Joe's Blog

Flow, Versus a Sequence of Separate Notes

August 23, 2019

H.P’s lesson on 8/13/19 Menuet from Ravel: Tombeau de Couperin

Joe: “Our recent work has focused on flow versus the pointillism of
notes.  As we go on today, let’s use two very restricted definitions of
these two terms, ‘Notes’ will simply mean knowing what notes to play
at the next moment and ‘flow’ will simply mean getting to those notes
from the preceding notes without even the most minimal of hesitation.

For many pianists it is a long held view that they must master the
“notes” before attempting the musical qualities of the piece, the
latter of which includes the manner of flow of the sounds through
time.

Depending on the student I have been known to reject this premise on the ground that unless the musical qualities of a piece enter into our intuition of the piece at the beginning of the learning process, by the time the pianist masters the notes, the musical characteristics of the piece have suffered from neglect to the point that it is now hard to install or instill this musicality into the slow setting cement of the notes only.

What I am pleased to notice is how lately you have been working from “both ends at once,”  gains in note accuracy are bootstrapping gains in musical flow, while at the same time working for the flow is bootstrapping note  accuracy. You have found a way to working simultaneously for both goals, and thereby leaving the question of “which came first, the music or the notes”, into the category of similar questions like “which came first the chicken or the egg.”

About a third of the way into the lesson we focused on the middle section of the movement and in particular who to connect one chord with another  without any break in the flow of the sound.  Joe: “we must make ourselves take responsibility for never allowing any a break in the sound flow. What I  am hearing when you play this passage are periodic, brief  hesitations  before continuing on to the next chord.. You seem to exert a lot of focus and  energy on playing a group of chords with good continuity of sound, but  then  need to take a pause to recharge your batteries.  It is as if to say: “I’ve  been working very hard, physically and mentally,  through these last few  chords, I need a break.”

When we take that pause, we push the question of the flow temporarily out of our consciousness and awareness. We do not notice that we are pausing.  It exists in a momentary blind (sic) spot brought on by fatigue.  The question is whether the listener hears the pause, notices that we are   momentarily clinging to the current notes before going on to the next  notes.

The answer is that they always know though in different ways and to different conscious degrees. Some not only hear the pause but are upset at  the application of the brakes to the flow, and have a difficulty in  reestablishing their attention afterwards. For others the reaction is more  subconscious. For some reason, of which they are not aware, there is a  slackening in their attention to the music, which just happens to occur at  the same point in the score where the pianist has broken the flow.  For some  the reaction is even less actively conscious.  They will not notice the  hesitation in any way as it happens, but further on in the piece they notice that their emotional reaction to the music has taken a negative turn.  They will ascribe this to either the piece itself, or their inability to listen  sensitively to the music.

The pianist’s ears must always be on “sentry duty”, otherwise it increases the likelihood that they will not notice  deviations from the constancy of the  sound flow. When this happens the sound flow can become distorted.   knowing and being on alert is the best way to prevent something happening in the first place.

Some necessary connections will always seem un-doable to us; just beyond the realm of the possible, as will some of the chord connections in this middle section.  Without going into the specific physical procedures to make these connections easy (something which usually forms a large segment of my teaching), it may be enough simply to say to yourself “I must do this”, “there is no option but that it has to happen smoothly”. And if we leave ourselves no way out, the body discovers the solution for itself, without conscious awareness by us of the how.  Most of us when practicing a difficult group of notes will suddenly play it once the way we want it to sound.   We also have experienced that trying to repeat this success often fails.  We don’t learn the right way through repetition.  Nonetheless we should pause after the successful rendition and absorb the very important fact that we are capable of doing it.  It may be too early in the learning process to be able to reproduce it whenever we want.  The one success is enough, however, to open the path to a confident discovery of the recipe for the solution.  I can try to accelerate this progress by explaining or demonstrating to the pianist what things were happening physically when it came out correctly.   The problem with any explanation though is that regardless of the teacher, some part of the solution remains unconscious to that particular teacher, and is therefore left out of the explanation.

A timely aside:

There is a peculiar blending of time tenses that occurs when we try to maintain the flow of the sound through obstacles in its path. When we are about to play a challenging connection, we should, at the same moment, already be hearing that connection happening, and furthermore, evaluating whether it happened without any signs of interruption. Looking at this a little more closely, the present tense is transmuted, in part, to the past tense (if our imagination is already hearing it). The immediate future is prematurely transmuted into part of the present tense. And the somewhat less immediate future (as we evaluate or notice that it flowed well) is made part of a bloated present tense. Beyond this I can only say that this weird stew of time tenses it is one of the fundamental mysteries of time in the consciousness of the performing musician.

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