Tag: beginner piano

Ornaments, and the Seeming Length of Quarter Notes

A.B.’s lesson on 8/8/19
Prelude in Eb Minor, Book I.


Interpreting the rhythmic notation in this Prelude and its reliance on half note beats rather than quarter note beats.

In this Prelude the difference between the shortest duration notes and
the longest duration notes spans an unusually wide variety of
intermediate rhythmic values. The shortest duration note is the 32nd
note as in measure 38. The longest a dotted whole note in measure 40.
This wider than usual range may have been one factor in Bach’s choice
of half note beats rather than quarter note beats.

Historically, with the passage of the centuries, a note like the whole
evolved from being a note of relatively shorter duration on a clock to
a note of a longer duration on the clock. Reflecting this change is
the difference between the older name for a whole note, that of
“semibreve”, or half of a brief note, to whole note, which is more at
suggesting the nature of a “whole which is the sum of the parts”.
During this historical process, at no time, did a whole note equal
anything more or less than the duration of two half notes (assuming a
constant tempo). The RATIO of durations between rhythmic note values
(quarter to half, half to whole, whole to half, etc.) has always been

While this relative ratio never changed, the ‘absolute’ values of the
notes, on the clock, as the decades and centuries passed, underwent a
sort of slow continental drift, making the difference in absolute
values get further and further apart from each other, each note itself
becoming longer and longer. A note originally intended to portray a
subjectively short duration in consciousness, grew and grew in until in
our century it is usually meant to portray a much longer duration on
the clock. Other notes grew similarly, only they kept their fixed
ratio of duration when looked at from one to another.

A thirty-second note would not have even shown up on the chart at the
time when whole notes were ‘semi brief’, the thirty seconds lay beyond
the horizon, out of radar range, existing only mathematically in the
realm of possibility, perhaps coming to tangible existence sometime in
the future.

In addition to the whole note being called ‘semi’ (in the sense of shorter than) a ‘brief’ note, the following notes all had names that reflected the
fact that a various times each one in turn had a name suggesting

Whole note semibreve semi brief, shorter than a short note; half note minim the least or most minimal duration; eighth note quaver a quiver, single flutter of a bird’s wing; sixteenth note semi quaver less than the briefest flutter – almost undetectably short; thirty-second note demi-semi-quarter shorter than the shortest of the shortest

The original name for a quarter note, which was ‘crotchet’, had more
to do with its visual appearance than its subjective duration (possibly a “hooked” note – the hook I’m assuming being the stem).

Of course, all of this is varied by the ‘tempo’. No note, at any
historical time, had a fixed duration. A fast tempo would render, for
example, a sixteenth note, into a note of very short duration, while a
slow tempo will take the same sixteenth notes, and stretch its

One might imagine a line of notes from long to sixty-fourths, and
over the centuries the “Ancient of Days” acknowledges, or anoints,
first one than the next, with the epithet “you are the shortest of
notes in duration”.


With such a wide range of durational values to choose from, it is
sometimes difficult to maintain a single, even tempo through out the
piece, especially when rhythm switches back and forth from relatively
longer notes (whole notes and longer) to relatively short notes
(sixteenth notes and shorter).

Let us assume that as the pianist you are counting out loud while you
are playing this prelude, and your particular goal is to use the voice
to steady the tempo. One way in particular of defining this goal is
to say that no quarter note, anywhere in the piece, is longer or (in
particular) shorter than any other quarter note in the piece.

Many people encounter difficulties counting out loud and coordinating
the notes with the spoken counts. There is however one sure fire
principle to help things along. Be suspicious if you notice that your
voice momentarily fades out while playing. This is almost always a
sign that there is uncertainty about the rhythm at that moment. It
usually occurs when shifting to longer notes from shorter notes or vice

You need only to be aware enough of the sound of your voice to hear
that it is fading out or disappearing altogether. You can reliably
assume that these are the moments when your tempo has sped up or
slowed down.

When the rhythm in the prelude switches from sixteenth notes or
thirty-second notes abruptly to quarter notes or half notes, an almost
‘existential’ crisis may develop in the player’s mind. The quarter or
half notes seem to be unusually long, almost “too” long. They seem
naked and alone and want to cover up their full duration by a bit of
shortening. “No, these notes couldn’t possibly be meant to last as long as this”. The result, without usually being conscious of its happening, are that the longer notes speed up. In fact, the longer the pianist holds out the note, the faster an inward tension builds up urging the note to end so that the next note may start.*

It is like, in special relativity theory, the player’s local clock,
when traveling faster relative to another observer, goes through a
relativistic shift compared to the slower observer. To this observer
the notes seem to grow shorter and shorter, while to the pianist’s
observations are that no apparent change in duration has occurred.

What can the pianist do to ameliorate this situation? After all, it would be awkward to have a metronome loudly ticking on the piano when
performing the work.

There are several things that can be done by the pianist on a
subjective level to keep the tempo even. They share the common idea
of the longer notes being subdivided mentally into a string of shorter

When playing quarter notes, for example, sixteenth notes can be felt
to be pulsing inside the quarters. The outside observer may not hear
these separate sixteenths, but they are quite vivid to the performer,
so much so that the pianist can ‘hear’ the sixteenths as vividly as the

Here is one particular technique that I use at lessons. As soon as
you the pianist’s voice is about to loose its certainty in
enunciating the counting syllables, have the pianist try eliding,
that is, prolonging the sound of one syllable into the beginning of
the next.

An example. If, in a particular measure, the voice falters or fades
out, at just the time when the pianist is supposed to say the counts
“three and four and”, do as follows.

Change the word “three” into a series of three separate elongated
sounds (thhhhhh, rrrrrrr, and eeeeeee), Moreover, have each of the
each sound gradually morph into the next
(“thhhHHHH->rrrrRRR->eeeeEEE). And, if we prolong the “eeeeee” sound
right up to the boundary with the word “and”, then the entire third
beat becomes (voice-wise):


Doing this serves a double purpose. It makes the pianist more, rather
than less, aware of the sound of their voice when counting out loud.
Secondly, if a count is parceled out among a series of short duration, this system of counting and eliding allows the pianist to keep better track of when exactly each shorter note is supposed to begin and end.


What about ornaments. Should we add them in right from the start?

Every rhythm, whether or not that an ornament, can be reflected through a prism that will separate it into smaller component rhythms. each
component rhythm sheds light on the printed rhythm both musically and
in terms of physical ease of execution.

Let us take a banal example: four quarter notes.

Using these abbreviations:

w = whole note
.h = dotted half note
h = half note
q = quarter note

And by tying together certain of the quarter notes to others, we find
these rhythms ‘inside’ the four quarter note rhythm.

q .h
,h q
h h
h q q
q q h

and by subdividing certain of the quarter notes we find these rhythms
as well ‘inside’ the four quarter note rhythm.

e = eighth note

e e e e e e e e
h e e e e
e e e e h

Each has its own sense of pulse and emphasis. The ideal rendition of
the original rhythm (q q q q) would reflect the special properties of
each and every one of the sub rhythms.**

#2 Ornaments in particular:


The first thing to do is leave out the ornament entirely, Simply hold
out the single note out that the ornament is applied to. Hold it for
its full written value. This accustomed the body to the exact duration in which the various notes of the ornament will unwind through time plus any remaining duration of the main note. Adding in the notes of the ornament later, feels to the body like filling in a pre-made compartment of time.


The next step is to actually play the ornament without any rhythm to
it at all, or in effect, with every note of the ornament held for the
same duration as every other. And, at the same time, elongating that
common duration, so that the ornament will sound like a slow melody.

Expanding the ornament into a lyrical melody is related to what we
said above about rhythms containing rhythms, plus its reverse: that
smaller rhythms join or fuse together into larger rhythms (in our
case, until the ornament turns into one held note whose duration is
the sum of all the shorter notes plus the written note). Or to misquote a favorite satirical poem in biology and bacteriology books: big fleas have little fleas, and little fleas or littler flees, and so on to infinity.


As we proceed on towards playing the complete ornament, begin by
combining groups of notes in the ornament together into just one held note. Then stage by stage add in more of the details of the ornament. Each stage
nestles inside or embedded into the previous stage.

* Sometimes this anxiety increases exponentially with time rather than

** It is like the color of a star. It may be emitting light at many
different frequencies (or colors) but the predominant effect of all of
them together is a single color.

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A Chopin Nocturne; the Boundary Between Heard and Imagined Sound

S.B.’s lesson on 7/11/19: Chopin: Nocturne in C Minor, Op. 48 / 1.

#1. Beginning

The piece begins with two solitary c-s (c2-c3). A beat later C is joined by other notes belonging to a C Minor chord. At what point do we begin to hear or sense the full C Minor chord? We may think that one beat is not a long time. That very soon after we play c2, any ambiguity as to identity of the harmony during the first half of the measure will disappear, as the hands complete the C Minor chord on the second beat. But subjectively that first beat can last a long time. Either the pianist, or the listener already quite familiar with the piece, must imagine the rest of the C Minor chord sounding (c2–g3-ef4-g4–g5) before the second beat arrives, while only the C naturals on the first beat are still in the outer ear.

The same applies for all the other half measures in the opening. The pianist should have a pre-vision (sic) – a “pre-audition” – of the full chord in their imagination, as if it is already fully sounding into their outer ear. One of the most subtle and masterly things a pianist works with when constructing with sound is the middle ground between heard and imagined sound. Memory and anticipation are always weaving together in the consciousness of duration in time. The boundary between the two should not be fixed and definite, but blurred. What the pianist imagines has a tangible effect on what the listener thinks they are hearing.

#2. Things that can spoil a legato in a long phrase.

The first phrase is four measures long. There are several places within it where it requires increased additional focus to keep the sense of legato flow alive.

A. Measure one and the first half of measure two

The presence of a rest can indicate two very different things. One
is to force a break in a melody: to consider something as being two
separate things rather than one continuous thing. The other is to
increase the sense of connection in the melody by having to overcome
an obstacle or gap that has been superimposed upon the melody. It is
like the electric charge crossing the gap in a spark plug. It is like
water building up behind a dam. A pressure, or force, builds up
behind the stoppage of the first note which makes going on to the next
note even more inevitable and accomplished with greater momentum.

B. The first two notes in measure two

The g5 comes in as a quarter note but starts on the and of one. If
you think of this quarter note as two eighth notes tied together, the
easiest place to loose the legato is as the first half of the quarter
note ties over the end of beat one into the first part of beat two.
It is in effect a tie to connect two beats. The force of the flow of
that sound has to spill over the boundary between the two beats. It
is not enough to hear one note, but as if that note began a sudden
crescendo just prior to its second half. It is the rhythm and the
meter that forces this imaginary crescendo upon the otherwise formless
sound that lasts two eighth notes.

C. The tied d5 in measure two going to the ef5.

Immediately after the imaginary crescendo during the first d5 in
measure two, we encounter another situation which can attenuate a
continuous legato. It occurs when a relatively long note is followed
by a relatively short note. In this case the first d5 of the measure
is the longer note, lasting for three sixteenths, and the following
ef5 not only is one sixteenth long, but it also comes in after a tie. A
double whammy.

We normally rely on there being enough resonance left to a note to
effect a soldering of one note in a legato to the next. Otherwise the
sudden change from the end of a longer note. which has already
decayed, to the sudden attack of the next note sounds too much like an
sudden accent and defeats the attempt at the legato. To overcome this
difficulty, the pianist’s ear must track the full duration of the
longer note, instant to instant and, in their imagination, sustain
(prop up) the loudness of the note so as to counterbalance the
decrescendo of the decay. Then they must connect this heightened form
of the end of this note not to the attack of the following note but
the level of sound the next note will have a moment after the attack.
Even when it is just a short note.

D. The repeated c5-s in measure three.

When playing the same note several times in row, do we let the legato
come solely from the pedal? Or do we use the more cumbersome but
elegant way of controlling the key dip and not resorting to the pedal.
Or perhaps some of both? This is the pianist’s decision. The purer
legato is always attained by manipulating the key in question so that
at the instant that the key is released, and a minimal fraction of
inch before it reaches the top of the key dip, the arm is already
overriding the upward motion of the key with a strong downward force
to send the key down again.

E. The g4 in measure four going to the the grace note bf4.

This falls under the heading of a relatively longer note going to a relatively shorter note (see letter ‘C’ above). Pianists will often inadvertently make the legato connection occur from between the note before the grace note to the note to which the grace then goes to. The more sublime legato connection is from the note before to the grace note itself, in spite of its very short duration.

#3. Other things contributing to maintaining constancy of flow in the piece.


The way the pianist releases a chord unintentionally affect the way they
attack of the next chord. Thus, when playing the chords on the offbeats in beginning of the piece, don’t “telegraph” the release of the left hand chords into the attack that started the same chord.  Regardless of the duration the pianist wishes to hold these chords (some editions show them staccato) there should be two physically dissimilar gestures, one for the attack, one for the release, with a stasis in between them.


The middle section of the Nocturne, where a series of wide chords is
arpeggiated from one hand into the other. The broken chord is
difficult, regardless of the distances between the notes and fingers,
if the chord is first rendered as a melody of single notes, starting
with the bottom note written in the left hand for that chord, and
ascending leisurely a pitch at a time until finishing the melody with
the highest note of the chord that is written in the right hand. The
pedal can be kept down. The finger that has just played one of the
notes can come off that note the moment the next finger has started
its note. This discourages over-stretching the hand when the melody
is turned back into a chord.

C. The section with double octaves.

S.B. has a small hand and was reluctant to learn the piece.

She pointed out that her fingers are hyper-flexible. Watching her
carefully as she played the octaves, I found myself wanting to say, for
the first time to a student, “You may want to not use all  that flexibility.”

I called her attention to the shape of her hand and wrist when playing
an octave, in particular along the length of the fingers and a projection of that axis through the hand and wrist. Her wrist was elevated. The third knuckles of her fingers were at a lower altitude in comparison to the wrist, but because the third knuckles hyperextended to a strong degree her second knuckles were at a much higher altitude than the third knuckles.

I suggested that this contour had innate disadvantages when seeking the greatest extension between the fingers without inducing tension. That without coercing anything, she could encourage a shape from wrist to fingers that was more in the spirit of being like, or in the direction of a
straight angle. To coax her hand into that shape, she could rest the
three middle fingers on the surfaces of random keys lying in between
the pinky note and the thumb.

This improved the sound of her octaves, as well as their quality of
resonance, evenness, and her alacrity in changing from one octave to
the next.*

* Often when I said I noticed a difference she did not. Sometimes it
wasn’t so much that she didn’t notice the improvement, but that the
improvement was short of her ultimate goal and desire. This time
however, she smiled and said, “Oh, that was much better, and much
easier too”.

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Commitment to Every Note and Its Meaning

C.R.’s lesson on 7/9/19: Beethoven’s Rondo in C Major, Op 51 / 1.

This lesson was about total dramatic, musical and emotional
commitment to the work one is playing.


Take for example the left hand at the beginning |: c4-e4 g4 :|. This is no trivial Alberti-like bass figure. It is no simple or gentle oscillation. It is Atlas with the world on his shoulders, shifting its weight from one shoulder to the other and back and forth. As a result, people on earth are first washed into the sea, and then hurled on shore again.


Never let your personal dislike of or disinterest of a passage, affect your ability to be a dedicated advocate if that passage. It is the same as being a
“Paraclete”, or a great defense attorney, who still puts on the best defense regardless of any personal feelings about their client. Or, think of yourself, as a great actor who regardless of their feelings about a particular line says it as if it were a great line. When I listen to you play this piece in concert, I would be able to say to someone at intermission, “Well, I happen to know she doesn’t really like the sound of those diminished chords, but portrays every one as being something wonderful. It is as if she takes what is
disagreeable in the sound of that chord, and magnifies it in its disagreeableness until striking the essence of the effect of the diminished chord.”.

The piano is a marvelously safe place to “act out” at the same time as “hide”.  For no one in the audience knows whether whether the effect of what they hear at any moment is due to Beethoven or to you. In fact if you are playing the piece well, you are eclipsed as an entity leaving just the music.


In the piece where there is a long quasi-chromatic scale upwards in
groups and fours and then downwards in triplets.

“Is the way down usually the same as the way up”. Do you subscribe to the view of the ancient Greek philosopher, Heraclitus, who said “The way up and the way down are one and the same.” I feel that in music the way up and the way down are substantially different in aesthetic and in structural meaning.*

The scale up, because of its use of chromatic, non-scale tones, is
like the first long, slow incline up a roller coaster, a time during
which one’s anticipation of the rapid descent to follow builds and
builds in one’s apprehension and/or excitement. And when it changes
direction at the top, we get sea sick. Afterwards, for a moment here
and there we may level off, but it is those minimum and maximum points along the curve of the track that keep us clinging to the coaster – to the melody. One the way down, the scale of the melody, faster and less chromatic this time, pushes aside all obstacles on its way to is eventual goal.

As your listener, I want you to make me seasick, just from the changing direction of the pitches, slowed and sped up by the melody’s rhythm. If you don’t make me sea sick I’m just not that interested in the kinetic motion of the passage.

* There are exceptions of course, some passages are designed to simply
move away from something and then return in an inevitable circle.
Where the meaning lies in the starting point / = ending point and not in the

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The Fusion of the Hands

A.B. playing Albeniz: Orientale


As a general principle the left hand should always be playing with and encouraging the right hand.  When nothing is written for the left hand in a particular measure, then, for practicing purposes, the left hand can either provide notes that support the right hand harmonically, or make gestures as if playing these notes but without sounding them – as long the physical effort involved is tantamount to or greater than the effort that would be made to sound the notes.

In the section where A3 is held and the remaining fingers play a series of parallel triads in inversion, AB’s right hand feels insecure; he says that it doesn’t feel balanced; the fingers feel awkward trying to play the exact notes of the triad. I asked him to play the octave a2-a3 in the left hand, and to re-play with each triad in the right hand.  “Miraculously”, his right hand no longer felt out of balance.  The reason that it is best when both hands are lending mutual support to each other is because we are bilaterally symmetric creatures – our arms and legs are mirror images of each other.

If we interlace the fingers of our two hands and then move our hands conjointly around in space (up and down, sideways, it doesn’t matter), we are no longer automatically conscious of what one hand is doing versus what the other hand is doing. They have lost their individual identities once fused together in a larger, single, natural entity. Starting with this larger unit, we can then farm out assignments to each hand.  There is a ‘pulse’ generated by the center of the body that travels like an electric current down both arms in concert.  This pulse can also cross from arm to arm in analogy to how the optic nerves crisscross on the way from the eyes to the brain.  We should assume, in both cases, that each gains support from the other.

The hands form a unity such that each hand suffers when that unity is broken.


A chord is the same regardless which hand plays it:

In the same section of the piece, where a sequence of parallel triads occur over a held a3, A.B. says that if he uses his right hand to play all three notes of each triad, his ear is more able to be aware of the chord that is formed by the three notes.  I said that ideally, we want to reach a point where what we hear is not dependent in any way on which hand is playing which notes of the chord.  The chord exists as a single sound unit regardless of which notes in the chord are played by the right hand and which by the left hand – it’s always the same chord with the same sound. Physical differences are secondary.

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    1. I am so glad to hear it! Always feel free to respond to blogs with any questions or feedback, it is always welcome.

The Principle of Nested Parentheses

In simplifying algebraic expressions, one starts with the innermost
pair(s) of parentheses, simplifies and reduces it, then works
gradually outwards to the outermost parentheses, i.e. the full

Today, I want to advocate the opposite process for piano
practicing, one that begins, figuratively speaking, with the outermost
parentheses and works inwards until all the details are presented.

A.B. is playing a piece called “Orientale” by Albeniz. We set up our
first, our outermost parentheses, to surround 5, 6 and 7 of the piece.   We left the parentheses empty except for the first chord of measure five
and the first chord of measure seven. Everything in between was omitted. We tried to effect a connection between just these two chord/islands in time, a connection that was crafted to make those two chords in sequence sound musically self sufficient and meaningful. Bear in mind that, as with any good parenthetical statement, the words (notes) inside the curved brackets are of less importance than what lies outside the brackets.

We next subdivided the outermost parenthesis into two two nesting
parentheses. The first nesting parenthesis goes from the beginning of
the fifth measure to the beginning of the sixth measure, the second
from the latter to the beginning of the seventh measure.

Each of the new, nested parentheses is of less importance than the original, surrounding parentheses. Thus the chord at the beginning of measure six is of less importance than either the chord at the beginning of measure five or the chord at the beginning of measure seven. The presence of the sound of the chord at the beginning of measure six should in no way interfere with the way that the chord in measure five connects with the chord in measure seven. This inner chord is not quite trivial, but it is at a different order of magnitude than the other two. This difference in magnitude should be noticeable both in terms of the amount of physical action and exertion used to sound it and in terms of its musical importance.

We continued the process by further dividing each sub-parentheses into
more numerous shorter parentheses. This process continued until, at
the last stage, every note in the original passage is present and
sounding. Gradually all the chords and melody notes appear.* At each
stage the full, or final, picture becomes more and more fleshed
out. The new material added by way of detail is, as in the stage prior
to it, stepped down in terms of the magnitude of physical action and
exertion made to execute it.

In this system the final details, including all the individual notes
in the score which we insert at that last stage are, strangely
enough, the least important. At each stage we discover that we can
make a convincing musical phrase out of just the material constituting
that stage.* Though eventually there will be more notes present, the
notes that are there in each each level sound entire and musical, as
if nothing is being left out – no note or chord missing, each should
note in no way depends for its musical character on any implied notes
we will hear in the future.**

At the final stage, when all the notes are sounding, all the other steps which we have previously enunciated are still “there” in some sense, enriching the overall texture of the passage.

* In one possible stage, we discover, for instance, that playing just the first two of each group of right hand triplet notes, creates its own independent melody without requiring the third note.

** Generally speaking, it is too easy to make connections between two
things that come one right after the other in time. It is their very
proximity that calls our attention to the relation between them. But
who is to say that the current music note in time should not form a
relation with a note that occurs two or more notes later, or later
still. And if there are such medium and long distance relationships,
they are the building blocks of nascently growing organizational
units of the piece until the whole piece is interconnected. As these
units grow longer in time the beginning of the unit is only partially
retained in memory, first as an ‘after image’, and then deeper and
deeper in memory, until they back to mind if they are in some way
reiterated or altered.

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