Riding the forward wave of time: catching the flow of a single note in our consciousness
Awareness of small and smaller subdivisions of time.
First, a bit of metaphysics, courtesy of the French philosopher Henri Bergson (you can skip this paragraph if you want). He says that no matter how deeply we look into smaller and smaller durations of consciousness, we never stop experiencing time as something flowing. It never stops. If anything, the closer we approach what we think is a single instant of time, the more the intensity of its flow increases and immerses us. An analogy might be the ceaseless activity on the atomic and subatomic scale that went by unnoticed until, in the twentieth century, scientists were able to take a closer look.
When we are playing piano, the very act of playing acts to distract us from the close observation of time. Our awareness of time becomes synchronized with our depression of the keys, i.e. at the onsets only of the sounds. As a result, we have a “stop frame” view of time, assuming time has flowed between one frame and the next. This is the same effect as watching a film. For all we know, between one note and the next, time itself has stopped, like the silence we hear between one click of the metronome and the next. Time resumes for us only at the onset – the “attack” – of the next note.
The attack catches our awareness again. It is suddenly louder than what is left of the sound which preceded it. The attacks are like the excited gestures of parents attempting to catch the attention of their baby so they can take a photo.
Time is thus porous to us, it has no palpable taste to us if we are trying to eat just one of the holes in a piece of Swiss cheese.
This view of time as discontinuous, and having only an implied continuity, can lead to problems for the pianist when the tempo of the music is too slow or two fast. If fast, we may not be used to paying full attention to the quality of every sound when the sounds occur in a rapid stream or spray. At a very slow tempo we may have little idea what to do while waiting for the next note to start. A whole note is a good time for a pianist to scratch an itch.
How can we ignore the “attack” sequence of time and have our consciousness penetrate into the hearts of the sounds, that is to say the portion of time after the attack during which the sound is enduring. The only answer can be to listen, and re-listen, to the sound, as often as possible during career of a single note. During the course of even a relatively short note, we can re-hear, or better, re-initiate our awareness of the sound, over and over. Even the notion of a note as a single, “solid” thing will disappear under this type of conscious awareness.
Conscious awareness is like a spotlight shown upon an object. It is like the yellow magic marker that we used in school to highlight text that we wanted to single out from the rest of the page. Even when the note is long and we re-initiate our awareness of it after a second or two has gone by, there is this curious effect. Though technically the note is getting softer and softer, at just that instant, the note seems to suddenly get a bit louder. It didn’t objectively gain in amplitude, but it gained subjective loudness due to the act of attention.
Our moments of re-awareness during the course of a single note are like moments of blowing on a fire to rekindle its strength.
Ultimately, it is not the vibration of the string that keeps the sound going through time, it is our awareness that keeps the sound alive. It is this awareness, which isn’t getting less and less as the note acoustically fades away in intensity, that allows us to connect the end of one note to the beginning of the next note with a degree of fluidity that escapes our powers when we are just trying to match one attack with another.
Does a finger have to strike a key with a vertically downwards motion?
As long as the finger’s motion has a “vertical component,” then almost any motion in any direction can serve to cause a note to sound.
In physics, lines of force are often called ‘vectors’. A vector is represented as a line of a certain length and pointing in a certain direction. The length of the line gives an indication of how strong the force is. The direction of the line indicates the primary direction along which the force is acting.
When a ferry boat crosses a river between two points exactly opposite each other, it is only if there is no current in the water than the boat can simply aim for the opposite shore and go in a straight line. If there is a current flowing, let us say, left to right (as seen by the ferry in motion), then as the boat tries to move in a straight line towards the opposite sure, it is at the same time being pushed to the right by the current in the water. If things remain equal the path that the boat will take comes out as a diagonal.
Lines of force that are acting diagonally are often represented as being “reducible” into two “component” vectors. If drawn on a piece of graph paper, one component is displayed vertically and the other horizontally. The vertical component, in our three dimensional example of the ferry boat, is that part of the motion of the ferry boat which is moving directly towards the opposite shore. The horizontal component is that part of the motion of the ferry boat which is going rightwards because of the influence of the river’s current.
The point in this, as far as it relates to piano technique:
If the pianist, instead of moving a finger straight downwards into the key to sound a note, moves instead along a diagonal route, the finger will still depress the key and the key will produce a sound – but only if there is a vertical “component” (see above) to the direction of the finger’s motion. It’s just that not all the energy of the finger is going downwards.
Is there a reason why diagonal motion would be an advantage over vertical motion?
Consider a lever. There is a person at one end exerting a force downwards; there is a fulcrum at some point between the ends of the lever, and a weight that the person is trying to lift attached to the opposite end of the lever.
If the fulcrum is placed nearer the person applying the force, then a smaller downwards motion by that person results in a larger upwards motion by the weight on the other end. Sounds good, but the effort involved is difficult. If, however, the fulcrum is placed nearer the weight, then a longer motion downwards by the person is ‘mapped’ or condensed into a smaller amount of motion upwards by the weight. In other words it makes the effort not only easier, but, and this is the important part, it affords the possibility of more minute control over the motion of the other end of the lever, or in the case of the pianist, finer control over the downward motion of the key. The result: a more accurate and subtle touch. One affording many more nuanced possibilities of execution.