Sometimes Geometry Helps
How to get from one place to another on the keyboard.
First of two entries:
The line “subtended” by a small angle can be very long.
The two-dimensionality of the keyboard discourages us from thinking in three dimensions instead of two. Getting from one location to another on the keyboard requires a motion that is as much up and down as it is side to side.
First, a geometrical digression.
An isosceles triangle is one in which two of the sides are equal in length. There is no limit to how long or short the two equal sides can be.
Imagine an isosceles triangle in which the angle at the top is where the two equal sides meet. Imagine that the top angle being very small. No matter how small this angle is, if you make the two equal sides long enough, the distance between those two sides will grow larger and larger. And if the two equal sides are long enough, the horizontal base at the bottom of the triangle can be as wide as you want. For instance, several octaves on a piano keyboard.
If I need to displace my hand from where it is on the keyboard to a position on the keyboard remote from it, I try to be conscious less on a left to right motion and more of an up and down motion in the ‘third’ dimension.
My hand travels upwards first, rather than right or left, until it reaches the imaginary vertex at the top of an imaginary isosceles triangle. Once at the vertex, I start to come back down, but on the other of the two equal sides. At the vertex I make a very small and subtle change of angle. It almost seems as if I am coming down the way I came up, but as I get closer and closer to the keyboard (the horizontal base of the triangle), I find that I am going to land in place on the keyboard a sizable distance from where I started. This has been accomplished without almost any conscious sense of sideways displacement.
In a previous blog I spoke of imaginary motion versus actual motion. Mirror neurons allow us to feel as if we are making a motion even when to the outside world we seem to remain motionless or nearly motionless. The motion upwards to the vertex angle in the isosceles triangle can feel as if you have traveled upwards quite high with your arms before starting to descend – only the outside observer will not see much motion. Your muscles however will be engaging as if doing the larger motion.
Sometimes it is necessary to escape into a third dimension, so that when you return just to the two-dimensional horizontal plane of the keyboard, it is “pregnant” with the mobility of having been in three dimensions.
This motion is an example of a more general heading of motions that help break out of the two dimensional confines of the keyboard.
The principle of the lighthouse.
Think of the beam from a lighthouse sweeping the horizon as the light rotates on a vertical axis. While the part of the physical light itself that happens to be furthest from its axis describes a circle around the axis which is measurable in feet, maybe yards, the result of this limited motion allows the beam to travel across miles of distance along the horizon line.
Now, substitute the torso of the body for the light in the lighthouse, and the extremities of the arm as a horizon. Rotational motion of the torso, measurable in inches, can cause the arms to travel along the keyboard a distance measurable in feet.
For any motion while playing, it is always best to find the point in the body that moves the least, but causes a motion of the hands that moves the most. I learned this from my second teacher, Edwine Behre, who in turn learned it from Abby Whiteside.
The Aha Moment: Muscles Working in Harmony
The Aha Moment: Muscles Working in Harmony
Rachmaninoff G Minor Prelude (op. 23 no. 5)
I think of physical habits at the piano as falling into three categories.
Category One: Movements that neither help nor hinder playing.
Category Two: Movements that facilitate and help playing.
Category Three: Movements that hinder playing.
I don’t worry too much about students regarding category A, unless their motions mask or keep them from discovering more useful motions.
I encourage or teach students any movements that fall into category B, those that facilitate playing.
At Irving’s lesson today he used a gesture that unfortunately is in the third category, motions that directly hinder the playing. It seemed to be an intentional gesture on his part, done because he thinks it helps his playing. When we would reach the point when one would normally gently release the keys after sounding a note or chord, Irving pressed further into the keys with his hands and fingers and simultaneously raised his shoulders. I think he does the latter in order to cushion the added pressure created by the former. He creates, in effect, an ‘aftershock’ to his sounding of notes. The result blocked the flow of energy down his arms. He make this gesture most often when playing a difficult passage.
We managed to instill a new motion that replaced the harmful motion and moreover achieved the purpose he was trying to achieve by using the harmful motion.
I asked him to drop his arms at his sides, and to begin rocking then swinging them forwards and backwards towards and away from the keyboard. Then I suggested that he start playing the piece again. As he did so, I started to repeat, over and over, the mantra “swing your arms … swing your arms…”. Each I time I said these three syllables, I timed them to coincide with the often repeated rhythmic pattern in the piece: two sixteenths then an eighth.
He played for a while and then stopped. In a frustrated tone of voice he said: “I don’t understand; how I can swing my arms and play at same time. Be more specific, Joe. Tell me how much I should move the arms, in what plane of action, using muscles in particular.”
I said: “Aha! This is the crux of the issue. The fact is that indeed there are too many muscles in the arms to keep track of what each one is doing.”
It is like walking. Almost the entire body is in motion. Many complex interactions of muscles are occurring. Yet, somehow they are harmonized and brought into balance with each other, and work towards the common end of moving the body forwards. If you were to try to be aware of which muscles you were using when walking you would simply cause the motion to become awkward, stilted, and un-flowing through time. But the point is that they do work together, unbidden. They act in harmony.
In this regard, piano playing is similar to walking. Enumerating what to move and when will not produce a fluid motion of the arms.
Irving: “So what can we do – what do I do?”
Joe: “Since there can be no detailed answer to your question about what, and by how much, I can only reply, just trust that any attempt you make to put the arms into any sort of motion, will lead you to more fluidity and better sounding quality while you are playing.”
After a while, Irving got it. He said: “I don’t understand how this is working, or exactly what I am doing other than thinking about motion in my arms, but I hear a difference, and I like the difference.”
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.
The hand can act like a bouncing ball
Release a rubber ball so it falls to the ground. It does not remain on the ground but bounces back up and then repeats the same cycle over again a number of times until it is finally still. If we treat our hand as if it were imitating a bouncing ball, then the impetus we need to repeat a note a second (third, fourth…) time originates from what we did to play the first note: no additional energy is required.
The use of this effect isn’t limited to repeating the same note, it can apply to any series of notes or chords of equal duration. Our physical intent can be limited to playing the first of the series, and simply allow the others to happen.
If the arm is in motion horizontally at the same time that the hand is bouncing, then the effect is like skipping stones at a lake. The stone makes contact with the water (keyboard) then leaves the keyboard to make contact again, further in the same direction. The only intentional motion required is the one initiating the process, the rest happens as if on its own.
The most useful way to apply this at the piano is to do it simultaneously in both arms, in a motion that begins near the extremes of the keyboard and works its way inwards towards the center of the keyboard.* This puts the two sides of the body into symmetric harmony with each other, one side aiding and advancing the progress of the other.
* in some cases there is enough momentum left for the hands actually to cross each other.
Springs: Easily created, and then able to release a sudden surge of energy
Originally published on Facebook on 2.8.16
There is no technical or musical difficulty at the piano that will not yield to a sufficient application of energy. We must have, however, a reliable way to create such unstoppable energy, and create it at the moment we need it.
A spring is a way of storing up potential energy, usually in a gradual fashion, for the purpose of a sudden release, or sudden burst of energy. Many of the more difficult technical issues at the piano, which compared to what comes before and after in the same piece of music, require such a heightened release of energy, and though briefly, at an energy level much greater than the rate at which we are expending energy in our playing.
Playing situations requiring this sudden ability to release copious amounts of energy in a brief burst of time are: skips, extreme speed, and in general those technical situations that suddenly arise that are ‘dense’, where the hands and fingers feel somewhat lost in the keyboard and unable to navigate from note to note, or finger to finger, with alacrity.
The principle of the spring is fairly simple. It requires something that has the ability to be temporarily deformed and which will spring back to its original shape with great speed.
As it turns out almost any part, or even part of a part of the body can behave in this fashion.
In the future we will enumerate examples of these many springs.