Tag: concert playing

Wandering Hands in a Performance

Certain pianists are so dependent on their physical sense of where their  hands are on the keyboard, that if they go off track in a piece, by playing a note or notes incorrectly, it is difficult or almost impossible for them to get back on track so that they can continue into the next measure without having to stop and go back.  This was the case with “B.” today.

We analyzed the situation, tried to think of remedies, but found that we had to reject one after another because they were too hard to implement.    We finally distilled down the essence of the problem to a point where a first “exercise” suggested itself to us: a first, simple enough, and thus doable exercise to help with the general problem.

This is the procedure we concocted:

He closed his eyes, and reached out in a random direction with his right arm and played a single note on the keyboard.  Now, often a person will “feel out the immediate neighborhood” of the physical key on which they have put their finger, to confirm its identity by seeing whether its nearest neighbors are black and/or white notes.   But I advised B. to avoid any such almost instinctive exploration.  I wanted the only thing to identify was sound of its pitch.

Next, eyes still closed, he brought his right arm back to his side and then reached out with his left arm to try to play a note that he thought might be in the same general area of the keyboard as the one his right hand played.

He listened to this new sound, and made just one judgment: is this new sound higher in pitch, lower or the same as the first sound.  Repeat this exercise many times.*

When comfortable with this procedure, a next step could be begun: start making a series of corrections to the “second” note until it is identical with the first note.  This is still done with the eyes closed.  If the second note was recognized as being higher in pitch than the first note, then try another note after moving further left on the keyboard.  If that is still higher, try another further to the left.  If it is now lower than the first pitch, then try an adjustment to the right.  Basically we are in what is a sound-driven feedback process of gradually better guesses as to the pitch of the first sound.

There are many more steps and gradations of exercises that we will have to invent over the next few months, but the ultimately the pianist, if they make a mistake in playing the current note or notes of a piece in a performance, will be able to course correct while as soon as they hear the wrong note and almost immediately recalculate how far they have to move on the keyboard to put things back on track by the next note.

What is gradually being developed is a close association of aural cues with a clear mental image of the keyboard. There will be less need of looking down at the hands to figure out what notes are being played instead of others, and then try to make course corrections.

* By the time he had repeated the first exercise about ten times he was able to add information to his feedback … such as: “the second sound is higher than the first but by a single half step”.

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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.

Summary:

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.

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