Category: time and timing
“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 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.
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.