Joe's Blog

Sometimes Fundamentals Need to Come First

July 28, 2019

A.B.’s lesson on Thursday 7/25/19 Orientale (Albeniz)

A.B. prefers to “front-load” his practicing. His first consideration in learning a new piece is to decide on all the details: not only fingering, notes and rhythm, but things like crescendos, dynamics, which notes to feature in a phrase front loading, what touch to use on what note, etc., etc..

While there is much to recommend in this sort of approach, especially
when one is a good sight reader, it is a disadvantage when certain
more fundamental things are left unattended. In A.B.’s case the thing
that is most neglected is evenness, whether in the form of evenness of
touch, evenness of sound, evenness of note durations (when they are
supposed to be the same), etc.. For me evenness is in the category of
axioms: things that are given because of their obviousness. They are
not the later theorems that are built on the bedrock of the axioms.

When he puts the end results before the beginning requirements he
becomes frustrated that he cannot properly execute the details as he
has defined them for himself.

His analytical musical brain leads him directly to hear that one detail mars an otherwise perfectly rendered phrase (this reminds me of my mother, may she rest in peace).

The curative for A.B. is the one word mantra “details?”. If he is in the midst of figuring out the fingering for a measure, he should chasten himself by saying out loud “detail”, meaning “not yet” (for pursuing this too early leads to such an uneven playing field that the listener cannot discern any of his musical intentions).

Or, “which note should sound the loudness among these four notes” …
interrupt the thought with “details”, therefore not yet: “I don’t have
to wait very long, but first make sure the notes sound even”.

The same when playing a scale: “how should I connect this one
particular note to the next?” (so it is like all the previous
connections). “Should I start the crescendo on this note of the
phrase or the next?”, “Details!” – not yet. First get the notes even.

For A.B., premature concern with details leads to looking for a purely
physical solution to each problem as he perceives it, with the ear
playing little role in checking the results of these physical actions.  Details cause him to loose the overall impression rather than help complete the later.

What feels even may not sound even; what sounds even may not feel
even.

Here is an example of how to attain evenness in a recalcitrant
passage.

In measure 32 the pinky of the left hand is required to hold a note
in the bass, while at the same time playing a scale upwards in the
baritone/tenor range which becomes more and more distant from the
pinky until it is beyond the hand’s span .

Right now he has decided to play the scale with just two fingers (one and two). I suggested he do the scale with just the thumb. It sounds implausible, but it came out perfectly even. I said: can you now, with the added luxury of having two (or more) fingers work with, imitate the effect in sound you just attained with one finger.

The moral is: it is hard to play unevenly a series of notes all with the same finger.

Here is a general example how to get evenness when playing a rhythmic
figure.

As you play the figure, convince yourself you are not playing a particular example of a more general version of that rhythm (a certain combination of
different note values), but rather that you are playing the very prototype of that rhythm. That any other conceivable version of this same rhythm, regardless of the pitches involved … and their are an endless number of them … should be a only a copy of the original prototype that you are now playing.

In music, always think of an instance of a rhythm pattern as the model on which any other copy of that rhythm, played any time in past or future, has to be copied. Thus the rhythm as we hear it now  must be a perfect model of that rhythm : an alive and “dynamic” sounding of the rhythm – abstract and specific at the same time.

The rhythm you play now, in the present tense of the artistic flow of
time, is the only one the listener can hear. It must be capable of acting as the only model available to the person of the essence of that rhythm.  From your model flows all other examples of that rhythm. As long as your model is perfect any copies made of it will be OK.

I enhanced this procedure for bringing a rhythm alive (and thereby
capable of reproduction) by pounding the rhythm on his shoulders as he
played. The idea was to leave his playing mechanism no choice but for
the notes to show up at their right times.

I sometimes amplified the pounding by speaking nonsense syllables, as
if I were tracing out or dictating to an actor on stage the dramaturgical curve of the meaning and action of what they are saying.

Further observation – on his fingering:

Joe: A lot of your uncertainty about what finger to use next, or more
basically, what note to play with what finger, may disappear sooner by
memorizing the notes when you first start learning the piece. Your
least fluent playing occurs at the same time when I notice your eyes
going wildly back and forth between the score and your hands.

It is important to pick a doable sized chunk of notes to memorize.
Doing that will ameliorate the difficulty many players have starting
up a piece from a randomly chosen spot in a score.

After memorizing it, see what happens if you play that ‘chunk’ with
your eyes remaining on your hands. When we tried this, the results
were very encouraging. Things were not perfect, but they were
substantially better.

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