How to Physically Relax: Chopin Edition
S.B.’s lesson on 8/3/19
-Nocturne, Op 48 / 1, in C Minor
Eliminating tension from the playing mechanism.
Any tension, in any muscle, versus a buoyant physical state, impedes
the alacrity with which one can play any passage.
How can we most effectively deal with tension once it exists in the
It tends to be easiest to be relaxed when first starting a piece.
With each succeeding note of the piece there is the possibility of a
subtle but continuous rise in tension.
Because the rate in increase of tension can be very gradual we may not
be conscious of it. By the time we are usually aware of it there may
no longer be a “way out”.
A relevant question is: how many notes can you play through before
tension sets in? Is it just a couple of notes, or a measure, a couple
of measures, through an entire long phrase, through a major section of
the piece, etc.?
If we can come up with a procedure whereby to rid the body of tension,
is there a way we can activate that procedure periodically, regardless
if we do or do not perceive that there is tension at that moment in
We want to find a procedure that restores relaxation, regardless of
what degree of tension my at that time be present. The procedure
should insure sudden relaxation versus gradual relaxation.
A preliminary exercise:
I ask S.B. to play a comfortable chord (she chose the chord
d4-fs4-a4-d5). I asked her to let the chord continue to sound. While
holding it, before changing any of the notes, I asked her to practice
ADDING tension until there was great tension throughout her body. We
started with the fingers, then added the hands, arms, etc.. She was
now gripping the chord in a panicked way – holding on for her life.
We exaggerated the tension, beyond what might exist in the middle of a
piece after tension had grown over a prolonged period of time without
our having been aware that it was happening. In our preliminary
exercise we have simply shrunk the period of increasing tension, until
it is obvious that it was happening.
That is part one of the preliminary exercise – suddenly and
overwhelmingly increasing the tension.
The next phase is, while still holding the chord, to eliminate the
tension in noticeable stages until the tension is gone. Through
repetition the time it takes to undo the tension gradually shrinks,
until it happens in as short a time as would elapse in performance
between one note and the very next note.
These are the two complementary parts to the preliminary exercise.*
The passage beginning at measure 49 (“doppio movimento”)
S.B. knew what she wanted but felt hopelessly blocked from attaining
it. I said that when something is this complicated to figure out, it
is often helpful as a first step to “orchestrate” the passage, so that
in our mind we are no longer dealing just with a piano. And at least
in our imagination we are no longer limited by the ideosyncrasies of
the piano as an instrument.
The cellos and basses play a series of half notes starting
with c3-c4 on the first beat of measure 49, followed by another half
note, f2-f3 on the third beat. And so on through the next measures.
Start by playing just these two instruments. Everything else, whether
in the left hand or the right hand. is left out and all we hear is the
long bass tones sustaining for two beats each. Let there be a certain
buoyancy in the way the left hand starts these sounds. And let the
left hand float upwards between the onset of one tone and that of the
next. This floating motion is not separate from the attack on the
notes but somehow already contained in the gesture of the attack.
During each half note, in the growing vertical space between the hand
and the keyboard, you can imagine playing the missing notes.
There are other instrumental assignments to the other notes and layers
of sound. However, even without going further, often the player can
already switch to playing all the notes in the score – but, constantly
tell themselves that all these other notes, every one of them, is
inconsequential. Everything is still there, every detail, including
crescendos and decrescendos. gradations in loudness. The same
regarding bringing out the main melody on beats 2 and 4 in the right
hand. Nonetheless they are all the result physically inconsequential
gestures. Almost at the verge pantomiming but still audible in every one their details of line, expression, emotion, intensity, etc..
Complex measures with a wide variety of variables.
S.B. jokingly complains that her brain’s ‘bandwidth’ doesn’t permit
her to focus simultaneously on as many different things, technical
and musical, as she needs to be aware of in a complex measure. I said that
no one’s brain has that capacity. Before there were parallel
processors, when computers used to run several apps at once, they were
not really multitasking. They simply spent a certain number of
millionths of a second updating one app and then switched to another
app and spent a similar amount of time updating it.
Before the early 2000s, films were delivered to movie theatre in the
form of physical reels of film. When run through a projector, it was
usual for 24 frames of film to run through the projector each second and be displayed on the screen. At 24 frames per second, motion will seem continuous even though it has been broken down into discreet chunks with noticeable changes from one frame to another if the two are displayed side by side. The multi-tasking we are describing for computers operated by up to a million times per second, so there was no problem convincing the user that more than one thing was happening at the same time, both continuously.
In a very complicated measure of music we can multi-task by thinking
of one thing at a time. As soon as the first thing has borne fruit in
the ear, we may let our attention go to another and reasonably assume
the first will continue as it was. Some of these things may be
physical in nature and have to do with body use or body sensations,
others with music feelings, ideas, and aspirations. Each time one
thing has caught fire from the spark of our imagination, go on to the
next thing. There may be four or more different things to think about
in one measure. This is possible, but only if we go from one to
If we propel an elastic ball down against the group, but once it has
started bouncing back up, then down… it will continue bouncing that
way until the bouncing has to be re-initiated by us again (or in our
case ‘thought’ about again).**
The key ingredient in this process is mental flexibility, the ability
to think of one thing and then another, without clinging to one in
particular. As a general rule, in piano playing, it is not as much
the what you think about, but the when you think about it.
Beware of playing at your maximum loudness.
If you are maxed out loudness-wise, and you see a crescendo coming up
that is indicated in the score, there is no way to play that crescendo.
Even within the span in time of the loudest phrase, some sub-groups of
notes in the phrase need to undergo some process of growth and decline
or the phrase will have no shape.
There always has to be a reserve tank of greater loudness available.
Don’t dig a loudness well out of which you cannot get back out.
#4 An unexpected cause for difficulty.
A. Measure 49, left hand
I said to S.B., one of the left hand notes during the first two beats
of the measure is not sounding anywhere as near as loud as the other
notes, and I don’t think this was on purpose by you. Can you spot the
note? She played and listened and gradually went through a list of
possible note culprits, starting with the note that she felt was most
likely and then less and less likely ones.
She only failed to suggest one note as a possible culprit. Of course
that was the note that didn’t sound equal with the others, in fact far
softer if at all. It was the g3 in the third triplet eighth of the first group of triplet eighths.
She thought she was listening but was actually feeling what was going
on in her muscles. She wasn’t listening for every note.
#2. Measure 46
This is a measure in double octaves that unlike similar double octave
measures that came before, skips around more, pitch-wise.
The further into the measure she went, the more difficulty she
encountered playing what was let of it. The tension occurred when she had to move between octaves. It was a blip on a radar that lasted too short a time to be noticed by the radar screen observer. It is especially important at those very brief moments that the arm and hand, like a very flexible blade of grass, be set into motion from the least hint of a vagrant breeze. The blade may have rested still for quite some time (in our case the duration the octave is held down) but it is in a state of willingness to be moved.
-Nocturne Op 15 / 2 in F# Major
Cadenza-like runs as in measures 11, 18, 20. 50.
The unsuspected cause of impediments to the constancy of flow in these
runs was a greater physical tension in her thumb than in her other
fingers. She had been unaware of this. It only was observable in
comparison to the somewhat less tension in the other fingers. It did
not stand in a self-evident way. Once she evened out the muscular
tension in all the fingers (keeping that common degree at a minimal
value) the interruptions we first noticed in those runs was replaced
by an even flow of tones.
Unexpected causes of problems: “turn around” points
Again an unevenness in the way the sixths rose and again fell.
I offered a solution before the explanation for why the solution
Notice that the score asks you play the bottom note of the sixth
twice, one before rising the sixth the other after the sixth
re-descends. Why not try playing the upper note of the sixth twice, as
Instead of starting the measure with: b4 gs5 b4 as4 fx5 as4 …
play it this way: b4 gs5 gs5 b4 as4 fx5 fx5 as4 …
This seemed odd but she tried it. Joe: now try it as written. The
surprise was the eliminating of the tiny resistances to the evenness
in the whole cadenza.
Then, the explanation. The gs5 at the beginning of the measure is the
result of a rightwards motion from the b4. What about the second b4?
It is the result of a leftwards motion from the same gs5. This creates
a problem for the single gs5, in that it has to be two things at once:
the result of an upward motion, and the cause of a downward motion.
Repeating the gs5 twice gave that note an opportunity to distinguish
between those two roles rather than try to combine them as part of one
Measure 50 again. This time when the motion in sixths cedes to
Where exactly is the turning point between the two? The pivotal note
is the d5 which is the result of an upward skip from es4 but also the
cause of the succeeding chromatic scale (d cs c b as … ).
Hitherto, once she started the measure she would go right though this
pivot point without fully being conscious that she had already passed
it. It took only the awareness of which note was the pivotal point
and that she was aware of the moment when she was about to play that
note, in order to homogenize the entire cadenza.
Again a pivot moment. To solder the two main pieces of this cadential
phrase into a homogeneously flowing ribbon of sound, we simply
identified the point when chromatic motion downwards in the right hand
turned into motion in broken thirds. That point was at the ds5, which
happened to fall exactly on beat two of the measure.
Measure 25 …
To bring out the principal melody in the right hand, she had to play
its notes louder than she wanted to.
From my privileged position as the unmoved observer I noticed that
when the right hand played an octave (for instance as the first and
sixth note of the measure). What she didn’t notice, because she
happened at that moment to be more physically involved in her playing
than listening to that playing, was the that the thumb note of the
octave tended to play a moment after the pinkie its note in the
octave. When I brought this to her attention, at first she didn’t
believe that this discrepancy in onset time was happening. So I asked
her to play some of the passage again, but this time I physically
intervened with the right hand with my two hands to force the two
notes to happen at the same moment. Then, of course, because it felt
physically different than how she played it before, she became
conscious of the delay.
An unexpected dividend of this newly forged simultaneity between the
notes of the octave, the octaves not only sounded cleaner and clear,
but perhaps more importantly, the note at the top of the octave (the
melody note) sounded slightly louder than before. The result was that
she now had an additional way of causing sounds to be louder, one that
was not simply a matter of dynamics.
* If one were making a graph of an increases then decreases in
tension, the resulting curve would gradually climb higher off the
x-axis until reaching a peak value, then return in short course back
to the x-axis. This is similar to shape of what is called a “saw
tooth wave”. The difference is only in that instead of plotting the
details of increase and decrease in the amplitude (y-axis) of a sound
wave through time (x-axis), it was plotting the increase and decrease
of bodily tension.
** you can set many balls into a bouncing motion but not if you have
to start all of them at the same moment in time. But once they are
all in motion they will all continue to be in motion for a while. The
same with the fruits of thought.
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).
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Tidbits From Recent Lessons: Shostakovich, Chopin, Mozart, Bach
R.M: Shostakovich: Prelude # 10
Its syntax is filled with sonic miscues, altered expectations. Like a peptide chains that have been snipped apart into separate amino acids in order to form unexpectedly new peptide chains.
Each time something unexpected happens can you find your new harmonic footing before the minimum possible number of notes has passed.
A.J. Chopin Waltz in C# Minor
Joe: Sometimes you are not sounding all the written notes. How do you know if every note sounds, for instance, in an interval or chord?
Ideally your ear knows or can quickly take stock of every note. Otherwise you can try this: Play the chord and release all but one note. Is that note sounding? Is it sounding in a way that you think will balance well with the rest of the sounds in the chord.
Repeat process for each other note in the same chord.
More mechanical based approaches:
-tap each note separately once or twice before sounding the chord.
-have the illusion that you are not playing the chord notes simultaneously but that you are articulating them one at a time.
J.M. Mozart: C Minor Fantasie
No matter what you do in the opening two measures, when you get to the B-flats at the beginning of measure 3, forget any connection with the immediate past, the only note that it should connect from is the C-naturals at the beginning of measure 1. Similarly with the next forthcoming groups of measures until you reach A-flat.
When the right hand settles down into repeating ds4-fs4 as sixteenths, don’t let any of those thirds escape your attention regardless of what the left hand is doing or is in the midst of doing.
The ending of one phrase and beginning the next. How you start the next phrase, musically and physically, can be strongly influenced and controlled by the way you release the last note in the first phrase. How you end something is a big detriment of how you begin what’s next.
The B-flat major section.
How to create a coherent and flowing melodic line in spite of the variations in the rhythm.
Before playing the melody as a dotted eighth followed by two sixteenths and a quarter note, play those four notes as a triplet followed by a quarter note. In that form, the descending steps of the B-flat major scale (d5 c5 bf4 a4), assert their simple melodic flow and harmonic coherence. Then, right away, “capture” what you just heard – but add in the extra parameter of the rhythm. If done with a calm mind, the melodic flow of the triplets will not be lost in the written rhythm. It happens ‘automagically’.
A.B. First prelude from book One of the Well Tempered.
Liberating the expressivity in the bundled chords.
Choose one note from the measure you are about to play. Sing and hold that note from the beginning of the measure to the end of the measure while playing at the keyboard the measure as written. In the next, and next…, measures do the same, either 1) choosing as the note to hold the note that is in a similar place in the measure as the one you held in the previous measure, or 2) purposefully switching at random to some other note in the next measure (singing and holding that note from the beginning to the end of the measure).
My best advice is, given your propensity for on the spot evaluation and analysis of what you just heard yourself play a moment ago, don’t react to anything; don’t think, don’t be upset, with anything that has happened, just notice it in passing. When you do analyze it provokes an attempt on your part to physically alter what you will try to do to sound the next note. You quickly trap yourself into an endless series of corrections, in anticipation of what may go wrong with each next note, because it went wrong with the current note. The result is that no note is played in a fresh and unencumbered way.
Stay in the present. If you don’t, one of the things that will worry you is how you will be able to sustain any evenness you have already achieved for so many more measures to come.
The piece plays itself – without much help from you.
A.B. First fugue from book one of the Well Tempered
There are some crazy sections in this fugue, harmonically. Let things wax expressive when Bach has demanded this by the way out notes and modulations he has written. If it helps, think that Bach and not you is demanding this heightened expressivity. It’s his fault (sic).
You say that when you listen to a recording of the fugue things often go by too fast for your ear to pick out each and every theme entrance regardless of in what voice or voices it occurs. Especially in the stretto sections.
I suggested this procedure:
Listen to your favorite recording. Mark in the score the first four notes (only)* of each and every theme entrance. Play along with the recording but only at the moments in the score that you marked; just four notes. For the rest of time just listen to the sound of the music flow by.
* Playing more than four notes can lead to technical difficulties if the tempo of the recording is faster than you are playing the work. It will also confuse things in the strettos.
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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.
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.