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A Chopin Nocturne; the Boundary Between Heard and Imagined Sound

S.B.’s lesson on 7/11/19: Chopin: Nocturne in C Minor, Op. 48 / 1.

#1. Beginning

The piece begins with two solitary c-s (c2-c3). A beat later C is joined by other notes belonging to a C Minor chord. At what point do we begin to hear or sense the full C Minor chord? We may think that one beat is not a long time. That very soon after we play c2, any ambiguity as to identity of the harmony during the first half of the measure will disappear, as the hands complete the C Minor chord on the second beat. But subjectively that first beat can last a long time. Either the pianist, or the listener already quite familiar with the piece, must imagine the rest of the C Minor chord sounding (c2–g3-ef4-g4–g5) before the second beat arrives, while only the C naturals on the first beat are still in the outer ear.

The same applies for all the other half measures in the opening. The pianist should have a pre-vision (sic) – a “pre-audition” – of the full chord in their imagination, as if it is already fully sounding into their outer ear. One of the most subtle and masterly things a pianist works with when constructing with sound is the middle ground between heard and imagined sound. Memory and anticipation are always weaving together in the consciousness of duration in time. The boundary between the two should not be fixed and definite, but blurred. What the pianist imagines has a tangible effect on what the listener thinks they are hearing.

#2. Things that can spoil a legato in a long phrase.

The first phrase is four measures long. There are several places within it where it requires increased additional focus to keep the sense of legato flow alive.

A. Measure one and the first half of measure two

The presence of a rest can indicate two very different things. One
is to force a break in a melody: to consider something as being two
separate things rather than one continuous thing. The other is to
increase the sense of connection in the melody by having to overcome
an obstacle or gap that has been superimposed upon the melody. It is
like the electric charge crossing the gap in a spark plug. It is like
water building up behind a dam. A pressure, or force, builds up
behind the stoppage of the first note which makes going on to the next
note even more inevitable and accomplished with greater momentum.

B. The first two notes in measure two

The g5 comes in as a quarter note but starts on the and of one. If
you think of this quarter note as two eighth notes tied together, the
easiest place to loose the legato is as the first half of the quarter
note ties over the end of beat one into the first part of beat two.
It is in effect a tie to connect two beats. The force of the flow of
that sound has to spill over the boundary between the two beats. It
is not enough to hear one note, but as if that note began a sudden
crescendo just prior to its second half. It is the rhythm and the
meter that forces this imaginary crescendo upon the otherwise formless
sound that lasts two eighth notes.

C. The tied d5 in measure two going to the ef5.

Immediately after the imaginary crescendo during the first d5 in
measure two, we encounter another situation which can attenuate a
continuous legato. It occurs when a relatively long note is followed
by a relatively short note. In this case the first d5 of the measure
is the longer note, lasting for three sixteenths, and the following
ef5 not only is one sixteenth long, but it also comes in after a tie. A
double whammy.

We normally rely on there being enough resonance left to a note to
effect a soldering of one note in a legato to the next. Otherwise the
sudden change from the end of a longer note. which has already
decayed, to the sudden attack of the next note sounds too much like an
sudden accent and defeats the attempt at the legato. To overcome this
difficulty, the pianist’s ear must track the full duration of the
longer note, instant to instant and, in their imagination, sustain
(prop up) the loudness of the note so as to counterbalance the
decrescendo of the decay. Then they must connect this heightened form
of the end of this note not to the attack of the following note but
the level of sound the next note will have a moment after the attack.
Even when it is just a short note.

D. The repeated c5-s in measure three.

When playing the same note several times in row, do we let the legato
come solely from the pedal? Or do we use the more cumbersome but
elegant way of controlling the key dip and not resorting to the pedal.
Or perhaps some of both? This is the pianist’s decision. The purer
legato is always attained by manipulating the key in question so that
at the instant that the key is released, and a minimal fraction of
inch before it reaches the top of the key dip, the arm is already
overriding the upward motion of the key with a strong downward force
to send the key down again.

E. The g4 in measure four going to the the grace note bf4.

This falls under the heading of a relatively longer note going to a relatively shorter note (see letter ‘C’ above). Pianists will often inadvertently make the legato connection occur from between the note before the grace note to the note to which the grace then goes to. The more sublime legato connection is from the note before to the grace note itself, in spite of its very short duration.

#3. Other things contributing to maintaining constancy of flow in the piece.

A.

The way the pianist releases a chord unintentionally affect the way they
attack of the next chord. Thus, when playing the chords on the offbeats in beginning of the piece, don’t “telegraph” the release of the left hand chords into the attack that started the same chord.  Regardless of the duration the pianist wishes to hold these chords (some editions show them staccato) there should be two physically dissimilar gestures, one for the attack, one for the release, with a stasis in between them.

B.

The middle section of the Nocturne, where a series of wide chords is
arpeggiated from one hand into the other. The broken chord is
difficult, regardless of the distances between the notes and fingers,
if the chord is first rendered as a melody of single notes, starting
with the bottom note written in the left hand for that chord, and
ascending leisurely a pitch at a time until finishing the melody with
the highest note of the chord that is written in the right hand. The
pedal can be kept down. The finger that has just played one of the
notes can come off that note the moment the next finger has started
its note. This discourages over-stretching the hand when the melody
is turned back into a chord.

C. The section with double octaves.

S.B. has a small hand and was reluctant to learn the piece.

She pointed out that her fingers are hyper-flexible. Watching her
carefully as she played the octaves, I found myself wanting to say, for
the first time to a student, “You may want to not use all  that flexibility.”

I called her attention to the shape of her hand and wrist when playing
an octave, in particular along the length of the fingers and a projection of that axis through the hand and wrist. Her wrist was elevated. The third knuckles of her fingers were at a lower altitude in comparison to the wrist, but because the third knuckles hyperextended to a strong degree her second knuckles were at a much higher altitude than the third knuckles.

I suggested that this contour had innate disadvantages when seeking the greatest extension between the fingers without inducing tension. That without coercing anything, she could encourage a shape from wrist to fingers that was more in the spirit of being like, or in the direction of a
straight angle. To coax her hand into that shape, she could rest the
three middle fingers on the surfaces of random keys lying in between
the pinky note and the thumb.

This improved the sound of her octaves, as well as their quality of
resonance, evenness, and her alacrity in changing from one octave to
the next.*

* Often when I said I noticed a difference she did not. Sometimes it
wasn’t so much that she didn’t notice the improvement, but that the
improvement was short of her ultimate goal and desire. This time
however, she smiled and said, “Oh, that was much better, and much
easier too”.

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Sometimes Fundamentals Need to Come First

A.B.’s lesson on Thursday 7/25/19 Orientale (Albeniz)

A.B. prefers to “front-load” his practicing. His first consideration in learning a new piece is to decide on all the details: not only fingering, notes and rhythm, but things like crescendos, dynamics, which notes to feature in a phrase front loading, what touch to use on what note, etc., etc..

While there is much to recommend in this sort of approach, especially
when one is a good sight reader, it is a disadvantage when certain
more fundamental things are left unattended. In A.B.’s case the thing
that is most neglected is evenness, whether in the form of evenness of
touch, evenness of sound, evenness of note durations (when they are
supposed to be the same), etc.. For me evenness is in the category of
axioms: things that are given because of their obviousness. They are
not the later theorems that are built on the bedrock of the axioms.

When he puts the end results before the beginning requirements he
becomes frustrated that he cannot properly execute the details as he
has defined them for himself.

His analytical musical brain leads him directly to hear that one detail mars an otherwise perfectly rendered phrase (this reminds me of my mother, may she rest in peace).

The curative for A.B. is the one word mantra “details?”. If he is in the midst of figuring out the fingering for a measure, he should chasten himself by saying out loud “detail”, meaning “not yet” (for pursuing this too early leads to such an uneven playing field that the listener cannot discern any of his musical intentions).

Or, “which note should sound the loudness among these four notes” …
interrupt the thought with “details”, therefore not yet: “I don’t have
to wait very long, but first make sure the notes sound even”.

The same when playing a scale: “how should I connect this one
particular note to the next?” (so it is like all the previous
connections). “Should I start the crescendo on this note of the
phrase or the next?”, “Details!” – not yet. First get the notes even.

For A.B., premature concern with details leads to looking for a purely
physical solution to each problem as he perceives it, with the ear
playing little role in checking the results of these physical actions.  Details cause him to loose the overall impression rather than help complete the later.

What feels even may not sound even; what sounds even may not feel
even.

Here is an example of how to attain evenness in a recalcitrant
passage.

In measure 32 the pinky of the left hand is required to hold a note
in the bass, while at the same time playing a scale upwards in the
baritone/tenor range which becomes more and more distant from the
pinky until it is beyond the hand’s span .

Right now he has decided to play the scale with just two fingers (one and two). I suggested he do the scale with just the thumb. It sounds implausible, but it came out perfectly even. I said: can you now, with the added luxury of having two (or more) fingers work with, imitate the effect in sound you just attained with one finger.

The moral is: it is hard to play unevenly a series of notes all with the same finger.

Here is a general example how to get evenness when playing a rhythmic
figure.

As you play the figure, convince yourself you are not playing a particular example of a more general version of that rhythm (a certain combination of
different note values), but rather that you are playing the very prototype of that rhythm. That any other conceivable version of this same rhythm, regardless of the pitches involved … and their are an endless number of them … should be a only a copy of the original prototype that you are now playing.

In music, always think of an instance of a rhythm pattern as the model on which any other copy of that rhythm, played any time in past or future, has to be copied. Thus the rhythm as we hear it now  must be a perfect model of that rhythm : an alive and “dynamic” sounding of the rhythm – abstract and specific at the same time.

The rhythm you play now, in the present tense of the artistic flow of
time, is the only one the listener can hear. It must be capable of acting as the only model available to the person of the essence of that rhythm.  From your model flows all other examples of that rhythm. As long as your model is perfect any copies made of it will be OK.

I enhanced this procedure for bringing a rhythm alive (and thereby
capable of reproduction) by pounding the rhythm on his shoulders as he
played. The idea was to leave his playing mechanism no choice but for
the notes to show up at their right times.

I sometimes amplified the pounding by speaking nonsense syllables, as
if I were tracing out or dictating to an actor on stage the dramaturgical curve of the meaning and action of what they are saying.

Further observation – on his fingering:

Joe: A lot of your uncertainty about what finger to use next, or more
basically, what note to play with what finger, may disappear sooner by
memorizing the notes when you first start learning the piece. Your
least fluent playing occurs at the same time when I notice your eyes
going wildly back and forth between the score and your hands.

It is important to pick a doable sized chunk of notes to memorize.
Doing that will ameliorate the difficulty many players have starting
up a piece from a randomly chosen spot in a score.

After memorizing it, see what happens if you play that ‘chunk’ with
your eyes remaining on your hands. When we tried this, the results
were very encouraging. Things were not perfect, but they were
substantially better.

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Shifting Perspective to Play Easier

Albeniz: Orientale (At A.B.’s lesson of 6/20/19)

#1.

A.B. begins his process of learning a new piece by getting ‘hooked’ on
a detail: what did Albeniz mean here, near the beginning, by joining
two sets of notes with a slur mark but, under the first of the two puts a staccato – it is illogical. He’s seen the staccato on the second of two notes under a slur but never the first.

I get instantly trapped into his way of framing the issue. So I come up with a spread of possible explanations ranging from general comments about the inexactitude of that part of music notation that doesn’t deal with pitches and rhythms, to a mistake by the printer.   The latter A.B. corrects: but, he says, it is a Henle edition and the edition is based directly on Albeniz’s manuscript. Being thus cut off at the pass, I attempt to turn his entire process upside down. Why don’t you, I said to him, start with the effect of the piece as a whole. Once that effect is clear to you, extrapolate from this
overall effect to any specific detail you happen to pick up. Make a judgement about that detail that keeps it in line with the overall mood and effect of the piece.

#2

He becomes fixated on the different possible ways of playing the repeating D minor chord at the opening. It is too big for his hand. Should he roll the chord? Play the top note with the right hand? Meanwhile, over inside my head, the only thing I am noticing, as he tries one technique after the other, is that at no time does he effect a balance and unity between the notes of the chord and the notes of the upper melody. Eventually I say this: listen instead to the effect of the d4 (at the beginning of the melody) with the d2, a2 and f3, in the chord that sounds with it. Do all four notes unite into a
balanced, D minor chord? And the same question about the second melody note, the e4, and the chord that is still sustaining. Would anything be gained by keeping your ear on the formation of these overbraced chords between all the notes in both hands, both when the melody in the right hand has a chord tone in its melody and when it has a tone of embellishment. Hear the latter, as being the latter: a purposeful dissonance adding to the richness of the complexion of the chord.

A way of snaking up on this effect is to separately practice the connection between just the d2 and the e4 in the melody.  Additionally, if you care to, practice the connection between the a2 (extracted from the chord) to the e4 in the melody (or the same for the f3 and the e4). When A.B. tried this, suddenly all the other problems which he had both went defined and then worried about, went away.

As in number 1, above, often the solution to a perceived problem lies in a shift of perspective, an approach coming from an entirely different point of view than first used. We get stuck with our way of perceiving a problem in our playing the piece, and magnify rather than eliminate the problem by focusing in greater and greater detail on problem as seen from this perspective.  Yet often has to wave an arm and dispel the view one has of the passage. To form a new perspective on so that it appears in a totally new light.

#3

There are in this piece frequent passages in which a note is held in the bass while the remaining fingers of the left hand in conjunction with different combinations of fingers in the right hand play a series of parallel triads (often in inversion).

As is his wont, A.B. searching for the fluidity of connection between these triads in the fingering that he is using. I suggested a shift of point of view. Think, I said, of the enunciation of each triad as being broken down into two distinct parts. One is the physical action causing the onset of the sounds of the triad, and the other, a separate, equally specific physical action causing, at a specific moment after the first, the release of those sounds. It is as important that the three sounds of the triad terminate at exactly the
same moment in time as each other, as it is for them to start at exactly the same moment. Without the terminating motion, the different fingers playing the triad all have their own habitual way of letting go of their sound.

Suddenly fingering was no longer an important issue. We had side stepped it. Releasing the notes of the triads at a specific moment unconsciously caused him to control what fingering he was using on each next triad.* The way the pianist ends a triad unconsciously controls the physical way they start the next triad.**

* In the case of number #3. we also experimented with making a single motion (a “heel-toe” motion ***) to play two consecutive triads. This
falls under the heading of the principle of the using the fewest possible motions to execute the largest series of notes.

** Two additional and semi-related points came up while working on
this passage of parallel thirds.

#1 There is a basic difference in effect between a legato achieved
through the use of the pedal and one achieved without the use of the
pedal. It is always best to practice a legato first without pedal: as
best as you can effect it, even when the composer has indicated in the
socre the use of the pedal to sustain one sound into the next. We
want to hear the legato is its purest state before dealing with all
the extra ramifications sound-wise of adding the pedal. Then, feel
free to add the pedal – as much as you want. Just be aware that the
heart of the legato resides in the use of the muscles throughout the
body as well as in the fingers in particular.

#2 on Henle page 1, line 4, measure 2, When one of the fingers playing
the current triad has to, en route to the next triad, ‘dislodge’ from
its current position one of the other fingers playing the current
triad. Feel as if the former finger is able to exert a pressure
through a vacuum to cause the other finger to move out of the way.

*** I refer you here to my forthcoming blog “two or more notes from
one continuous gesture through time”. Among the gestures described is
the one that I refer to here under the nickname of “heel-toe” (a
borrowing from organ foot technique).

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Tidbits From Recent Lessons: Shostakovich, Chopin, Mozart, Bach

R.M: Shostakovich: Prelude # 10

Its syntax is filled with sonic miscues, altered expectations.  Like a peptide chains that have been snipped apart into separate amino acids in order to form unexpectedly new peptide chains.

Each time something unexpected happens can you find your new harmonic footing before the minimum possible number of notes has passed.

.

A.J. Chopin Waltz in C# Minor

Joe: Sometimes you are not sounding all the written notes.  How do you  know if every note sounds, for instance, in an interval or chord?

Ideally your ear knows or can quickly take stock of every note.  Otherwise you can try this: Play the chord and release all but one note.  Is that note sounding?  Is it sounding in a way that you think will balance well with the rest of the sounds in the chord.

Repeat process for each other note in the same chord.

More mechanical based approaches:

-tap each note separately once or twice before sounding the chord.

-have the illusion that you are not playing the chord notes simultaneously but that you are articulating them one at a time.

.

J.M. Mozart: C Minor Fantasie

#1

No matter what you do in the opening two measures, when you get to the B-flats at the beginning of measure 3, forget any connection with the immediate past, the only note that it should connect from is the C-naturals at the beginning of measure 1.  Similarly with the next forthcoming groups of measures until you reach A-flat.

#2

When the right hand settles down into repeating ds4-fs4 as sixteenths, don’t let any of those thirds escape your attention regardless of what the left hand is doing or is in the midst of doing.

#3

The ending of one phrase and beginning the next.  How you start the  next phrase, musically and physically, can be strongly  influenced and controlled by the way you release the last note in the first phrase.  How you end something is a big detriment of how you begin what’s next.

#4

The B-flat major section.

How to create a coherent and flowing melodic line in spite of the variations in the rhythm.

Before playing the melody as a dotted eighth followed by two sixteenths and a quarter note, play those four notes as a triplet followed by a quarter note.  In that form, the descending steps of the B-flat major scale (d5 c5 bf4 a4), assert their simple melodic flow and harmonic coherence.  Then, right away, “capture” what you just heard – but add in the extra parameter of the rhythm.  If done with a calm mind, the melodic flow of the triplets will not be lost in the written rhythm.  It happens ‘automagically’.

.

A.B. First prelude from book One of the Well Tempered.

Liberating the expressivity in the bundled chords.

#1

Choose one note from the measure you are about to play.  Sing and hold that note from the beginning of the measure to the end of the measure while playing at the keyboard the measure as written.  In the next, and next…, measures do the same, either 1) choosing as the note to hold the note that is in a similar place in the measure as the one you held in the previous  measure, or 2) purposefully switching at random to some other note in the next measure (singing and holding that note from the beginning to the end of the measure).

#2

For evenness.

My best advice is, given your propensity for on the spot evaluation and analysis of what you just heard yourself play a moment ago, don’t react to anything;  don’t think, don’t be upset, with anything that has happened, just notice it in passing.  When you do analyze it provokes an attempt on your part to physically alter what you will try to do to sound the next note.  You quickly trap yourself into an endless series of corrections, in anticipation of what may go wrong with each next note, because it went wrong with the current note.  The result is that no note is played in a fresh and unencumbered way.

Stay in the present.  If you don’t, one of the things that will worry you is how you will be able to sustain any evenness you have already achieved for so many more measures to come.

The piece plays itself – without much help from you.

.

A.B. First fugue from book one of the Well Tempered

#1

There are some crazy sections in this fugue, harmonically.  Let things wax expressive when Bach has demanded this by the way out notes and modulations he has written.  If it helps, think that Bach and not you is demanding this heightened expressivity.  It’s his fault (sic).

#2

You say that when you listen to a recording of the fugue things often go by too fast for your ear to pick out each and every theme entrance regardless of in what voice or voices it occurs.  Especially in the stretto sections.

I suggested this procedure:

Listen to your favorite recording.  Mark in the score the first four notes (only)* of each and every theme entrance.  Play along with the recording but only at the moments in the score that you marked; just four notes.  For the rest of time just listen to the sound of the music flow by.

 

* Playing more than four notes can lead to technical difficulties if the tempo of the recording is faster than you are playing the work.  It will also confuse things in the strettos.

 

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More Beautiful Sounding Octaves: for the Medium-Size Hand

When I play octaves, there is a tendency, at least in my-sized hand, to have the pinkie and the thumb move towards each other when contact the keys.  But it is worth sometimes practicing in way so that the tip of the pinkie as well as that of the thumb should move in a line along the longitude of their key.  This requires my attention, because the hand is already spread for the octave, and the first and fifth fingers moving slightly towards each other happens naturally.  Especially for the thumb it is a more natural movement.  So, just once in a while, practice octaves so that those fingers move in a plane so that they go directly and horizontally towards the body in an extension of the longitude of their keys.

The muscles needed to move the thumb and pinkie in this direction move in these constrained directions require first, in the case of the right pinkie, an extreme flexion of the third knuckle, down and aimed to the right as it moves in the direction of the body, aided also somewhat by a flexion in the right side of the wrist.  In the case of the right thumb it should practice its motion by slowly tracing  over an imaginary straight line extending beyond the lip the key aimed towards the body.  The third knuckle, where it attaches to the wrist, is prominent in keeping the thumb congruent with this line.  As the motion is made the thumb is always compensating for the desire to move outwards and away from the second finger.

 

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