Category: Technique

The Sad Decline of My Absolute Pitch

I have a love and hate relationship with my ear.

For a person with absolute pitch, it is often the case that each individual key (C Major, C Minor, C# Major, etc.) has its own special character and aesthetic, which strongly colors any music that I play or listen to.  What I don’t know is if others with perfect pitch experience the same thing, and perhaps more importantly, whether the character or aesthetic of a particular key matches those of mine.

I learned that I had absolute pitch in gradual stages.  When I was about three years old, I would listen to my older bother play pieces from “For Children” at his lessons.  I knew enough to know that there were qualities about each piece that didn’t vary from one time to another, and that these had to do more than with the particular notes and their sequence.

It was many years before I understood what absolute pitch was and that I possessed it.  Actually it was my friend Jeffrey Rothenberg who discovered it for me.  We were in Mme. F’s French class in our junior year at high school.  I remember two particular events in that class that year.  The first has nothing to do with absolute pitch but is just nice: in the middle of a class meeting, Jeffrey got up from his chair, said somewhat ecstatically “Spring is here, and the cherry trees are in blossom in the quadrangle”, at which point he drifted, almost floated, out of the classroom.

The other, was when my friend Jeffrey was trying to discover if he had perfect pitch.  He would lean over to Edward Goldstein on his right, sing a note into his ear, and ask him to sing it into my ear (I was to Edwards’s right) , and whisper into my ear: Jeffrey wants to know if you think this is an “A”.  The fact that I could do that somewhat surprised me.  I thought: so I guess I must have absolute pitch.

About one out of ten thousand people in the world have perfect pitch.  Most are not musicians and probably do not realize that they have perfect pitch.* I figure they just assume that everyone else in the world hears sound the way they do, and that includes a merger of the effect of the up and down-ness of pitch with the effect of a changing coloration to the sound.  Only if these people study music they will learn, perhaps to their surprise, that every time they hear a note, they are able to give it a name.

In  school I began a phase of showing off my absolute pitch.  I wasn’t good at sports, so this was my way of being “macho”.  For instance, I got a telephone call from my friend Linda who said.  She said: “Do you hear the piece I’m playing in the background, what is it,  I can’t identify it.”  I listened for a few moments.  I that point in my life I had never heard it before, but I knew it was by Bach, that it was a concerto, that there were two pianos playing,  and that it was in the key of C Minor.  So I said to Linda: Well I’ve never heard this before, but I would say it is the Bach Concerto for two pianos in C Minor, the first movement.  We hung up.  Ten minutes later, when they probably announced the piece over the radio, I get a call again from Linda.  She said, “show off!”.

One of my favorite spots during my High School years was the Brooklyn Botanic Gardens.  I probably spent more time there than in classes.  I even had one teacher who would ask one of the students: when you walk home would you look for Joe in the Botanic Gardens.  He is probably sitting by the stream.  If you find him, would you give him the homework assignment.

Yes, I was by the stream, bent over, listening intently to the gurgles of the water, and trying to figure out what the pitches were of this sound.  I never could get them right.  I would notate what was in effect a chord of many notes and would then try it out on the piano when I got home.  There was no similarity (even after allowing for the difference in the sound quality of a piano and a brook.   It wasn’t until another year or two that I learned what “white noise” was.   That the reason I could not notate the brook was because there were so many pitches, all at once, that there was no way for the ear to untangle them each from the other.  Additionally, at every moment the interval pitch make-up of the white noise would change slightly change, but in such tiny degrees that were measurable only in microtones.  Microtones are the unlimited number of pitches that exist, for instance, between a C and a C-Sharp – or a ‘distance’ called a half step or semi-tone.

My experiences at the brook awakened my interest in microtones and today I am using the computer to compose microtonal pieces.   I’ve even trained my ear to detect a difference of two hundredths of the distance between a C and C-Sharp.   But they had to be isolated tones and not in a mixture or hundreds or thousands of tones all closely ‘spaced’.

Which brings up the clarinet.   I had been playing the B-flat clarinet since the fourth grade.  The clarinet is a “transposing” instrument.  When it plays the note which the clarinetist identifies as  a C on the clarinet, it does not match the C on other instruments.   A C on the clarinet was a B-Flat on the piano.   Though I didn’t know it until I was a Junior or Senior in High School, I had developed unconsciously two separate but parallel senses of perfect pitch, one that names the notes as they were called on the piano, and one for the notes as they were called on the clarinet.

In my twenties and thirties, if I was scheduled to teach a lesson, and I felt like I was coming down with a cold, I would protect the student by sitting on the other end of the room from the student.  It somewhat freaked out the student when they noticed no difference in my interaction with them, as when I would say something like: “Irving” you just played an F natural instead of an F sharp” (yes Irving existed even back then).

So, everything was going along swell between me and my absolute pitch, until the  invasion of original instruments.   The difference is: why listen to a clarinet play, in tune, the solo in the slow of movement of Beethoven’s 3rd Symphony, when we could hear it played out of tune on an instrument created during the early 1800s.    I grant that this is just a humorous way to describe the early music movement, but there was something more sinister for people with perfect pitch.   The orchestra tunes the “A above middle C”.  That ‘A’ would vary in pitch through the centuries.  In Bach’s time, the A was almost a half step below normal today’s concert pitch.  Thus began a process that was sully my pristine world of pitch.

At the beginning, when I heard a performance on original instruments, I would say “this is a piece in B Major”.  The piece had all the aesthetic qualities of that were characteristic of the key of B Major.  At the end of the performance I was of confused to hear that it was a piece in “C” Major.  Sometimes it was even a piece I knew but which I suddenly could not identify because it was in a different key.  However the worst thing was that after decades of original instrument performances, my “B” started sounding like a C.   And I was too old apparently to develop a second sense of perfect pitch to go along the first.   Talk about being confused.  I could not really tell any more if the piece I was hearing was in C major, tuned down, or C as I grew up with it.

And so performances on original instruments spread like a virus over my entire nexus of absolute pitch.  This was the beginning of the sad decline of my perfect pitch.

But the next step in this sad story totally befuddled me.  I was in San Francisco giving a lesson over the phone to a student in Oregon.  I did a lot of long distance phone lessons in those days – now I use skype.  She was playing the C-sharp minor fugue from Book One of the Well Tempered Klavier.  I got tired of holding the phone to the same ear (my right ear), so I switched quickly to my left ear.  And lo,  the pitch of the piece dropped by about an eighth tone (25 cents).  At first I thought I was imagining the difference, but wasn’t, on further experimentation the difference persisted.

I wondered whether the ears, like the eyes, consist of a dominant one and non-dominant one. I knew that with my eyes, if I closed one eye and then the other, an object in the near ground or mid ground, would change its alignment with the objects in the far ground. When I used both eyes, what I saw was what I had seen through my dominant eye.   I splendid musician I know, Wendy Loder, has confirmed having the same experience, with an even larger pitch difference than I experience.

Now I was faced with something similar with my ears.  Two pitches, one in each ear, but the higher of those two pitches was the one I head when I was hearing with both ears.  In my case the pitch that I heard through my right ear alone was the same as the pitch I heard with both ears.  That was freaky because I wondered where did the other pitch go.  It must still be in my brain somewhere.

I was offered this explanations.  The cochlea, in the inner ear, shrinks as one ages.  The cochlea in both ears might be aging at different rates.  Analogous single nerve endings in the two cochlea, that had always responded to a middle C still, in a sense did so, but now responded to pitches near middle C, but not exactly at the same.

As I write this, I am seventy-one years of age.  My original perfect pitch has survived through the years in only one case: notes coming from the piano.  Only occasionally for the other instruments of the orchestra.  But at least I’m never off my more than a semitone.

So, things couldn’t get too much worse – right?

Recently, the next nail in the coffin of my absolute pitch occurred in the form of how I was hearing octaves.  I used to object to the “stretching” of octaves that many tuners did when tuning the higher range of the piano.  I used to hate tuners who would tune the high octaves sharper than the mid range octaves.  Suddenly, though, I was now experiencing a distortion in the pitch of the high notes of the piano that made me wish I could stretch the octaves.  If I played a lower C, in the octave of middle C or an octave lower, together with one of the highest C-s on the keyboard, the higher C sounds a half step lower than the lower C.  It was like hearing a C and a B.  To be honest, this phenomenon had been creeping up on my over the years.  At first it was a curiosity.  Now it was intolerable.  The string for the higher C would have to be stretched tighter, almost up to a C-sharp, for it to sound like the same note as the lower C.  Now i know why some tuners stretched octaves.**

To be honest, I would have much rather had my absolute pitch go away entirely rather than in agonizing stages.  But there was always enough left of the absolute to know that something was amiss in my perception.  It was a more benign form of when a patient is consciously able to trace the course of her illness.  Now I am starting crave the bliss of ignorance of not having absolute pitch at all.  I can sense that my ability at relative pitch is asserting itself in situations where absolute pitch made relative pitch unnecessary.

I can now sit and contemplate what might be the next stage in the sad decline of my absolute pitch.

* Research at the University of California in San Diego found that while many may be born with it, discovering the gift is likely more the result of nurture than nature.Sep 18, 2012 (from a Google search)

** About ten years earlier I was offered another more ‘scientific’ and objective reason for stretching octaves.  In physics the string is often considered as a one dimensional object.  This allows the math to be simpler.  But a string is three dimensional.  It has length, width in a horizontal plane, and width in a vertical plane.   There is a “nodal” point at the half way point along the string   which as result divides the string into two parts, each part sounding an octave above the string at full length.   A nodal point is a place along the string where, under certain circumstances no vibration takes place.   But if the nodal point is three dimensional, rather than a nodal ‘point’ we have a nodal ‘sphere’.   This causes each of the remaining, vibrating halves of the string to be slightly less than half the length of the full string, and thereby have a pitch that is slightly higher than one octave above the pitch of the string vibrating as a whole.

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Handling Wide Chords or Arpeggios

 

The opening chords of Rachmaninoff’s Second Piano Concerto

The following can be considered a universal procedure, utilizable whenever one hand plays any number of notes simultaneously or is negotiating a widely spread out arpeggio.

It bypasses certain difficulties that result from stretching and straining the hand.   If a chord, it avoids the tension in the hand that results from having the fingers cover all the notes of an upcoming chord before sounding those notes.

It is a basic tenet of my approach to piano playing that simultaneous and sequential are not firmly opposed features of time.  They can cross-fertilize each other, blend one into the other in an ongoing, continuous, fluid action.

A.

In keeping with that tenet, I feel the best way to play any chord that either has wide spans between its notes or contains more than just a couple of notes, is to ’tilt’ the arrow of time and turn the chord into a melody. – subjectively.

Even when the listener hears all the notes of a chord start simultaneously, it does not mean that the pianist may not feel the chord, subjectively, as being the separate notes of an implied arpeggio, based on a gentle, and continuous valve-like opening and closing of the hand.

We will use this chord as our example:  C2-G2-C3-E3 –C4 G4 E5

Step one:

The left pinkie plays c2.  As it does this, the hand is in a neutral, closed and comfortable position.  There should be no anticipation in the hand of the, let us say the third, finger intending to play the g2.   Rather the hand  gradually opens up until the fingers are spaced so that the third finger is on the g2.   This opening up of the hand should be experienced as begin very gradual and fluid, and not a sudden faction.

Although the final result of this process when completed will sound like the notes have all started simultaneously (or nearly simultaneously – like a very rapid arpeggio) all the motions that are described here are felt subjectively by consciousness and experienced by the body as occurring over a prolonged duration, and flowing one into the other, without anything sudden happening.    One “step” flows insensitively into the next.

Step two.

The energy in the hand shifts from the pinkie to the third finger and the g2 is sounded.

What happens next, though seemingly a redundant part of the process, is perhaps the most important, and the one most apt to be skipped over.    The hand, currently in a relatively more open position now closes again and relaxes.   The hand will now seem similar to how it appeared in step one when the c2 was first sounded with the pinkie.  The only difference is that the third finger is found to be resting on the g2 and the pinkie no longer resting on the c2.

Step one and two is now repeated, starting with the third finger sounding the g2 and the second finger sounding the c3.   The hand is found to be in a closed position, the second finger resting neutrally near the third finger.  The hand then dilates open again, the spaces between adjacent fingers growing, until the second finger finds itself comfortably on the c3.

And so on, setting up a continuous fluxion of opening and closing (or closing and opening) the hand occurs, setting up a pulsation in the hand the expanding and contracting hand that supervenes upon the action of playing the single notes, one then another, and facilitates with ease the overall motion from the bottom note to the top note of the chord.

Though the focus of the dilation is between the two fingers playing the current and the next note, it is the hand as a whole that feels like it is opening.  If there was an overhead camera aimed downwards at the hand, and if it tracks rightwards at a rate that keeps it vertically in tandem with the successive notes on the keyboard, then the rightwards motion of the hand will seem to disappear and all we would see is the rhythmic expansion and contraction of the fingers of the hand that otherwise remains still.  This is a good way of experiencing the process, de-emphasizing traveling rightwards and emphasizing growth and contraction of the hand.

In the middle of the process, the left thumb will yield its note to the right thumb so that the series of pitches is completed with the right hand.   At this midpoint, it is the space between the two thumbs that is felt to grow, as if one hand had momentarily merged with the other and it is this ‘composite’ entity, of two hands, that expands relative to itself.

When the top note of the chord is reached, and the hand has re-relaxed, or re-closed around the finger playing the top note in the chord.  There should be no sort of gesture, flourish or final gesture, the hand simply finds itself at rest again as it was, or should have been, before playing the lowest note.

The entire process is gradual: as if the various fronds of a sea plant separate and come back together, not under their own initiative, but as the passive result of the motion or current of the water passing between them.

By way of a reminder: the pace of the hand when it opens or when it closes is ‘gradual’, almost at what subjectively feels like a snail’s place.  No sudden or rapid motion to ‘get’ the next finger to its note.  We feel like we have all the time in the world: in direct contrast to the rapidity with which this technique allows up to arpeggiate through the chord.  It is a continuous, fluid wave or slow vibration, like watching a slinky toy, that moves through one hand and then continues into the other.

It is the ease of this process, physically, that is the most striking thing about it.  There is no special thing to be done for one chord versus another, or with one finger versus another.  Nothing different occurs when adjacent notes of the chords lye closer to each other on the keyboard or further apart.*  It is always about the same gentle opening of the hand, without resistance or tension from one note (or finger) to the next.

Playing a chord is no more difficult or different than playing harmonic intervals from one note to the next.  It is the re-relaxation, the re-closure of the hand upon reaching the upper note of each ‘interval’ within the chord, that ensures that the opening up to the next note is just as relaxed, confident, and gentle as for reaching the previous note.  It is a simple, gentle, confident, pulsating, vibration or rhythm in the hand as a whole.

B.

A general objection to this entire process would be to say that

Rachmaninoff hoped that the pianist’s hands were wide enough to play the chords at the opening of the concerto so that all the notes of each chord begin simultaneously.  It simply doesn’t matter.  What is possible can be done, what is not possible needs to turned into something as close as possible to it that is doable, and in a way that doesn’t detract, but even adds, to the effect of sounds as they join together in each chord.  The proof that the procedure, though perhaps counterintuitive in nature, is working, is the glowing sound that results from the piano.

C.

Here is a condensed exercise that demonstrates in a more systematically arranged way the idea of the varying apertures in between the fingers.

We will use the right hand as an example.  Play the following sequences of five notes.  In each case use the fingers 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5.

#1

c  cs  d  ds  e   (mutual distance between succeeding notes is one half step)

now dilate the apertures between the fingers and play the sequence:

#2

c  d  e  fs  gs (the notes are now spaced by two half steps)

again, dilate the apertures between the fingers and play:

#3

c  ef  gf  a  c  (notes are spaced by three half steps).

next:

#4

c  e  gs  c  e (four half steps between notes)

Before going on notes separated by fourths, tritones and fifths, consider the possibility that the two adjacent fingers that are next to be used cannot physically separate as far from each other as the previous two fingers.  All that is necessary to do in such a case is to gradually separate the finger to the right from the finger currently on the left until the latter can no longer remain on the lower note without causing strain, stretching and stress in the finger muscles.  At that instant, very gently, the finger on the lower note simply floats off that note, which allows the next finger in turn to float onto its next note.

Bearing this in mind, then by maintaining constant ease and comfort, do any of the following:

#5

c  f  bf  ef  af  (5 half steps at a time)

#6

c  fs  c  fs  c   (6 half steps at a time)

#7

c  g  d  a  e     (7 half steps at a time)

In principle you can go on doing this the same way regardless of how many half steps separate the current note from the next note.**

The overall sensation in all these cases is one of a pleasant massage being given to the hand by the keyboard.  The principle is invariable and ubiquitously applicable.

* Even if the notes in the chord are very close together, there is an advantage to letting the hand expand to the right beyond the point which places the next finger on the next note, and at that point, instead of after playing the next note, let the hand contract again around the new note.  If, for example I am playing c4 then d4 with the right hand, with fingers 1 and 2, I keep the hand closed and relaxed while playing the c, then gradually let the hand breathe open until the second finger is any number of half steps above d4, and the allow the hand to reclose, which action results in the 2nd finger very effortlessly (with even less effort than if the 2nd finger started out next to the d4) playing the d4.

** A fun example along these lines is to play:

c  d  e  f  g    with  the fingers  1  2  3  4  5

but play each next note one octave plus one step higher than the previous one.  There is no question of it being doable by stretching the fingers apart from each other.  So why bother reaching apart at all.   Simply ‘transport’ the hand – as a whole – to the next octave range on the keyboard in order to continue your “major scale”.  Sometimes I will tell the student that their hand does not move at all while playing these notes, but rather some unseen force, behind the scenes, a helpful genie, slides the entire piano and its keyboard underneath the hand, leftwards by an octave, between when one finger is playing and the next finger is playing.  That way the next finger finds itself mysteriously in the next octave higher.  There is no difference then physically or subjectively between playing c3 d3 e3 f3 g3 and playing c3 d4 e5 f6 g7.

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Meddling with the Pedal

J told me today that she always eschews using the pedal. “It makes things sound more cacophonous and confusing”.  In particular she used the word “clangy” to describe to describe what the piano sounded like when the right pedal was depressed.  It simply wasn’t pleasant to her ear.  At best, J. wants to wait until she knows how the to play the piece very well and what it sounds like before adding any pedal at all.  In general I think that’s great  …. I could take a lesson from her on this subject.

I used the next portion of the lesson to describe other ways of using the pedal than she may have thought of, some or all of which would meet with her ear’s approval.

#1:

Putting it down for a single note – to make that note slightly more resonant, when sounding by itself, than without the pedal down.  I explained sympathetic vibrations to her.  I had her shout into the piano when the pedal was depressed and that the piano’s sound mimicked her voice.

#2:

That the effect of the pedal is mitigated by the tempo.  A slow tempo allows for more of the notes to subside before their longevity is extended by the pedal into the next notes.

#3:

Cases where we specifically want each new sound to blur into an  accumulating mass of previously begun sounds.  That there is a fine aesthetic balance between using the pedal to contradict and mar the previous sounds, and to simply update at the last moment the previous sounds.    And that doing the latter alters the subtle timbre of the sound, and causes that sound to be more at ‘evolving’ than getting lost in the shuffle of time.

#4:

Being aesthetically selective as to which specific notes react well to being united briefly by the pedal.   Even if you are playing a series of notes from a common chord, there are moments when one of those notes creates a good effect if held over into just the next note, and when it mars (spoils) the sound of the passage.

For instance the two first and lowest notes in a chord being held down with the pedal.   It is brief enough that the ear doesn’t immediately know why the sound was enriched at that very moment, without listening to it a second time from the beginning.   The pedal is gone by the third note.  This is useful when the pinkie plays a bass note in the left hand and then other notes are played also by the left hand but in the tenor or alto range (for instance the more familiar Chopin Nocturne in E-flat major).  If you choose to keep the pedal down during the first two of these notes, then it has the added benefit of prolonging the low bass tone – just long enough for its impression to linger even if it is not sustained throughout the rest of the figuration.  It adds to the identity, definition of the harmony.

Ultimately the number of notes through which you hold the pedal down varies more with the tempo of the piece and how many notes are played throughout the course of just beat.  The faster the tempo and/or the greater the number of notes sounding within a given duration, less time in general you should keep the pedal depressed.

#5:

A ‘forced’ or ‘coerced’ diminuendo.

Sometimes a held note does not decay or die away fast enough for the dramatic effect desired.

Using a “terraced” pedal effect, one can speed up, to any desired degree, the rate at which the note dies away.   While the note is decaying, at certain regular intervals of time, lift the pedal a bit but immediately quash it back down.   The more frequently one repeats this act during the full duration of the note, the more rapidly the note will die away.   Be careful just how little or far you lift the pedal, for it is very finely dependent on the mechanism of the pedal on your piano.

The extreme case is a very loud sound which is supposed to vanish almost entirely barely a moment after it is started.  For this effect, all that is necessary is to attack the chord without the pedal down, lift the hands suddenly off the keys, and a bare instant later push the pedal down.  At this point the dampers will not yet have completed stopped the sounds of the vibrating strings, and the little sound that is left will be caught by the pedal.  By varying the time unit between releasing the hands and depressing the pedal, from mere hundredths of second to tenths of a second you can achieve  everything from a fortissimo followed by a mezzo forte, to a fortissimo followed by a pianissimo.

#6:

To reveal notes that were sounding but could not be heard or singled out at the time.

This is achieved by releasing the pedal but keeping a chosen group of keys silently depressed.  Charles Ives uses this effect magically in the second movement of the “Concord” sonata.  A tumultuous and dissonant downward spiral of pitches is executed with the pedal held done.  The amalgam of sounds gets denser and denser and more and more cacophonous.   This accumulated cluster lingers for a few seconds, during which time the pianist silently depresses the keys forming a six-note open position F# major chord in the bass and tenor.

The pianist then lifts the pedal.  It takes a moment or two for the listener to realize that they are hearing the soft, steady resonance of the  F# major chord.

#7:

Half pedaling (my personal favorite), which is similar to number five.

This technique entails partially releasing the pedal, so that the entire sound is not cancelled out, and then pushing the pedal all the way back down again.    Some of the sound  persists as the pedal reaches bottom.   It is similar to the carpenter’s way of joining two pieces of wood creating a “tongue and groove”.  One piece of wood does not suddenly end and the other begin at the same place: their boundary is not a straight line.  There is a hidden or partial overlap.  This is especially useful for those who like the general sound of the piano with the pedal down, but restrict themselves because of the accumulating “clang” of the notes.  Again, how much you release the pedal is dependent of the unique mechanism of your pedal action.

#8:

Mimicking the pedal by holding down lower pitched notes without sounding them.

Sometimes a student will play a note and then release it, but is surprised that they still hear the note sounding.  I point out to the them that their left hand was inadvertently resting on some of the keys, either partially or completely depressing them, though without sounding any of them.

Holding a key down silently allows the string(s) for that pitch to vibrate.  It is exactly that same thing that the right pedal does.  In the latter case every damper is lifted off of every string, in the former a lesser but variable number of dampers are lifted from the strings.

Sometimes I will sit the piano to the student’s left and gradually, and silently, depress more and more adjacent notes.  The student is surprised to hear that what starts as a faint aura of lingering sound to their notes, gradually exactly gets closer to imitating the effect gotten by pushing the pedal down.

Another, more approximate way of reproducing the same effect,  similar to the “crescendo” pedal on the organ which at discreet moments allows more and then more pipes to be filled with air,  is to start pushing down the pedal, but just millimeters at a time.  In a well regulated piano all the dampers will begin lifting off the strings at exactly the same moment as the pedal, is depressed.  However, usually our piano has not been just regulated and pushing the pedal down slightly allows some of the strings to vibrate in sympathy.  The elasticity in some of the felt dampers may cling or linger on their strings.  Over the first few millimeters gradations of echo and resonance will be achieved until, at some point, probably nearer the ‘top’ of the pedal than the middle, all the strings will suddenly be able to vibrate in sympathy.

#9:

Exciting overtones.

Example: hold down, silently, the following notes: c3 g3 c4 e4 (c4 means middle C).  These strings are tuned approximately to the first through the fourth overtones of the note c2 (second C below middle C).  If, while holding these notes down, one plays c2 very loudly, suddenly and briefly, the other four notes will be heard sounding, especially after the low C goes away.   They will have been conjured into being as if by magic.

Request:

I am always looking for more odd ways to use the pedal.  If you know of one please share it on the site.

P.S.

A cousin to these techniques is used in Henry Cowell’s piece “the Aeolian harp”:

The pianist reaches into the piano and strums the strings back and forth in the middle range of the piano.  Most of the strings will barely sound, but certain strings will continue to vibrate after the hand passes them by – if the pianist, usually unseen by the audience, silently depresses first one group of keys then another.   These notes will resonate as a chord or cluster.

In the “Aeolian Harp” Cowell combines the above described technique with that of holding the pedal down while plucking, one by one, specific strings that belong to a common chord.

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Techniques in Opposition

E. and I were working on Variation 9 in the Brahms variations on a theme by Schumann (in F# Minor).  In this variation, at the beginning of each measure, the right hand has two sets of triplet sixteenths in the form of an ascending arpeggio.

We discussed two opposite ways of dealing with the evenness required of the arpeggio.

#1.

In method one, the hand makes no rotation, the wrist makes no lateral adjustment, the thumb does not even come under any of the other fingers.  The hand retains a constant spatial attitude and alignment. The only adaption necessary, which compensates for the other motions, is that the pianist ignore the moment when the thumb usually wants to begin its journey under the other fingers, and wait virtually up to the moment the next starts sounding before making any motion takes place at all.  This delay compresses a spring-like mechanism in the hand, which when it at last releases, causes the thumb to simply ‘show up’ on its next note in the next octave higher.

This worked every time.  However he said that it would be difficult for him to remember this procedure in each and every measure.  He found it counter intuitive.

Thus, at least temporarily,  I set aside method one, and switched to a method that was diametrically the opposite of the first as regards the motion of the thumb in time.

Not only would he pass thumb under the other fingers, but do so very slowly.  It exaggerated things in the opposite direction.  Thus, instead of one constant motion of the thumb rightwards, made in one brief span of time, I asked him to use a series of smaller motions of the thumb, one leading into the other.  At every moment of time when the thumb was in motion, I asked E. to keep track close of where the thumb was exactly in space relative to the keyboard.

The overall motion of the thumb is the fusion of the smaller motions.  Why go about it this way; it seems to make things more complicated?  If the motions are practiced very slowly, the pianist will become aware that the thumb does not naturally want to move at the same speed through each of the subdivided segments in space.  At different points along the thumb’s progress, different muscles will engage to different degrees, different leverages between the thumb and adjacent parts of the hand will become more or less activated.  Without this overall flexibilty in stages of the thumb’s progress, then the pianist will assume that whatever way the thumb begins to move should continue to the end of the motion.  Without the subtle changes through time and space, what starts as a fluency to the thumb’s motion at the beginning of the overall motion to its new note, can create, an instant later, through inertia, an abruptness or stiffness in the next  segment and moment of the motion.

The first method relied on the hand’s ability to move, as if instantaneously, from one discrete position in space to a second, and being in as stable and balanced a stance in the new octave as in the previous.  By making the  motion unconscious, the body will insure that whatever details there are within the motion, they will automatically occur.

The second method relied on a close examination of the natural propensities of the thumb when assuming different spatial arrangements relative to the second, third and fourth fingers.

In terms of the overall speed and fluency of the arpeggio, each may work as well as the other, or the pianist will discover that one works better than the other, or that sometimes one works better and sometimes the other.

On the one hand there is no consciousness of the motion of the thumb, in the other the the motion of the thumb is being ideally tailored to each subdivision of space.

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In the Flow of Time, the Effect Turns Into the Cause

How constantly do we need to be aware of what we are hearing while playing.

I find that I have a tendency for the following to occur when I am trying to pay attention to what I’m playing.  For instance if I am playing a string of four sixteenth notes, I seem to be able to pay close attention to how I connect note 1 to note 2 but then, without realizing it, I don’t become attentive again until I’m connecting note 3 to note 4.  It seems like my awareness, like my one of my nerves, needs a short period of rest before “firing” again.

If were speaking in the language of cause and effect it would be as if knew that note 1 acted like the cause of note 2, and I knew that note 3 was like the cause of note 4, but note 3 somehow passed by without having an intentional cause.  We are so used to thinking of things in groups of two that we missed making the connection between note 2 and note 3.  So the latter connection just sort of happened on its own.

Another way of putting this is that at times I fail to recognize that something can be, at the same moment, the effect of one cause, and the cause of the next effect.  In the magic solvent of time one note can change from being an effect to being a cause.

The note that has displaced the note immediately past itself becomes eclipsed by the next note in the next moment.  The  recent past has already gone, and the present is but a flicker of consciousness holding off the future.

I know that one may object to this and say that all the notes are already present because they are all there in front of us printed in the score.  But for the listener, who has things revealed to them one moment at a time, the next note is still partially or totally hidden in the future, although if we complacently wait a moment the  mystery of the future will subside into the common daylight of the present.

Music exists through time, almost by being time, in a way that no other art is able to do.  There is always something happening in space going in the other arts.  Music, however, is very close to being in identity with the nature of the flow of time itself.

The current note, itself the most unstable event in the ongoing flow of time, because it will not last, is yet the scene of an alchemical transformation of what has already just passed to what is just about to happen.

If we think that the next moment in time happens because the prior moment has happened, then the current note in the piece starts out its brief, but important life, as an effect of the past but undergoes a transformation under the performer’s hands into the cause of the next note which, very soon, will no longer to be in the future.   Each note links past and future through the ephemeral present.  It is through the artist’s consciousness this alchemy is made to happen.

How this applies to our attention while playing a series of notes:

As performing artists we cannot let our energy down even for an instant.  We cannot “take it easy” during any one of the notes that fly through the sudden illumination of the present.  Otherwise we let the state of our energy slump, as if the goal had been reached, and we do not have to think of anything further, at least not for a while, at least for a note?  If there really is any “resting on our laurels” for having caused the current note, it can only last for a quiver of time.

It is hard for us to catch in our consciousness that exact instant* when the current note ceases being the result of something and is now the cause of something else.  That moment is there, though, if we seek it. A flash in our awareness that the transformation is taking place.  A single note, like in the TV commercial is saying “do you hear me now, do you here me now”.

All which lives in time is bound to the advent of change.  Every outcome becomes an initialization, every goal becomes a starting point**.  A resting point becomes restless.***

* I recall from High School Chemistry about how an atom of one element, if unstable enough, can spontaneously change into an atom of the next element in the periodic table.  This happens because a neutron in the nucleus of the atom becomes a proton (plus an electron and a neutrino)***.  Since the proton count is the basis of labeling where an atom resides on the periodic table the new proton bumps the atom up to the next position on the periodic table.  What we do not know is when one particular atom will go through this process of “beta decay”, but we can detect it as it happens.

** This is a clumsy attempt on my part to diagram what is being talked about:

Less good diagram:

notes:        1         2          3           4  …

             cause   effect   cause   effect

Much better:

notes:       1          2           3          4 …

             cause   effect

                          cause   effect

                                       cause  effect ….

*** Perhaps it is like two hemispheres of a spinning top. The two halves may be colored differently, but ordinarily the top is spinning too fast for us to detect one color changing into another (but even in this case, is there not a chance that we see a color, the color that results from the merging of the other two colors).

 

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