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.

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).

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).

Or

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.

The largest possible ambit of motion

The muscular movements used in piano playing, in particular of the fingers which are at the extremities of the body, tend to be limited in scope and range.  However there is an advantage to exploring the full range of motion that is possible with every joint – be it a knuckle, a wrist, an elbow, a shoulder, or the body as a whole.

For purposes of illustration, consider the example of the third knuckle of the second finger.  We can ask what sort of mobility is available to this finger when the motion of the finger stems just from the flexibility in the third knuckle, unaided in any special way by the other two knuckles.

We find that flexing at the third knuckle allows the finger:

1) to move vertically up and down, and

2) to move horizontally, (touching the third finger on one side and reaching in the direction of the thumb on the other side).

What are the limits to these two motions?  Can these limit be exceeded through hyper extending?

What if we combine the linear movements of the finger up and down and side to side, and try to move the tip of the finger around in a circle?

We have no difficulty describing a true circle.  A little exploration though shows us that at some points along the circumference of the circle, the body allows the radius of the circle to increase, though at other points in the circle the body will only tolerate a smaller radius to the circle.  If, at each point around the circle, we move the finger to the maximum possible distension from the implied center of the circle, the result is a rather erratic looking circle, one whose perimeter bulges and contracts.

Another way to envision this same motion is in three dimensions.  The length of the finger sweeps out a three dimensional volume.  Instead of a wobbly circle, we get a wobbly cone.

Is it worth exploring the full mobility of a joint when we rarely use it in practice at the piano?

Before using it to play a note, the finger will be at rest relative to the rest of the hand.   However, there is a difference in feeling between a finger at rest which is “ignorant” of all its possible motions, and a finger, even while at rest, that feels within it, immanently, all the motions and directions in which it can move.

There is an advantage for the finger to know its full potentiality of motion.   If the finger at rest holds its position stiffly, there is little potential of action.  If the finger at rest is ready to move in any and all possible directions and degrees, it will respond with the greatest alacrity and control when playing.

We want to cultivate a state of the a finger that, though not at the moment moving, feels that the most vagrant breeze could set it into motion.  Just a breeze; just a thought, just a whim, is sufficient to set the finger into motion when, because there is no inertia to overcome before it starts moving.  We want as little resistance to motion in any direction.

Though the limit of the range of the finger’s ambit, when it comes time to play, may not be fulfilled, it will retain the feeling of the momentum of the entire potential of movement.  This will be a more confident, well directed and energetic finger.

Generalizing to all parts of the body:

What we have said here about the second finger, and its third knuckle, can be applied to every articulation point in the playing mechanism, (including rotational motions*).

Regardless of the part of the body, if it can move, we should actively explore every plane of motion of which is capable, every plane in all three dimensions and to every permittable degree. This is a healthy body part, ready to move, who knows how far, at the bidding of least, vagrant stirring of a breeze of intent.

A genus is more robust than a species:

Every time we flex the finger the same way, we are digging a deeper ditch into which the finger is constrained to move (like a slave only allowed to move only in one direction and to an extent).  However, the finger which is no longer being coerced into a single type of motion and can move in all ways, when the moment comes to play a note, will have the freedom to make one choice among many.  One choice is a compulsion, two choices is a dilemma.**  Three or more is robust and free.

It is like the difference between knowing just one species in a genus, and knowing the full ramifications of the genus to which it belongs.  If you know just the species then you have a limited idea of the underlying whole, the whole that is here expressing itself in some individual way.  Connecting the species to the genus gives a richer, informed, and liberated identity to the species in question.

At the piano, all motions should be possible at the next instant in time.

* yes, even a finger by itself can rotate slightly around its longitudinal axis.

**thanks to my friend Roy for this interpretation

1. Gabriella Piccioni says:

Joe,
I love this post because it reminds us of the nuances that can make big differences. In thinking about freedom in the finger joints, one could also tune in to the freedom in the corresponding elbow, shoulder joints, and even the jaw. Maximum freedom in the finger is related to maximum freedom in the rest of the body. It’s difficult to move your finger freely if your breath is held or your jaw is clenched.

{12} The “Protean” Hand.

{12} The “Protean” Hand.

While playing piano our hands are constantly assuming different shapes.  There is a different ideal shape for every note or chord we play.

In this entry I want to restrict myself to talking about the amazing ability of the hand to take one shape and then another.

Where is your right hand right now?  Is it on your lap, is it resting on a table, is it engaged in scratching an itch on your face?   Wherever it is, consider these questions:

-How precisely did the hand get there?

– By what route through space did it get from wherever it was to where it is now?

-When precisely did it get there?

– How fast did it move?

-At a constant rate?

-At a modulating rate?

-How far did it have to move from where it was before?  Where was it before?

If you are currently sitting, is your hand on your knee? Is your hand holding a ball?

-How did hand get into the shape that molded itself to the three dimensional shape of your knee or of the ball?

The proper answer to all these questions is: “I don’t really know”.  My motions happened automatically.   One of the unnatural things we do at the piano is to make motions that are planned and intentional, when in fact, unconsciously the body will do the same to much better effect.

To understand the difference, make everything involved a conscious decision.

First set a “goal”.  For instance “I am going to pick up that ball” or “I am going to embrace a C Major Triad in my hand”.

Consciously move your hand into the new place and position.  Be aware of the succession and identity of as many of the movements into which the motion can be subdivided.  Be conscious of whether the hand is moving to the right or the left to get to the goal, and how many inches or feet it needs to travel.

The result is a stilted, hesitant, un-smooth motion, that may or may not bring the hand to the intended goal.

In doing it consciously, you made the task of the hand much harder.  Suddenly there are a multitude of details you have to concern yourself with.

I will develop this theme in future entries.  I will deal with things such things as:

When playing, are the shapes of the hand three dimensional or just two dimensional.

How quickly can the hand develop amnesia regarding the previous shape, so that it act spontaneously to take the next shape (the next notes)?

What is the function of the “topology” of the keyboard: its hills and valleys?

That the hand is like a molten material being poured into a temporary mold.

Practice Procedures: Part 14: The “Plastic” or “Protean” Hand.

The hand has the ability to hold in it objects of every size, shape and description.  No thought goes into taking any of these objects into our hand.  The process is automatic and not conscious.   In fact if we try to be conscious of how take object in our hand, we find that the process is no longer smooth but proceeds awkwardly.   If you would like to try this, consciously observe and control the movements of your hands in order to take hold of a glass of liquid.   Another way of appreciating this ability of the hand, is ask it how it got into whatever position it is in at this moment: what route did it take from the last place it was; from what angle did it approach it; how far did it move from its last resting place.  These questions should be unanswerable and should remain consciously unanswerable.

In addition to this great pliability, the duration in time between the hand assuming one position or shape to the next can be almost too short to notice.   The hand should never cling to any object it holds, or the progress of these changing shapes is interfered with.

If one were to examine the shape of the hand at different moments in a piece of music, we would discover it being in numerous subtly, and not so subtly, different positions and shapes.  This is the gift of our hand to us.  It should never cling to any one position.  We only get into trouble at the piano when we try to predetermine the position and shape that our hand should be in for the next note(s), for in that case, at best, from moment to moment, our hand would be only approximately in the most natural position, and is to some extent forced and stiff.

If we think of the topology of the white and black notes, which ones are at the top of their key dip and which are depressed, then we can think of this topology as a momentary object, with a shape, that the hand can naturally take to its own.  A shape not just among the fingers but of the hand as a whole.

An implied part of this process of going from one shape to another, is that the hand has just as spontaneous an ability to loose or give up the current shape it is in, as it is to be in the next required position.  The hand benefits from having a total amnesia of its shape, so that the next position or shape it assumes can be without owing anything to a past shape or position.