Two thoughts on playing Legato
Both blog entries today have to do with the undefined, yet very definite influence, that sounds, as imagined in the pianist’s ears, have over the extrinsic sound coming into the listener’s ears.
Legato. Connecting a longer duration note to shorter duration note.
The connectivity of a legato melody is most often broken when a note that has been present for some time (in other words a relatively longer note) is followed by a shorter note.
An example would be a half note tied to an eighth note followed by an eighth note. The longer note (the half plus the eighth) has had more time to decrease in loudness, and so it is harder to focus the ear on the fainter part of that note that at the point i time just before it connects to the eighth note. This continuity is also broken because at the moment the eighth note begins there is a sudden change in loudness, as the fainter part of the sound that is left over at the end of the longer note tries to connect smoothly to the suddenly louder beginning, or attack, of the eighth note.
While playing a legato line it is easy to overlook moments such as these and forget that a smooth connection between notes is still required in spite of the change from soft to suddenly loud. The result, if not handled wisely, will sound to the listener like a sudden and jagged accent instead of a fluid legato.
When we are near the end of the longer sound, we must learn to focus our ear on what’s left of that sound. Curiously, just the act of becoming aware, a second time, of the same note, causes a subjective sensation of that note suddenly getting a little louder. The act of awareness acts like a re-kindling the note, like blowing on a fire. It is then easier to connect the later part of the long sound in a legato manner into the beginning of the next note.
Taking a percussion-like instrument such as the piano, and making it sound melodic (lyrical) to the listener, is a magician’s feat that involves “smoke and mirrors”. An example of this is what was just said about rekindling the sound of a note near to its termination in time.
The basic fact we are confronted with is that a note on the piano sounds much louder at the beginning than at the end. The moment of attack arouses a cluster of high overtones which might leave us confused, if all we were to hear of the note was that attack, about the identity of the intended pitch of the note. This is literally and figuratively a poor beginning to a process that is meant to link one pitch to a succeeding one in a smooth manner.
What should we do, or what can we do, when a sound begins in a chaotic cluster of higher pitches, and then, once the attack is over, what continues is a remnant of the sound that gets softer and softer until crossing over to silence?
If the effect of legato had to do with how we connect the end of one note to the beginning of the next, we would create a ziz-zag curve oscillating rapidly between very soft and very loud. We would never sing a note this way, and a violinist would never bow this way.
It would almost seem that what is needed is some magical way to connect the middle of one piano sound to the middle of the next. The middles of piano sounds are special. They are still loud enough to posses a warm resonance (which emerges out of the louder attack which has now subsided), and not yet soft enough that we would get the feeling that there was nothing left to tangibly connect into the next note. The piano will sing when we connect the middle of one note to the middle of next: one rich resonance to another rich resonance. But how would we do such a thing.
This is where the magician’s technique of sleight of hand comes into play (or is it sleight of ear). This is a reliable principle: what we hear in the sound the audience will hear. If we hear resonance connect to resonance so will they. While legato would seem to require a magical transformation of the sound of a piano note, instead it only requires a combination of memory of the recent past and seeing into the immediate future.
As the career of a note ends, we remember what it sounded like just a moment earlier when the sound was most resonant and had the clear sense of singing on a single pitch that was so hard to find in the attack.
We are jugglers of the tenses of time. Like a juggler we seem to confound the senses of the audience. We fuse into the current moment a memory of the sound’s resonance a moment or even an instant earlier, and, the anticipated resonance of the note whose attack we are about to execute. We revive the past and tell the future: at least in the small, privileged unit of time we call the present…the advancing present.*
Maybe this helps explain why the great piano composers chose to write their most lyrical pieces for the piano. By overcoming the acoustic odds, our magic leaves in its wake an impression of smoothness and consistency to the flow sound.**
In summary, we rely on the fact that the middle of the note’s duration is usually the sweetest and most melodic. By ignoring the attacks, as well as the last instants of a sound, we begin to be able to link middle to middle, richest moment of sound to richest moment of sound.**
* Most pianists start out earlier in life by being most aware of the onset of each new note: because this is the moment within the course of the sound when the most sudden and acute muscular action occurs. What we do physically during the remainder of the sound is usually passive in comparison to the beginning. But, as we have shown, this moment is also when sound is at its least pleasurable, when it is raucous and disagreeable. The result is that the pianist, usually unconsciously, switches their awareness, at just this moment, from the realm of hearing to the realm of feeling. In doing so the pianist tends to conflate one sense with the other: I think I heard it when I actually felt it.
**The audience might not be aware of this process as the piece begins, but the more the pianist continues in the piece to try to connect middle to middle in her or his imagination, the more the sound ingredients are there for the listener to believe that it is happening too.
Chords and Melody: the simultaneous and the sequential
Summary: What to do with a melody – how changing a melody into a chord and then back to melody again can help in the greater understanding of the sound and feeling of that melody
A melody can be condensed into a chord (especially if one eliminates all but the chord tones from the melody). A chord can be broken apart into a melody, but the chord contains no information about the order of the notes in the melody.
But… if you play a melody, then condense it right away into a chord, and then release a moment later into the melody, the chord will retain the imprint of the melody for a while. This will happen both as a physical sensation in the pianist’s hands, and as an aural sensation in the pianist’s ear.
As the chord is turned back into the melody, a similar effect occurs: the melody retains within its sequence of notes, the organizing singleness of the sound of the chord.
While the notes were held in the timelessness and stasis of the chord, the notes of the melody are still stirring around within the outward calm. The chord is not stable, but seeking to release the notes back into time.
As we in fact re-expand the chord into the melody, the melody notes come out as if all belonging to one whole – there is a new coherence among the notes, something that transcends their separateness. Each note looks back to the chord, and finds its meaning in the chord, and still feels part of the chord. Each note shares with the other notes a common feeling of belonging. A larger organic wholeness is achieved. There is less to be thought about as to appropriate touch or sound for each note.
Practice Technique Number 19: Achieving a Long Line
The simplest and most direct way of sustaining a long phrase, and retaining all the proper relationships among its parts, is based on the observation that a group of notes played more rapidly tends to hang together better than the same group of notes played much more slowly.
For example, if we need to create one long phrase out of 8 measures of 4/4 time, in an Andante tempo or slower, the simplest way to achieve this is first speed the beats way up and play it so that the entire 8 measures transpires in the time normally taken by just one of those measures.
One side effect of doing this is that something that sounds profound or solemn in the slower tempo sounds trite and foolish in a much faster tempo. This is actually fine for our purposes because it gives a very different view of the phrase.
Then we start slowing down the tempo bit by bit. And as we do we will find that the notes gradually go from sounding sillier to sounding profounder. More importantly the glue that held the notes together in the faster tempo seems to still hold the notes together at the slower, and slower tempo.
THE ABILITY TO “SHAPE” PHRASES.
Originally Posted on Facebook on 2.23.16
In a previous post we showed:
1. that pitch is how the brain interprets loudness, when the peaks of the loudness occur many times per second.
2. We have also shown that the combination of pitch and loudnesses among the overtones of a note is interpreted by the brain as tone color or timbre.
3. Lastly we showed that changes in loudness between notes in a phrase, if subtle* enough, is interpreted by the brain as a ‘shape’ being given to the phrase, in which the performer figuratively acts as sculptress, and ‘molds’ a series of notes.
Our starting point today is the third of these conclusions.
* we noted that changes in loudness between notes in a phrase can be interpreted by the brain in one of two ways. If the changes are large enough, we are aware that the loudness is changing. If the changes are just below the threshold of our awareness, we no longer hear at all changes in loudness, but say that the phrase “has a shape”.
Consider the following thought experiment. We ask a question. How much increase in the measurable amplitude (loudness) of a sound wave has there to cause the brain to say: this sound is “twice” as loud as the sound before. Would it be if the sound altered so as to have exactly twice the amplitude it had before? Might it just as possibly be if the sound has a half times the amplitude of the previous sound wave? Or three times the previous amplitude in the wave?
There is no one-to-one correspondence when between a measurable increase in the amplitude of a physical sound wave, and with the brain’s judgment of change in the intensity (“loudness”) of a sound.
The physical correlative to our subjective assessment of double the loudness may physically be due in one case to a change of one and a half times in the amplitude of the sound wave, and in another case due to an amplitude ratio of three to one. Such may be the case if the pitches of the two sounds are different, or the initial loudness of the two sounds are different.
All that counts in ‘shaping’ a phrase is the subjective appreciation of loudness, the conscious judgment of loudness. What we are looking for in phrase “shaping” are differences in loudness that lie just below the threshold of awareness. We are aware of these changes but no longer as obvious changes in loudness, but instead as if a string of notes was just given a “shape”.
A relevant question to ask is how ‘many’ changes of amplitude, that are just below the threshold of awareness*, is the performer capable of producing when playing one note
and then another in a musical phrase.
* by paying particular attention to two sounds, one can remove the sense of ‘shape’ and become aware that there is a difference, though a small one, in loudness. It is an issue of attention and the way we listen.
We might state the question using the more figurative terms used in music to describe loudness: pianissimo, piano, mezzo piano, mezzo forte, forte and fortissimo. Thus we might ask many such subliminal increments in loudness are there between piano and mezzo piano. Is it the same number as exist between forte and fortissimo? My experiments on the subject have yielded the following interesting relationship. There are more degrees of getting louder or softer between piano and mezzo piano than there are between mezzo piano and mezzo forte. And more between the latter two than between mezzo forte and forte. And so on. In other words, the softer we are playing in general, the more differences in dynamics that we can create. If the ‘shape’ of a phrase depends on having command over a larger number of barely subliminal loudness changes, then the pianist whose general level of ‘loudness’ is ‘softer’, will be able to create more obvious and sculptured shapes to his phrases.
The ‘shape’ of each phrase must be a direct expression of one’s understanding of the piece. The shape created should be designed to provide the most information possible about the inner meaning of the piece at that point.
We might borrow a term from the singers, who describe the statistically average pitch of a song as the tessitura. Two different songs can both contain the same lowest pitch and the same highest pitch, but an averaging for all the notes in the song could yield a different tessitura. One song may stay more in a lower range than in the high range, the other might stay more in the higher range than the lower range, and thus the first has a lower tessitura, and the second a higher. The performer who creates the more rounded and shaped phrase is operating at a softer tessitura.
The ‘softer’ our ‘tessitura’ the more room there is for the subtle changes in loudness (from note to note) that result in what the listener calls “shape”. Phrase ‘shaping’ has a lot to do with our concept of ‘beauty’ in a performance. It also enables us to define the boundaries of the larger* elements that are put together in a movement or entire piece.
* last longer as measured usually in minutes.