Tag: music theory
Flow, Versus a Sequence of Separate Notes
H.P’s lesson on 8/13/19 Menuet from Ravel: Tombeau de Couperin
Joe: “Our recent work has focused on flow versus the pointillism of
notes. As we go on today, let’s use two very restricted definitions of
these two terms, ‘Notes’ will simply mean knowing what notes to play
at the next moment and ‘flow’ will simply mean getting to those notes
from the preceding notes without even the most minimal of hesitation.
For many pianists it is a long held view that they must master the
“notes” before attempting the musical qualities of the piece, the
latter of which includes the manner of flow of the sounds through
Depending on the student I have been known to reject this premise on the ground that unless the musical qualities of a piece enter into our intuition of the piece at the beginning of the learning process, by the time the pianist masters the notes, the musical characteristics of the piece have suffered from neglect to the point that it is now hard to install or instill this musicality into the slow setting cement of the notes only.
What I am pleased to notice is how lately you have been working from “both ends at once,” gains in note accuracy are bootstrapping gains in musical flow, while at the same time working for the flow is bootstrapping note accuracy. You have found a way to working simultaneously for both goals, and thereby leaving the question of “which came first, the music or the notes”, into the category of similar questions like “which came first the chicken or the egg.”
About a third of the way into the lesson we focused on the middle section of the movement and in particular who to connect one chord with another without any break in the flow of the sound. Joe: “we must make ourselves take responsibility for never allowing any a break in the sound flow. What I am hearing when you play this passage are periodic, brief hesitations before continuing on to the next chord.. You seem to exert a lot of focus and energy on playing a group of chords with good continuity of sound, but then need to take a pause to recharge your batteries. It is as if to say: “I’ve been working very hard, physically and mentally, through these last few chords, I need a break.”
When we take that pause, we push the question of the flow temporarily out of our consciousness and awareness. We do not notice that we are pausing. It exists in a momentary blind (sic) spot brought on by fatigue. The question is whether the listener hears the pause, notices that we are momentarily clinging to the current notes before going on to the next notes.
The answer is that they always know though in different ways and to different conscious degrees. Some not only hear the pause but are upset at the application of the brakes to the flow, and have a difficulty in reestablishing their attention afterwards. For others the reaction is more subconscious. For some reason, of which they are not aware, there is a slackening in their attention to the music, which just happens to occur at the same point in the score where the pianist has broken the flow. For some the reaction is even less actively conscious. They will not notice the hesitation in any way as it happens, but further on in the piece they notice that their emotional reaction to the music has taken a negative turn. They will ascribe this to either the piece itself, or their inability to listen sensitively to the music.
The pianist’s ears must always be on “sentry duty”, otherwise it increases the likelihood that they will not notice deviations from the constancy of the sound flow. When this happens the sound flow can become distorted. knowing and being on alert is the best way to prevent something happening in the first place.
Some necessary connections will always seem un-doable to us; just beyond the realm of the possible, as will some of the chord connections in this middle section. Without going into the specific physical procedures to make these connections easy (something which usually forms a large segment of my teaching), it may be enough simply to say to yourself “I must do this”, “there is no option but that it has to happen smoothly”. And if we leave ourselves no way out, the body discovers the solution for itself, without conscious awareness by us of the how. Most of us when practicing a difficult group of notes will suddenly play it once the way we want it to sound. We also have experienced that trying to repeat this success often fails. We don’t learn the right way through repetition. Nonetheless we should pause after the successful rendition and absorb the very important fact that we are capable of doing it. It may be too early in the learning process to be able to reproduce it whenever we want. The one success is enough, however, to open the path to a confident discovery of the recipe for the solution. I can try to accelerate this progress by explaining or demonstrating to the pianist what things were happening physically when it came out correctly. The problem with any explanation though is that regardless of the teacher, some part of the solution remains unconscious to that particular teacher, and is therefore left out of the explanation.
A timely aside:
There is a peculiar blending of time tenses that occurs when we try to maintain the flow of the sound through obstacles in its path. When we are about to play a challenging connection, we should, at the same moment, already be hearing that connection happening, and furthermore, evaluating whether it happened without any signs of interruption. Looking at this a little more closely, the present tense is transmuted, in part, to the past tense (if our imagination is already hearing it). The immediate future is prematurely transmuted into part of the present tense. And the somewhat less immediate future (as we evaluate or notice that it flowed well) is made part of a bloated present tense. Beyond this I can only say that this weird stew of time tenses it is one of the fundamental mysteries of time in the consciousness of the performing musician.
Ornaments, and the Seeming Length of Quarter Notes
A.B.’s lesson on 8/8/19
Prelude in Eb Minor, Book I.
Interpreting the rhythmic notation in this Prelude and its reliance on half note beats rather than quarter note beats.
In this Prelude the difference between the shortest duration notes and
the longest duration notes spans an unusually wide variety of
intermediate rhythmic values. The shortest duration note is the 32nd
note as in measure 38. The longest a dotted whole note in measure 40.
This wider than usual range may have been one factor in Bach’s choice
of half note beats rather than quarter note beats.
Historically, with the passage of the centuries, a note like the whole
evolved from being a note of relatively shorter duration on a clock to
a note of a longer duration on the clock. Reflecting this change is
the difference between the older name for a whole note, that of
“semibreve”, or half of a brief note, to whole note, which is more at
suggesting the nature of a “whole which is the sum of the parts”.
During this historical process, at no time, did a whole note equal
anything more or less than the duration of two half notes (assuming a
constant tempo). The RATIO of durations between rhythmic note values
(quarter to half, half to whole, whole to half, etc.) has always been
While this relative ratio never changed, the ‘absolute’ values of the
notes, on the clock, as the decades and centuries passed, underwent a
sort of slow continental drift, making the difference in absolute
values get further and further apart from each other, each note itself
becoming longer and longer. A note originally intended to portray a
subjectively short duration in consciousness, grew and grew in until in
our century it is usually meant to portray a much longer duration on
the clock. Other notes grew similarly, only they kept their fixed
ratio of duration when looked at from one to another.
A thirty-second note would not have even shown up on the chart at the
time when whole notes were ‘semi brief’, the thirty seconds lay beyond
the horizon, out of radar range, existing only mathematically in the
realm of possibility, perhaps coming to tangible existence sometime in
In addition to the whole note being called ‘semi’ (in the sense of shorter than) a ‘brief’ note, the following notes all had names that reflected the
fact that a various times each one in turn had a name suggesting
Whole note semibreve semi brief, shorter than a short note; half note minim the least or most minimal duration; eighth note quaver a quiver, single flutter of a bird’s wing; sixteenth note semi quaver less than the briefest flutter – almost undetectably short; thirty-second note demi-semi-quarter shorter than the shortest of the shortest
The original name for a quarter note, which was ‘crotchet’, had more
to do with its visual appearance than its subjective duration (possibly a “hooked” note – the hook I’m assuming being the stem).
Of course, all of this is varied by the ‘tempo’. No note, at any
historical time, had a fixed duration. A fast tempo would render, for
example, a sixteenth note, into a note of very short duration, while a
slow tempo will take the same sixteenth notes, and stretch its
One might imagine a line of notes from long to sixty-fourths, and
over the centuries the “Ancient of Days” acknowledges, or anoints,
first one than the next, with the epithet “you are the shortest of
notes in duration”.
With such a wide range of durational values to choose from, it is
sometimes difficult to maintain a single, even tempo through out the
piece, especially when rhythm switches back and forth from relatively
longer notes (whole notes and longer) to relatively short notes
(sixteenth notes and shorter).
Let us assume that as the pianist you are counting out loud while you
are playing this prelude, and your particular goal is to use the voice
to steady the tempo. One way in particular of defining this goal is
to say that no quarter note, anywhere in the piece, is longer or (in
particular) shorter than any other quarter note in the piece.
Many people encounter difficulties counting out loud and coordinating
the notes with the spoken counts. There is however one sure fire
principle to help things along. Be suspicious if you notice that your
voice momentarily fades out while playing. This is almost always a
sign that there is uncertainty about the rhythm at that moment. It
usually occurs when shifting to longer notes from shorter notes or vice
You need only to be aware enough of the sound of your voice to hear
that it is fading out or disappearing altogether. You can reliably
assume that these are the moments when your tempo has sped up or
When the rhythm in the prelude switches from sixteenth notes or
thirty-second notes abruptly to quarter notes or half notes, an almost
‘existential’ crisis may develop in the player’s mind. The quarter or
half notes seem to be unusually long, almost “too” long. They seem
naked and alone and want to cover up their full duration by a bit of
shortening. “No, these notes couldn’t possibly be meant to last as long as this”. The result, without usually being conscious of its happening, are that the longer notes speed up. In fact, the longer the pianist holds out the note, the faster an inward tension builds up urging the note to end so that the next note may start.*
It is like, in special relativity theory, the player’s local clock,
when traveling faster relative to another observer, goes through a
relativistic shift compared to the slower observer. To this observer
the notes seem to grow shorter and shorter, while to the pianist’s
observations are that no apparent change in duration has occurred.
What can the pianist do to ameliorate this situation? After all, it would be awkward to have a metronome loudly ticking on the piano when
performing the work.
There are several things that can be done by the pianist on a
subjective level to keep the tempo even. They share the common idea
of the longer notes being subdivided mentally into a string of shorter
When playing quarter notes, for example, sixteenth notes can be felt
to be pulsing inside the quarters. The outside observer may not hear
these separate sixteenths, but they are quite vivid to the performer,
so much so that the pianist can ‘hear’ the sixteenths as vividly as the
Here is one particular technique that I use at lessons. As soon as
you the pianist’s voice is about to loose its certainty in
enunciating the counting syllables, have the pianist try eliding,
that is, prolonging the sound of one syllable into the beginning of
An example. If, in a particular measure, the voice falters or fades
out, at just the time when the pianist is supposed to say the counts
“three and four and”, do as follows.
Change the word “three” into a series of three separate elongated
sounds (thhhhhh, rrrrrrr, and eeeeeee), Moreover, have each of the
each sound gradually morph into the next
(“thhhHHHH->rrrrRRR->eeeeEEE). And, if we prolong the “eeeeee” sound
right up to the boundary with the word “and”, then the entire third
beat becomes (voice-wise):
Doing this serves a double purpose. It makes the pianist more, rather
than less, aware of the sound of their voice when counting out loud.
Secondly, if a count is parceled out among a series of short duration, this system of counting and eliding allows the pianist to keep better track of when exactly each shorter note is supposed to begin and end.
What about ornaments. Should we add them in right from the start?
Every rhythm, whether or not that an ornament, can be reflected through a prism that will separate it into smaller component rhythms. each
component rhythm sheds light on the printed rhythm both musically and
in terms of physical ease of execution.
Let us take a banal example: four quarter notes.
Using these abbreviations:
w = whole note
.h = dotted half note
h = half note
q = quarter note
And by tying together certain of the quarter notes to others, we find
these rhythms ‘inside’ the four quarter note rhythm.
h q q
q q h
and by subdividing certain of the quarter notes we find these rhythms
as well ‘inside’ the four quarter note rhythm.
e = eighth note
e e e e e e e e
h e e e e
e e e e h
Each has its own sense of pulse and emphasis. The ideal rendition of
the original rhythm (q q q q) would reflect the special properties of
each and every one of the sub rhythms.**
#2 Ornaments in particular:
The first thing to do is leave out the ornament entirely, Simply hold
out the single note out that the ornament is applied to. Hold it for
its full written value. This accustomed the body to the exact duration in which the various notes of the ornament will unwind through time plus any remaining duration of the main note. Adding in the notes of the ornament later, feels to the body like filling in a pre-made compartment of time.
The next step is to actually play the ornament without any rhythm to
it at all, or in effect, with every note of the ornament held for the
same duration as every other. And, at the same time, elongating that
common duration, so that the ornament will sound like a slow melody.
Expanding the ornament into a lyrical melody is related to what we
said above about rhythms containing rhythms, plus its reverse: that
smaller rhythms join or fuse together into larger rhythms (in our
case, until the ornament turns into one held note whose duration is
the sum of all the shorter notes plus the written note). Or to misquote a favorite satirical poem in biology and bacteriology books: big fleas have little fleas, and little fleas or littler flees, and so on to infinity.
As we proceed on towards playing the complete ornament, begin by
combining groups of notes in the ornament together into just one held note. Then stage by stage add in more of the details of the ornament. Each stage
nestles inside or embedded into the previous stage.
* Sometimes this anxiety increases exponentially with time rather than
** It is like the color of a star. It may be emitting light at many
different frequencies (or colors) but the predominant effect of all of
them together is a single color.
Details on Solving Technical issues in the Chopin Etudes. Part two.
Continuing entries about the Etude in C Sharp Minor: Op 10, No. 4
- Op 10 / 4 : measure 8
What is the theoretical limit of playing a series of notes as fast as
possible? The faster they go the more they approach being sounded
simultaneously, with no time duration between the beginning of
one note and the beginning of the next note.
To attain maximum velocity we should not begin at a slower speed from
which point we gradually increase the tempo. Rather, it is best to begin
at the opposite end of the spectrum, causing the notes to begin
simultaneously, from which point we can then back off very slightly to
create a state just bordering on simultaneity, a slightly “blurring” the oneness of sound, if you will.
It is like a beginning, younger student who is asked to play for the first time a C major triad (c4-e4-g4), who is not yet coordinated enough to sound
them simultaneously. They try to play the notes simultaneously but
unintentionally add a discrepancy so that the notes do not all come
out together. Their intent is still nonetheless simultaneous, only a
slight error has been introduced. There is no intention to play them
staggered. The more experienced student can also intend to play the three notes simultaneously but then, in a spare compartment of consciousness, let in a slight deviation, one that in no way negates the original strength of the overall will to play them simultaneously but introduces the bare hint at sequentiality.
In this measure of the etude we will use little bursts of extreme
speed that can later be concatenated.
Take the first two sixteenth notes in the right hand, e4 and fx. Rather than trying to play them very fast, play them as if your intention is to play them simultaneously – yet secondarily introduce a little tremor in your hand that, without loosing the intention of simultaneity, causes the first note to sound like an ephemeral, almost non-existent grace note to the second note.
This can be repeated for the second pair of sixteenths (ds4 gs4).
At that point see if you can fuse the first four notes, as if the
physical mechanism is fully committed to playing them simultaneously, only the pianist unintentionally “goofs” slightly. Barely misses the mark. The hand comes down simultaneously, as if to play one note but four emerge to the ear. And the perception of time it seems to take to enunciate the four notes should feel physically, and consciously, no different than the time taken to enunciate a single note.
The same procedure can be used with sixteenth notes 5 through 8 (fx
through b4). We now have two groups of four sixteenths travelling at
extreme speed. At this point we fuse those two groups of four into
one group of eight: one gesture, one single tremor in the arms.
- op 10 / 4 : measure 13 : the first two notes in left hand
Change the fs2 to an a2. Then rapidly go back and forth between es2
and a2. The purpose of changing the higher note is to widen the span
bridged by the two adjacent fingers. These adjacent fingers are now far
apart enough that one can implant an imaginary shunt or see-saw to connect them, one whose ends rest on surface between the finger tip and first knuckle of each of the two fingers.
Once in place, imagine a pivot point midway across the shunt, bridge, or see-saw. This pivot point causes one side to go down if the other goes up.
The right hand can get into the act to help the left hand. Choose two
fingers from the right hand, one each to help depress one of the keys under
the two adjacent fingers of the left hand that are playing the es2 and the a2. Use these two “helping” fingers of the right hand to keep the left hand fingers moving steadily and at a high velocity.
Then compress the interval spanned by the two left hand fingers from
five steps to just the one half step written. This act of compressing
is not to be felt as instantaneous but as a process by which the action of the
imaginary lever between the fingers is not diminished in any way but
through compaction is exaggerated.
- Op 10 / 4 : measure 16 : starting on beat 2
The descending scale-like passage in the left hand.
- Play the left hand notes up through the fs3 and then continue to hold
the latter. While holding the fs3 play, with the thumb, g3 then f3,
Then continue on with the written notes to the cs3 (with the third
finger). Hold the third finger down on the cs3 while the thumb plays
the series of notes d3, c3, and b2.
Then play on to fs2 with the fourth finger, and while holding it down
play, a2 g2 f2 e2.
2. The second thing I can do is to gently spread the right hand over the
left hand. Lightly press it, in its entirety, against the entire left
hand. This as a way of insuring that the left hand remains close to
the keyboard. The interaction between the two contrary forces
resulting from 1) the left hand fingers trying to rise upwards between note
attacks (so that they can descend again onto the keys), and 2) the
right hand resisting the first by balancing it out with pressure
downwards, has the cumulative effect of keeping the left hand in
balance, and increasing rather than diminishing the force of the
fingers moving downwards to depress the key.
Pantomiming helps this process along. Because without the other fingers
having to make with the key surfaces I can practice extending the
thumb even further downwards from the rest of the hand in order for
the fingertip to make contact with the keyboard.
Alternatively, use the right hand to raise the left wrist higher off the keyboard, enough to necessitate that the thumb of the left hand has to extend further downwards from its third knuckle in order to reach the key surface.
3. As the left hand scale moves further and further leftwards from the center of the keyboard, the right hand, if acting as the helping hand, can guide and urge the left hand to the left. Furthermore, as the notes get further from the center of the keyboard, it urges the left hand to move more and more rapidly to the left. This is to compensate for what I call the tangent-circumference principle: the further the arm gets from a position directly in front of the torso, the further the motion of the arm, using the shoulder as a pivot point, wants to take the hand further and further away the keyboard and inwards towards the body.
For the arm naturally wants to describe the circumference of a circle, whose radius is the length of the arm from shoulder to finger tips. If we measure the length on the keyboard from one octave to an adjacent octave, then that measurement will progressively shrink in comparison to, or in ratio with, the length the hand would travel along the circumference of the circle, as the left hand generally moves leftwards.
Thus to cover the same distance on the keyboard there has to be an increasing velocity to the leftwards motion of the left hand to make up for the disparity between the length of the straight line of the keyboard and the length of the arc of the circle. By making this compensation in velocity, the left hand doesn’t get caught off-side and out of balance.
- Op 10 / 12 : measure 22 and measure 25
One of the “joys” (sic) of old age is that I have developed what is
medically called an “essential tremor” (the term sounds somewhat worse
than the actuality). My hands and my fingers intermittently shake.
There are times when it is necessary to move the pinkie of my right
hand to the right, away from the remaining four fingers of the hand.
The tremor acts up in this situation. I needed to find a way to
stabilize the pinkie and thus regain control of its motion. The
solution that was most closely available was to lay my fourth
finger on top of the pinkie. This entailed having to move the pinkie and fourth finger somewhat towards each other until the first knuckle of the
fourth finger was juxtaposed with the upper surface of the nail of
the fifth finger. These fingers, acting as one, created a very strong and solid lever with which to depress the key that the pinkie was supposed to play by
- Op 10 / 4 : measure 28
Here I try something different than grouping the notes so that the
pitch ascends from the first to the fourth note of each group.
I take the quarter note triad and play it four different times, as
four sixteenths, so that two hands work simultaneously within the
duration of the beat. I do the same for the notes falling within each
of the following beats.
At the end of each group, as the third finger segues to the fourth
finger, I use the muscles within the third finger to remotely pick up
the thumb and deposit it on the note it plays on the next beat. This
insures that the thumb remembers to move rightwards at this moment in
time in addition to the other fingers moving rightwards.
- Op 10 / 4 : measure 30
Physical and Sonic “Glue” for tying the notes together.
An example of using “physical glue” (an explanation of which can be
found using the front page search feature. Practice going from the c5
with the fourth finger at the end of the second beat, to the same c5
played this time with the thumb at the beginning of the third beat.
And an example of “Sonic Glue” (an explanation of which also can also be
found using the front page search feature. There are two f-sharps, fs5
on the third beat with the third finger, and fs4 with the first finger
on the fourth beat. Let the ear give preference to the fact that both
of these notes sound like F-sharps, rather than sounding like two different F-sharps (separated by an octave).
- Op 10 / 4 : Measure 31
I find that I loose alacrity in enunciating the sixteenth notes when
there is an interval of a third between one note and the next, I.E.
between the second and third sixteenth of each beat. I can take those
pair of notes and turn them out “on a lathe” by repeating the two
notes over and over again until till they attain the right speed and
without any change or distortion to that speed.
- op 10 / 4 : measure 42 through measure 44
For when the thumb articulates a note followed immediately by the pinkie
articulating a higher note. This is an example of an extra strong rotational motion anchored by the thumb and designed to slap the entire hand over the pinkie note.
Put the thumbs down on the two notes that they are to play. Then
anchor the lengths of the thumb solidly along the lengths of their
keys. Then, without loosing equilibrium, rotate the thumbs along their
longitude at the same time using them as an axle on which to rotate
the remainder of the hand. The latter will raise as a unit higher and
higher off the keyboard until they are as close as possible to being
vertically arrayed over the thumb – but without any straining.
This may be a coincidence, but when I rotate the axle of the right
thumb clockwise, in order to bring the rest of the fingers back in
contact with the keys, my elbow wants to lead this overall motion by
descending rapidly as far downwards as it can go to lead the thumb
- op 10 / 4 : measure 79 and 80
In measure 79, once I play the thumb for second repeated cs4, I can smother the elbow downwards to smother the other fingers downwards onto their keys, through the fourth finger on cs5. Then the elbow lifts quickly; only
to smother down the next group of fingers on their notes in the next
In measure 80, when the thumb lands on cs6 (the third note of the
measure), I combine a longitudinal axle rotation of the thumb –
counterclockwise this time – with the thumb pulling the other fingers
towards it and then over it.
MORE BLOG ENTRIES ON SOLVING TECHNICAL DIFFICULTIES IN CHOPIN ETUDES TO FOLLOW IN ANOTHER COUPLE OF DAYS.
Opus 10 / 4
An Unbroken Persistence or Continuity of Sound
J.M’s lesson around Friday June 14, 2019 on the Beethoven “Andante Favori”
#1. The beginning of the piece.
Stated ideally there should be no difference between, on the one hand, playing and sustaining a single chord throughout the first measures of the “Andante”, and, articulating all the written notes (in their written rhythms). It is as if the latter “lived inside” the former, but that the former is where the unbroken continuity of the sound comes from.
At first these two ways of playing the opening will strike the pianist as sounding extremely different. There will be a constant feeling that something is missing in the former that can only be supplied by the latter. However, by making several “side by side” (sequential) comparisons of the former with the latter, the perceived difference between the two will gradually seem to subside, as the former begins to inhabit the latter, and
the latter seeks the stability of the former.
The goal is to play the written passage with an absolute connectivity of sound, sounds that fuse together in spite of time, which in turn brings on changes in pitch and rhythm.
It is perhaps more realistic to say that former and latter are descriptions of two ideally defined end points of a continuous spectrum of possibilities that lie between the stasis a single, enduring chord, and the interruptiveness, or disjointedness, of one single note replacing another.
At the beginning of the lesson J.M. was too close to the latter end of the spectrum, and we wanted to seek a position more in the middle, that preserved the best qualities of both ends.
What we’ve said about the opening measures of the “Andante Favori” can
apply as well at any point along the course of the piece. While playing through the work, as soon as one feels they are loosing the connectivity in the flow of sound, perhaps attained in the earlier measures of the piece, as soon as one hears that the measures begin ‘breaking up’ disjointed parts, one can form a new series of side by side comparisons of the two extreme
states, bringing them closer together, until even changes in rhythmic values from longer notes to sixteenths or thirty seconds. Still, feel that they emerge out a non-change, a constancy, a prolongation of the fabric of sound-as-sound.*
Here is a tip on how to bridge the gap between the two ends of the spectrum: disruption and continuity in sound. Take the first chord of the piece and repeat it exactly, in the rhythm of the opening passage. Instead of changes in pitch, only rhythm remains, with a droning over and over of the same chord. When repeating the chord, do not let its sound ever disappear. Play the notes of the chord in the balance (or aftertouch) of the keys so that each new intonation of the chord fits, like a tongue and groove, into a prolongation of the previous chord. An unabated, yet murmuring sound.
#2. The measures with ascending and then descending parallel thirds
in the right hand.
Play c2-c3–c4-c5 and hold it. Once that sound is imprinted on the musical memory, imagine that that is all you hear when playing the written notes. All the thirds seek their home in this prolonged unison. I held her right arm, pressing downwards with medium pressure: so something physical was constant that underlay the changes that were happening in pitch and rhythm.
I said: if you were able to play all the thirds at once, creating a cluster based on an extended C-major scale, that cacophonous cluster could or would act as a model for the constancy of sound that persists and underlies the activity of the changing thirds which show up as an archipelago of islands in that sea of sound.
* The pure presence of sound: what is left to sound when one discounts the pitch of the sound, its loudness, timbre and duration.
Shifting Perspective to Play Easier
Albeniz: Orientale (At A.B.’s lesson of 6/20/19)
A.B. begins his process of learning a new piece by getting ‘hooked’ on
a detail: what did Albeniz mean here, near the beginning, by joining
two sets of notes with a slur mark but, under the first of the two puts a staccato – it is illogical. He’s seen the staccato on the second of two notes under a slur but never the first.
I get instantly trapped into his way of framing the issue. So I come up with a spread of possible explanations ranging from general comments about the inexactitude of that part of music notation that doesn’t deal with pitches and rhythms, to a mistake by the printer. The latter A.B. corrects: but, he says, it is a Henle edition and the edition is based directly on Albeniz’s manuscript. Being thus cut off at the pass, I attempt to turn his entire process upside down. Why don’t you, I said to him, start with the effect of the piece as a whole. Once that effect is clear to you, extrapolate from this
overall effect to any specific detail you happen to pick up. Make a judgement about that detail that keeps it in line with the overall mood and effect of the piece.
He becomes fixated on the different possible ways of playing the repeating D minor chord at the opening. It is too big for his hand. Should he roll the chord? Play the top note with the right hand? Meanwhile, over inside my head, the only thing I am noticing, as he tries one technique after the other, is that at no time does he effect a balance and unity between the notes of the chord and the notes of the upper melody. Eventually I say this: listen instead to the effect of the d4 (at the beginning of the melody) with the d2, a2 and f3, in the chord that sounds with it. Do all four notes unite into a
balanced, D minor chord? And the same question about the second melody note, the e4, and the chord that is still sustaining. Would anything be gained by keeping your ear on the formation of these overbraced chords between all the notes in both hands, both when the melody in the right hand has a chord tone in its melody and when it has a tone of embellishment. Hear the latter, as being the latter: a purposeful dissonance adding to the richness of the complexion of the chord.
A way of snaking up on this effect is to separately practice the connection between just the d2 and the e4 in the melody. Additionally, if you care to, practice the connection between the a2 (extracted from the chord) to the e4 in the melody (or the same for the f3 and the e4). When A.B. tried this, suddenly all the other problems which he had both went defined and then worried about, went away.
As in number 1, above, often the solution to a perceived problem lies in a shift of perspective, an approach coming from an entirely different point of view than first used. We get stuck with our way of perceiving a problem in our playing the piece, and magnify rather than eliminate the problem by focusing in greater and greater detail on problem as seen from this perspective. Yet often has to wave an arm and dispel the view one has of the passage. To form a new perspective on so that it appears in a totally new light.
There are in this piece frequent passages in which a note is held in the bass while the remaining fingers of the left hand in conjunction with different combinations of fingers in the right hand play a series of parallel triads (often in inversion).
As is his wont, A.B. searching for the fluidity of connection between these triads in the fingering that he is using. I suggested a shift of point of view. Think, I said, of the enunciation of each triad as being broken down into two distinct parts. One is the physical action causing the onset of the sounds of the triad, and the other, a separate, equally specific physical action causing, at a specific moment after the first, the release of those sounds. It is as important that the three sounds of the triad terminate at exactly the
same moment in time as each other, as it is for them to start at exactly the same moment. Without the terminating motion, the different fingers playing the triad all have their own habitual way of letting go of their sound.
Suddenly fingering was no longer an important issue. We had side stepped it. Releasing the notes of the triads at a specific moment unconsciously caused him to control what fingering he was using on each next triad.* The way the pianist ends a triad unconsciously controls the physical way they start the next triad.**
* In the case of number #3. we also experimented with making a single motion (a “heel-toe” motion ***) to play two consecutive triads. This
falls under the heading of the principle of the using the fewest possible motions to execute the largest series of notes.
** Two additional and semi-related points came up while working on
this passage of parallel thirds.
#1 There is a basic difference in effect between a legato achieved
through the use of the pedal and one achieved without the use of the
pedal. It is always best to practice a legato first without pedal: as
best as you can effect it, even when the composer has indicated in the
socre the use of the pedal to sustain one sound into the next. We
want to hear the legato is its purest state before dealing with all
the extra ramifications sound-wise of adding the pedal. Then, feel
free to add the pedal – as much as you want. Just be aware that the
heart of the legato resides in the use of the muscles throughout the
body as well as in the fingers in particular.
#2 on Henle page 1, line 4, measure 2, When one of the fingers playing
the current triad has to, en route to the next triad, ‘dislodge’ from
its current position one of the other fingers playing the current
triad. Feel as if the former finger is able to exert a pressure
through a vacuum to cause the other finger to move out of the way.
*** I refer you here to my forthcoming blog “two or more notes from
one continuous gesture through time”. Among the gestures described is
the one that I refer to here under the nickname of “heel-toe” (a
borrowing from organ foot technique).