Playing Priority Number One: Evenness
A.B.’s lesson on 8/22/19
First, an example of a playing goal that depends in turn on evenness of sound.
Let us say we want to ‘orchestrate’ a passage, meaning that the piano must be capable of uttering a variety of tone qualities. Timbre change on the piano is most easily achieved as a secondary effect to changes in dynamic intensity of the sound. It is therefore advisable to first be able to level the tonal playing field so that every note speaks with an equal volume, regardless of its pitch range. Its duration, touch, attack, and way of connecting to the next note; all equal. Then, on this base of evenness, we can orchestrate by sculpting a ‘relief’. So, timbre and orchestration at the piano have a prerequisite evenness of sound, then that evenness can then be altered specifically.
If we make a list of important goals in our practicing, it would include both the ability to orchestrate and the ability to play evenly. However, evenness has a priority over orchestration. Some goals simply depend on first attaining mastery in some other goal. Differences among sound, including timbre, cannot be noticed in a constantly changing, uneven tonal environment.
The same dependency on evenness as a prerequisite applies to:
- Having a clearly articulated rhythm.
- Crafting the ‘shape’ of a phrase.
- Revealing the structure of a piece.
- Responding to different emotional states through sound.
Before being able to play a crescendo or a decrescendo we need to have a foreground of – evenness, that makes it clear to a listener that certain notes are getting progressively softer or louder. Anything to do with sound, rhythm, fingering, and interpretation depends first on the ability to play evenly.
Evenness is a complex amalgam of different facets.
- The way one note connects to the next.
- The loudness of the notes.
- The same quality of sound regardless of each note’s duration.
- The quality of the touch, and of the onsets of the sounds.
- The extraction of the same resonance in the sound regardless
of pitch range constant,
These evenness-es must then be combined when two hands are playing together, or whenever there is more than one voice occurring at the same time.
A.B. has a tendency to want to try perfect the tiniest details in a piece before addressing the more general and mundane matter of evenness. This prioritization doesn’t minimize the importance of the details, it just postpones their achievement for just a moment. For once the passage is even, A.B. finds that the details are more easily controlled and perfected.
Another example. Before choosing the ‘best’ fingering, be able to play the sequence of notes evenly regardless of the fingers being used. Then, the final choice of fingering is made in a more revealing atmosphere, so that the effect of the passage is not primarily dependent on the fingering but that rather the effect is clear in the pianist’s mind prior to any particular fingering.
Playing the “correct” notes would seem to be on an equal level of importance to ‘evenness’. Psychologically, though, trying to get the right notes to sound, without first demanding that they sound evenly, has the counter-intuitive effect of adding time to the process of learning the correct notes.
Once the pianist explores evenness, she or he becomes more and more sensitive to when evenness is not occurring. And with this growing awareness, the parallel question evolves: how fine a tolerance should go into setting the standard for the evenness. At what point does the evenness ‘click in’ as factor that brings a passage to life? And related to this is the question: how much of evenness is measurable on a sound meter? How much is dependent on an actual conglomeration of factors that intuitively the ear must be aware of and process?
Can You Bring Two Things Out at Once? Guiding the Listener
An advanced student with superior musicianship said at their lesson “I want to hear this passage in a certain way and part of this way is to have certain things stand out in particular. However I can’t succeed bringing them out; or at least not just the things I want to bring out.”
Number one: you haven’t leveled the playing field so that the notes that you don’t want to bring out are uniformly softer than the notes you do want to bring out. The reason they are not so, is that often you have specific but varying desires as to how loud each of these ‘background’ notes should be. You are musical, so you have specific intentions regarding each stratum of what you are playing simultaneously.
Now, in piano playing it is generally very difficult to “bring out” two different things at once, because what you do to direct attention to one is occluded in the listener’s ear by what you are doing to pay attention to the other. “Too many cooks spoil …” It is not impossible to succeed in having the listener be more aware of two things at once, when there are more than two things to choose from – it’s just very difficult. If the ‘things’ we are talking about are individual voices amid tonal polyphony, then succeeding relies less on different (or similar) degrees of loudness assigned to each of two voices. Then, it is a matter of lending an individual character to each of the two voices.
The safer course is to prioritize only one among the things you want to bring out and always direct the listener’s ear in that direction. The listener needs a clear road map as to what to listen to. The most reliable course is keeping all but the desired voice in the shade.
P.S. Once, at a masterclass, someone was playing the development section of the first movement of the Brahms second piano sonata (Op. 2). Her listeners were confused as to what was going on to the music. I asked her to explain in words ‘what was going on in the piece at that point’. She gave a brilliant verbal analysis. I then asked her whether she thought her listeners were hearing (or “getting”) all the things she just described. She assumed the answer was that they did. The listeners objected that they did not, and had no idea that the things she had mentioned were actually happening. “But they are so obvious,” she said.
Then I proposed a new tactic. Pretend the listeners are in a state of perfect nescience, or ideal ignorance. Unless you go out of your way to point something out to them, to exaggerate it, they will not recognize that that thing is happening (they will not recognize for instance that there is a series of sevenths each resolving to a sixth according to a standard species of counterpoint). So she went into the modality of lecturing about the music by playing it. Now her listeners all said, “We hear it now; we get what is going on in this development section.”
The conclusion is that sometimes, no matter the quality of the audience, sometimes you have to play things as if you are saying: “What don’t you get! Don’t you hear these things that are happening in the music?! Can I make it any more obvious? I’m already exaggerating it as it is.”
Shaping an Ostinato-like Section of Repeated Groups of Four Sixteenth Notes
S.E.’s lesson on 9/7/19: Rachmaninoff 3rd concerto. first movement: when the endless sixteenths begin after the first statement of the main theme.
There is a lot of “interlacing” of the hands. I don’t mean simultaneous interlacing, I mean within four consecutive sixteenths some may be with the left hand some may be with the right hand.
This requires laying down a foundation of groups of four clearly stated sixteenths, whose musical contour, crescendo and decrescendo, is always sculpted the same regardless of what the notes are and which hands are playing particular notes. I spoke the words “one two three four” monotonously, over and over, as S. played through the passage. This should be done prior to any attempt at phrasing. The one of the four should always sound like the first of a group of four. The two of the four should always sound the second of a group of four. Etc.. This establishes first an unyielding base, over which the more musical details can then flicker and modulate.
While doing this first phase it was noticeable to me exactly where his playing of a sixteenth note was not exactly together with my count. At today’s session, this took place mostly with the placement of the two following upon the one, of the four sixteenth note groups.
As a way of ‘shading’ from the first stage (mechanically and
metronomically) to stage two, where music ideas played over that surface of rigid evenness, I started counting, not mechanically or in an uninvolved or apathetic tone of voice, as if it were my job, or duty, simply to count evenly, but with shaping, phrasing and expressivity in my voice. I made this transition without abandoning the syllables “one”, “two”, “three”, “four”. I “rounded” each spoken four note group into a resonant, glittering shape. But rather than shape the phrase in response to inner meaning of each group of pitches, I was more at using a “one size fits all” (one shape fits all) method. My voice was full of emotional expression but it was as if each time I repeated the four syllables, it was less a repeat, but more at an attempt to perfect one, constant, musical shape.
Stage three is to let the two meanings blend, the more idealized emotional and structural content of each perfectly shaped group of four, and how each group different from the others in terms of musical meaning when one added the specific pitches Rachmaninoff chose. The most convenient analogy for what the result is, is seeing an early Italian Renaissance painting by a master, in which the body, for instance of the Virgin, is fully clothed, but the folds of the drapery of the clothes perfectly intimate the shape of the body beneath it.
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.