How one hand can help the other
Summary: Play runs evenly. Be your own teacher by having one hand help the other.
Years ago while I was playing a Mozart Concerto, I was frustrated in the first movement because I could not play evenly a scale-like run in the right hand. The notes were not pearly. They were not pellucid, they didn’t shine because of their evenness.
I could not seem to solve this issue myself. I was an adult pianist, yet I felt I needed a guide, a teacher, to help me. I needed someone to give me a model of the evenness for which I was striving; a teacher, or if not a teacher, then a conductor to follow. I wanted something more than just a sound-model – hearing someone else play it and then trying to imitate it.
Quite by accident I took one of the fingers of my left hand (my fourth finger), and began flexing it over and over at the speed of the run, as if chiding my right hand: “why can’t you play it like this?” Fortunately, the next thing I did was to play the right hand while making the repetitive gestures in the left hand. All of a sudden, the right hand sounded its notes evenly. Somehow it seemed as if the finger of the left hand was in control of the fingers of the right hand. From the right hand’s point of view it seemed something more than just following an example. What sort of connection had changed between my two hands?
Our body exhibits bilateral symmetry. The center is unique but the left and right sides are mirror images (or nearly so). When we clap our hands we take full advantage of the power one arm lends to the other when they make mirror like motions. The center of the body acts as the mediator and connects and transmits the reinforcing motions of the arms. Take any passage that is done by the right hand and make corresponding mirror-like gestures with the left hand. The right hand will feel less isolated, less like it has to take care of the task all by itself. Something is balancing it, something is making it whole. It no longer seems awkward or happening at an extremity, “out on a limb,” as it were.
The teacher lies in yourself.
I used to say to tell my students “lessons are all about practicing.” Everything we do at a lesson is but a model, a sample of a dialogue between the ‘teacher in you’ and the ‘pupil in you.’ Eventually you will successfully internalize both people in this dialogue.
I remembered these words when I was wiggling my left hand finger to even out my right hand fingers. That wiggling finger had taken on the role of the ‘teacher in me’ and showing the other ‘student in me,’ my right hand, how to go about playing evenly.
It was more than just ‘moral’ support or advice being given from myself to myself. There was a direct transference of physical energy from one side of the body to the other, each completing in space the movement of the other.
I instinctively had given the single finger in my left hand an important advantage over the right hand. It was not cramped down onto the keyboard forced to depress certain keys. It did not have to articulate different fingers according to a certain order. So, it was more than a model of evenness, it was a model to the right hand of liberation, of not being constrained by which particular finger was playing which particular note at a given time. My right hand took vicarious pleasure in what the left hand did. Perhaps due to the “mirror” neurons in my brain, the right hand could take on the feel and internal sense of motion of the left hand, more so because of the literal connectivity of the arms through the center of the body.
Future blogs: 1. Contrary motion versus parallel motion. 2. Parallel motion in even steps in one hand versus uneven steps in the other.
These blog entries are not ‘timely’: they do not address issues that relate to the present news of the world. They address perennial issues faced by most pianists when striving to excel in their playing. I encourage you to search backwards in the blogs to find the ones that will yield the greatest benefit to you. You are also welcome to contact me to suggest a topic that you would like to see appear on the site.
A “crescendo” of relaxation
Related Video: Illusion of a Crescendo
M. and I are working on the second (the fast) movement of the Beethoven Sonata Op 109.
She has small hands and struggles to execute the more difficult passages. Even the span of an octave requires special effort by her. However, when she relaxes her hand, the span she is capable of between the thumb and pinkie grows by at least several millimeters. That may be a small difference, but often is enough to determine the difference between ease and discomfort, relaxation and strain, accuracy playing the two keys and inaccuracy.
The more tension there is in the hand, the less it can freely breathe open and closed. The hand should not remain in a fixed position any longer than it does during the day when we are not at the piano. It is always fluid, mobile and protean, a mass ever changing in form.
The best playing results when the hand is capable of both taking and loosing any shape or span. It should remain in its momentary shape without any tension or clinging to that shape, then be able to change to a different shape a moment later without having to overcome any inertia. There should be no resistance to change when it occurs due to any sort of clinging to the previous shape.
Let us say we are playing a series of diatonic triads going up the C Major scale. It is incorrect to assume that the hand can exactly maintain the same shape for throughout. Watch closely and you will see that the lateral angle in the wrist, and even in the fingers, is constantly changing. That the angles in the shoulder and elbow are also changing. If we freeze the hand as we play the triads, while the first triad may feel comfortable, each subsequent triad will feel more and more awkward. Sometimes, though, it takes close attention to the changing muscular sensations of our body to notice this change as it occurs.
A crescendo of relaxation:
If, as is often the case, we are unaware of growing tension as we are playing, the only antidote is relaxing over and over as we proceed. Though we may feel as relaxed now as we were a few measures ago, the chances are good that we are not. It may seem to us that each time we relax during the piece we are getting more relaxed than we have been any time prior in the piece, but in reality it takes this ‘crescendo’ of renewed acts of relaxing to offset a less conscious drift in the other direction.
Often, when a student is playing a piece, and sees that a more difficult part of the piece is coming over the time-horizon, she will tend to do two things: get louder and get tenser. It is as much an emotional reaction to worry and fear than a simple physical reaction to cope with the anticipated physical difficulty. The paradox, of course, is that the less tense the playing mechanism remains, the easier it will be to play the upcoming passage, regardless of its difficulty.
Odd as it may sound, the best physical state while playing is the one that most resembles a quiet state of not doing anything at all. Often we exaggerate the difference between the former and the latter, and do “too much” in order to play.
Melodies in octaves – balance of sound between the octaves
Summary: How to ‘de-muddify’ notes in octaves
For me, one of the most difficult sonic tasks at the piano is to balance two notes if they are exactly one octave apart. If a melody sounds in two octaves at once, it is usually at this distance of one octave. In spite of all my attempts, the resulting sound is not a clear blending, but contains elements of diffuseness and mutual interference. I never have considered this sound acceptable.
Interestingly, this problem disappears if I separate the two notes by exactly two octaves. The way the overtones of the two notes combine in this case creates a pristine and crystalline acoustical effect, noticeably different than the muddiness of the single octave. For organists it is the same as the difference of combining the principal 8 foot and 2 foot stops as against the 8 and 4 foot stops.
There are three things that I can do to help clarify the sound in the cases where the composer does have a melody in notes one octave apart. How to de-muddify:
1. Have the duration of the notes in the lower octave be slightly shorter than those in the upper octave. This will overcome the natural tendency for lower pitches to seem to move more slowly than higher pitches. There will be a barely detectable silence in the sound from the lower octave at end of each of its notes, before the next notes of the melody begin simultaneously.
2. I can play around with the relative loudness of the two notes. Depending on the musical context, there will be cases when the lower notes can be slightly louder than the upper, and other cases when the opposite seems best. This is like “orchestrating” the given passage.
3. Consider the note an octave higher as being simply the first overtone of the lower note. In this way we can hear the upper note as being already contained in the lower note.
Chords and Melody: the simultaneous and the sequential
Summary: What to do with a melody – how changing a melody into a chord and then back to melody again can help in the greater understanding of the sound and feeling of that melody
A melody can be condensed into a chord (especially if one eliminates all but the chord tones from the melody). A chord can be broken apart into a melody, but the chord contains no information about the order of the notes in the melody.
But… if you play a melody, then condense it right away into a chord, and then release a moment later into the melody, the chord will retain the imprint of the melody for a while. This will happen both as a physical sensation in the pianist’s hands, and as an aural sensation in the pianist’s ear.
As the chord is turned back into the melody, a similar effect occurs: the melody retains within its sequence of notes, the organizing singleness of the sound of the chord.
While the notes were held in the timelessness and stasis of the chord, the notes of the melody are still stirring around within the outward calm. The chord is not stable, but seeking to release the notes back into time.
As we in fact re-expand the chord into the melody, the melody notes come out as if all belonging to one whole – there is a new coherence among the notes, something that transcends their separateness. Each note looks back to the chord, and finds its meaning in the chord, and still feels part of the chord. Each note shares with the other notes a common feeling of belonging. A larger organic wholeness is achieved. There is less to be thought about as to appropriate touch or sound for each note.
Practice Technique 26: Crossing hands second technique
Whereas in the first technique the hands remained as far as possible from each other until the moment before playing the notes in the crossed-hand position, in this technique the fingers, or the hands, or forearms, always remain in contact with each other.
The hands start with horizontal space between them. The hands slowly float towards each other. The first things to make contact are the two thumbs. One slowly slides into the notch between the thumb and the second finger of the other hand. When the second knuckle of one thumb has already slid between the two fingers of the other hand, the thumb that is part of the ‘notch’ slips on top of the other hand towards the ‘third’ knuckle of its thumb. The hands continue to try to converge and meld with each other, advancing away from the body as they do, with the elbows un-flexing. They should do so in such a way that the point here the centers of the two hands cross each other, the point where the two lines of the letter ‘X’ cross each, gradually shifts in the direction of the wrists. The location of the cross point continues past the wrist and moves gradually up the forearms, until reaching a final comfortable point half way up the forearm between the wrist to the elbow.
All of this can occur in a level, horizontal plane, on or in the vicinity of the keyboard.
Even though, at different stages, the positions taken by the hands, relative to each other, look very different from one other, they actually result from one smooth and continuous motion. The continuousness of the process is all important. So is how far the crossing of the hands needs to migrate. It may be enough for just the thumbs to slide somewhat past each other (the first stage of the procedure as described above). It may even be enough for just parts of the thumbs to slide by each other.
One continues the overall process only until the fingers that need to play the next note(s) find themselves already resting over those notes. At that point we cease proceeding any further with the overall crossing process. Then a judgment is made whether the process should continue further or reverse in order to place the necessary fingers over the next notes.