The “Spiral” of Fifths – An Alternative to the Circle of Fifths
The “Spiral” of Fifths – a “self similar fractal”:
If you start a new major scale on the fifth step of any current major scale, the new scale will have one more sharp than the previous scale. Sometimes this new sharp is in the form of a flat from the previous scale that has been “sharped” into a natural in the new scale.* Or a sharp from the previous scale that has been ‘sharped’ into a double sharp. The new sharp always appears om the seventh step of the new scale.
If you start a new major scale on the fourth step of a current major scale, the new scale will have on more flat than the previous scale. Sometimes this new flat is in the form of a natural in the previous scale which was been “flatted” into a flat in the new scale. Or a flat from the previous scale has been ‘flatted’ into a double flat.
These two processes (adding one sharp at a time or one flat at a time) can go on forever. If one keeps adding a sharp, the new scales will begin to contain double sharps, then triple sharps, etc.. If one keeps adding a flat, the new scales begin to have double flats, then triplet flats, etc..
The correct drawing of these two interlocked, and inverse procedures is not a circle of fifths (or fourths) but a spiral of fifths. Just as interestingly, there is no beginning or ending to this spiral. There is always another layer of the spiral outside the last layer currently displayed in any representation of this spiral, and so on indefinitely. Similarly, there is always another layer of the spiral compressed inside the smallest layer of the spiral currently displayed, and so on.
Most of us learned about key signatures using the diagram of the circle of fifths. Yet, a lot is left unanswered by this image. It does not explain, for instance why, when you got about half way through the circle sharps somewhat arbitrarily turn into flats. Why just then and not sooner or later in career of the circle?
Just as a C# means something different than a Db, and just as Cx means something different than D, theoretically there is nothing to prevent us from having a C-triplet-sharp which is different than a D# or Eb. We may never see a triple sharp throughout our playing lives but it exists as sure as ultraviolet and infrared extend the boundaries of the visible portion of the electromagnetic.**
In the spiral of fifths, if we are located at C Major, then the next seven positions (or “o’clocks”) on the spiral will bear the addition of one more sharp, until at 8 o’clock double sharps start to appear in the scale. And seven hours later than that “triple sharps” will start to appear, and so on every seven hours.
Similarly with flat. If we go in the other direction from C Major, the next seven keys bear the addition of one more flat, until at “4 o’clock’ double flats begin to appear, and so on every seven o’clocks further inwards around the spiral.
Advantages to the spiral shaped diagram:
We no longer have to treat as arbitrary the point when we switch from flats to sharps, or vice versa. We can also see the dynamic relationship of sharps and flats to each other, not as having two separate, essential identities, but both as being an expression of the same, single reciprocal principle of flatting and sharping.
If you draw a straight line from any key in the spiral inwards towards the center of the spiral, all the keys that lie along that line are all enharmonic equivalents of each other, moreover the letter of the alphabet in the name of the tonic progresses one letter at a time through the musical alphabet.
The letter “C” is always special:
C major has the distinction of being the only key consisting of only naturals and no sharps. C sharp major has the distinction of consisting of only sharps. C double sharp major has the distinction of consisting of only double sharps. C-triple sharp major consists only of triple sharps. Etc..
Going in the other direction: C flat major has the distinction of being the only key consisting of only flats. C double flat major has the distinction of being the only key consisting of only double flats. Etc..
* For instance, the key of F major stands to the key of C major as having “one more flat” than the later, the note B-Natural in the C Major Scale being flatted into a B-Flat in the F Major Scale. Going in the other direction, the “new” sharp in the C Major scale is the B-Natural on the seventh step, which had been, in the F Major scale, a B-Flat.
** A curious thing happens when we have ‘sharped’ C-natural twelve times, so that we now have C-dodectuple-sharp. We find that C is its own dodectuple sharp one perfect octave higher. In the same way we can ‘flat’ C-natural twelve times, and find that C is the dodectuple-flat of itself. And then the process could continue until we find ourselves beyond the range of frequencies covered by the piano keyboard, going past vintuple sharps or flats (or would it be vigintuple), then centuple, and so on indefinitely. For there is no lowest or highest frequency that a sound can have in theory. A frequency of a billion vibrations per second is just as possible theoretically as a frequency of one billionth of one vibration per second. Whether they are audible is another question. And at some point when we get down to the size of molecules of air, perhaps there is no higher frequencies physically possible (got to think that one through).
1: “in tune” or “out of tune”:
The tonally trained ear expects to hear things in a certain way, and clings to that way in spite of gradually mounting evidence that what they are hearing is not tonal but microtonal.
I’ve demonstrated this with a sound experiment in which a major triad (such as C-E-G) is gradually transformed into a minor triad (C-Eb-G) followed by a reverse direction. The root note and fifth remain constant; the third is gradually lowered over the course of a certain duration until it has fallen a half step, at which point the third starts rising in pitch, at the same rate as it the pitch was lowered, until it is back to its usual position as the third of a major triad.
In this particular experiment the third is lowered (and later raised) at the rate of one hundredth of a semi-tone (a “cent”) every third of a second.
For many people, no change is noticed for a while. Their ear continues to hear, or cling to hearing, a major triad – one albeit that is “out of tune” but still clearly intended to be a major triad. The ear does not accept that it is perceiving a microtonal tonal triad that is neither major nor minor. The microtonal change is considered an imperfection in the intonation. There is no recognition of the triad as being of a new aesthetic species – neither major or minor.
Then a sudden switch occurs. At a certain point in the migration downwards of the third of the triad, most interestingly a point that is closer to the eventual minor chord and further from the initial major chord, the sound, almost instantly, changes in the listener’s ear from being heard as an out of tune major triad to an out of tune minor triad.
This “inaccurate” minor triad persists until the third is close to its final value, at which point the sensation the minor chord at last is getting more and more “in tune”, until at the end it sounds very in tune.
The most interesting part of this sound experiment is that when the third starts traveling in the other direction, the location of the point where the ear ceases to hear the triad as an out of tune minor chord and flips over to hearing it as an out of tune major chord, does not occur at the same point as the similar position during the first phrase of the experiment. This change in perception now occurs when the triad is closer to the final major chord and further from the minor triad.
2. A self-similar “fractal” chord:
I’ve made many experiments in discovering types of microtonal chords that have a distinct effect that is aesthetically interesting.
My aim was to create a microtonal analogy to a ‘self similar’ fractal design. The results I got were extremely beautiful, and unlike in case number one, above, could not under any circumstances be heard as an ‘out of tune’ version of a more tonal chord.
I started with an arbitrary selection of a lowest and a highest pitch. I then inserting a medium pitch that had the effect of dividing the overall range into two parts that bore a certain ratio (in my first experiment this ratio in pitch was 2 : 3). I continued to divide up each of the smaller pitch intervals by the same ratio. What started as just two pitches, became successively, hree pitches, five pitches, nine pitches, seventeen pitches, etc..*
*In computing the frequencies of the microtones I started with the unit of the “cent” (one hundredth of a half step) and then converted each cents value to a frequency.
3. Overtone series:
When an ear perceives a single tone or pitch from an orchestral instrument or the voice, an analysis of the sound vibration shows that there are actually a ‘chord’ of different pitches executing separate vibrations. These additional tones are known as overtones. If one could separate one overtone from the rest we would hear a sound at a different pitch from the one the ear first perceives.
One of the properties of the overtones is that they are the most spread out in pitch near the ‘fundamental frequency’ (the pitch that the ear perceives) and clump closer and closer together as they continue upwards in pitch.
There is a piece by Stockhausen called “Stimmung”* which has a group of singers each singling one of the upper overtones of a constant fundamental frequency. A ‘range’ of overtones is chosen by the composer. The fundamental is never sung, but a consecutive group of overtones is used. A variable in this selection is what should the lowest pitched overtone in the overtone series that should be sounded and which is the highest pitched one, and how many overtones does that ‘interval’ contains.
In its application to microtonal music, such a group of overtones, can be used as a ‘scale’ of available pitches out of which the notes of the piece are formed. However, one property of a scale is that it repeats over and over, usually at the octave. We can make a series of overtones do this by taking just one octave of the overtone series and transposing its pitches up and down various numbers of octaves so as to form a continuous scale from bass to treble.
For most orchestral instruments the overtones are linear in frequency. The first overtone is twice the fundamental frequency, the second overtone is three times the fundamental frequency, etc.. But the more three dimensional the instrument is the more it deviates from this simple linear pattern. A bell, for instance, whose vibrating mechanism does not approximate a one dimensional line, has a different arrangement of overtones.
And if a four-dimensional creature were to suspend a four-dimensional bell from a string, and then set it into vibration, there would be an less linear overtone series. It does not matter that we cannot construct such an instrument, for mathematics enables to predict what the overtones would be, and they can be reproduced exactly on an electronic synthesizer that is set up for microtones. So we can form scales out of the overtone series for n-dimensional objects (where n goes beyond three).
Here is a list of sample possible constants for generating an ‘altered’ linear overtone series on a particular note:
In the following n is a whole number, and ff the fundamental frequency:
(pi) x (n) x (ff)
(e) x (n) x (ff)
Here are some other possibilities of generating a linear overtone series not based on multiplying the fundamental frequency by whole numbers.
2 to the 1/2 power
pi times e
sine of an angle
* There was work by Maurice Béjart’s modern ballet company which was set to the music of Stimmung which was sung on stage at Carnegie by the “Swingle Singers”. Each singer intoned the pitch corresponding to one of the linear overtones of a single fundamental pitch. So that the tones were not too widely separated pitch-wise, they used a part of the overtone series where there were approximately as many overtones within the scope of one octave as there are notes forming one octave of a more familiar scale. For instance the following numbered overtones, in the fourth octave about the fundamental, span an octave and divide that octave into 8 parts: 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15
4. Graphing a mathematical function:
There is an aesthetic fallacy in trying to find a means of translation between something spatial (as a graph) and something temporal (as music). However, if one is willing to experiment, one could try to derive the notes of microtonal chord from the y-values of some function f(x). Each next note in the chord would be f(x) for each whole number value of x. What would a parabola sound like? A hyperbola? A sine way? We don’t know until we ‘hear it’. We may stumble on a function whose sound as a chord is pleasing and unique aesthetically.
5. Expanding or compressing a tonal piece around a constant center of pitch:
This is more productive of interesting sounding tone groups. Bach Chorales lend themselves nicely to this procedure.
Take each chord, translate it into cents, and then either increase or decrease each pitch in the chord relative to some stable frequency that is either be one of the pitches of the original chord or a pitch that is chosen randomly but which remains throughout the chorale as the center of expansion and/or contraction. Or, another way would be to use the notes in one of the four voices as the “stable” pitch (even though it may change from beat to beat) and contract or expand the pitches of the other three voices relative to it.
For those of you who dabble in microtones would you let me know what methods you use or whether any of the methods described above have proven useful. Thanks, Joe
The Balance Between Hands
B.A.’s Lesson on 3/21/19
His piece: Mozart: Adagio In B Minor:
Sound and time:
Though you are playing the piece, there is no physical intent on the body’s part at any time. The piece just flows through time as if carried along by the inner pressure and necessity of time itself. No note that sound wants to ever stop sounding!* This is true of short and very short notes as well as long notes. Every note wants its day basking in the sunshine of listener awareness.
Balance of sound between the hands:
A.B. is concerned that his left hand isn’t dexterous (sic) enough to balance with what the right hand is doing. The only solution that he could think of was that he should practice the left hand alone until it is the way he wants it to be. But I felt that there is no way of knowing what the left hand should sound like until it is heard together with the right hand. The sounds of one hand color the contemporary sounds in the other hand. There is no way of observing how the left hand will sound in ensemble with the other hand, when it sounds alone.
The balance of sounds between the hands has its mechanical side. Imagine a point in space midway between the hands and on the keyboard. For the hands to sound balanced, everything having to do with one side of the body needs to be balanced with everything having to do with the other side of the body. The imaginary point midway is the balance point to regulate the two sides. Or you can think of it as the imaginary center of gravity of the two hands. Sometimes it helps to imagine that it is the point at the center of gravity, and not the separate actions of the hands, that is going up and down to produce the sounds, and when you do this the sounds will occur absolutely simultaneously and in balance. All this hands, without, or because of avoiding trying to do anything special to regulate one hand or the other.
Balance of sound within a single hand:
A.B. had to play an Alberti-like bass where the following notes are repeated in the left hand |: d3-fs3 a3 :|. I said you will never know how to balance the a3 with the other two notes until you have already heard the a3 sounding with the other two notes – before you first play the a3. This is “gestalt-ing” the chord (in this case d3-fs3-a3 or even a grander D major chord spread over many octaves). Though time fragments it, the whole is nonetheless always there; both in your hand and in your ear.
Control of the fingers comes from further up the arm (who controls whom):
There was one place where B.A, said, no matter how he tried, he couldn’t balance a certain two notes. They were a third apart, and were played together in the left hand. My solution was eclipse what the individual fingers were trying by putting the hand into a loose ball or fist. With the fingers thus neutralized in the presence of the entire hand, flex and un-flex the fingers, all ten at once. Now, at this point, without any other preparation or intent, play the third that is troubling you.
If the piano mechanism has a center in the torso and then has interconnected parts leading away from that center to a periphery at the fingertips, then the controller of each segment of that mechanism is the next segment closer to the center and further from the fingers. When things are not coming out how you want, seek further up the arm (forearm, then elbow, then upper arm, then shoulder…).
Fusing the arms together – putting them into another plane of action:
To demonstrate to him that control of one part of the mechanism often lies in another location, and in particular how this principle applied to the behavior and activity of the hands and fingers, I had him fold his arms in front of his chest (right hand to the left and left hand to the right). With the arms thus fused, and lying along a horizontal plane, take particular notice of the two elbows. Gently and weightlessly transport the elbows to the keyboard, with the help of the leaning over the piano. Now start moving the fused mass of the arms in a way that causes the elbows to push down random clusters if sounds on the piano. Then, without further thought, without planning anything that your fingers are going to do, play the current passage in the piece. The difference was striking. The piece moved in a stately and even flow, which manifested the very flow of time itself. Every note was subsumed in this inexorably moving flow that brought along with it every note – every note in its right place.
Fusing the arms together – so the hands act as one:
Another means to the same end, that of making the sounds cohere within the flow of time, is to have two hands move absolutely together as if fused, even if there is a separation in space between them. Have them play random notes that imitate the feel of the rhythmic coordination of the passage. “But what about rests in one hand”, he asked. There is no reason to stop the motion of the hands, though at one moment or another, one hand, though moving, does not produce a sound.
Where did your pinkie go?:
Sometimes your right pinkie, gets detached (figuratively speaking) from the rest of the hand and this causes it to play a note without good control over how it sounds. Try placing your pinkie silently on the note it is to play. Now see if, by using mostly the muscles in the pinkie, you can get your entire hand, and even your entire arm, to move around in space. This will help reestablish an equilibrium between the pinkie and the rest of the hand. And the entire hand will control how the pinkie makes it sounds.
The persistence of a chord:
Sometimes a chord (or even just a single note of a chord), that sounds at the beginning of a measure, wants to persist through the entire measure as if that measure was nothing more than a comment upon the existence and persistence of that chord.
* Unamuno, the Spanish writer and philosopher, in his book “The Tragic Sense of Life” refers to a passage in Spinoza in which the latter says something to this effect: every being, in that it is a being, strives to persist in its own being. And that this is the essence of that being (to persist as such through time).
Six short blogs about Beethoven’s “Andante Favori” in F Major
#1. Key Signatures
Some advanced students have trouble changing from one key signature to another, even when they are finished playing one piece and are starting to play another. The previous sharps and/or flats in the previous piece’s key signature “bleed over”, or persist into the next piece. For this type of student it is not enough to suggest that they practice scales and get to know key signatures. One has to reach back further in time to re-build conscious awareness of keys. Using just one hand, and just one finger from the hand, have the student play, very slowly, one octave’s worth of a scale. As each note is played the student should say out loud the name of the note being played. This has less to do with teaching the hand what notes are in the scale and was more about raising to a high state of conscious awareness the “name” of each note.
Only two preliminaries were required to begin this procedure for the major scales in particular:
review of: whole-whle-half-whole-whole-whole-half
the “law of the alphabet”: that each letter in the musical alphabet must show up once in the scale. The letters should appear, in order and without any omission or doubling.
#2. The use of “Least Common Denominators” to gain control of rhythmic details.
Counting “beats” out loud is often as difficult as it is unhelpful to straightening out rhythm details. It is better to “count” the passage of one of the shorter rhythmic values. J.M. is having difficulty counting the rhythm: dotted sixteenth – thirty second – eighth – eighth. This appears at the beginning of the Beethoven Andante Favori. Instead of using a counting-ruler that was marked in eighth notes we used a ruler marked in thirty-second notes, four of which equaled one of the eighth notes.
J.M was not used to counting out loud. She would encounter these obstacles. 1) She couldn’t coordinate doing two things at once, playing a rhythm, and saying a counting. Even getting the voice to begin speaking while the fingers were playing was difficult. One took attention away from the other and both would suffer. 2) when she did have her voice and her fingers activated together, the voice tended to follow any inaccuracy in her fingers’ playing of the rhythm. The fingers were leading the mouth, so to speak. For counting out loud to work, the voice must take a higher priority than the fingers, so much so that eventually the sounds themselves appeared merely as shadows of what the voice was doing.* They were entirely under dictates of the voice**. 3). Understanding that what we were counting was not ‘counts’ (I.E. beats), that we were actually counting repeating groups of four thirty-second notes. That we chose thirty-second notes because 1/32 is the least common denominator if one wants to add together 1/2-s, 1/4-s, 1/8-s, 1/16-s, 1/32-s, and dotted versions of all but the last.***
* I said to J.M.: The louder you say the numbers out loud the better the fingers will cease trying to dictate things to the body and the more the voice takes control so that the notes arrive with the counts. Also the louder you count out loud the more likely you will notice if there is any unevenness in the way your voice is counting.
** To form a bridge or meeting place between never having counted while playing and doing so competently, as she played the opening notes of the piece I played the notes of the melody an octave higher but I repeated the same note as 2 or more thirty-second notes when the note in the melody was a sixteenth or longer. As I did this I was using my voice to encourage her voice by my counting the thirty seconds out loud (1 2 3 4). By relying on following both the notes I was playing and saying the counts I was saying, she broke through the barrier of merging counting and playing.****
*** Funny thing about me and least common denominators. In grade school I used to think that the phrase least common denominator, meant least-common denominator, and not least common-denominator. For instance 1/4s seemed to have too much in common with 1/2s to be the least common denominator for the two of them. Perhaps something less common, like a 1/16th or a 1/32nd. I used the term correctly but always with a bit of puzzlement in my mind.
**** I noticed that I changed the inflection of my voice depending on whether she was holding an eighth note, or playing a dotted sixteenth and a thirty second. In the first case my word ‘one’ was the loudest syllable, and the other three drifted off quieter (though still promptly on time). Sort of like as if I were taking the 2 3 4 for granted. In the second case, after putting a certain emphasis on the word ‘one’, I made a crescendo in my voice through the words ‘two’ and ‘three’ as if handing to her, or pointing the way to the word ‘four’.
#3. A tricky rhythm in measure 47.
This is a place where the right hand basically enunciates a scale, two notes a time, each a thirty-second there are the places in the piece where the right hand enunciates a scale, two notes a time, each a thirty-second, but also pauses for two-thirty seconds in between the end of one two note group and the beginning of the next.
I said that many pianists had difficulty with enunciating this correctly (as do certain orchestra conductors in similar sections of works like the slow movement of Mozart’s 40th Symphony in G Minor.
Why is it difficult? Because when we play two consecutive notes of a scale rapidly, followed by no further note, the first one tends to act like a grace note to the second, with the result that the second gains an emphasis defined the former. But this is rhythmically incorrect. It is not the second which should be emphasized. If anything it is the first note with the second tapering off form it.
#4. A scale like passage in parallel thirds in measure 43.
Rather than getting lost in how to finger such a passage, it is best if the entire arm moves, as a single unit, over and over again regardless of which notes are played and which fingers are used. As for how to activate the arm to make this identically repeating gesture, I suggest feeling as if the arm is being moved by an external force applied at a particular spot along the forearm.
I demonstrated that this was possible by my moving her entire in repeated groups of four each time by my applying force from a different location along the arm. I showed her that I could make her entire arm move by moving just one of her fingers through space. I did something similar with the wrist, the forearm, the elbow. I even did it with the upper arm, but the result was clumsier (the “tail wags the dog”).
The actual activation point we chose was for the purpose of playing even thirds was underneath of the ridge of the wrist. I had her create even, soft, random note-clusters with the heel of her wrist. Then I asked her to switch to articulating the thirds but to feel, as it was happening, that she was activating the entire arm as a unit, and always from the underneath surface of the wrist.
To help her along, I lay my second finger, lengthwise, underneath the span of the ridge of her wrist. I then asked her to repeatedly push down on my finger with the arm, while all the while I offered resistance to her pushes.
#5. A scale like passage in parallel thirds in measure 43.
Rather than getting lost in how to finger such a passage, it is best if the entire arm moves, as a single unit, over and over again regardless of which notes are played and which fingers are used. As for how to activate the arm to make this identically repeating gesture, I suggest feeling as if the arm is being moved by an external force applied at a particular spot along the forearm.
I demonstrated that this was possible by my moving her entire arm in repeated groups, and switching where I was applying my force from group to another. I showed her that I could make her entire arm move by moving just one of her fingers through space. I did something similar with the wrist, the forearm, the elbow. I even did it with the upper arm, but the result was clumsier (the “tail wagging the dog”).
The actual activation point we chose was for the purpose of playing even thirds. This spot was ridge of her wrist. I had her create even, soft, random note-clusters with the heel of her wrist. Then I asked her to switch to articulating the thirds but to feel, as it was happening, that she was activating the entire arm as a unit, and always from the underneath surface of the wrist.
To help this along, I lay my second finger, lengthwise, underneath the span of the ridge of her wrist. I then asked her to repeatedly push down on my finger with the arm, while all the while I offered resistance to her pushes.
#6. In measure 41, a note held in one voice is interrupted, mid stream, by the same note sounding in a second voice.
Here is a brief example of when one voice of several moves onto the same note that is already being held by another voice. It occurs one sixteenth note into the measure. The middle voice has an eighth note g4 on beat one. One sixteenth note into that beat, the bottom voice sounds the same g4 for one thirty-second note. The issue, with all such situations, is how to allow the two voices to stay sonically independent of one another.
This is the series of steps through time required to keep the voices separate.
Step 1: start the eighth note g4 in the right hand.
Step 2: immediately before it is time for the left hand to play the same g4, the right hand partially or completely lifts the g4 key, so that, an instant later…
Step 3: the left hand can begin the thirty-second note g4.
Step 4: during the duration of this thirty-second note, the right hand silently takes over for the left hand on the g4.
Step 5: after the thirty second note has passed, the right hand goes on holding down the g4 key till the end of the eighth note.
#5. measure 141 for example: a rapid melody in octaves in one hand, in particular a smaller hand.
Because of her small hand, I suggested to J.M. that regardless of how brief each octave is, she not hold onto it its full duration but release before her hand had an opportunity to seize-up, or tried to maintain hold of the octaves by a gripping action.
As a preliminary exercise I asked her to flex the joints in her pinkie and her thumb that are not usually actively flexed when playing octaves. Just hold out her right hand in front of her, and slowly flex, back and forth, the first knuckle of the pinkie and the first knuckle of the thumb. Feel like those fingers are growing in length, and have become like fronds of a sea plant that are being stirred by gentle currents in the water. Then, when playing the passage, try not to loose the feeling that these joints are actively flexing while one octave is being held – even if they are not so doing. This virtual flexion in the first knuckles is not to be used to push the two keys down to sound the octave, but should occur independently of when and how we activate the keys.
The Connection and Disconnection of Notes
I’ve had an idea lately that it would be nice to do a lesson and then post a blog post about it right afterwards. I think this will gain in spontaneity and insight, despite what it might loose from lack of editing and proofreading.
A.B. Was playing WTC I C f (which is my short hand for Well Tempered Klavier, Book One, C Major (C is uppercase), the fugue and not the prelude (f).
This is a new piece. The first thing he said, was how hard it was to read a fugue. It poked at his sore spots as a reader and a player. I said, forget all of that. Play the chord on the first beat of this measure, and ask yourself what it is the most natural and comfortable of playing it. By starting there, it is as if you were starting the piece, just from a different measure than measure one. So your hand had no allegiance to what it may have done a moment earlier if it had played the last part of the previous measure.
Now, before you go on any further, DON’T TRY connect the present arrangement of the fingers in the hand with the next one. Playing Bach clearly is not a matter of figuring out a fingering, or getting used to making certain connections in the hands and fingers. One never goes from “here” to “there”. All there is are “here-s”. Each one is undiscovered until right now. It is always as if you are playing the piece for the first time.
With each new note, or if not that frequently then at least with every new eighth note’s worth of the piece, pause and ask yourself “what is the most natural and comfortable of playing these notes”, especially if the hand need no longer “remember” where it was a moment earlier.
Playing through the piece is discovering, as if for the first time, a new position for every moment’s new notes. In doing it this way you enter into the joy and spontaneity of the fugue; the experience is wonderful, and in no way a chore.
A.B.: So what do I do the next time I play this spot, wouldn’t it help if I gradually got to know, through repetition, where my hands go next? Me (waxing poetic and philosophical): No, the only thing you have to remember is to forget. A.B.: But doesn’t that sometimes mean I get further and further into trouble with my fingers and dig myself into a hole from which I cannot get out. J.B.: There is a simple solution to this. When you are least sure where to go next with your hands and fingers, when you feel you’ve gotten stuck in the mud and don’t where to go, that is the time to take your hands off the keyboard. Remove the hands from the piano, even if briefly. Start with a new slate, for by removing you hands from the keys, you have let go of the immediate past, you can discover, as if for the first time, the most natural and comfortable position for the two hands together on the next notes. So, if you never know where you are going to get into fingering problems, remove your hands from the piano.
He tried it. It was a fine sounding connection. He said: but if I remove my hands from the piano there will be a break in the sound continuity, things will not sound connected. I said: then how comes what you just did, which involved letting go of the keyboard and removing the hands from the keys, ended up sounding more flowing and more connected than I have heard it before? By removing the hand, you have no choice but to find a new position, a new and most comfortable position, for the next notes.
Be careful, I said, of sixteenth notes (or eighths) in one voice that are moving in steps. That can lead you down a perilous path. You will stop looking for a new hand position for each sixteenth, until the fingers get caught in the keyboard and get bogged down because you have “run out of fingers”. No, you never run out of fingers, there are always five new fingers in the hand for each new note.
When I say “find the most comfortable position” I mean one in which no finger ‘remembers’ where it was a moment earlier. Nothing about its position in the hand is biased or coerced.
To save time in writing, I am using the convention of having:
|: Ernie is the name of my cat 😐
To mean that I have gotten trapped in an endless loop and am saying the same thing over and over. And in such a way as if I never had said it before, but rather someone recorded me, quickly hit stop, rewind, and play. The idea is that it becomes a spoken “mantra” whose efficacy is in its being repeated, until the mind’s state becomes transcendental, a state in which one does not connect things physically SO THAT they can connect sound-wise (sorry I’m sounding a little to “new age” for a cynical Jew from Brooklyn).
If you are a draughtsman, and you use the same writing implement over and over again during an hour of work, do you always consciously try to pick it up in the same way as before. Do you have to think of its position before taking it into your hand. No, it only becomes natural to do if you allow the body to learn unconsciously, so that the 100th time you take the pencil in your hand, it is consciously just as unplanned and spontaneous as the first time. From the conscious point of view (and not for the unconscious, which is busy learning and practicing) you are always finding something ‘new’ (not ‘old’) and finding it for the ‘first time ever’.
All of this started falling into place when I physically caused A.B. to remove his hands from the piano after each current sound. When he resumed, the next sound and all the newness of freshness of the morn: is it ever really the same sun that rises the next day (Thoreau says something about this in “Walden”. Every hand position is “discovered” spontaneously. So I sometimes started using the repeating mantra |: every position is new and discovered spontaneously :|. or just, |: find a new position 😐
Don’t be afraid to let go, for that is the only true way for the body to find what’s next. It is the opposite strategy that common sense tells us to follow. Consciously you forget it even happened before. You think you can’t do this “A”, but you can. You just need to keep an experimental mind, and prove it to yourself over and over with the freshness of every new sound.
And, by the way, when you find the ‘new position’ it always for both hands together, never for just one hand or the other. Let the body, let the ear, always synthesize together every new sound in the piece. And the listener has no desire to complicate the wholeness of the musical experience by knowing which part of what they hear came from your left hand or your right hand.
After a while, all I was saying to him was “let go” … “let go” … “find the new position”, “find a new position”. There was one moment I could tell that he was trying to figure out the best fingering for a series of consecutive notes. I said: that was not a new position, it was a ‘trying to get there from the old position to the new’. There is never a ‘there’ to which to get, everything is a ‘here’.
A.B. said, how can I have a totally new position in my hands when I am required to hold over one of the notes (holding down a note in one voice while the notes in the other voices change). I said: I agree that you have some issues with what I might call, by analogy, if it were spatial more than of time, “negative space” (E.G. is it two profiles or is it a vase). A held note is not due to a finger that holds tightly to its position on the keyboard. It is do to a new position that that finger assumes every time another voice voices to a different note. The fact that the finger remains on the same key is secondary and incidental from a physical point of view. There is no difference between writing a half note, in a score, and writing the same note as four eighth notes, each tied to the next.
Negative space also involves things like, the action of when to release a note in a voice after the finger playing has gotten inured to holding it down when it has been held for a while. Another example are rests, in general in a particular voice, which must be incorporated into the “sound” continuity of the piece.
So, abandon any noble effort by the left or right hand to connect the notes in the fingers. Don’t do that! Let it go.
I would love feedback regarding the usefulness of this type of blog entry. It probably suffered from repetitiveness but it did not loose my original excitement about discovering these things, and in keeping pace while writing how things evolved through time during the hour of the lesson. Thanks for reading.