Tag: concert piano

The Sad Decline of My Absolute Pitch

I have a love and hate relationship with my ear.

For a person with absolute pitch, it is often the case that each individual key (C Major, C Minor, C# Major, etc.) has its own special character and aesthetic, which strongly colors any music that I play or listen to.  What I don’t know is if others with perfect pitch experience the same thing, and perhaps more importantly, whether the character or aesthetic of a particular key matches those of mine.

I learned that I had absolute pitch in gradual stages.  When I was about three years old, I would listen to my older bother play pieces from “For Children” at his lessons.  I knew enough to know that there were qualities about each piece that didn’t vary from one time to another, and that these had to do more than with the particular notes and their sequence.

It was many years before I understood what absolute pitch was and that I possessed it.  Actually it was my friend Jeffrey Rothenberg who discovered it for me.  We were in Mme. F’s French class in our junior year at high school.  I remember two particular events in that class that year.  The first has nothing to do with absolute pitch but is just nice: in the middle of a class meeting, Jeffrey got up from his chair, said somewhat ecstatically “Spring is here, and the cherry trees are in blossom in the quadrangle”, at which point he drifted, almost floated, out of the classroom.

The other, was when my friend Jeffrey was trying to discover if he had perfect pitch.  He would lean over to Edward Goldstein on his right, sing a note into his ear, and ask him to sing it into my ear (I was to Edwards’s right) , and whisper into my ear: Jeffrey wants to know if you think this is an “A”.  The fact that I could do that somewhat surprised me.  I thought: so I guess I must have absolute pitch.

About one out of ten thousand people in the world have perfect pitch.  Most are not musicians and probably do not realize that they have perfect pitch.* I figure they just assume that everyone else in the world hears sound the way they do, and that includes a merger of the effect of the up and down-ness of pitch with the effect of a changing coloration to the sound.  Only if these people study music they will learn, perhaps to their surprise, that every time they hear a note, they are able to give it a name.

In  school I began a phase of showing off my absolute pitch.  I wasn’t good at sports, so this was my way of being “macho”.  For instance, I got a telephone call from my friend Linda who said.  She said: “Do you hear the piece I’m playing in the background, what is it,  I can’t identify it.”  I listened for a few moments.  I that point in my life I had never heard it before, but I knew it was by Bach, that it was a concerto, that there were two pianos playing,  and that it was in the key of C Minor.  So I said to Linda: Well I’ve never heard this before, but I would say it is the Bach Concerto for two pianos in C Minor, the first movement.  We hung up.  Ten minutes later, when they probably announced the piece over the radio, I get a call again from Linda.  She said, “show off!”.

One of my favorite spots during my High School years was the Brooklyn Botanic Gardens.  I probably spent more time there than in classes.  I even had one teacher who would ask one of the students: when you walk home would you look for Joe in the Botanic Gardens.  He is probably sitting by the stream.  If you find him, would you give him the homework assignment.

Yes, I was by the stream, bent over, listening intently to the gurgles of the water, and trying to figure out what the pitches were of this sound.  I never could get them right.  I would notate what was in effect a chord of many notes and would then try it out on the piano when I got home.  There was no similarity (even after allowing for the difference in the sound quality of a piano and a brook.   It wasn’t until another year or two that I learned what “white noise” was.   That the reason I could not notate the brook was because there were so many pitches, all at once, that there was no way for the ear to untangle them each from the other.  Additionally, at every moment the interval pitch make-up of the white noise would change slightly change, but in such tiny degrees that were measurable only in microtones.  Microtones are the unlimited number of pitches that exist, for instance, between a C and a C-Sharp – or a ‘distance’ called a half step or semi-tone.

My experiences at the brook awakened my interest in microtones and today I am using the computer to compose microtonal pieces.   I’ve even trained my ear to detect a difference of two hundredths of the distance between a C and C-Sharp.   But they had to be isolated tones and not in a mixture or hundreds or thousands of tones all closely ‘spaced’.

Which brings up the clarinet.   I had been playing the B-flat clarinet since the fourth grade.  The clarinet is a “transposing” instrument.  When it plays the note which the clarinetist identifies as  a C on the clarinet, it does not match the C on other instruments.   A C on the clarinet was a B-Flat on the piano.   Though I didn’t know it until I was a Junior or Senior in High School, I had developed unconsciously two separate but parallel senses of perfect pitch, one that names the notes as they were called on the piano, and one for the notes as they were called on the clarinet.

In my twenties and thirties, if I was scheduled to teach a lesson, and I felt like I was coming down with a cold, I would protect the student by sitting on the other end of the room from the student.  It somewhat freaked out the student when they noticed no difference in my interaction with them, as when I would say something like: “Irving” you just played an F natural instead of an F sharp” (yes Irving existed even back then).

So, everything was going along swell between me and my absolute pitch, until the  invasion of original instruments.   The difference is: why listen to a clarinet play, in tune, the solo in the slow of movement of Beethoven’s 3rd Symphony, when we could hear it played out of tune on an instrument created during the early 1800s.    I grant that this is just a humorous way to describe the early music movement, but there was something more sinister for people with perfect pitch.   The orchestra tunes the “A above middle C”.  That ‘A’ would vary in pitch through the centuries.  In Bach’s time, the A was almost a half step below normal today’s concert pitch.  Thus began a process that was sully my pristine world of pitch.

At the beginning, when I heard a performance on original instruments, I would say “this is a piece in B Major”.  The piece had all the aesthetic qualities of that were characteristic of the key of B Major.  At the end of the performance I was of confused to hear that it was a piece in “C” Major.  Sometimes it was even a piece I knew but which I suddenly could not identify because it was in a different key.  However the worst thing was that after decades of original instrument performances, my “B” started sounding like a C.   And I was too old apparently to develop a second sense of perfect pitch to go along the first.   Talk about being confused.  I could not really tell any more if the piece I was hearing was in C major, tuned down, or C as I grew up with it.

And so performances on original instruments spread like a virus over my entire nexus of absolute pitch.  This was the beginning of the sad decline of my perfect pitch.

But the next step in this sad story totally befuddled me.  I was in San Francisco giving a lesson over the phone to a student in Oregon.  I did a lot of long distance phone lessons in those days – now I use skype.  She was playing the C-sharp minor fugue from Book One of the Well Tempered Klavier.  I got tired of holding the phone to the same ear (my right ear), so I switched quickly to my left ear.  And lo,  the pitch of the piece dropped by about an eighth tone (25 cents).  At first I thought I was imagining the difference, but wasn’t, on further experimentation the difference persisted.

I wondered whether the ears, like the eyes, consist of a dominant one and non-dominant one. I knew that with my eyes, if I closed one eye and then the other, an object in the near ground or mid ground, would change its alignment with the objects in the far ground. When I used both eyes, what I saw was what I had seen through my dominant eye.   I splendid musician I know, Wendy Loder, has confirmed having the same experience, with an even larger pitch difference than I experience.

Now I was faced with something similar with my ears.  Two pitches, one in each ear, but the higher of those two pitches was the one I head when I was hearing with both ears.  In my case the pitch that I heard through my right ear alone was the same as the pitch I heard with both ears.  That was freaky because I wondered where did the other pitch go.  It must still be in my brain somewhere.

I was offered this explanations.  The cochlea, in the inner ear, shrinks as one ages.  The cochlea in both ears might be aging at different rates.  Analogous single nerve endings in the two cochlea, that had always responded to a middle C still, in a sense did so, but now responded to pitches near middle C, but not exactly at the same.

As I write this, I am seventy-one years of age.  My original perfect pitch has survived through the years in only one case: notes coming from the piano.  Only occasionally for the other instruments of the orchestra.  But at least I’m never off my more than a semitone.

So, things couldn’t get too much worse – right?

Recently, the next nail in the coffin of my absolute pitch occurred in the form of how I was hearing octaves.  I used to object to the “stretching” of octaves that many tuners did when tuning the higher range of the piano.  I used to hate tuners who would tune the high octaves sharper than the mid range octaves.  Suddenly, though, I was now experiencing a distortion in the pitch of the high notes of the piano that made me wish I could stretch the octaves.  If I played a lower C, in the octave of middle C or an octave lower, together with one of the highest C-s on the keyboard, the higher C sounds a half step lower than the lower C.  It was like hearing a C and a B.  To be honest, this phenomenon had been creeping up on my over the years.  At first it was a curiosity.  Now it was intolerable.  The string for the higher C would have to be stretched tighter, almost up to a C-sharp, for it to sound like the same note as the lower C.  Now i know why some tuners stretched octaves.**

To be honest, I would have much rather had my absolute pitch go away entirely rather than in agonizing stages.  But there was always enough left of the absolute to know that something was amiss in my perception.  It was a more benign form of when a patient is consciously able to trace the course of her illness.  Now I am starting crave the bliss of ignorance of not having absolute pitch at all.  I can sense that my ability at relative pitch is asserting itself in situations where absolute pitch made relative pitch unnecessary.

I can now sit and contemplate what might be the next stage in the sad decline of my absolute pitch.

* Research at the University of California in San Diego found that while many may be born with it, discovering the gift is likely more the result of nurture than nature.Sep 18, 2012 (from a Google search)

** About ten years earlier I was offered another more ‘scientific’ and objective reason for stretching octaves.  In physics the string is often considered as a one dimensional object.  This allows the math to be simpler.  But a string is three dimensional.  It has length, width in a horizontal plane, and width in a vertical plane.   There is a “nodal” point at the half way point along the string   which as result divides the string into two parts, each part sounding an octave above the string at full length.   A nodal point is a place along the string where, under certain circumstances no vibration takes place.   But if the nodal point is three dimensional, rather than a nodal ‘point’ we have a nodal ‘sphere’.   This causes each of the remaining, vibrating halves of the string to be slightly less than half the length of the full string, and thereby have a pitch that is slightly higher than one octave above the pitch of the string vibrating as a whole.

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Harmony in Late Brahms

Harmonic wonders in Brahms’ Intermezzo Op 117 No 3 in C# Minor

#1: The key

What is so compelling about C Sharp Minor?  Perhaps it is due to the effect of certain pieces that were written in that key: the opening fugue of Beethoven’s late quartet, op 131; the 5th prelude and fugue from the first book of the Well Tempered; and, Brahms’ Intermezzo Op 117 No 3.

The spell of this key is both obvious and subtle.  Tragic but not overly so.  Deeply reflective of the human condition, but without overstatement. or wallowing.   Notes that enter this solar system of retain reveal the opposite effects of stoicism and great sympathy.

#2. The theme.

As in many of Brahms’ his late pieces, the motivic material out of which the piece is woven are themselves terse and simple.  Nothing startling in itself.  In Op 117 No. 2, just two notes, descending in a step, suffice to create the entire varied panoply of music effects heard throughout the piece.  In the case of Op 117 No. 3 it is woven out motives of three notes, rising in pitch by the steps of a scale.

Sometimes the distance between the second and third note is enlarged to three half steps.  Sometimes the middle note stands as a passing tone between the other two notes which are chord tones.  Sometimes the middle note stands as a lower neighbor note connecting two identical chord tones.  Out of these motives a long theme emerges which takes most of the entire first line of the score.

Every time the theme returns it does so in one way – invariable: exactly the same sequence of pitches (C# D# E …).  There is a growing sense of ineluctability about it, an effect that is progressively offset however by changes to the chords that set the notes of the theme.  No matter how these chords lead us away from the tonic, C# minor, all eventually leads us back to that tonic.

At the beginning the theme appears without simultaneously sounding chords.  When it appears again there are implications of triads (chords having just root, third and fifth).  At the next statement, the chords embracing the theme have become 7-chords.  And even later they have become 9-chords.  This is done is such a way that, a particular note of the theme, let us say the third note, E natural, sounds first as the third of a chord, then as the seventh of a chord, and ultimately as the 9th of the chord.  This means that the chords, rather than being built on the same root note, are built on changing root notes: a more revelatory way of enlarging upon the chords, so as to be always expanding the harmony.

We go on to trace in somewhat more detail these changes of harmony, changes that are always put held in check by the constancy of the theme notes:

– At the beginning we hear the theme as unisons, amplified by sounding in three octaves once at once, an effect made starker by the absence of vertical chords.  The harmony is there. but remains adumbrated by just the melody notes (which are sensed as chord tones and which as tones of embellishment.

– When the theme appears again at the end of measure 5, it is almost as if Brahms wants to keep the harmonic implications as Spartan as possible.  There is a hint of the tonic chord (C# minor) and a dominant chord (G# major).  The third is missing in the dominant chord, though, so we hear it as major only through the implication of the melody notes.   The effect here is one that when I played the piece today I described to myself as tragic inevitability tempered with patience and nobility.

– The next statement of the theme occurs after a Spartan interlude.  This interlude begins with an inexorable march notes of equal value (eighth notes) to which, at the end, sixteenths are added so that there is a sense of reprise of the rhythm of the main theme (which uses the rhythmic germ of sixteenth, sixteenth, eighth.   The measures of the interlude repeats, but with the magical addition of an extra voice appearing in the left hand which creates a rhythmic counterpoint to the steady eighths, but whose beauty is largely the result that these attempts at rhythmic variation are still imprisoned by the constant eighth notes.

As the theme occurs throughout the piece, it does so unaltered in terms of pitches (a series that always begins with the notes C# D# E.  However the chord that is woven around theme has expanded into a 7-chord, an F# Minor-7 chord.

The piece is in three broad parts, the first of which is brought to a close with a statement of the theme that retreats into its initial harmonic simplicity: there is a tonic chord, there is a dominant chord, but but the two are blurred together by the retention in the dominant chord of the C# from the tonic chord, an effect added to by the absence of a third in the dominant chord.  We are being reminded, though subtly, that we are in C# Minor, so that we more fully appreciate the modulation to A major in the second part.

The second section of the piece a contrapuntal and harmonic miracle brought down to earth from the celestial harmony of the spheres.  I want to hold off describing what Brahms does there until we have followed the remaining statements of the main theme which occur in part three.

When the theme next appears in its entirety is at the beginning of the third section.  The 7-chord has been expanded by a D#-9 chord (the ninth being a minor ninth above the root note).  It is as if Lear asked the of his three daughters: “what {harmony} can you say to draw a third more opulent than your sisters? Speak.”*.  Unlike Cordelia’s answer, which is most understated and matter of fact, Brahms’ answer is a 9-chord compared to the previous “sisters'” ‘5’-chords and 7-chords .

In the coda, at the penultimate entrance of the theme, the melody is accompanied by a chord whose root note is now A# which, with the other chord tones in the melody, forms an A#-half-diminished 7 chord.

At the very last, we hear the theme one more time and, as if surveying the field of a great harmonic battle which has taken place over just a single day, and which now looks deserted and barren: the original theme returning one last time accompanied by just a tonic and dominant chord, bringing the piece to rest on the C# minor chord, which, which for the first time in the piece is heard alone, complete in time and unencumbered.’

#3. The middle section of the piece

The middle of the piece deserves special analysis.  Let us start by trying to “uncover” its ‘main theme’, or at least that, which by default acts in the place of a principal voice line.  In itself it is not the most melodious of note sequences,  it is devoid of any rhythmic personality, and moves seemingly randomly from one note to another – sometimes in skips, sometimes in steps, and sometimes in capricious jumps: seeming somehow in between insipid and random.  However, this seemingly undernourished melody is is able to usher in, with each new note, a new “chapter”, a new harmonic vista, allowing us to see further and then further to the harmonic horizon, as if from higher and higher vantage points.

In its most stripped down form, which we never get to hear literally, the theme consists of the succession of the notes E F E B G# A C.  Upon this Brahms performs a series of transformations and eventually metamorphoses.

The first transformation seemingly makes things worse rather than better:  a random yanking around of the melody notes from one octave range to another.  In its base form, all the notes would sound in the octave of middle (we shall call this octave number “4”).  But this remnant of pitch stability is dislodged so that the first E sounds just in octave 4; the F simultaneously in octaves 4 and 5; the following E just in octave 5.  This is followed by B in octaves 5 and 6 simultaneously, G# in one octave only – octave 5, and the last two notes, A and C, each heard in two octaves (octaves 4 and 5).  What began as uninspired is now wonky** as well.  It is like being on a roller coaster and leaving out the parts that connect the low points and the high points.

To this Brahms adds a single bass tone, A, modestly appearing at the beginning of each measure of 2/4.  It is a first attempt at establishing a tonal center for all the meandering of the theme.

But the stability is further broken by shifting each melody note (which lasts a quarter note, or four sixteenths), to the “left” so that each note comes in a sixteenth too early, just before each beat.

So far in this analysis we see how octaves have been changed, almost capriciously, melody notes brought in ahead of time, one modest note in the bass to remind the listener of where the first beats of the measures actuakkt are.  Not a good state in which to leave things.  There is however one more step to the transformation,  Each melody note is accompanied by an voluptuous figure of four sixteenths that swoop down and then soar back up.  Somehow this makes everything else make sense to the ear.  If we examine these four note groups, by making chords out of their notes, we get this succession of triads: e-cs-e, e-b-d, e-cs-e, e-d-f, fs-d-fs, forming just by themselves, as it were, a single “thick” melody.

There are still other startling details before this section finishes***.  But it is the last one that is the most stunning.  Something that the ear believes and disbelieves at the same time.   It occurs after the second double bar, where the key signature changes back to 4 sharps.  In other words a point when we would expect either a return to the original theme, or first, some transitional passage linking the the end of the second part, the one we have just been discussing, to the beginning of the third part.  What happens instead a polyphony worthy of the forty-voice Renaissance motet “Spem in alium” by Thomas Tallis.  Little, nascent, voices, appear and then disappear into the overall harmonic firmament, each one living just for three notes, each modeled exactly on the first three notes of first statement of the theme at the beginning of the piece.   Moreover each ephemeral voice makes its appearance in such a way as to partially obscure (or perhaps “occlude” is a better word) the end of the previous one.****  This process continues in a cascading fashion working its way through an elaborate dominant-like (G#) harmony that barely succeeds in stabilizing the whole affair.   I say barely because it is intentionally destabilized  by coercing a cadence to end it based on a B Minor-7 chord.   And then, to completely throw the listener off, a similar cascade begins, seemingly without reason or preparation, tracing over the first cascade but with each note two half steps above the similarly placed note in first cascade.   The first was built around the dominant of the original tonic key of the piece.  That seems to make sense if we looking for a transition back to the original C# minor key.  The second is just ‘quasi-dominant’ in nature, but its root note is A#!   Now this unexpected A# turns out to be the dominant of D#, which is the dominant of G# which is the dominant of the original C#.  Thus it only becomes clear why this shift of two half steps had occurred between cascades when the original theme comes suddenly comes back in its full form (starting with the usual notes: cs4 ds4 e4) but this time surprisingly surrounded by a D# Major (9) chord.   This chord then transforms itself until, in a fairly short amount of time, we are clearly back in the original C# minor.  Thus the previous six measures have prepared two separate but parallel things: the longer range goal of an eventual return to the tonic key of C# Minor, and a shorter term goal of preparing the D# chordal sonority that will underlie the return to the original theme.

#4. The end of the piece

In the last two measures of the piece we have a stable, lasting C# Minor chord.  So, in the end, all is drawn back into this tonic key, which may have been at times out of mind, but which never lost its grip on the piece.  At the end there is only the solace that no matter hard we try to get away from fate, we never free our self completely from its somber embrace.  As is the case with Brahms – perhaps the greatest worker of harmony – for all the restless harmonic movement towards or away from the tonic, no note, no chord, no modulation is ever away from the tightest control of the original key.  There is never a chord, be it ever so remote from the tonic, that is not perfectly clear to the listener as to its relationship with the tonic, in spite of as many as several key regions that we would have to travel through to get to it from the tonal center of the piece.

These are just some of the harmonic and thematic wonders of Brahms’ Op. 117 No 3.

* King Lear, Act I, Scene I

** Searching google produced this definition for wonky:

– (of a thing) unsteady; shaky…                – synonyms: wobbly, unstable…                                        – not functioning correctly; faulty.

***

In measure 4 and 5 of this middle section there are two flowing voices, one in eighths, and one in sixteenths, that chime with each other in the presence of a D# followed by an F#, and a B followed by an A.   This all occurs as the ‘main’ melody settles down to rest on a long C.

In the fourth and fifth bar of the section that follows the next double bar, the simplest kind of canon is utilized, but with ranks closed, the imitative voice starting but one sixteenth after the imitated voice, but also with the imitated voice sounding a sixth lower than the imitative voice.  A simple idea structurally but one which has the effect of creating near chaos with where the principal beats are supposed lie.  The ear wants to be thrown a lifeline, and Brahms does so, but with the least clarification that will still shed some light on the situation.

****

The first such contracted theme motive is on the notes bs4 cs4 ds5, snd when the ds5 occurs, it is hidden in the middle of a triad, whose bottom note is the beginning of the next, furtive, momentarily flickering motive entrance (whose notes area4 bf bs4).

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Sometimes, it Really Is Black and White

Key signatures remain a stumbling block for certain types of students.

We were reading the middle section of the Mozart “Rondo alla Turca” – the section with the seemingly endless running sixteenths in the right hand.

If I am reading a piece in G Major, when I come to a note in a measure that that is printed on the top line of treble clef it simply doesn’t “look like” an “F” to me.  It looks different, it “looks like” an “F#.”  I’m lucky that way.  For many students however F-s do not magically transform in appearance to F#-s.

I also carry around the inductive logic of the circle of fifths as a fixed and clear model in my mind.  There is no trouble in remembering that if there are three sharps in the key signature they will be F#, C# and G#.  I don’t have to examine the key signature to come to this conclusion.  For many, though, regardless of experience, they have to look at the sometimes dense group of sharps or flat signs at the beginning of each line, an decipher for which line or space each is centered on, then try to remember, each one separately, to go through a check list, as it were, for each note they encounter in the piece to figure out of it is a natural or not.

These students have difficulty every developing more than a rudimentary sense of what a “key” is.  They are apt to forget each time, for instance, that if there are three sharps in the key signature, they are always the same  sharps, and that these F#, C#, G#.* Sometimes they will find it easier to they remember the three as C# F# G#, so at least they are sorted alphabetically.  A typical question from such a type of student is “how do you know if the piece is major or minor?”  “Can you tell from just looking at the notes at the beginning of the piece; or is it something to do with the sound?”   Attempting to explain the answer to this question in terms of there being certain statistical likelihoods for certain notes and chords to show up in the first measures of the piece, further complicates and mystifies.

The inductive logic of the circle of fifths doesn’t establish itself firmly in their minds.  They do not see an imaginary sharp or flat sign to the left of each note along a line of music, whose existence is confirms a sharp or flat that in the key signature at the beginning of the line.  And practicing scales until they become automatic in the fingers seems a daunting task, as difficult and time consuming as learning entire pieces.

For many years I stubbornly retained the simple logic of he circle of fifths as the only unambiguous way of clarifying key signatures to students for whom this posed an issue.  Logic, I felt, will always win out.  It took a while to mature out of this notion.

At today’s lesson I chose a less elegant, a less logical, but simpler expedient.  I told Rachael that my intuitive impression was that as she was reading the notes on the page it didn’t seem immediately clear to her whether the next note to play was a white note or black note.  I took the first measure of the passage, and I asked her to play the passage as slowly as she needed to in order for her to say for each next note that she read, “this is a black note”, or “this is a white note”.  How she determined this was unimportant, it was just the final experience of the hand on the keyboard that mattered.

This shifted the emphasis from remembering the key signature and how it applied within the measure, and raising to a higher level of conscious awareness the identity of that note as simply being a white note or a black note.  There was no more key signature present.  There was just the individual identity of each note as falling into the class black note or white note.  If it was a black note it didn’t matter if it was written as a sharp or as a flat.  Only key color mattered.  The same with regard to white notes,  whether their note names were naturals, or flats or sharps.

This first measure of eight sixteenth notes was just memorized as a sequence of words.  Just as a binary number is a series of zeros and ones in a certain order, so the measure was a series of the words ‘back’ and ‘white’.

At first she seemed skeptical that this could work, since it seemed to beg the question of needing to know and retain in her mind the key signature.  But it turned out otherwise.  Now that there was only one of two things to choose about each note, and after putting in the initial downloading time it took to put the measure into this on/off, zero/one, black/white form, her confidence level in playing the notes correctly rapidly increased.  She felt a certainty and a mastery over what to play.  There were no questions left.  No uncertainties.  Just the color of the notes. She bypassed any worry about applying a ‘template’ of white and black notes, first to the key signature, and relate things from there to the notes of a measure.

*Or furthermore that the first two of those sharps are always the same as the sharps that appear when there is only two sharps in the key signature.

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Handling Wide Chords or Arpeggios

 

The opening chords of Rachmaninoff’s Second Piano Concerto

The following can be considered a universal procedure, utilizable whenever one hand plays any number of notes simultaneously or is negotiating a widely spread out arpeggio.

It bypasses certain difficulties that result from stretching and straining the hand.   If a chord, it avoids the tension in the hand that results from having the fingers cover all the notes of an upcoming chord before sounding those notes.

It is a basic tenet of my approach to piano playing that simultaneous and sequential are not firmly opposed features of time.  They can cross-fertilize each other, blend one into the other in an ongoing, continuous, fluid action.

A.

In keeping with that tenet, I feel the best way to play any chord that either has wide spans between its notes or contains more than just a couple of notes, is to ’tilt’ the arrow of time and turn the chord into a melody. – subjectively.

Even when the listener hears all the notes of a chord start simultaneously, it does not mean that the pianist may not feel the chord, subjectively, as being the separate notes of an implied arpeggio, based on a gentle, and continuous valve-like opening and closing of the hand.

We will use this chord as our example:  C2-G2-C3-E3 –C4 G4 E5

Step one:

The left pinkie plays c2.  As it does this, the hand is in a neutral, closed and comfortable position.  There should be no anticipation in the hand of the, let us say the third, finger intending to play the g2.   Rather the hand  gradually opens up until the fingers are spaced so that the third finger is on the g2.   This opening up of the hand should be experienced as begin very gradual and fluid, and not a sudden faction.

Although the final result of this process when completed will sound like the notes have all started simultaneously (or nearly simultaneously – like a very rapid arpeggio) all the motions that are described here are felt subjectively by consciousness and experienced by the body as occurring over a prolonged duration, and flowing one into the other, without anything sudden happening.    One “step” flows insensitively into the next.

Step two.

The energy in the hand shifts from the pinkie to the third finger and the g2 is sounded.

What happens next, though seemingly a redundant part of the process, is perhaps the most important, and the one most apt to be skipped over.    The hand, currently in a relatively more open position now closes again and relaxes.   The hand will now seem similar to how it appeared in step one when the c2 was first sounded with the pinkie.  The only difference is that the third finger is found to be resting on the g2 and the pinkie no longer resting on the c2.

Step one and two is now repeated, starting with the third finger sounding the g2 and the second finger sounding the c3.   The hand is found to be in a closed position, the second finger resting neutrally near the third finger.  The hand then dilates open again, the spaces between adjacent fingers growing, until the second finger finds itself comfortably on the c3.

And so on, setting up a continuous fluxion of opening and closing (or closing and opening) the hand occurs, setting up a pulsation in the hand the expanding and contracting hand that supervenes upon the action of playing the single notes, one then another, and facilitates with ease the overall motion from the bottom note to the top note of the chord.

Though the focus of the dilation is between the two fingers playing the current and the next note, it is the hand as a whole that feels like it is opening.  If there was an overhead camera aimed downwards at the hand, and if it tracks rightwards at a rate that keeps it vertically in tandem with the successive notes on the keyboard, then the rightwards motion of the hand will seem to disappear and all we would see is the rhythmic expansion and contraction of the fingers of the hand that otherwise remains still.  This is a good way of experiencing the process, de-emphasizing traveling rightwards and emphasizing growth and contraction of the hand.

In the middle of the process, the left thumb will yield its note to the right thumb so that the series of pitches is completed with the right hand.   At this midpoint, it is the space between the two thumbs that is felt to grow, as if one hand had momentarily merged with the other and it is this ‘composite’ entity, of two hands, that expands relative to itself.

When the top note of the chord is reached, and the hand has re-relaxed, or re-closed around the finger playing the top note in the chord.  There should be no sort of gesture, flourish or final gesture, the hand simply finds itself at rest again as it was, or should have been, before playing the lowest note.

The entire process is gradual: as if the various fronds of a sea plant separate and come back together, not under their own initiative, but as the passive result of the motion or current of the water passing between them.

By way of a reminder: the pace of the hand when it opens or when it closes is ‘gradual’, almost at what subjectively feels like a snail’s place.  No sudden or rapid motion to ‘get’ the next finger to its note.  We feel like we have all the time in the world: in direct contrast to the rapidity with which this technique allows up to arpeggiate through the chord.  It is a continuous, fluid wave or slow vibration, like watching a slinky toy, that moves through one hand and then continues into the other.

It is the ease of this process, physically, that is the most striking thing about it.  There is no special thing to be done for one chord versus another, or with one finger versus another.  Nothing different occurs when adjacent notes of the chords lye closer to each other on the keyboard or further apart.*  It is always about the same gentle opening of the hand, without resistance or tension from one note (or finger) to the next.

Playing a chord is no more difficult or different than playing harmonic intervals from one note to the next.  It is the re-relaxation, the re-closure of the hand upon reaching the upper note of each ‘interval’ within the chord, that ensures that the opening up to the next note is just as relaxed, confident, and gentle as for reaching the previous note.  It is a simple, gentle, confident, pulsating, vibration or rhythm in the hand as a whole.

B.

A general objection to this entire process would be to say that

Rachmaninoff hoped that the pianist’s hands were wide enough to play the chords at the opening of the concerto so that all the notes of each chord begin simultaneously.  It simply doesn’t matter.  What is possible can be done, what is not possible needs to turned into something as close as possible to it that is doable, and in a way that doesn’t detract, but even adds, to the effect of sounds as they join together in each chord.  The proof that the procedure, though perhaps counterintuitive in nature, is working, is the glowing sound that results from the piano.

C.

Here is a condensed exercise that demonstrates in a more systematically arranged way the idea of the varying apertures in between the fingers.

We will use the right hand as an example.  Play the following sequences of five notes.  In each case use the fingers 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5.

#1

c  cs  d  ds  e   (mutual distance between succeeding notes is one half step)

now dilate the apertures between the fingers and play the sequence:

#2

c  d  e  fs  gs (the notes are now spaced by two half steps)

again, dilate the apertures between the fingers and play:

#3

c  ef  gf  a  c  (notes are spaced by three half steps).

next:

#4

c  e  gs  c  e (four half steps between notes)

Before going on notes separated by fourths, tritones and fifths, consider the possibility that the two adjacent fingers that are next to be used cannot physically separate as far from each other as the previous two fingers.  All that is necessary to do in such a case is to gradually separate the finger to the right from the finger currently on the left until the latter can no longer remain on the lower note without causing strain, stretching and stress in the finger muscles.  At that instant, very gently, the finger on the lower note simply floats off that note, which allows the next finger in turn to float onto its next note.

Bearing this in mind, then by maintaining constant ease and comfort, do any of the following:

#5

c  f  bf  ef  af  (5 half steps at a time)

#6

c  fs  c  fs  c   (6 half steps at a time)

#7

c  g  d  a  e     (7 half steps at a time)

In principle you can go on doing this the same way regardless of how many half steps separate the current note from the next note.**

The overall sensation in all these cases is one of a pleasant massage being given to the hand by the keyboard.  The principle is invariable and ubiquitously applicable.

* Even if the notes in the chord are very close together, there is an advantage to letting the hand expand to the right beyond the point which places the next finger on the next note, and at that point, instead of after playing the next note, let the hand contract again around the new note.  If, for example I am playing c4 then d4 with the right hand, with fingers 1 and 2, I keep the hand closed and relaxed while playing the c, then gradually let the hand breathe open until the second finger is any number of half steps above d4, and the allow the hand to reclose, which action results in the 2nd finger very effortlessly (with even less effort than if the 2nd finger started out next to the d4) playing the d4.

** A fun example along these lines is to play:

c  d  e  f  g    with  the fingers  1  2  3  4  5

but play each next note one octave plus one step higher than the previous one.  There is no question of it being doable by stretching the fingers apart from each other.  So why bother reaching apart at all.   Simply ‘transport’ the hand – as a whole – to the next octave range on the keyboard in order to continue your “major scale”.  Sometimes I will tell the student that their hand does not move at all while playing these notes, but rather some unseen force, behind the scenes, a helpful genie, slides the entire piano and its keyboard underneath the hand, leftwards by an octave, between when one finger is playing and the next finger is playing.  That way the next finger finds itself mysteriously in the next octave higher.  There is no difference then physically or subjectively between playing c3 d3 e3 f3 g3 and playing c3 d4 e5 f6 g7.

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Lyricism, Connectivity and Shaping of Sounds

At B’s lesson today, he was playing Mozart’s Adagio in B Minor

He plays a series of notes from the piece, and stops because he is frustrated with how it just sounded.  He says: “In order for me to even it out, ‘this’ note needs to be a little louder, and ‘that’ note needs to be a little softer.”  He makes physical adjustments in how he plays each of those two notes.  The result is a new set of inconsistencies in the sound.  I try to explain that any difference in muscular action for which one can consciously in control will over-compensate for the problem.  The only ways that reliably control evenness in sound, whether in a melody, or in a chord, are based on either the ear or finding a lever further up the arm that controls all the fingers alike.

Here are some of the spots that we worked on.

#1.  The first chord in the piece: es3-b3- -gs4-d5.

If the chord is not coming out the way you want it to, do the following:

a) Play the es3, three times in a row, while doing nothing other listening to them.  For, without your realizing, your playing mechanism is going to adjust the resonance of es3 your figurative, “inner” ear is satisfied with the sound.  Just by gradually playing it over and over it comes closer to having the quality of sound you want.  Hold the third one longer than the others.

b) Then pause a couple of seconds. Now play es3 and b3 together, three times in a row (as before).  Again your instinctive ear is going to automatically cause the body to unconsciously change the enunciation of the two notes until both are equally resonant and well balanced.

c) Pause again for a couple of seconds, and play the es3, b3 and gs4 together several times.  Let the same automatic balancing of the sound occur through the ear.  You don’t have to do anything more than listen to the triads.  You don’t have evaluate the balance each time you play it.  It will simply gravitate towards an idea position.  It’s an unconscious process of “practicing” something over and over until it pleases you or sounds the way you want.

d) The last stage is to play all four notes together – three times.  Then,  aslmost as an afterthought, play the four notes together again.  Through the silence that elapsed between the last of the three iterations of the four note chord, and the ‘fourth’ one you just added on, you will have preserved, without the slightest change, the balance of the notes.  It simply sounds the way you just heard it a few moments ago.

What we’ve done through this process is “taken apart” in time something that is meant to be heard “together” in time.  Rather than that changing the nature of what we hear because we have broken it into repeating parts, we actually gain more automatic control of how the notes will sound when ‘together’ in time.  One might say we have created a figurative lever of to gain a mechanical advantage of consciousness over simultaneous in time.

#2.   The first three notes of measure one: b4, fs4 and d5.

We use a similar process to what we used in number 1.  Play the b4  three times.  Just listen to it.  “Get to know it”.  “What does it sound like when it sounds like a B”?  Or, as in Ireland: “who is he when he is at home” (who is he really).

Pause and then play the b4 together with the fs4.  Same principle, three times; getting to know the full tonal implications of the interval of the fourth between the notes.  And something new: that there is an implication in that fourth that there is, latently, or about to be realized, another note that will complete the fourth and turn, as in this case, into a B Minor chord in second inversion.

Now ‘confirm’ your expectations, that have built up further and further  during the last few moments in time, that you have patiently kept in check through the previous eighth note, and with an air of satisfaction / relief / puzzlement, etc.: any emotion will do, by playing the missing note (d5). If, for example, it meets your expectations, say to yourself something like “I knew all along it was going to sound this”.

What we are discussing in the last two paragraphs falls under the heading of “hearing the missing sounds”.  Or, play it in such a way that even the listener can sense, vaguely, or more specifically, what the missing note or notes are.

If all we heard is the fourth between the fs4 and b4, and no other sounds from the universe, including from what we have stored in our musical memory, any of the following note (or notes) will complete the empty fourth:

fs4-b4-d5       or     fs4-b4-ds5    or    ds4-fs4-a4-b4   or   d4-fs4-a4-b4   or d4 f4-af4-b4

etc..

Here is another approach to the same opening three notes. It is sort of the reverse of the process just described.  Don’t begin with just one note, but with a B Minor chord of many notes (for instance: b2-fs3-b3–d4-fs4-b4-d5.  Follow that by the single note with which the piece starts.  That single note will still retain the coloring, or mood, that it possessed by virtue of the presence of the other notes sounding with it.

Or, we can start with the same, full chord, and then gradually strip away notes from that chord, until at the end we leave just one note, for instance the first note of the piece.  Through each stage in this process the notes that are left remaining retain the full power and effect of a B Minor chord.

The end goal is, without physically playing the other notes of the chord, sound the b4 just as it would sound within the chord.

What applies to one note from a chord compared to a full orchestra, let us say, playing that chord in many voices and ranges, can apply to any chord we play in the piece, as compared to that same chord being elaborated over many octaves in a full symphony orchestra.

The process reminds me of the beginning of a poem by Wordsworth.

“There was a time when meadow, grove, and stream,

The earth, and every common sight,

To me did seem

Appareled in celestial light,

The glory and the freshness of a dream.

It is not now as it hath been of yore;

Turn wheresoe’er I may,

By night or day.

The things which I have seen I now can see no more.”

This is from the poem: “Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood”.   The rest of the poem has to do with the possibility of retaining that celestial light or illumination that bathes even everyday things.

There is yet one more way of talking about this.  It is also quasi poetical but scientific as well.  When we play the piano, the sound of each individual note is already rich and complex in sound.  Each such sound contains within it a firmly held together chord made up out of what are called the “partials”, or more commonly, the “overtones” of that note.  So if we compare what we hear, when we listen to that note, to what, for example, a tuning fork (which has few overtones, and the ones it does last very briefly), sounds like intoning that sound, each individual piano note is found to be already rich and complex in sound.  Bass tones evoke the higher overtones of heaven. And when our ears are open we hear the full panoply of pitches throughout the range of the piano.

When we play more than one note at a time, the higher notes in our chords often correspond to overtones of the lower notes in the chord, and these higher notes in the chord take upon them a fullness and resonance that they would not have minus the presence of the lower notes sounding with them.

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