Joe's Blog

Simplifying a difficult passage and then building it back up.

October 9, 2018

A simple example of the procedure.

Irving is a late beginner. He is playing just the right hand of one of the easier Bach pieces.  He thinks it will be too hard to put the hands together.  I suggest that the next time he plays just the right hand, he lay his left hand down on the keyboard hand and let it rest there passively.  He says: I don’t see any advantage in doing this, it certainly is not going to make playing the two hands together any easier.  But he tries it.  He is immediately struck by the fact that the right hand seems harder to play when the left hand is simply present on the keyboard.  He says the right hand feels different.  I agree: what one hand does is influenced by the other hand.  Still, he said, this is easier than playing both hands together.

What we had created is an in between point between playing just with one hand and playing with both hands.  Instead of one larger ‘step’, going directly from playing with one hand to playing with both hands, we created two smaller steps: 1) right hand alone 2) right hand with left hand running interference, 3) both hands playing the written notes.   Instead of going directly from step one to step three, all that’s left for  Irving is to go from step two to step three.

However,  what if going from step two to step three turns out to be too big a jump?   We simply divide that jump into two smaller parts.  Between step two and step three we insert this: the left hand, though not yet playing its part, now is moved around while the right hand plays.  Not moving any place particular but just so he is conscious of motion occurring in the left hand while trying to concentrate of the right hand.

René Descartes:

We were following in the foot steps of one of the great thinkers in the Western tradition.  The philosopher René Descartes (1596-1650), in his “Discourse on Method” suggested that one follow a four-step plan for seeking truth in the sciences.  The second of these was, in his words “to divide up each of the difficulties which I examined into as many parts as possible, and as seemed requisite in order that it might be resolved in the best manner possible.”

We interpolate new steps as needed.  As soon as the transition from one step to the next is not easily accomplished, we interpolate another step.  The beauty of this procedure is that one can interpolate as many steps as one wants between the starting state and the final state we are aiming for.  The more intermediate steps there are, the smaller becomes the change in difficulty from one to the next.   In its ideal form, when using this process, the pianist will not be aware of  any increase in difficulty when going from one step to the next, and the final state, the one desired all along, will, when attained, seem no harder than the first step.

A careful analysis:

The trick is how to define the first state.  It must bear a direct relation to the last state.  In Irving’s case it was easily found: “I’ll start with one hand at a time before trying both hands together”.  Other technical and musical difficulties require a more penetrating analysis.  Often the starting state is found at the end of a reverse process that starts with the final state, and gradually simplifies it, step by step, each time by removing what is most difficult to execute from what is left, and/or what is least essential musically, until a simplest state is left or revealed, one that is simplest to play yet still bears a resemblance to the final state.*  During this process, each stage, while simpler than the last, should still contain the essence of the previous stage.

We operate like a grammarian who diagrams a sentence in a manner that reveals its more essential and less essential parts and clauses.  Or like a chemist who by analysis reduces a complex compound into smaller and smaller molecules until at last the atomic structure of the compound is revealed.  Or like a philosopher who seeks into an issue to find the more basic principle on which it rests.  In my case, it is a procedure I use especially when teaching ear training: taking an ear training ability that is presented as being simple and whole, but then refracting it through a prism and showing that there are other, simpler component abilities that underlying the target ability.  And even some of the simpler abilities turn out to be, themselves, complex in relation to even simpler abilities.  Start with the simplest abilities and build back up.

* By removing notes without compromising the general meaning of the passage.  By removing melodically unessential notes from a melody leaving only the salient notes.  By simplifying a complex rhythm into simpler rhythms (simpler in nature and simpler in execution).  By simplifying a complex harmonic progression to a simpler one that is easier for the ear to track, and easier for the fingers to play.

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