How to Tackle Difficult Pieces, Practiced Simply
A.B.’s lesson on 4/3/19 on the first prelude from Book One of the Well Tempered Klavier
Balancing memory with freshness:
Be surprised and delighted with each new chord (which is to say each new measure). This is to balance out the impregnation of the piece by memory, from having heard and/or played the piece many times. Instead create a “beginner’s mind” for whom the new chord is fresh, unexpected, and bathed in morning light. You just don’t know what’s coming. Memory doesn’t go away but a proportional balance is attained between memory and the unforeseeableness of the future.
The persistence of a single chord through an entire measure:
In this piece it helps that you were formerly an organist, for as long as you hold the keys down on the organ manual the sounds continue unabated, persistently, and without the piano’s ‘decay’. Hear in your “inner” ear of imagination the five different notes of each measure as a simultaneous ensemble, which continues unbated as a totality from the beginning of the measure to the end of the measure.
A.B. is not satisfied with his control over the evenness of the sounds in a measure:
Take a single measure out of the flow of the piece. Reiterate the first note of the measure over and over until it “sounds like you want”. Do this without thinking of the other notes and whether they will match the first note in sonically – in other words this is not yet about evenness between notes). Then switch to the second note. Play it ever and over, until, as before, it sounds how you want. Repeat this procedure for each further note in the measure. When you play the measure as written you will notice in retrospect that all the notes were even, although you were in no way trying to match them, but instead having each note have its ‘ideal’ sound. A musician with a good ear will always be able to tell when a sound has reached a certain ideal perfection, but not through analysis, through an intuitive sense of the sound.
For evenness when one note, occurring between two other notes, is not balanced sound-wise with the others:
In the measure that begins : f2 f3 a3 c4 e4, the c4 was not balanced with the a3 and e4. I suggested that he hold down the a3 and e4, and while they are being held, repeat c4 over and over.
Another path to evenness: the written notes are part of a larger whole:
In measure one, for example, turn the measure’s notes into a rapid arpeggio that starts, with the highest pitch, e5, descends through the notes of the chord until reaching the bottom note (c4) and without pause re-ascends to the top note. This creates a more cohesive and integrated motion in your hand. Once you have this gestalt, you can remain silent during the first part of this arpeggio and start playing in the middle of it, at the note that is supposed sound first in the measure. Eventually there is no need to pause or mark time for the first half of the arpeggio, it can occur in the inner feelings of the body in just a split second.
Yet another path to evenness:
When a baton twirler causes the baton to make a circle, it is the result of a sequence of different motions all blended together in a one overall fluid motion. I’m ignorant of the breakdown of those motions, but you can still imagine, yourself as twirling a baton, one cycle every half measure (as the note pattern repeats).
I would sing a sustained line for A.B.:
Sometimes I would sing a sustained melody, one note per measure, starting at the beginning of each measure, made up of the top note of each measure. Maybe I thought of doing this because I Gounod’s Ave Maria flitted through my mind. That Gounod may have felt that the Bach begged for a continuous line (adumbrated by Bach made tangible by Gounod). The effect that my singing had unconsciously on A.B. was each note of the measure was instinctively made to balance, or fuse sonically, with the sustained note I was singing.
How to bring out the dramatological curve of a piece, even though it was originally played on an instrument of a constant degree of loudness:
There are not many overtly dramatic moments in the piece that stand out from the monotonous (sic) patterns that repeat every half measure.
And even if we become aware at a certain time of these moments, they will afterwards fade into the background due to the abrasion or erosion of constant playing of the piece. So make the most of these moments.
Here is one example. Chords outlining diminished chords, for instance, happen only a few times in the piece, but each time it does, try to react to the sound of the chord as being jarring, intense, dissonant. This effect can be gained even without making any change in the loudness of those measures versus the surrounding measures. One can intimate a dramatic curve merely with intent and adumbration in the flow of the notes.
One of my other students, while playing through the Adagio from Beethoven’s Op 13, came across of a few measures of diminished chords in the passage leading back to the second A section of its ABA form. She said “diminished chords are ugly”. I said: that’s great, can you make them sound as ugly as possible!
Another example. When an interval of a minor second in the left hand, treat it as an astonishing, unexpected dissonance.
One more example, this time a longer passage:
In the second half of the page there is a long dominant pedal point in the left hand playing g2 (lowest line of bass clef). As he went from one measure to the next I repeated: “long … long endeavor … never stops … we’re not ‘there’ yet”.
Matching two sounds that are separated in time:
When you play the first half of a measure and get to the highest note, consciously hold its sound in your ear’s memory, so that when you play the same note in the second half of the measure you can match it with the first.
Sometimes a “group” of notes is just one note:
In the last few measures of the prelude, I find that it is not useful to think of groups of four notes, or even two notes, the measures are too ambiguous compared to what has preceded it throughout the piece. My way around this is to play these last measures in “groups of ONE” note. To promote this I say out loud as i am playing: “One”, “one”, “one” …. “. Every note bears little allegiance to every other note except when though of in retrospect.
Remember that your pinkie is part of your hand, not a separate appendage:
Often your pinkie seems to be out in right field, detached from the rest of your hand as if it were a separate appendage. Hold the pinkie in the unity of your whole hand.
Isolating Variables: the sequence of fingers as against the sequence of pitches:
This is in line with what we just said about the pinkie being “held” in the hand. In measure three A.B. is using fingers 1, 3 then 5 to play g4 d5 and f5.
I asked him to cover the notes g4-a4-b4-c5-d5 with the five fingers of his right hand. Play it as a cluster and hold it. And while holding all five notes try to lift the thumb and replay the G, then again while still holding all the notes, raise the third finger and replay the d5, and similarly with the pinkie for f5. Just focus on an awareness of the identity of which finger you are playing, as if to say “these are the fingers I’m going to use: 1 3 and 5”. Then use the same fingers but for the written notes (g4 d5 f5). You hopefully will feel an interesting transference of the awareness of which fingers to use, now mapped onto a different set of fingers.
Isolating Variables: The sensation of evenness as against any physical actions taken to instill evenness, especially when there is a new set of notes:
There is an ’emotional’, a generalized physical sense in the body as a whole, of ‘balance’ among the notes of the keyboard that are played together and in close succession. As with any feeling, this emotional state can be reproduced at will under different circumstances. Rather than the details of how to play the next measure evenly, try to reproduce the experience of having this feeling.
This distinction applies to many situations in playing.
For instance: there is the sensation we get of playing an ascending set of pitches. This feeling can be conjured up even if we are playing a descending set of pitches. Sometimes doing this is very useful in a Bach fugue to help homogenize two different voices, so that what a second voice is doing does not sound too dissimilar from what a first voice is doing.
Or, a sense of enlarging and getting louder can overlay a series of notes that are getting softer.
Or, a sense of wide space between the fingers in the hand can overlay a passage that involves a series of notes only one half step apart from each other.
Or, the sense of energy that we get from one very dynamic piece or passage from such a piece, and overlaying that feeling of energy onto all passages, slow or fast, loud or soft.
Making a clear connection between two non-adjacent fingers:
There is a measure in the first part where the pianist plays this sequence of notes: b3 c4 e4 g4 c5 … .
Notice that I tapped your fourth finger when you went from your third finger on g4 to the fifth finger on c5, It was meant to show the hand the focus of the ‘connection’ between the fingers playing g4 and c5, more at being located at the connection between the 3rd and 5th fingers.
At another point in the lesson I slid a pencil between his second and fifth finger. The pencil passed over those two fingers but passed underneath the fingers in between them. This helped him sense that those two fingers don’t act separately, but more at being the two ends of the plank of a see-saw, and thus the result of one single action.
More about see-saws:
Regardless of what two fingers play one after the other, and regardless of the distance between the notes they play, always an imaginary see-saw plank between the current note’s finger and the next note’s finger. Add to this image an almost felt, pivot point, midway between the two fingers. Now pretend you are a very strong person who can make the two ends of the plank move reciprocally move up and down just by leaning first on one side and then the other side of where the pivot.
Once you are on the second note resulting from the first see-saw, move the see-saw’s location so that it connects this second note with the note that follows it.
To develop the sense of this see-saw, and the ability to relocate it quickly, it may help (using measure one as an example) to do this exercise:
Go back and forth between c4 and e4 (something which I notate as |: c4 e4 :|. Once that see saw is functioning organically do the same for |: e4 g4 :|, and so on.
Addendum to the previous section:
It is your tendency, when you encounter a problem in a measure, to just play ahead for quite a long time, and then tend to the problem later. It is good to balance that tendency out with the ability to not move ahead, maybe only as far as the end of the current measure, and then focus in on tiny details. Focusing entails a greater degree of awareness of what is happening physical and sound-wise, plus reiterating that tiny detail until it sounds how you want it to sound.
Don’t rob the last note of each measure of its full duration:
A.B. usually tries to rush into the new hand position at the beginning of the next measure. He feels that he may not have enough time to do it in, and compensates by holding the last note of the current measure a little shorter than the other notes of the measure. I said “it is always good to try to hold longer whatever note sounds just before a leap, a skip, or a change of hand position. One can deal with this near the end of the note by continuing to hold it when your hand tells you it is time to let go of it. There is another way that is just as effective, that is more at being located time-wise at the beginning of the note rather than near the end. Start the note with the “intention” of holding it longer.
We reached the goal of evenness:
Joe: in general today we have accomplished one of your goals: the sound is now even throughout. During the attempt to make each note sound clear and close to its ideal sound, you were finding it easier to do this when playing all the notes a little louder than usual. Often two variables get tied together, “entangled” as it were. On the hand playing more evenly, on the other playing more loudly. The latter helps achieve the former, only at some point, you want to separate the former from depending on the latter. Once you have effected this separation, the evenness and clear-speaking-ness of each sound, no longer depends on loudness and can occur at any dynamic you choose.
General comment #1:
Notice that while you tend to try to solve things with specific actions of specific fingers, I almost never suggest a solution that involves the fingers, but relies instead on a more integrated motion of all the parts of the arm from shoulders to hands.
General comment #2:
I think you are evolving from one species of musician into another species: from an organist to a pianist.
Leverage and Sound
Chopin, Etude in C# Minor from Opus 25:
Irving’s brother came today. We wanted to get a rich cello-like / vocal-like tone out of the piano for the notes of the opening “baritone” melody for the left hand. It is in single notes without accompaniment, so it is very exposed. We need our entire sound/mechanical tool-kit to keep it resonant and sustained so there isn’t a moment’s break in the flow of the line. Their softness shouldn’t belie their resonance.
Our first exploration was with leverage, the principle being that the greater the leverage you have over the production of each sound, the more that sound approaches the ideal piano-resonance.
The effectiveness of a lever is a function of how long the lever is and where you place the fulcrum on which to rest it*. Leverage increases with the length of the lever and how remote the fulcrum is from the end of the lever that, from which in this case, the pianist initiates the motion of the lever. If, for example, the lever is solely the length of a finger, and the third knuckle is where the fulcrum is, there is little mechanical advantage to depressing the key through the motion of that lever. If the lever extends back into the wrist, and includes the finger, there is greater leverage on behalf of the movement of finger tip. So the question is, how we can create the greatest leverage with the human body.
We ended up using a curious combination of several different levers, that ended up being connected one to the other.
The length of the arm, from shoulder to finger tips, while perhaps not the longest lever we can make of the body, is a conveniently long one that is still easily manipulated.
We started by his holding out both his forearms; straight out in front of him so that they parallel with each other and were horizontal to the ground. We Left a comfortable distance between the two hands, about the same as the distance between the two shoulders.
We then had him move his arms up and down using just the shoulders as pivots. At their highest points the arms were aiming well above the horizontal, at an angle of about forty five degrees. At their lowest points the arms were just slightly below the horizontal.
Very soon, we changed it to an oscillating motion between the arms. One arm was at its lowest when the other was at its highest. And they exchanged these positions. We did this until he felt a sort of physical exhilaration from all that motion.
The next thing we did was to create a second, more imaginary, lever. At the same time the arms were moving, we pretended there was the plank of a see-saw that connects the two hands (traversing the empty space between the hands), which, as a result of the arm motions, was itself going up and down as if two people were seated at each end of the see-saw. The pivot of this imaginary see-saw was exactly half way between the hands, so that neither hand or arm had a mechanical advantage over the other – the advantages were equal.
I also had him imagine a secondary but similar see-saw between his two shoulders, as if an, albeit, small person was seated on each shoulder. We continued exercising the combination of these levers until he felt a definite exhilaration from making these motions.
We then ‘elected’ his two index fingers as the sole ‘beneficiaries’ of all the motions he was making, so that the each index finger was backed up by the entire arm and contributing see-saws.
While continuing the oscillation of the arms he used alternating index fingers to play first the opening note of the second note. The solo was no longer distributed solely to the left hand but alternately, from note to note, between one arm lever and the other. If he played the first note with his left index finger, then he played second note with his right index finger. Then back to the left index finger to sound the third note, the right again for the fourth note, and so on through the line.
During this procedure the fingers were to never loose their connection to the hand, and on to the wrist, the forearms, the elbows, all the way to the shoulders.
Sometimes the arms had to cross one another, but the more important thing was the swinging motion from one arm to the other regardless of which one was to the right or left of the other.
When he did this with physical abandon fervor, without thinking so much of the ‘proper’ or ‘usual’ way of pushing the notes down, the result, to our joint delight, was an unusually rich sound, one that he was unaccustomed to getting on single notes.
Even when consecutive notes were ‘next door’ to each, only a half step or whole step away, we did not diminish the feeling of the widest possible see-saw between the arms. In other words, while the objective distance between the consecutive notes might lessen, the subjective sense of how long that distance was always remained large.
The last step was to preserve the widest and most dynamic sense of an oscillating motion when going not just from one hand to the other, but from one finger of one hand to another finger of the same hand.
* The saying, concerning how levers work, as attributed to Archimedes, is: Give me the place to stand, and I shall move the earth.
The “Spiral” of Fifths – An Alternative to the Circle of Fifths
The “Spiral” of Fifths – a “self similar fractal”:
If you start a new major scale on the fifth step of any current major scale, the new scale will have one more sharp than the previous scale. Sometimes this new sharp is in the form of a flat from the previous scale that has been “sharped” into a natural in the new scale.* Or a sharp from the previous scale that has been ‘sharped’ into a double sharp. The new sharp always appears om the seventh step of the new scale.
If you start a new major scale on the fourth step of a current major scale, the new scale will have on more flat than the previous scale. Sometimes this new flat is in the form of a natural in the previous scale which was been “flatted” into a flat in the new scale. Or a flat from the previous scale has been ‘flatted’ into a double flat.
These two processes (adding one sharp at a time or one flat at a time) can go on forever. If one keeps adding a sharp, the new scales will begin to contain double sharps, then triple sharps, etc.. If one keeps adding a flat, the new scales begin to have double flats, then triplet flats, etc..
The correct drawing of these two interlocked, and inverse procedures is not a circle of fifths (or fourths) but a spiral of fifths. Just as interestingly, there is no beginning or ending to this spiral. There is always another layer of the spiral outside the last layer currently displayed in any representation of this spiral, and so on indefinitely. Similarly, there is always another layer of the spiral compressed inside the smallest layer of the spiral currently displayed, and so on.
Most of us learned about key signatures using the diagram of the circle of fifths. Yet, a lot is left unanswered by this image. It does not explain, for instance why, when you got about half way through the circle sharps somewhat arbitrarily turn into flats. Why just then and not sooner or later in career of the circle?
Just as a C# means something different than a Db, and just as Cx means something different than D, theoretically there is nothing to prevent us from having a C-triplet-sharp which is different than a D# or Eb. We may never see a triple sharp throughout our playing lives but it exists as sure as ultraviolet and infrared extend the boundaries of the visible portion of the electromagnetic.**
In the spiral of fifths, if we are located at C Major, then the next seven positions (or “o’clocks”) on the spiral will bear the addition of one more sharp, until at 8 o’clock double sharps start to appear in the scale. And seven hours later than that “triple sharps” will start to appear, and so on every seven hours.
Similarly with flat. If we go in the other direction from C Major, the next seven keys bear the addition of one more flat, until at “4 o’clock’ double flats begin to appear, and so on every seven o’clocks further inwards around the spiral.
Advantages to the spiral shaped diagram:
We no longer have to treat as arbitrary the point when we switch from flats to sharps, or vice versa. We can also see the dynamic relationship of sharps and flats to each other, not as having two separate, essential identities, but both as being an expression of the same, single reciprocal principle of flatting and sharping.
If you draw a straight line from any key in the spiral inwards towards the center of the spiral, all the keys that lie along that line are all enharmonic equivalents of each other, moreover the letter of the alphabet in the name of the tonic progresses one letter at a time through the musical alphabet.
The letter “C” is always special:
C major has the distinction of being the only key consisting of only naturals and no sharps. C sharp major has the distinction of consisting of only sharps. C double sharp major has the distinction of consisting of only double sharps. C-triple sharp major consists only of triple sharps. Etc..
Going in the other direction: C flat major has the distinction of being the only key consisting of only flats. C double flat major has the distinction of being the only key consisting of only double flats. Etc..
* For instance, the key of F major stands to the key of C major as having “one more flat” than the later, the note B-Natural in the C Major Scale being flatted into a B-Flat in the F Major Scale. Going in the other direction, the “new” sharp in the C Major scale is the B-Natural on the seventh step, which had been, in the F Major scale, a B-Flat.
** A curious thing happens when we have ‘sharped’ C-natural twelve times, so that we now have C-dodectuple-sharp. We find that C is its own dodectuple sharp one perfect octave higher. In the same way we can ‘flat’ C-natural twelve times, and find that C is the dodectuple-flat of itself. And then the process could continue until we find ourselves beyond the range of frequencies covered by the piano keyboard, going past vintuple sharps or flats (or would it be vigintuple), then centuple, and so on indefinitely. For there is no lowest or highest frequency that a sound can have in theory. A frequency of a billion vibrations per second is just as possible theoretically as a frequency of one billionth of one vibration per second. Whether they are audible is another question. And at some point when we get down to the size of molecules of air, perhaps there is no higher frequencies physically possible (got to think that one through).
Young Students and Music Reading
Diagnosing the cause of note reading difficulties in beginners.
Pointing to a measure in the music score, or even just a single note from either clef, and asking the student to draw on paper what they see on the page is often the fastest and most direct way to see how the student’s brain is perceiving what they see when looking at the music score.
We do not expect the student to make an exact representation, but what they do draw still gives us insight into how their mind is perceiving the music page.
There are certain types of discrepancies that are most revealing:
#1. Are their five lines to a staff or some other number. Are the lines spaced with any regularity. Do the lines cross or converge, or is there an attempt to make them parallel.
#2. If there is a clef sign, what is it vertical position relative to the staff and is its size and height in proportion with the distance between the staff lines.
#3. If drawing more than one note, how are the notes spaced horizontally. Are they cramped, do they have breathing (“perceiving”) room.
#4. Most importantly, what is the vertical position of the note circle relative to the staffs. If it is the F above middle C and in treble clef, is it in the first space of the staff, or just in any space. How does the note circle fill the space. Does it use the entire space, more than the space allows or less than that.
What does the student feel is sufficient to draw a note. Is the note drawn with staff lines appearing. If drawing a single note, and there are staff lines, how far do the lines extend on either side of the note, or do they exist in close proximity to the note circle.
If the note to be draw happens to be middle C, does it have the ledger line, is the space between the ledger line and the nearest staff line approximately the same as the distance between the lines that are adjacent to each within the staff. If not, is the space bigger or smaller. Does middle C appear as a circle with a line through it, but positioned arbitrarily on the staff amid the five lines.
#5. If there are whole notes mixed with halves and quarters, is there an attempt to distinguish between their appearance.
What to do next:
By considering these accords or discrepancies, and of others of a similar nature, we now have a primitive ‘snap shot’ of the student’s brain when looking at the music. What do we do if the drawing is significantly different than what appears on the page. First I make a copy of what I, as the teacher, see on the page when I try to draw the same thing that I have asked the student to draw. I then ask the student if the two drawings, theirs and mine, look the same or different. In this process it is best to avoid any notion of correct or incorrect, we should merely help the student pick out any differences if there are ones, without yet assigning any relative value to either one. It is important, in this regard, that the teacher’s drawing conform as closely as possible to the score, or we may find the student strangely expert in finding true differences other than the ones we consciously intended.
A lot of patience required from the teacher when using this procedure with the young student. It is best to remember this general principle: a student is not not understanding on purpose. They are trying to understand their best.
Further Italian Concerto Progress!
A.B. was here for his lesson yesterday. We were working on the third movement of the Bach Italian Concerto. We brought to the next level his ability of bringing things under the control of the ears.
I was reminded of medieval philosophers when they talk about god’s abilities: that god merely needs to think something and it becomes actual in the real world. So in piano performance the true controller over how a passage sounds is not based on intentional or controlled physical motions, but simply the ‘ear of god’ (actually the ear of the pianist) noticing how things are sounding – which, miraculously, transforms what is heard from potential to actual.
The more I was able to get A.B. to focus on his ear, the more contented he was to practice just a small chunk of the music and not, as is his wont, to continue on and on regardless of what happens in the passage. We should first ‘frame’ the chunk of the music being undertaken. That you will find that the smaller the chunk size, plus, the slower the tempo, the more the ear naturally takes over for the body.
Some other things that I said during the lesson to keep A.B. focused on what he heard rather than what he felt:
1) the notes never escape the reach of your ear.
2) wherever your hand goes, the ear follows.
3) the physical action of making a note often occludes the ear’s ability to hear the same note. This is an important reason why is it not such an easy matter to “just listen”.
Some of our work had to do with specific spots in specific measures:
In measure 2: the last two quarter notes plus the first notes of the next measure (in the left hand).
The principle here is, in order to get clear and crisp parallel sixths, don’t be content thinking of the three written sixths as being the “complete story”. I extended the passage by having him play a scale an entire ascending octave of parallel sixths using the notes of the F Major scale. “This is the ‘larger’, the more complete ‘whole, of which we have but a limited section being quoted. Once you conceive the part as representing the whole, then no matter how few sixths you play they will come alive. The listener will have a sense of where the sixths came from before the first one to be played (c3-a3) and where they are going to go if allowed to continue beyond the a2-f3. It is the “gestalt”, this organized whole, one that is greater than its parts, that should be the object of our perception, and be that which our hand wants to “embrace” when playing.
In measure 3: a2-f3 then f2, in the left hand.
Even though the thumb releases the f3 before the f2 is played, let the thumb nonetheless act to balance the pinkie.
Also in measure 3: the fifth eighth note in the left hand – bf2. No matter how he tried physical to control and balance the sound of the bf2 from the surrounding notes of the F major scale, he could never get it to sound how he wanted … until, that is, he recognized that the b-flat, though far removed from the right hand, functioned as the 7th of a third inversion C dominant-7 chord (bf2–e5-g5-c6). This allowed the bf2 to find its destiny as enabling a brief assertion of a dominant chord, in an unstable inversion , in the midst of an ascending F major scale.
Relating this to today’s major theme, if not by engaging with the ear, no matter how you to try to play something, it will always sound wrong. Which leaves the pianist to try one after another physical experimentation, all the time completely missing the sound-reason for the note.
In measure 5: the notes on beat one and the following eighth note. A.B. was having difficulty separating the two voices in the right hand. I made a suggestion that, agreeably, seemed to have nothing to do with the issue at hand. Listen, I said, to the f4 in the left hand and hear it meld into the f5 an octave higher (in the right hand’s lower voice). Sometimes we have to think ‘across the grain’ and find the solution to something in a different geometrical dimension than the one in which we first located the issue that required our attention.
Measures 30 and 31: the left hand
“Throw” the left thumb rightwards as if it would separate itself from the rest of the hand. Do this with more energy and momentum than would seem to be warranted by the physical distance the thumb has to travel away from the other fingers of the hand.
The principle here, is analogous in a way to the “gestalt” thing we mentioned concerning measure 3, when we spoke of completing the implied whole, not being content with only the notes that literally sound or are literally there. In these measures the distance the thumb has to travel is expresses a larger distance (subjectively) than the pitches of the notes seem to indicate (objectively along the keyboard). We sometimes have to ‘overreach’ in order to ‘reach’.