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Some Paradoxes in Piano Playing

S.E. lesson on 1/30/21

Brahms: First Piano Concerto: Second Movement

Eighth notes should ‘feel’ feel like quarter notes – luxurious in its use time.

Add more expressiveness and more softness at the same time.

As you are listening to the piece, just notice how beautiful it is, let your emotions respond, but only a moment after the fact, don’t try proactively to do things to make it beautiful.

By relaxing more, both physically, and in terms of mental tension or anxiety, the inner musician speaks through the piano.  Your inner musician speaks more beautifully and naturally than can your conscious/controlled/ on guard musician.

In the ethereal section with the repeated low e2 in the lh, later repeated fs2s:

The left arm floats in the air between the bass notes and the tenor.  But the same is true as well for the right hand even though the notes are closer to each other.

In the B Minor transition to the two clarinets:

Don’t play it loud; it will be loud because it is expressive.

The notes are just floating by you.

React to its beauty don’t “pro-act” (be proactive about making it sound beautiful).

Everything moves slowly: the fingers, the head, the neck, the arms …

You’re standing almost still by a flowing stream and the water (notes) is floating by you  (Brahms doesn’t write unnatural rhythms).

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Beginning students: when the student surprises you.  A six year old student at her third piano lesson.

C.P.’s lesson on 12/31/20

For the beginner, learning to interpret music notation is sometimes
difficult, in particular merging information coming into the eyes from
the page of music and physically producing ordered sounds at the
piano.  Part of this in turn has to do with whether the student is
aware of everything that is on the page or only notices part of it.
We must begin with finding out what the student consciously sees.

Often, in beginner’s books, there is too much information on the page,
some of which is secondary or tertiary information that is directed towards the teacher or are instructions and interpretative material directed to the student.  In sifting through what is most relevant to notice on the page, in an otherwise clustered visual field the student has to play “Where’s Waldo?”

Once we have put ourselves in the student‘s mind, and ourselves see on
the page only the those objects in the visual field that the student is consciously aware of, then we can proceed to starting to sort out between which part of the information they are aware of is most relevant to playing the piece, which part is relevant but of which they are current unaware and must first become aware, and which part of the information on the page, of which they are aware, can for the moment can be ignored.

Then there is the part which is knowing in what temporal order to note
and respond to what is on the page and which is also relevant.

One of C.P.’s favorite pieces to play is “Happy Birthday” which she
learned by rote.  It is obvious that playing it makes her happy.  She
learned it by rote (actually by my writing the letter names of the
notes she was to play).  It freed her from all of the above mentioned
confusing factors for a six year old, so she could have the pure joy
of playing something she recognized on the piano.

Her mom then said: show Joe how you can play Happy Birthday with two
hands at once.  I wasn’t quite sure what that meant, but I pleasantly
surprised to hear her play the melody of the piece in two octaves at
once.  I would not have anticipated her being able to do this given the
other difficulties she is encountering.

I was so glad that her real abilities shone through and did not remain
hidden behind the mask of the cognitive tasks that I was teaching
her to address.  The ‘future’ of her talent, as it were, made itself
evident in the present tense.

At my request she tried doing it again this time with the hands two
octaves apart (versus one octave apart).  Though she had to do a lot
of looking back and forth between the hands, the coordination of the
eyes looking from one hand to the other was just fine.  I made no reference out loud to these potential difficulties, but encouraged her to trust herself.  Any specific information I might give would only marr her instinctive synthesis of component abilities.  Why single out, when it is already part of the whole.

We switched to “Mary Had A Little Lamb”, as arranged in the Thompson
Easiest Book, volume one.

As she played it from rote memory I had her mom point to the notes on
the page at the moment she played each one. I didn’t expect an
epiphany in which everything page-wise and keyboard-wise suddenly
synthesize together.  It was more than enough, as a first step, that

she entertained the general and at present vague, perhaps unverbal,
notion that two seemingly unrelated things could occur at the same time (which later might synthesize together). Simultaneity is the first clue to consciousness that two things might be related together.

Then daughter and mom reversed roles.  The mom played the piece on the piano as her daughter pointed to the notes to play on the score.  After witnessing her mother do it the other way around, she had no difficulty in pointing out the notes on the score-space in the time order in which they were supposed to occur.

Even more gratifying than the notion of simultaneity as a hint at close relationship between two apparently different things, is the notion of power or control over another person (especially an adult on the part of a child).  The correct pointing out of symbols on the page by the daughter ’caused’ the mom to perform specific actions.

She took great advantage of this sudden increase in power, by changing the rate at which she pointed to the notes, sometimes speeding the tempo up and sometimes slowing it down.  Her mom wasn’t ‘allowed’ to play the next note until her daughter decided to point to it in the score.  The daughter was enjoying herself and wasn’t experiencing her wonted sense of failure as she did when she tried both read and play the score by herself.

At the next lesson, we will introduce singling out which fingers play
which notes of the piece.  When she had played Happy Birthday in two
octaves at once, the fingering in her right hand tended to be more
organized, while the fingering in her left hand included more
‘hopping’ around, often using the same finger over and over (often the
thumb).  I will encourage her doing both the way she is doing it
naturally and an ‘other’ way, not a priori presented to her as the
‘correct’ way (by using certain specific fingers at certain times).
With younger beginners I like to avoid notions of right and wrong.  By
being able to do it her way as well as the book’s way, she gains
independence and confidence, and the added and broader perspective and
sense of achievement based on her ability to choose between, and be
able to execute equally well, two (or even more) different ways of
doing it.

Later in the lesson we used the “Wright-Way Note Finder” or, as the kids like to call it: the “gizmo” or the “thingamabob”.  The first thing I decided to do was to ask her to just watch, while mom slowly moved the note, always in one direction, alternating lines with adjacent spaces.  She let the note pause for a second or two on each staff position before moving on to the next higher note.  During this pause, the mom would say out loud: “line”, “space”, “line”, etc.

C. was already familiar with the appearance of middle C.  We moved the

note to a staff position a good distance from middle C (first upwards
and later downwards) and then asked her to twist the control knob
until it settled exactly on middle C.  This she did without any hesitation.

After settling the note back on middle C, I asked her to budge the
note into the nearest space above middle C.  Asked what she had just
done, she was able to say that she had made the note become a “D”.
Then we did something similar for the B just below middle C.  She
quickly got proficient going back and forth randomly among those three
notes (b3, c4, d4).

We then posed to her the question, how do you think an “E” would look
on the gizmo.  No clues or hints were given.  No explanations.  After
a moment or two she intuitively put the note onto the bottom line of treble clef.  It is important for her to figure things out for herself, and does this more quickly and ably than when receiving coaxing, explanations and directions.

This was only her third lesson, but she felt much better about herself
afterwards.  Trust the student and be creative in finding a way that
helps them.

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Beginners. C.C.’s lesson on 12/16/20

C.C.’s default is to memorize.  She finds this easiest, and less confusing
then trying to turn on her ability to comprehend what she sees on the printed page and convert it into a series of actions and sounds at the piano keyboard.
For instance, before she plays two first two measures of a particular piece she says to me: “Is this where the notes go C C D C?”  And if I say yes then she plays the notes by recalling from her short term memory the order of what she just said.

She has difficulty multi-processing.  Especially when it involves two

simultaneous procedures that initially seem very distinct and unrelated
one to the other, but which is presented to her in such a way as if as if
they are somehow meant to accompany each other in time, and a confusing promise that eventually she will form a synthesis of the two so that they appear to her as a single activity.   In this case, she was being asked, on the one hand, to process the visual symbols on the page of music (and to do so in the correct temporal order) while, on the other hand, learning the physical coordinations necessary to manipulate the keys of the piano to produce a series of sounds in the same temporal order.

 

Rather than try to force her to try to form this difficult synthesis ex nihilo, I improvised a set of easier tasks involving multiprocessing.*

I asked her to make circles in the same direction with both of her arms at the same time.  This was very easy for her. Then I asked if she could circle the arms both in the opposite direction.  Then in two directions at once (one arm clockwise the other counterclockwise).

Then I asked her to place both her hands at the left end of the
keyboard, and then move both hands until they both reached the right
end of the piano.  Then I added this extra request, let the speed at
which the right arm moves to the right be faster than the speed at
which the other arm moved.  This difference in speed had to be
maintained throughout the course of travelling along the keyboard.
When the arm that was moving faster reached the right side of the
piano it would just remain there quietly until the other arm caught up with it.  It was not OK to let the slower arm drift aimlessly and then catch up to the faster moving arm at the last minute.

I wanted to gradually bring up her confidence that she could do things she hadn’t done before that were all related to the final goal.
After a while we switched to the printed score.  Here it was helpful to unknot a compound ability and reveal the separate components that make it up.
It can be hard for the teacher to conceptually return to a sufficiently earlier point in her life when these two component tasks were just separate things and not yet combined into an automatic unity.  This can be as difficult for the teacher to do as it is for the student, in the ‘opposite’ direction, to try to make the combination happen for the first time.

 

We had her use her dominant pointer finger to move from one note to

the next along the music score.  This took a little guidance from her

mom (remember we are doing this lesson ‘remotely’).
Her mother took hold of her daughter’s pointer finger and helped it move from one note on the score to the ‘next’ note, always giving her daughter a moment or two to visually realize why her finger had been moved
specifically to this particular new location on the page.

Next, we practiced simply moving her eyes and head up and down,

without trying to focus on anything particular.
Then we refined it so as to look specifically in the general direction of
the score, and the general direction of her hands on the keyboard.
But without looking at any place in particular. She didn’t need to focus
her eyes on anything particular, but instead just to get used to changing
back and forth the angle of her gaze.

 

In the next step, her mom pointed to the notes on the page, one by one,

in order.  Her daughter was to play the note to which her mom pointed out
that was when it was being pointed to.  This she was able to do!  For
the first time, too.  Before we inserted the in-between steps, she had not been able to do this.

Although this put her mom in control of her playing, she was OK in ceding

this control, because it meant she could rely on someone else to bring
her eyes back to the page at just the right place on the page without her having to search on the page each time for the place that corresponded to where she

was in making the sounds.

Then, we reversed things.  The daughter was to be in control of her
mother.  It would be the daughter who pointed to the notes in the score, in
temporal order, one at a time, and her mom had to play the notes at the
keyboard in tandem with her daughter’s pointing.

The daughter soon learned that she had the ability to control the
rate at which her mom played, by pointing to the next note when she
felt good and ready to do it.  Sometimes she sped up the tempo of her
pointing and sometimes slowed it down.  The mom dutifully stayed with
the rate of her daughter’s pointing out of the notes.*

Afterthought: The act of creation often requires the preliminary step of
destruction: a taking apart the pieces that went into the construction
rather than assuming that since the parts are together now, they were
always together (see Chapter 9 of my book “The Spectrum of the Arts” a
link to which is on the front page of this site under the heading “Joe’s
Book”), The only way to disassemble a process that was built through
the passage of time is to temporally reverse it and turn it back into
its original state.  This is destruction.  It is the way an artist can
travel backward in time to run things forward again.

* As is my wont, the steps that I followed were not thought about
previously, they just came to me spontaneously by watching intently
what was happening moment to moment at the lesson.

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Bach: Well Tempered Klavier: Book One: Prelude in C# Major

A.B.’s lesson from several weeks ago.

Confusing the student…the “feel” of what key is under a finger
versus the name given that key in the score:

When a harpist wants to make the sound of a C-natural, they have the
choice of playing B-sharp on the string whose purpose in life is to
handle all types of “B-s” (B-flat, B-Natural, B-Sharp), or to play
C-natural on the string whose purpose is to handle all sorts of “C-s”
(C-flat, C-Natural, C-Sharp).  Which they choose at a given moment has
less to do with the harmonic and musical structure of the piece, and
more to do with what other harp strings need to be physically sounded
in the same vicinity of how the piece is unfolding in time.  This
latter is the overriding necessity on the modern, so-called, ‘chromatic’
harp where there are fewer individual strings than there are notes to
play with those strings, and thus limiting the combinations of pitches
that can sound at one and the same time.

A personal digression:

As a pianist and composer, I was born a “sharp” person rather than a
“flat” person.  In an atonal piece, I’m more apt to choose to “spell” a
note, for example, as an F# rather than as a Gb.  I have absolute
pitch, and sharps have always sounded different than flats in terms of
the emotional world they evoke.  When I play a piece by another
composer, I feel no need, however, to think of flats as sharps.  That would make me too much of an iconoclast.

The C# Major Prelude from book One of the Well-Tempered Klavier is

challenging to my student because of the ramifications of their being
such a large number of sharps in the key signature (7), especially when
Bach moves briefly into a different region, which then requires adding,
at times, a substantial number of double sharps.  He has to first notice
the double sharp sign, then pause and ‘translate’ the double sharp in his
head into an enharmonically equivalent sharp or natural.  He may need
the more ‘familiar’ denomination of the note for his fingers to find their way quickly onto the correct keys on the piano keyboard.  For instance, he
works on convincing himself that a Cx is really a D.

Things get gnarly in the measures that contain excerpts from scales
during modulatory passages.  In his case, if confronted, for example,
with part of a B# major scale (B#, Cx, Dx), he might tell his fingers
that they are playing C D E from a C Major scale rather than B# Cx Dx
from a B sharp major scale.  This system has its drawbacks.  One
cannot easily see what the harmonic structure of the work is which
denies the piece its comprehensibility to the ear.

It is as if somewhere in the collective unconscious of pianists,
stemming from their first experiences at the piano, there is the archetype of the white key also being a ‘natural’ key.  In the attempt to simplify things for the young student, the teacher delays introducing the concept that white notes can also be double sharps, double flats,

as well as sometimes sharps and flats.  The student may often find
themselves in the situation of, not actually saying out loud, but thinking

confusedly: “I thought you told me thus and thus, and I dutifully
learned it as such, but now you want to tell me that the stability of
the truths you told me are in fact variable.  What should I rely on?
Am I going against obeying the truth you told me by now accepting this other truth, that you have told me later in time?  Has the world now become more complicated than you first taught me, where truth has become something relative rather than reliable and fixed?  Why was such information denied for so long until it was too late for me to reconcile the two?”.

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The voice as an ideal model for the piano.

W.B.’s lesson

By singing, you are taking control over the piece instead of the piece
taking control over you.  The latter case occurs when the piece forces
your body to follow a certain order of muscle movements and thus
hiding from you the inner soul of the music.

Singing molds the phrase:

It is as if the voice is an active and tangible force, generated from
deep within the body that can take the static objects of the keys, key
which always stay in the same left-right position relative to each
other, and mold those keys into the shape of a phrase.  The voice is
a “demiurge”* and the keyboard the inchoate** mass of an earth ready
to be formed and shaped.

Through the simple device of using the words spoken when counting out
loud as syllables when singing the pitches of the music, one can
combine bring all the benefits and dynamism of singing into the realm
of rhythm as well as the realms of sound production and phrasing.  So
even counting can devolve back upon and rest on the spiritual energy
of the voice.

In W.B’s case, we simplified the sung counts into a mantra-like succession of identical syllables that repeat, something as simple as “la la la la…” .

* Originally an artisan-like figure responsible for fashioning and
maintaining the physical universe.  It was originally a common noun
meaning “craftsman” but gradually came to mean “producer”, and
eventually “creator”, and “second god”.  (Wikipedia)

** Without discernable shape

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