Sometime subdividing beats, sometimes combining beats
When we are playing slowly and the notes seem to separate from each other and there is no flowing line, it is useful to subdivide the note into 2, 3 or 4 equal parts. This subdivision can occur just in the head, or better yet, in the body. The body can go through all the same motions that it would to play the note again, except that instead of a new sound resulting, the old sound simply continuous.
When we are playing rapidly and the notes don’t seem to flow evenly, it is useful to combine notes into groups of notes. In doing this only the first note of the group is played with any intentionality. The other notes happen as if unintentionally, as if filling in a parenthesis, with physical motions that are more subtle or subconscious.
Music is the art of time alone
Music is the art of time, and in it space has little role to play. This results from the basic difference between hearing and seeing.
While the physical cause for all our sensations, including sight and sound, lies in some mechanical phenomenon in space, the ‘effect’ of that cause, as experienced in our consciousness, is of a radically different nature. We cannot answer the question “what does sound like.” There is nothing about a sound wave that implies hearing.
The transmission of electro-chemical impulses in the auditory nerve is no different than what occurs in the optic nerve. Examining these transmissions gives us no clue as to what sense is being transmitted.
What would happen if, in the distant future, a surgeon took the auditory nerve’s connections into the brain and spliced them instead into the visual part of the brain. Would we see sound?
Consider a person who had been born blind, and who grew up without companions on the proverbial dessert island. If that person was suddenly granted the ability to see, and heard what we know is the sound of a bird, would she have any ability of linking the quality of that sound in her consciousness to a cause somewhere in space, in particular the thing over there in that tree with wings and a beak.
Sound, and therefore music, is quality experienced through duration in time.
I always choose the part “on the left”
When I play four hands with another pianist, given the choice, I will choose to sit on the left, and play the “secondo” or lower pitched part. Why?
The person with the lower pitches can always insure an overall balance of sound with the person on the right (the “primo” part) no matter how loud or soft that person plays, in spite of any unanticipated crescendos or decrescendos that he or she might make.
The secondo defines the harmony and thus creates the underpinning that gives definition and shape to the melodies in the primo.
When the person doing the primo is a student, or an amateur pianist, the secondo provides a nurturing, surrounding embrace of sound, that elicits the best playing from the person playing the primo. The latter hears how much better things are sounding than they thought they would versus when they played their part alone. In general, the secondo can act as the ideal accompanist, following every twist and turn in the primo: masking inconsistencies, smoothing over unintentional jumps or errors, giving to the primo a freedom that may surprise the player. I can also do more to influence the musical interpretation of the piece from the left side than the right side.
Lastly, there is the subtle effect of overtones and sympathetic vibration. The tones I generate in the bass can partially transform the quality (timbre) of sound in the treble.
Beginners: natural confusion between the horizontal plane of the keyboard and the vertical plane of the musical staff.
There are things which we take for granted which may be confusing to the student and lead to conflations.
We are aware that in the horizontal plane of the keyboard the following are true:
left = ‘low’ in pitch,
leftwards = ‘lower’ in pitch,
‘downwards’ on the keyboard,
going ‘backwards’ in the musical alphabet.
right = ‘high’ in pitch
rightwards = ‘higher’ in pitch
‘upwards’ on the keyboard
going ‘forwards’ in the music alphabet
If we switch to the vertical plane of the staff we know that:
down = low in pitch
downwards on a staff = lower in pitch
going backwards in the musical alphabet
up = high in pitch
upwards on a staff = ‘higher’ in pitch
going forwards in the musical alphabet
That on the keyboard, leftwards and rightwards have to do with change in pitch, but that on the staff leftwards and rightwards have to do with order in time.
It is often confusing for the student to keep track of the changing meaning ‘up’ and ‘down’ depending on whether the context is the keyboard or the music staff.
He is liable to make the wrong ‘pairing’ between the two planes, horizontal and vertical For example:
1) notes that move upwards on the staff but to which the student responds by going leftwards and not rightwards on the keyboard.
2) the student playing C and then D on the keyboard, but then says that the notes he played are C and B.
In both cases the ‘rotation’ of the plane by ninety degrees, between horizontal and vertical is the source of the confusion. It is a spatial difficulty that can be more pronounced in one individual than another, regardless of talent.
A sense of lack of support
At Carl’s* lesson today, he described how he feels as if he runs out of energy by the middle of a piece, sometimes sooner. “I can’t seem to stay with the tempo.” Later in the lesson he said, “I prepare carefully to start the piece but then I feel ‘unsupported’ after I’ve begun.”
I decided to first address his feeling of ‘lack of support.’ I sang expressively along with his playing. The forward directed movement and energy that I purposefully put into my voice seemed to automatically transfer over to him (he was ‘supported’). The same result happened when I played along with him, doing the main melody an octave higher.
I said sympathetically that I knew that in his professional life he was constantly helping others, and it seemed unjust that he was unable to transfer that support over to himself. He said that when he has to actively sustain support of someone on a one-to-one basis, after a while he felt in “danger of loosing himself.”
I suggested that in upcoming lessons we work on ways for him to generate his own support for himself. Perhaps create his own “Greek chorus” to speak for him and with him in his music.**
**This reminded me of a Double Bassist who played beautifully but with a very introspective sound, as if she did not want anyone else to hear her playing. I put on a record of Beethoven’s 3rd Symphony and gave her the double bass part and asked her to play along with the record. Suddenly her sound blossomed and reached outwards to the listener. The 8 or 10 bassists in the Chicago Symphony acted as her Greek Chorus, so that whenever she played she was surrounded by the sound of many others.
*name has been changed to protect privacy