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.
Pain in the Thumb. Solution Two: Tug of War.
Example: Right Hand playing a C Major Scale Upwards.
My third finger is on an E and I am about to play the adjacent F with the thumb. Imagine a tug of war with the two sides, initially, pulling with the same strength.
On the right side of this tug of war is the entire arm, wrist and hand, which pulls to the right. On the other side it is just the third finger alone, on the E, resisting, with equal force, this tug to the right.
At first no one ‘wins’. Each ‘team’ escalates how hard they are pulling, but the increments are done at the same time in each ‘team’ and in equal degrees, so that no movement occurs. This process continues until the finger can exert no more force to resist the more powerful rightward pull of the arm. As the third finger suddenly lets go of the E key, and the arm and hand, including the thumb, lurches to the right, with great stored up power, and the thumb travels to the F so quickly that it is almost with conscious duration.
Pain in the Thumb. Solution Three: Let the Thumb Move, But “Glacially” Slow.
Example: Right Hand Playing A C Major Scale Upwards.
My third finger is an the E and I am about to play the adjacent F with the thumb. If I slow down the motion , and watch the motion of the thumb, I notice that what I experience is less a single motion, in a single direction, but a connected series of smaller motions.
The more I slow down the motion, and the longer it takes, the more I become aware of the changes that are occurring within the course of the thumb’s overall motion. Granted these changes happen very fast, and are usually lost to consciousness, which treats the overall passing motion of the thumb as a single event. But even in speed, when the total movement takes just a fraction of a second to execute, we still want the it to be composed of a series of finer qualities of motion occurring one after the other.
A considerable amount of relaxation is required for the thumb to transition smoothly from one component of the overall passing motion to the next. If there is pain, it is likely due to a momentary tension in the thumb muscles that resists the transition to the next quality of the overall motion. This resistance is often an attempt to prolong one of the shorter, interior states of motion, at the very moment when a change in the course of the motion is required.
Pain in the Thumb. Solution Four: Congruence Between the Thumb and the Piano Key
The attempt here is to form a continuous, undifferentiated mass out of the hand, the thumb, and the physical key of the piano. To achieve this we want there to be a congruence between the longitudinal surface of the thumb and the longitudinal surface of the key. The side of the thumb should touch, in as many spots as possible, different spots on the surface of the key.
The fingers of the hands should be like when a sculptor creates a statue and leaves out a complete separation between one finger and the next. If the sculpture became alive the only way a single finger would move at all is if the hand and the other fingers move with it. If the sculptor then adds a piano key to the sculpture, but does it by extending the material used for the hand and fingers, the key and the thumb will be permanently attached to each other.
In line with this sculptural analogy, if the pianist wants to move a key up and down, to create and then release a sound, it can only be done by a motion of the entire mass that results from the fusion of the key, the finger, and the hand. While granted this procedure is, to say the least, unusual, one result will be that there is little or no activity in the thumb muscles on their own. This puts this technique in line with the three previously techniques offered as ways of dealing with pain in the thumb. Without any separate motion in the thumb, there is hopefully nothing to cause pain in the finger.