Speed – Evenness – Relaxation: “Tapping” and “Clicking”
A basic procedure that fosters rapidity in playing is to keep the physical involvement of the body to an absolute minimum. The more tension there is in the muscles, and the further in space the fingers must move, the more inhibited is the onward flow of the notes through time. Speed requires relaxation. So does evenness.
We are looking for the least amount of weight and force that will cause to make the notes audible, and put that together with the least distance of motion by the fingers. The necessary amount of motion and muscular contraction to create a sound is so little that many of us cannot make the distinction between that amount and no amount at all. That even if we try intentionally to do the least effort possible, it will prove to be too much.
It is difficult to get to this minimum if we start with having too much tension and effort, and then gradually trying to lessen these amounts . It is far better to approach the ideal minimum of action from the side of no action, and gradually add to it the least possible additional action. We start from absolute zero: no sound and no motion and then make the least significant change.
Here are two techniques that will bring the body action to an absolute minimum, which will then be the most ergonomically efficient way of playing, especially in speed.
1 – Tapping.
Have the fingers lightly and silently tap out the sequence of notes in a passage. By “tap” I mean an action so minimal, so gentle, that the key does not budge downwards, nor is there any sound even from the key mechanism. All there is, is a slight, momentary feeling of contact between the finger tip and the key surface. After doing this for a measure or two – as you follow along in the score, ask your body: “what now is the least amount of anything I need to add, so that the notes start sounding?” Bear in mind that such a least difference should feel subjectively like your not doing additional at all – and yet the sounds come out.
2 – Clicking on the keys.
Clicking is similar to tapping, except that the part of the finger that makes contact with the key is the ridge of the finger nail, and that there is an audible click-like sound, like a very brief pulse from a metronome. This clicking sound has about it something of the crystal clarity with which one wants to invest the entire sound when playing the passage in the normal way.
When using these two methods, it is very easy to keep control of the evenness of the finger strikes, an effect that then carries over into the sounded version of the passage. And with so little effort there is no limit to how fast we can pretend to play the notes for which they stand.
And may there be no moaning at the bar line
Irving is an intermediate student. We are working on one of the numerous, smaller Schubert pieces: a Waltz in A Minor.
I am aware that at various places he hesitates before going on to the next note. This seems to happen especially when going from the last beat of one measure into the first beat of the next measure. It happens much less when going from one beat inside a measure to the next.
This situation reminds me of a “steeplechase,” or any other race in which horse, or human, must periodically jump over hurdles. In between the hurdles, the path is flat and so it is easier to maintain momentum. In Irving’s case, it is as if each vertical bar line is a literal hurdle or obstacle to be overcome through a greater amount of effort, although the connections over the bar lines are not generally any more difficult than the connections inside a measure.
Could it be that the bar line is just a psychological hurdle and no more? Is it the mind’s reaction to seeing a vertical line that, visually, appears as a barrier to be crossed or surmounted to continue in the piece?
It could be that the effect is due to the fact that the first beat of the (next) measure often requires extra energy to create the ictus due to a downbeat?
Or, it could be that there is a certain limit to how many upcoming notes the mind can digest before having to pause and take in some more notes, and that a convenient place to fill up the mental buffer is at the beginning of a new measure.
Let us consider instead the cases where the transition between bars only seems more difficult than the changes that occurred within the measure.
In our case, given the 3/4 time of the waltz, the student should play four (sic) consecutive beats at a time. Doing this will always involve going over one bar line. Let us say, Irving is playing from one downbeat of one measure through to the next downbeat.
Having executed these four beats, pause. Repeat the same four beats as necessary until there is no hesitation going over the bar line.*
Continue by advancing one measure at a time, starting with the downbeat that ended the previous four beat segment. Advance through that measure and come to a pause on the following downbeat. Repeat this process, updating the starting point from the downbeat of one measure to the downbeat of the next measure. In this way, the student continuously updates his mental cursor to the position where he had previously stopped.
Here is another, more direct technique for crossing bar lines: Get rid of the bar line. The neatest way to do this is to mentally erase the bar line. We chose to erase every other bar line. The result is that piece in 3/4 time now seems to be in 6/4 time. Doing this often automatically removes any hesitation that occurred between what used to be beat three of the first measure going into beat one of the second measure. The forward motion flows freely through where the bar line used to be.
* Part of the advantage of practicing this way is that how we play the next measure’s downbeat is not interfered with by any mental or physical preparations we may be making about continuing beyond the new downbeat and further into its measure.
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The beginner who has trouble with rhythm and counting
At her lesson yesterday “C” told me that the amount of focus and concentration she needs to keep track of rhythm as she plays through a piece in real time is so great that she often cannot sustain that effort, given that she is already focusing on what the notes are.
There are some students who are convinced that they do not have the ability to play with the rhythm in addition to playing the correct notes.
Often I find that their conclusion is inaccurate. They do have the ability to feel and reproduce a rhythm; what they lack is the ability to translate the visual notation of that rhythm, a series of odd looking musical symbols, into the feeling of the rhythm that is already in their bodies.
While playing, the student if necessary can interpret and react to just one note at a time. However, for rhythm, it requires fusing a group of successive written symbols into a single sustained act through time. In other words, the rhythm does not lie in a single note but in a series of notes.
To prove to the student that they do have the ability to execute rhythms accurately, I use just one note (middle C for example) and reiterate it in a certain rhythm. For instance if I play the sequence:
| dotted-quarter eighth | dotted-quarter eighth | eighth eighth quarter | half |
the majority of students will be able to play that rhythm back. They will do so at the same tempo in which I played it. This last fact suggests that they achieve this without subdividing the conscious duration of their rendition into separate notes, without breaking it into a series of separate notes, each with its own private duration.
Now that the student is aware that they do have the ability to mimic, and therefore repeat if necessary particular rhythms, what’s left to do is leisurely learning to recognize the visual concatenation of symbols that stand for that whole experience that their body already knows and has internalized.
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More about teaching beginners
What are the different components of piano playing – all of which must function well either alone or in concert with the others?
Piano “playing” is perceived as a single activity whose component parts are all concurrent in time. This describes its appearance to others as well as to pianists who have been training for a number of years.
The list of components includes, but is far from exhausted by: the ability to read music notation; to conceptualize the name of the note as a sound, the ability to translate the note(s) read into the depression of the appropriate key or keys on the keyboard; the physical / muscular coordination to bring the finger tips to choose these keys; the ability to distinguish sounds by pitch, loudness, duration and tone quality. Then there is the ability of the ear to determine whether the previous components resulted in the correct sonic outcome. Add to that the ability to see patterns (among notes on the keyboard and among the more abstract patterns), including the patterns by which patterns change through time. The ability of creating and distinguishing rhythms. Most important of all, coordinating them so that they all occur together in an ongoing flow of time. These are some of the physical, visual, kinesthetic and audio components of playing the piano.
These component parts, if presented separately, would not necessarily suggest what their effect would be if intermingled, nor the manner in which to combine them. In the everyday world, most of skills, would not be found bound together, nor work together towards a common goal.
As teachers, we may take it too much for granted that the student will instinctively fuse a coherent whole out of these elements. It helps if the student has a strong psychological motivation to simply “play”. This desire is a strong integrating force.
The issue will appear differently to children and adults.
For the adult beginner the issue tends to be how to gradually fuse together the above components such as pitch and rhythm, fingering and counting, which remain separated for longer than with the younger beginner, for whom there is apt to be a more immediate unconscious synthesis of the parts. There may not even be an awareness of the parts as parts. In this case, it may be more difficult to pull apart one ability from the nexus of the others to resolve an issue that is due to just one of the components.
During the first lessons the teacher is on high alert to identify which components of the overall skill set the student seems to be already somewhat familiar and to judge accurately the degree of that familiarity.
Ideally we want all the component abilities to progress in tandem, roughly the same rate. In practice, this is almost impossible, but the teacher should do what he can to allow no particular skill component to lag too far behind the others. When this isn’t done, we have cases such as the third year student who comes to a new teacher not knowing how to read notes, or count rhythms.
I would so enjoy hearing from other teachers about this subject, and am glad to put up on the site their comments and suggestions.
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Teaching technique for younger beginners: tolerance for criticism
A useful technique is to create ‘room’ within the student for accepting negative criticism, by the creation within the student of a second person, who views the first person from the outside (as someone in the second person singular). This person can be called a colleague-teacher. Someone the teacher can consult with about the way the student is playing. This term puts the student into a position of authority with a sense of power and omniscience, thus steering around the potential for the student to feel as a victim of negative criticism.
Agree ahead of time on what the important things are that should happen during the next run-through of the piece.
a) the notes in the correct order.
c) a steady even tempo*
plus anything else that seems relevant to help improve that particular student’s playing, such as fingering, dynamics, tempo, articulation, clarity, enthusiasm, etc.. But not too many things. Perhaps a maximum of two or three to five.
After each run-through of a piece, consult with the ‘colleague-teacher’, and ask him to give his opinion on each of the categories, by assigning a separate grade, from one to ten, for each of the agreed upon categories. It is easier, with this setup, for the student to give criticism to himself without the resistance and hurt feelings that would result from negative criticism by the adult teacher. It creates the possibility of working on the aspects of his playing that he acknowledged as having lower scores.
* this may be the hardest for the young student to admit because, tacitly, she is acknowledging that certain sections of the piece are more difficult for her and therefore in need of more work than other sections.