Tag: Flow and Continuity

Maintaining Control of Both Hands

Cross fertilization of the hands, bordering on hybridization

Bach: The Italian Concerto: II

Irving is having difficulties maintaining control over both hands at once.  I attribute this to the very different rhythmic character of each hand (in general, the right hand has faster notes while the left hand has relatively slower notes).

He has been trying to maintain separate but simultaneous control of each hand.  This wasn’t working.  To solve this, we established a process in which the notes in one hand could flow back and forth into notes in the other hand.

An example:

A frequent occurrence in the movement is for the left hand, as part of its melody, to play an eighth note on the first beat of a measure, and then, after a pause of a thirty-second note, the right hand plays three thirty-second notes as part of its melody.*

In this situation, we connected legato between the left hand eighth note at the beginning of the measure and the right hand thirty-second note that followed a thirty-second later.

There were also the analogous occurrences when the right hand melody contained several thirty-second notes followed by the left hand playing an eighth note.  We formed a sonic bridge between the last right hand note and the left hand note.

Unlike the more usual procedure in Bach, which is to separate the voices, we did the opposite.  We fused two voices together to create a single, new voice line: one that was a hybridization of each of the two original voices.

In this way the sound of one hand could cross-fertilize with the sound of the other, creating a series of “shunts” interconnecting their notes.  The next note in one hand could derive its momentum, both pulse-wise, and melody-wise, from the note just prior to it in the other hand.

It was the ear that forged these unions, and the body responded by organically connecting the two hands.  Each hand took renewed life from the other hand.

*In many of these cases the right hand had just tied the last note of the previous measure over into the downbeat of the new measure.

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Habits that induce good sight reading skills

Those who have difficulty sight reading may shy away from the following techniques, but please give them a try.  They are designed to leave you with no choice but to improve your sight reading skills by derailing your usual work-arounds.

1. There is a procedure that is favored by students with a good ear, good chops, and bad sight reading skills: when they get stuck somewhere in the score, their fingers go on an exploring mission, trying this note or that note, until finding one that sounds right.

A better procedure is to immediately remove the hands from the piano.  Then, switch control from the fingers to the eyes and brain, and patiently try to locate the place in the score at which the mistake has occurred.   This is not a physical skill or one that is usually aided by a good ear.  Rather it is a reading comprehension and ear skill.  Next, keeping control with the eyes and brain, closely examine the score to discover the identity of the correct notes.  This may take some time.  Only then play the notes.

Even after a piece is thoroughly learned, sight-reading remains a real-time component of playing the piece.  Things are going along swimmingly and then an uncertainty arises as to what comes next.  The hands feel lost.  That is the moment to switch into sight-reading mode, continuing in this mode until the hands remember where they are and continue on their own.

2. Learn to start playing the piece from any point in the score. A person with sight reading difficulties will tend to have to go back to a ‘known’ place in the score, even sometimes having to begin again at the beginning. The ability to start the piece from any beat in any measure in the score requires and encourages maximum sight reading skill.  Continue playing in sight reading mode, until you pick up the flow of the piece again.

3. Some students become dependent on playing a passage with both hands, so that if you ask them to play just the right hand or the left hand at a given spot, they cannot do so. The only way to satisfy the request is to sight read the notes for that hand.

4. Wrest control from body, and become more like a conductor. In lieu of a baton, count out loud and require that the musicians (the ten fingers) follow the voice of the leader.

I would like to publish any other techniques that people have found that are useful to improving sight-reading. Please comment below.

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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.

Solution One:

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.

Solution Two:

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.

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Two thoughts on playing Legato

Both blog entries today have to do with the undefined, yet very definite influence, that sounds, as imagined in the pianist’s ears, have over the extrinsic sound coming into the listener’s ears.

First thought:

Legato.  Connecting a longer duration note to shorter duration note.

The connectivity of a legato melody is most often broken when a note that has been present for some time (in other words a relatively longer note) is followed by a shorter note.

An example would be a half note tied to an eighth note followed by an eighth note.  The longer note (the half plus the eighth) has had more time to decrease in loudness, and so it is harder to focus the ear on the fainter part of that note that at the point i time just before it connects to the eighth note.  This continuity is also broken because at the moment the eighth note begins there is a sudden change in loudness, as the fainter part of the sound that is left over at the end of the longer note tries to connect smoothly to the suddenly louder beginning, or attack, of the eighth note.

While playing a legato line it is easy to overlook moments such as these and forget that a smooth connection between notes is still required in spite of the change from soft to suddenly loud.  The result, if not handled wisely, will sound to the listener like a sudden and jagged accent instead of a fluid legato.

When we are near the end of the longer sound, we must learn to focus our ear on what’s left of that sound.  Curiously, just the act of becoming aware, a second time, of the same note, causes a subjective sensation of that note suddenly getting a little louder.  The act of awareness acts like a re-kindling the note, like blowing on a fire.   It is then easier to connect the later part of the long sound in a legato manner into the beginning of the next note.

Second thought:

Taking a percussion-like instrument such as the piano, and making it sound melodic (lyrical) to the listener, is a magician’s feat that involves “smoke and mirrors”.  An example of this is what was just said about rekindling the sound of a note near to its termination in time.

The basic fact we are confronted with is that a note on the piano sounds much louder at the beginning than at the end.  The moment of attack arouses a cluster of high overtones which might leave us confused, if all we were to hear of the note was that attack, about the identity of the intended pitch of the note.  This is literally and figuratively a poor beginning to a process that is meant to link one pitch to a succeeding one in a smooth manner.

What should we do, or what can we do, when a sound begins in a chaotic cluster of higher pitches, and then, once the attack is over, what continues is a remnant of the sound that gets softer and softer until crossing over to silence?

If the effect of legato had to do with how we connect the end of one note to the beginning of the next, we would create a ziz-zag curve oscillating rapidly between very soft and very loud.  We would never sing a note this way, and a violinist would never bow this way.

It would almost seem that what is needed is some magical way to connect the middle of one piano sound to the middle of the next.  The middles of piano sounds are special.  They are still loud enough to posses a warm resonance (which emerges out of the louder attack which has now subsided), and not yet soft enough that we would get the feeling that there was nothing left to tangibly connect into the next note.  The piano will sing when we connect the middle of one note to the middle of next: one rich resonance to another rich resonance.  But how would we do such a thing.

This is where the magician’s technique of sleight of hand comes into play (or is it sleight of ear).   This is a reliable principle: what we hear in the sound the audience will hear.  If we hear resonance connect to resonance so will they.  While legato would seem to require a magical transformation of the sound of a piano note, instead it only requires a combination of memory of the recent past and seeing into the immediate future.

As the career of a note ends, we remember what it sounded like just a moment earlier when the sound was most resonant and had the clear sense of singing on a single pitch that was so hard to find in the attack.

We are jugglers of the tenses of time.  Like a juggler we seem to confound the senses of the audience.  We fuse into the current moment a memory of the sound’s resonance a moment or even an instant earlier, and, the anticipated resonance of the note whose attack we are about to execute.  We revive the past and tell the future: at least in the small, privileged unit of time we call the present…the advancing present.*

Maybe this helps explain why the great piano composers chose to write their most lyrical pieces for the piano.   By overcoming the acoustic odds, our magic leaves in its wake an impression of smoothness and consistency to the flow sound.**

In summary, we rely on the fact that the middle of the note’s duration is usually the sweetest and most melodic.  By ignoring the attacks, as well as the last instants of a sound, we begin to be able to link middle to middle, richest moment of sound to richest moment of sound.**

* Most pianists start out earlier in life by being most aware of the onset of each new note: because this is the moment within the course of the sound when the most sudden and acute muscular action occurs.  What we do physically during the remainder of the sound is usually passive in comparison to the beginning.  But, as we have shown, this moment is also when sound is at its least pleasurable, when it is raucous and disagreeable.   The result is that the pianist, usually unconsciously, switches their awareness, at just this moment, from the realm of hearing to the realm of feeling.  In doing so the pianist tends to conflate one sense with the other: I think I heard it when I actually felt it.

**The audience might not be aware of this process as the piece begins, but the more the pianist continues in the piece to try to connect middle to middle in her or his imagination, the more the sound ingredients are there for the listener to believe that it is happening too.

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Smooth scales

Is there a motion, that lies entirely in the hand, which transcends the particular order in which the fingers articulate the notes of a scale?

Every time we play a scale, sooner rather than later, we come up against the physical limitation of there being only five fingers in the hand.  Either a thumb will have to cross under some other fingers, or a finger other than the thumb has to cross over the thumb.

We spend a lot practice time trying to iron out these periodic wrinkles in the flow of the sound of a scale.  What would be nice, short of growing extra fingers, is a tangible model for focusing the flow of energy in the hand so that nothing can interrupt its horizontal course.

Fortunately the body is constructed so that the small motions of the fingers can be absorbed or subsumed within the larger motions of the hand, wrist, elbow, shoulder, and back.

Here is a rather enjoyable procedure for creating that sense of ongoing motion that transcends the particularities of which finger is being used after which other finger.

Rolling a ball along the keyboard:

Cup a ball in either hand and roll it left and right along the keyboard.  See if the ball can cause glissando like sounds to occur as the hand moves.  The motion of the ball will proceed most smoothly if, periodically, you relax the grip of the hand on the ball so that, as much of the time as possible, the ball is actually rotating while it is moving horizontally along the keys.  The result should approximate that of a ball rolling down a hill with no force but gravity causing the work.

It’s a lesson for the body:

Let the body be “instructed” by the feeling that results, learning that it is possible to move left and right in a scale without any resistance; without encountering places in the scale where the notes don’t connect as smoothly as in other places.

The feeling of the ball rolling over the keys is easily internalized; until the ball itself becomes an unnecessary prop.

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