Tag: classical music
A Cluster of Thoughts
Getting lost in a large group of notes beamed together
When more than four notes are beamed together, it is difficult for
some pianists to keep their eye focused on each note of the group,
especially the notes that lie somewhere in the middle of the group.
Exercise for the eye alone:
Take any such group. Perhaps six or more notes sharing the same beam. Without playing any of the notes, see if the eye can parse through the group without loosing their place. It may be helpful to say:
“Now my eye is on the first of the six notes.” “Now my eye is on the second of the six notes.” The third, and so on.
If the eye gets confused it will tend to be starting around the fourth note.
It is helpful to mentally divide the group into two parts, and then gradually change the point of division. “Push” to left all the notes left of the the note we are currently looking at. “Push” to the right all the notes, starting with the current note and going through the end of the group. It is like a Mel Brooks version of the exodus, in which Moses chooses a spot to part the Red Sea, then changes his mind and parts it a bit further downstream, and still not satisfied continues parting it further and further downstream.
The reason for doing this exercise with the eye only, and without
playing or sounding the notes, is because it is sometimes helpful to take apart what the eye does from what the playing mechanism does. Otherwise there is numerous semi-conscious cross-influences between the two. Unless the pianist is still a beginner, the physical and the visual automatically fuse together so that it is very difficult and misleading to try to determine what the playing mechanism is doing from what the eyes are doing. Or, to put it in a more East Coast way: it would be like driving through the Lincoln Tunnel from Jersey to Manhattan, and after a while, loosing a specific geographical sense of how into the tunnel we’ve already gone and much is left to go, based solely on the visual appearance of
the tunnel without switching to a reliance on our sense of how much time duration has passed since we entered the tunnel.
JM’s lesson 8/2/19 on Debussy’s “Soiree en Grenade”. It helps to know that JM has a small hand.
A sudden jump in the left hand without loosing the continuity of a
Somewhat late in the piece there is a measure where the pianist’s left hand needs to go with alacrity from the single note e1 to the octave a3-a4. How do we execute such a leap without loosing the flow of sounds.
One thing that helps in such a case is to focus on the fact that no matter where on the keyboard the E is, and where on the keyboard the A’s are, E going up a fourth to an A. It doesn’t matter how many octaves intervene or whether there are multiple E’s and A’s.
Now, play the following series of 4-note groups:
e1 a1 gs1 fs1
e1 a2 gs1 fs2
e1 a3 gs3 fs3
e1 a4 gs4 fs4
Focus on just what feels and sounds identical in all four cases. If they feel or sound different in any way, you are still conscious of certain differences and you want to make these differences become unconscious. The objective was for J.M. is to feel that she was playing exactly the same thing all four times: focusing on only one type of difference and ignoring all others. Everything but the names of the notes E A G# F# in their most abstract form – without position in one octave or another in the keyboard, have vanished from consciousness, including any physical sensation having to do with left- right motion on the keyboard (except a rise of five half steps). Also ignore any sound information to the ears about change of octave range. An E, for instance, should sound like an E no matter where it is located on the keyboard or what other instrument is playing it. An E is an E is an E (apologies to Gertrude Stein). And the same for A.
The only thing that is kept in mind physically is the fact that the E
lies on the right side of the clump of two black notes and the A lies
in the middle left of the clump of three black notes. Even when
changing octave, that should be the only thing remaining in consciousness.
The only that is kept in mind sonically, among all the other sound
data coming into the ear, is that A (anywhere on the keyboard) sounds a “perfect fourth” higher than an E, no matter how far the E is from the A on the keyboard. It should never sound like an eleventh for instance.
Here is another example in the same piece of a sudden jump in the left hand that cannot interrupt the fluidity of the sound motion.
It is located in the score not far from the previous example. It involves Jumping in the left hand from some low sounds to a four note B minor chord (b4-d5-fs5-b5) in the treble.
We began by focusing on just the B minor chord.
Play b4 with the left pinkie several times in a row and play the last one in the series longer than the ones leading up to it.
Now play the b4 and d5 together – several times in a row holding on to the last one longer than the preceding ones. This last iteration helps the notes to “settle in”. Play the two notes with the fingers that you will use when you eventually play all four notes in the chord simultaneously.
The same for b4-d5-fs5.
The same for b4-d5-fs5-b5.
Approached this way, through gradual addition, you end up with a balanced four note chord, played without a forced, overstretched or awkward hand position.
If you look closely at the hand as you play this exercise, you should notice that each time one more note is added, the entire hand automatically assumes a different overall shape. Part and parcel of this change in the whole hand, is that a single finger, especially one that is used used in more than one stage of the exercise, will be curved differently, angled differently, and aligns itself with its note differently.
To transfer the benefit of this exercise into the performance of the passage, imagine that the hand is going through all these four stages, one at a time, in order, in the short amount of time while the left hand is moving from the bass to the treble. Finish the fourth (the last) stage before acting to sound the chord.
Four-hands: as a way of inspiring a student
Four-hands can give a student a new motive to practice. In part it’s due to our working together rather than alone: learning together, sight reading yogether, solving things together, trying things out together. When practicing on his own he often gets to a point with a new piece where he no longer notices a return in improvement that is proportional with the time he is investing in practicing. And he gives up on the piece. When we play together, no matter how many mistakes happen, he is suddenly transported to a state that is much closer to how we wishes the piece could sound.
Accompaniment and melody.
S.B. Chopin: D-flat major Nocturne
The Nocturne begins with the left hand alone. The right hand has not yet come in with the melody. She finds it difficult to get the first measure to sound as she would like it to sound.
All it took to bring the left hand to life without the right hand, was to copy and paste the right hand melody from measure two into measure one. The left hand now knows instinctively what to do. It relies of the synthesis, both physically and sound-wise, of the two hands. What had been missing, when she originally played the left hand alone, was a clear intimation of what was going to happen next: that the left hand knew already what it would need to do to fit in exactly with the immanent melody.
Richness of the sound: spongey fingers
S.B. Chopin: F# Major Nocturne
She couldn’t get the melody to sound how she wanted.
I made a radical suggestion to her: depress each as slowly as you can, so slow that, you shouldn’t be able to produce a sound when you reach the bottom of the key dip. It’s not that you should play exactly like that, it is more in the nature of a countermeasure to balance out a chronic stiffness and tension in your fingers. Imagine a continuous spectrum from the most stiff hand to the most flaccid hand. You have been dwelling near the stiff end of that spectrum. We want to do something to offset that extreme position, using a restorative measure exerted in the opposite direction along the spectrum. When this is combined with the propensity for stiffness you will reach a balanced point at the middle of the spectrum – not too stiff, not too flaccid.
She tried it. The results where soulful, rich, resonant sounds, and
not as she had anticipated: that there would be no sound at all. “Oh — I think this can be life-changing!”
“I don’t get this piece of 20th century music”
I sent my friend Roy a recording I made ages ago with the Polish violinist Hanna Lachert. Among other things it contained the three “Myths” Karol Szymanowski*. Part of his response was: “What’s the structure of these pieces? They seemed episodic, and I did not recognize the music as being in any traditional form.”
I once read an article by Sir Donald Francis Tovey*, about the first movement of Beethoven’s “Arch Duke” trio. He compared “side by side” a phrase taken from later in the movement with one taken from near the beginning of the movement. At first they seem totally unconnected: different number of notes, different rhythm, etc.. However, Tovey demonstrated that if you connected the two phrases with a series of in between phrases heard during the interim in the same movement, they form a chain in which each link in the chain was clearly related to the link before it. If you skipped from the beginning to the end of the chain, the ends seemed to have nothing to do with one another. But if you followed the chain one link at a time you could always see, going on, a process of gradual transformation, or morph-ing. Each link “developed” into the next.
If we let the links of the chain be made out of statements of the same musical theme, each next version of the theme brings out things that were more hidden in earlier version of the theme, though, ‘in retrospect’, were clearly based on what was latent or implied in the earlier version.
Something that was potential in the previous version the theme, had become actualized in the next version. Tracing the history of these statements of the theme, from one version to the next, you would discover that each next step has kept something essential of the spirit of the preceding manifestation of the them, and so on all the way back to the beginning of the movement. When looked at from this perspective, one not only grasps intellectually, but literally ‘hears’, the later material as a true derivation of the beginning theme.
The above process is contained within a single movement of a piece. What if we extend the process to one composer and the another through the span of a century? In the case of Szymanowski the links were forged from the eve of the nineteenth century through the early twentieth.
We would witness the analogous process at work. Each next, great composer, more fully developed something that was lying there in the previous composer, but now developed more fully.
One of the things that makes it harder to see this relationship over decades or even centuries is from our standpoint in the 21st century, what Brahms or Mahler realized out of the essence of Beethoven or Schubert, we now take so for granted, that we “see it” already when we look or listen to Beethoven or Schubert.
If we arbitrarily pick three times: Beethoven’s, Brahms’s and our own era. The quality that was first fully exposed in Brahms’s works we attribute it “backwards” to Beethoven. We hear things in Beethoven that he would not have heard. This leads to some odd observations. Due because of the order within my personal life in which I got to know, let us say Beethoven and Brahms, I would say: “how clever of Beethoven to have stolen this idea from Brahms.”
I think the way to understand the structure in a work like that of the Szymanowski, is to conceive of a process that begins historically with a very clear structural ordering of parts in a movement, perhaps that of a late Haydn Symphony. That the next step in this process takes place a number of years later, say at Beethoven’s time. Comparing the Haydn with the Beethoven we see that the latter has changed the way one of the structural parts of the Haydn evolves into the next. Same two parts, but differently connected. Or the greater or lesser aesthetic significance one of the structural parts has for Beethoven than for Haydn.
Then another decade or two goes by, and similar transformation takes place to the Beethoven. And so on. We continue this process until there is a linked chain of developments from the structure of Haydn to that of Szymonowski, with the latter being simply the “latest” but probably not the “last” state of the evolution of the structure in a movement, a process continuing in our day.
I got this response back from my friend***:
“What a great reply! This explains to me, actually, why a work like Szymanowski’s Myths seems so familiar in its structure, but when your mind tries to analyze what your ears receive, it’s difficult to understand the form. The listener’s emotions flow right along with what’s happening, indifferent to any question of logical process, because, I feel, that that historical underpinning, as you so eloquently have said, is there, even though it’s so difficult to pinpoint. This seems like an In Medias Res kind of issue. Whereas in the Beethoven, as Tovey points out, there is a beginning and a conclusion, both related to and supporting one another, in these Szymanowski pieces, he starts in mid-historical stream, so to speak, and then has a problem about how to conclude. In popular recorded music, they just do the “fade out”, where the music just gets softer and softer, until it disappears. Szymanowski does something similar, sometimes concluding pianissimo, but with a short little epigrammatic phrase that is really quite clever and surprising. In a sense (or so it seems to this musically uneducated mind), he is able to enact a temporary resolution to the piece. You’re mind says, this is the conclusion, but your emotions tell you that nothing really ends, and the music is still going on, but inaudibly, awaiting another composer or composition to revive it. Schubert often does something like this in Die Schone Mullerin (sorry no umlats) by creating a running figuration in the piano, which breaks right through the last sounded note, and keeps going as an earwig in the listener’s mind. Feel free to post this on your site.
Sir Donald Francis Tovey (17 July 1875 – 10 July 1940) was a British musical analyst, musicologist, writer on music, composer, conductor and pianist.
*** Please search for Roy Doughty’s poetry on line; you won’t regret it. Here is a link to some older poems: http://doughtyspoetry.com/page/2/