Never max out in volume, it leaves no room in which to maneuver musically
This entry in the blog is related to an earlier one that spoke about how many small degrees of increments in loudness are perceptible by the ear between, say, pianissimo and piano, as against the number of such increments between piano and mezzo piano, mezzo piano and mezzo forte, etc..
Two interesting facts emerged in that earlier blog. 1. When ‘shaping’ a phrase we should, from note to note, make use of every possible increment of relative loudness and softness, down to the most minimal ones that the ear can perceive. 2. That the number of these minimal subdivisions in loudness does not remain constant as we go from pp, to p, mp, mf, f, ff.. As we get louder, there are fewer and fewer minimally perceivable gradations in loudness before we have already spilledd over into the next ‘milepost’ of loudness for which we have a notation symbol. That, for example, between f and ff there are fewer distinguishable degrees in loudness than there are between mf and f, which in turn has fewer than from mp to mf.
This means when we are trying to shape a phrase while playing, on average, louder, we soon exhaust all the possible, subtle gradations of loudness and can easily find ourselves suddenly much louder – which defeats the subliminal art of giving ‘shape’ and form to the music (see earlier blog entries about “shaping” a phrase through subtle dynamic changes). This ‘shape’ disappears if the difference in loudness between one note and the text in the phrase are either to large or too monotone. In sum, it becomes harder and harder to give an aesthetically pleasing contour to bring out the shape of a phrase, the louder we play. Mp to mf is an ideal, average range to stay within to have maximum amount of dynamic room without getting less than mp or louder than mf. Remember, we are talking only about averages; there is still occasion for sounds that are softer than mp and louder than mf. To borrow a phrase from singers, mp to mf, is a good tessitura “texture”) for a piece.
The main thrust of today’s blog entry about gradations of loudness has a slightly different focus: the distribution in a piece specifically those places of highest dynamic intensity. And how important it is to retain a sense of relativity in the loudnesses of one climax compared to another. Climaxes are not all equally loud simply by virtue of their all being ‘climaxes’. It all depends on the texture and musical meaning of the passage.
It is not uncommon that a student, when they arrive at a climax, maxes out in loudness, and remains throughout the passage at their most extreme possible loudness. This gives the pianist no more room in which to further shape the phrases if the piece. Instead the character of the piece becomes frozen in time, because always being maintained at the highest peak of loudness. The only discernible characteristic of the passage reduces to simply its loudness.
To maintain the outline of the dramaturgical curve of the music, one should always leave something in reserve. Always have the possibility of growing even further in intensity. At each moment in the piece, always leave room or someplace to go ‘to’ (whether louder or softer). Don’t box yourself into a corner with no place to move to.
Softness and loudness live along a continuous spectrum. Any degree of softness or loudness should imply the possibility of a sound that is respectively louder than it or softer than it. When playing at a softer dynamic, there should be qualities associated with loudness that lie latent in the sound. A feeling of loudness should always remain inside the aura of a soft sound, and vice versa.
One of the ways of tracing the changing dramaturgical curve of a piece of music, through time. is to use the analogy of spatial curve. The curve should take intimate note of where the intensity of the piece is temporarily growing or decreasing. This is a relative thing versus an exact measurement f how loud or soft the piece is at the moment.
Notice how an accurate graph of these two characteristics have increasing sections ‘nesting’ inside a longer, broader general sense of decreasing, and vice versa. It is a complex curve that generally will contain zero or more minimum and/or maximum points.
When one draws a graphic representation of this curve in space, then, as with any mathematical curve, zero or more maximum points will show up in the curve. Let us say that there are a series of several or more maximum points along the curve. Each is a ‘climax’ because it is approached through growing intensity and followed by lessening intensity. If you ignored most of the curve, keeping only the maximum points themselves, and simply connected one maximum point with the next with a straight line segment, the result should not add up to a single horizontal longer line segment from one end of the graph to the other. It should be more at being a ‘broken’ line there, at the end of one line segment meets the next, there should be some noticeable angle or change in slope.
Rather than every maximum (climax), being at the same height (loudness) on the graph, there should be variation from one to the other represented by a separate dramaturgical curve that threads together just the high points.
If, instead, all the climaxes are of equal loudness, the question arises, when the listener encounters any one of them: “Is this one the most important climax: are we at the main climax of the piece”? There should be some intuitive way of answering this question, even though you may not have yet encountered all the points of greatest intensity remaining in the piece (in its future tense). Rather, we want some sense of the relative value of this climax versus others in the same movement or piece, otherwise the piece has no sense true sense of duration and development through the continuous passing of time. With each climax we would seem to return to the same thing, something distinguished aesthetically only by its loudness.
The worst case scenario, the piece becomes a random succession of unmotivated softer sections and louder sections. Things do not “impend” into the future. Past and future become the same. We are set adrift in the piece, our positions in present time seem a bit random relative to when the piece began and when it may end.
The many “directions” of legato
Legato is the existential complaint and rebellion by the piano against its mechanically percussive nature and thereby against the inevitable decline in loudness of every note it makes once that note starts.
When we play legato we tend to confine it to a single line, voice or hand, sometimes to a series of chords.
The ramifications of legato however can sprout in many directions at once.
If we liken the layers and voices of a piece to the trunk and the larger and smaller branches of a tree, then the following seven situations are analogous depictions of legato situations.*
#1. The trunk separating into branches (a legato connection goes simultaneously from a single note to two or more different notes).
#2. Branches diverging into smaller branches (for instance each note of a the current chord connecting legato to each and every note in the next chord).
#3. Higher branches of a tree converging back into the single trunk (connecting legato several notes sounding at once all to the same note).
#4. A single shunt or off-shoot from a single more major branch (a primary voice dividing into the continuation of the major voice while a subsidiary off-shoot voice moves away from the primary voice).
#5. Overlapping branches and twigs and leaves creating a dense
pattern against the sky (many notes connecting simultaneously to many
other notes, including the possibility that connections starting from
a plurality of notes sometimes converge into a single note).
#6. Within case 5: forming a continuous line out of one section of a small branch to another small branch where the two cross (in other words using a legato connection to fall off one voice’s track and onto another voice’s track).
#7. Joining with the eye nearby places within the tree that have similar structural patterns (forming a legato line out of different parts of different voices based on where their rhythms are the same, or forming one rhythm but of legato connections among two or more voices that sound at once).
The salient aspect to be derived from the image of the tree is that when one branch subdivides into two branches it is as if the matter of the tree extrudes itself at its tip so that it continues its material existence as more than one branch.
There is no single physical or aural technique to accomplish all legato connections, even if they all belong to one of the seven categories listed above. Each individual legato connection often requires a unique approach. The pianist must discover this on a moment to moment basis. To put it in an equivalent way: don’t assume that two legato connections, just because they come one after another, require the same physical technique to achieve the same smoothness in sound connection. We have be infinitely adaptable in the plasticity of our technique. Musically we can think of general ‘cases’ of legato but in the moment to moment act of playing it is often a serious mistake to treat two legato connections as sounding the best if we use the same technical considerations for both.
A tangible feeling of connection between each part of the arm mechanism and another
This is a way to help the student feel the connection between the various parts of their arm mechanism – from shoulder to finger tip.
In the steps that follows the teacher or the student can follow the instructions by doing the things described either to themselves by themselves, or the student and teacher can it to the other.
General description of all the phases of the procedure:
I pull gently on one of the finger tips, as I will again and again throughout all the stages of the exercises.
I first increase and then decrease the force of my pull. This repeats about once each second.
The first time I do this I tell the student that my aim in pulling on their finger tip is to exert a force directly onto the first knuckle of their finger. I want the result of my pulling to be felt in the student’s first knuckle. I want both myself and the student to feel that I am trying to move that knuckle around – as I increase and decrease the pull I’m exerting on the finger tip (a pull directed along the long axis of the finger).
In stage two I do the same type of periodic pulling, on the same finger tip as in stage one. However the goal this time is to as if I am pulling on the second knuckle and not the first. I want to feel that the resistance to my pull is coming specifically from the second knuckle of the student’s finger. As I pull and ease up, my consciousness is focused on moving only the region of the finger at that knuckle.
I will have adjusted the way I’m pulling on the finger versus as in stage one, in order to shift the location along the finger of the goal or outcome of my pulling. I ask the student whether they feel anything different when I do a stage two pull as against a stage one pull. I say, in this new stage it’s as if I am sending a message, or a pulse of energy, directly from your finger tip to second knuckle of your same finger; and in your imagination you can feel like the entire length of the arm has shrunk down to just the part of your arm that lies between the finger tip and the second knuckle.
In this stage the goal of our pull has shifted further up the finger so that the pull affects only the third knuckle of the finger. I say to the student: this is that it feels like when I am pulling directly on your third knuckle from by virtue of my pulling on your finger tip.
“Now I’m pulling on your wrist. I am trying to make the wrist bones separate a bit and then close back up, but only by virtue of what I am doing at your finger tip. You can imagine now that the length of the arm has shrunk down to just a single object in space whose ends are the finger tip and the wrist.”
The location of the goal of my pulling on the finger tip progressively goes up the arm. “This is what it feels like when I move your forearm by pulling on your finger tip.” Then the same for the elbow….upper arm….the shoulder. “Feel me move your shoulder as I pull on your finger”.* “If you want, you can feel as if the shoulder and finger tip have no physical distance in space between each other, they are one fused object with no remanent left of any other part of arm between them. You can imagine the two of them them being adjacent and touching each other. By moving your fingers you are moving your shoulder (or another part of the arm on the way to the shoulder).”
The result of playing with such an ‘integrated’ arm causes the most natural, beautiful and rich sounds to emerge from the instrument.
Every once in a while, one or another part or parts of the arm will “fall out” of the continuous connecting series of integuments. We will usually notice this first with our ears and then subsequently with sensations from within the arm. If we are attentive we will almost immediately a difference in the sound quality we are producing. It is the sound that offers the quickest and easiest to recognize cue to the fact of a disruption in the flow of the energy down the arm from the shoulders to the finger tips. Next comes the need to ‘diagnose’ where there is an unresponsive, un-moving, part to the mechanism. Then, to reintegrate into the chain of connections so that by moving one part you are automatically moving all the other parts.
* for some reason this reminds me of the saying: the tail wags the
Sometimes the hand has to figuratively divide itself into separate parts
The hand has often, figuratively speaking, to divide itself into two parts so that it can pivot from the one side to the other. From one to four fingers lying either on its right side subdivision or its left side subdivision. What is most interesting about this process is that there is no firm line of demarcation between the two parts of the hand. Rather ,the hand can subdivide itself at any point along its left-right span.
List of the possible ways of diving the five fingers into two parts:
1 2345 12 345
Whichever dividing point we choose within the hand, the two resulting parts of the hand should feel equally weighted and balanced. This is achieved mostly through the muscles of the arm and somewhat with the
muscles of the wrist and hand.
If we choose for example 1234, with 5, the fifth finger should feel that it can exert, by itself, through the directed power of the arm, as much pressure on the keyboard as the other four fingers combined.
If we had a balance beam, and carefully placed the hand so that its five fingers distributed themselves on both sides of the pivot point, then regardless of how many fingers were on one side of the pivot point or the other, the balance beam would in equilibrium, neither tilting downwards to the left or the right.
Let us say we want to play c4 with the right thumb followed by g4 with the right pinkie. We can apply either of the four permutations listed above to direct how we balance the two sides of our hand. It does not matter which we try in the execution of this perfect fifth (whether there is one, two, three or four fingers in the more leftwards of the two groups of fingers, which results respectively in there being four, three, two or one finger in the more rightwards of the two groups of fingers). It is a process of experimenting until we find just the right balance in the hand to give us the greatest security and clarity of sound when we play the two notes in succession.
If we are having difficulty in feeling kinesthetically the differences between these subdivisions, we can make the sensation more vivid by using the other hand in the the role of a ‘helping hand’. The helping hand should be turned sideways so that it is vertical, with the thumb facing up. It should lie below the target hand except for along a line of contact between the two hands that runs the length of the ‘target’ hand, between the wrist and the space between two of the adjacent fingers.
Regardless of where the division line is located, the part of the hand on one side of the line and the part of the hand on the other side of the line should always feel equal: in the amount of physical mass each contains, and weight.
When to connect notes between two voices rather than staying with notes in one voice
A.B.’s lesson on 11/21/19: The Well Tempered Klavier, Book I, C Major Fugue
A.B. has been so much preoccupied with separating and preserving the identity of each voice in the fugue that it has led to awkward transitions from a note in one voice to a note sounding immediately thereafter in another voice. This happens most especially when one voice has been sessile for a bit of time and then streams ahead again. There is a virtue to practicing the connection between the current voice (on which focus is being maintained by the pianist) “obliquely” across the staff or staves to the first note that is flowing again in the voice that was tranquil for a while.
Here are a couple chosen from myriad examples:
The connection between the g4 in the soprano voice (close to the beginning of the measure) to the f4 in the alto voice. Here the difference in flow-rate between the two voices is minimal, eighths in the alto and sixteenths in the soprano, but connecting the g4 tothe f4 will help remind the listener of the connection in the alto voice between the first note of the measure, g4, to the g4 on the and of one, despite the intrusion into the pitch range of the alto voice of the soprano voice on the second note of the measure.
The connection within the first beat between the tenor voice e4 and the bass voice g3. the logic here is that the connection downwards of a sixth from e4 to g3 is easier to connect in the hand than the descent of two sixteenths spanning just a minor third (bf3 to g3) which occurs while the e4 is being held as an eighth note.
To maintain individual control of two voices in the right hand throughout the measure (the soprano voice and the alto voice) it helps to zig-zag physical attention from one voice to another. Here is a plausible series of notes that can lie along the zig-zag path: d5 b4 c5 gs4 a4 gs4 f4 b4. Many other such paths are open to the hand to follow. Here is a path for the physical attention of the left hand in the same measure: b2 e3 fs3 d3 at the beginning of the measure.
Examples abound in all measures of the fugues. Here is the philosophy behind doing this technique. If a piano player roll was cut out to have the player piano sound the notes of this fugue, the player piano itself would have no consciousness of whether the next note it sounds lies in the same voice or a different voice than the note that just sounded. Just the plain evenness of the succession of notes creates a fugue-like aesthetic pleasure to the performance.
This is also an example of not doing the obvious thing to do while playing, but something as different as possible from the former. The obvious thing to focus on is the integrity of each voice in and of itself with the attention only accidentally straying suddenly to the succeeding note of a different voice. But there is a “logic”, or rather a “perverse” logic that I subscribe to, that advocates doing the thing that is the least obvious, in this case create a zig-zag path between the voices, as a way of shedding new light on the connections between the notes.
Having attention remain on one voice aids only to the physical connections between a single voice and not all the other connections that the listener hears at the same time as the piece evolves from one note that sounds
to the next note sounding – which may or may not be in another voice depending on the rhythm.
Other related blogs have to do with
#1 single voice integrity, and with
#2 turning a fugue into a chorale (into just a succession of chords
including repetitions of any notes that are in the process of being
held at the same moment that any other voice sounds a new note).