Brahms: large spans – small hand.
Sometimes what appears to be a single technical difficulty located in a very specific place in the score, turns into, upon closer inspection, a series of separate but sequential technical issues that happen to cascade by in a short mount of time. Somehow, we need to be able to separate one step from another.
The situation is not unlike something that often happens to our moods. We feel happy at one instant and then sad at the next. This may distress us doubly because not only do we find ourselves sad, but because we have no idea what caused such a sudden change from being happy. Why this sort of thing happens is often because between the happy state and the sad state there were, flying through our mind, a series of thoughts, each one triggering an association with a thought, or memory, a bit more sad than the last. A second or two later, at the end of the train of thoughts, we feel that our mood changed as rapidly as being at the high point on roller coaster, and then finding ourselves hurtling downwards in space.
Understanding how we got there requires capturing in mid-stream each of these thoughts as they occur, and bringing them to full awareness and not leaving them semi-conscious. This blog entry presents an instance of this related to the piano, from a lesson yesterday when Irving played the opening of the Brahms Third Piano Sonata, Opus 7, first movement, specifically measure one, specifically beats two and three.
If you don’t have a big hand, this measure, and the ones following, can be difficult to play. What follows is on behalf of the person with a more average sized hand.
What at first seemed to be a matter just of coping “somehow” with the large spans, turned out to be a series of difficulties encountered one right after the other. You may solve one, thinking it is the only one, only to find for some reason that you haven’t solved the measure yet. The fact is there is more than one difficulty for the smaller sized hand in this measure.
A more careful analysis is required, with close attention in real time to what different parts of the playing mechanism are in the midst of trying to do. Playing in tempo obscures each step in the process.
The identity of these steps may not be apparent until we significantly slow down the measure, the same way high speed photography allows us to see a humming bird flapping its wings up and down, even a bullet traveling through space.
In our case, we slow down the measure to a crawl, and observe what each finger (and the hand too), at each instant, is trying to do.
During the bare second or two it takes to play the measure in tempo, each difficulty needs to be dealt with, separately, and in the order in which it arrives. Coping with one difficult a moment to early will throw off the entire process. It is like an assembly line, each worker takes care of a specific task and then passes things on to the next worker who then does their step. A worker cannot do their step in the process until the worker before them in the line has completed their step.
What follows are details of the steps that Irving and I found – once he played the measure at an extremely slow tempo.
I do not think these same steps would work for every individual, with every shape of hand, with every complement of fingers. But it is illustrative of the process itself, which each pianist can then tailor to their own circumstances.
Beat two going into beat three.
#1: Play the three notes in the right hand on beat two.
#2: Release the lower two notes while continuing to hold the top note.
#3: Substitute another finger for the pinkie on af5.
#4: Step 3 allows for a more legato execution of the af5 to the g5 to the f5.
#5: One now finds the hand in a position from which it is much easier to get to the particular hand distribution needed for the chord on the third beat.
If it is still difficult to get from the last thirty second note f5 back to the g5 that lies within the chord the chord on beat three, there is a second fake: when playing the thirty second note g5, continue holding down while playing the next thirty second note, f5.
As a further step, you can even hold the g5 into and through the chord on beat 3.
These steps, done in that order, will solve that measure for many pianists who have been intimated by the opening of this sonata.
The segue from one step to the next, however, needs to be handled with an exquisite sense of timing, a rhythm of its own independent of the rhythm of the notes, the rhythm of the body doing first one thing and then another.
When attempting to do these steps in order for the first time, do not try to do it in tempo. Put a fermata, as long a pause as you would like, after you have done each step. Don’t worry about going on to the next step until you feel completely ready. We a series of motions need to be executed rapidly, it benefits from spreading out the required motions in time, almost as if you are setting them side by side in space, which permits you to dwell for as long as you like on each part.
What we have done for this measure is an analysis that is just a matter of mechanics (though not requiring a degree in physics). It requires careful and genuine regard for the details of one’s anatomy and how each part wants to behave if it could have its ‘druthers’. If we observe the process carefully we will find just what motions are appropriate and as well as the time that should be given to each.
(I am going to try to import a photo of the first measure)
Where does sound come from? A thought experiment.
Stranded on a dessert island.
Imagine a person born blind, living alone, on a proverbial deserted island, out of touch with society, surviving through what she can grasp with her hands. Sight has never had an influence on her notion of reality.
From a hidden vantage point we notice that a bird is singing near where she is standing. We assume she hears it; but cannot see it. For her there is only a certain quality of sound, to which only we can give the name bird. For her, it never gets beyond being just a sound, although she can distinguish one sound from another on the basis of its quality.
Thus she is someone who 1) has never seen, 2) never seen a bird, and 3) wouldn’t be able to conceive that there is something called a bird. There are simply no past connections between the sense of sound and the sense of sight. There is nothing linking the sound of the bird with the sight of a bird.
If the question “why” arises in her mind, probably in the form of “why this sound and not another sound”, the question can only be posed by her within the domain of time and not space: “why do I hear that sound now and not at another time.”
At this moment, a miracle occurs.
Our subject can now see. One of the first things that happens is that she sees a bird, although it is not at that moment singing. Thus at this point there is no reason for her to form any sort of link between the sound of the bird and the image of the bird in front of her.
Some scientists now enter the scene.
They introduce themselves, and present her with a series of pictures. Included is a picture of the same species of bird that she has been hearing. She is asked to choose from among the pictures the one she thinks would be most closely associated with the sound she already knows.
This request perplexes her. She cannot even understand the general form of the question. At this stage of the story, sight is still new to her. She knows of no reason why a sight and a sound should be related to each other, even that they could be related to each other. While the sound, for the scientists is the “sound of a bird“, she has no need to make, or even conceive, such a statement.
She has no grounds for choosing one picture as against another. This makes it arbitrary which picture she chooses. If she is “artistic” by nature, perhaps she may form an aesthetic comparison: which sight feels like it goes with this sound.
Her judgment in this matter cannot yet be based on cause and effect. And even if she has a notion of cause and effect from her previous experiences in which there was no sight, sound as far as she can tell, needs no cause.
“Excuse me”, she asks, “are you saying that a sound requires a sight to cause it? That among all the random lines and shapes I see, which seem aimlessly distributed in space, there are certain lines and shapes that for a reason I cannot conceive ‘belong’ to each other, stand out from the other lines and shapes because of a mysterious relationship, which in turn you call the cause of the sound I have been hearing – not just now, but whenever I hear it.
When you speak of this mysterious connection between just certain lines and shapes, you use the strange word ‘object’, as if by saying that word it should be obvious to me why just those lines and shapes clump together with each other. And then, now that I supposedly believe in something called ‘the object’ whatever an object is, it is also the cause for the sound – something that never seemed necessary to me for the sound to occur. Why should there be such a complicated and seemingly arbitrary way of connecting things in my mind, based on an invisible (at least to me) concept called ‘object’, without which, you say, I would not hear my sounds. Furthermore that I have to choose among several of these objects, and pronounce the words ‘this object is the cause of what I hear?’ That sounds like an enchanter’s spell. My universe was full and complete without sound requiring a cause. Being sighted is sure a complex thing.”
At last she picks one of the pictures. “If I pick this picture today can I pick another picture tomorrow to be the cause of this particular sound in my head? I ask you this because for now, none of the pictures that you show me bear any inner resemblance to the sound that I know.” The psychologists say: “No, you must believe that a sound arises in your consciousness because of a certain event happening in space, which something has to do with a particular object that you see, and always that object and not another.”
She comes to her “senses”.
She is left alone for a few days to ponder this perplexing situation, a situation that until now, without sight, had no reason or necessity to exist.
During one of these days she just happens to hear the sound of the bird at the same time that she is looking at a bird. This may have happened on the preceding days, but this time she notices that the beak of the bird moves in tandem, in time, with the occurrence of the sound. She knows this much more because of time rather than space. The togetherness of the sight and the sound is based on a common moment in time.
This forms the basis of a series of ongoing experiences by which the sound of the bird is gradually linked in her mind to the image of the bird.
As with the pictures of shown by the psychologists to the girl, sights that are visible to a growing, young child at only at certain times, during for example a concert, are only gradually coordinated by that child with something seen in space in the concert hall. It turns out that the people who are holding musical instruments in their hands seem to make motions that are most consistently synchronous in time with the changes of the qualities of the sounds.
Here’s the first important point. Once such an association is made by the child, he or she forgets that there was a time when no such association had been made.
The second point is: was either the woman on the island, or the person in the concert hall, missing anything crucial when they was unable to relate the object ‘bird’ or the object ‘violin’ with a certain specific sound quality of sound? I say no. Nothing essential to our understanding and appreciation of sound is added to by the tacking onto the sound a relationship with sight. And in the concert hall, it adds nothing important to essential qualities of the music as sound alone.*
For those of us who do not need such distractions as sight offers, and can remain glued to the sounds of the piece, we enter an ideal realm of pure relationships between pure sounds, closed off from everything else, and not lacking a thing.
* It is for some but not all of the concert goers, that visual impressions can serve as a distraction or refuge from just having to listen to sound from one moment to the next. For them there are the distractions of the appearance of the concert hall. For them, too, there is the all important information in the program notes, which they are relived to believe captures something essential that they miss in the progression of the sounds alone. But thanks to the program notes, they are able to go up to someone at intermission and say, wisely: “wasn’t it wonderful how the composer used the brass section in the second movement of the symphony to create a delicate halo of sound around the rest of the orchestra!”.
An addendum to previous blogs about improving Sight Reading
Links to previous blogs on sight reading are at the end of this post.
Today, we devoted Irving’s entire lesson to sight reading. During the lesson we noticed that these things were recurrent themes.
Trust your ear to judge if there is you have played a wrong note, but that sometimes though a note sounds wrong to the ear it is still correct because you are playing the piece in a slower tempo.
Remind yourself of the key signature in each new measure that you read. If you have an excellent visual imagination, just place the key signature after each new bar line.
Keep track of accidentals that have arisen in the current measure and remember to honor them throughout the rest of the measure* (be on the lookout for a natural sign as one of the accidentals in a measure).
Make sure all the notes your fingers are pushing down are actually sounding.
Try to think ahead.
Try to make the bar lines “transparent”. See if you can use any of the time playing the current measure to read ahead and figure out some or all of the next measure.
Sometimes try to sight read in “real time”, I.E. with no pauses or hesitations. Keep up with the beats, even if it means skipping over notes or even measures.
* even though the accidental sign only shows up the first time it applies in the measure and not the remaining times that it may apply.
Links to previous posts about sight reading:
#1 Habits that produce good sight reading: https://joebloom.com/habits-that-induce-good-sight-reading-skills/
#2 New rule for Irving regarding Sight Reading. https://joebloom.com/a-new-rule-for-irving-about-sight-reading/
#3 Rhythm & rhythmic coordination in Sight Reading. https://joebloom.com/rhythmic-coordination-between-the- hands-in-sight-reading/
Simplifying a difficult passage and then building it back up.
A simple example of the procedure.
Irving is a late beginner. He is playing just the right hand of one of the easier Bach pieces. He thinks it will be too hard to put the hands together. I suggest that the next time he plays just the right hand, he lay his left hand down on the keyboard hand and let it rest there passively. He says: I don’t see any advantage in doing this, it certainly is not going to make playing the two hands together any easier. But he tries it. He is immediately struck by the fact that the right hand seems harder to play when the left hand is simply present on the keyboard. He says the right hand feels different. I agree: what one hand does is influenced by the other hand. Still, he said, this is easier than playing both hands together.
What we had created is an in between point between playing just with one hand and playing with both hands. Instead of one larger ‘step’, going directly from playing with one hand to playing with both hands, we created two smaller steps: 1) right hand alone 2) right hand with left hand running interference, 3) both hands playing the written notes. Instead of going directly from step one to step three, all that’s left for Irving is to go from step two to step three.
However, what if going from step two to step three turns out to be too big a jump? We simply divide that jump into two smaller parts. Between step two and step three we insert this: the left hand, though not yet playing its part, now is moved around while the right hand plays. Not moving any place particular but just so he is conscious of motion occurring in the left hand while trying to concentrate of the right hand.
We were following in the foot steps of one of the great thinkers in the Western tradition. The philosopher René Descartes (1596-1650), in his “Discourse on Method” suggested that one follow a four-step plan for seeking truth in the sciences. The second of these was, in his words “to divide up each of the difficulties which I examined into as many parts as possible, and as seemed requisite in order that it might be resolved in the best manner possible.”
We interpolate new steps as needed. As soon as the transition from one step to the next is not easily accomplished, we interpolate another step. The beauty of this procedure is that one can interpolate as many steps as one wants between the starting state and the final state we are aiming for. The more intermediate steps there are, the smaller becomes the change in difficulty from one to the next. In its ideal form, when using this process, the pianist will not be aware of any increase in difficulty when going from one step to the next, and the final state, the one desired all along, will, when attained, seem no harder than the first step.
A careful analysis:
The trick is how to define the first state. It must bear a direct relation to the last state. In Irving’s case it was easily found: “I’ll start with one hand at a time before trying both hands together”. Other technical and musical difficulties require a more penetrating analysis. Often the starting state is found at the end of a reverse process that starts with the final state, and gradually simplifies it, step by step, each time by removing what is most difficult to execute from what is left, and/or what is least essential musically, until a simplest state is left or revealed, one that is simplest to play yet still bears a resemblance to the final state.* During this process, each stage, while simpler than the last, should still contain the essence of the previous stage.
We operate like a grammarian who diagrams a sentence in a manner that reveals its more essential and less essential parts and clauses. Or like a chemist who by analysis reduces a complex compound into smaller and smaller molecules until at last the atomic structure of the compound is revealed. Or like a philosopher who seeks into an issue to find the more basic principle on which it rests. In my case, it is a procedure I use especially when teaching ear training: taking an ear training ability that is presented as being simple and whole, but then refracting it through a prism and showing that there are other, simpler component abilities that underlying the target ability. And even some of the simpler abilities turn out to be, themselves, complex in relation to even simpler abilities. Start with the simplest abilities and build back up.
* By removing notes without compromising the general meaning of the passage. By removing melodically unessential notes from a melody leaving only the salient notes. By simplifying a complex rhythm into simpler rhythms (simpler in nature and simpler in execution). By simplifying a complex harmonic progression to a simpler one that is easier for the ear to track, and easier for the fingers to play.
5 shorter blogs: runs; scales/arpeggios; symmetry; jazz improv.; note groups
How to start a run (#1). Scales can help us execute arpeggios and vice versa (#2). Symmetric motions in the hands (#4) Jazz improvisation (#4). A deeper meaning to a group of notes (#5)
#1 How to start a run
It’s the second note that precisely defines the tempo of the run.
How quickly does a listener determine the tempo of a piece. Not by the first note, but they can judge the tempo by hearing the first two notes. It is the precise duration from the beginning of the first note to the beginning of the second note that is the clue. This proves to be important for the pianist when starting a run, a scale, etc., any series of notes that are all share the same rhythmic value. If we are careful to play the second note at exactly the right moment after the first note, then we know what precise duration to give to each of the notes follow.
#2 Using arpeggios to help play scales, and vice versa.
When I am playing a scale, and it isn’t coming out the way I want, I play instead an arpeggio starting on the tonic note of the scale.
For instance, instead of: C D E F G A B c
I play C E G c
If at that point, without any time taken off in between, I play the scale again, the scale sounds more evenly and controlled.
The arpeggio in effect seems like a scale that has been sped up. I just have to fill parenthetically the notes the arpeggio left out.
The reverse situation applies as well. When I am playing an arpeggio, if it isn’t coming out the way I want, I play stead a scale whose tonic is implied tonic in the arpeggio.
For instance, instead of: C E G c
I play C D E F G A B c
This slows down the arpeggio because I am filling in the notes between the notes of the arpeggio. It now takes longer to get from one note of the arpeggio to the next. I just have be aware of the notes that I’m leaving. Especially the interval is more than a third, as well as when I bring over thumb, or come under the thumb.
#3 Mirror motions. The “target hand” and the “helping hand”
The body is freest and happiest when the two bilateral side of the body (the arms in particular) are moving in opposite directions. The physical sensation in the arm when moving away from the a central position (I.E. rightwards with the right hand, leftwards with the left hand) is different than the physical sensation in the arm when moving towards a central position (I.E. leftwards with the right hand, rightwards with the left hand). The body is happier when the two sensations are more alike. This is one of the reason that scales played in opposite motion in two hands seems easier than the usual practice of both hands moving rightwards, or both hands moving leftwards.
One hand helps the other: the helping hand and the “target” hand
In my playing, if I feeling awkward playing a passage or group of notes in the right hand, In what follows the right hand is the “target” hand and the left hand is the “helping” hand. The situation can be reversed if one is having difficulty with a passage in the left hand.
I will take the helping hand and move it in the empty space above the keyboard in a course that is a mirror image of the the directions that the right hand is going. It goes leftwards when the target hand goes rightwards, It goes rightwards when the target hand goes leftwards. As i said, the helping hand traces in empty space, just above the keyboard, the mirror motion of the target hand.
After doing this for a brief time, I go back to having the helping hand play the notes indicated for it in the score. The helping hand can retain the sensations of trying to mirror the target hand even though it is restrained from doing it fully by the notes it has to play that are in the score. But that doesn’t stop it from “trying” to start making such motions to mirror the other. Muscles can contract as if attempting a motion in one direction even if the hand at the same time busy playing notes that go in a different direction.
#4. Jazz improvisation
Not stopping the flow of notes every once in a while simply because you are not sure where to go to next.
During one year I had a jazz pianist come for lessons. He thought he would gain some additional perspectives on jazz by working with a classically trained teacher.
At first I showed stuff about classical music. It went OK. However, then I decided that it would be more interesting to work with him while he was improvising. My absence of technical knowledge in jazz would not prevent me from evaluating his improvisation on more general musical grounds such as sound, musicality, and motion.
I asked him to improvise for me on a standard tune. What I noticed was that when he would begin to play a series of rapid notes, after a certain number of notes went by he paused, but then went on. The pause to me always sounded artificial: not done for a musical reasons. I was curious to determine whether the pause was for stylistic reasons or occurred because his fingers were momentarily ‘stumped’ as to what to do next. It turned out to be the latter. Ideally he would have preferred continuing the series of notes in the improvisation.
I invented a curious exercise, one that is good for classical as well as jazz pianists. I had him wiggle his fingers rapidly in the air and simply do so without stopping. That set up the notion that the note-stream does not ever need to stop. The next step was to bring that finger motion to the keyboard and to play random notes. The notes need not have any musical significance. It was purely for him to get used to the idea that it was technically possible to generate an indefinite series of notes. In the last stage he applied that technique to improvising on a standard melody and, every time he was on the verge of stopping because he hadn’t yet figured out the following notes, he was to use stage two and to continue playing notes they were random notes. This opened up for him the possibility of creating a stream of fast notes at any speed, one that would last as long as he chose.
#5. A deeper meaning to a group of notes.
Sometimes it is not enough for me to play through a group of notes, just once, a part of a theme or a motive. It is as if I am taking a cursory swipe at what I think is contained in those notes: looking especially for something that is consistent with all the notes around it. But with repeated swipes I begin to unmask what is really going on in that group of notes. And that something is often easily glossed-over by me to make it seem like it is just another neutral, undifferentiated part of the whole nexus of notes of which it is a part.
By the second or third time I repeat the target group of notes (usually anywhere from 2 – 8 notes), I begin to see that it has a life of its own, one that is easily submerged in the general flow of the measure. Would I be encouraging anarchy on the part of those notes to give special care to bring out its authentic properties independently of what the rest of the surrounding passage is trying to state musically.
The answer I find is usually that bringing out the individuality of a group of notes, based on its shape, rhythm and harmonic implications, only adds, and does not detract, from the general flow of the piece; that it enriches meaning in the passage and not goes off on a tangent.