Springs: Easily created, and then able to release a sudden surge of energy
Originally published on Facebook on 2.8.16
There is no technical or musical difficulty at the piano that will not yield to a sufficient application of energy. We must have, however, a reliable way to create such unstoppable energy, and create it at the moment we need it.
A spring is a way of storing up potential energy, usually in a gradual fashion, for the purpose of a sudden release, or sudden burst of energy. Many of the more difficult technical issues at the piano, which compared to what comes before and after in the same piece of music, require such a heightened release of energy, and though briefly, at an energy level much greater than the rate at which we are expending energy in our playing.
Playing situations requiring this sudden ability to release copious amounts of energy in a brief burst of time are: skips, extreme speed, and in general those technical situations that suddenly arise that are ‘dense’, where the hands and fingers feel somewhat lost in the keyboard and unable to navigate from note to note, or finger to finger, with alacrity.
The principle of the spring is fairly simple. It requires something that has the ability to be temporarily deformed and which will spring back to its original shape with great speed.
As it turns out almost any part, or even part of a part of the body can behave in this fashion.
In the future we will enumerate examples of these many springs.
Changing the loudness of one note in a chord
By controlling the relative loudness of each note in a harmonic chord, we are doing what a composer does while writing a symphony, and decides which instruments should play which notes in a chord: more instruments on this note, fewer on that note. More prominence or less prominence given to the extension of the chord into a higher octave. Rarely does the composer put the same number of players on each of the notes in a chord. When we do this ‘orchestration’ at the piano, the cause, and the effect are more subtle. Yet the result does mimic orchestration. This is because if we play a particular note twice, once softly, and once loudly, though the primary difference in heard in terms of dynamics, there is a secondary change, which we can notice if we focus on it, in terms of the relative loudness each overtone of that note has as compared with the loudness of each of the other overtones. Acoustically, this is what gives rise to what our brain interprets as a change of ‘timbre’, or ‘tone quality’, or instrumental quality: that which makes an oboe playing middle C at mezzo forte sound different than a violin playing middle C at the same loudness. This change of timbre is somewhat noticeable when listening to a single note, but when it is multiplied over the various notes of a chord, the difference in the overall timbre of the chord changes more noticeably. Even when we play all the notes of a chord with equal intensity, the result is not what we might anticipate. Each note in the chord is under the “spell” of the harmonic progression. If a note happens to be the ‘third’ of the chord, it will have a relative predominance of effect over the root and fifth. This explains why if we are, for example, in C major, and have a V chord going to a I chord, we can omit the fifth in the I chord. Even though we have left just the root(s) and third(s) there will be no doubt as to whether the chord is a I chord or a vi chord, since both C E G and A C E share the C and E in common.
A student who prefers slower tempos. Is there a hidden reason?
B. (the name I will use to refer to the student) plays beautifully. His favored tempo is to play slowly, even for “fast” pieces. I asked him if he was willing to go outside his comfort zone and try to play faster. In particular, I wanted to track down whether sight reading had a role to play in limiting speed.
We tried three types of exercises, the first of which involved playing “in the dark” (with eyes closed). This to help separate and diagnose two things: Looking at the score and knowing what the notes are, and if the fingers have any difficulty embracing the correct keys on the keyboard.
- Learning to ‘navigate in the dark’.
These are the things that we tried (there is no particular order in which to do them).
In every case, the parts that you do ‘correctly’ are the least interesting or useful. When you have more difficulty or do something ‘incorrectly’ that is a rare insight into how your mind works, and is valuable knowledge.
a) With eyes open choose a note that will be the lowest note of a chord. Close your eyes. I then propose to B. what the other notes of the chord should be. I give him this information in ascending order of pitch.
b) With eyes open choose a lowest note on which to build a chord. Close your eyes. The difference with the procedure above is that B. gets to choose what the other notes in the chord are to be. As he chooses them one by one, he says the name of the note he chooses, and does his best to put a finger on that note. When the chord is complete, first keep your eyes closed and try to name the notes of the chord (this is for memory). Then open them to confirm what notes are actually under your fingers.
c) Give yourself a starting chord of any number of notes – tonal or not tonal. Close your eyes. Transpose the chord up a half step, and repeat this process until you are back on the original chord, though it is now an octave higher than when you started. Sometimes, during the process you can pause to name the notes currently under your fingers.
d) Keeping the eyes only on the music, and not on the keyboard and the hands, try to play a piece that you working on. If you need to confirm that things are going alright, open your eyes to check. Just make it a conscious choice when do open them.
e) With the eyes closed play a random note on the piano. Feel around in the neighborhood of the note and figure out what note you are playing.
f) Close your eyes. Propose a note to play (for example: middle C, or the second G# below middle C, etc.). Begin the search with your hands in your lap. Open the eyes and check whether you did it.
g) Pick a note on which to start the exercise. Close you eyes. Play a chromatic scale (up or down, an octave, with either hand). Give a name to each note you as you play it. Sometimes use sharp names for the black notes, sometimes flat names.
Next, do the same sort of thing but moving two at once. It doesn’t matter what the notes are.
Then do it for triads (tonal or not tonal), and finally for four note chords. When naming the notes that are currently sounding, if you are unsure, it is OK to take a peak.
- Things to do while the eyes remain open.
a) Looking just at the score, say out loud the names of the notes in a measure. If two or more notes are written so as to sound at the same time, name them in a particular order (for instance from the lowest pitched note in the left hand to the highest pitched note in the right hand.*
Do the procedure a number of times but vary the speed at which you do it.. We looked for changes, not so much in terms of right or wrong notes, but the effect the tempo had on his psychological sense of certainty about what we was doing.
* Though order is probably not vital, is in keeping with custom, which in turn is in accord with acoustics and overtones: that the sounds of treble “rest on” the sounds of bass.
- Thinking and Speaking Exercises
In parallel with his preference to play at a slow tempo, he exhibits the same preference when talking. So I thought it might be interesting to approach the musical side of tempo with the proxy of his speaking voice.
a) I asked him a question, like “name 4 different colors”. The relevant data was how long did he pause before starting to answer, and at what tempo did he speak the answer.
Sometimes I followed up a question like that with a question like: now name to or three more colors. I wanted to see what effect having to remember the previous colors had on the act of choosing colors not in that previous list.
I said that I thought of piano playing as being often a ‘fast’ paced skill. I wondered whether we worked on the speed of his talking, it might act as proxy to help make changes in the his piano playing – a bit of extra leverage from outside.
We went back to the piece he played before. Though meant to go moderately fast, he played it slowly: by automatic choice. He played very beautifully with personal expression. Then I asked him if he would be willing to play it again, very fast, trying to provoke as many wrong notes as possible. Even enjoy with bemused indifference what transpired.
The result was that he could play it a good deal faster than he thought he could without encountering difficulties. There were just a few mistakes or hesitations. The only thing that changed, interestingly, was that the beauty of the playing went away. When I asked him if he could recapture that beauty but still play fast, he could.
- Doing these exercises at home.
When repeating the exercises at home, it’s OK to open your eyes at any time for confirmation. It may alleviate any onerous psychological stress or discomfort involved in doing the exercises. You are teaching yourself the way to go back and forth between visual and tactile, and help establish a certain rhythm in doing so.
Pain in the Thumb Solution One: No Motion in the Thumb Independently of the Hand as a Whole.
Example: Right Hand Playing A Scale Upwards.
Pause in the scale on the note played just before passing under the thumb. While paused, don’t let the thumb make any anticipatory gesture of moving under another finger. Just relax and pause.
Raise the entire hand, vertically, until it is several inches above the keyboard. While doing this the thumb makes no movements independent of the hand as a whole.
Have the arm transport the entire hand rightwards, until the thumb, still just an undifferentiated part of the hand, is poised over the note that it is about to play.
Simply lower the hand back down onto the keyboard. Still without any particular motion in the thumb that is not simply the result of moving the entire hand at once.
Sound the next note by moving the mass of the combined arm and hand.
Get used to there being a silence in the scale between the end of the note before the thumb is used, and the note on which the thumb is used.
Gradually the silence between the notes will shrink towards zero, while the absence of independent motion of the thumb still remains.
Pain in the Thumb. Solution Two: Tug of War.
Example: Right Hand playing a C Major Scale Upwards.
My third finger is on an E and I am about to play the adjacent F with the thumb. Imagine a tug of war with the two sides, initially, pulling with the same strength.
On the right side of this tug of war is the entire arm, wrist and hand, which pulls to the right. On the other side it is just the third finger alone, on the E, resisting, with equal force, this tug to the right.
At first no one ‘wins’. Each ‘team’ escalates how hard they are pulling, but the increments are done at the same time in each ‘team’ and in equal degrees, so that no movement occurs. This process continues until the finger can exert no more force to resist the more powerful rightward pull of the arm. As the third finger suddenly lets go of the E key, and the arm and hand, including the thumb, lurches to the right, with great stored up power, and the thumb travels to the F so quickly that it is almost with conscious duration.