Tag: Listening and Awareness

Synchronizing with the student at the lesson

Synchronizing communication between the student and the teacher is a very important part of any lesson.

There is a tempo to the way the student and the teacher interact that varies from student to student and lesson to lesson.  One of the most important factors in their dialogue is how well-synchronized their minds are.

1. Here is an example of lack of synchronization.   Patricia is a dynamic and forceful person with an extremely active mind.  She is used to taking charge of things.  When I start expressing a thought to her about how to improve the current passage, perhaps trying to demonstrate it at the piano, before she has had a chance to understand the idea I’m conveying, she has already started playing the passage again.  If she had waited another few seconds she might have understood the gist of what I was trying to communicate, but as it was, she formed a different idea of what I meant.  My concern in this is not that I have been interrupted, but that no communication resulted.

We have working on this issue, and gradually we are learning to ‘tune’ ourselves to each other.

2. Rachael is a student who, in her professional life, in an executive.  She wants information communicated to her quickly.  Once she gets the gist of what she thinks I’m trying to say, she doesn’t care to hear the rest.  In this case, most of the adaption has to come from my side.  I have learned to sense the moment when she has gotten my idea, usually in the middle of a sentence, at which point I simply stop talking.  It has become an easy habit for me, and she appreciates it.

3. With my student Irving, there is another type of timing related factor that effects communication between us.  I usually start my feedback by referring to the place in the score about which I’m going to comment.  Even if that spot is the one just played a moment earlier, Irving needs a long time to visually locate the spot in the score.  Until he does, all that I say is vague or confusing to him.  In this case, the best thing is for the teacher to wait for a sign, usually an eye cue, that the student has found the spot, and then start talking about the passage.  The teacher cannot expect the student to speed this process up.  Often the student is reluctant to inform the teacher that he is still trying to find the place on the page and experiences that terrible feeling of not understanding something that the teacher obviously thinks is simple enough to understand.

Another option with this type of student is to, by default, always point to the place on the page that he is about to talk about.

4. A sensitive time factor in communication is how long the student waits before putting the teacher’s advice into practice.  This advice has a short “half-life” during which its effect will carry over into the student’s hands.  This time is exceeded if, for instance, the student first speaks about something else, or goes back too far in the score to start playing.


Staying present with the student is a full time occupation, but one that is well worth the effort; the lesson will be more successful and the student will feel seen and heard as an individual.

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Singing in tune

There are at least three ways for a singer (or instrumentalist) to tell if their intonation is correct.

A system used by many singers, in lieu of any other, is to estimate the width of the interval between their current note and note about to be sung, and then to change pitch according to their sense of what this interval sounds or feels like.

This turns out to be the least reliable system.  The slightest underestimation or overestimation of the ‘width’ of the interval, especially if this inaccuracy is compounded over the next series of intervals, will lead sooner or later to the singer being noticeably out of tune with the accompaniment.1  This system is too relative. Errors creep in one after another after another.

A more absolute system is to always sing into the currently sounding chord.  There is always a chord happening in the accompaniment.  Sometimes it is very apparent, sometimes it is more disguised, but if the singer can become aware of the presence of that chord, she can dissolve her tone into that chord and thus be perfectly in tune with the chord.2  In more modern pieces there are still chords, except that the chords are more dissonant. None the less, they are present.

The third way of singing in tune is the most reliable.  It is to maintain an overall sense of the key of the piece which would thereby include all the notes in that key.

This is harder at first to cultivate.  Here is how I go about it.  I create a simultaneous cluster made out of all the notes in the scale of the key.   Usually I create an eighth note cluster, one octave from the tonic to the next higher tonic.  For example, if the key is C Major, and I’m working with a soprano (or the soprano section of a chorus), I play the eight note cluster c-d-e-f-g-a-b-c (from middle C to the octave above middle C).  If I were working with a bass or choral bass section, I would do the same cluster one octave down.

Continuing with the example of C Major.  I play the cluster, and hold it, and invite the singer(s) to sing just the tonic note in that cluster (middle-c if a soprano).  I then replay the cluster and ask them to fine-tune their pitch until it dissolves into the cluster, I.E. it reaches a point where they cannot distinguish their voice from the sound of the cluster.  To hear their voice separately from the cluster is to be out of tune with the scale.

I repeat this procedure for each ascending note of the scale.  Though the singer is changing from one scale note to the next, the cluster in no way changes sound.

I have used the word dissolve a couple of times.  Here is a general explanation of the principle involved.

An example.  A clarinet and a bassoon have different tone qualities – until they sound the same note.  When they are in unison on the same pitch we hear only a single tone quality, one different from the clarinet’s and different from the bassoon’s.  The sound is more as if coming from just one instrument; we could name the instrument the ‘clarinet-bassoon’.  The same goes for a clarinet and a flute playing in octaves, or a bassoon and a French horn playing in unison.  There are many other such combinations among the instruments of the orchestra.  In a similar manner, the goal for the singer is to have their note blend in so completely with the sounds around it that one hears something new tone-quality-wise (for instance a the ‘soprano-piano‘ instrument).3

Here is an exercise I use to achieve this blending of voice with accompaniment.

The singer holds a single note, starting quite softly; softly enough that her sound dissolves into the sound of the other instrument(s).  Next, in a very controlled manner, the singer gradually increases the loudness of their note, but at all times with the goal of still feeling that their sound has dissolved in the general pool of sounds.  Even at its loudest, the note should be so clearly mixed in with the accompanying sounds that the singer remains almost unaware of the separateness of their own sound.4

When working with a chorus, I use the same technique: every individual singer dissolves their voice into the pool of sound created by all their section members en masse.  Sometimes I will ‘build this up’ by starting with just one singer, adding a second, adding a third, etc.  The goal is to remain a single sound, with no hint (even with different rates and widths of vibrato) to suggest there is more than one singer.  The result is a surprisingly pure and rich sound!

1 Let me give you an exaggerated example.  In acoustics, each semitone (for instance C to C-sharp) is divided into 100 smaller units or “cents”.  Consider a person singing a chromatic scale upwards starting on middle C.  To get to the exact pitch of the C#, the interval between the C and the C-sharp must be 100 cents.  If it is five cents short (95 cents), the pitch of the C# is going to sound fairly correct (it is off by 5 percent of a semitone).  But let’s see what happens if they continue singing half steps that are just 95 cents wide.  The C is in tune.  The C# is five cents flat. The D is ten cents flat.  The D# is fifteen cents flat.  A difference in fifteen cents is very noticeable to the average listener’s ear.  If they go on to E and then F, the “F” will be 25 cents flat and by the end of an octave the final “C” will be twelve times five, or sixty cents flat.  Ten cents more than a quarter tone.

2 If the chord is tonal, then it is helpful for the singer to know whether the note they are singing is the root note, the third, the fifth (or the seventh) of the chord.  If none of these is the case, then the singer should be finely aware of the exact out of tune-ness  of their note relative to the nearest note in the accompaniment.

3 A timbre that is that neither one nor the other but the combination of the two.

4   From the pianist’s point of view, it is often the case that they are trying to sound less like a piano and more like a human voice (singing legato).

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Coaching an instrumentalist for an orchestra audition

In today’s incarnation, “Irving” is a bassoonist rather than a pianist.   He is about to audition for a local orchestra.  The required excerpt for the audition is the opening of the second movement of Scheherazade.

I listened to him play the solo through.   The notes were there, but overall it lacked a sense of the presence in his imagination of the other instruments playing at the same time, and the effect that would have on how he sounded the passage.

He had played the same solo a year or so earlier in an orchestra.  So I asked him “what instruments were accompanying you during the solo?”

He thought about and said “the woodwinds?”

I said, “No, it is actually four solo double basses.”*

He played the solo again, but this time I played on the piano the chords played by the four double basses.  This caused a sudden change in his playing.  One thing that happened was that he fine-tuned both the pitch and the feeling of his notes to better fit in with the chords.  In tonal music, no note has a single, abstract, or ideal pitch.  It varies in small amounts to best fit in with the harmonic context in the form of the chord that is sounding at that moment.  Each chord in turn has a certain feeling, which if recognized and felt fine tunes the timbre or tone quality of the bassoonist’s note.

No longer was his playing an island to itself, it had a broader context.  The trick, I said, is to make these modulations to the sounds even when you are playing by yourself without the other instruments, which can only be heard in your head.  The person auditioning you is listening to see whether this broader musical context shines through the notes that you play.

“How do I do this,” he asked?

Let’s start with knowing when in the solo the chord in the basses changes.  He didn’t know.  I said: let’s play through it again, this time listening specifically for the changes in the chords.  It shouldn’t be too difficult to do because, based on how he had played the passage when I played the chords at the piano, he was already subconsciously responding to them.

Next I asked him if the first chord in the basses seemed to last a surprisingly long time before changing.  If so, what beneficial effect did that harmonic inflexibility have on the effect of the solo?  He said that it made the bassoon solo seem more “frozen and static.”  I agreed.

Was he, I asked, aware that this first chord contained only root notes and fifths and lacked the third of the chord, the note that which would determine whether the chord was a major chord or minor chord.   It was incumbent on the bassoonist to make that choice clear to the listener, and to be especially aware of when the bassoon made up for the deficit of the third by momentarily playing the third himself.

Later in the session I wanted to demonstrate, in a more general way, how the ‘color’ of a note depends on the chord to which it belongs.  And how this color could change, depending on whether he was playing the root, third, fifth or seventh of the chord.

I had him hold a single note for as long as he could, while I surrounded his chord with first one chord then another.  I started with the three major chords and the three minor chords that contained the note he was holding.  Then I went on to seven-chords that contained his note.  Then I gradually shifted to chords that didn’t contain his note, which therefore caused his note to be dissonant – but always dissonant in a specific enough way to create a definite and peculiar color to the dissonance.

Though he held the bassoon’s pitch relatively constant, he instinctively changed the timbre and the intonation to reflect the way his note fit (or did not fit) in the chord.

* albeit an odd orchestration, but an inspired choice given the shape and mood of the solo.

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“Chorale-ing” – the inner illumination of a passage

Transforming a passage into a chorale for harmonic clarity.

This is an excellent skill for the pianist to develop, though it depends on a well developed sense of harmony and the ability to recognize a chord in the piece even when all its notes are not sounding together.

What does doing this achieve?

Playing becomes more assured and more “informed,” as if you are simultaneously playing a passage and explaining it to the audience, only the “explanation” is not verbal or conceptual.  It lies in the very sound of the notes.

Two basic skills are required:

  1. Identifying what chord is ‘controlling’ the current notes in a piece (see “details” below).  The chord is like a magnet which is surrounded by a magnetic field that causes nearby objects (note) to realign themselves.  We need to determine the ‘domain’ of the chord: how far does it’s control and influence extend over the notes (what notes are under its spell).  Where, in a measure or measures, does that control begin; where does it end.

This skill entails knowing which notes to weed out because they are still under the influence of the chord.  They are not notes that belong to the chord (chord tones), but rather tones of embellishment (passing tones, appoggiaturas, neighbor notes, etc.).

The last part of this first skill is creating a version of the chord that specifically has four notes (sometimes more) and lies in the range of a vocal chorus (within an octave and a half to two octaves of Middle C).

2. Taking the chord just created, and “voice leading”* it to the next such controlling chord (and so on). By repeating this and ‘voice leading’ from one controlling chord to the next, we can turn a passage into something like a Bach Chorale.**

These two skills are most often taught in music theory classes at college, where unfortunately they are approached conceptually, with pencil and paper, but not at a piano.

Details of using this method:

It is a basic tenet in music that there is ordinarily something simpler and more basic that underlies the notes that are sounding.   Sort of a distilled version – a more basic idea or concept of what is going in all the notes.  If you find that more basic idea, you will be able to think of the previous totality of the notes as literally an embellishment on the notes of the more underlying entity.

Underlying all the notes of a melody, even when unaccompanied, are certain chords that go well with the melody – which make sense when sounded with the melody.  In that sense the chords represent a more fundamental aspect of the notes that are sounding one after another.

How does one find these chords? 

If, by no other means, then by randomly playing in the left hand, one chord and then another.  Your tonal intuition will be able to tell you that some chords go well with the melody, others go just OK with the melody, and some just sound silly or awful with the melody.   Eventually your ear will find the chord that goes best with the melody, the one that seems to best elucidate its character.

As you play through the tune, you may find that a left hand chord that worked well with melody up to a certain point in the melody stops working well.  This is the time to find another chord that takes over for the first chord.   Knowing these boundary lines between the sway of one chord and the sway of the next is a very important part of the process we are describing.

You don’t need to know anything about formal harmony to do this.  Simply experiment randomly with chords, and using your aesthetic judgment as to whether a chord is a good or a bad match for the current group of melody notes.

Why chorale-ing is good.

I can best describe it by analogy.

By abstracting the piece into its underlying chorale, your role switches from that of a single member of an orchestra to being its conductor.  No longer are you playing just the notes assigned to your own instrument, and tuning out the notes from the other instruments. You become the conductor who understands the music as a whole so that you are able to guide the various players and form them into a good ensemble.

While playing, by bringing back into your present consciousness the memory of what the chorale sounded like, and fitting the sounds of the individual notes that you are playing into that chorale, all the notes you play will suddenly seem more translucent: every one transmitting its meaning in the whole.

“Chorale-ing” is a good term because of the suggestion of a pun on ‘corral’ (the process by which the cowboy rounds up a dispersed group of individual animals and herds them into a smaller, more defined, more concise, space, where they can be dealt with all at once).

If you would like specific examples of applying these principles to a particular passage from a piece you are playing, let me know and I will provide it for you.  In the meantime, I will try to find out if there is a way of printing music notation into a blog.  If anyone happens to know this, please let me know (I am using WordPress).

* A simple but acceptable definition of voice leading is: a process that makes the change from one chord to another sound as smooth as possible to the ear.

** You can find a model of a chorale in the “chorale” movement” of any of Bach’s 215 Cantatas or Passions.

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Arpeggios: a musical state that lies somewhere between melody and chord

Consider on the one hand playing the notes of a melody in a slow, leisurely fashion and, on the other hand, sounding all the notes of the same melody simultaneously, mush-ing the melody into a single chord or cluster.   In between these two extremes there are many intermediary possibilities, each one blending insensibly into the next, and forming thereby a continuous spectrum.

At one end of this spectrum, the notes of a melody go by so fast that, like a rapidly arpeggiated chord with the pedal held down, the effect barely departs from that of a simultaneous chord.  The previous sounds spontaneously congeal behind the most recent sound to start, like the ice trail of a jet airliner.  At the other end of the spectrum, the melody slows down so much, that each of its notes sound for so long that we lose even the awareness that we are in a melody.*  We lose track of the current note’s relation with the previous one, and we cease to anticipate that another note might show up after the current.**  In other words, we are locked in the frozen presence of the current note.  This would be like observing a glacier in order to detect its movement.

If I were looking for a position on this spectrum that best combined the qualities of these two ends, I might choose a fluid, somewhat rapid arpeggio.   My choice is based on the fact that an arpeggio is already suggestive of the single phenomenon of a chord, but still retains the order of the single pitches.

One of my favorite practice techniques is to disregard the actual rhythm of the written notes, and convert the pitches into an arpeggio of notes of equal duration, undulating up and down on the keyboard, extending the arpeggio upwards and  downwards past the written notes and into adjacent octaves as suits my fancy.

* The music of Morton Feldman from the 1960s to me seems to gravitate towards the end of the spectrum where a single note of the melody lasts for an unusually long time. Here is an example in his piece ‘Last Pieces’

** At both extremes things become as it were frozen.  Either the melody loses its implied order of notes inside a frozen chord, or all we are conscious of in the melody is the one frozen note sounding currently.

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