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.
A Thanksgiving Fantasy; Thank you to all my Followers
I had one lesson today in the early morning. The ubiquitous “Irving” was over and played the Scriabin Etude in C-sharp minor (Op. 2, No. 1).
My mind was running at a very fast pace dreaming of turkeys with enormous thighs and having visions Japanese sweet potatoes drowning in Vermont maple syrup. The result was that I gave, let us say, a ‘rambling’ lesson, one in which I let my imagination loose, which caused me to use a lot of mental imagery, flights of fancy and outre analogies. It definitely wasn’t a very ‘literal’ or scientific lesson. But it worked.
Here were the main points we covered.
Irving spent a long time sitting at the piano and figuring just how to play the first chord. I interrupted the process and said: too much time spent in preparation – just “evoke” the sound out of the piano. Feel like a magician who casts a spell or waves a magic wand and a beautiful, resonant, soulful, balanced, chord emerges from the piano. Then I said: and incidentally, do this over and over again for every sound that wants to come to birth out the womb of the instrument.
That had an immediate and positive effect on the sound quality, both within and between the chords. But we weren’t there yet. It wasn’t the sound I had in my memory and imagination. At that moment Irving happened to be doodling around with the B key on the middle line of treble clef, playing it -then listening to it. This inspired my next flight of fancy. I said: when you play that note, hear it crescendo after it starts. Every note grows while it sounds. There is no such thing as ‘decay’ or getting softer.
The great French philosopher Henri Bergson wrote: “What philosophy has lacked most of all is precision. . . (philosophical systems) are too wide for reality. Examine any one of them . . . and you will see that it could apply equally well to a world in which . . . men . . . born decrepit . . . would end as babes in arms.”
Or, if you remember the TV series “Mork and Mindy” with Robin Williams: they have a son together, who hatches out of an egg fully grown, looking surprisingly like Jonathan Winters. Mork explains to Mindy that their son from this point on will grow younger and younger over the years.
I mentioned both of these things just to say that others beside me have had fantasies in which things defy the ‘arrow’ of time, or in my case, that a piano string, once set into motion and left on its own, will vibrate more and more strongly rather than less and less so.
You can also imagine a group of billiard balls, all in motion, which grow closer and closer to each other over the next bunch of seconds, until at the last moment they have come together in a triangular arrangement. And other such ‘entropy’ defying feats.
At this point we were getting close to the desired sound. The sound had been transformed, was lush and lasting. One more thing was necessary, which had to do with mechanics of playing each chord. Each time there was a chord to sound (which was pretty much every eighth note in the piece) create the chord out of its lowest note which then, figuratively speaking, opens up to the entire chord – only this has to occur simultaneously.
This is how we approached. We began by taking one specimen chord and played it, with the pedal down, as a very slow upwards arpeggio. We did the same again to the same chord only the arpeggio moved a little faster. Then a little faster…
If I remember my calculus aright, if “delta t” represents the time duration of each note before adding to it the next note of the arpeggio, then, we simply let “delta t” shrink gradually to zero, at which point, though we still feel physically that we are arpeggiating, all the notes of the chord begin at the same instant.
At this point there is no longer a distinction between a simultaneous chord and an arpeggio of notes of a chord. It is a physiological feeling in the body that the lowest note is played first and that our energy then shifts rightwards. The listener hears the notes start simultaneously, but notices a richness to the sound.
The player has now been able to make ‘simultaneous in time’ identical with ‘sequential in space’. The simultaneous chord retains the imprint of the note by note arpeggio. In the calculus analogy, it like the straight line that connects two separated points on curve, which line, as those two points made to approach each other, changes its slant until, when the points converge, and the line looks like the tangent to the curve at that point.
Part of the retained ‘sequential’ physical experience is that each individual finger will feel totally in control physically of its note and each note sounds with an individual intent. The bonus is that this is not the result of trying to coordinate the actions of different fingers. For the feeling of the arpeggio remains, so that the body still feels a rotational change from one note to the next in the chord. The more notes in the chord the more this rotation seeks its origin and energy from the shoulders and the arms. In terms of our consciousness, something magical happens, it is as if the single instant at which all the notes start sounding has been expanded into lived duration.
We turned our attention next specifically to the contrasting section (when it switched from sharps to flats) where utmost anguish is suddenly replaced with great calm, as removed as possible from the original mood.
I made an analogy with a garden hose with a sprayer at its end that is held in the person’s hand, which sprayer contains a lever that makes the spray get stronger and stronger. There is usually a strong spring in the lever that progressively resists squeezing the handle further, so that if one wants a steady and strong flow. and squeezes it for too long, the hand may grow tired and need to relax, even if just for a moment, before returning the water to the same pressure. Without those moments of easing off the steadiness of the stream would not remain as continuous.
I wanted to have Irving feel this in relation to the keys going up and down. The goal in this section is to act like the keys always stay down, but with every eighth note the hand needs to release and retake the keys. The release of the keys has barely begun when a force from the arms and hands returns the keys to the depressed state. It’s almost like when having to play the same note over and over, legato, without any use of the pedal. We learn to strike a balance between there being just one continuous sounding note and the notes separating too far apart.
Looking around for a piano-key-like object, I seized on a pencil (it was the best I could find). I said: this is a piano key, and, not only is it a piano key it is “Every-key”, in reference to “Everyman” (the 15th century English morality play). I held one end of the pencil fixed, made the length of the pencil horizontal, and then manipulated the other end of it up and down. It is like, I said, we are manipulating the same key over and over, imagining the piano keyboard as having just one and not eighty-keys, and that all we were doing was, when playing, was raising that same lever up and down. And that made all the different pitches and rhythms.
Another way I described it was that part of the magic control that we have over time, when it came time to make the next chord sound, the keys were already down – even, already sounding.
Happy Thanksgiving and thank you to all, and especially to Sawyer Fuller, our web master. Save me a piece of dark meat!