Changing Fingering. Changing any habit at the keyboard.
B. has been working on the Italian Concerto.
He has discovered places where the fingering he is using is not serving him well, and thus wants to change the current fingering to a fingering that is more ergonomically efficient for his hand. He says that he is OK at figuring out what the better fingering would be, but the problem is that he can’t get his hand to accept the new fingering. Trying to do so simply leads to confusion.
My suggestion: if one wants to change the fingering in a passage from what it has been before, instead of trying out the old fingering abruptly in favor to the new one, it is easier first to go into an in between state: a neutral state, in which the old fingering can go to rest and the new fingering can appear at the door to request admission.*
The neutral state that I suggested was to play every note with the same (sic) finger. Ordinarily, which finger and which note are merged together in the mind. However, playing all the notes with the same finger makes the mind more aware of the identity of the notes apart from the fingers to play them. This frees yourself from dependence on any one particular fingering and opens the door to return from the neutral state into another fingering rather than the wanted one.
*I had the same problem with introducing my old cat to my new cat.
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.
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.
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).
This leads to a question we can only answer subjectively.
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).
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