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?
Two or More notes by the Application of a Single Motion Through Time
In today’s earlier blog post (6/23/19), about Albeniz’s Orientale, reference is made (see footnote three, ***) to a forthcoming blog: two or more notes from one single continuous gesture through time. This is it. The specific gesture referred to is one I refer to under the nickname of “heel-toe” (a borrowing from organ foot technique).
Sit in front of a table or desk top.
Rest the crease of the wrists on the very edge of the table.
Flex the wrists vertically so that the following two things happen at once: the wrist remains in contact with the desk as it flexes, and, the remainder of the hands are raised above the desk so that the the finger tips are at the highest elevation above the desk and the parts of the palm nearest the wrist are at the lowest elevation above the desk.
Next: flex (almost snap) the wrist back downwards, causing the hand to
slap back down on the table.
Do this a second time, but with this difference: as the wrist un-flexes, and the hand comes back down, the wrist rises an inch or two above the desk. The result will be that the energy with which the hand slams back down the desk top has increased several fold.
In organ technique, when using the feet on the pedal keyboard, it is often the case that the pedal for one note is depressed using portion of the shoe nearest the heel, and the the pedal for the next note, especially if it lies at a relatively close distance to the first pedal, is depressed using the toe portion of the same shoe. This is simpler to do, and usually faster than trying to use the same part of the shoe for both consecutive notes.
Any single motion, that contains a spatially distinct beginning and an ending part to its course of motion, can occur faster than two single-intended motions. Whether one is playing octaves, or thirds, or chords, or sixths, or even just a series of single notes, “heel-toe” can produce two sounds in not much additional time to what it would take to produce only one such sound. In this, and in other examples of one motion replacing two motions, the single motion develops more force and energy than the single motions. The more energy a motion contains, the more successful it is in executing a specific mechanical effect, especially if one “steps down” or “compresses” the more overt form of that motion into a scaled down, more compressed, version of the motion. By becoming more condensed into a smaller spatial gamut, and attains at the same time a greater physical efficiency. There is no technical problem at the piano keyboard that cannot be solved, or better solved, by the application of a greater deal of energy.
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Creating Harmonic Clarity
Bach: C Major Prelude, Book I, Well Tempered Klavier
Part of A.B.’s quest is to play the notes of this prelude “evenly”. Achieving this has to do with the chord outlined by the notes of each measure, and the balance of the notes in the chords in creating a clear impression of that chord as a whole. To make this chord more obvious to the ear, the player, when practicing, can “densify” each chord: if there are openings between adjacent written notes in the chord to squeeze in additional notes from the same chord, add those notes in. For instance in measure 2, there is room for an f4 between the d4 and a4. If we add in that f4, we create the denser five-note chord: c4 d4 f4 a4 d5. We can take that chord a step forward and add a c5 between the a4 and the d4, forming a six-note chord. The chord has been a D Minor-7 chord the entire time, but the additional chord tones just make it stand out more clearly to the ear what chord it is. Do this for every chord in the Prelude when Bach’s written notes allow for such additions.
An equally valid technique to add density to the character of a chord is add in chord tones in lower and/or higher octaves not used in the printed chord. In this form a chord could contain 8 – 10 notes, or by adding the pedal, larger numbers of notes, spanning the low bass to high treble. In this form, the “quality” of the chord reveals itself at its most obvious. This technique, helps “set” the sonority of the written chord inside a larger entity to which it in turns belongs.
Whatever are the sound characteristics and the mood characteristics of the individual chord, they become in this manner magnified to the ear. From this form of the chord we can then re-compress the chord (through the aesthetic equivalent of a ‘trash compactor’) without losing any of the sound ‘material’ present in the larger version of the chord: the larger instance of the chord being condensed into a smaller chord without losing any of the fullness or meaning of the uncompressed version of the chord.
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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.
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Concert Pianists, and their Performance Arcs
“A. B.” came for his regular Thursday lesson.
Today we examined how a particular pianist puts together their experience of being in control of a musical passage while performing. The pianist forges their experience and control of a piece through various parts. For diagnostic purposes we did these preliminary exercises:
We played a Bach Chorale, looking at the keyboard only for the placement of the beginning chord of the chorale, and then not looking at the hands at all from that point on. The purpose of the exercise is for the pianist to discover how they form their intuitive sense of where their hands and fingers are on the keyboard, and if they get off course, whether they can find their way back without looking at their hands.
Next we did the same for a I-V-I in all keys. We used this particular chord-spacing: c3-g3–c4-e4 g2-g3–b3-d4 c3-g3–c4-e4 (Root-fifth-root-third, root-root-third-fifth, root-fifth-root-third).
I asked him not to look at is hands, neither when going from one chord to the next within the three chord progression in one key, nor when moving each of the notes of the third chord up a half step to begin the progression in the next key. This proved difficult for him. I said “I think we are starting to hit ‘pay dirt'”.
Then we did the same for the first prelude from Book One. This was relatively easy for him. So I added this twist. “Pick a random measure, make a simultaneous chord out of the notes in the measure, release the chord, send the hands to some far away place, then without looking at hands or the keyboard, find your way back to that chord.” As it turned out this was quite easy for him! I said: “I think there is a moral to this story.”
We moved into the second movement of the Bach Italian Concerto, a piece he knows well.
I have come to understand that A. normally bases his performance of a piece mostly on muscle memory, with his ear standing vigilantly as a guard against any wrong note. I said, “You have spent a lifetime carefully building this relationship between muscle memory and the ear. Now I am going to ask you to go into an uncomfortable place. Take any spot in the movement, and as you play the notes, say the names of each note you play in the right hand. If there is any hesitation in your voice, we’ve uncovered even more pay dirt.” We want gradually to shift the identity of a note to something due to a union of a sense clear placement of the hand on the keyboard joined with a clear sense of the name of the note being played.
He said: “I can’t say the note I’m playing play at the same time that I play it: not if I try to say it, not if you do it for me, and not if I say it only in my imagination.” Boom. “I think we just hit the mother lode because of how difficult this is for you to do.” And what an incredible discovery–to find the missing link in the mind, and work towards an exercise to correct it.
To put this in perspective, consider that doing this is not an unusual thing to ask of the student. For example, whether playing either from the score or by memory, I am always conscious of what note I’m playing, even when I steer myself through a group of notes by following the ascending or descending pitch curve of the notes. This awareness keeps me from getting lost in a piece, even when I am struggling. I am not playing by rote or muscle memory and relying on habit: I am choosing what I play and when.
Considering the difficulty of naming the notes as you play them, I recommend that he try to perfect a particular measure in this regard. It is the ‘trying’ to do that is more important than doing it correctly. It is the trying that opens up new possibilities in your mind.
Later in the lesson we went back to the I-V-I exercise we did earlier without looking at his hands, and I asked him to try to name the notes in each of the three chords in each of the three note progressions starting with the bass voice of each chord and proceeding to the soprano voice. This proved far more difficult than he imagined it would. I was pleased with this: he was gaining a direct insight into how his musical brain works.
Returning to the the second movement of the Bach Italian Concerto:
How many, “rhythmic words: are there in the ‘vocabulary’ of this movement. It is a limited set. A word a distinct rhythmic pattern, for instance a word might consist of series of four sixteenths, or a dotted eighth followed by a series of sixteenths, or some other combination of rhythmic note values that repeats frequently in the movement. Note that there is only a limited number of such combinations in this movement. Be aware of which such ‘word’ you are saying at every moment in the movement.” Playing this movement is like speaking a language of rhythmic words, a vocabulary consisting of just a dozen or such words (although they can be put together in many different ways to create different meanings). When I play it I ‘speak’ each such word with its own definite and unique form of expression and inflection – one that pertains just to that rhythmic word.
He objected that the expression of each word would change dependent on the varying setting of the musical context. To which I replied, “I agree that the same word in different settings should be spoken differently, but at first make all the same ‘words’ sound the same“.
He tried this and was surprised that this added to his musicality in playing rather than making it seem less musically nuanced. I said, “The final musical result needs to rest on something solid before the nuances are added. This might not be true of other pianists who can manage both at the same time right from the start, but you often get bogged down coping with the details of the musical meaning that you want to convey before attending to first principles. Start with the language and the vocabulary. Wait until later on before you change it into Shakespearean English.”
We turned next to Mozart’s Adagio in B Minor:
“You and I often have different agendas as to what to work for and what needs the most reinforcement. Today will prove to be no different.” What is missing for me is the basic and constant “flow” wherein you carry each note through its duration of time to the next note, and then that next to its next, etc.. Each note is directed to the next note. I hate to use an analogy that uses the word ‘weight’, which is usually anathema to me, but it as if the note has heft and you have to pick it up and move it through time (or space if it helps to think that way) to the next note*. Every note should experience the full pressure of time – which I call the ‘flow’ of time – to bring it to the sound experience of the next note. Each note has to experience that dynamic sense of motion to the next note. It is hard to describe how to do this other than my making certain gestures as you are playing, but though these are spatial motions, what we are looking to experience is the motion of consciousness through time, without abatement, and mostly felt between the beginning of one note and the beginning of the next note. It is the inevitable and relentless pressure of passing time.
* If you do think of this spatially then let the direction always to the right and not in the direction of the pitches as the arrow of time in Western math and physics is usually depicted rightwards (as it is in the convention of the musical score).