Joe's Blog

Chords; Plus a Tip About Legato

September 11, 2018

Irving is playing the prelude in C Major from Book One of the Well Tempered.

Do the notes of a chord need to sound simultaneously or need at least to have sounded in sequence, for the chord to be there in our aural consciousness?

The goal I propose is to realize, with the ear, that the chord is already there at the very beginning of each new measure.   How many notes does the student need to play in the new measure before they “hear a chord”, as a whole.   At first one might think it is from three to five notes.  Indeed, at five notes every note of the chord has had a chance to sound.

What we hear when we perform is a delicate balance of sounds arriving through the outer and sounds coming out of our musical imagination.  When we consider it from this point of view, a chord is already present, in its entirety, as soon as all its notes are sounding either to the outer ear or to the ‘inner’ ear.

Irving and I worked on his “hearing” the chord at, or even before, his playing the first note of the next measure.   Or, at least for it to translate from expectation to sound as early as possible in the measure.    The chord, rather than materializing itself during the measure, instead “reaches out” and “embraces” the notes of the measure as they sound.  The notes from ‘outside’ feel the attraction of the chord from the inside in a way analogous to how iron filings are bent into alignment to a magnet’s lines of force.

Our ultimate goal was to play the melody (in this piece all the melody notes are chord-tones) as if we already heard the entire chord.  That the chord is ‘there’ the moment the melodic phrase began.  To put it somewhat dramatically “the chord is always there”.

Another points of view on a chord:

Another way we looked at a chord was to think that the separate chord notes, and the order in which they would sound sequentially through, time ‘held’ or ‘contained’ in the simultaneity of its notes sounding together at once.  The beauty of the situation is once the chord is compressed into a simultaneous experience, all sense of the order in the chord tones will sound is lost to the ear.  The joy is to undergo the process by which we learn in what fashion the chord unfurls itself into a sequence of notes in time.

We practiced extracting single notes, one by one, from the simultaneity of the chord.  We allowed the same note to be pulled out of the chord more than once.  We allowed for some of the chord notes, once liberated from the simultaneity of the chord, to be connected, in this ‘outer’ space of time, by passing tones, and other tones of embellishment.

Tricks with time:

A way of retaining the effect of the notes sounding together while playing the melody, is to hold each note of the melody over into all the following notes of the melody.  Much like playing the melody with the pedal down.  At first the notes emerge separate and liberated from the implied simultaneous chord, but only to start accreting again into a simultaneous sound.   The melody is then an intermediate phase between the simultaneous chord and the simultaneous chord.

A more “chordal” way of hearing an arpeggio:

Play an arpeggio over several octaves holding the pedal down throughout.  Usually when we reach the final note of an arpeggio, we simply move on to the next notes printed in the score.  But in this case, the final note is not the end of the sound of the arpeggio, just the beginning of the point when all the notes in the chord are resonating together.  topping point, we keep the right pedal down so we can here all the previously made sounds resonate together.  We can continue to let this chord or cluster ring for seconds or more until it has slowly died away.  It’s an entirely new aesthetic experience: a decrescendo-ing chord, with ample time to hear conjure with the effect of all those notes sounding together.

Summary:

After a while Irving could play a melody in such a way that one almost was convinced that he was hearing a chord sounding throughout the duration of melody, accompanying each of the notes.  From time to time it was apparent from his playing that the current chord had just ceded its presence a new chord, which in turn reached out to embrace and enclose the current notes of the melody.

A related tip – about legato:

If you want to create a legato sound in a series of sequential notes, first play a group of the adjacent notes in the melody as a simultaneous cluster.  It doesn’t matter if the cluster is dissonant or consonant.   Now extract the notes one by one from that cluster.  Think of the melody notes as already latent already in the cluster.  Our job, as legato players, is to feel the glue between the notes that comes from, not just from how the end of one note connects to the next note, but by the fact that hear them already connected as in the cluster.*

For a legato connection between just two notes, just play first the two notes together, and then play them in sequence, but in your inner ear keep them glued together.

Sometimes I will think of legato as a group of notes that leave behind them in time a “thick trail”.  Like the ice crystals trailing behind a jet that is already at a high altitude.  Like your hand is a large paintbrush which, as you move your hand in space, leaves a thick sinuous line on the canvas.

*As we start the melody it is as if we have a “pre”-memory in time of what the cluster will be when we finish the last note in the group.

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