Category: Teaching

Young Beginners” “Going for a ride” on the Teacher’s Hands

L.I’s lesson on 9/7/19.  She began lessons when she was three and is now nine, going on ten.    Chopin Waltz in C# Minor

#1

In several ways, at several different places in the opening few measures she couldn’t get the rhythm correctly or the tempo. There were just too many issues, in very close order, to go over them separately and then link them together into one flow.

Joe: “I know that you are nine now, going on ten, but let’s do what we did when you were three: let’s have you ‘go for a ride’ on my hands.”

Phase One.

In this procedure L. would passively rest the palm of her then, very small hands, on top of my hand, as I played. The motions I made in my arms and hands were transmitted directly to her hands, and therefore her muscle memory. If she kept her hands alert and attentive, without any resistance to what I was doing,  even the subtlest motions on my part become conscious kinesthetically to the student. In particular, rhythms and physical coordination between the hands. And it is transmitted as a continuous, and whole experience, rather than in disjointed surges of details. This procedure is useful to the young pianist, who hasn’t had time to develop a critical, analytical style.

Usually I exaggerate certain features of my playing so that they make a clearer kinesthetic impression on the student. For instance, where L. had suddenly doubled the tempo in parts of measures one and two, I made a ritard-like motion in my hand as would a conductor (in leading a large group  of players) so as to ritard simultaneously in synch with the  others. The same for when she had been too slow in measure 3 and 4. I dramatized slowing my motions so the notes began on time.

In general, the steadiness of the tempo soaked into her hand and through her hands into her entire playing mechanism. The same with regard to the specifics of the more complicated rhythms.

Phase Two:

The second phase was like phase one, but she became more of a “teacher” trying to impress upon me, the student, physical dynamics of the  mechanical playing the piece. Her role, on top of my hands, went from   passive to active.   J: “Show me” the rhythm, make it very clear; press down on my hands to make me make the sounds.

Phase Three:

We switched positions. I “played” upon her hand as her hands made the sounds.

As a general habit in my teaching, I take a procedure like this, as well as many teaching procedures, and break them down into different shades, angles, stages, situations and perspectives. It is the attempt to form a gestalt out of a finite set of points of view, but the more points in the set (without overdoing it) the greater the likelihood that a whole is created that is greater than the sum of its parts. This keeps the student’s experience of  the procedure alive for longer. It does not decay in effectiveness or stale through time by overuse of just one approach.

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Emotional Expression; Changing from Flats to Sharps

CP’s lesson 8/29/19 “Claire de Lune”

C: Everything I do, both in general, and specifically at the piano I when practice, is rational, organized and methodological. This includes the fact that once I start something I must complete it regardless of the months it takes me.   Moreover, I’ve never noticed any emotional expression in my playing, and I feel it is a lack on my part.

J: Your contention about emotional expression is belied by the natural beauty of your sound quality, and how unerringly you hit just the right feeling-tone of the piece you are playing.

(C seemed pleased that I thought so)

J: So if you believe that the last mentioned traits exist in your playing,  where  do think they come from; how do you get them?*

C: I don’t know. Partially because I don’t know when I’m getting them.

J: Exactly! You are not supposed to know, because they do not come from a part of you that is identifiable with words.  If so, would you be OK if we use words like irrational or non-conscious, to signify why you cannot tell  precisely where they come from within yourself. A bigger question: is it OK with you to have these two contrasting natures in yourself: one organized, under your control, and available to consciousness, the other, just as potent, but uncontrollable because inaccessible to your conscious or rational mind?

(She always knew about the organized one but had been very concerned that might not have the other. She was pleased to know she did have it, as well)

J: These two do not necessarily have to contradict each other or conflict with each other. Any conflict we sense comes from the rational side of our selves, when we try to define one in the terms of the other. In truth, each can amplify and encourage the other.

(She described an analogous situation in her life)

C: In my business life I frequently have to get to understand the
inner workings and organization of a large, international company.
The task seems daunting. There are too many interconnecting parts,
each pair seeming to interrelate in its own way and according to its
own customs. However, given enough time, I find that I begin to
grasp the whole and the parts.

J: My guess is that the foundational work you did was largely rational, but the insight that eventually came about how the company, despite its many parts, worked as an organic unity, came unexpectedly and was not directly
caused by its conscious antecedents in time. Again, we do not know from where this insight comes from, but it represents a direct intuition of the companies inner, organic unity.

In Claire de Lune there is a moment when the key signature changes
abruptly from five flats to four sharps. C. says this change causes
her great difficulty.

Here began a diagnosis.

1) I picked a passage in the flats section: in your imagination, rather than thinking about the key signature, just put, in your imagination, a flat sign in front of each and every note in the score. Note that this produces a somewhat different sequence of notes than what Debussy wrote.  C had little trouble doing this.

2A) Then we picked a passage in the sharps section. Now do the same thing again, only with sharps.  Put an imaginary sharp sign in front of every note you see in the passage and don’t think any longer about key signatures.  This too, though producing a passage that sounded different than the piece she was used to, offered her no difficulty.

2B) Play the same passage again as in #2A, but this time, in your imagination, put a flat sign rather than a sharp sign in front of every note. She had little little difficulty doing this.

Just so you know, all of these three things are much harder to do than play the score as written. So you have all the mental equipment necessary to  make a successful shift from flats to sharps.  Yet it is still giving you trouble.  We must explore further.

She said: the confusion occurs at the moment it changes key. It’s barely marked in the score. I’ve gotten so used to being in the flats for the last few pages,  I need just as long a period to get used to the sharps.

I said: this is very useful.  It’s time for me to ask a stupid question.  Do you start practicing the piece starting from the change of key, or do you usually start at the beginning of the piece?

She: the latter.  Remember, once I start something I have to see it through the end.

I think you have just diagnosed your problem as well as solved having found the solution to the problem.  Simply get in the habit of sometimes starting your practicing from the beginning of the sharp section until you are used to that part as you are to the opening section.

An aside.

She asked me how I handle this sort of situation. I said: it’s probably different for a professional musician, and different from one professional to the next.  Here is a part of my process  in handling keys and changes of key  that had remained unconscious to me for many years, but which after starting teaching others, became more accessible to my consciousness.

Here is a simple example.  I encounter a piece in G Major.  One sharp.  F  sharp.  I am sight reading the piece.  I come, in the score to an “F”.  It  genuinely does not look like an F.   It looks like something else: it looks like  an F-sharp.  There is nothing in the vicinity of the note on the page to cause   it to look any different.   But nothing you can say to me, will change the  impression that it looks different than an F natural.  There is little my mind can do to make it look again like an F and not an F#.  It is as if its printed in a  different color.   It produces a different emotional state in my mind.  It is  as if the # sign was printed just left of the note.

That indicates how a strongly I am affected from the start by hearing the  piece sound in the key of G major.  It is the obvious presence to my ear that we are in a tonal world known as “G Major”, and how that affects every note  in the piece, not just F#.

* With certain students I do teach things like being musical, understanding that inner thing-in-itself of the music.  I am surprisingly successful in doing this.  But when I have a student in front of me who does these  naturally, the worst thing I can do is make them aware of it in a way that includes how I think they are achieving it.

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Even More Thoughts on How to Play a Bach fugue

A.B.’s playing of the first fugue of book one of the Well Tempered has improved by leaps and bounds.  Due to the high quality of his mind he can contemplate and at the same time be in wonderment at the amazing things, small and large, going on in the piece.

Here is what arose on Thursday, May 16, at his latest lesson.

#1.

When he is physically tense, the first place it shows up is in the form of movements with his lips and mouth.  He usually makes one such motion per note .

Last week we worked on doing away with these mouth motions.  Sometimes such motions help generate pulse and flow but just as often they force the piece to come out uttered in little tiny pieces.  A phrase cannot flow through time if it is comes to a stop and then resumes with each new note.  Frequent mouth motions can cause unintentional separations between one note and the next.  A note should be like each new bead on a necklace.  Without gravity and the string holding the beads together the necklace looses its shape and meaning.

He was able to control this for a measure or so before the mouth motions obstinately crept back in.

We worked out a compromise.  If he is to make a separate mouth motion for every note, let that motion be that of the expelling of puffs of air.  Later on the air can be let out more continuously.  The continuing flow of air is the physical equivalent of the flow of sound in a phrase – just ask any singer.  The piano, and many other instruments, model their flow and expressivity on the human voice.

#2

Joe: If you think of the physical actions you make while playing, now that they are not the cause of the sounds.  Nor are you yourself the cause of the sounds.  Sounds just “pass you by”, flowing by your consciousness.

#3

The general question arose of how do we stay on course if we make a mistake and deviate from the printed score.  We have to find a way of getting back on track as rapidly as possible – hopefully the the next note.  An important component of the alacrity with which you get back on track lies in the answer to the question: how do you react, both morally (I’ve made a mistake and a mistake is bad thing) as well as emotionally (what does it to our self confidence , our self worth).   Any negative reaction of either type makes it more difficult to find your way back onto the tracks, and makes it harder, in space-wise in terms of finding where we are in the score, and time-wise, to resume the correct flow.

Here is another way of stating the problem of getting back on the tracks.  How quickly can we begin at any random point in the piece (whether at the beginning of a measure or even at an arbitrary point within a measure) and resume the ease and flow that we  have at the place if we started the piece from the beginning.

It is good to lard the piece with a plethora of random spots from all of which you want to learn to be able to start up the piece, and ideally take no time to get on board the moving train and flow ahead with the correct notes and rhythms.

Just like coming in at the middle of a conversation and quickly figure out what is being talked about, every note in a piece is (or can be) the beginning of that piece.  B.A. summarized how hard this was for him to do: sometimes when I start from a random point in a piece it doesn’t even sound like it is from the same piece.  And, where did these notes come from and where are they going … how quickly can one become aware of the answers to these.   The answer to the last part: as instantaneously as possible.  This reminds me of the famous Gauguin painting “D’où Venons Nous / Que Sommes Nous / Où Allons Nous” (Where are we coming from, what are we, where are we going?”.   To put it in another way: how very important it is to spot the common character and individuality of a piece even just within a single minute detail from that piece.

When you practice starting the piece from a random point, just play until you are back on track, don’t keep playing to the end.   You want to leave practice time for starting from other points in the piece.

#4

Fingers getting tangled:

There are times when the hands draw very near to each other, touching, overlapping, interfering with each other.   In particular the thumbs (and even the second fingers) will cross over each other and afterwards uncross.  This situation must be coordinated down to tenths of a second.  It is a “pas de deux” between two fingers / hands, wherein the bodies of the ‘dancers’ need to fuse as much as possible into one entity that is constantly changing shape as a whole.  Every motion on the part of one dancer must be fused with a simultaneous motion from the other dancer.  It is as if there is a common consciousness among the two.

#5

The general question arose as to where does one phrase ends in a Bach fugue and another phrase begins.

This can become marvelously complicated because, in a fugue, two or more voices may be in the process of sounding the main theme, yet, at a given moment one of these voices may be at the beginning of the architectural shape of the theme through time, while another somewhere in the middle of the architecture of the theme, and a third voice might be in the midst of concluding the end of its theme statement.

How does the pianist simultaneously  make one voice sound like it is ending while another is beginning when the two voices are clearly both stating the same theme.  B.A. had a nice way of putting this: how does a voice say that it’s ending.

Put in terms of the chords that underlie the passing notes in the voice melodies – frequently the shift from one such note governing chord in the harmony of the fugue to the next such chord, does not occur simultaneous in all the voices.   One voice may enters the domain of the next chord before the others.  They are harbingers of the next chord; pathfinders.  Another voice may arrive into the new chord not until the other voices have clearly established the chord.

#6

Situation: one finger is holding an extended note while other fingers in the same hand are enunciating a series of changing notes.   This requires that the finger holding the note be very flexible and can change its overall stance in response to changes in what the other fingers are doing.  The key to clear articulation often lies less in the equalization of the fingers playing the changing notes, and more in the ability of the finger holding its note to suddenly change it’s alignment with the keyboard, and its stance relative to the other fingers of the hand while, at no instant, losing its the overall equilibrium.

#7

Sometimes a student is confused when the main theme starts on a different note compared to the opening of the fugue.   If the change of starting note represents a change of harmonic region, then it makes makes sense to the modern player.   However, it is harder situation to make sense out of when when the theme entrance is still in the original harmonic region.  Thus a theme entrance, instead of starting on the original series of notes at the beginning (C D E F …) begins instead with D E F G, or E F G A, etc..  That instead of representing a modulation, it represents the desire of the theme to enter on a different note of the C Major scale but cling obstinately to the same scale.  Some of us may think of this as a hark back to the Catholic Church modes of the middle ages, in which case  D E F G is simply the beginning of the “Dorian” mode, E F G A the beginning of the “Phrygian: mode, etc..  But it is not always clear that this was how Bach may have been thinking.  Perhaps the underlying constant is the C Major scale (or tonic of another harmonic region of the fugue) and how it stubbornly controls things even a theme entrance tries to start on a different note of the scale than the tonic.

#8

A part of fugue technique is to instantaneously move one finger left or right, from one note to another, regardless of how far apart those notes are on the keyboard.  This is not something mastered by gradually practicing such a motion faster and faster.  It is more the absolute determination ahead of time to be on the second note zero seconds (zero fractions of a second) after the first note ends.  In other words: for the finger to find itself already on the new note, without any travel time in between.   This is quite possible.  The body is capable of doing this if one insists this be the case, a determination that starts before one starts moving the finger at all.  Such instantaneous change of by just one fingers promotes a greater clarity and crispness in the consecutive notes of a voice.  The goal is that no connection of one note to the next be any more sluggish than any other.

This itself is a component of the general ability of the entire hand snap from one hand position to another position.   Sometimes fingering alone will not provide a sense of connection (even if allows for singer substitutions).  It may require an action like the triggering a mouse trap: with little or no preparation, no anticipation, and seemingly no time at all taken to make the change in position.

To achieve such alacrity in changing the shape of the hand it is necessary for the arms as well as the hands to be weightless, and the muscles in the hand being ‘at attention’  but when the moment comes for the change in the shape of the hand, offers no resistance to the onset of that motion.  It as if the muscle is passive and is being moved from an external source of power.  Even the forces that initially raise the arms to the keyboard can be felt in the body as if the arm was being moved not by its own muscles, but a force external to the entire body.  This feeling can be induced by imagining the arm belongs to a puppet, and an unseen puppeteer moves the arms upwards by pulling on the strings that connect the puppeteer the puppet’s arms.

At a lesson the teacher can literally provide this external force.   For instance supporting the student’s hands so they will feel to the student as if they are floating on the keyboard rather than pressing down on the keys.  Additionally, should their be any pressure downwards (other than to activate a key) it is more easily detected by the student if they are pushing down on another person than an inanimate object like the keyboard.

#9

We noted a connection between the technique of finger substitution  on a held note (in anticipation of using a more convenient finger on the next note) and the technique exercise found, as in “Hanon”, of using the fingering 4 3 2 1 (in the right hand) to repeat the same note four times in a row, and then to do the same on other notes, throughout the exercise. Though the overt purpose of this exercise is to learn fast repetition of the same note (on the assumption that changing from one finger to the next is faster than using the same finger over and over again) it also prejudices the hand for doing a quick substitution of one finger for another on one note without re-sounding the note.

#10

A.B. brilliantly put many of the above points into a common perspective by saying: it is all about who is doing what to whom and when.

We concluded the same lesson by working briefly on the companion prelude in C Major from Book One.

#1

Part of A.B.’s quest has been to play the notes in the prelude as evenly as possible.  So much of this depends the balance between the notes of the common chord that is outlined by the succession of notes in each measure.

To make these chord more obvious to the ear let the player while playing,  “densify” each chord.  For instance, if there is an opening between the written notes for an additional note of the chord, add that note to the chord and play all the notes that now belong to the chord all at once as a vertical sonority.  For instance in measure 2, there is room for an f4 between the d4 and a4, so that we create a five-note chord: c d f a d.  Or taking it a step forward we can also add a c5 between the a4 and the d4, forming a six-note chord.  The chord, has been a D Minor-7 chord the entire time, but the additional chord tones just make the chord stand out more clearly to the ear.  This can be done, at one time or another, for every chord in the Prelude when Bach’s written notes allow for such additions.

Note that the additional notes mentioned so far all lie in the range defined by the lowest note of a measure and the highest note of the same measure.  An equally valid technique, and one more vivid to the ear, would be to add additional notes belonging to the same chord that are lower than the printed lowest note and the same for the highest note written in the measure.

This way you can generate chord of 8 or more notes, and, if you add the use of the pedal. chords of any number of notes (culling notes from the bass range of the keyboard and the high treble).  If you play such a chord then play the chord made up out of just the written in the measure, you will gain a sudden sense of how the written chord is a just a part of the larger chord.  And whatever the sound and mood characteristics of the larger chord, they are transferred into the more compact form of the chord without any loss resonance and character.

#2

In terms of this grouping every note of the measure into the unified sound of a single chord (versus hearing just separate notes), it is the pinkie note in the right hand that is “furthest” from the left hand note that is the first note of the measure.  And not so much in space as measured on the  along the keyboard but in time that has passed since the first note.   For some this creates a feeling of the pinkie being a dangling participle after the previous four notes .  The feeling can occur even more so when the pinkie plays the last note of the measure prior to the unseating of the current chord and succession by the next chord.   Some pianists have a tendency to have their pinkie ‘separate’ from the rest of the hand when an articulating a note that is beyond a certain distance from the thumb, with the result is that there is less rather than more control of how the pinkie notes fits together with the notes the other fingers are playing.  There is sometimes a poker “tell” observable by the teacher when the student is singling out the pinkie and feeling like it is not part of the hand.  It is if the pianist raises the pinkie higher off the keyboard than the other fingers before playing its note – an attempt on the student’s part to gain better physical control over the pinkie but usually with the result that the pinkie sounds disconnected from the other fingers.

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Deciding What is Controllable. Also: Transforming the Polyphony of a Gugue

Well Tempered Klavier, Book I, C Major, Prelude

#1

After finishing the piece I simply asked A.B. what he liked and disliked about his rendition.  He mentioned several negative things and then struck on the one thing that I had primarily noticed: that he stopped the harmonic flow of the piece every time he went from the end of one measure to the beginning of the next.   I missed sensing that inexorable connection that energetically pushed me from the chord in one measure to the chord in the next measure.

He said that he had previously tried condensing the piece into a chorale of whole-note chords (each chord took the place of one measure).  However, he had trouble because he couldn’t do it with any speed.   I said that the speed was of the essence of the procedure.  Ideally, each eighth note’s worth of the piece, in terms of its duration, became the duration of one of the chords of the chorale.

Since it was difficult to shift chords that quickly, I recommended to him that he play just the chord a single measure followed by the chord of the next measure, and then stop.   I asked him to play the first chord as if it were a grace note going to the second chord – the latter being held longer.

This he could do.  We repeated the process for each measure going into its next measure.

Now that we had merged two amino acids into a somewhat longer chain of molecules, I asked him to play as written, while I, in the higher treble, waited until he was near the end , but not at the very end, of one measure only then played the chord of that measure as a grace note followed the next measure’s chord.  Only I would get to the second chord before he finished playing the current measure.  That anticipation of my chord connection gave him the necessary push and energy to keep the piece’s harmonic flow going across the bar line.  Then I would remain silent at the second piano until he reached nearly to the end of the new measure at which point I would break in with the chord of the new ‘current’ measure played as a grace note to the chord that governed the measure that was about to start.  And so on.

#2

A.B. remained worried in particular that the pinkie sixteenth note in the right hand at the end of each measure does not connect smoothly to the next sixteenth note in the left hand at the beginning of the next measure.

His default solution was to figure out  exactly how he wants his pinkie to play that note.  I solved his issue by stepping entirely around his approach.  As he played the piece I sang “la la la…”, but starting with 6th 7th and 8th sixteenth notes of one measure and ended with the fifth sixteenth note of the next measure. on notes to the first note.  I then waited too the 6th note of the new measure and began the process of again singing along for 3 + 5 or 8 notes.

In the form I was singing it, with the way I was grouping the notes that I sung versus those I did not sing, I purposely glossing over the connection between the two notes on either side of the bar lines..  It happens automatically.  By spreading a solder, or flux over the end of one measure and the beginning of the next, I effectively made less important the connection of the bar line.

I noticed in my singing that I helped things along by making misplaced crescendo starting on my first note and ending towards the eighth note.  This helped smooth over A.B.’s faulty connection over the bar line.

At this point we moved on to the fugue: transforming the polyphony of a

fugue in C Major, Book One, Well Tempered:

A.B.: why do I find it so difficult to not hold a voice note longer than it is supposed to last, when the note is already meant to continue sounding through a certain number of the next notes in some of the other voices.  For example if the target voice is a quarter note, or longer, and the other voices are enunciating sixteenth notes.

I gave a brief answer: remembering when to lift a sustained note in one voice is the requires the opposite of everything you do right when knowing when to start a note.  It’s the “dark side” of piano technique: it requires doing everything the wrong way; or is it now the right way?

A.B.: why did you do that?  Why was it working?

Joe: I think it is important to have a distinct pre-vision, pre-conception, of what the beginning of the next measure is going to sound like before you get to it.  It is a strange balance of knowing what’s coming and still being surprised by it.

#2

Can we transform the sound the sound of the fugue in the student’s ear?

We experimented using two pianos with re-registering one of the voice of the fugue.  He would choose one voice to play, and transpose either an octave higher or lower than  it was written, while I played the remaining three voices (without the fourth) at the other piano.

Results:  A.B. said:

My voice sounded different than before.  I head it saying and meaning other other things than I had before, but then realizing that it was the same voice with the same names to its notes, just transposed, and that there was at the same time an abiding identity between both versions of the voice, an identity which was preserved, was eternal and fixed  and was impervious to change of octave.   The new stuff that suddenly I heard, in how that voice combined with the other voices, must have been there latent to the note’s names themselves alone, or to say it in another way were just as present as aesthetic and sonic effects when I played that voice in its original octave.

In the future we will have A.B. play just one voice, but in the octave higher than written and the octave lower than written without playing it in the octave is written.  Later again we can transpose one voice by more than one octave.  If it is the soprano voice we can have it sound in the tenor voice’s range or even below the bass voice.  In the case of the bass voice, we can have it sound in the alto voice’s range or so that it is the highest sounding of all the voices.  At any time I can choose to play all four voices and not just three, leaving one voice to him.  Or, he can choose at random to play just the voices, while I play the other two.  Or, three voices.

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What to “bring out” in a Complex Passage

Debussy: First Arabesque: the conclusion to the first of the three main parts.

What is the main melody that one should bring out during the passage that concludes the first part and leads to the middle part of the piece.  A.J. said that when I played it I was doing something that that made it work sound-wise but he couldn’t figure out what i was doing. He assumed that I was emphasizing one of the three layers of melodic motion embedded in the passage. I said, it is more complex than that.  There are three different things going on, but no one of which, by itself, is a significant melody.  it is only in the complex ways the three interact that causes the positive quality that I think you noticed.  The rising quarters in the rh form a melody of no great significance.  The cello=like melody in the left hand does have a singing melody, but by itself it doesn’t seem accomplish that much, as well. Then there are triplets.  Are they important or not? The real question is how to bring them together in a complex fusion that makes the passage glow and excite.

To relate the quarter note melody in the right hand with the triplets in the right hand,  I played gs4-b4, then held the two notes as i added in ds4, which I also held, and lastly added fs4.  If at this point I continue holding those four notes and not go on in the measure,  I realize, after maybe about a second, that those notes add up to a four-note chord with a specific flavor that independently of the single notes of which it is comprised, has its own specific flavor and character.  I might have missed hearing this had i not stopped to listen to the chord after it was finally formed.  The realization of the chord does not come instantaneously to the ear.  We have to patient, and wait for the four notes to all be there (five if you add the bass line).

It is a delayed satisfaction, one that is very desirable, but one that cannot be rushed.  Thus the triplets get their meaning in the  sound mixture by our waiting to hear the result of total participation.  Eventually, when we play the passage, he don’t have to pause on the clock to  wait for the four notes to congeal, we only have to subjectively, in the imagination, make the pause, to bring the four notes to life as members of a single chord, so that, at    the end time-wise, it is not any of the four notes that are significant on their own, but how they loose their identify in the sound color of the chord where they vibrate together – as equals – but to a common good.

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