A Chopin Nocturne; the Boundary Between Heard and Imagined Sound
S.B.’s lesson on 7/11/19: Chopin: Nocturne in C Minor, Op. 48 / 1.
The piece begins with two solitary c-s (c2-c3). A beat later C is joined by other notes belonging to a C Minor chord. At what point do we begin to hear or sense the full C Minor chord? We may think that one beat is not a long time. That very soon after we play c2, any ambiguity as to identity of the harmony during the first half of the measure will disappear, as the hands complete the C Minor chord on the second beat. But subjectively that first beat can last a long time. Either the pianist, or the listener already quite familiar with the piece, must imagine the rest of the C Minor chord sounding (c2–g3-ef4-g4–g5) before the second beat arrives, while only the C naturals on the first beat are still in the outer ear.
The same applies for all the other half measures in the opening. The pianist should have a pre-vision (sic) – a “pre-audition” – of the full chord in their imagination, as if it is already fully sounding into their outer ear. One of the most subtle and masterly things a pianist works with when constructing with sound is the middle ground between heard and imagined sound. Memory and anticipation are always weaving together in the consciousness of duration in time. The boundary between the two should not be fixed and definite, but blurred. What the pianist imagines has a tangible effect on what the listener thinks they are hearing.
#2. Things that can spoil a legato in a long phrase.
The first phrase is four measures long. There are several places within it where it requires increased additional focus to keep the sense of legato flow alive.
A. Measure one and the first half of measure two
The presence of a rest can indicate two very different things. One
is to force a break in a melody: to consider something as being two
separate things rather than one continuous thing. The other is to
increase the sense of connection in the melody by having to overcome
an obstacle or gap that has been superimposed upon the melody. It is
like the electric charge crossing the gap in a spark plug. It is like
water building up behind a dam. A pressure, or force, builds up
behind the stoppage of the first note which makes going on to the next
note even more inevitable and accomplished with greater momentum.
B. The first two notes in measure two
The g5 comes in as a quarter note but starts on the and of one. If
you think of this quarter note as two eighth notes tied together, the
easiest place to loose the legato is as the first half of the quarter
note ties over the end of beat one into the first part of beat two.
It is in effect a tie to connect two beats. The force of the flow of
that sound has to spill over the boundary between the two beats. It
is not enough to hear one note, but as if that note began a sudden
crescendo just prior to its second half. It is the rhythm and the
meter that forces this imaginary crescendo upon the otherwise formless
sound that lasts two eighth notes.
C. The tied d5 in measure two going to the ef5.
Immediately after the imaginary crescendo during the first d5 in
measure two, we encounter another situation which can attenuate a
continuous legato. It occurs when a relatively long note is followed
by a relatively short note. In this case the first d5 of the measure
is the longer note, lasting for three sixteenths, and the following
ef5 not only is one sixteenth long, but it also comes in after a tie. A
We normally rely on there being enough resonance left to a note to
effect a soldering of one note in a legato to the next. Otherwise the
sudden change from the end of a longer note. which has already
decayed, to the sudden attack of the next note sounds too much like an
sudden accent and defeats the attempt at the legato. To overcome this
difficulty, the pianist’s ear must track the full duration of the
longer note, instant to instant and, in their imagination, sustain
(prop up) the loudness of the note so as to counterbalance the
decrescendo of the decay. Then they must connect this heightened form
of the end of this note not to the attack of the following note but
the level of sound the next note will have a moment after the attack.
Even when it is just a short note.
D. The repeated c5-s in measure three.
When playing the same note several times in row, do we let the legato
come solely from the pedal? Or do we use the more cumbersome but
elegant way of controlling the key dip and not resorting to the pedal.
Or perhaps some of both? This is the pianist’s decision. The purer
legato is always attained by manipulating the key in question so that
at the instant that the key is released, and a minimal fraction of
inch before it reaches the top of the key dip, the arm is already
overriding the upward motion of the key with a strong downward force
to send the key down again.
E. The g4 in measure four going to the the grace note bf4.
This falls under the heading of a relatively longer note going to a relatively shorter note (see letter ‘C’ above). Pianists will often inadvertently make the legato connection occur from between the note before the grace note to the note to which the grace then goes to. The more sublime legato connection is from the note before to the grace note itself, in spite of its very short duration.
#3. Other things contributing to maintaining constancy of flow in the piece.
The way the pianist releases a chord unintentionally affect the way they
attack of the next chord. Thus, when playing the chords on the offbeats in beginning of the piece, don’t “telegraph” the release of the left hand chords into the attack that started the same chord. Regardless of the duration the pianist wishes to hold these chords (some editions show them staccato) there should be two physically dissimilar gestures, one for the attack, one for the release, with a stasis in between them.
The middle section of the Nocturne, where a series of wide chords is
arpeggiated from one hand into the other. The broken chord is
difficult, regardless of the distances between the notes and fingers,
if the chord is first rendered as a melody of single notes, starting
with the bottom note written in the left hand for that chord, and
ascending leisurely a pitch at a time until finishing the melody with
the highest note of the chord that is written in the right hand. The
pedal can be kept down. The finger that has just played one of the
notes can come off that note the moment the next finger has started
its note. This discourages over-stretching the hand when the melody
is turned back into a chord.
C. The section with double octaves.
S.B. has a small hand and was reluctant to learn the piece.
She pointed out that her fingers are hyper-flexible. Watching her
carefully as she played the octaves, I found myself wanting to say, for
the first time to a student, “You may want to not use all that flexibility.”
I called her attention to the shape of her hand and wrist when playing
an octave, in particular along the length of the fingers and a projection of that axis through the hand and wrist. Her wrist was elevated. The third knuckles of her fingers were at a lower altitude in comparison to the wrist, but because the third knuckles hyperextended to a strong degree her second knuckles were at a much higher altitude than the third knuckles.
I suggested that this contour had innate disadvantages when seeking the greatest extension between the fingers without inducing tension. That without coercing anything, she could encourage a shape from wrist to fingers that was more in the spirit of being like, or in the direction of a
straight angle. To coax her hand into that shape, she could rest the
three middle fingers on the surfaces of random keys lying in between
the pinky note and the thumb.
This improved the sound of her octaves, as well as their quality of
resonance, evenness, and her alacrity in changing from one octave to
* Often when I said I noticed a difference she did not. Sometimes it
wasn’t so much that she didn’t notice the improvement, but that the
improvement was short of her ultimate goal and desire. This time
however, she smiled and said, “Oh, that was much better, and much
More Beautiful Sounding Octaves: for the Medium-Size Hand
When I play octaves, there is a tendency, at least in my-sized hand, to have the pinkie and the thumb move towards each other when contact the keys. But it is worth sometimes practicing in way so that the tip of the pinkie as well as that of the thumb should move in a line along the longitude of their key. This requires my attention, because the hand is already spread for the octave, and the first and fifth fingers moving slightly towards each other happens naturally. Especially for the thumb it is a more natural movement. So, just once in a while, practice octaves so that those fingers move in a plane so that they go directly and horizontally towards the body in an extension of the longitude of their keys.
The muscles needed to move the thumb and pinkie in this direction move in these constrained directions require first, in the case of the right pinkie, an extreme flexion of the third knuckle, down and aimed to the right as it moves in the direction of the body, aided also somewhat by a flexion in the right side of the wrist. In the case of the right thumb it should practice its motion by slowly tracing over an imaginary straight line extending beyond the lip the key aimed towards the body. The third knuckle, where it attaches to the wrist, is prominent in keeping the thumb congruent with this line. As the motion is made the thumb is always compensating for the desire to move outwards and away from the second finger.
What to “bring out” in a Complex Passage
Debussy: First Arabesque: the conclusion to the first of the three main parts.
What is the main melody that one should bring out during the passage that concludes the first part and leads to the middle part of the piece. A.J. said that when I played it I was doing something that that made it work sound-wise but he couldn’t figure out what i was doing. He assumed that I was emphasizing one of the three layers of melodic motion embedded in the passage. I said, it is more complex than that. There are three different things going on, but no one of which, by itself, is a significant melody. it is only in the complex ways the three interact that causes the positive quality that I think you noticed. The rising quarters in the rh form a melody of no great significance. The cello=like melody in the left hand does have a singing melody, but by itself it doesn’t seem accomplish that much, as well. Then there are triplets. Are they important or not? The real question is how to bring them together in a complex fusion that makes the passage glow and excite.
To relate the quarter note melody in the right hand with the triplets in the right hand, I played gs4-b4, then held the two notes as i added in ds4, which I also held, and lastly added fs4. If at this point I continue holding those four notes and not go on in the measure, I realize, after maybe about a second, that those notes add up to a four-note chord with a specific flavor that independently of the single notes of which it is comprised, has its own specific flavor and character. I might have missed hearing this had i not stopped to listen to the chord after it was finally formed. The realization of the chord does not come instantaneously to the ear. We have to patient, and wait for the four notes to all be there (five if you add the bass line).
It is a delayed satisfaction, one that is very desirable, but one that cannot be rushed. Thus the triplets get their meaning in the sound mixture by our waiting to hear the result of total participation. Eventually, when we play the passage, he don’t have to pause on the clock to wait for the four notes to congeal, we only have to subjectively, in the imagination, make the pause, to bring the four notes to life as members of a single chord, so that, at the end time-wise, it is not any of the four notes that are significant on their own, but how they loose their identify in the sound color of the chord where they vibrate together – as equals – but to a common good.
Leverage and Sound
Chopin, Etude in C# Minor from Opus 25:
Irving’s brother came today. We wanted to get a rich cello-like / vocal-like tone out of the piano for the notes of the opening “baritone” melody for the left hand. It is in single notes without accompaniment, so it is very exposed. We need our entire sound/mechanical tool-kit to keep it resonant and sustained so there isn’t a moment’s break in the flow of the line. Their softness shouldn’t belie their resonance.
Our first exploration was with leverage, the principle being that the greater the leverage you have over the production of each sound, the more that sound approaches the ideal piano-resonance.
The effectiveness of a lever is a function of how long the lever is and where you place the fulcrum on which to rest it*. Leverage increases with the length of the lever and how remote the fulcrum is from the end of the lever that, from which in this case, the pianist initiates the motion of the lever. If, for example, the lever is solely the length of a finger, and the third knuckle is where the fulcrum is, there is little mechanical advantage to depressing the key through the motion of that lever. If the lever extends back into the wrist, and includes the finger, there is greater leverage on behalf of the movement of finger tip. So the question is, how we can create the greatest leverage with the human body.
We ended up using a curious combination of several different levers, that ended up being connected one to the other.
The length of the arm, from shoulder to finger tips, while perhaps not the longest lever we can make of the body, is a conveniently long one that is still easily manipulated.
We started by his holding out both his forearms; straight out in front of him so that they parallel with each other and were horizontal to the ground. We Left a comfortable distance between the two hands, about the same as the distance between the two shoulders.
We then had him move his arms up and down using just the shoulders as pivots. At their highest points the arms were aiming well above the horizontal, at an angle of about forty five degrees. At their lowest points the arms were just slightly below the horizontal.
Very soon, we changed it to an oscillating motion between the arms. One arm was at its lowest when the other was at its highest. And they exchanged these positions. We did this until he felt a sort of physical exhilaration from all that motion.
The next thing we did was to create a second, more imaginary, lever. At the same time the arms were moving, we pretended there was the plank of a see-saw that connects the two hands (traversing the empty space between the hands), which, as a result of the arm motions, was itself going up and down as if two people were seated at each end of the see-saw. The pivot of this imaginary see-saw was exactly half way between the hands, so that neither hand or arm had a mechanical advantage over the other – the advantages were equal.
I also had him imagine a secondary but similar see-saw between his two shoulders, as if an, albeit, small person was seated on each shoulder. We continued exercising the combination of these levers until he felt a definite exhilaration from making these motions.
We then ‘elected’ his two index fingers as the sole ‘beneficiaries’ of all the motions he was making, so that the each index finger was backed up by the entire arm and contributing see-saws.
While continuing the oscillation of the arms he used alternating index fingers to play first the opening note of the second note. The solo was no longer distributed solely to the left hand but alternately, from note to note, between one arm lever and the other. If he played the first note with his left index finger, then he played second note with his right index finger. Then back to the left index finger to sound the third note, the right again for the fourth note, and so on through the line.
During this procedure the fingers were to never loose their connection to the hand, and on to the wrist, the forearms, the elbows, all the way to the shoulders.
Sometimes the arms had to cross one another, but the more important thing was the swinging motion from one arm to the other regardless of which one was to the right or left of the other.
When he did this with physical abandon fervor, without thinking so much of the ‘proper’ or ‘usual’ way of pushing the notes down, the result, to our joint delight, was an unusually rich sound, one that he was unaccustomed to getting on single notes.
Even when consecutive notes were ‘next door’ to each, only a half step or whole step away, we did not diminish the feeling of the widest possible see-saw between the arms. In other words, while the objective distance between the consecutive notes might lessen, the subjective sense of how long that distance was always remained large.
The last step was to preserve the widest and most dynamic sense of an oscillating motion when going not just from one hand to the other, but from one finger of one hand to another finger of the same hand.
* The saying, concerning how levers work, as attributed to Archimedes, is: Give me the place to stand, and I shall move the earth.
Sometimes, it Really Is Black and White
Key signatures remain a stumbling block for certain types of students.
We were reading the middle section of the Mozart “Rondo alla Turca” – the section with the seemingly endless running sixteenths in the right hand.
If I am reading a piece in G Major, when I come to a note in a measure that that is printed on the top line of treble clef it simply doesn’t “look like” an “F” to me. It looks different, it “looks like” an “F#.” I’m lucky that way. For many students however F-s do not magically transform in appearance to F#-s.
I also carry around the inductive logic of the circle of fifths as a fixed and clear model in my mind. There is no trouble in remembering that if there are three sharps in the key signature they will be F#, C# and G#. I don’t have to examine the key signature to come to this conclusion. For many, though, regardless of experience, they have to look at the sometimes dense group of sharps or flat signs at the beginning of each line, an decipher for which line or space each is centered on, then try to remember, each one separately, to go through a check list, as it were, for each note they encounter in the piece to figure out of it is a natural or not.
These students have difficulty every developing more than a rudimentary sense of what a “key” is. They are apt to forget each time, for instance, that if there are three sharps in the key signature, they are always the same sharps, and that these F#, C#, G#.* Sometimes they will find it easier to they remember the three as C# F# G#, so at least they are sorted alphabetically. A typical question from such a type of student is “how do you know if the piece is major or minor?” “Can you tell from just looking at the notes at the beginning of the piece; or is it something to do with the sound?” Attempting to explain the answer to this question in terms of there being certain statistical likelihoods for certain notes and chords to show up in the first measures of the piece, further complicates and mystifies.
The inductive logic of the circle of fifths doesn’t establish itself firmly in their minds. They do not see an imaginary sharp or flat sign to the left of each note along a line of music, whose existence is confirms a sharp or flat that in the key signature at the beginning of the line. And practicing scales until they become automatic in the fingers seems a daunting task, as difficult and time consuming as learning entire pieces.
For many years I stubbornly retained the simple logic of he circle of fifths as the only unambiguous way of clarifying key signatures to students for whom this posed an issue. Logic, I felt, will always win out. It took a while to mature out of this notion.
At today’s lesson I chose a less elegant, a less logical, but simpler expedient. I told Rachael that my intuitive impression was that as she was reading the notes on the page it didn’t seem immediately clear to her whether the next note to play was a white note or black note. I took the first measure of the passage, and I asked her to play the passage as slowly as she needed to in order for her to say for each next note that she read, “this is a black note”, or “this is a white note”. How she determined this was unimportant, it was just the final experience of the hand on the keyboard that mattered.
This shifted the emphasis from remembering the key signature and how it applied within the measure, and raising to a higher level of conscious awareness the identity of that note as simply being a white note or a black note. There was no more key signature present. There was just the individual identity of each note as falling into the class black note or white note. If it was a black note it didn’t matter if it was written as a sharp or as a flat. Only key color mattered. The same with regard to white notes, whether their note names were naturals, or flats or sharps.
This first measure of eight sixteenth notes was just memorized as a sequence of words. Just as a binary number is a series of zeros and ones in a certain order, so the measure was a series of the words ‘back’ and ‘white’.
At first she seemed skeptical that this could work, since it seemed to beg the question of needing to know and retain in her mind the key signature. But it turned out otherwise. Now that there was only one of two things to choose about each note, and after putting in the initial downloading time it took to put the measure into this on/off, zero/one, black/white form, her confidence level in playing the notes correctly rapidly increased. She felt a certainty and a mastery over what to play. There were no questions left. No uncertainties. Just the color of the notes. She bypassed any worry about applying a ‘template’ of white and black notes, first to the key signature, and relate things from there to the notes of a measure.
*Or furthermore that the first two of those sharps are always the same as the sharps that appear when there is only two sharps in the key signature.