Tag: concert 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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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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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
time.

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.

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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.

#1.

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.

#2.

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.

#3.

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
voyage.

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