Tag: beginner lessons
Meddling with the Pedal
J told me today that she always eschews using the pedal. “It makes things sound more cacophonous and confusing”. In particular she used the word “clangy” to describe to describe what the piano sounded like when the right pedal was depressed. It simply wasn’t pleasant to her ear. At best, J. wants to wait until she knows how the to play the piece very well and what it sounds like before adding any pedal at all. In general I think that’s great …. I could take a lesson from her on this subject.
I used the next portion of the lesson to describe other ways of using the pedal than she may have thought of, some or all of which would meet with her ear’s approval.
Putting it down for a single note – to make that note slightly more resonant, when sounding by itself, than without the pedal down. I explained sympathetic vibrations to her. I had her shout into the piano when the pedal was depressed and that the piano’s sound mimicked her voice.
That the effect of the pedal is mitigated by the tempo. A slow tempo allows for more of the notes to subside before their longevity is extended by the pedal into the next notes.
Cases where we specifically want each new sound to blur into an accumulating mass of previously begun sounds. That there is a fine aesthetic balance between using the pedal to contradict and mar the previous sounds, and to simply update at the last moment the previous sounds. And that doing the latter alters the subtle timbre of the sound, and causes that sound to be more at ‘evolving’ than getting lost in the shuffle of time.
Being aesthetically selective as to which specific notes react well to being united briefly by the pedal. Even if you are playing a series of notes from a common chord, there are moments when one of those notes creates a good effect if held over into just the next note, and when it mars (spoils) the sound of the passage.
For instance the two first and lowest notes in a chord being held down with the pedal. It is brief enough that the ear doesn’t immediately know why the sound was enriched at that very moment, without listening to it a second time from the beginning. The pedal is gone by the third note. This is useful when the pinkie plays a bass note in the left hand and then other notes are played also by the left hand but in the tenor or alto range (for instance the more familiar Chopin Nocturne in E-flat major). If you choose to keep the pedal down during the first two of these notes, then it has the added benefit of prolonging the low bass tone – just long enough for its impression to linger even if it is not sustained throughout the rest of the figuration. It adds to the identity, definition of the harmony.
Ultimately the number of notes through which you hold the pedal down varies more with the tempo of the piece and how many notes are played throughout the course of just beat. The faster the tempo and/or the greater the number of notes sounding within a given duration, less time in general you should keep the pedal depressed.
A ‘forced’ or ‘coerced’ diminuendo.
Sometimes a held note does not decay or die away fast enough for the dramatic effect desired.
Using a “terraced” pedal effect, one can speed up, to any desired degree, the rate at which the note dies away. While the note is decaying, at certain regular intervals of time, lift the pedal a bit but immediately quash it back down. The more frequently one repeats this act during the full duration of the note, the more rapidly the note will die away. Be careful just how little or far you lift the pedal, for it is very finely dependent on the mechanism of the pedal on your piano.
The extreme case is a very loud sound which is supposed to vanish almost entirely barely a moment after it is started. For this effect, all that is necessary is to attack the chord without the pedal down, lift the hands suddenly off the keys, and a bare instant later push the pedal down. At this point the dampers will not yet have completed stopped the sounds of the vibrating strings, and the little sound that is left will be caught by the pedal. By varying the time unit between releasing the hands and depressing the pedal, from mere hundredths of second to tenths of a second you can achieve everything from a fortissimo followed by a mezzo forte, to a fortissimo followed by a pianissimo.
To reveal notes that were sounding but could not be heard or singled out at the time.
This is achieved by releasing the pedal but keeping a chosen group of keys silently depressed. Charles Ives uses this effect magically in the second movement of the “Concord” sonata. A tumultuous and dissonant downward spiral of pitches is executed with the pedal held done. The amalgam of sounds gets denser and denser and more and more cacophonous. This accumulated cluster lingers for a few seconds, during which time the pianist silently depresses the keys forming a six-note open position F# major chord in the bass and tenor.
The pianist then lifts the pedal. It takes a moment or two for the listener to realize that they are hearing the soft, steady resonance of the F# major chord.
Half pedaling (my personal favorite), which is similar to number five.
This technique entails partially releasing the pedal, so that the entire sound is not cancelled out, and then pushing the pedal all the way back down again. Some of the sound persists as the pedal reaches bottom. It is similar to the carpenter’s way of joining two pieces of wood creating a “tongue and groove”. One piece of wood does not suddenly end and the other begin at the same place: their boundary is not a straight line. There is a hidden or partial overlap. This is especially useful for those who like the general sound of the piano with the pedal down, but restrict themselves because of the accumulating “clang” of the notes. Again, how much you release the pedal is dependent of the unique mechanism of your pedal action.
Mimicking the pedal by holding down lower pitched notes without sounding them.
Sometimes a student will play a note and then release it, but is surprised that they still hear the note sounding. I point out to the them that their left hand was inadvertently resting on some of the keys, either partially or completely depressing them, though without sounding any of them.
Holding a key down silently allows the string(s) for that pitch to vibrate. It is exactly that same thing that the right pedal does. In the latter case every damper is lifted off of every string, in the former a lesser but variable number of dampers are lifted from the strings.
Sometimes I will sit the piano to the student’s left and gradually, and silently, depress more and more adjacent notes. The student is surprised to hear that what starts as a faint aura of lingering sound to their notes, gradually exactly gets closer to imitating the effect gotten by pushing the pedal down.
Another, more approximate way of reproducing the same effect, similar to the “crescendo” pedal on the organ which at discreet moments allows more and then more pipes to be filled with air, is to start pushing down the pedal, but just millimeters at a time. In a well regulated piano all the dampers will begin lifting off the strings at exactly the same moment as the pedal, is depressed. However, usually our piano has not been just regulated and pushing the pedal down slightly allows some of the strings to vibrate in sympathy. The elasticity in some of the felt dampers may cling or linger on their strings. Over the first few millimeters gradations of echo and resonance will be achieved until, at some point, probably nearer the ‘top’ of the pedal than the middle, all the strings will suddenly be able to vibrate in sympathy.
Example: hold down, silently, the following notes: c3 g3 c4 e4 (c4 means middle C). These strings are tuned approximately to the first through the fourth overtones of the note c2 (second C below middle C). If, while holding these notes down, one plays c2 very loudly, suddenly and briefly, the other four notes will be heard sounding, especially after the low C goes away. They will have been conjured into being as if by magic.
I am always looking for more odd ways to use the pedal. If you know of one please share it on the site.
A cousin to these techniques is used in Henry Cowell’s piece “the Aeolian harp”:
The pianist reaches into the piano and strums the strings back and forth in the middle range of the piano. Most of the strings will barely sound, but certain strings will continue to vibrate after the hand passes them by – if the pianist, usually unseen by the audience, silently depresses first one group of keys then another. These notes will resonate as a chord or cluster.
In the “Aeolian Harp” Cowell combines the above described technique with that of holding the pedal down while plucking, one by one, specific strings that belong to a common chord.
Advice for Teachers of Beginners – Reading the Notes
There is no a priori reason why a student who plays the piano with facility should have a parallel ease in reading their notes.
I once tutored a high school junior in trigonometry. At first the process resembled peeling an onion. For each math skill that depended on her knowing a previous and more basic skill, examination showed that she was not comfortable with that simpler ability either. When we finished stripping back these layers one by one, we ended up with her being, figuratively speaking, back in the second grade, and being confused by the multiplication table. Thus, that is where we began: with the multiplication table. When she mastered that we went out one layer of the onion, and so on patiently until successfully building things back to trigonometry.
Occasionally I will get a teen-aged piano student who excels technically, rhythmically and musically, but is crippled at sight reading. Usually the student is bright, musical and has a good year. They managed to keep their teachers in the dark about not being careful about note reading. They had devised many ‘short cuts’ for knowing what note to play – many of which were far more complicated than if they had learned at an early stage to read.
Taking my cue from the experience I had with the girl learning trigonometry, I went on a search for the more specific, more basic “component” abilities on which sight reading depends. I was surprised by what some of the missing pieces were:
These are some of the questions I have learned to put to the student:
#1, Do you see that the horizontal lines across the page come in separated groups?
#2 Is there a constant number of lines within each group? Can you point out the middle of the five lines?
#3 Are there spaces between neighboring lines?
#4 Is there a way to number the lines and the spaces?
#5 Should the lines have one set of numbers and the spaces another set of numbers?
#6 Would you say that line number ‘one’ is the top one of the five lines or the one at the bottom?
#7 Would you number them differently in bass clef than treble clef*.
Each time I encountered a student who had transferred to me recently from another teacher, I got more practice ferreting out more of these (to us) obvious descriptors of what the eye sees on the page.
#1 Describe in words the difference in appearance of middle C notated in treble clef and notated in bass clef.
#2 How does one position a note on a staff?
#3 How much does the note need to move up or down for it to change its name?
#4 What does it mean for a note to be “on” a line (sitting on a line or having the line run through its middle). What does it mean for a note to be “in” a space. (does the student look at a note that I call being “in a space” and see it instead as “resting on a line?
#5 After reviewing the recycling of the white keys at the octave, then ask: if each line or space represented a “musical” letter, or how many letters are there?
#6 Can you recite these letters both forwards and backwards?
So many components to a “single” understanding of the notation system! If any one is missing or simply unclear, how much of the entire nexus of perceptual abilities remain confusing or unclear. We depend so much on our students and the tradition that what the student is trying to learn is a coherent system of related concepts and perceptions. When the student turns out to be having difficulty reading their notes, it is so easy to blame the student and trust in the a priori sensibleness of the notation system.
-+- (to start here again with the student if necessary) See below. -+-
Can the student ‘sort’ through the three following ‘pairs’ of values, so as to match one of each pair with one from the other two pairs?
#1 the left-right space of the keyboard.
#2 the up-down space of the staff,
#3 the alphabet going forwards or backwards?
If you go “up” from a C on the keyboard do you travel left or right from the C? Is the letter I get to thereby a B or a D? If the student’s answer is B, what are the possible reasons for that answer:
#1 the student knows that the direction they are to move on the keyboard has the name “to the right” but was mixed up which is their left hand which is their right hand. So part of their answer would actually be “correct”, while a second part is incorrect.
#2. The student, knowing their left from their right, has wrongly “mapped” ahead in the alphabet onto movement to the left. Again, in part their answer is “correct” but it is based on a different part than applied in case number one.
Take nothing for granted. The teacher may be ‘confused’ about the what is the student’s ‘confusion’. Try to pin down the exact nature of the confusion, then go back to square one with the student, and start over again showing the student how to associate terms together
(see above: “start here again with the student if necessary”
I did not know my left from my right until I was 11 or 12 years old. I still have trouble with it. Every time I try to describe, in one of these blogs, anything involving relationships in space, I have to check and recheck that I am describing it correctly.
If it is difficult for the student say the alphabet backwards, let alone map it onto a staff or the keyboard, start with small and easily reversible ‘chunks’ to say out loud, such as:
ABCBA then CBA
CDEDC then EDC
EFGFE then GFE
FGAGF then AGF
Here is a miscellaneous kaleidoscope of activities for students with sight reading issues, each one helping to reinforce the others, and thus best done in concert with the others:
#1 The student says out loud the name of the note they are currently playing, without having to double check the name by looking down at the keyboard and seeing where their finger is.
#2 The student describes the position on the staff of the note they are about to play.
#3 The student says things out loud like: “That’s a ‘B’ because it is on the middle line of treble clef”; “this is a Middle C because it is one line above bass clef”; etc..
#4 Make sure the student has the vocabulary to describe both what is similar and what is different about two notes that have the same letter and staff position but which have different rhythmic values.
#5 Have the student say whether the next note to be played lies “up” from the previous note, “down” from the previous note, or is the same pitch twice in a row.
#6 Have the student give the letter name for one note from a piece they are about to learn, and then ask them to go through the remainder of the score and identify all other instances of the same pitch.
#7 The teacher points to a random note in the score and asks the student to play it. This, at first, is somewhat effective in preventing the student from thinking “up” or “down” from the previous note in the score, though eventually the student will simply retain an afterimage of the previous note to which to compare the current note.
#8 Use the “Joe Bloom note reading program for PC computers”. I am happy to send you a copy. Sorry, it doesn’t work on an Apple. I am also happy to send some strategies on how to make the most effective use of it.
#9 Use the “Wright Way Note Finder”. Though I don’t think it is marketed any more, you can find them on Amazon and Ebay. Young students like turning the knob and causing the (single) note to move up and down against the background lines and spaces of treble and bass clef. This is useful to make precise the vertical positioning of a note that is in a space, or on a line; or to determine the exact point, when gradually turning the know, that the note changes its letter identity.
The student can randomly change the note and have the teacher either play or same the name of the note (or both). Doing this gives the student instant feedback to satisfy their curiosity about what changing the pitch of the note means and how it maps onto the keyboard. Plus it gives the student a sense of power and control over the teacher – always a good thing.
#10 Jumping to conclusions
Students are always looking for ‘patterns’ that will make things easier for them and cut down on the amount of mental effort that goes into figuring out the identity of first one and then another in a stream of notes. For instance, in a measure of 4/4 times there are four quarter notes. The first three are moving up the staff step-wise. The fourth note has the same pitch as the third. The student is inclined to think that the “solution” to the problem is to find the unifying concept or pattern that applies to all the notes, and assumes the fourth note is a step higher than the third. Another example would be in a piece that repeats a four bar phrase identically except for one note alteration.
#11 One of two ways to use note-flash-cards. Put two or more cards in a line from left to right, all in the same clef, each one being a position higher than the one to its left. Tell the student to watch closely because the teacher is going to rearrange the order of the cards, after which it is the student’s job to return them to their original order. Start by switching the leftmost and rightmost cards, and do it with exaggerated physical gestures. At this point the student may garner all the necessary information simply by watching the physical movements of the teacher. Then start mutually exchanging the positions of two cards, starting with cards that are adjacent, and eventually any two randomly chosen cards. By the time you have finished this phase of the process the student most likely will have developed an intuitive understanding of the criteria for ordering the cards. Then, one can do more complicated shuffling of positions: among 3 cards, 4 etc.. It is not necessary to keep track of what criteria the student is using to restore the original order among the cards; it is sufficient that the rearrangements get, gradually, more and more complex, and entail more and more cards.
#12 Another and more elaborate and robust way to use flash-cards. Allthe cards are spread out in an random arrangement on a flat surface. The student is asked to pick two at random. Inform the student of the identity of each. Then hide them momentarily, randomize their order, then show them one at a time and ask the student to name the note.
Then begins a process by which, one at a time, new cards are added to the ‘deck’. With the addition of each new card, the ‘deck’ is shuffled and the cards shown to the student one at a time for identification.
Before adding the next new card to the deck, the cards that are currently in the deck should be reshuffled a number of times (more times when the there are more cards). With each shuffle the same cards appear but in a different order. This prevents the student from memorizing the order of the cards. When enough shuffles have occurred, the student chooses the next card to add to the deck.
By letting the student shuffle the deck each time before going through the cards again, and by letting the student choose the next card to add to the deck, the student is ‘controlling’ what notes they are learning.
Each time the student chooses a new card for the deck, the teacher tells them what the new note is.
As the student becomes more proficient at this ‘game’, the teacher can control how long the student can look at the next card in the deck before giving an answer. For instance, if the student takes longer than a second to identify the note, the teacher can provide the answer for the student, without implying that anything negative is happening. This is a way of steering the student away from “figuring it out”, instead of instantly recognizing the note from its clef and staff position.
Please let me know if you want me to post more teaching ideas for beginners learning their notes.
* If the student has learned their notes starting with middle C and radiating out in both directions, it is not uncommon for the student to call the bottom line of treble clef “line number one”, and the top line of bass clef, again, as “line number one”.