Category: Technique

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.


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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The Technique of “Isolating” Variables

Isolating Variables.

Whenever a passage involves an intricate balance between two concerns, such as rhythm and pitch, pitch and fingering, etc., there is a method by which one of the two can be “held constant” while allowing only the other one to change.*

In the following examples we separate apart two intertwined issues, putting emphasis first on one and then the other, by holding the other one constant.  Each is mastered singly before putting them back together again.


If rhythm and pitch are changing at the same time:

Make all the pitches just one and the same pitch, and play that note in the rhythm of the passage.

or –

Play the sequence of pitches as written but do so in a “neutral” rhythm, (for instance giving each note the same duration).


If loudness and pitch are changing at the same time:

hold the loudness constant and let only the pitch vary.

or –

hold all the pitches to one repeating note, and only let the loudness vary.


If an intricate series of notes also requires a difficult pattern of fingering:

Play every note with one and the same finger.

or –

Stay on one note, but use the fingers in the order that they will need to be used when playing the passage in its normal form.

or –

‘bunch’ up the finger tips and use them as a single unit on just one note and play the rhythm of the passage.


If the two hands are doing things that are quite different from one another and, thus, hand coordination becomes an issue:

Have both hands play the right hand’s notes, but in two different octaves.  Then reverse the procedure, and have both hands lay the left hand’s notes in two different octaves.


If a melodic line involves sudden changes of register (octave).

Put all the notes of the melody into one and the same octave (a perfect example is Brahms: Op 117 No. 3, the middle section).


If it is difficult to play a melody in octaves in one hand. Use the pinkie to play just the pinkie notes.  Then use the thumb to play just the lower notes.


If there is a variety of articulation marks within a small group of notes.

Play it all very legato; then all very staccato; then all accented; then all sotto voce.

Then add back the articulation.  By this time you will be practiced in executing each type of articulation.


If it is difficult to play something slowly (or rapidly) enough:

Play it first at the opposite extreme of tempo.  This procedure is especially useful for learning to sustain a long phrase or melody, that evolves over many measures.  First play it extremely rapidly.

You will get a sense of the main outlines and directions in the phrase.  Then slow it back down, and you will notice that the way the notes adhered to each other in the fast tempo is preserved into the slower tempo.

Mention is also made of these types of procedures in the blog:

* In mathematics, when there are several different ‘variables’, all intermixing and interacting with each other in a single equation, mathematicians, in order to gain understanding of how the equation behaves as a whole, use a procedure in which they treat all of the variables except one as if they were no longer capable of varying but were held constant.  Then, one can go through each of the original variables in turn, each time making it, for the nonce, the only one varying.  This is called partial differentiation.


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3 Brief Blogs: Technical Situations That Seem the Same But Aren’t; Counting Out Loud; Sustaining a Dying Note

Three brief blogs:

#1 . Two similar technical situations – with an important difference.

#2.  Difficulties encountered counting out loud while playing.

#3. Rekindling a note (“geriatrics” for old notes


#1 . Two similar technical situations – with an important difference.

Two similar technical situations – with an important difference.

Sometimes what appears to be a single technical difficulty, in need of a single solution. resolves upon closer inspection to involve a rapidly succeeding series of moments in time, during which one and then another technical issue arises.  As if performing cognitive therapy upon ourselves, what had seemed an instant becomes filled with a number of separable events, one leading to the other, each one dependent on the one before.  We have to disentangle the chain of events before we can understand how we got from place A to place B.

Related to this is when what appears to be one technical issue preventing a certain spot in the music from sounding its best, turns out to be affected by several, often unrelated, technical issues.  In such a case they each needs to be addressed, before the passage as a whole works well.  Initially, the pianist may be aware of only one of the issues, and when the pianist solves this issue, they are surprised that passage has not sounded any better. The other technical issues that affect that spot, were hiding in the wings, and now come to the fore.  They all must be solved, even if they seem dissimilar to each other.  The passage will not be executed as the pianist wants until they have successfully identified and, in turn, solved all of the technical issues affect the sound of that passage.*

* This reminds me of the long process by which a mountain builds up from the floor the ocean, getting taller and taller over a prolonged period of time, but is not seen by the sailors until its top just appears over the water’s surface.  Everything leading to that moment is important even if it doesn’t get the credit it deserves.  It is always important to recognize your success as each step is accomplished while trying to sort through a tangled maze of issues.

#2  Difficulties counting out loud while playing.

Some students have a difficult time counting out loud while playing.  It is not hard to understand why.  The counting is done in one rhythm (all be it a simple one) but nonetheless a different rhythm than being executed by the figures.  So counting is actually a ‘duet’ between two drummers, all enacted by the same person within the same body.

Rachael was playing the slow movement of K 488 in A Major.  When she tried to count with her playing, her voice abandoned the counting-rhythm and followed the rhythm of the music, which is also to say the gestures of her body.  The result was sometimes the counts were made with succeeding eighth notes, sometimes with sixteenth notes, and sometimes with notes longer than an eighth.

We tried a bunch of things all of which were designed to take the initiative and the control away from her ear and body and place it, somewhat arbitrarily at first, into her voice.  So, often, the speed of her counting suddenly doubled or halved.

I played the first four measures.  She sat next to me, turned off all her musical instincts, and robotically counted 1 2 3 4 5 6.  This act was done impassively, as if daring me to throw her off course by my playing.  Then we switched roles.  I counted and she played.  It was successful, in large measure I think to the close proximity between trying it one way and then trying it the other way.  It became mostly about continuing a known experience.

I had her try to develop an alert ‘sense’ of when her counting might be going off.  And, if she noticed it happening, then we made the default reaction be to stop in her tracks and make no further sounds, no matter where she was in a phrase.  In so doing it required her to abort the inevitable forward flow of the music which was so instinct within her body.  We then found a neutral starting point that preceded the moment when her counting diverted from the music.

The next step was far harder.  We played together at the two pianos.

I played some of the orchestra part but mostly I played in unison with her.  This time, as soon as she noticed that we were out of step with each other, I kept on playing and she had to find some way get back in step with me.  Sounds simple; but it is not.  What made it possible for her was letting go of having to go on to the next notes following the moment she became aware of the problem.  Once her will was no longer committed to going on, she could assume a more reflective and listening posture, figure out where I was, and be able to skip the notes in between and start up again with me from the new location.

Often, when doing this together, the student will stop if they make a mistake, and attempt to play the note over again.  But that would have simply triggered the condition of our not being in step with one another, which in turn meant she should stop playing and figure out where I was now.  Sometimes she would know within an instant, sometimes it took more than a measure or two.  What was important wasn’t how long it took her to re-synchronize, but that her default reaction to being out of step be not to continue on any further (until she deduced her whereabouts).


#3. Rekindling a note (geriatrics for old notes)

If, when a long held note held and gradually loosing its loudness, you choose a specific moment somewhere between its start and its finish, and listen to it anew, a curious phenomenon happens.

Sometimes I think of conscious attention as having entered a dark room, unable at first to see any of the objects that are in it, and then turning a light on and seeing those objects for the first time.  We know that they were there all along, just minus the light, but the light is a necessary condition for our seeing them.   Extending the analogy, when we turn the ‘light of  consciousness’ on something it shines with a renewed brilliance.

If we apply this to listening to a long held note, updating our consciousness awareness that we are hearing the note, we seem to notice the sound having suddenly got a little louder; after which of course it continues to get softer.  It may indeed have been present up to this point in time, but suddenly instead of decaying further it comes back to life, it seems to shine a little louder than it did an instant before.  We have momentarily changed its course of getting softer.   It is similar to that when we blow on a dying flame, it gets momentarily brighter.

One may well object that the sound doesn’t really get louder, only appears so to us.  The listener does not hear the change, so of what use is it to the performer.  But how I hear the in my consciousness in turn effects how I connect that note to the next note, and how I do that is something that the listener does notice.  If I keep on doing it, the listener may turn to their companion in the concert hall and say “how marvelously that pianist connects her sounds, one to another; there is almost something magical about her sound – it doesn’t sound what I think a piano normally sounds like.”

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Playing Between the Opposites

Stylistic Balance.

A pendulum swings back and forth.  The period of the swing sometimes takes years, sometimes months, sometimes days, sometimes just seconds.

For instance: sometimes the pianist is more aware of the harmonies than the melodies, and on another occasion the other way around.  The teacher’s job is to keep the two in equilibrium.  It is an example of the “Goldilocks” principle: not too hot, not to cold, but just right.

We want to try to maintain, over a prolonged period of time, a balanced position in the middle between two extremes, just as a pendulum set into motion eventually comes to rest in a middle position.*

In talking about this, I like the use of the word “spectrum” because, in addition to the end points, which are the most easily identifiable points, it embraces every possible proportion of blending of the two.   While it is easiest to think in terms of the ends, in this melody and harmony, it is actually the middle positions that are most relevant for the pianist.

Here are some other examples of the idea of spectrum applied to piano playing:

playing too softly                 . . . .              playing too loudly

playing too slowly                . . . .             playing too fast

playing too legato                . . . .             playing too staccato

playing too mechanically    . . . .          playing too dramatically/emotionally

having too much variety     . . . .          playing with too little variety

having too many contrasts     . . . .    playing monolithically

If we wanted, we could add to this list.

It is the nature of thought and language that whenever we come up with one term to describe a person’s playing that there is usually also a term that would be its opposite.

First example:

I told my student Rachael that she was laying too much attention on melody at the expense of harmony.  She took the comment to heart and gradually changed her way of playing in this regard.   Two years later I told her: Rachael you are laying too much attention to the harmony at the expense of the melody.  She responded: “But! two years ago, in fact on October 1st (she has an eidetic memory) you told me I wasn’t laying enough stress on the harmonies.  Which is it?  Logically, they can’t be both true.  Aren’t you contradicting yourself?”

I said: “Is it possible that both statements are true if we take into account an additional reference point: time.  Time passes and things change.  Two years ago I had to exert a lot of force to pull you away from a sole preoccupation with melody, and in the direction of harmony.   Once enough energy is exerted by the teacher to dislodge the student from a frozen position on one end of a spectrum, movement can continue away from that end, pass the midpoint where harmony and melody are balanced, and continue until she finds herself stuck a second time, this time on the other end of the spectrum.

Switching to the analogy to a pendulum, the hope is that once the student “dislodged” from extreme position pendulum, the pendulum will swing back and forth until eventually settling down in a position of relative rest near the midway point between the pendulum’s two extreme positions: so that harmony and melody are in balance.

Staying in the middle is a difficult state to maintain when it comes to human behavior.  Time is the bringer of change.  You’ve continued to change until you find yourself in an extreme position again, only on the other end of the spectrum.   This is but one half of a cycle that repeats and repeats, over days, months or years, until finally settling down at a point of balance, which combines the virtues of both ends of the spectrum, of harmony and melody.*

Second example:

Here is another case for what, in this blog, I am alternately calling an example of a “spectrum” and an example of a “pendulum”.

The spectrum would represent all the positions between bringing out the likenesses between two similar passages, on the one hand, and the bringing out all differences between the two similar passages.  In terms of the pendulum analogy it is the swing between the maximum sameness and maximum difference between two passages that relative to each other have both similarities and differences.**

We can overemphasize the similarities in sound, we can overemphasize the differences in sound, or trying to find that golden mean where the listener is made aware by our playing of both the similarities and differences.   This golden mean between is most manifest in the works of the great composers, and it is incumbent on the pianist to make this apparent.

I asked Irving today at his lesson: “where would you locate yourself right now on this spectrum.  Are you more captivated by the subtle differences between things that are otherwise alike***, or are you more captivated by overlooking such differences and seeing the underlying similarities between things.  Each is equally important, so doing one does not automatically mean that you are attending to the other.”  “In my opinion, right now, at this time, this day and date, I feel that you are extremely focused on minute differences, more so than the qualities which act to unite all the passages and in the general the many different parts of the movement that are woven together into one cohesive whole.”

I wanted the left hand to always exhibit the same ineluctable motion in half steps despite the various melodies in parallel thirds that those eighth notes outlined one and another measure.  My solution was to play along with him in the bass on the same piano.  I played an unending series of eighth notes, like an ostinato****. all on the same pitch, starting with the tonic note in a low octave*****.   The overtones of this bass tone created the necessary “glue” to hold the voices together in the soloist’s two hands.  Another way of saying this is that the main strata of the piece were now enveloped in a larger, common sonic aura.  The voices in these strata could now move around more meaningfully in relation to each other in the shared sound-space.

A last comment on this second example.  Sometimes, only sometimes, and then only with the music of a great composer, you can strike up a “deal” with the composer and share responsibilities: “I will take care of all the samenesses if you can take care of the differences…after all I trust you completely to have chosen  the best pitches and rhythms.

* The pianist is a dynamic entity, rarely the same twice.  We are always traveling back and forth between one pole and the other.  We do not remain in a “golden mean” too long, but that we drift to one side or the other. Some students are very good at tracking their location from day to day, or month to month. Others need the application of an outside force in the form of the teacher.   The golden mean was Aristotle’s definition of morality.   For instance: not cowardice, and not rashness, but courage.

** This situation arises frequently when there is something in the recapitulation of a sonata-form movement that is like, yet not like something in the exposition.   Even in the extreme case where the notes are exactly the same in both places, there is still a subtle difference between something we heard once, and then being reminded of it, or calling something we have experienced in the past.  It is as if we have “grown” or “matured” through time, not through the years of our life, but in the extremely condensed maturation process of a single movement of a piece.  The result is that we can “look back” with at something that occurred “many, may minutes ago”, and see it (hear it) with a greater understanding and familiarity.

*** The piece was Bach’s Italian Concerto, second movement.


“In music, an ostinato [ostiˈnaːto] (derived from Italian: stubborn, compare English, from Latin: ‘obstinate’) is a motif or phrase that persistently repeats in the same musical voice, frequently in the same pitch.”

***** I changed the pitch of my ostinato sometimes to one that was more in concord with the passage he was playing, when it modulated, when it a spent a brief time a new harmonic region.  I could of also done this interaction at the second piano.   In that case I might have exaggerated the effect of what I was doing by playing not single notes appropriate chords in root position containing four notes Root-Fifth-Third-Root.  It would be a D-minor chord at the start of the piece, then later varying it with the piece’s modulatory ambitions.  At times I allow the upper two notes of the chord to articulate in a different rhythm than the ostinato rhythm, just enough to give a suggestion of the rhythm of the soloist’s right hand melody.

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