Flow, Versus a Sequence of Separate Notes
H.P’s lesson on 8/13/19 Menuet from Ravel: Tombeau de Couperin
Joe: “Our recent work has focused on flow versus the pointillism of
notes. As we go on today, let’s use two very restricted definitions of
these two terms, ‘Notes’ will simply mean knowing what notes to play
at the next moment and ‘flow’ will simply mean getting to those notes
from the preceding notes without even the most minimal of hesitation.
For many pianists it is a long held view that they must master the
“notes” before attempting the musical qualities of the piece, the
latter of which includes the manner of flow of the sounds through
Depending on the student I have been known to reject this premise on the ground that unless the musical qualities of a piece enter into our intuition of the piece at the beginning of the learning process, by the time the pianist masters the notes, the musical characteristics of the piece have suffered from neglect to the point that it is now hard to install or instill this musicality into the slow setting cement of the notes only.
What I am pleased to notice is how lately you have been working from “both ends at once,” gains in note accuracy are bootstrapping gains in musical flow, while at the same time working for the flow is bootstrapping note accuracy. You have found a way to working simultaneously for both goals, and thereby leaving the question of “which came first, the music or the notes”, into the category of similar questions like “which came first the chicken or the egg.”
About a third of the way into the lesson we focused on the middle section of the movement and in particular who to connect one chord with another without any break in the flow of the sound. Joe: “we must make ourselves take responsibility for never allowing any a break in the sound flow. What I am hearing when you play this passage are periodic, brief hesitations before continuing on to the next chord.. You seem to exert a lot of focus and energy on playing a group of chords with good continuity of sound, but then need to take a pause to recharge your batteries. It is as if to say: “I’ve been working very hard, physically and mentally, through these last few chords, I need a break.”
When we take that pause, we push the question of the flow temporarily out of our consciousness and awareness. We do not notice that we are pausing. It exists in a momentary blind (sic) spot brought on by fatigue. The question is whether the listener hears the pause, notices that we are momentarily clinging to the current notes before going on to the next notes.
The answer is that they always know though in different ways and to different conscious degrees. Some not only hear the pause but are upset at the application of the brakes to the flow, and have a difficulty in reestablishing their attention afterwards. For others the reaction is more subconscious. For some reason, of which they are not aware, there is a slackening in their attention to the music, which just happens to occur at the same point in the score where the pianist has broken the flow. For some the reaction is even less actively conscious. They will not notice the hesitation in any way as it happens, but further on in the piece they notice that their emotional reaction to the music has taken a negative turn. They will ascribe this to either the piece itself, or their inability to listen sensitively to the music.
The pianist’s ears must always be on “sentry duty”, otherwise it increases the likelihood that they will not notice deviations from the constancy of the sound flow. When this happens the sound flow can become distorted. knowing and being on alert is the best way to prevent something happening in the first place.
Some necessary connections will always seem un-doable to us; just beyond the realm of the possible, as will some of the chord connections in this middle section. Without going into the specific physical procedures to make these connections easy (something which usually forms a large segment of my teaching), it may be enough simply to say to yourself “I must do this”, “there is no option but that it has to happen smoothly”. And if we leave ourselves no way out, the body discovers the solution for itself, without conscious awareness by us of the how. Most of us when practicing a difficult group of notes will suddenly play it once the way we want it to sound. We also have experienced that trying to repeat this success often fails. We don’t learn the right way through repetition. Nonetheless we should pause after the successful rendition and absorb the very important fact that we are capable of doing it. It may be too early in the learning process to be able to reproduce it whenever we want. The one success is enough, however, to open the path to a confident discovery of the recipe for the solution. I can try to accelerate this progress by explaining or demonstrating to the pianist what things were happening physically when it came out correctly. The problem with any explanation though is that regardless of the teacher, some part of the solution remains unconscious to that particular teacher, and is therefore left out of the explanation.
A timely aside:
There is a peculiar blending of time tenses that occurs when we try to maintain the flow of the sound through obstacles in its path. When we are about to play a challenging connection, we should, at the same moment, already be hearing that connection happening, and furthermore, evaluating whether it happened without any signs of interruption. Looking at this a little more closely, the present tense is transmuted, in part, to the past tense (if our imagination is already hearing it). The immediate future is prematurely transmuted into part of the present tense. And the somewhat less immediate future (as we evaluate or notice that it flowed well) is made part of a bloated present tense. Beyond this I can only say that this weird stew of time tenses it is one of the fundamental mysteries of time in the consciousness of the performing musician.
An Unending Flow of Glowing Sound
Fauré made a solo piano arrangement of the first movement of his “Dolly Suite” better known in its incarnation for piano four-hands. The glowing sound that is so easy for the two pianists to achieve with their control over at least four octaves at once, is very difficult to evoke and sustain for long in the solo piano arrangement, limited as it is to the pianist’s two hands.
At her lesson today, I wanted to show Rachael that even though one couldn’t be “all places at once” (or all octaves at once), there was nevertheless a way for creating an ongoing sound that is infused from all those octaves.
As an illustration I asked Rachael to put the right pedal down, leave it down, and then slowly play the notes of an extended E Major chord, starting with e1 in the bottom octave of the piano, then using both e2 and b2 in the next octave, and from then on proceeding in closed-spacing with e3, gs3, b3, e4, until gs4 (it could just as well have continued higher). After sounding the last note, the gs4, I asked her to wait a second or two, and then concentrate on what she heard coming out of the piano (the pedal still being depressed). After completing her examination of the sound, she could release the pedal at any time. Like a camera set to a prolonged exposure time while focused on an area in space in which there are objects moving about, what Rachael head was a stable, lasting, ‘large’, resonating, eight-note, overarching chord that spanned several octaves and derived its tone quality from all those octaves at once.
One noticeable quality of this sound was that it could be described as ‘glowing’. It glowed in a way not normally heard by the pianist when playing. I said to Rachael, here is a “model” for what you could hear coming out of the piano at all times. What we did was just to isolate it in time, but that potential is always there with every note we play. We may fail to “complete” it when we don’t take the time to accumulate it and then listen to it.
I called her attention to the fact that, in the order we did things, this glowing quality to the sound didn’t become obvious until a moment or two after completing the chord. This is because our habit is to listen to one note at a time when they are played sequentially and not concentrate on their overall effect. But the sound, the glowing sound, is always there, ready to speak back to you if you stop and listen. As you play each sound, almost pause and listen to listen for it to speak back to you. This requires a very active mind which can oscillate rapidly between “doing” or “making” sounds and, passively, “listening” to what was just “made”. The trick is to go back and forth between the two states.
If we see a picture that includes a circle, part of which has been cut off by one of the boundaries of the picture, but which, nonetheless complete in our mind. We complete the form. When we play piano, and especially this piece by Fauré, take any sounds that are part of a chord and complete the chord in your ear.
Afterwards, as Rachael played piece, I no longer heard bumps and zigzags between octave ranges. Nothing seemed to my ear to be missing or incomplete. There was a sustained glow to the overall sound