Pinning down the moment of the onset of physical tension
A.B. plays the Grieg Holberg Suite with a lot of tension.
At what instant in time, down to tenths of seconds or less, does tension first enter your hand? If nothing else, we can assume it is before, even long before, we consciously aware of the tension. The longer it remains, the longer one becomes inured to it, until pain results and then one notices it.
The tense state is usually preceded in time by a less tense state. It seems logical that, at some previous point in time, the body was not as tense as it is now.
It is not so much a matter of not letting tension arise, but to become aware of it sooner, which will make dispelling it easier.
We want to become aware of the moment of transition from a state of minimal tension, to a state of having at least of some tension, but before it grows to a state of greater tension. We want this moment to come sooner into consciousness.
It is the best if can capture the moment when this transition first begins to occur. Among other things, this is the moment that yields the most information about the why and how of your tension. Tension has away of compounding and growing. Before the tension is too great, and involves too much body area, at the earliest detectable moment of the inception of the tension, your awareness may be able to uncover what the cause of the tension is, I.E. what the initial cause is. We want to spot the tension while it is still low on the horizon and and ‘far enough away’ for us to have time to take counter measures.
Was the initial trigger of the tension in the mind rather than the body? A moment of worry, or of uncertainty about what lies ahead? This moment often remains hidden because it is largely unconscious. We want to make of it something more conscious.
It is usually our “re”-action to something that has not happened yet, but which we believe will happen soon, once we are on the treadmill of the flow of time which eventually brings all the way to the end of time, with no exit ramps. Do we really not have the power to just stop in the middle of piece? Should we not have at least the state of mind that accepts the latter as a possibility – even if we don’t use it.
To find and bring to light this moment in consciousness so we see its content, is a challenge. Although it is not as difficult as a physicist to know just when a particular electron in an atom is going to jump from one energy state to another.
Sometimes the tension sneaks up on us so suddenly, that we don’t have ‘time’ to become aware of it. For instance during the brief moment when we ‘prepare’ to play the next note in the score though the current note is still sounding. Somewhere in that small interval of time, our consciousness has drifted off of the current note and is now concerned about successfully getting to the next note. This is a span of time that can be so short that we can figuratively blink an eye and go from a state of minimal tension to a state of maximal tension.
Can you track such fine distinctions in muscular feeling through such fine distinctions of time? Is it worthwhile to interrogate your body over and over on this question, until by happenstance you may start noticing a sort of pattern as to when exactly it happens and what it’s immediate antecedents are. Bear in mind that the next note doesn’t remain the ‘next’ note when you play it: an obvious but easily overlooked distinction.
So tension often lies in the anticipation, no matter how brief, of going on to something that hasn’t happened yet. This could even include the moments before you play the first notes of the piece. Somewhere in this stew of emotions that lie beneath the surface of consciousness, may lie feelings such as: a reluctance to abandon the safety of the present for the uncertainty of the future; the fear of how one is going to be able find the correct next note(s) in the “allotted” amount of time the music allows us.*
* An amount of time that actually we control, because without us no note will sound; regardless of what the score says, and what the audience expects. Even if we control this amount of time by just a few fractions of a second, that may be enough time during which to restore our security about how. and if. we will get to the next note(s).
“Time” and “Tension”
A.B’ lesson on 8/19/21. Grieg: Holberg Suite: Sarabande and Air.
At any given instant, A.B. is usually getting ready for the next note. He avoids the conscious duration of the present. There is a preponderant vector force, representing the arrow of time in his consciousness, that pulls him off the present, veers him off into the near future. This subdues his awareness of what is sounding at the present time, and creates a tension that impedes him from going on naturally to the next sound.
It helps to listen to the notes and not just play them! To the question: “what is more important, listening to the present note or getting ready to physically play the next note?”, the answer is the former!
And, just as important as not anticipating the future (physically that is), is to forget (physically), the past. It’s amazing how the body will hold on to a certain position, even if it’s been in it only for moments. This makes it harder to undo the tension that accumulates with the hands desire not to move to another position. Most often we are not conscious of this physical clinging to the past.
Over the past few weeks we have made some progress, especially in regarding anticipating the future. We’ve confined the moment, during the current sound, when he starts physically preparing for the next sound, sometimes to just the last half to a quarter of the note’s duration. On the other he still he gets just tense when he does start to prepare to move. And even if it he has held it off. At the moment of the change to the next note, his physical motion involves flinches and awkward jumps, and is often inaccurate as to the relationship of his fingers to the keyboard. In the worst case they are no more than ‘stabs’ in the direction of the next keys.
This urge or force within him to move him out of the present seems and into the near future, seems to increase rapidly the closer he gets to the moment of transition to the next note. So, even if he forestalls the physical anticipation of the next note to later in the duration of the current note, the resulting tension is still just as strong as it would have been if he had started physically preparing for the next note earlier in the duration of the current sound. The effect of the transition is therefore as great as if he started anticipating earlier.*
What we want is no anticipation at all. It must seem paradoxical that the longer one waits before thinking of moving to the next note, the smoother and more fluid and accurate the motion becomes connecting it from the present note.
Because A.B. is chronically worried about what is going to happen next, how he going to find the next note, he spends a lot of time on the present keys figuring out how he is going to get to the next keys, instead of listening to the music as it comes in through his ears. This figuring out has the immediate and unwanted effect of creating tension. His playing therefore goes from one tense state to another, in quick succession.
Don’t become a slave to the order in which the notes come. In the musical sound-space, any note can follow any other note. Don’t let all your thoughts and gestures, on an instant to instant basis, be committed to the obligation of going to a specific next note. The new note is a surprise. and is best played by the body when there is no physical ‘forethought’.
It helps if, instead having an attitude of planning and caring, remain in a state of simply wondering, of not knowing yet: “I wonder how I’m going to get there.” And as soon as that thought is finished speaking in your mind, say it again: ” I wonder how I’m going to get there.” And keep reviving that state of wonder and ignorance, until the allotted time of the note has elapsed elapsed and you just find yourself on the next note.
Be content where you are. Your body knows how to get to the next place without your ‘help’. It is as if you are a patient reporting back to the doctor the next day: “Doctor, doctor, last night I went to sleep and I was absolutely sure I was on a D-Natural, but today when I work up, somehow I found myself on C-Natural. I don’t know how it happened!”
If, while he is playing, I touch his body someplace to take notice of what state of motion that part may be in, it immediately stiffens up, and without being aware of it, offers resistance and opposition to the possibility his body may be moved as a result of that touch.
A peculiar case of this arose when I actively tried to move his arm around in space in order to free up its range of motion and train his body not to resist being moved. He let me move the arm an initial bit through space, but then he ‘figures out’ what direction he thinks I’m pushing in, and if, at that moment, i attempt to change that direction and move the arm in a different direction, he offers strong resistance and fights to keep moving the arm the way it had been over the previous few moments.
In one way he has improved because originally he would not let me budge is arm at all, from whatever position it was. Now we have opened up the new vista of being resistant to any change in the direction of a movement he is executing while the movement is happening. Especially if the change is attempted at a time he does not anticipate. At that instant he is in effect locked in the past trying whil3 on the way to get to the future. The ability to change at any unforeseen moment the plane of an action, its direction of rotation, etc., is essential to good playing. Movement should occur at the slightest hint of a cue from the music or the brain.
For musicians time is experienced in seconds and fractions of seconds. We are not historians who conceive time in eras, centuries and years. We are trained to see an event be born, develop, and end in a matter of seconds. We are trained to put ourselves directly into the flow of time as it occurs to our consciousness. No matter how finely we divide time up, we never find a moment but an ongoing process and flow.
Three specific examples of tension in his playing:
At one point in the Sarabande the left pinkie, on its own, dips down to play a solitary d2. He allowed me to guide and support his left hand and pinkie as it made the motion to the left in the moments leading to the d2.
The closer he got to the d2, the more his pinkie stiffened up. It turned into more of a fight than a joint enterprise. It seemed like he was getting more and more ‘worried’ that I would prevent rather than help him to get to the d2.
I made the experiment of guiding his hand until the pinkie was almost to the d2, but then tried to stop the motion of his hand from going any further. I wanted him to be aware of just how strongly he fought me in an effort to get the rest of the way. in order to complete the gesture. He used all of his strength against me. It was not within his ability to allow the motion to stop before it got to the goal, the goal that we originally mentioned at the top of this entry: “There is a preponderant vector force, representing the arrow of time in his consciousness, that pulls him off the resent, veers him off into the near future.”. He just couldn’t allow his activity to just suspend itself in time just before the goal (or at any other point in time).
In the “Air”, at the end of the first section the left hand plays a descending D Natural-Minor scale in octaves. At the end of the movement he plays a similar scale figuration this time using the notes of a G Natural-Minor scale.
He allows me to take a trip along with his scale, that involved my resting my and lightly on the pinkie of his left hand. Each time he is about to change to the next note of the scale, in the instants before the change is due, there is a sudden increase in the tension in his pinkie, as he tries to move the pinky ahead of the rest of his hand to already be on the next key the pinkie will play in the scale. The onset of this behavior occurs well before the current note’s tenure is over, less than half way through through the current note’s written duration.
I change my point of attachment with his body. During the scale I gently and constantly support his wrist from underneath. The result is that the scale occurs much more fluently and less choppily. He tries to do the same thing for himself, using his right hand to support his left wrist. This time there is no increase in fluency. His body is so tied up in tension, that using one of his hands to help keep the other at ease, is an example of instead of the blind leading the blind the “tense” leading the “tense”.
The existence of tension can be very transient, but nonetheless can impede the general sense of flow through a passage; enough to jar the listener.
When he has an ornament of three notes, two identical chord tones and an intervening upper neighbor note, he is so determined to get back as quickly as possible to the chord tone from the neighbor note that he hardly gives any attention to the duration of the neighbor note, to allow it to express its sound before being eclipsed.
Ways of reducing this tension:
To loosen the fingers. I gently raised the fingertips off the keyboard, by getting underneath them, and moving them upwards by the tiniest degree. This worked best if I did this to one hand while the other continued playing as written. I made sure that though constant the pressure I applied was gentle regardless of what changes there were in pitches.
I also tried to caress the upward facing side of the fingers to encourage them to gently flex and curve. Again I did this on an ongoing basis, to suggest that no finger should ever ‘harden’ into a single stance, especially. at the moment it is about to depress a key (or during the process of depressing a key).
It occurred to me after the lesson that another thing I might have done was to have used my fingers like a “comb” to separate and define the separate strands of his fingers. I would put my fingers (the teeth of the comb) in the interstices between his fingers and draw this comb from his fingertips to the vertices between the fingers near their third knuckles.
I suggested that the ‘purpose’ of there being joints in the body, in addition to creating points of articulation, was to soften and cushion any stiffness, suddenness, or stridency in a physical action.
I suggested that he assumes (consciously or unconsciously) that a difficult passage requires more physical effort than a simpler passage. That for me, coming into a difficult passage requires the un-doing of any and all vestiges of effort.
Several notes out of one continuous gesture in time:
I suggested that instead of each note being the result of a separate physical event, he try to ‘tie’ together several notes within one curvy arabesque-like motion, one that would “knit together” the different points in space on the piano keyboard where these notes will occur.
Repeating the same note or a chord (as in the left hand at the opening
of the “Air”):
First I played for him a series of C-naturals, each one an octave
higher than the one before. I pointed out that I obviously had to “find” each C in a different ‘place’ on the keyboard. My thought was that when one he repeats a note, even though from the outside it looks to an observer that he stays in the same spot on the keyboard, he should nonetheless feel like, each time he plays it, he can “look for it” as if it were not in the same spot on the keyboard as before. Repeating a note should not feel like staying in the same place, because any repeated gesture bears the risk of causing a build up of tension and a lessening of control over each sound. Instead, whatever he did to find the first instance of the note, he should re-enact when he plays it (finds it) the next time.
No sound in the piece should be any different, easier, or harder to play, than the first sound of the piece.
Don’t let the thoughts of the brain make the body tense, or put you
into a state of worry and anticipation.
* This anticipation reminds me in a way of the ‘strong force’ in physics, that holds the nucleus of an atom together so that the protons don’t repel each other because they all beat the same positive charge. It gets stronger, at an exponential rate, as protons get closer and closer.
Physical anticipation, tension, and melody.
(with thanks to “Odessa”)
R.M.’s lesson on July 5th, 2021.
We found that too much of his physical energy was devoted to preparing physically for the next note, sometimes long before that note was due to sound. This led to tension and resistance in the body and in a diminution in the cohesiveness of his sounds.
We did an aural ‘meditation’ on a bass note to offset this physical anticipation, by providing him with something else to do throughout the entire duration of the current sound.
Find a note in the deep bass, whose sound you like very much. Play it ‘forte’. and then, just continue to listen to the sound until it disappears to your ears. And then release the finger holding down the note. A bass note will last a long time compared with a treble note. A minute, sometimes more, sometimes less.
With regard to how to hold the key down during this time, float on the key with the absolute minimum of downwards pressure that will suffice to keep the key depressed (so that the note doesn’t suddenly stop sounding).
When you near the end, if you think the sound is gone, hang on to the key another moment or two to see if the sound reappears in your ears. It may: it’s just changed its character so much that you don’t recognize it for what it is: the same note – but in a different manifestation of timbre and degree of softness.
Among the other intents of doing this exercise is that we are trying to stretch the sound’s duration towards infinity. And we do this for the very reason that, ineluctably, the piano sound acoustically dies away (“decays”).
Another intent of the exercise is it to answer the question “what is keeping the note alive during this entire minute.” Is it because of vibration of strings? Can we reject that scientific explanation and instead believe that the only reason that the note continues to sound at all, is that we are sustaining it from within us, from moment to moment, by renewing our recognition of the sound in our ear. As if, were we not to re-focus all the attention of the ear on the sound every moment, the note would fail to continue to sound.
Another way to conceive of it is that the note in question was not sounding even an instant earlier while we were holding the key down, but suddenly at this new moment comes into consciousness. It is we who have to revive it.*
How to make a melody.
The moment when it is most difficult to distinctly hear a note’s pitch and its orchestral timbre is not at the end, but rather at the beginning, at the instant of its onset (the ‘attack’ of the note). The hammer, powerfully but briefly, hits the string. It sets off a brief explosion of overtones that confuses the ear. If the pianist focused most of their ear’s attention on the attacks, we would never hear a melody. However, if you go beyond the attack, that percussive cacophony dissipates a moment or two later, and the remainder of the duration of the sound is similar to that of a lyrical, rather than a percussive instrument.
Lyrical players at the piano thus live in the “middles” (time-wise) of the durations of the notes. It is there, I should say ‘then’, that their ear dwells, and is most alive and fulfilled by the sound. It is thus not at the beginning of the sound, when the ears are jarred, and most significantly where normally it is simultaneous with a physical expenditure of energy. It is misleading to make the sound an ‘expression’ of a sudden ‘physical’ gesture, which then idles until the next note onset. The physical mechanism fades into the background when we listen more to the evolution of the sound and concentrate less on the onset. Think of a melody as a matched set of pearls (middles-of-notes) that are strung one into another along the rope of the necklace of time. The listener becomes oblivious to the attacks (and the final decay of the notes).
Tension at the piano: Newton’s First Law.
We wanted to lessen the high degree of tension that was endemic throughout his body. Since it was a very hands-on lesson, I could often feel, myself, the tension. Sometimes in his fingers, sometimes switching to his shoulders, or his torso. It was if he was protecting himself from a sense of danger due to where, physically, the music wanted to propel him next.
We began with an examination of his thumb. We explored every possible direction and distance the thumb could move in, in a fully three dimensional space, and not just in the one plane of action in which it habitually moves at the piano. We then ‘summarized’ all these motions by making broad circles with the tip of the thumb, with as wide a radius as was possible, limited only by bunking into a different part of the hand, and avoiding any over straining in the muscles of the thumb.
Even when in the midst of playing, when a finger seems to move predominantly in one direction, or speed, the full possibility always exists of it being to move in any different direction, at any speed. Every posture and shape to the body retains the potential for every other posture and shape to the body to arise out of it – without resistance. In any plane of motion the ‘life force’, so to speak, is already vibrating, and informs every momentary shape the limbs and fingers take. Freedom of choice of motion, even if latent, is more important than being coerced into a single, fixed attitude of motion.
According to Newton’s First Law, a body at rest wants to continue to to be at rest. Therefore, it is during the very first instant of motion, when resistance to that motion is at its maximum. We want to keep this resistance to a minimum. Imagine a blade of grass. There is no wind, the blade is at rest. At a random moment, a breeze starts blowing. The blade of grass seems to offer no initial resistance to being moved, it begins to sway in the breeze – as if it had no choice but to be moved by the air. Can we recreate this scenario from inside our body? Instead of the wind, there is a mere thought or whim to move, which can be to sufficient to have a finger or body part start to move, without muscular resistance that attempts to keep the finger or body in the spatial position it was a moment earlier. It’s like blowing on a feather. It’s previous position of rest seems to offer no resistance to its now being in motion. This same consideration applies to every motion we make at the piano in any spatial plane, whether downwards, sideways or upwards.
* Here is another version to the meditation, which changes what you do at the end of the sound. As the sound finally fades out, start hearing the same sound in your imagination, so that even when another listener no longer hears it, you are still hearing it, and could go on hearing it for as long as you want.
Flow, Versus a Sequence of Separate Notes
H.P’s lesson on 8/13/19 Menuet from Ravel: Tombeau de Couperin
Joe: “Our recent work has focused on flow versus the pointillism of
notes. As we go on today, let’s use two very restricted definitions of
these two terms, ‘Notes’ will simply mean knowing what notes to play
at the next moment and ‘flow’ will simply mean getting to those notes
from the preceding notes without even the most minimal of hesitation.
For many pianists it is a long held view that they must master the
“notes” before attempting the musical qualities of the piece, the
latter of which includes the manner of flow of the sounds through
Depending on the student I have been known to reject this premise on the ground that unless the musical qualities of a piece enter into our intuition of the piece at the beginning of the learning process, by the time the pianist masters the notes, the musical characteristics of the piece have suffered from neglect to the point that it is now hard to install or instill this musicality into the slow setting cement of the notes only.
What I am pleased to notice is how lately you have been working from “both ends at once,” gains in note accuracy are bootstrapping gains in musical flow, while at the same time working for the flow is bootstrapping note accuracy. You have found a way to working simultaneously for both goals, and thereby leaving the question of “which came first, the music or the notes”, into the category of similar questions like “which came first the chicken or the egg.”
About a third of the way into the lesson we focused on the middle section of the movement and in particular who to connect one chord with another without any break in the flow of the sound. Joe: “we must make ourselves take responsibility for never allowing any a break in the sound flow. What I am hearing when you play this passage are periodic, brief hesitations before continuing on to the next chord.. You seem to exert a lot of focus and energy on playing a group of chords with good continuity of sound, but then need to take a pause to recharge your batteries. It is as if to say: “I’ve been working very hard, physically and mentally, through these last few chords, I need a break.”
When we take that pause, we push the question of the flow temporarily out of our consciousness and awareness. We do not notice that we are pausing. It exists in a momentary blind (sic) spot brought on by fatigue. The question is whether the listener hears the pause, notices that we are momentarily clinging to the current notes before going on to the next notes.
The answer is that they always know though in different ways and to different conscious degrees. Some not only hear the pause but are upset at the application of the brakes to the flow, and have a difficulty in reestablishing their attention afterwards. For others the reaction is more subconscious. For some reason, of which they are not aware, there is a slackening in their attention to the music, which just happens to occur at the same point in the score where the pianist has broken the flow. For some the reaction is even less actively conscious. They will not notice the hesitation in any way as it happens, but further on in the piece they notice that their emotional reaction to the music has taken a negative turn. They will ascribe this to either the piece itself, or their inability to listen sensitively to the music.
The pianist’s ears must always be on “sentry duty”, otherwise it increases the likelihood that they will not notice deviations from the constancy of the sound flow. When this happens the sound flow can become distorted. knowing and being on alert is the best way to prevent something happening in the first place.
Some necessary connections will always seem un-doable to us; just beyond the realm of the possible, as will some of the chord connections in this middle section. Without going into the specific physical procedures to make these connections easy (something which usually forms a large segment of my teaching), it may be enough simply to say to yourself “I must do this”, “there is no option but that it has to happen smoothly”. And if we leave ourselves no way out, the body discovers the solution for itself, without conscious awareness by us of the how. Most of us when practicing a difficult group of notes will suddenly play it once the way we want it to sound. We also have experienced that trying to repeat this success often fails. We don’t learn the right way through repetition. Nonetheless we should pause after the successful rendition and absorb the very important fact that we are capable of doing it. It may be too early in the learning process to be able to reproduce it whenever we want. The one success is enough, however, to open the path to a confident discovery of the recipe for the solution. I can try to accelerate this progress by explaining or demonstrating to the pianist what things were happening physically when it came out correctly. The problem with any explanation though is that regardless of the teacher, some part of the solution remains unconscious to that particular teacher, and is therefore left out of the explanation.
A timely aside:
There is a peculiar blending of time tenses that occurs when we try to maintain the flow of the sound through obstacles in its path. When we are about to play a challenging connection, we should, at the same moment, already be hearing that connection happening, and furthermore, evaluating whether it happened without any signs of interruption. Looking at this a little more closely, the present tense is transmuted, in part, to the past tense (if our imagination is already hearing it). The immediate future is prematurely transmuted into part of the present tense. And the somewhat less immediate future (as we evaluate or notice that it flowed well) is made part of a bloated present tense. Beyond this I can only say that this weird stew of time tenses it is one of the fundamental mysteries of time in the consciousness of the performing musician.
Pain in the Thumb Solution One: No Motion in the Thumb Independently of the Hand as a Whole.
Example: Right Hand Playing A Scale Upwards.
Pause in the scale on the note played just before passing under the thumb. While paused, don’t let the thumb make any anticipatory gesture of moving under another finger. Just relax and pause.
Raise the entire hand, vertically, until it is several inches above the keyboard. While doing this the thumb makes no movements independent of the hand as a whole.
Have the arm transport the entire hand rightwards, until the thumb, still just an undifferentiated part of the hand, is poised over the note that it is about to play.
Simply lower the hand back down onto the keyboard. Still without any particular motion in the thumb that is not simply the result of moving the entire hand at once.
Sound the next note by moving the mass of the combined arm and hand.
Get used to there being a silence in the scale between the end of the note before the thumb is used, and the note on which the thumb is used.
Gradually the silence between the notes will shrink towards zero, while the absence of independent motion of the thumb still remains.