Tag: Dynamics

A Chopin Nocturne; the Boundary Between Heard and Imagined Sound

S.B.’s lesson on 7/11/19: Chopin: Nocturne in C Minor, Op. 48 / 1.

#1. Beginning

The piece begins with two solitary c-s (c2-c3). A beat later C is joined by other notes belonging to a C Minor chord. At what point do we begin to hear or sense the full C Minor chord? We may think that one beat is not a long time. That very soon after we play c2, any ambiguity as to identity of the harmony during the first half of the measure will disappear, as the hands complete the C Minor chord on the second beat. But subjectively that first beat can last a long time. Either the pianist, or the listener already quite familiar with the piece, must imagine the rest of the C Minor chord sounding (c2–g3-ef4-g4–g5) before the second beat arrives, while only the C naturals on the first beat are still in the outer ear.

The same applies for all the other half measures in the opening. The pianist should have a pre-vision (sic) – a “pre-audition” – of the full chord in their imagination, as if it is already fully sounding into their outer ear. One of the most subtle and masterly things a pianist works with when constructing with sound is the middle ground between heard and imagined sound. Memory and anticipation are always weaving together in the consciousness of duration in time. The boundary between the two should not be fixed and definite, but blurred. What the pianist imagines has a tangible effect on what the listener thinks they are hearing.

#2. Things that can spoil a legato in a long phrase.

The first phrase is four measures long. There are several places within it where it requires increased additional focus to keep the sense of legato flow alive.

A. Measure one and the first half of measure two

The presence of a rest can indicate two very different things. One
is to force a break in a melody: to consider something as being two
separate things rather than one continuous thing. The other is to
increase the sense of connection in the melody by having to overcome
an obstacle or gap that has been superimposed upon the melody. It is
like the electric charge crossing the gap in a spark plug. It is like
water building up behind a dam. A pressure, or force, builds up
behind the stoppage of the first note which makes going on to the next
note even more inevitable and accomplished with greater momentum.

B. The first two notes in measure two

The g5 comes in as a quarter note but starts on the and of one. If
you think of this quarter note as two eighth notes tied together, the
easiest place to loose the legato is as the first half of the quarter
note ties over the end of beat one into the first part of beat two.
It is in effect a tie to connect two beats. The force of the flow of
that sound has to spill over the boundary between the two beats. It
is not enough to hear one note, but as if that note began a sudden
crescendo just prior to its second half. It is the rhythm and the
meter that forces this imaginary crescendo upon the otherwise formless
sound that lasts two eighth notes.

C. The tied d5 in measure two going to the ef5.

Immediately after the imaginary crescendo during the first d5 in
measure two, we encounter another situation which can attenuate a
continuous legato. It occurs when a relatively long note is followed
by a relatively short note. In this case the first d5 of the measure
is the longer note, lasting for three sixteenths, and the following
ef5 not only is one sixteenth long, but it also comes in after a tie. A
double whammy.

We normally rely on there being enough resonance left to a note to
effect a soldering of one note in a legato to the next. Otherwise the
sudden change from the end of a longer note. which has already
decayed, to the sudden attack of the next note sounds too much like an
sudden accent and defeats the attempt at the legato. To overcome this
difficulty, the pianist’s ear must track the full duration of the
longer note, instant to instant and, in their imagination, sustain
(prop up) the loudness of the note so as to counterbalance the
decrescendo of the decay. Then they must connect this heightened form
of the end of this note not to the attack of the following note but
the level of sound the next note will have a moment after the attack.
Even when it is just a short note.

D. The repeated c5-s in measure three.

When playing the same note several times in row, do we let the legato
come solely from the pedal? Or do we use the more cumbersome but
elegant way of controlling the key dip and not resorting to the pedal.
Or perhaps some of both? This is the pianist’s decision. The purer
legato is always attained by manipulating the key in question so that
at the instant that the key is released, and a minimal fraction of
inch before it reaches the top of the key dip, the arm is already
overriding the upward motion of the key with a strong downward force
to send the key down again.

E. The g4 in measure four going to the the grace note bf4.

This falls under the heading of a relatively longer note going to a relatively shorter note (see letter ‘C’ above). Pianists will often inadvertently make the legato connection occur from between the note before the grace note to the note to which the grace then goes to. The more sublime legato connection is from the note before to the grace note itself, in spite of its very short duration.

#3. Other things contributing to maintaining constancy of flow in the piece.

A.

The way the pianist releases a chord unintentionally affect the way they
attack of the next chord. Thus, when playing the chords on the offbeats in beginning of the piece, don’t “telegraph” the release of the left hand chords into the attack that started the same chord.  Regardless of the duration the pianist wishes to hold these chords (some editions show them staccato) there should be two physically dissimilar gestures, one for the attack, one for the release, with a stasis in between them.

B.

The middle section of the Nocturne, where a series of wide chords is
arpeggiated from one hand into the other. The broken chord is
difficult, regardless of the distances between the notes and fingers,
if the chord is first rendered as a melody of single notes, starting
with the bottom note written in the left hand for that chord, and
ascending leisurely a pitch at a time until finishing the melody with
the highest note of the chord that is written in the right hand. The
pedal can be kept down. The finger that has just played one of the
notes can come off that note the moment the next finger has started
its note. This discourages over-stretching the hand when the melody
is turned back into a chord.

C. The section with double octaves.

S.B. has a small hand and was reluctant to learn the piece.

She pointed out that her fingers are hyper-flexible. Watching her
carefully as she played the octaves, I found myself wanting to say, for
the first time to a student, “You may want to not use all  that flexibility.”

I called her attention to the shape of her hand and wrist when playing
an octave, in particular along the length of the fingers and a projection of that axis through the hand and wrist. Her wrist was elevated. The third knuckles of her fingers were at a lower altitude in comparison to the wrist, but because the third knuckles hyperextended to a strong degree her second knuckles were at a much higher altitude than the third knuckles.

I suggested that this contour had innate disadvantages when seeking the greatest extension between the fingers without inducing tension. That without coercing anything, she could encourage a shape from wrist to fingers that was more in the spirit of being like, or in the direction of a
straight angle. To coax her hand into that shape, she could rest the
three middle fingers on the surfaces of random keys lying in between
the pinky note and the thumb.

This improved the sound of her octaves, as well as their quality of
resonance, evenness, and her alacrity in changing from one octave to
the next.*

* Often when I said I noticed a difference she did not. Sometimes it
wasn’t so much that she didn’t notice the improvement, but that the
improvement was short of her ultimate goal and desire. This time
however, she smiled and said, “Oh, that was much better, and much
easier too”.

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Creating Harmonic Clarity

Bach:  C Major Prelude, Book I, Well Tempered Klavier

Part of A.B.’s quest is to play the notes of this prelude “evenly”.  Achieving this has to do with the chord outlined by the notes of each measure, and the balance of the notes in the chords in creating a clear impression of that chord as a whole.   To make this chord more obvious to the ear, the player, when practicing, can “densify” each chord:  if there are openings between adjacent written notes in the chord to squeeze in additional notes from the same chord, add those notes in.   For instance in measure 2, there is room for an f4 between the d4 and a4.  If we add in that f4, we create the denser five-note chord: c4 d4 f4 a4 d5.  We can take that chord a step forward and add a c5 between the a4 and the d4, forming a six-note chord.  The chord has been a D Minor-7 chord the entire time, but the additional chord tones just make it stand out more clearly to the ear what chord it is.  Do this for every chord in the Prelude when Bach’s written notes allow for such additions.

An equally valid technique to add density to the character of a chord is add in chord tones in lower and/or higher octaves not used in the printed chord.  In this form a chord could contain 8 – 10 notes, or by adding the pedal, larger numbers of notes, spanning the low bass to high treble.  In this form, the “quality” of the chord reveals itself at its most obvious.  This technique, helps “set” the sonority of the written chord inside a larger entity to which it in turns belongs.

Whatever are the sound characteristics and the mood characteristics of the individual chord, they become in this manner magnified to the ear.  From this form of the chord we can then re-compress the chord (through the aesthetic equivalent of a ‘trash compactor’) without losing any of the sound ‘material’ present in the larger version of the chord: the larger instance of the chord being condensed into a smaller chord without losing any of the fullness or meaning of the uncompressed version of the chord.

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Changing the loudness of one note in a chord

By controlling the relative loudness of each note in a harmonic chord, we are doing what a composer does while writing a symphony, and decides which instruments should play which notes in a chord: more instruments on this note, fewer on that note.

More prominence or less prominence given to the extension of the chord into a higher octave. Rarely does the composer put the same number of players on each of the notes in a chord.

When we do this ‘orchestration’ at the piano, the cause, and the effect are more subtle. Yet the result does mimic orchestration. This is because if we play a particular note twice, once softly, and once loudly, though the primary difference in heard in terms of dynamics, there is a secondary change, which we can notice if we focus on it, in terms of the relative loudness each overtone of that note has as compared with the loudness of each of the other overtones.

Acoustically, this is what gives rise to what our brain interprets as a change of ‘timbre’, or ‘tone quality’, or instrumental quality: that which makes an oboe playing middle C at mezzo forte sound different than a violin playing middle C at the same loudness. This change of timbre is somewhat noticeable when listening to a single note, but when it is multiplied over the various notes of a chord, the difference in the overall timbre of the chord changes more noticeably. Even when we play all the notes of a chord with equal intensity, the result is not what we might anticipate. Each note in the chord is under the “spell” of the harmonic progression. If a note happens to be the ‘third’ of the chord, it will have a relative predominance of effect over the root and fifth. This explains why if we are, for example, in C major, and have a V chord going to a I chord, we can omit the fifth in the I chord. Even though we have left just the root(s) and third(s) there will be no doubt as to whether the chord is a I chord or a vi chord, since both C E G and A C E share the C and E in common.

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CHANGING THE LOUDNESS OF SINGLE NOTES IN A CHORD

Originally published on Facebook on 2/4/16

By controlling the relative loudness of each note in a harmonic chord, we are doing what a composer does while writing a symphony, and decides which instruments should play which notes in a chord: more instruments on this note, fewer on that note. More prominence or less prominence given to the extension of the chord into a higher octave. Rarely does the composer put the same number of players on each of the notes in a chord.

When we do this ‘orchestration’ at the piano, the cause, and the effect are more subtle. Yet the result does mimic orchestration. This is because if we play a particular note twice, once softly, and once loudly, though the primary difference in heard in terms of dynamics, there is a secondary change, which we can notice if we focus on it, in terms of the relative loudness each overtone of that note has as compared with the loudness of each of the other overtones. Acoustically, this is what gives rise to what our brain interprets as a change of ‘timbre’, or ‘tone quality’, or instrumental quality: that which makes an oboe playing middle C at mezzo forte sound different than a violin playing middle C at the same loudness.

This change of timbre is somewhat noticeable when listening to a single note, but when it is multiplied over the various notes of a chord, the difference in the overall timbre of the chord changes more noticeably.

Even when we play all the notes of a chord with equal intensity, the result is not what we might anticipate. Each note in the chord is under the “spell” of the harmonic progression. If a note happens to be the ‘third’ of the chord, it will have a relative predominance of effect over the root and fifth. This explains why if we are, for example, in C major, and have a V chord going to a I chord, we can omit the fifth in the I chord. Even though we have left just the root(s) and third(s) there will be no doubt as to whether the chord is a I chord or a vi chord, since both C E G and A C E share the C and E in common.

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