“Dissociation” as a virtue
Practice notes for 11/23/21
I am saying this mantra over and over each time I play a key. It refers to the intentionality, or i should say lack of intentionality, of the motion of the fingers on the way to the keys.
Mantra: |: “it comes out of nowhere” :|.
The “repeat” bars mean that I say it over again for each finger in a melody, or in a chord or interval.
It comes out of nowhere and all it leaves behind is a sound.
Unlike the “strong” force in physics, which gets stronger the closer one particle gets to another in the nucleus, the conscious ‘intention’ on the part of the finger to end up on a given note, gets less and less as it gets closer and closer to the key surface, and does so preferably not in a linear fashion (so that there is a proposed final velocity as the finger and the key make contact) but exponentially, asymptotically, as if the finger and body are more and more loosing intention to play the key. Contact arises out of nowhere and for no reason at all, and thus there is a maximum reduction in stiffness and tension at the end causing the sound to ‘open up’ and the technique to become more fluid.
There is less and less direction and intention in the finger as it approaches the note. The finger loosens up, it drifts off at the last moments. All the other joints and muscles have simultaneously lost intention, althought the fingers are the most important in this regard. at the very last instant the finger tips seem to be going in tiny circles horizontally to the keyboard creating a probability cloud as to where on the key it will make final contact, the latter event being the least important in the process.
Is there then zero intention in the body. Not really. It’s just that any conscious degree of intention is magnitudes too much intention.
As we continue to play, there is no intentional movement designed to get the ‘next’ finger to its note, no matter what the distance is on the keyboard to that note, and regardless of where that note is situated left or right of the current note. This last part is hard, since we must loose intention at the very moment where it would seem the most important. And loose it more and more in the last fractions of a second before the sound.
Intention lies in the muscles, and even when we first reduce it, it still remains in the body, where it must be discovered and dealt with. And if it does sufficiently diminish in one part of the body, some other part of the body responds (“comes to the rescue”) by stiffening to make up the difference in ‘loss’ of tension.
Losing a specific path or direction to the key does not imply substituting in another direction or path of approach in its place.
Notes on the Thumbs
The thumb has always been my bete noire. Always a problem to me. Short, stumpy, ‘unworthy’ to join in with the other fingers, as in scales and chords. I’ve spent many years trying to come up with one solution after another to cope with the shortness of my thumb, “short” of, that is, putting my thumb on a rack and stretching it.
Here is what I have come up with today in the next chapter of my ongoing question to tame the thumbs.
I started the day with Brahms’ Second Piano Sonata, Op 2. An incredible masterpiece in its own individualisitic way. A lot of momentary glimpses of the later Brahms that don’t resurface until quite while later in his opus.
It all began with the double octaves in the first movement (four notes at once).
I suddenly got the idea, more of an inner, physical urge on my body’s part, that I should let the part of my thumb that lay in between the its second knuckle and its third knuckle, along within the surrounding mound of flesh that is adjacent to it in the palm, “leak” … “ooze” … “flow”, in an amorphous way, en masse, in the general direction away from where the pinkie lay in the hand, and towards the key that the it was about to play in the octave. In other words the thumbs did not start positioned on their target notes in the octaves, but were in the ‘process’ of expanding away from the pinkies, only secondarily happening to reach the key in the octave. I wanted the thumb to ooze onto the note it was to play in the octave. It wasn’t the specific key or destination of the thumb’s motion that interested me, it was feeling, within that area of my hand, that it was in a continuous
process of being capable of oozing, extending itself, away from the pinkie. Perhaps like the pseudopod of an amoeba: still part of the amoeba as a whole and yet somehow not a part of it. I liked what happened. The thumb came alive, felt like it had a more vital role to play in the octave including its sound.
Next, I started extrapolating from double octaves to more general situations on the keyboard.
Even if it is not the thumb being asked to play a next note in the score, thus fleshy part of the thumb-mound in the palm can start moving, arbitrarily, sideways, away from the rest of the hand.
It even seemed to help if what I wanted to do was open one hand as whole; to bring the pinkie of that hand further away from the thumb, through the motion the thumb and its mound of flesh, in the same hand, moving in the opposite direction than the pinkie, trying to leave the pinkie behind.
This was useful if timed to the very time the pinkie was being asked to play a note.
This ‘motivating’ dynamic and impetus to motion, worked just as effectively on behalf of the pinkie of the opposite hand than the one whose thumb-area was in motion.
One thumb can help the other thumb by oozing and spreading over the surface of the keyboard away from the pinky in the same hand. This can occur in the helping hand even at moments when the helping hand is itself busy sounding notes.
Again. If I’m doing a trill with, say, the second and third finger in one hand, both hands should feel their thumbs oozing towards each other while spreading away from their respective pinkies.
In general, my thumb had been too sessile. I wanted to give it a general role role that would infleunce what was going on in both hands and all the fingers. I wanted the thumb to always be exploring the territory adjacent to where the rest of the hand was currently situated on the keyboard (and always in the opposite direction to where the pinkie in that hand was).
As a consequence of this sideways motion of the thumb-mound in the palm the hand, as a whole, tends situate itself closer in altitude to the surface of the keyboard. The fingers don’t curve as much. I’m not sure yet whether this a plus or a minus in general to the flexibility of the hand.
More miscellaneous thumb actions.
#1. Brahms Handel Variations: Number 3 : beginning:
When i go to play the first note, c5, which will be pushed down by the right pinkie, that can definitely be accompanied by, or actually become part of, what happens to the hand if the thumb area oozes leftwards away from the pinkie. As if the latter is the motion that would cause the production of the sound of the c5.
Let us say that we are playing a descending scale in the right hand.
Many years ago, when learning Mozart K. 488, I discovered that I could smooth-out a run or a scale in the right hand by keeping pace with the notes by repeatedly flexing the fourth finger of the left hand. Today I realized I could do an analogous motion with the thumb of the left hand. In the midst of this process the left thumb can migrate over to the thumb side of the right hand at the moment that the right thumb is playing a note of the scale, and add its action to that of the right thumb so that they are both involved in pushing the note down, after which the left hand can migrate away from the right hand again until the right thumb is due to play its next note in the scale, and repeat the process.
An extension of this idea is, if the left hand is free, it can tag along near the left side of the right hand, as the latter pursues its way down the scale, as if the left thumb would play every note for every finger in the right hand.
#3. All the fingers can ‘ooze’ away from each from all the others:
A carry over from today’s nexus is that: as the thumbs ‘oozed’ and got further and further away from the pinkies, it meant secondarily that I was adding more space between the pinkie and the thumb. This was a side effect, though, rather than the original intent which had to do with the fluidity of the thumb. But now, an hour after I started practicing, what i’m trying to do is to get any two fingers, wherever they are located in the same or two hands, whether they lie adjacent within one hand, when they are currently being used to play two consecutive notes, feel ‘that’ degree of remoteness in space, as the pinkie and the thumb felt.
This reminds me of a meditative blog entry I wrote a number of years ago about how a pianist might relax the hands and fingers. In particular of the final stage in the process.
What follows is a reprint of that blog entry.
[begin insert of earlier blog]
“We begin by sitting in a relaxed state, hands on the knees, palms facing upwards (but without any rotational strain). Curl the fingers slightly as a way of letting go of some of the residual tension in the fingers.
Close the eyes. Sit calmly for several moments and then direct your inner attention to the presence of your fingers. Try not to have an image in your mind’s eye of the fingers and how they attach to the hands. Try to experience the fingers from ‘inside’ themselves.
When you are comfortable with this sensation, make a sudden shift of attention away from the fingers and ‘into’ the spaces between the fingers.
Over the next couple of minutes keep the awareness focused on the spaces between the fingers as against awareness of the fingers themselves. It is as if we lent consciousness to those spaces rather than to the fingers. For some it might help to borrow an analogy from the artistic term ‘negative space’: the unplanned and un-sought-for shape of space between two intentionally shaped objects.
There is nothing to do during these next few minutes except to stay aware of the empty spaces between the fingers. There are certain sensations that are apt to occur naturally as you remain focused on these inter-digital spaces. Without purposefully seeking this sensation, you may feel as if the fingers rather than being immobile are, of their own accord, separating further and further from each other; moving further and further into the spaces between the fingers.
We have shut the eyes, there is no visual perception to remind us that there is a quantifiable limit to how far two fingers can move from each other. We can turn off our proprioception – the ability to sense, even when our eyes are closed, the relative position of different parts of our body in one homogenous space.
One might term what we are doing here as self hypnosis or deep meditation. This may well be.
At some point, due to cessation of proprioception, we may forget what the fingers are attached to anatomically. We may be aware of our fingers, and/or be aware of our hand, but be without any geometric sense of how far apart they may be. The fingers, no longer necessarily attached to anything else, may feel as if they are islands unto themselves. Un-tethered from the spatial necessity of being attached to the hands, they may start feeling like they are floating free in space.
We no longer know how far apart they are from each other. It can as easily true that they are inches apart or feet apart. My right thumb seems to have drifted so far away from my mind that it has exited the room and is now situated outside in my garden.
Both by being without visual images and by stilling the sensations of proprioception, there is nothing to prevent us any longer from sensing
that our fingers are always in the process of moving further and further apart from each other, flowing into an inexhaustible, internally sensed space, and that there is no limit to this process in time or in space.
Throughout this all, the fingers continue to feel as if they are drifting apart from each other.
Three steps remain.
When I am ready, and not before, I open my eyes, but stay focused on the sensation I had when they were closed. I am no longer a prisoner of my eyes ‘view’ of space. My fingers still are still receding from each other in an internally perceived space. If this is not possible yet with the eyes open, close the eyes and try again in a minute to open them.
Like a puppet being manipulated by an unseen puppeteer, my hands rise upwards until they are about at the same level as the piano keyboard. They may even be resting on the keyboard – but without any of the train of sensations that we immediately experience as pianist for being near the keyboard. I am still feeling the sensations of a minute or two ago, uninterrupted, despite my eyes being open, despite my hands being close to an object shaped like a piano keyboard.
I start playing. There is no change to the inner state of my hands and fingers. No action that I perform by playing the notes has the power to distract me from the continuance of this sensation.
With most students, especially more advanced students (I.E. those more inured to the physical states of playing) there is a striking difference in the sound they produce, the ease of flow of the sounds through time, and a general sense of astonishment on their part at how easy, how effortless, creating the piece has become.”
[end insert of earlier blog]
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Quick notes on left hand jumps in Scarlatti Sonatas
S.E.’s lesson 10/30/21:
1. Extreme lightness of the arm. Aim for there being no difference between remaining still with the arm and travelling horizontally with the arm.
2. Make sure the hand is balanced around the finger that plays each note.
3. Travel faster with the arm so you get to the vicinity of the note sooner and have a fraction of second to check the alignment of the finger with the key.
4. Feel the left pinkie extend through the ligaments ? from third knuckle to wrist and use the entire length of the newly “elongated” pinkie.
5. Braille. We’ll use F-Natural as an example. If you are jumping up to an ‘F’ you can feel for the left side of the F-Sharp key as a barrier, or backboard from which to ricochet onto the F.
If you are going down to an F ‘almost’ feel the clump of three black note as an indication of where to find the final destination lying to its side.
6. “It’s just (for example) an F going to an F: the common experience of an octave (even a unison). You go to look for the other F in what seems like a different, somewhat distant neighboring village. But like Alice you haven’t gone anywhere at all. The surroundings, the houses and topology, are exactly the same as in the first town. Did you actually move at all?
If both notes are not both F’s it’s still “just” a C (E.G.) going to an F. Like any C going to any F. It’s just a fourth. No matter what direction you are going in.
7. If you are playing for example (in the left hand) f2 f4 c2 f4. On the way to the c2, stop by the f2 (your hand still remembers where the f2 is from a moment earlier, and then travel the additional fourth to c2.
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The fluctuation in the distance between the fingers
Since in general, when I’m playing, the average distance between adjacent fingers is fluctuating in response to the distance between the pitches on the keyboard to be played consecutively or the same time, I want to keep that ‘valve’ relaxed that controls how far apart any two fingers are. For me, I experience the sensation of this valve in action at the point, or vertex, between two fingers where they join with hand near the third knuckles. The changes that occur in the distances between the fingers must be accomplished in a state of total relaxation, so that there is no resistance to the change occurring.
This is in effect an extension of what I’ve referred to as my ‘original meditation idea’*. Only it’s no longer achieved with the eyes closed and the hands upside down on the lap. Rather it is occurring while the hand is hovering over the notes. Certain fingers grow closer, certain move apart from each other. As one pair of fingers grows closer another pair may be required to move further apart (and vice versa) by the internal structure of the hand.
* brief summary of meditation. Hands, palm up, resting on the lap. Bring your awareness to the presence of the individual fingers. Then, in a major shift of awareness, switch to an awareness of the ‘spaces’ between the fingers. Spend the next few minutes focused on these spaces. During this time you may or may not experience the sensation that the fingers are floating apart from each other. This feeling will occur naturally even if there is no externally measurable increase in the distance between the fingers. We don’t want to disturb this feeling by opening the eyes and looking at the fingers to see how they look in space. We might end up feeling as if the thumb of one hand has crossed to the side of the room and the pinkie to the other side of the room. This is an internal sensation we are looking for. At the end of the period there are three steps. First, just gently open your eyes, but make sure that the return of presence of visual perceptions of the hand does not alter in any away the internal sensations of what the hand feels like. Next, bring your hands to the keyboard, but as you do be on guard for any new sensations that come into the hand that disturb the tranquility of the hand. The last stage is start playing a pre-planned passage. Your job is to maintain the sensation gained during the meditation in spite of the activity of playing a piece. Preserve that feeling as best you can.
A more mechanical ‘summary’ of this procedure can be approximated by laying the hand down flat on a surface, extend the thumb as far a possible (without strain) from the rest of the fingers which remain closely adjacent. With the thumb thus distended from the rest of the hand, start opening up the space between the second and third finger so that ultimately the second finger touches the thumb, leaving the other three fingers on the other side of the hand. Then do the same for the third finger; and the fourth finger.
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That last stretch: the sudden requirement to play a wide interval in one hand
A.B. says he cannot play g2 and b3 simultaneously with his left hand, but breaking the tenth spoils the flow of the 4 part counterpoint in the Grieg he is playing.
I catch him at a moment when, while complaining about the difficulty, his thumb idly wanders onto the b3 though his pinkie is still on the g3. And I say: look! At this particular moment in time you are spanning the tenth. How are you doing it? My hope was for a response of nescience: “I have no idea of how I did it”, but instead gives a mechanical explanation having to do with approaching the two keys from underneath them. It is a good explanation but like any other explanation, it is always going to be ‘short’ on some naming all the actual things going on at that moment. And by consciously thinking of their explanation, leave it hit and miss as to whether the tenth gets spanned. The real point is that maybe his mind does not need to know how to get into that position but that the body “knew” how to do it – when unencumbered with thinking and planning.
While it is fairly obvious that you cannot do this with an eleventh apparently you can do it sometimes with a tenth. The body, given a
nearly impossible situation, finds a way to do it, one that goes beyond the scope of the capabilities that one was previously already aware of having. Trust the body – it knows the way. Just consciously abandon anything else
you have tried in order to do something like this in the past. Then it will show up when you least expect it.
We worked gradually repeating the tenth until by some fluke or other the two notes started at the same time. Each time that would happen, I asked him to take it as proof that body knew how to span a major tenth.
The negative role of stretching and straining.
When one is straining to stretch as far as possible, muscles become tenser. But if one begins with a state of relaxation and refuses to add in even the tiniest tension at any step of the way to the goal, the final stretch will actually measure longer than the other way. It may not be much of a difference but, in our case, that of playing a tenth in one hand, often an extra millimeter or two is all that is required to turn the task into doable and comfortable rather than undoable and uncomfortable