Two or more notes from one physical gesture, case 1: the ratchet
The principle of the ratchet.
There is a general category of motions that is capable of producing a series of sounds from one and the same continuous gesture. This is of special advantage when playing very fast.
One example of this group is when a motion, though single and complete, occurs in small segments.
We start with a gradual and uninterrupted forearm rotation. This motion is then broken up into parts by suddenly forcing the motion of the arm to come to a temporary and brief stop. The result of this stopping is that the inertia of the rotation, like water accumulating behind a dam, increases rather than decreases the force bent on continuing the motion.
At each such stop, one note is sounded, and then the rotation is permitted to continue. This sequence of stopping the motion and then quickly continuing it, continues until the full course of the rotation is covered. Depending on how one divides up the motion, the overall rotation will produce a series of notes ranging from a minimum of 2 to 3 notes to a maximum 8 to 12 notes.
The virtue of this procedure is that instead of making one motion per note, we have something that is more like one continuous motion that we attempt to resist.*
Each time the overall course of such a motion is temporarily arrested, the forward momentum that has built up until that point is first diverted into the production of a new note or sound. Once that note has begun to sound, there is no longer any need for the restraint of the continuation of the overall rotation. The note itself has acted like a brake or stoppage of the motion. The more this stoppage persists the more a force builds up, like water behind a dam, until the motion forces itself to spill over the blockage (the note) and continue.
I call this type of overall motion that is broken down into a series of interruptions a “ratchet” like effect, after the rapidly repeated sounds made by the percussion instrument of the same name.
In future blogs I want to discuss many other types of motions that fall into the more general category of obtaining a series of sounds from the application of one motion (a motion that is sometimes interrupted as in today’s example, and sometimes flows continuously).
If you would like a preview list of all these motions, just let me know and I’ll post them.
* Like “pumping” the brakes of the car instead of jamming the brakes to the floor. Or like the escapement of a Swiss watch that temporarily stops the main spring from unwinding, creating the sound of a “tick” or a “tock” and then lets the unwinding of the spring continue.
Sometimes Geometry Helps
How to get from one place to another on the keyboard.
First of two entries:
The line “subtended” by a small angle can be very long.
The two-dimensionality of the keyboard discourages us from thinking in three dimensions instead of two. Getting from one location to another on the keyboard requires a motion that is as much up and down as it is side to side.
First, a geometrical digression.
An isosceles triangle is one in which two of the sides are equal in length. There is no limit to how long or short the two equal sides can be.
Imagine an isosceles triangle in which the angle at the top is where the two equal sides meet. Imagine that the top angle being very small. No matter how small this angle is, if you make the two equal sides long enough, the distance between those two sides will grow larger and larger. And if the two equal sides are long enough, the horizontal base at the bottom of the triangle can be as wide as you want. For instance, several octaves on a piano keyboard.
If I need to displace my hand from where it is on the keyboard to a position on the keyboard remote from it, I try to be conscious less on a left to right motion and more of an up and down motion in the ‘third’ dimension.
My hand travels upwards first, rather than right or left, until it reaches the imaginary vertex at the top of an imaginary isosceles triangle. Once at the vertex, I start to come back down, but on the other of the two equal sides. At the vertex I make a very small and subtle change of angle. It almost seems as if I am coming down the way I came up, but as I get closer and closer to the keyboard (the horizontal base of the triangle), I find that I am going to land in place on the keyboard a sizable distance from where I started. This has been accomplished without almost any conscious sense of sideways displacement.
In a previous blog I spoke of imaginary motion versus actual motion. Mirror neurons allow us to feel as if we are making a motion even when to the outside world we seem to remain motionless or nearly motionless. The motion upwards to the vertex angle in the isosceles triangle can feel as if you have traveled upwards quite high with your arms before starting to descend – only the outside observer will not see much motion. Your muscles however will be engaging as if doing the larger motion.
Sometimes it is necessary to escape into a third dimension, so that when you return just to the two-dimensional horizontal plane of the keyboard, it is “pregnant” with the mobility of having been in three dimensions.
This motion is an example of a more general heading of motions that help break out of the two dimensional confines of the keyboard.
The principle of the lighthouse.
Think of the beam from a lighthouse sweeping the horizon as the light rotates on a vertical axis. While the part of the physical light itself that happens to be furthest from its axis describes a circle around the axis which is measurable in feet, maybe yards, the result of this limited motion allows the beam to travel across miles of distance along the horizon line.
Now, substitute the torso of the body for the light in the lighthouse, and the extremities of the arm as a horizon. Rotational motion of the torso, measurable in inches, can cause the arms to travel along the keyboard a distance measurable in feet.
For any motion while playing, it is always best to find the point in the body that moves the least, but causes a motion of the hands that moves the most. I learned this from my second teacher, Edwine Behre, who in turn learned it from Abby Whiteside.
The Aha Moment: Muscles Working in Harmony
The Aha Moment: Muscles Working in Harmony
Rachmaninoff G Minor Prelude (op. 23 no. 5)
I think of physical habits at the piano as falling into three categories.
Category One: Movements that neither help nor hinder playing.
Category Two: Movements that facilitate and help playing.
Category Three: Movements that hinder playing.
I don’t worry too much about students regarding category A, unless their motions mask or keep them from discovering more useful motions.
I encourage or teach students any movements that fall into category B, those that facilitate playing.
At Irving’s lesson today he used a gesture that unfortunately is in the third category, motions that directly hinder the playing. It seemed to be an intentional gesture on his part, done because he thinks it helps his playing. When we would reach the point when one would normally gently release the keys after sounding a note or chord, Irving pressed further into the keys with his hands and fingers and simultaneously raised his shoulders. I think he does the latter in order to cushion the added pressure created by the former. He creates, in effect, an ‘aftershock’ to his sounding of notes. The result blocked the flow of energy down his arms. He make this gesture most often when playing a difficult passage.
We managed to instill a new motion that replaced the harmful motion and moreover achieved the purpose he was trying to achieve by using the harmful motion.
I asked him to drop his arms at his sides, and to begin rocking then swinging them forwards and backwards towards and away from the keyboard. Then I suggested that he start playing the piece again. As he did so, I started to repeat, over and over, the mantra “swing your arms … swing your arms…”. Each I time I said these three syllables, I timed them to coincide with the often repeated rhythmic pattern in the piece: two sixteenths then an eighth.
He played for a while and then stopped. In a frustrated tone of voice he said: “I don’t understand; how I can swing my arms and play at same time. Be more specific, Joe. Tell me how much I should move the arms, in what plane of action, using muscles in particular.”
I said: “Aha! This is the crux of the issue. The fact is that indeed there are too many muscles in the arms to keep track of what each one is doing.”
It is like walking. Almost the entire body is in motion. Many complex interactions of muscles are occurring. Yet, somehow they are harmonized and brought into balance with each other, and work towards the common end of moving the body forwards. If you were to try to be aware of which muscles you were using when walking you would simply cause the motion to become awkward, stilted, and un-flowing through time. But the point is that they do work together, unbidden. They act in harmony.
In this regard, piano playing is similar to walking. Enumerating what to move and when will not produce a fluid motion of the arms.
Irving: “So what can we do – what do I do?”
Joe: “Since there can be no detailed answer to your question about what, and by how much, I can only reply, just trust that any attempt you make to put the arms into any sort of motion, will lead you to more fluidity and better sounding quality while you are playing.”
After a while, Irving got it. He said: “I don’t understand how this is working, or exactly what I am doing other than thinking about motion in my arms, but I hear a difference, and I like the difference.”
In terms of its use in the playing mechanism, the elbow can easily be the forgotten part of the arm. It is remote from the hand and remote from the connection of the arm to the back. It seems “remote from the action.” However, it is of critical importance as a mediator – a negotiator between shoulder and the fingers. It is that which insures that energy coming down the arm is not blocked or detoured before reaching the fingers.
When tension occurs and mobility is reduced, the hidden cause often lies in the elbow. It will often make adaptations in its alignment, not because they are useful to the transmission of power to the hands, but because we are concentrating on our hands and wish to have the hand be in a certain position. The tension simply gets “referred” up the arm to the elbow, where we are often unaware of it. But whether recognized or not, when there is tension in the elbow, when its freedom of movement is inhibited, we sever the free connection between shoulder and fingers.
Often the elbow is doing what it “wants” to do, but is at the service of something else. How do we find out what the elbow naturally wants to do? It is actually a simple procedure. If we want to know what the right elbow is doing, use the left hand to embrace, or better, to “cradle” the elbow of the right arm. If we now play a passage with the right hand, the cradling hand will actively sense what the right elbow wants to do, or more importantly, what it is forced to do in order to accommodate an awkward hand or wrist position. It will notice when the elbow is coerced into making a sudden or jerky motion, usually to compensate for something occurring at the extremities.
If there is a sudden, unexpected or awkward motion in the elbow, we will want to smooth it out, or slow it down to make it flow. By keeping in mind that the hand and the shoulder should be two stable points between which is extended the length of the arm, then the elbow modifies its alignment and attitude to find a way of sustaining this equilibrium between the two end points of the arm. If there is a breach in the continuity of the arm, it is most likely found in the elbow because the elbow controls the motion of both the forearm and the upper arm.
Most illuminating in this regard is to play a scale or an arpeggio.
When you play a scale in the right hand, you may be surprised at what the elbow is doing as you play the scale. It compensates for, it balances out, it supports what is happening in the lower arm and hand. If a sudden lurch occurs in the elbow while playing the scale, it is easy to smooth out, especially if the left hand is there cradling the elbow (see above). The supportive hand of the left arm is, figuratively speaking, saying to the elbow: don’t worry, you don’t have to make a sudden defensive or reactive gesture, because I’m here to support, balance, and give you a grounding against which to move.
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.