Tag: beginner piano

Playing Priority Number One: Evenness

A.B.’s lesson on 8/22/19

First, an example of a playing goal that depends in turn on evenness of sound.

Let us say we want to ‘orchestrate’ a passage, meaning that the piano must be capable of uttering a variety of tone qualities.  Timbre change on the piano is most easily achieved as a secondary effect to changes in dynamic  intensity of the sound.  It is therefore advisable to first be able to level the  tonal playing field so that every note speaks with an equal volume,  regardless of its pitch range. Its duration, touch, attack, and way of connecting to the next note; all equal. Then, on this base of evenness, we can  orchestrate by sculpting a ‘relief’. So, timbre and orchestration at the piano  have a prerequisite evenness of sound, then that evenness can then be altered specifically.

If we make a list of important goals in our practicing, it would include both the ability to orchestrate and the ability to play evenly. However, evenness  has a priority over orchestration. Some goals simply depend on first  attaining mastery in some other goal.  Differences among sound, including  timbre, cannot be noticed in a constantly changing, uneven tonal  environment.

The same dependency on evenness as a prerequisite applies to:

  • Having a clearly articulated rhythm.
  • Crafting the ‘shape’ of a phrase.
  • Revealing the structure of a piece.
  • Responding to different emotional states through sound.

Before being able to play a crescendo or a decrescendo we need to have a foreground of – evenness, that makes it clear to a listener that certain notes are getting progressively softer or louder. Anything to do with sound, rhythm, fingering, and interpretation depends first on the  ability to play evenly.

Evenness is a complex amalgam of different facets.

  • The way one note connects to the next.
  • The loudness of the notes.
  • The same quality of sound regardless of each note’s duration.
  • The quality of the touch, and of the onsets of the sounds.
  • The extraction of the same resonance in the sound regardless
    of pitch range constant,

These evenness-es must then be combined when two hands are playing together, or whenever there is more than one voice occurring at the same time.

A.B. has a tendency to want to try perfect the tiniest details in a piece before addressing the more general and mundane matter of evenness. This  prioritization doesn’t minimize the importance of the details, it just postpones  their achievement for just a moment. For once the passage is even, A.B.  finds that the details are more easily  controlled and perfected.

Another example. Before choosing the ‘best’ fingering, be able to play the sequence of notes evenly regardless of the fingers being used. Then, the  final choice of fingering is made in a more revealing atmosphere, so that the effect of the passage is not primarily dependent on the fingering but that rather the effect is clear in the pianist’s mind prior to any particular  fingering.

Playing the “correct” notes would seem to be on an equal level of importance to ‘evenness’. Psychologically, though, trying to get the right notes to sound, without first demanding that they sound evenly, has the counter-intuitive effect of adding time to the process of learning the correct notes.

Once the pianist explores evenness, she or he becomes more and more sensitive to when evenness is not occurring. And with this growing awareness, the parallel question evolves: how fine a tolerance should go into setting the standard for the evenness. At what point does the evenness ‘click in’ as factor that brings a passage to life? And related to this is the question: how much of evenness is measurable on a sound meter? How  much is dependent on an actual conglomeration of factors that intuitively the ear must be aware of and process?

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Young Beginners” “Going for a ride” on the Teacher’s Hands

L.I’s lesson on 9/7/19.  She began lessons when she was three and is now nine, going on ten.    Chopin Waltz in C# Minor

#1

In several ways, at several different places in the opening few measures she couldn’t get the rhythm correctly or the tempo. There were just too many issues, in very close order, to go over them separately and then link them together into one flow.

Joe: “I know that you are nine now, going on ten, but let’s do what we did when you were three: let’s have you ‘go for a ride’ on my hands.”

Phase One.

In this procedure L. would passively rest the palm of her then, very small hands, on top of my hand, as I played. The motions I made in my arms and hands were transmitted directly to her hands, and therefore her muscle memory. If she kept her hands alert and attentive, without any resistance to what I was doing,  even the subtlest motions on my part become conscious kinesthetically to the student. In particular, rhythms and physical coordination between the hands. And it is transmitted as a continuous, and whole experience, rather than in disjointed surges of details. This procedure is useful to the young pianist, who hasn’t had time to develop a critical, analytical style.

Usually I exaggerate certain features of my playing so that they make a clearer kinesthetic impression on the student. For instance, where L. had suddenly doubled the tempo in parts of measures one and two, I made a ritard-like motion in my hand as would a conductor (in leading a large group  of players) so as to ritard simultaneously in synch with the  others. The same for when she had been too slow in measure 3 and 4. I dramatized slowing my motions so the notes began on time.

In general, the steadiness of the tempo soaked into her hand and through her hands into her entire playing mechanism. The same with regard to the specifics of the more complicated rhythms.

Phase Two:

The second phase was like phase one, but she became more of a “teacher” trying to impress upon me, the student, physical dynamics of the  mechanical playing the piece. Her role, on top of my hands, went from   passive to active.   J: “Show me” the rhythm, make it very clear; press down on my hands to make me make the sounds.

Phase Three:

We switched positions. I “played” upon her hand as her hands made the sounds.

As a general habit in my teaching, I take a procedure like this, as well as many teaching procedures, and break them down into different shades, angles, stages, situations and perspectives. It is the attempt to form a gestalt out of a finite set of points of view, but the more points in the set (without overdoing it) the greater the likelihood that a whole is created that is greater than the sum of its parts. This keeps the student’s experience of  the procedure alive for longer. It does not decay in effectiveness or stale through time by overuse of just one approach.

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Shaping an Ostinato-like Section of Repeated Groups of Four Sixteenth Notes

S.E.’s lesson on 9/7/19: Rachmaninoff 3rd concerto. first movement: when the endless sixteenths begin after the first statement of the main theme.

There is a lot of “interlacing” of the hands. I don’t mean simultaneous interlacing, I mean within four consecutive sixteenths some may be with the left hand some may be with the right hand.

This requires laying down a foundation of groups of four clearly stated sixteenths, whose musical contour, crescendo and decrescendo, is always sculpted the same regardless of what the notes are and which hands are playing particular notes. I spoke the words “one two three four”  monotonously, over and over, as S. played through the passage.  This should be done prior to any attempt at phrasing. The one of the four should always sound like the first of a group of four. The two of the four should always sound the second of a group of four. Etc..  This establishes first an unyielding base, over which the more musical details can then flicker and modulate.

While doing this first phase it was noticeable to me exactly where his playing of a sixteenth note was not exactly together with my count.  At today’s session, this took place mostly with the placement of the two following upon the one, of the four sixteenth note groups.

As a way of ‘shading’ from the first stage (mechanically and
metronomically) to stage two, where music ideas played over that surface of rigid evenness, I started counting, not mechanically or in an uninvolved or apathetic tone of voice, as if it were my job, or duty, simply to count evenly, but with shaping, phrasing and expressivity in my voice. I made this  transition without abandoning the syllables “one”, “two”, “three”, “four”. I “rounded” each spoken four note group into a resonant, glittering shape. But rather than shape the phrase in response to inner meaning of each group of pitches, I was more at using a “one size fits all” (one shape fits all) method. My voice was full of emotional expression but it was as if each time I repeated the four syllables, it was less a repeat, but more at an attempt to perfect one, constant, musical shape.

Stage three is to let the two meanings blend, the more idealized emotional and structural content of each perfectly shaped group of four, and how each group different from the others in terms of musical meaning when one added the specific pitches Rachmaninoff chose. The most convenient analogy for what the result is, is seeing an early Italian Renaissance painting by a master, in which the body, for instance of the Virgin, is fully clothed, but the folds of the drapery of the clothes perfectly intimate the shape of the body beneath it.

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Emotional Expression; Changing from Flats to Sharps

CP’s lesson 8/29/19 “Claire de Lune”

C: Everything I do, both in general, and specifically at the piano I when practice, is rational, organized and methodological. This includes the fact that once I start something I must complete it regardless of the months it takes me.   Moreover, I’ve never noticed any emotional expression in my playing, and I feel it is a lack on my part.

J: Your contention about emotional expression is belied by the natural beauty of your sound quality, and how unerringly you hit just the right feeling-tone of the piece you are playing.

(C seemed pleased that I thought so)

J: So if you believe that the last mentioned traits exist in your playing,  where  do think they come from; how do you get them?*

C: I don’t know. Partially because I don’t know when I’m getting them.

J: Exactly! You are not supposed to know, because they do not come from a part of you that is identifiable with words.  If so, would you be OK if we use words like irrational or non-conscious, to signify why you cannot tell  precisely where they come from within yourself. A bigger question: is it OK with you to have these two contrasting natures in yourself: one organized, under your control, and available to consciousness, the other, just as potent, but uncontrollable because inaccessible to your conscious or rational mind?

(She always knew about the organized one but had been very concerned that might not have the other. She was pleased to know she did have it, as well)

J: These two do not necessarily have to contradict each other or conflict with each other. Any conflict we sense comes from the rational side of our selves, when we try to define one in the terms of the other. In truth, each can amplify and encourage the other.

(She described an analogous situation in her life)

C: In my business life I frequently have to get to understand the
inner workings and organization of a large, international company.
The task seems daunting. There are too many interconnecting parts,
each pair seeming to interrelate in its own way and according to its
own customs. However, given enough time, I find that I begin to
grasp the whole and the parts.

J: My guess is that the foundational work you did was largely rational, but the insight that eventually came about how the company, despite its many parts, worked as an organic unity, came unexpectedly and was not directly
caused by its conscious antecedents in time. Again, we do not know from where this insight comes from, but it represents a direct intuition of the companies inner, organic unity.

In Claire de Lune there is a moment when the key signature changes
abruptly from five flats to four sharps. C. says this change causes
her great difficulty.

Here began a diagnosis.

1) I picked a passage in the flats section: in your imagination, rather than thinking about the key signature, just put, in your imagination, a flat sign in front of each and every note in the score. Note that this produces a somewhat different sequence of notes than what Debussy wrote.  C had little trouble doing this.

2A) Then we picked a passage in the sharps section. Now do the same thing again, only with sharps.  Put an imaginary sharp sign in front of every note you see in the passage and don’t think any longer about key signatures.  This too, though producing a passage that sounded different than the piece she was used to, offered her no difficulty.

2B) Play the same passage again as in #2A, but this time, in your imagination, put a flat sign rather than a sharp sign in front of every note. She had little little difficulty doing this.

Just so you know, all of these three things are much harder to do than play the score as written. So you have all the mental equipment necessary to  make a successful shift from flats to sharps.  Yet it is still giving you trouble.  We must explore further.

She said: the confusion occurs at the moment it changes key. It’s barely marked in the score. I’ve gotten so used to being in the flats for the last few pages,  I need just as long a period to get used to the sharps.

I said: this is very useful.  It’s time for me to ask a stupid question.  Do you start practicing the piece starting from the change of key, or do you usually start at the beginning of the piece?

She: the latter.  Remember, once I start something I have to see it through the end.

I think you have just diagnosed your problem as well as solved having found the solution to the problem.  Simply get in the habit of sometimes starting your practicing from the beginning of the sharp section until you are used to that part as you are to the opening section.

An aside.

She asked me how I handle this sort of situation. I said: it’s probably different for a professional musician, and different from one professional to the next.  Here is a part of my process  in handling keys and changes of key  that had remained unconscious to me for many years, but which after starting teaching others, became more accessible to my consciousness.

Here is a simple example.  I encounter a piece in G Major.  One sharp.  F  sharp.  I am sight reading the piece.  I come, in the score to an “F”.  It  genuinely does not look like an F.   It looks like something else: it looks like  an F-sharp.  There is nothing in the vicinity of the note on the page to cause   it to look any different.   But nothing you can say to me, will change the  impression that it looks different than an F natural.  There is little my mind can do to make it look again like an F and not an F#.  It is as if its printed in a  different color.   It produces a different emotional state in my mind.  It is  as if the # sign was printed just left of the note.

That indicates how a strongly I am affected from the start by hearing the  piece sound in the key of G major.  It is the obvious presence to my ear that we are in a tonal world known as “G Major”, and how that affects every note  in the piece, not just F#.

* With certain students I do teach things like being musical, understanding that inner thing-in-itself of the music.  I am surprisingly successful in doing this.  But when I have a student in front of me who does these  naturally, the worst thing I can do is make them aware of it in a way that includes how I think they are achieving it.

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Sight Reading Gets in the Way of Learning a New Piece

S.B’s lesson on August 27, 2019

S.B. who is quite musical and is in his early thirties, has great physical coordination at the piano even though he is playing only at an intermediate level. He could be playing at a much higher level, doing more technically challenging music. What is preventing this is his sight reading. If I were to try to place his sight reading scales on a scale from one to ten, it would approximately 2. At the same time, his ability to get around the piano acrobatically is at least an 8. We have tried all sorts of approaches to improving his sight-reading-alacrity; all with minor progress. As he puts it, “Each time I play or practice the same piece again, it is almost like sight reading it again.”

If we wanted him to undertake much more difficult and musically rewarding pieces, we would some have to set a goal of somehow getting rid of the sight reading stage in his learning process, or to put it more  practically, get rid of it to whatever degree possible. To move ahead in this direction we will depend on a third variable in addition to physical  coordination and sigh treading. This variable is his ability to memorize.

His usual method to memorize is to play the entire piece over and over again. However, because his sight reading skill is low, and since each repetition is more like sight reading it again, he does not get gradually more familiar with the piece; his memory doesn’t kick in very much.

We tried a new procedure.

I gave him a random score. I asked him to carefully sightread the first measure, and pay close attention to what notes were being played in his hands. Then, without further ado, try to play that measure by heart. It took just a couple of tries until he was able to do that. At that point we simply played the measure number of times by memory. When it seemed to be locked into place, which was about after the fourth repetition, I asked him to play the measure faster (by memory). Then even faster. This proceeded fairly effortlessly (the physical coordination ability kicking in with its  contribution).

Instead of reading-on in the piece (his usual procedure is try to play through an entire piece), we cleared his mind by talking for a minute on some  irrelevant topic. Then we went through the same exact procedure that we used for the first measure, but this time for the second measure. This proved harder than measure one but not by much.

Then we went into a phase in which I would say in some random order, something like: “play measure two”, “play measure one”, “play measure one” …

After that we began fusing the two measures together into one  continuous unit. The difficulty in this was finding a smooth way of getting from the end of measure one into measure two. This was due to less to an unfamiliarity in how to start measure two and more in doing so when immediately preceded by measure one. I suggested he first try measure two alone, followed momentarily by playing measure one and two.

At the conclusion of this process, he pronounced that on a scale from one to ten, his memorization ability was about a five. So, with the 5 for  memorizing together with the 8 for physical coordination, they will  hopefully, on their own, help him wipe out the 2 for sight reading, simply  because we are minimizing its presence in the learning process.

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