a second. Do we hear a scale? Almost. At least we get the feeling that there is a scale present. For here too, there is a layer of removal from what is heard to what one might call what is meant-to-be-heard. We hear a melody stopping and stopping in two note groups, which if there were no interruptions would be a coherent, fluid scale: b5 a5 g5 fs5 | e5 d5 c5 b4 a4 g4 | etc. The beauty of a melody arising from following this scale depends on the implication that our consciousness is able to pass lightly over the first the first of each group three triplet notes (a note that is merely part of an accompanying chord) so that the notes of the scale seem to flow connectedly one into the other.
I have my students leave out the first triplet note, and change the next two notes to regular eighth notes, putting the first of the eighth notes back onto the beat. The scale is now much clear to the pianist’s ears. Crucially, if that point, the student goes back to playing the written notes, the reference to the fluid duplet scale is not lost. It attempts to maintain itself in spite of the pauses. It haunts the image of the passage and changes a somewhat trivial passage in triplets to something more transcendent sounding.
Thus a passage can transcend itself. It becomes beautiful only in relief to something more basic, not literally heard, to which it yet can refer itself. Generally, in late Brahms, we often must try to make a passage sound like what it isn’t! (something clearer in harmony, clearer in rhythm, and clearer in voice leading and counterpoint).
* This momentary contrast, if it were prolonged would lead to a confusion in the sounds, like when a person accidentally takes a double exposure with a camera. If, however, the process could be frozen in time, and experienced just in space, we would have the equivalent of a biologist looking through a microscope that allows on eye to view one slide and the other eye view another slide, as for the purpose of noting what contrasts there are between them. A side by side comparison. In music it is more sublime. It is a a sound image from time past that melds with a sound image from time-present. The past isn’t gone it lives in memory, for many in the form of a sound-memory. The past sounds do not really sound in the glare of the light of present, but colors it. But a comparison is made.
Clearly there is a D Mjor chord trying to fully form and as an e5 yields to the partially formed chord and resolves to the chord note d5.
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The Connection and Disconnection of Notes
I’ve had an idea lately that it would be nice to do a lesson and then post a blog post about it right afterwards. I think this will gain in spontaneity and insight, despite what it might loose from lack of editing and proofreading.
A.B. Was playing WTC I C f (which is my short hand for Well Tempered Klavier, Book One, C Major (C is uppercase), the fugue and not the prelude (f).
This is a new piece. The first thing he said, was how hard it was to read a fugue. It poked at his sore spots as a reader and a player. I said, forget all of that. Play the chord on the first beat of this measure, and ask yourself what it is the most natural and comfortable of playing it. By starting there, it is as if you were starting the piece, just from a different measure than measure one. So your hand had no allegiance to what it may have done a moment earlier if it had played the last part of the previous measure.
Now, before you go on any further, DON’T TRY connect the present arrangement of the fingers in the hand with the next one. Playing Bach clearly is not a matter of figuring out a fingering, or getting used to making certain connections in the hands and fingers. One never goes from “here” to “there”. All there is are “here-s”. Each one is undiscovered until right now. It is always as if you are playing the piece for the first time.
With each new note, or if not that frequently then at least with every new eighth note’s worth of the piece, pause and ask yourself “what is the most natural and comfortable of playing these notes”, especially if the hand need no longer “remember” where it was a moment earlier.
Playing through the piece is discovering, as if for the first time, a new position for every moment’s new notes. In doing it this way you enter into the joy and spontaneity of the fugue; the experience is wonderful, and in no way a chore.
A.B.: So what do I do the next time I play this spot, wouldn’t it help if I gradually got to know, through repetition, where my hands go next? Me (waxing poetic and philosophical): No, the only thing you have to remember is to forget. A.B.: But doesn’t that sometimes mean I get further and further into trouble with my fingers and dig myself into a hole from which I cannot get out. J.B.: There is a simple solution to this. When you are least sure where to go next with your hands and fingers, when you feel you’ve gotten stuck in the mud and don’t where to go, that is the time to take your hands off the keyboard. Remove the hands from the piano, even if briefly. Start with a new slate, for by removing you hands from the keys, you have let go of the immediate past, you can discover, as if for the first time, the most natural and comfortable position for the two hands together on the next notes. So, if you never know where you are going to get into fingering problems, remove your hands from the piano.
He tried it. It was a fine sounding connection. He said: but if I remove my hands from the piano there will be a break in the sound continuity, things will not sound connected. I said: then how comes what you just did, which involved letting go of the keyboard and removing the hands from the keys, ended up sounding more flowing and more connected than I have heard it before? By removing the hand, you have no choice but to find a new position, a new and most comfortable position, for the next notes.
Be careful, I said, of sixteenth notes (or eighths) in one voice that are moving in steps. That can lead you down a perilous path. You will stop looking for a new hand position for each sixteenth, until the fingers get caught in the keyboard and get bogged down because you have “run out of fingers”. No, you never run out of fingers, there are always five new fingers in the hand for each new note.
When I say “find the most comfortable position” I mean one in which no finger ‘remembers’ where it was a moment earlier. Nothing about its position in the hand is biased or coerced.
To save time in writing, I am using the convention of having:
|: Ernie is the name of my cat 😐
To mean that I have gotten trapped in an endless loop and am saying the same thing over and over. And in such a way as if I never had said it before, but rather someone recorded me, quickly hit stop, rewind, and play. The idea is that it becomes a spoken “mantra” whose efficacy is in its being repeated, until the mind’s state becomes transcendental, a state in which one does not connect things physically SO THAT they can connect sound-wise (sorry I’m sounding a little to “new age” for a cynical Jew from Brooklyn).
If you are a draughtsman, and you use the same writing implement over and over again during an hour of work, do you always consciously try to pick it up in the same way as before. Do you have to think of its position before taking it into your hand. No, it only becomes natural to do if you allow the body to learn unconsciously, so that the 100th time you take the pencil in your hand, it is consciously just as unplanned and spontaneous as the first time. From the conscious point of view (and not for the unconscious, which is busy learning and practicing) you are always finding something ‘new’ (not ‘old’) and finding it for the ‘first time ever’.
All of this started falling into place when I physically caused A.B. to remove his hands from the piano after each current sound. When he resumed, the next sound and all the newness of freshness of the morn: is it ever really the same sun that rises the next day (Thoreau says something about this in “Walden”. Every hand position is “discovered” spontaneously. So I sometimes started using the repeating mantra |: every position is new and discovered spontaneously :|. or just, |: find a new position 😐
Don’t be afraid to let go, for that is the only true way for the body to find what’s next. It is the opposite strategy that common sense tells us to follow. Consciously you forget it even happened before. You think you can’t do this “A”, but you can. You just need to keep an experimental mind, and prove it to yourself over and over with the freshness of every new sound.
And, by the way, when you find the ‘new position’ it always for both hands together, never for just one hand or the other. Let the body, let the ear, always synthesize together every new sound in the piece. And the listener has no desire to complicate the wholeness of the musical experience by knowing which part of what they hear came from your left hand or your right hand.
After a while, all I was saying to him was “let go” … “let go” … “find the new position”, “find a new position”. There was one moment I could tell that he was trying to figure out the best fingering for a series of consecutive notes. I said: that was not a new position, it was a ‘trying to get there from the old position to the new’. There is never a ‘there’ to which to get, everything is a ‘here’.
A.B. said, how can I have a totally new position in my hands when I am required to hold over one of the notes (holding down a note in one voice while the notes in the other voices change). I said: I agree that you have some issues with what I might call, by analogy, if it were spatial more than of time, “negative space” (E.G. is it two profiles or is it a vase). A held note is not due to a finger that holds tightly to its position on the keyboard. It is do to a new position that that finger assumes every time another voice voices to a different note. The fact that the finger remains on the same key is secondary and incidental from a physical point of view. There is no difference between writing a half note, in a score, and writing the same note as four eighth notes, each tied to the next.
Negative space also involves things like, the action of when to release a note in a voice after the finger playing has gotten inured to holding it down when it has been held for a while. Another example are rests, in general in a particular voice, which must be incorporated into the “sound” continuity of the piece.
So, abandon any noble effort by the left or right hand to connect the notes in the fingers. Don’t do that! Let it go.
I would love feedback regarding the usefulness of this type of blog entry. It probably suffered from repetitiveness but it did not loose my original excitement about discovering these things, and in keeping pace while writing how things evolved through time during the hour of the lesson. Thanks for reading.