Tag: music technique

Poetry and Emotion

Mozart: The C Minor Fantasie (K. 475):

-the piece in general:

#1

The piece as a whole is very cohesive and organic  n spite of being made up of many small parts, parts that are very different from each other musically, tempo-wise, rhythmically, and  most of concern to the piano, requiring very different technical masteries.

#2

Some of the contrasts in the piece are vividly displayed in a way that suggests an almost tangible sense of change of orchestration, as if referencing a full orchestra, sometimes strings, or strings deepened by the  sonority of french horns, sometimes winds, sometime voices.

-the opening measures:

Of all the ways I’ve tried to start this with piece so as to achieve a sonorous, commanding sound (similar to the C-s played by the piano alone at the very beginning of Brahms Third Piano Quartet) these have worked, albeit not consistently and not every time I try them.

#1

Practice elevating the arms quite high, and then, very slowly, then lowering them back down.  Keep lowering them. past the key slip until the arms and hands are lower than the keyboard.  To transfer this feeling into actually playing the opening c-s, subjectively feel the arms descending very slowly, and be un-conscious of where, in the arms’ downward course through space, the notes start sounding.  We simply notice unexpectedly that the notes have begun to sound.  We just don’t know why. “Somewhere” in the slow descent of the arms. the sounds just begin, but we are unaware of where that happens, and when it happens.  Somehow, at some point, the fingers have depressed the keys.  We’re not even sure how fast the fingers moved to depress the keys.

#2

If we want to know for certain whether the first note of the piece is resonant enough, it is not what we hear at the onset of the sound that provides an adequate way of determining this.  It is more at being what we hear at the end of the sound or, perhaps more useful still, what we would still hear of it if it continued to sound indefinitely, with a next note happening.  It is only by delaying our appraisal of the sound of the c-s, that we can first know whether the sound had begun resonantly enough.    We are trying to make the ‘decay’ curve of the sounds occur as slowly as possible.

Unconsciousness of how we start the first sound plus waiting at least a second or two before fully listening to the sound.   How strange!  We control best the present tense by the future tense, at a point in time when arguably we should have no control of how the notes started.  This is one of the paradoxes of time that occur in many hidden aspects of music and the performance of music.

She tried first to control the sound at its onset, and then, after a pause, she tried to ‘control’ the first sound after it was already attacked.  Comparing the second try to the first, in the second the first instant of her sound was  less ‘brash’ and ‘angry’ but  the decay curve was slowed down, with the result that the duration of the sound was, as a whole, more resonant than the first time.

#3

The first measure in general.

Let us make in our body’s imagination, a subjective analogy between pitches ascending along the keyboard (I.E. movement horizontally to the right) and the pitches somehow moving upwards a vertical direction, higher and higher off the keyboard.  C is now “ground level.” The more the pitches rise through the measure, the stronger the build up of potential energy to return the notes to the ground (C).

As the pitches travel (vertically) “UP” from the C, it is as if we are trying to stretch a very strong spring, and the more we stretch it (as we go through Eb F# G and Af) the greater the resistance of the spring and the harder it is to raise the pitch any further.  When we have reached the A-flat we have exhausted our strength, and sink back down to C.  We are so exhausted that even C-natural does not stop things but we slide to new ‘ground level’ a half step below C (namely  B-Natural).

#4

Measure two. The sixteenth note followed by the sixteenth rest.

possibly Mozart’s way of insuring that the emphasis goes on preceding eighth note chord, which represents distress and tension, and not on the chord which follows it, which represents a letting go, a surcease. an emotional giving in.

-the left hand starting measure 5

So here’s the deal: you are only allowed to play one note at a time, but you must get, starting with the first left hand note,  the effect of all four notes sounding together.  These ‘sustaining’ chords assimilated from the sixteenths in the bass fructify and enrich the glow of the sound of the melody notes in the right hand.  The left hand is not simply an Alberti Bass, it generates warmth that baths the right hand.

-starting measure 10

how to control the repeated thirds in sixteenth notes in the right hand:

#1

Sometimes the ultimate form of control to get each third balanced with the next, and each balanced internally between its two notes, is the most passive method..   Sometimes when playing this passage I simply look at the notes going down and then back up.  Nothing more than to look carefully at the keyboard and witness the specific keys in each third going down and then back up.  For many of us, just watching the keys move vertically allows the body with its many subsets of muscles to perfectly coordinate among each other and achieve the desired quality, evenness, and balance among the sounds.

#2

In your imagination add a vibrato on each and every note as if the thirds were being played by the first and second violinist of a string quartet.  There is nothing you can do physically to create the effect this vibrato, a vibrato that seems to crescendo and decrescendo in warmth within the small compass of time of each sixteenth note.*

#3

The fortes in the left hand at the beginning of the measures, can suggest added warmth and emphasis more than sudden, sheer loudness.  It is the effect we get in orchestration when we double an instrument in the bass range with another instrument an octave lower.

-measure 16 and 17

…squeeze “the universe into a ball”…To roll it toward some overwhelming question,” (T.S. Elliot)/

“To see a World in a Grain of Sand” (William Blake)

Such are the microcosms formed by the first two sixteenth notes of each quarter note beat.  Within each two notes one runs the gamut of human emotions.

-measure 17 going into 18

The last three notes of measure 17 are d4-s and they sound inside a B-Minor chord (as the third of the chord).  Then, suddenly, at the beginning of the next measure, through the d4-s continue to sound,  they now appear in the setting of a G-Major chord (as the fifth of the chord).  This is no mild switch of mood.  The entire meaning and sound quality changes.  I make this contrast of chord quality as extreme as possible.  Enough that the listener truly thinks the note they are now hearing is not the same note (d4) as the note they were hearing just before.

-measure 25 going into 26

If there is a more extreme example of the last item, it is here.  Can we, in our musical imagination, hear the D major chord sounding before completing the fourth, even before completing the third, of the four repeated fs4-s that sound with the F-sharp major chord in measure.  So, when it changes to an fs4 in a new chord, a D Major chord, in one way we are very surprised (like a new day has dawned, the sun has just risen and bathed the landscape,but in another feel) but in another, harder to figure way, that somehow we had received an adumbration of that D Major chord.**

J.M said something very nice at the end of the lesson: sometimes my experience with you at lesson is more that of a master class .

* Some string players who also play piano can be seen using a finger on the piano keyboard making the same gesture as on the violin when creating a vibrato.

** A thanks to David Garner at the S.F. Conservatory of Music who, when coaching recitatives at the Bay Area Summer Opera Institute (many years ago), told the singers that when singing the last few notes that are under the control of the current chord from the harpsichord or piano, they should already be hearing those notes as if sounding together with the next chord to come.  Thank you David… : https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/David_Garner_(composer).

 

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The Effectiveness of Repetition

S.B. came for his weekly lesson yesterday.  He is an intermediate student.  The piece we worked on was Beethoven’s Six Variations in G Major on “Nel cor piu non mi sento” by Paisiello.

Variation One:

Historically, S.B. has often not had the patience to repeat a passage as often as would lead him to experience confidence in playing that passage.  Rather, he gets to a point where he thinks that he has played it often enough that the passage should already be going better, and is then discouraged that it is not getting better faster.  This derails his internal process of mastering the piece.

Joe: “We need to overhaul your practicing habits.  I would summarize the changes that are necessary as follows:

1) shorten the chunk size that you repeat in practicing until it is mastered.

2) use a touch that demonstrates a high level of confidence rather than a touch which suggests uncertainty about the notes.

3) adjust downwards your practicing tempo to support greater accuracy.

4) increase somewhat your tolerance for playing more repetitions of a group of notes as a prerequisite for attaining the degree of confidence that you deserve when playing those notes.

These four things are all tied together, the success of each depends on the all four being observed.    The failure of the passage to proceed smoothly even after a lot of practicing may not be due not to any fundamental inability, but something more subtle: a slight misalignment among the four factors listed above.   Currently you arrive at the conclusion “that I should be playing the piece better by now” but you may be speaking a bit too prematurely.  First work on equalizing the four factors above  Not by a lot but by just enough to assure further progress towards the goal of playing the passage with confidence and accuracy.  Rather than being a scenario for discouragement, it is just tweaking the four variables until things come into focus.  Instead of an un-crosable barrier, it’s just a habit in your way of practicing that needs a modest adjustment.  It is then just a matter of equalizing the variables so that their values are more in accord with one another.  Instead of coming up against a perennial state of defeat in each This failure in confidence with regard to having the ability to play new piece, you will feel a steady stream of modest gains.

More about the four variables:

#1. Definition of “chunk” size. How far do you go in the piece playing the same notes again?  Do you go from start of the movement to its conclusion?  Do you focus in on a smaller group of measures?  Perhaps just one measure?  Perhaps even just part of a single measure?  If you keep experimenting with shorter ‘chunk sizes’ you will inevitably come to one that is of the right size to ensure a sense of mastery over the notes it contains when you choose to repeat those notes, a second time, a third time, etc..

#2. “Confidence” is a subjective emotion. Some of us are bound by ethics to play in a way that sounds confident only if indeed we have mastered the passage.  I have found, with many students, that simply acting confident often increases the accuracy of the next iteration of the passage.  We didn’t have to earn the privilege of feeling confident.  We are like an actor, who is real life lacks confidence, but has undertaken a role in a play of someone who has extreme confidence.  In such a case sounding confident is only a matter of acting.  The gods are not standing in the wings waiting to punish the actor for such hubris.

S. gave a curious reason why his touch might be less even:  he thought that the result would be mechanical sounding and not musical.  I suggested that at this stage, prioritize confidence over musicality.  The goal  of playing more musically may be coming in too early in your process of learning a passage.  I propose you first want to get an even layer of notes, and then you can start allowing it to vary according to taste (it’s the part of the recipe that says “now salt and pepper to taste” – which of course may be the most crucial step).

#3. Experiment with the balance between tempo and note accuracy. It is possible that you have chosen a tempo that you think should lead to an accurate and confident rendition of the passage, only to be discouraged when you encounter difficulties with the passage in spite of the chosen tempo.  This requires a tweaking in the tempo.  Continue to gradually slow it down, and usually sooner, rather than later, you will find a match between the tempo and the accuracy of the results.

#4. Concomitant with the other adjustments you may need to increase you tolerance for repetition, but not by a lot, a minor adjustment is often all the is necessary to open the gateway to accuracy.

To summarize, chances are that the four variables is only slightly out of quilter with each other.  A major adjustment is not necessary.  For instance you do not need to increase dramatically your tolerance for repetition.  Often the new setting for each variable is close to the old one; that only a subtle adjustment to bring the four factors into balance with each other.

Over the course of the hour lesson, there were other things we incorporated into the new practicing procedure.  When repeating the same passage trick the hand into playing somewhat faster without its noticing that it is doing that.  Repeat the process as long as you can sustain the illusion.

Or, saying the names of the notes in your right hand as you are playing them.  This raises to a higher level of awareness the identity of the notes in the passage.  Or, saying out loud or to yourself your intent to play a certain notes, then pause a very brief amount of time, and then play that note as if to say “I always keep my word.”

We put these principles into practice at the lesson, which turned into a ‘practicing’ session that lasted a full hour, an hour that went by quickly and with a constant stream of self validation.  At the end of the lesson I ventured my opinion that: I don’t think you encountered the same boredom factor, from doing things over and over again, that you might usually experience at home when practicing.  If you can raise the duration of the practicing of the repetitions, so as to coincide with what you can achieve, you will be in harmony with yourself.

I try to place the emphases in different places, so it doesn’t sound as if all I’m saying is “just keep repeating this portion of the music”.  I try to make it sound like: if you shorten the chunk size, then you might be inclined to perfect that chunk, before going on to the next chunk.  It’s all ‘disinformation’, or misdirection as in the motions of the hands of a magician.

As you reduce the chunk size step by step, inversely raise your patience reducing the chunk size.

When you create a chunk that is half a measure in size, always “round it off” into the first note of the next group of notes, the next note that would ordinarily be emphasized.

When you first start a new ‘chunk’, try to remember what I said at this same stage in each previous chunk.  “Yes”. “I was sounding the notes too  tentatively for the results of my intention to register on me.”  Remember we can settle for the delusion of confidence.  As long as the other person thinks you are confident it doesn’t matter what your internal state may be.

At this juncture S.B came to a realization: “If I’m not really confident in the note I am playing, I will play it softly and tentatively, and even if it is the correct note, I am not getting as much confirmation of its correctness…my body is not feeling as much “vibration” from the note.  I said: “what I am calling confirmation and what you are calling vibration, is a crucial aspect of the process. I made the following analogy: “it’s like I gave you three different mediums out of which to make a sculpture.  One of the mediums is just soapy water, capable of forming transient bubbles of different sizes.  This wouldn’t give you much feedback as to whether you are creating a certain shape, because the shape would disappear or dissipate as you were creating it.”  S.B.: “I would have to sculpt a vessel”.  Yes, you have to sculpt it out of a material that resists and yet complies.  You are not going to sculpt it out of concrete, because that resists too much being formed under pressure.  You can’t shape it.  But if it is wet clay of some sort, then, yes, it will offer enough resistance to give you that “vibration”, as you call it, inside your hand, and between the fingers, but will also yields to your intentions. In sum, you want there to be enough ‘resistance’ in the sound to make it clear whether it has yielded to your musical intentions.

In the past I have hesitated to see all the way through a lesson like this S.B.  He gets frustrated; and I correspondingly lose heart in my goals.  Today was different.  I made a decision before we started.  If we didn’t get positive results I wouldn’t give up but would stay the course.  Although he may become bored, today I wanted to create all the circumstances for a definite practicing breakthrough.  “If you got bored, I decided to still persevere.”  Like reluctant seeds in the ground, in need of just a little more moisture in order to sprout, I wanted to give the new habits the greatest chance of establishing themselves.

S. also figured out that the rate of increase in mastering a passage might come slower if the chunk size was bigger.  And there is even a possibility that by the time you get to the end of the bloated chunk, you will have forgotten what you learned or corrected at the beginning of the chunk.  So there is actually a negative possibility of getting worse with each repetition of the chunk.  I confessed that I would find this totally demoralizing.  And I wouldn’t want to practice any more.  “I just don’t see what I’m doing wrong!”  But using today’s new tactics, negative feedback was almost eliminated.  You may be practicing at a slower tempo, undertaking smaller ‘chunks’, but you are getting more positive feedback, and this can only feel good.  And it’s not artificial feedback like the typical new-age parent who gives their child a reward for every everyday thing they do.  It is bona fide, deserved reinforcement.

At this point in the lesson we switched from variation 1 to the theme.  I said “let’s see if we can combine some of the things we were doing in variation one, and see if by any chance it all comes together quicker.  Adjust your speed downwards, but just enough to get the majority of the notes to come out correctly.

At one point he used the thumb on two consecutive notes).   I said, the main obstacle to changing to a different fingering is a stubborn resistance on the part of the pianist – they don’t really want accept the necessity of changing the fingering.  So, here, take this pencil, and put in a new fingering to try.  Note that it is not the teacher saying “change your fingering to such and such”.  It’s you yourself, overcoming your own resistance, saying I am going to find a better fingering for that passage.  You are in control and are not capitulating to someone else’s voice or even the voice of the “good” person in yourself.

Another splendid thing happened.  He played something and said: “I played it at the speed I thought I should be able to play it at by now.  Instead I will revised the speed to one that presents the highest degree of probability that I will play correctly all the notes and with confidence.”

The time of the lesson was up.  I said: maybe the main point today is that everything you are doing is under your control.

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