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Concert Pianists, and their Performance Arcs

February 22, 2019

“A. B.” came for his regular Thursday lesson.

Today we examined how a particular pianist puts together their experience of being  in control of a musical passage while performing.   The pianist forges their experience and control of a piece through various parts.  For diagnostic purposes we did these preliminary exercises:

We played a Bach Chorale, looking at the keyboard only for the placement of the beginning chord of the chorale, and then not looking at the hands at all from that point on.  The purpose of the exercise is for the pianist to discover how they form their intuitive sense of where their hands and fingers are on the keyboard, and if they get off course, whether they can find their way back without looking at their hands.

Next we did the same for a I-V-I in all keys.  We used this particular chord-spacing: c3-g3–c4-e4   g2-g3–b3-d4   c3-g3–c4-e4 (Root-fifth-root-third, root-root-third-fifth, root-fifth-root-third).

I asked him not to look at is hands, neither when going from one chord to the next within the three chord progression in one key, nor when moving each of the notes of the third chord up a half step to begin the progression in the next key.  This proved difficult for him.  I said “I think we are starting to hit ‘pay dirt'”.

Then we did the same for the first prelude from Book One.  This was relatively easy for him.  So I added this twist.  “Pick a random measure, make a simultaneous chord out of the notes in the measure, release the chord, send the hands to some far away place, then without looking at hands or the keyboard, find your way back to that chord.”  As it turned out this was quite easy for him!  I said: “I think there is a moral to this story.”

We moved into the second movement of the Bach Italian Concerto, a piece he knows well.

I have come to understand that A. normally bases his  performance of a piece mostly on muscle memory, with his ear standing vigilantly as a guard against any wrong note.  I said, “You have spent a lifetime carefully building this relationship between muscle memory and the ear.  Now I am going to ask you to go into an uncomfortable place.  Take any spot in the movement, and as you play the notes, say the names of each note you play in the right hand.  If there is any hesitation in your voice, we’ve uncovered even more pay dirt.”  We want gradually to shift the identity of a note to something due to a union of a sense clear placement of the hand on the keyboard joined with a clear sense of the name of the note being played.

He said: “I can’t say the note I’m playing play at the same time that I play it: not if I try to say it, not if you do it for me, and not if I say it only in my imagination.” Boom. “I think we just hit the mother lode because of how difficult this is for you to do.” And what an incredible discovery–to find the missing link in the mind, and work towards an exercise to correct it.

To put this in perspective,  consider that doing this is not an unusual thing to ask of the student.  For example, whether playing either from the score or by memory, I am always conscious of what note I’m playing, even when I steer myself through a group of notes by following the ascending or descending pitch curve of the notes. This awareness keeps me from getting lost in a piece, even when I am struggling. I am not playing by rote or muscle memory and relying on habit: I am choosing what I play and when.

Considering the difficulty of naming the notes as you play them, I recommend that he try to perfect a particular measure in this regard.  It is the ‘trying’ to do that is more important than doing it correctly.  It is the trying that opens up new possibilities in your mind.

Later in the lesson we went back to the I-V-I exercise we did earlier without looking at his hands, and I asked him to try to name the notes in each of the three chords in each of the three note progressions starting with the bass voice of each chord and proceeding to the soprano voice.  This  proved far more difficult than he imagined it would.  I was pleased with this: he was gaining a direct insight into how his musical brain works.

Returning to the the second movement of the Bach Italian Concerto:

How many, “rhythmic words: are there in the ‘vocabulary’ of this movement.  It is a limited set.  A word a distinct rhythmic pattern, for instance a word might consist of series of four sixteenths, or a dotted eighth followed by a series of sixteenths, or some other combination of rhythmic note values that repeats frequently in the movement.  Note that there is only a limited number of such combinations in this movement. Be aware of which such ‘word’ you are saying at every moment in the movement.” Playing this movement is like speaking a language of rhythmic words, a vocabulary consisting of just a dozen or such words (although they can be put together in many different ways to create different meanings).  When I  play it I ‘speak’ each such word with its own definite and unique form of expression and inflection – one that pertains just to that rhythmic word.

He objected that the expression of each word would change dependent on the varying setting of the musical context. To which I replied, “I agree that the same word in different settings should be spoken differently, but at first make all the same ‘words’ sound the same“.

He tried this and was surprised that this added to his musicality in playing rather than making it seem less musically nuanced.  I said, “The final musical result needs to rest on something solid before the nuances are added.  This might not be true of other pianists who can manage both at the same time right from the start, but you often get bogged down coping with the details of the musical meaning that you want to convey before attending to first principles.  Start with the language and the vocabulary.  Wait until later on before you change it into Shakespearean English.”

We turned next to Mozart’s Adagio in B Minor:

“You and I often have different agendas as to what to work for and what needs the most reinforcement.  Today will prove to be no different.”  What is missing for me is the basic and constant “flow” wherein you carry each note through its duration of time to the next note, and then that next to its next, etc..  Each note is directed to the next note.   I hate to use an analogy that uses the word ‘weight’, which is usually anathema to me, but it as if the note has heft and you have to pick it up and move it through time (or space if it helps to think that way) to the next note*.  Every note should  experience the full pressure of time – which I call the ‘flow’ of time – to bring it to the sound experience of the next note.  Each note has to experience that dynamic sense of motion to the next note.  It is hard to describe how to do this other  than my making certain gestures as you are playing, but though these are spatial motions, what we are looking to experience is the motion of consciousness through time, without abatement, and mostly felt between the beginning of one note and the beginning of the next note.  It is the inevitable and relentless pressure of passing time.

* If you do think of this spatially then let the direction always to the right and not in the direction of the pitches as the arrow of time in Western math and physics is usually depicted rightwards (as it is in the convention of the musical score).

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