Sundry thoughts about Trills
People seem to use two opposite strategies for trilling. Either, use excess physical effort to try to maintain the trill going on and on, or use as little physical effort as possible as a way to keep the trill from stalling or changing and maintain its ease and flow. I subscribe to the later method.
The limiting case for a least-effort-possible while trying to play is to pantomime. Execute the trill like a “mime,” barely touching or tapping the keys (but in the correct order and speed). Doing this teaches the body just how effortless a trill can feel when there is no overuse of energy. The effort is so little that any conscious amount of energy we apply is already too much.
Once you have pantomimed the trill, say to yourself: “what is the absolute least amount of any additional effort or energy I can give in order to make the notes of the trill start sounding.” Even if only some of the notes end up sounding, just add a bit more energy and leverage than before when you first went from silence to sound. In making this difference in energy, less is more.
A variation on this technique is to sound and hold down the lower note of a trill while repeatedly tapping and releasing the upper note (either making a sound each time or making no sound – both are effective procedures).
Coming out of a trill
Many of us have difficulty with the last few notes of a trill. It doesn’t matter how long the trill is, how many beats it is, we’re just fine until we are within a split second of needing to stop the trill. This last moment is a confusing moment for the hand. No matter when you think about the trill ending, just by thinking about it – such as the thought “gee, I guess it’s time to end the trill,” you transmit something to your body that gums up the end of the trill. The last few notes of the trill will not flow smoothly. It is better for the body, if possible, to remain “ignorant” of when it is time to stop the trill, and then suddenly, without warning, stopping,
Evenness counts for as much or more than speed
It is more satisfactory to the listener if you play a trill slower but evenly than to try to play it faster but and fail to maintain evenness.
It is the body as a whole that does the trill
A trill would seem to be an action limited to the neighborhood of the fingers. It seems at first sight to be so precise a motion.
Here is a procedure to make the trill a part of a motion of the entire body. I did this many years ago with my student Rachael:
We stood up. We started wiggling the tips of our fingers, then spread the motion so it included our hands, then wrists… At this point, our fingers, hands, and wrists were all moving at the same time in a random fashion. Developing this idea further, we began randomly moving our forearms, then added our elbows, then our upper arms. We looked pretty silly at this point. Finally we added our torsos and eventually our legs. I said: now you’re ready to play the trill. Wiggle (or gyrate) your way to the piano, and don’t stop moving all the parts of your body until after you are seated at the piano bench and have started the trill. The trill came out marvelously. Unfettered, free, even, fast; as if it could go on forever.
The point was not to move the body like this every time we need to play a trill, but that doing so brings alive all the connections in the body so that any motion is possible, including going back and forth between two keys on the piano.
There is no formula for this procedure. Nothing is gained by knowing which muscles you are moving or by how much. The point is simply to bring alive all the parts of the body.
Turning any passage into a continuous trill
Take any melody in a score and create a trill on every note, at least for the duration of that note, if not a good deal longer. The goal of this process is to make the passage sound like a continuous trill. In doing so, you are imbuing the passage with the aesthetic qualities of a trill: great continuity, maximum flexibility and sense of motion, sinuosity, élan, continuous change and aliveness… These are all qualities that you can then preserve into the normal execution of the passage. All the qualities just mentioned retreat inside the heart of each note as the notes succeed each other. If we liken a melody to an artery then the trill is like the blood itself flowing through the artery.
A long trill
A long trill can be concatenated out of numerous smaller trills that are stitched together. Most of us can sustain a trill for a short duration of time but have difficulty if the trill is meant to go on for a long time. Just knowing in advance that it will be long affects how we start the trill.
Here is a solution. Start the trill as always, but after a short while, well before we would normally tire out, send a new wave of energy or pulsation down the arm from the shoulder as if to start a new trill. The important thing lies in the timing of when to initiate the pulse of energy. It must start out before the current group of trill notes has completed – it needs time to travel down to the fingers.*
Repeat this process as many times as necessary to complete the printed duration of the trill. At first there might be pauses between the end of group of continuous trill notes and the beginning of the next. After a while, though, the chunks of the overall trill will be linked seamlessly together.
When I do this, I can go on trilling indefinitely, without any loss of vivacity. Sometimes I do this to show off for a student, saying as I’m doing it: see, I can go on, and on … and on … Just by renewing the trill and starting it over fresh each time.
Changing the character within a long trill
Sometimes a long trill can be made to be more expressive if it changes speed in specific ways at specific moments during its course. It gives the overall trill an architecture, and overcomes any monotony that might otherwise ensue.
A rarer but more extreme version of this would be to apply a ritard and/or accelerando within various portions of the trill. This requires a fine degree of control so that the trill doesn’t stall out or get tied up in knots.
Special anchor spot in the forearm
There is a spot on the forearm, not far from the elbow, nearer the crease of the elbow than the point of the elbow, that is an effective point from which to experience the motions the muscles that are activated when playing a trill.
Take one of the fingers of the hand that is not doing the trill, place it on the spot described above, and push down on the skin, just until the finger feels something moving underneath the skin while playing the trill.
This is an ideal point from which to experience the reciprocal motion involved in the trill. You will ensure greater evenness in the trill if instead of focusing on the fingers you focus on what is going on in this spot on the forearm.
An “inductive” approach to a trill
Begin with a single note. Pose the question to yourself: can I play a single note with great rapidity? Playing a short staccato is the answer.
Next append a second note to the previous note. Pose the question: how fast can I play one note and then another? Answer: I just have to treat the first note as if it is a fast grace note to a longer second note.
We proceed one more note at a time. We trill three notes, as fast as we can, maybe using our voice to lead the fingers by saying something like “go-ing-THERE.”
Continue the process for four notes of a trill. How fast can I execute them? I just need to think of the first three notes as a group of grace notes leading to a the fourth, longer sound. One can steer it by saying: I’m-go-ing-THERE. Or thinking of the opening of Beethoven’s Fifth done at an extremely fast tempo.
And so on. A five note trill. A six note trill. At some point we reach a number of notes so that continuing the trill is no problem: the trill has ignited.
I wish you a trilling experience.
* The experience is not that different than repeating the same note legato a series of times. Before, and not at the same time as, the key has come up all the way to the level of the other keys a stronger arm pulse is already making its way down the arm to overwhelm the upwards motion of letting go of the key.
And may there be no moaning at the bar line
Irving is an intermediate student. We are working on one of the numerous, smaller Schubert pieces: a Waltz in A Minor.
I am aware that at various places he hesitates before going on to the next note. This seems to happen especially when going from the last beat of one measure into the first beat of the next measure. It happens much less when going from one beat inside a measure to the next.
This situation reminds me of a “steeplechase,” or any other race in which horse, or human, must periodically jump over hurdles. In between the hurdles, the path is flat and so it is easier to maintain momentum. In Irving’s case, it is as if each vertical bar line is a literal hurdle or obstacle to be overcome through a greater amount of effort, although the connections over the bar lines are not generally any more difficult than the connections inside a measure.
Could it be that the bar line is just a psychological hurdle and no more? Is it the mind’s reaction to seeing a vertical line that, visually, appears as a barrier to be crossed or surmounted to continue in the piece?
It could be that the effect is due to the fact that the first beat of the (next) measure often requires extra energy to create the ictus due to a downbeat?
Or, it could be that there is a certain limit to how many upcoming notes the mind can digest before having to pause and take in some more notes, and that a convenient place to fill up the mental buffer is at the beginning of a new measure.
Let us consider instead the cases where the transition between bars only seems more difficult than the changes that occurred within the measure.
In our case, given the 3/4 time of the waltz, the student should play four (sic) consecutive beats at a time. Doing this will always involve going over one bar line. Let us say, Irving is playing from one downbeat of one measure through to the next downbeat.
Having executed these four beats, pause. Repeat the same four beats as necessary until there is no hesitation going over the bar line.*
Continue by advancing one measure at a time, starting with the downbeat that ended the previous four beat segment. Advance through that measure and come to a pause on the following downbeat. Repeat this process, updating the starting point from the downbeat of one measure to the downbeat of the next measure. In this way, the student continuously updates his mental cursor to the position where he had previously stopped.
Here is another, more direct technique for crossing bar lines: Get rid of the bar line. The neatest way to do this is to mentally erase the bar line. We chose to erase every other bar line. The result is that piece in 3/4 time now seems to be in 6/4 time. Doing this often automatically removes any hesitation that occurred between what used to be beat three of the first measure going into beat one of the second measure. The forward motion flows freely through where the bar line used to be.
* Part of the advantage of practicing this way is that how we play the next measure’s downbeat is not interfered with by any mental or physical preparations we may be making about continuing beyond the new downbeat and further into its measure.
In terms of its use in the playing mechanism, the elbow can easily be the forgotten part of the arm. It is remote from the hand and remote from the connection of the arm to the back. It seems “remote from the action.” However, it is of critical importance as a mediator – a negotiator between shoulder and the fingers. It is that which insures that energy coming down the arm is not blocked or detoured before reaching the fingers.
When tension occurs and mobility is reduced, the hidden cause often lies in the elbow. It will often make adaptations in its alignment, not because they are useful to the transmission of power to the hands, but because we are concentrating on our hands and wish to have the hand be in a certain position. The tension simply gets “referred” up the arm to the elbow, where we are often unaware of it. But whether recognized or not, when there is tension in the elbow, when its freedom of movement is inhibited, we sever the free connection between shoulder and fingers.
Often the elbow is doing what it “wants” to do, but is at the service of something else. How do we find out what the elbow naturally wants to do? It is actually a simple procedure. If we want to know what the right elbow is doing, use the left hand to embrace, or better, to “cradle” the elbow of the right arm. If we now play a passage with the right hand, the cradling hand will actively sense what the right elbow wants to do, or more importantly, what it is forced to do in order to accommodate an awkward hand or wrist position. It will notice when the elbow is coerced into making a sudden or jerky motion, usually to compensate for something occurring at the extremities.
If there is a sudden, unexpected or awkward motion in the elbow, we will want to smooth it out, or slow it down to make it flow. By keeping in mind that the hand and the shoulder should be two stable points between which is extended the length of the arm, then the elbow modifies its alignment and attitude to find a way of sustaining this equilibrium between the two end points of the arm. If there is a breach in the continuity of the arm, it is most likely found in the elbow because the elbow controls the motion of both the forearm and the upper arm.
Most illuminating in this regard is to play a scale or an arpeggio.
When you play a scale in the right hand, you may be surprised at what the elbow is doing as you play the scale. It compensates for, it balances out, it supports what is happening in the lower arm and hand. If a sudden lurch occurs in the elbow while playing the scale, it is easy to smooth out, especially if the left hand is there cradling the elbow (see above). The supportive hand of the left arm is, figuratively speaking, saying to the elbow: don’t worry, you don’t have to make a sudden defensive or reactive gesture, because I’m here to support, balance, and give you a grounding against which to move.
We always hold between our hands an unchanging sense of a lowest and a highest note
If we take a ‘vertical slice’ through any music score, chosen at any moment in the score, we will find various pitches being held by the hands. Some will have just started sounding, others are in the process of being held after having started earlier. Among this collection of notes, one will have the lowest pitch of the group and another the highest.
If we now advance, just a bit in the score, just one note further on, we can take a new vertical slice, and find that one note is the lowest in the new group and another the highest note. There is a chance the group will be the same as before, but more likely there will be one or more changes in the pitches forming the group.
The hands are by way of a physical constant. The right side of the right hand always remains the right side of the right hand. The left side of the left hand always remains just that. However, when placed on the keyboard, the hands encompass different parts of the keyboard at different moments. One is absolute (the hands), the other is relative (different parts and spans of the keyboard).
This leads to a question we can only answer subjectively.
If the next ‘lowest note’ is different than the one from a moment before, do we feel somehow that the previous lowest note we were playing has somehow been ‘dislodged’ from its position? Has the lowest note moved a certain distance from the previous lowest note? (We can ask a similar question regarding the highest note from one moment to the next).
Seen from the point of view of the hands, the lowest note is always the lowest note (though we project it onto different spots on the keyboard). And the highest note in the hands is always the highest note.
For me, there is something comforting in the feeling, that regardless of where the notes lie on the keyboard, the pinkies* always hold between them an arch of notes. It is disruptive to me if I feel that the solid pillars that form the bases of this arch have to be disassembled and moved to a different place on the keyboard. So, regardless of where my hands are on the keyboard, I know that I always hold not “a” lowest (or highest) note, but “the” lowest (or highest note).
Through time, these two notes never loose their existential identity as “highest” or “lowest.” This identity never changes, although at one moment the lowest note may be a G and at the next an F. One doesn’t change the “lowest” to “even lower.”
Once again… in the flux of hand positions that pass by as we play, there is a reassuring constancy that between the right end of the right hand and the left end of the left hand, we are always holding the arch of notes.
*It may not always be the pinkies that are playing the lowest and highest notes, it may be some other fingers.
Practice Technique 31: Synchronization Between Notes Of The Two Hands.
Sometimes while we are performing our hands can get out of synch with each other – sometimes for a note or two, sometimes for longer.
There are two ways of preventing that from happening. One has to do with ‘pulses’ coming down both arms as if together they formed but one arm. The other, which I describe here, is to choose periodic locations, perhaps once in each measure, preferably not their first beat, where we can do a quick check-in with our ear to see if the appropriate left hand notes start at the same moment as the appropriate right hand notes.
When that moment comes in a measure, we should take our attention away from hearing the flow of the sounds in one or both hands, and redirect our attention “vertically” (on the score paper), to the momentary sound of the ‘chord’ formed by the combination of whatever notes the left hand plays at that moment plus whatever notes the right hand is playing at that same moment.
It is the principle of a ladder. Without periodic, horizontal cross pieces, or rungs, the sides of the ladder will fall apart. Only the rungs keep them together. So, in piano playing, without periodically directing our attention to the momentary sound of the “chord” (or “interval”) formed by the two hands at a specific moment, the hands will fall apart.