Category: time and timing

Staying in synch: with others and with oneself

B.N.’s lesson:

Schubert: Op 90/2 in E-flat Major

I played the Schubert along with him at the other piano. As a preliminary I asked him to choose what seemed like a doable tempo for him. His principal task was to stay with me, to disregard mistakes and any uncertainties about what notes were just coming over the horizon. I wanted him to stay in synch with me, in particular not fall behind me.*

Until this point in time N.B. would always come to a half in front of any uncertainty as to what to play next, and allowed himself an indefinite  period of time to figure it out, and which point he would simply go on playing from the same spot in the score.

The first useful result in our attempting this was to highlight in his mind just how often he ‘exited’ the flow of the music, to allow himself to do his own thing of figuring out the next note(s).

Each time he would hear me moving on in the piece instead of resynchronizing with him, my playing on served as a magnet to draw him
out of his own present tense. Or perhaps it was just an annoying ‘interruption’ on my part reminding him to go on playing (one way or another).

It gradually instilled the idea that any time spent figuring things out had to occur ‘inside’ and not ‘outside’ the flow and pulse of the tempo. Those two ‘times’ had to coincide with each other, and be completed by the time the next note was due, cutting short any time spent on speculating about the future in the piece, for that future was no future, but now. It was like a merger of the present and the future.

The fact that he had been looking at music as something for which there was a ‘pause’ button, during which he could studiously “figure out” what came next, seemed to me to be in natural accord with the fact that he is a very good mathematician. For in math, the time it takes to figure something out has no dependence on, or relation with, the amount of time elapsing on a clock. In an equation, for instance, the relationship of equality between the two sides of the equal sign, is not now discovered for the first time, it has always been so, and forever will be so.**

In music, specifically under today’s “rules of engagement”, he had to try to stay with me “sans rumination”. Any figuring out of what he had to do next had to occur within, and not outside, the time-flow of the piece. The ‘figuring out time’ was now under the control of the time of the piece. There was no stepping out of that time flow, as with math, during which one could take as long as one wanted to get from one thing to the next. In contrast, with math, even taking an unlimited time to figure out the next step,  without ever reaching the desired conclusion, can still be a time filled with much richness.  Time made no demands on the student (except for “trivial” secondary considerations like turning in homework on time or taking a test). In math, time was excluded. Time had no pretense of being in charge of what was going on. In music, as Heraclitus*** said: you can not step in the same river twice.

During the time he spent in this new ensemble situation (with me at the other piano), B.N. gradually changed his way of handling time. He had begun to accept, a priori, that he no longer had recourse to stopping and thinking. Situations that normally brought on a pause in his play, he began to solved in real time. And if not, he was developing the ability to come back in with me a few notes later.  The beginning of the process was simply to become more consciously aware of when he was hesitating. He then got rid of any emotional baggage that arose in the form of self deprecation because he needed to pause. What begins as a hesitation, can grow into a   rumination, which with regard to the on-flowing of time of the piece  represents a paralysis, although it is a safer emotional place than self-deprecation.

For whatever reason, when he got behind, he had to become aware of that  fact on his own, and then had to learn the skill of jumping ahead suddenly to catch up. The latter involved what was a new skill for him: trying to keep an ever updating awareness of where the other pianist was in the  score.****

During the course of the lesson, his ability constantly improved in terms of finding the place in the score at which he should be. Eventually he would come back inn synch with me after I had gone on without him for just several notes. This requires a sort of splitting of the brain: at the same moment one part knowing where the other person is, and the other part knowing where he himself was. This is followed by an understanding of the relation between these two as mapped as locations in the score. Then having to constantly update both of these locations, as more notes ensued, until the moment came when we were back in synch.*****


Time had been flowing for B.N. at whatever rate suited his consciousness independently of the rhythm and time demands of the piece. If he  encountered a problem he automatically assumed he could go into a time flow within himself unrelated to the ‘metronome’ of the music he was playing. This private time span could be untethered at will from the flow of time implied by the music score. During this time he could ruminate slowly and carefully before reentering the flow of the piece.

Comparison with Painting:

Let us contrast this with another fine art, painting. While engaged in  looking at a painting, we can choose, at any given time on the clock, to look specifically at one particular part of the painting. Any order of time with regard to space can only be suggested to us by the formal structure of the painting. We can choose to look at this part for as long or short a time-span as we want. Painting is, in that sense, a ‘spatial’ art: time has been locked up inside of it, as something immanent, or virtual, until someone starts viewing and experiencing it. Music, on the other hand, is a time-art (a ‘temporal’ art), in which the structure of the work is already a time-structure and not a locked into any spatial structure.

For the music performer, time and space can get easily mixed up in the mind. When we read a ‘score’, for instance to learn a new piece, this score is something spatial (with lines and dots and circles). Looking at the score leads some pianists to think more spatially than temporally about the music and thus miss the heart of the music (the particular and changing quality of an inwardly experienced duration). The human brain is accustomed to thinking spatially rather than temporally, in accord with with our common sense ability to survive in the the world. For those who are turned on by philosophy, I suggest reading any of the great works by French philosopher Henri Bergson (I am happy to provide a list, just ask).

* We made the tacit assumption that I was doing a good job in keeping a steady tempo.

**, though there may have been a time on the calendar of history when no one had yet thought of the relationship, and just as possibly a time in the future when everyone will have forgotten about it.

*** Heraclitus quote and summary information

Heraclitus (literally, the glory of the goddess Hera) lived circa 475 BC – 475 BC in Ephesus. A philosopher predating Socrates, his cryptic utterances earned him the epithet “The Obscure”. Only fragments of which have survived. Heraclitus believed the world is in accordance with Logos (literally, “word”), and is ultimately made of fire, suggesting a condition of continuous and radical change (“No man ever steps in the same river twice”, “everything flows”). He also believed in a unity of opposites; a harmony in the world. Change restores balance, only to bring on further imbalances.

Taken from Wikipedia with a couple of my own thoughts about him.

**** There was the less common case when he sped up and got ahead of me. He had to become aware of the fact, on his own, and calculate the best method of getting back in synch with me: perhaps leaving a note or two out?; perhaps slowing his tempo down until we gradually fell back in synch?; or ideally by being able to know exactly where I was in the score and jumping directly to that place.

*****It makes me think of what a marksman may be doing as they aim their rifle at a rapidly moving target, so that the bullet will reach the target at the point in space where the target willl be some moments in the future.


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“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.


The joints:

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.


Difficult passages:

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.

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Physical fluency: ‘new’ time versus ‘anticipated’ time

Lesson with A.B.  Grieg: Holberg Suite: I : beginning

A relaxation exercise.

A good brain exercise for a pianist is take any motion, say two adjacent  fingers mutually spreading apart. Perform the motion over a  half a second. Now do it over, but take twice that time (one second).  Then double the overall time of the motion again, doing the motion more slowly so that it  takes 2 seconds.  Then 4, 8, 16 seconds… As a limiting case let it take so  much time that the space between the fingers never fully opens to its greatest extent.

There is always all the time in the world – this is what the pianist must master before they can do anything that is required to transpire over a fixed amount of time, whether long or short.

Regardless of the time spent opening the fingers, the sense that motion is taking place never stops. The fingers, at any instant, always feel they are going into new positions. To an electron on one of the finger tips, the world  seems to go whizzing by as the fingers move past countless millions of air  molecules.  It is a matter of scale.


In measure 1. How does the second finger of the right hand get from g3 to a3?  Remember, the notes are not played immediately one after the other,
other notes transpire in between.  What then happens to the second finger
in the time between the g3 and the a3?  For instance, what should the  second finger do as it passes over the hill of the gs3 key on the way to a3  from the g3? Maybe pretend the obstacle isn’t there all – that the gs3 key is level to the ground and not sticking upwards.


The opening passage.

Your torso is like a lighthouse beam on a turret, constantly changing its azimuth along the horizon, at a steady rate, illuminating on its way  whatever objects (keys) lie along the horizon.

I can apply a twist to your torso by manipulating each shoulder with one of  my hands. I would do this to keep the sense of rotation on the turret from  ever vanishing and is proceeding always at a steady rate.

There is a light coming out of your fingers, scanning the horizon in one  continuous motion that doesn’t stop anywhere. An object on the horizon  may stay illuminated (keep sounding) for a few moments as the light passes over it, but the light doesn’t stop moving.


Aim for legato in the passage. Start with a slow legato that is fully under control. Then notice what happens to the legato as you speed the passage up. The soul of the legato lingers and impregnates the notes, but technically it is no longer exactly a legato and starts drifting in the direction of staccato, a staccato with the soul of a legato.


Measure 32 …

There is a natural shape for the first four notes. and in the middle of the  measure there is another natural shape for the notes that now consist of b4 d5 g5. When you go from one such natural position to the next you will  notice that your hand goes naturally feels like going into a ‘neutral’ state in between the two chords, rather than aiming for the next chord. This neutral state erases the traces of the previous chord, and is therefore pen to any  arrangement of keys that form the next chord. This ‘going into neutral’ helps get you to, and find at the last unconscious instant, the next natural position for the hand.  We must cut it off from the past. The car cannot shift gears unless for a split second the gears pass through neutral, otherwise the  shock on the gears is too much.

The next position isn’t going to be natural if you try to anticipate it or head towards it or have any thought or premonition of it in the moment of time just before you assume that position. We usually don’t single out this moment consciously because we have already skipped to the time when the new chord starts.

There are tendencies in our hands’ adaption to the previous chord, that can linger on, sometimes just enough to prejudice how we go to the next  position, which usually does not conform to the expectations of the recent past. In your case, you anticipate physically in most of your playing. I  coached A.B, him in real-time, to find the most natural position for each  chord: “forget the last chord…find the next chord as if it is the first chord of the piece.”

Don’t try to connect one with the next ‘physically’. That part of the process must occur unconsciously, because no matter how aware we are in  consciousness of the details of the motion during the transition, it can never attain an unceasing flow between the nearest two details of which we can be aware. Only the unconscious can handle it.

It sounds like something a psychologist might say in a one on one session with a client: “don’t hold on to the past”.  Only in piano playing the past is not long ago but an instant ago.

During this unconscious transition there is no longer any position to come from, or position to go to.

No matter for how long we we free our mind of these habits, after playing a  certain amount of a passage we are going to want to come up for breath, which we do by clinging onto something of the current moment and not let it vanish physically. At that point the flow of the playing experiences a  bump or uncertainty.


Try the passage just with just the right hand instead of alternating with the left hand. This is useful to uncover the underlying flow and connection between the notes, which can they be parceled out to the two hands.

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Subtleties of physical coordination

Lesson with A.B.: Grieg: Holberg Suite: I : measure 30…

When things arise that depend on control of our physical actions, there are then two considerations that are equally important. One is the scale or  degree of the motion. The second is the exact timing of when the motion occurs.

The first is concerned with the strength, energy and ambit of the motion, and exactly which muscles in which parts of the body are doing the moving. We have to learn how to vary these parameters and not get locked into one setting. By varying we can experiment until the production of the sounds becomes easy.

The second is concerned with timing – down to fine subdivisions of seconds. A finger that lingers an instant too long on a note impeding the the motion to the next note. a finger that comes off of a key an instant (or more) too soon. We have to get used to controlling this timing (its instant of onset and instant of termination) and experimenting with varying this timing  until any difficulty in the motions between the notes goes away.

These principles apply everywhere.   Applying these principles to the  passage starting in measure 30, we create a feeling of little bounces within bigger bounces, that develop out of  experimenting with changing the subtle values of the timings and motions until the passage flows as we would like.

As for the “bigger” bounces, they are formed by

#1   fs5 on the fourth beat of measure 30, tripping over to g5 at the beginning of measure 31.

#2  e5 on the fourth beat of measure 31 hopping / swinging over to fs5 on the  first beat of measure 32.


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