Bach: the E Major Prelude and Fugue from Book Two
A.B.’s lesson on 11/4/21
The two hands spread out like a puddle of water on concrete.
The hands are like amoebas constantly oozing around and changing shape.
Whatever finger in whichever hand “shows up for duty” by being located at that moment over a key that is meant to be played next, plays that key.
Another thing that occurs due to the natural amoeba like motion of the hands is that a key under under hand at one moment may find itself under the other hand moment or two later.
It is almost like the hands are lava flowing down a hillside, at one moment it may form two distinct streams, at another the two streams may converge into one molten mass.
What has no shape definable shape at one moment can have any shape at any moment.
Fingering confession: I can barely go more than a few notes in a piece without unconsciously using a finger substitution. These substitutions occur as the PASSIVE reflex of the fingers in response to a general movement laterally by the entire hand (rather than an intentional motion on the part of the fingers). It is the result of the same ‘amoeba’ like motion of the hands, which can expand and contract as a whole while at the same time changing shape.
The mood of a harmony and how far does it extend in time.
While the prelude bears one key signature, E Major, there are moments which ruffle the surface of that harmony for a note or two, and there are longer sections which different ‘regions’ of the key (B Major, G# Minor, etc.).
Whether ephemeral or longer lasting, try to “evoke” or conjure out of the notes, the ‘mood’ of the current harmony, and not let your ear proceed on the inertia of the previous harmony. When the original theme comes in in B Major, try to see each note played in terms of how it fits in the emotional nexus of B Major, which is different than that of E Major. An ‘E’ for example in the landscape of overtones and their beats in B Major, is a different sound, with a different color and shine, than that of the same ‘E’ in the surroundings of E Major.
Try to stay in the mood of the world of B Major for as long as is harmonically justifiable, and banish the emotional association of what those notes say in the key of E Major. Let the listener make their own surmise that they are hearing the same ‘theme’, consisting o f the same melodic intervals, as occurred in the first entrance of the theme at the beginning of the Prelude. Don’t worry about the constancy of the theme as an entity, let Bach take care of that for you. Know when to share responsibilities between you and the composer.
A technical issue affecting A.B’s playing is that his hands are always ‘itching’ to get to the next note while the current note is still sounding. I would rather he wait until the time has arrived for the new before making any commitment to a gesture that will “get him to the next note”, help situate or predispose his fingers to being already in the new location.
The connections, note to note, in this prelude are sometimes physically difficult to realize. Imagine the frog who remains motionless for an indefinite amount of time until a fly is within several feet of its mouth, at which point its tongue extends itself in one, seemingly instantaneous gesture, to grab the fly. “The frog fires the tongue towards its prey at an astounding 4 meters per second.” (Google).
The frog knows how to wait for the right moment to act, and gets to the target without our even knowing exactly how it did it. Not knowing, nescience, is an important way of permitting the body to make gestures naturally, smoothly and seamlessly. Forethought prevents this naturalness in motion, by predisposing only certain components of the motion to occur and suppressing many others from occurring.
My concept of maintaining the nobility of the sound of this fugue.
While there are a myriad of three and four note chords constellated around the general key of E major. I want them to share the same underlying nobility of sound.
How do I achieve this oneness in spite of constant variety? First I produce a ‘model’ for this sonority on the piano. My choice of model for today is the chord: e2-b2-e3–gs3-b3-e4-gs4. I imagine it being played not by the piano but by the low brass of the Chicago Symphony orchestra in the late fifties and early sixties (of the 20th century). My imagination doesn’t really need the tuba, but I definitely need the bass trombone.
I play that model over and over, until the waves of its sound submerge all other sounds and thoughts. Then it is up to a vivid imagination and memory recall to play the written chords as if each were awash with this sound, was permeated through and through and through with this sound. The evenly spaced waves of the impact of the model wash onto the shore of conscious hearing. I imagine each iteration of that chord as a stand-in for the actual written chord that would have been played next.
I found my singing voice helpful in affecting the transmutation of Chicago brass to Steinway piano. With each iteration of the model chord, I sang and sustained the next note of the opening statement of the theme. I felt the chord reinforce my voice, as if from within, until my voice bore a complete resemblance to the chord.
Another variation was to alternate playing “the” chord then playing the next note(s) in the score, and so on back and forth. The chord was still vivid in my memory and so the next chord in the piece was automatically infected by it. If at any time I lost the “Nobilissima Visione”* of the sound of the written notes I would simply lapse back into play just the chord at least a few times in a row. These latter could be a placeholder (or ‘warm-ups’) until I wanted to go further with the written note, or a stand-ins for a certain number of the written chords. “Warm” is an apt verb. We are aiming to ‘warm up’ resonance of each written chord until it radiates at a high color temperature.
Every note gives up its life in the service of allowing the next note to come to life.
A technical matter the pertains to just one hand, when it is holding one note down while articulating a series of more rapid notes.
When one finger holds a note down, while other fingers in the same hand, and at the same time, articulate two or more notes, often the shape of the hand distorts to the point that the fingers articulating the passing latter notes feel awkward and cramped and cannot clearly enunciate their notes. The paradoxical fix for this issue is to shift more of the weight of the hand onto the finger that is doing the holding down of the sustained note, rather than devoting more care and energy to the moving notes. Moreover the finger that is holding one pitch ‘enacts’ the same physical motions that the other fingers would are doing to play the changing notes. almost doing them in their stead. This includes bending and flexing and in general changing its stance on the key surface. The sensation is that the holding finger is actually playing the shorter notes.
Making a smooth and instantaneous transition to connect, in the left hand alone, the bass and tenor voices, from gs2-es3 to a2-fs3. The ergonomic issue, that requires careful time-coordination in small fractions of a second, is that in the bass voice, you are on a black note to start with and have to slide down the vertical side of that black note in order to end up on a white note. The reverse is true (at the same moment) in the tenor voice, where you are on a white note to start with and have to travel up the vertical side of a black note and end up on the top of that black note. There is a sort of see-saw motion involved, both fingers gliding smoothly on the vertical
surface of a black key, at the same time, but in opposite directions in a vertical plane.
I applied gentle downward pressure from one of my hands to cause A.B.’s hand to flatten out its palm against the key surfaces. The purpose was the opposite of trying limit the mobility of his hand but rather to encourgae the mutability of the hand changing shape constantly. It was to foster the plasticity of his hands in changing shape, that I applied an ‘external force’ (I.E. a force not created by his own muscles) to the top of his hand, pressing it mildly downwards towards the keys. It encouraged a more fluid consistency in the sound going from note to note.
All the notes, within the framework of the fugue, feel like they are connections made within one and the same matrix or pitch-framework, regardless of the momentary specific choice of pitch and pitch direction.
There are magical moment in Bach fugues, when three or more voices start their sounds simultaneously (and are not too widely spread apart pitch-wise). Try to hear the event as a momentary confluence among the voices, rather than the result of an intentional forming of a chord.
* Nobilissima Visione is a ballet in six scenes by Paul Hindemith, originally choreographed by Léonide Massine for the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. The libretto by Hindemith and Massine depicts episodes from the life of Saint Francis of Assisi (Wikipedia).
Getting a pellucid sound in Chopin (brief entry)
Chopin: Nocturne in Db Major, Op 27 / 2
Coming as I do from a world populated by a lot of Bach and Brahms, I find this Nocturne especially beautiful, maybe because I found a touch that produces liquid, floating, and singing sound (at least for me).
The following applies to the two arms and hands at once.
I located through a lot of introspection a group of muscles in my upper arms that play a significant role in successfully getting a pellucid sound from the piano. The muscles are in the upper part of the upper arm: not on the underneath side of the upper arms (which are pointing relatively downwards towards the floor while I play) but half way from the side of the upper arms facing leftwards and the left side of the upper arm (again, relative to my normal playing position).* I locate this muscle group solely through internal body sensations.
I rehearse sensing these muscles contracting without other muscles contracting anywhere else throughout the arm. Then I start to play the Chopin. When playing I use those muscles to work diligently, against the pull of gravity, slowly, with feigned difficulty, to try to lift the arms so that the hands at the end of the arms are acting under external pressure, to rise an inch or so above the keys. If, at the same time, against this lifting feeling, I try to go down with the fingers on their notes, I somehow create the pearly sound I’m looking for in this Nocturne.
A possible reason that I am getting these desirable sound-results is that
the presence of an opposing force upwards, from a different part of the arm mechanism, ‘cushions’, ‘pads’, and slows down the action of the depressing the keys towards the bottom of the key dip. Not so slow as to result in no sound coming out at all, but at that hard to find rate of motion in the key dip where we’ve slowed down the joint action of the the arm and fingers but still get a sound. Sound which consistently bears the quality I’m calling a ‘pearliness’ (acoustically and aesthetically).
The odd thing is that if I just slow down the fingers as they flex to depress the key through the key dip, but don’t use the special muscle group hiding in the upper arms, I don’t get the same sound I’m enjoying so much today.
* This particular sound production method does not include a ‘helping hand’ acting in support of the other hand.
“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.
Fusing the sounds of the two hands
2 different entries:
A physical approach to ensure that the sounds from the two hands blend. Regardless of which notes are played by which hands.
Before we learn how to play a melody and an accompaniment, or two or more voices from a contrapuntal work, we should first know how to create a blend of sounds, so balanced, that there is no clue acoustically as to which hand is playing which notes.
Here is an interesting approach.
Imagine an apparatus, see-saw like in nature, where by pushing down on one end with one hand, causes a transmission of fluid through a uniformly wide pipe to the other end causing the other hand which is automatically pushed up.
Either hand can thus cause either hand to rise or fall, depending on whether that hand, respectively, falls or rises. There is a tangible connection established between the hands through the medium of the fluid in the interconnecting pipe. Each push down is against resistance, which in this case also forces the other hand upwards. Not having such an apparatus available, I simulate having the experience of see-saw by miming the motions of the hands going reciprocally up and down. In my imagination, one hand seems to be the direct physical cause of the other hand moving in the opposite direction.
As I make the downward stroke in either hand, I remind myself of being in a rural setting pumping the handle of a well to get drinking water.
I practice this activity with the hands separated by two to three feet, and floating not too far above the keyboard.
I increase the speed of the up and down motion, trying ultimately to attain almost a vibration, like of a string on an instrument, but one that borders on being a blur to the eye. The speed of the oscillation is such that it should feel like the two hands, if lowered down onto the keyboard, are virtually playing notes at the same time,
I like to think of playing simultaneously with both hands as always retaining a sense of a back and forth vibration between, vibration going faster than the notes I’m playing; creating an ongoing, and constantly renewing, feeling of inseparable balance between the sounds. Today, at least, I was stunned by the sounds I was drawing out of a now fully cohesive sounding piano.
I’ve been experimenting lately with redistribution of hands. If my left hand is repeating an accompanimental chord while the right hand plays a melody, I will sometimes use the right hand, if there is a spare finger, to play the topmost of the left hand chords. This serves to keep the chord alive, and helps me not loose control over the sound characteristics of the chord.
I can easily reverse the situation, and for greater comfort and control, play one or more of the lower pitched right hand notes with any unoccupied fingers of the left hand.
There can even be a boundary note between the hands that is played by both hands.*
Doing this helps me distinguish between, in one case, the separate physical motions that the two hands are required to execute in order to make a composite sound, and in the other case, the fusion of the sounds originating from the two hands into a single tonal blend, where nothing about how I play the sound reveals which tasks have been assigned to which hand (unless I deduce it somehow from the pitches).
The fact that, as anatomical beings, we play with two hands can easily leave a trace of difference between the quality of sounds emanating from the right hand and the left hand, differences that are not due simply to the difference in timbre between lower and higher pitches. The sounds between the hands don’t always automatically reach across the keyboard to each other to form an indivisible union of sound. That is why learning to fuse with the ear the sounds on the piano is such a vital skill.
Getting back to the case of repeating a left hand chord. The now and then or periodically alternation of which hands play which notes chord, may seem like a nuisance, an unnecessary complication, but it is actually simple once one is used to doing it. And it serves to “refresh” the sound each new iteration of the chord.***
The ear’s task is to maintain a vigil over the compound sound of the hands, `so that the listener does not know what, if anything, the pianist is doing to redistribute the hands on the notes.
* For instance at the opening of the Gavotte movement of the Grieg Holberg suite, I play both the b3 and c4 with fingers from both hands. It adds to my sense of stability (two is better than one?) and my sense of stability in hands which no longer enjoy doing repetitive actions because of my ‘intention’ tremor (a medical term)**.
** An intention tremor is defined as a rhythmic, oscillatory, and high amplitude tremor during a directed and purposeful motor movement, worsening before reaching the endpoint. Google: Jul 12, 2021
*** It reminds me of the dynamic state of the nucleus of an atom, wherein one subatomic particle is always and unpredictably changing into another or vice versa. On the piano, it keeps things ‘alive’ due to an ‘inner’ process of sound creation.
Buttocks; wet mops; and how much of the body is involved in a motion at the piano
I got off to a sluggish start today. Two things got me going. One was coffee (which I don’t drink very often) and the other was to make the buttocks circle clockwise relative to the piano bench. I’ve experimented with circles occurring in most of the parts of the body but this is the first time it occurred to me that the general notion of circles could be applied to the buttocks. I hadn’t realized that the buttocks can move around while ‘attached’ to the bench. Until I tried it. And that I could direct their motion in any direction as long as they in touch with the surface of the bench.
I affected the motion by using all the available muscles in that region
of my body. In concert they were able to constantly change the stance
of my buttocks on the bench.
If I had to locate in space on my body something was happening closest to being a perfect circle, I would have to pick somewhere above the bench between the buttocks and the base of the spine, but the place I experienced the most was through the sit-bones.
I also brought into play my feet and legs to stabilize these motions of the buttocks.
When I was playing, I kept my conscious awareness away from what my fingers and hands and arms were doing, especially the fingers. I kept it on what was happening in my lower body.
This freed up my playing.
#2 Wet Mops
Beethoven, Sonata in C Major, Op 2 / 3 : IV : opening
The rapid ascending parallel triads in the right hand.
First step. I raised my right wrist, until the fingers had to point downwards in order still make contact with the keys.
As if my fingers were the strands of a wet mop, the strands hanging downwards due to the weight of the water they had soaked up, and as of my wrist were the guiding handle of the mop, I manipulated the wrist through the muscles inside it, in a way to cause the fingertips to make circles of slight pressure directly onto the surface of the keys*. As if I were dripping pigment from a brush onto a canvas below me in order to create circles.
Try to make the circles whirl or revolve very rapidly. Then just simply play the passage as written.
* each circle encompassing a number of keys as well as touching each single key anywhere from it lip to near the fall board.
#3 How much of the body is involved in a motion at the piano
If I happen to play two notes in a row with the same hand, one with the pinkie and the other with the thumb (perhaps a broken octave) I gradually enlarge the sense of what parts of my body are actually in motion, Until the motion no longer seemed to occur in just one hand or on just one side of the body general, but spilled over so as to involve both sides of my body.
Thumb to pinkie in my right hand felt like a motion of the entire body from entire body’s left side to its right side, and occurred as a result of transfer of energy from one side to the other. A transfer that was not instantaneous but “took time” to accomplish.
Similarly, pinkie to thumb in the right hand felt like moving my entire body from its right side through to its left side. I felt the shift in energy as if through internal conduits of energy in my body (I don’t think they show up on standard anatomical drawings).
If the two notes are in the left hand rather than the right then simply reverse the procedure from that described above.
Always try to have the perceived locale of where a motion is taking place to transcend as far as possible just the locale in space where the fingers are contacting the keyboard.