Flow, Versus a Sequence of Separate Notes
H.P’s lesson on 8/13/19 Menuet from Ravel: Tombeau de Couperin
Joe: “Our recent work has focused on flow versus the pointillism of
notes. As we go on today, let’s use two very restricted definitions of
these two terms, ‘Notes’ will simply mean knowing what notes to play
at the next moment and ‘flow’ will simply mean getting to those notes
from the preceding notes without even the most minimal of hesitation.
For many pianists it is a long held view that they must master the
“notes” before attempting the musical qualities of the piece, the
latter of which includes the manner of flow of the sounds through
Depending on the student I have been known to reject this premise on the ground that unless the musical qualities of a piece enter into our intuition of the piece at the beginning of the learning process, by the time the pianist masters the notes, the musical characteristics of the piece have suffered from neglect to the point that it is now hard to install or instill this musicality into the slow setting cement of the notes only.
What I am pleased to notice is how lately you have been working from “both ends at once,” gains in note accuracy are bootstrapping gains in musical flow, while at the same time working for the flow is bootstrapping note accuracy. You have found a way to working simultaneously for both goals, and thereby leaving the question of “which came first, the music or the notes”, into the category of similar questions like “which came first the chicken or the egg.”
About a third of the way into the lesson we focused on the middle section of the movement and in particular who to connect one chord with another without any break in the flow of the sound. Joe: “we must make ourselves take responsibility for never allowing any a break in the sound flow. What I am hearing when you play this passage are periodic, brief hesitations before continuing on to the next chord.. You seem to exert a lot of focus and energy on playing a group of chords with good continuity of sound, but then need to take a pause to recharge your batteries. It is as if to say: “I’ve been working very hard, physically and mentally, through these last few chords, I need a break.”
When we take that pause, we push the question of the flow temporarily out of our consciousness and awareness. We do not notice that we are pausing. It exists in a momentary blind (sic) spot brought on by fatigue. The question is whether the listener hears the pause, notices that we are momentarily clinging to the current notes before going on to the next notes.
The answer is that they always know though in different ways and to different conscious degrees. Some not only hear the pause but are upset at the application of the brakes to the flow, and have a difficulty in reestablishing their attention afterwards. For others the reaction is more subconscious. For some reason, of which they are not aware, there is a slackening in their attention to the music, which just happens to occur at the same point in the score where the pianist has broken the flow. For some the reaction is even less actively conscious. They will not notice the hesitation in any way as it happens, but further on in the piece they notice that their emotional reaction to the music has taken a negative turn. They will ascribe this to either the piece itself, or their inability to listen sensitively to the music.
The pianist’s ears must always be on “sentry duty”, otherwise it increases the likelihood that they will not notice deviations from the constancy of the sound flow. When this happens the sound flow can become distorted. knowing and being on alert is the best way to prevent something happening in the first place.
Some necessary connections will always seem un-doable to us; just beyond the realm of the possible, as will some of the chord connections in this middle section. Without going into the specific physical procedures to make these connections easy (something which usually forms a large segment of my teaching), it may be enough simply to say to yourself “I must do this”, “there is no option but that it has to happen smoothly”. And if we leave ourselves no way out, the body discovers the solution for itself, without conscious awareness by us of the how. Most of us when practicing a difficult group of notes will suddenly play it once the way we want it to sound. We also have experienced that trying to repeat this success often fails. We don’t learn the right way through repetition. Nonetheless we should pause after the successful rendition and absorb the very important fact that we are capable of doing it. It may be too early in the learning process to be able to reproduce it whenever we want. The one success is enough, however, to open the path to a confident discovery of the recipe for the solution. I can try to accelerate this progress by explaining or demonstrating to the pianist what things were happening physically when it came out correctly. The problem with any explanation though is that regardless of the teacher, some part of the solution remains unconscious to that particular teacher, and is therefore left out of the explanation.
A timely aside:
There is a peculiar blending of time tenses that occurs when we try to maintain the flow of the sound through obstacles in its path. When we are about to play a challenging connection, we should, at the same moment, already be hearing that connection happening, and furthermore, evaluating whether it happened without any signs of interruption. Looking at this a little more closely, the present tense is transmuted, in part, to the past tense (if our imagination is already hearing it). The immediate future is prematurely transmuted into part of the present tense. And the somewhat less immediate future (as we evaluate or notice that it flowed well) is made part of a bloated present tense. Beyond this I can only say that this weird stew of time tenses it is one of the fundamental mysteries of time in the consciousness of the performing musician.
What to “bring out” in a Complex Passage
Debussy: First Arabesque: the conclusion to the first of the three main parts.
What is the main melody that one should bring out during the passage that concludes the first part and leads to the middle part of the piece. A.J. said that when I played it I was doing something that that made it work sound-wise but he couldn’t figure out what i was doing. He assumed that I was emphasizing one of the three layers of melodic motion embedded in the passage. I said, it is more complex than that. There are three different things going on, but no one of which, by itself, is a significant melody. it is only in the complex ways the three interact that causes the positive quality that I think you noticed. The rising quarters in the rh form a melody of no great significance. The cello=like melody in the left hand does have a singing melody, but by itself it doesn’t seem accomplish that much, as well. Then there are triplets. Are they important or not? The real question is how to bring them together in a complex fusion that makes the passage glow and excite.
To relate the quarter note melody in the right hand with the triplets in the right hand, I played gs4-b4, then held the two notes as i added in ds4, which I also held, and lastly added fs4. If at this point I continue holding those four notes and not go on in the measure, I realize, after maybe about a second, that those notes add up to a four-note chord with a specific flavor that independently of the single notes of which it is comprised, has its own specific flavor and character. I might have missed hearing this had i not stopped to listen to the chord after it was finally formed. The realization of the chord does not come instantaneously to the ear. We have to patient, and wait for the four notes to all be there (five if you add the bass line).
It is a delayed satisfaction, one that is very desirable, but one that cannot be rushed. Thus the triplets get their meaning in the sound mixture by our waiting to hear the result of total participation. Eventually, when we play the passage, he don’t have to pause on the clock to wait for the four notes to congeal, we only have to subjectively, in the imagination, make the pause, to bring the four notes to life as members of a single chord, so that, at the end time-wise, it is not any of the four notes that are significant on their own, but how they loose their identify in the sound color of the chord where they vibrate together – as equals – but to a common good.
When it’s difficult to get from one chord to another
Sorry to have been out of touch for the past two weeks. I had cataract surgery and was waiting for my eyes to be able to read the computer screen again. Anyway, I’m fine now, and the hiatus is over. But please excuse typos and misspellings.
Consider the situation when we try to connect one chord to another chord, but the second chord is a difficult to get to from the first chord, we can do the following. The solution ultimately lies in not going from one chord to to a second. We have to break down this apparent cause and effect within time. Order in time need not dictate to our imagination order in which our body does things.
We let the hand get used to the second chord before playing the first chord. We play the second a series of times. After the first time we move the hand just a little bit away from the keyboard and then find the chord again. Then we can move the hand right (and then left) along the keyboard, horizontally away from the chord, in gradually increasing distances, and each time find your way spontaneously, without thought, without set-up, to the second chord as if you were already on it. Eventually your hand ‘remembers’ what that chord feels like, and can return to it from any place at all on or off the keyboard; from any position in all three dimensions that the hand can first be removed to, including for instance from your lap. Of all these infinite places and positions from which the hand might come to return to that chord, just one such possibility is that the hand is first on the chord that is written first.
Memory is like a glue that adheres to a chord like a familiar friend. Benefiting from this fact, we just have to add in a trick with time. Instead of the ‘first’ chord being followed by the ‘second’ chord, the second chord is there before the first chord. we must feel that he have already been there, that the glue of the memory causes our hand to automatically be on the notes of the second chord. I don’t so much mean that because we have practiced the passage, we get ‘used to’ where the second chord lies. No, this is different. This is truly being convinced that you are about to do two totally new things, for the very first time, and yet in spite of that, you act like you already know have been where the second is on the keyboard, tactilely, coverage-wise and finger-wise.
The Balance Between Hands
B.A.’s Lesson on 3/21/19
His piece: Mozart: Adagio In B Minor:
Sound and time:
Though you are playing the piece, there is no physical intent on the body’s part at any time. The piece just flows through time as if carried along by the inner pressure and necessity of time itself. No note that sound wants to ever stop sounding!* This is true of short and very short notes as well as long notes. Every note wants its day basking in the sunshine of listener awareness.
Balance of sound between the hands:
A.B. is concerned that his left hand isn’t dexterous (sic) enough to balance with what the right hand is doing. The only solution that he could think of was that he should practice the left hand alone until it is the way he wants it to be. But I felt that there is no way of knowing what the left hand should sound like until it is heard together with the right hand. The sounds of one hand color the contemporary sounds in the other hand. There is no way of observing how the left hand will sound in ensemble with the other hand, when it sounds alone.
The balance of sounds between the hands has its mechanical side. Imagine a point in space midway between the hands and on the keyboard. For the hands to sound balanced, everything having to do with one side of the body needs to be balanced with everything having to do with the other side of the body. The imaginary point midway is the balance point to regulate the two sides. Or you can think of it as the imaginary center of gravity of the two hands. Sometimes it helps to imagine that it is the point at the center of gravity, and not the separate actions of the hands, that is going up and down to produce the sounds, and when you do this the sounds will occur absolutely simultaneously and in balance. All this hands, without, or because of avoiding trying to do anything special to regulate one hand or the other.
Balance of sound within a single hand:
A.B. had to play an Alberti-like bass where the following notes are repeated in the left hand |: d3-fs3 a3 :|. I said you will never know how to balance the a3 with the other two notes until you have already heard the a3 sounding with the other two notes – before you first play the a3. This is “gestalt-ing” the chord (in this case d3-fs3-a3 or even a grander D major chord spread over many octaves). Though time fragments it, the whole is nonetheless always there; both in your hand and in your ear.
Control of the fingers comes from further up the arm (who controls whom):
There was one place where B.A, said, no matter how he tried, he couldn’t balance a certain two notes. They were a third apart, and were played together in the left hand. My solution was eclipse what the individual fingers were trying by putting the hand into a loose ball or fist. With the fingers thus neutralized in the presence of the entire hand, flex and un-flex the fingers, all ten at once. Now, at this point, without any other preparation or intent, play the third that is troubling you.
If the piano mechanism has a center in the torso and then has interconnected parts leading away from that center to a periphery at the fingertips, then the controller of each segment of that mechanism is the next segment closer to the center and further from the fingers. When things are not coming out how you want, seek further up the arm (forearm, then elbow, then upper arm, then shoulder…).
Fusing the arms together – putting them into another plane of action:
To demonstrate to him that control of one part of the mechanism often lies in another location, and in particular how this principle applied to the behavior and activity of the hands and fingers, I had him fold his arms in front of his chest (right hand to the left and left hand to the right). With the arms thus fused, and lying along a horizontal plane, take particular notice of the two elbows. Gently and weightlessly transport the elbows to the keyboard, with the help of the leaning over the piano. Now start moving the fused mass of the arms in a way that causes the elbows to push down random clusters if sounds on the piano. Then, without further thought, without planning anything that your fingers are going to do, play the current passage in the piece. The difference was striking. The piece moved in a stately and even flow, which manifested the very flow of time itself. Every note was subsumed in this inexorably moving flow that brought along with it every note – every note in its right place.
Fusing the arms together – so the hands act as one:
Another means to the same end, that of making the sounds cohere within the flow of time, is to have two hands move absolutely together as if fused, even if there is a separation in space between them. Have them play random notes that imitate the feel of the rhythmic coordination of the passage. “But what about rests in one hand”, he asked. There is no reason to stop the motion of the hands, though at one moment or another, one hand, though moving, does not produce a sound.
Where did your pinkie go?:
Sometimes your right pinkie, gets detached (figuratively speaking) from the rest of the hand and this causes it to play a note without good control over how it sounds. Try placing your pinkie silently on the note it is to play. Now see if, by using mostly the muscles in the pinkie, you can get your entire hand, and even your entire arm, to move around in space. This will help reestablish an equilibrium between the pinkie and the rest of the hand. And the entire hand will control how the pinkie makes it sounds.
The persistence of a chord:
Sometimes a chord (or even just a single note of a chord), that sounds at the beginning of a measure, wants to persist through the entire measure as if that measure was nothing more than a comment upon the existence and persistence of that chord.
* Unamuno, the Spanish writer and philosopher, in his book “The Tragic Sense of Life” refers to a passage in Spinoza in which the latter says something to this effect: every being, in that it is a being, strives to persist in its own being. And that this is the essence of that being (to persist as such through time).
Chords; Plus a Tip About Legato
Irving is playing the prelude in C Major from Book One of the Well Tempered.
Do the notes of a chord need to sound simultaneously or need at least to have sounded in sequence, for the chord to be there in our aural consciousness?
The goal I propose is to realize, with the ear, that the chord is already there at the very beginning of each new measure. How many notes does the student need to play in the new measure before they “hear a chord”, as a whole. At first one might think it is from three to five notes. Indeed, at five notes every note of the chord has had a chance to sound.
What we hear when we perform is a delicate balance of sounds arriving through the outer and sounds coming out of our musical imagination. When we consider it from this point of view, a chord is already present, in its entirety, as soon as all its notes are sounding either to the outer ear or to the ‘inner’ ear.
Irving and I worked on his “hearing” the chord at, or even before, his playing the first note of the next measure. Or, at least for it to translate from expectation to sound as early as possible in the measure. The chord, rather than materializing itself during the measure, instead “reaches out” and “embraces” the notes of the measure as they sound. The notes from ‘outside’ feel the attraction of the chord from the inside in a way analogous to how iron filings are bent into alignment to a magnet’s lines of force.
Our ultimate goal was to play the melody (in this piece all the melody notes are chord-tones) as if we already heard the entire chord. That the chord is ‘there’ the moment the melodic phrase began. To put it somewhat dramatically “the chord is always there”.
Another points of view on a chord:
Another way we looked at a chord was to think that the separate chord notes, and the order in which they would sound sequentially through, time ‘held’ or ‘contained’ in the simultaneity of its notes sounding together at once. The beauty of the situation is once the chord is compressed into a simultaneous experience, all sense of the order in the chord tones will sound is lost to the ear. The joy is to undergo the process by which we learn in what fashion the chord unfurls itself into a sequence of notes in time.
We practiced extracting single notes, one by one, from the simultaneity of the chord. We allowed the same note to be pulled out of the chord more than once. We allowed for some of the chord notes, once liberated from the simultaneity of the chord, to be connected, in this ‘outer’ space of time, by passing tones, and other tones of embellishment.
Tricks with time:
A way of retaining the effect of the notes sounding together while playing the melody, is to hold each note of the melody over into all the following notes of the melody. Much like playing the melody with the pedal down. At first the notes emerge separate and liberated from the implied simultaneous chord, but only to start accreting again into a simultaneous sound. The melody is then an intermediate phase between the simultaneous chord and the simultaneous chord.
A more “chordal” way of hearing an arpeggio:
Play an arpeggio over several octaves holding the pedal down throughout. Usually when we reach the final note of an arpeggio, we simply move on to the next notes printed in the score. But in this case, the final note is not the end of the sound of the arpeggio, just the beginning of the point when all the notes in the chord are resonating together. topping point, we keep the right pedal down so we can here all the previously made sounds resonate together. We can continue to let this chord or cluster ring for seconds or more until it has slowly died away. It’s an entirely new aesthetic experience: a decrescendo-ing chord, with ample time to hear conjure with the effect of all those notes sounding together.
After a while Irving could play a melody in such a way that one almost was convinced that he was hearing a chord sounding throughout the duration of melody, accompanying each of the notes. From time to time it was apparent from his playing that the current chord had just ceded its presence a new chord, which in turn reached out to embrace and enclose the current notes of the melody.
A related tip – about legato:
If you want to create a legato sound in a series of sequential notes, first play a group of the adjacent notes in the melody as a simultaneous cluster. It doesn’t matter if the cluster is dissonant or consonant. Now extract the notes one by one from that cluster. Think of the melody notes as already latent already in the cluster. Our job, as legato players, is to feel the glue between the notes that comes from, not just from how the end of one note connects to the next note, but by the fact that hear them already connected as in the cluster.*
For a legato connection between just two notes, just play first the two notes together, and then play them in sequence, but in your inner ear keep them glued together.
Sometimes I will think of legato as a group of notes that leave behind them in time a “thick trail”. Like the ice crystals trailing behind a jet that is already at a high altitude. Like your hand is a large paintbrush which, as you move your hand in space, leaves a thick sinuous line on the canvas.
*As we start the melody it is as if we have a “pre”-memory in time of what the cluster will be when we finish the last note in the group.