Sluggish thumbs – getting older.
When the thumb has to separate from the second finger horizontally, in order to make a skip (rather than a step) to a higher or lower note, the muscles in my thumb are no longer adequate to reliably send the thumb the exact distance on the keyboard it needs to traverse in order to get to the next note it wants to play.
My solution has been to use more of the muscles in the palm as a whole, and in particular, the part of the palm that is constitutes the “mound” of flesh continuous with the palm as a whole, and that is situated between the second and third knuckles of thumb.
By relaxing the muscles in that part of the palm, the thumb tends to drift rather than stretch or reach away from the rest of the fingers. This is a more natural route for the thumb to take to a distant key and involves no tension in the muscles in the vertex between the second and first fingers. The thumb as a whole seems to ooze or spread like a coating over the surface of the contiguous keys between where the thumb is currently located and where it wants to sound the next note. Accuracy and stability are increased.
The entire body rings like a bell.
We are faced with a division in the body: the core of the body, which remains largely whole unto itself and moves as a coherent whole. and the body extremities, particularly the arms and the hands which are constantly making motions that are externally dictated by having to adapt and conform to the horizontal expanse of the keyboard which expands logarithmically from the center.
The most effective piano playing results when this division is done away with, by establishing motions in the torso that conform in spirit to the motions of the arms and hands, and actually serve to reinforce the latter. As the large bell in a Zen monastery is perfected so that its entire body contributes to the sound that therefore emerges from the entire bell.
For instance in consonance with the motions of the arms relative to the keyboard there can be motions of buttocks relative to the piano bench, achieved primarily through the focal point of the ishia bones*. By using the muscles in the torso and in the legs, we can cause the torso to rock rhythmically on the ishia bones: left and right or forwards and back or circularly by combining the other two. As if with sympathetic magic the buttocks act as an invisible agent to bring about motion in the arms and hands. No matter how far the arms move, or in what plane of motion, the heart of that motion comes out of the buttocks because it has enacted the essence of the arms’ motion.
Having established this connection between the deep core and the finger extremities, other parts of the body are inspired to make motions that carefully abet the activity of the fingers at the keyboard. My legs, my knees, my elbows, my shoulders. They pursue paths in space that at first seem unrelated to the piece I am playing but prove that they too have something to offer to the overall “in-tuneness” of the body as a whole.
One of the results of all of this is that no note, no chord, is ever played on the piano that doesn’t feel centered or out of balance. Every note rings true.
*I learned this originally through my teacher Edwine Behre, then for years forgot about, and now have relearned this.
Twelve ways of simplifying a passage physically.
These ways all involve altering, in some specific way, the sequence of
notes played in the passage; as through omission, magnification, or
distortion. Once the distortion is brought back into focus we have a
new understanding of what that part’s function is within the whole
phrase. There is always something special about witnessing something
in the process of coming into focus, that is taken more for granted
when it begins already being in focus.
1. Simplifying physically by purposefully changing the loudness of certain notes.
2. Simplifying physically by changing the rhythm of the notes.
3. Simplifying physically: by leaving notes out and compensating by for
the lost duration by holding other notes longer
4. Simplifying physically by omitting certain notes and thus revealing new connections between less proximate notes.
5. Simplifying physically isolating certain notes of a phrase and giving those notes a new and different expressive contour, thus revealing musical potential in a phrase hitherto overlooked.
6. Simplifying physically by transposing the octave range of certain
notes and thereby removing large skips and jumps between notes in
a phrase and modelling the cohesiveness inherent in the phrase.
7. Simplifying physically by holding down one note of a phrase while
continuing on to play several of the upcoming notes: in order to
homogenize and create greater unity to the sound of the phrase.
8. Simplifying physically by repeating some or all of the notes in
the phrase so they sound twice or more in a row. Like a sculptor
bringing out a three dimensional curve. Or doing the same to feel
like one has more than an ephemeral moment to perfect how a note sounds.
9. Simplifying physically by placing a fermata on a certain note in order
to suddenly increase appreciation of how that note functions in the phrase.
10. Simplifying physically by placing a fermat on the note that comes
just before a note that is hard to reach or articulate.
11. Simplifying physically by eliminating the rhythm and playing each
note with the same duration as every other note.
12. Simplifying physcially by first making it even more difficult, and
then experiencing the relative ease when returning to the original
degree of difficulty
The beginning is wherever we choose it to be.
When a certain note in a passage gives you difficulty, start the passage with the problem note, as if there were no preceding notes eventuating into it*. So often it is the sequence of events and their context which creates the apparent difficulty. Taken out of context the problem note is seen as being just a note, like any other on the keyboard, played with one of the ten “usual” fingers.
* In computer program it is like putting in a “breakpoint”*. (From Google Chrome). In software development, a breakpoint is an intentional stopping or pausing place in a program, put in place for debugging purposes. It is also sometimes simply referred to as a pause. More generally, a breakpoint is a means of acquiring knowledge about a program during its execution.
One blog entry made up of several brief blog entries.
- Subtle Timing Effects in Chords
Bringing in one note of a chord a split second before the other notes, almost undetectably before the other notes can help to emphasize that note, for instance, if you want that note to stand out as a melody note, especially if it is not the top note of the chord.
Depending on the acoustics of the piano on which you are playing, bass notes may not trigger the ear’s awareness as soon as the treble notes. Sometimes this effect can occur to the ear in the reverse order. Sometimes an effect like this may have something to do whether the ear has tracking sounds in the treble and is suddenly asked to acknowledge a sound in the bass (or vice versa).
Know what you want the chord to ‘sound’ like (rather than feel like physically in the hands) and sometimes make micro-adjustments in the order that the notes start sounding. If the adjustments are too great all the listener will hear is a sloppy chord or a nascent arpeggio. Otherwise, if the listener is not conscious of any time delay among the notes, then they may impute the quality of the chord when it sounds as being based on aesthetic considerations or orchestration reasons.
- External Force
This is any use of a force that seems to come either from outside the body or outside the general portion of the body making the sound. For me, an external force has the virtue of seeming to take control away from the part of the physical mechanism whose movement is proximate to and accompanied by the key going downwards.
With beginners sometimes I play their piece “through” their hands for instance by making their fingers go down, in order, on the keys. “Wow”, they might say, “how did I do it without making any effort”. My response is when you do everything naturally it should feel the note is making itself happen.
I may use one hand to push vertically down on a certain spot on the forearm of the hand that is playing, and not always the same spot on the forearm, to cause the sound to happen. The spot is far enough from the fingers on the keyboard that the sounding of the note may seem to come from somewhere else, as if by a machine. Such a procedure restores energy and power to create a sound that may sometimes be flagging at a low energy level by the fingers’ actions alone.
- Unabated propulsion.
In my college physics class, when trying to demonstrate Newton’s first law of inertia, a hockey puck is made to travel the length of a tabletop without slowing down even to the slightest degree, just by a single, momentary flick of the professor’s wrist. This was achieved by because the table surface was perforated by scades of tiny holes through which compressed air originating from underneath the table was being forced up through the holes. The air pressure minimized the friction of the puck with the surface.
Sometimes in piano playing ‘time’ itself can act as friction upon The forward motion of a phrase, passage, or melody. Without each instant adding MORE energy to the flow of the notes the friction of time, and the tiredness of the muscles, may cause things to slow down without our being aware of it as the player.
Changing direction with respect to the pull of gravity can completely change the sensation in our hands and fingers. If we turn our palm upwards and move the fingers, the sensation, though we can attempt to make it the same as the sensation we have when the fingers flex with the palms down, should feel very different than before the palm’s inversion. It gives us a new view or an old motion. We are now working against gravity as we flex the finger, and being aided by gravity as we unflex the finger. The same applies if we try to push down a note by having our fingers move horizontally. For this last one to work, some “component” of the force vector of the fingers has to go downwards, though most of it can go sideways. This enables us to feel a strong force in the finger without directing it all downwards, but rather along the hypotenuse of a right triangle.
- Building a passage up by layers.
When using building blocks, or “legos”, or something of that ilk, we begin by laying the foundation and then adding layers to it. This same approach is useful to understanding a complex or difficult passage of music and to understand which physical motions are necessary to execute it. What notes (and played in what rhythm) can the finished passage not do without. That is the foundation that we should identify and play first.
Resting upon it, or in our case, embedded in it, is the next layer. The additional notes that require the foundation notes to support it and give them meaning but on which many of the ultimate notes still must first depend.
This is building up a passage by layers. Each new layer fits snugly inside the previous layer.