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).
A Well Shaped Phrase
Irving and I were working on the right hand in the second movement of the Bach Italian Concerto.
Botticelli’s paintings are praised for the sensuous lines which outline and reveal his shapes. These shapes are more than simply visual, they can also be felt tangibly in imagined sensations of touch*.
The beauty of the shape of a musical a phrase can also have to do with the care the musician takes to communicate the outline each phrase. There are many criteria for how to shape a phrase.
One way, though not always applicable, is on the basis of when the pitches are ascending and when they are descending. More especially the places where the direction changes, for they are the places in the phrase where its outline is most sinuous.**
I remember in first year Calculus, that to draw a curve, it is sufficient to know only the points where the curve changes direction from rising to falling or falling to rising. It is easy to connect those points with a smooth curve. The pianist should similar trace the undulations of their phrases.
For the queasy of stomach (like me), the moments on a roller coaster ride that are most jarring are these sinuous points when up and down flip, and when left and right reverse. They are the moments that stand out in my memory of the ride.
I am not one to apply metaphors from one art to another but sometimes, when I’m playing I feel like sound is a viscous substance that I can, like a sculptor, mold into a shape (through time). Or another analogy that works for me is to take a sculpture that barely rises off a background surface and have it round itself into three dimensions. Or, sometimes I will feel myself holding a somewhat stiff, yet flexible, rod in my hands and imagine it being bent into an arc.
*I learned this when reading books on the Italian Renaissance by art critic/aesthetician/historian Bernard Berenson.
** In first year calculus I learned how to sketch a curve on a graph given only information about where the curve changed from ascending to descending or changed from bending one way to the other.
The Technique of “Isolating” Variables
Whenever a passage involves an intricate balance between two concerns, such as rhythm and pitch, pitch and fingering, etc., there is a method by which one of the two can be “held constant” while allowing only the other one to change.*
In the following examples we separate apart two intertwined issues, putting emphasis first on one and then the other, by holding the other one constant. Each is mastered singly before putting them back together again.
If rhythm and pitch are changing at the same time:
Make all the pitches just one and the same pitch, and play that note in the rhythm of the passage.
Play the sequence of pitches as written but do so in a “neutral” rhythm, (for instance giving each note the same duration).
If loudness and pitch are changing at the same time:
hold the loudness constant and let only the pitch vary.
hold all the pitches to one repeating note, and only let the loudness vary.
If an intricate series of notes also requires a difficult pattern of fingering:
Play every note with one and the same finger.
Stay on one note, but use the fingers in the order that they will need to be used when playing the passage in its normal form.
‘bunch’ up the finger tips and use them as a single unit on just one note and play the rhythm of the passage.
If the two hands are doing things that are quite different from one another and, thus, hand coordination becomes an issue:
Have both hands play the right hand’s notes, but in two different octaves. Then reverse the procedure, and have both hands lay the left hand’s notes in two different octaves.
If a melodic line involves sudden changes of register (octave).
Put all the notes of the melody into one and the same octave (a perfect example is Brahms: Op 117 No. 3, the middle section).
If it is difficult to play a melody in octaves in one hand. Use the pinkie to play just the pinkie notes. Then use the thumb to play just the lower notes.
If there is a variety of articulation marks within a small group of notes.
Play it all very legato; then all very staccato; then all accented; then all sotto voce.
Then add back the articulation. By this time you will be practiced in executing each type of articulation.
If it is difficult to play something slowly (or rapidly) enough:
Play it first at the opposite extreme of tempo. This procedure is especially useful for learning to sustain a long phrase or melody, that evolves over many measures. First play it extremely rapidly.
You will get a sense of the main outlines and directions in the phrase. Then slow it back down, and you will notice that the way the notes adhered to each other in the fast tempo is preserved into the slower tempo.
Mention is also made of these types of procedures in the blog:
* In mathematics, when there are several different ‘variables’, all intermixing and interacting with each other in a single equation, mathematicians, in order to gain understanding of how the equation behaves as a whole, use a procedure in which they treat all of the variables except one as if they were no longer capable of varying but were held constant. Then, one can go through each of the original variables in turn, each time making it, for the nonce, the only one varying. This is called partial differentiation.
Playing Between the Opposites
A pendulum swings back and forth. The period of the swing sometimes takes years, sometimes months, sometimes days, sometimes just seconds.
For instance: sometimes the pianist is more aware of the harmonies than the melodies, and on another occasion the other way around. The teacher’s job is to keep the two in equilibrium. It is an example of the “Goldilocks” principle: not too hot, not to cold, but just right.
We want to try to maintain, over a prolonged period of time, a balanced position in the middle between two extremes, just as a pendulum set into motion eventually comes to rest in a middle position.*
In talking about this, I like the use of the word “spectrum” because, in addition to the end points, which are the most easily identifiable points, it embraces every possible proportion of blending of the two. While it is easiest to think in terms of the ends, in this melody and harmony, it is actually the middle positions that are most relevant for the pianist.
Here are some other examples of the idea of spectrum applied to piano playing:
playing too softly . . . . playing too loudly
playing too slowly . . . . playing too fast
playing too legato . . . . playing too staccato
playing too mechanically . . . . playing too dramatically/emotionally
having too much variety . . . . playing with too little variety
having too many contrasts . . . . playing monolithically
If we wanted, we could add to this list.
It is the nature of thought and language that whenever we come up with one term to describe a person’s playing that there is usually also a term that would be its opposite.
I told my student Rachael that she was laying too much attention on melody at the expense of harmony. She took the comment to heart and gradually changed her way of playing in this regard. Two years later I told her: Rachael you are laying too much attention to the harmony at the expense of the melody. She responded: “But! two years ago, in fact on October 1st (she has an eidetic memory) you told me I wasn’t laying enough stress on the harmonies. Which is it? Logically, they can’t be both true. Aren’t you contradicting yourself?”
I said: “Is it possible that both statements are true if we take into account an additional reference point: time. Time passes and things change. Two years ago I had to exert a lot of force to pull you away from a sole preoccupation with melody, and in the direction of harmony. Once enough energy is exerted by the teacher to dislodge the student from a frozen position on one end of a spectrum, movement can continue away from that end, pass the midpoint where harmony and melody are balanced, and continue until she finds herself stuck a second time, this time on the other end of the spectrum.
Switching to the analogy to a pendulum, the hope is that once the student “dislodged” from extreme position pendulum, the pendulum will swing back and forth until eventually settling down in a position of relative rest near the midway point between the pendulum’s two extreme positions: so that harmony and melody are in balance.
Staying in the middle is a difficult state to maintain when it comes to human behavior. Time is the bringer of change. You’ve continued to change until you find yourself in an extreme position again, only on the other end of the spectrum. This is but one half of a cycle that repeats and repeats, over days, months or years, until finally settling down at a point of balance, which combines the virtues of both ends of the spectrum, of harmony and melody.*
Here is another case for what, in this blog, I am alternately calling an example of a “spectrum” and an example of a “pendulum”.
The spectrum would represent all the positions between bringing out the likenesses between two similar passages, on the one hand, and the bringing out all differences between the two similar passages. In terms of the pendulum analogy it is the swing between the maximum sameness and maximum difference between two passages that relative to each other have both similarities and differences.**
We can overemphasize the similarities in sound, we can overemphasize the differences in sound, or trying to find that golden mean where the listener is made aware by our playing of both the similarities and differences. This golden mean between is most manifest in the works of the great composers, and it is incumbent on the pianist to make this apparent.
I asked Irving today at his lesson: “where would you locate yourself right now on this spectrum. Are you more captivated by the subtle differences between things that are otherwise alike***, or are you more captivated by overlooking such differences and seeing the underlying similarities between things. Each is equally important, so doing one does not automatically mean that you are attending to the other.” “In my opinion, right now, at this time, this day and date, I feel that you are extremely focused on minute differences, more so than the qualities which act to unite all the passages and in the general the many different parts of the movement that are woven together into one cohesive whole.”
I wanted the left hand to always exhibit the same ineluctable motion in half steps despite the various melodies in parallel thirds that those eighth notes outlined one and another measure. My solution was to play along with him in the bass on the same piano. I played an unending series of eighth notes, like an ostinato****. all on the same pitch, starting with the tonic note in a low octave*****. The overtones of this bass tone created the necessary “glue” to hold the voices together in the soloist’s two hands. Another way of saying this is that the main strata of the piece were now enveloped in a larger, common sonic aura. The voices in these strata could now move around more meaningfully in relation to each other in the shared sound-space.
A last comment on this second example. Sometimes, only sometimes, and then only with the music of a great composer, you can strike up a “deal” with the composer and share responsibilities: “I will take care of all the samenesses if you can take care of the differences…after all I trust you completely to have chosen the best pitches and rhythms.
* The pianist is a dynamic entity, rarely the same twice. We are always traveling back and forth between one pole and the other. We do not remain in a “golden mean” too long, but that we drift to one side or the other. Some students are very good at tracking their location from day to day, or month to month. Others need the application of an outside force in the form of the teacher. The golden mean was Aristotle’s definition of morality. For instance: not cowardice, and not rashness, but courage.
** This situation arises frequently when there is something in the recapitulation of a sonata-form movement that is like, yet not like something in the exposition. Even in the extreme case where the notes are exactly the same in both places, there is still a subtle difference between something we heard once, and then being reminded of it, or calling something we have experienced in the past. It is as if we have “grown” or “matured” through time, not through the years of our life, but in the extremely condensed maturation process of a single movement of a piece. The result is that we can “look back” with at something that occurred “many, may minutes ago”, and see it (hear it) with a greater understanding and familiarity.
*** The piece was Bach’s Italian Concerto, second movement.
“In music, an ostinato [ostiˈnaːto] (derived from Italian: stubborn, compare English, from Latin: ‘obstinate’) is a motif or phrase that persistently repeats in the same musical voice, frequently in the same pitch.”
***** I changed the pitch of my ostinato sometimes to one that was more in concord with the passage he was playing, when it modulated, when it a spent a brief time a new harmonic region. I could of also done this interaction at the second piano. In that case I might have exaggerated the effect of what I was doing by playing not single notes appropriate chords in root position containing four notes Root-Fifth-Third-Root. It would be a D-minor chord at the start of the piece, then later varying it with the piece’s modulatory ambitions. At times I allow the upper two notes of the chord to articulate in a different rhythm than the ostinato rhythm, just enough to give a suggestion of the rhythm of the soloist’s right hand melody.
In the first movement of Bach’s Italian Concerto, there are two places where one plays in series three identical mordants.*
Ideally, we want to play each of the three mordants with freshness and brio (liveliness or spirit). To do this it is useful that each one of the three has a certain difference or freedom from the others. When doing the second or third, there should be no memory either in the hand or in the ear of the exact nature of the one or two preceding it. In an important way, each of the three should be created as the first one. This principle can be generalized: every note is the first note of the piece. The piece is being created by us on the keyboard on the spot: ex nihlio (out of nothingness).
When something new happens, especially if happens suddenly, it occupies our full attention at the center of our consciousness. This is true of a sensation that repeats. At first it takes over a large portion of our attention. However if the sensation keeps on repeating, especially if with little or no change, we become inured to it fairly quickly: it recedes into the background of consciousness where it may remain unnoticed, or be forgotten altogether. It is only if the sensation changes or stops entirely will we suddenly become aware (sic) of its absence. (aware of its absence … an interesting philosophical concept).
What is the advantage of being first? The first has a quality of freshness, newness, that is often a prized quality (especially as we grow older). It is like watching the sun rise in the morning after a night of darkness, versus looking at the sun in the middle of the day when we have gotten a number of hours to get used to its presence.
For the pianist playing the mordants, this ‘newness’ has several aspects. In the repetition there should be no accumulated tension in the hand from the repetition before it. More importantly, psychologically, there should be “no obligation to the past”: we do not need to feel that we have to make the second instance sound just like the first (or the third like the second, or like the first and second). That it is an easier thing to do to do if we do it over and over exactly the same, than to look for newness. However, for freshness,** we should want to have forgotten what is in the immediate past, what the first mordant sounded like as we craft the second one.
Some habits take years to form (and sometimes years to undo). However, on a shorter time scale, one measured in seconds, our mind, always on the alert for a possible “pattern”, tries to create one, a pattern based on the immediate past which we makes us have a prediction of what will happen in the next moment.
At heart every iteration of the mordant happens in a new way. We want to break the shackles***of memory. Each mordant stands alone in time, perfect and new: as is the promise in the newness of a sunrise. The pinnacle of being new is that of it being unforeseen. No obligation to memory. Warding off comparison with the past. And if it happens that something repeats, there was no obligation for it to repeat.
As pianists we are frequently asked to repeat a short phrase or a chord over and over. Like the opening of the “Waldstein” by Beethoven. Or like the oscillation between the interval of a third and sixth in Chopin’s, toccata-like Etude, Op 10, No. 7 in C Major. Most of all, how we go about executing a long trill, with an obligation to make each next two notes sound like all the ones the preceded it in time. A short two-note melody repeating incessantly, in which a portion of the past continuously overlay and replaces the new, next moment in time.***
But as for this ‘newness’ it can apply at all levels of time-scale. As with the recapitulation of a Classical period sonata-form movement which often involves the literal repetition of material heard earlier in the movement.
Based on what we have said so far, it would appear that the secret to executing such repeating figurations, is for both the ear and the hand to forget that there is any repetition going on. Each event is unforeseen; as if there has been what we might best term an amnesia of what came before. A person with short term memory loss forgets that he has said something moments or minutes earlier. It is odd, but we need to selectively cultivate this state when playing. If we do not think that something is repeating, then every time we execute it, it is not effected by what has happened before.
* In this instance the mordant is an ornament that consists of a note in the score, then a note just below it, followed by the original note.
** The association between time and music is closer than the relation any other art has with time. Time, at heart, is that which brings change and newness. The closer we are to an ongoing sense of newness the deeply we live in the flow of time (see the writings of the French philosopher Henri Bergson).
*** The poem “London” by William Blake expresses what the absence of newness can do to our minds. We are left with no choices, everything has been determined already by our actions in the past, or the actions of others. Line 8 is especially relevant.
I wander thro’ each charter’d street, Near where the charter’d Thames does flow. And mark in every face I meet Marks of weakness, marks of woe.
In every cry of every Man, In every Infants cry of fear, In every voice: in every ban, The mind-forg’d manacles I hear
How the Chimney-sweepers cry Every blackning Church appalls, And the hapless Soldiers sigh Runs in blood down Palace walls
But most thro’ midnight streets I hear How the youthful Harlots curse Blasts the new-born Infants tear And blights with plagues the Marriage hearse