Tag: piano lesson

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?

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Shaping an Ostinato-like Section of Repeated Groups of Four Sixteenth Notes

S.E.’s lesson on 9/7/19: Rachmaninoff 3rd concerto. first movement: when the endless sixteenths begin after the first statement of the main theme.

There is a lot of “interlacing” of the hands. I don’t mean simultaneous interlacing, I mean within four consecutive sixteenths some may be with the left hand some may be with the right hand.

This requires laying down a foundation of groups of four clearly stated sixteenths, whose musical contour, crescendo and decrescendo, is always sculpted the same regardless of what the notes are and which hands are playing particular notes. I spoke the words “one two three four”  monotonously, over and over, as S. played through the passage.  This should be done prior to any attempt at phrasing. The one of the four should always sound like the first of a group of four. The two of the four should always sound the second of a group of four. Etc..  This establishes first an unyielding base, over which the more musical details can then flicker and modulate.

While doing this first phase it was noticeable to me exactly where his playing of a sixteenth note was not exactly together with my count.  At today’s session, this took place mostly with the placement of the two following upon the one, of the four sixteenth note groups.

As a way of ‘shading’ from the first stage (mechanically and
metronomically) to stage two, where music ideas played over that surface of rigid evenness, I started counting, not mechanically or in an uninvolved or apathetic tone of voice, as if it were my job, or duty, simply to count evenly, but with shaping, phrasing and expressivity in my voice. I made this  transition without abandoning the syllables “one”, “two”, “three”, “four”. I “rounded” each spoken four note group into a resonant, glittering shape. But rather than shape the phrase in response to inner meaning of each group of pitches, I was more at using a “one size fits all” (one shape fits all) method. My voice was full of emotional expression but it was as if each time I repeated the four syllables, it was less a repeat, but more at an attempt to perfect one, constant, musical shape.

Stage three is to let the two meanings blend, the more idealized emotional and structural content of each perfectly shaped group of four, and how each group different from the others in terms of musical meaning when one added the specific pitches Rachmaninoff chose. The most convenient analogy for what the result is, is seeing an early Italian Renaissance painting by a master, in which the body, for instance of the Virgin, is fully clothed, but the folds of the drapery of the clothes perfectly intimate the shape of the body beneath it.

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Emotional Expression; Changing from Flats to Sharps

CP’s lesson 8/29/19 “Claire de Lune”

C: Everything I do, both in general, and specifically at the piano I when practice, is rational, organized and methodological. This includes the fact that once I start something I must complete it regardless of the months it takes me.   Moreover, I’ve never noticed any emotional expression in my playing, and I feel it is a lack on my part.

J: Your contention about emotional expression is belied by the natural beauty of your sound quality, and how unerringly you hit just the right feeling-tone of the piece you are playing.

(C seemed pleased that I thought so)

J: So if you believe that the last mentioned traits exist in your playing,  where  do think they come from; how do you get them?*

C: I don’t know. Partially because I don’t know when I’m getting them.

J: Exactly! You are not supposed to know, because they do not come from a part of you that is identifiable with words.  If so, would you be OK if we use words like irrational or non-conscious, to signify why you cannot tell  precisely where they come from within yourself. A bigger question: is it OK with you to have these two contrasting natures in yourself: one organized, under your control, and available to consciousness, the other, just as potent, but uncontrollable because inaccessible to your conscious or rational mind?

(She always knew about the organized one but had been very concerned that might not have the other. She was pleased to know she did have it, as well)

J: These two do not necessarily have to contradict each other or conflict with each other. Any conflict we sense comes from the rational side of our selves, when we try to define one in the terms of the other. In truth, each can amplify and encourage the other.

(She described an analogous situation in her life)

C: In my business life I frequently have to get to understand the
inner workings and organization of a large, international company.
The task seems daunting. There are too many interconnecting parts,
each pair seeming to interrelate in its own way and according to its
own customs. However, given enough time, I find that I begin to
grasp the whole and the parts.

J: My guess is that the foundational work you did was largely rational, but the insight that eventually came about how the company, despite its many parts, worked as an organic unity, came unexpectedly and was not directly
caused by its conscious antecedents in time. Again, we do not know from where this insight comes from, but it represents a direct intuition of the companies inner, organic unity.

In Claire de Lune there is a moment when the key signature changes
abruptly from five flats to four sharps. C. says this change causes
her great difficulty.

Here began a diagnosis.

1) I picked a passage in the flats section: in your imagination, rather than thinking about the key signature, just put, in your imagination, a flat sign in front of each and every note in the score. Note that this produces a somewhat different sequence of notes than what Debussy wrote.  C had little trouble doing this.

2A) Then we picked a passage in the sharps section. Now do the same thing again, only with sharps.  Put an imaginary sharp sign in front of every note you see in the passage and don’t think any longer about key signatures.  This too, though producing a passage that sounded different than the piece she was used to, offered her no difficulty.

2B) Play the same passage again as in #2A, but this time, in your imagination, put a flat sign rather than a sharp sign in front of every note. She had little little difficulty doing this.

Just so you know, all of these three things are much harder to do than play the score as written. So you have all the mental equipment necessary to  make a successful shift from flats to sharps.  Yet it is still giving you trouble.  We must explore further.

She said: the confusion occurs at the moment it changes key. It’s barely marked in the score. I’ve gotten so used to being in the flats for the last few pages,  I need just as long a period to get used to the sharps.

I said: this is very useful.  It’s time for me to ask a stupid question.  Do you start practicing the piece starting from the change of key, or do you usually start at the beginning of the piece?

She: the latter.  Remember, once I start something I have to see it through the end.

I think you have just diagnosed your problem as well as solved having found the solution to the problem.  Simply get in the habit of sometimes starting your practicing from the beginning of the sharp section until you are used to that part as you are to the opening section.

An aside.

She asked me how I handle this sort of situation. I said: it’s probably different for a professional musician, and different from one professional to the next.  Here is a part of my process  in handling keys and changes of key  that had remained unconscious to me for many years, but which after starting teaching others, became more accessible to my consciousness.

Here is a simple example.  I encounter a piece in G Major.  One sharp.  F  sharp.  I am sight reading the piece.  I come, in the score to an “F”.  It  genuinely does not look like an F.   It looks like something else: it looks like  an F-sharp.  There is nothing in the vicinity of the note on the page to cause   it to look any different.   But nothing you can say to me, will change the  impression that it looks different than an F natural.  There is little my mind can do to make it look again like an F and not an F#.  It is as if its printed in a  different color.   It produces a different emotional state in my mind.  It is  as if the # sign was printed just left of the note.

That indicates how a strongly I am affected from the start by hearing the  piece sound in the key of G major.  It is the obvious presence to my ear that we are in a tonal world known as “G Major”, and how that affects every note  in the piece, not just F#.

* With certain students I do teach things like being musical, understanding that inner thing-in-itself of the music.  I am surprisingly successful in doing this.  But when I have a student in front of me who does these  naturally, the worst thing I can do is make them aware of it in a way that includes how I think they are achieving it.

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Flow, Versus a Sequence of Separate Notes

H.P’s lesson on 8/13/19 Menuet from Ravel: Tombeau de Couperin

Joe: “Our recent work has focused on flow versus the pointillism of
notes.  As we go on today, let’s use two very restricted definitions of
these two terms, ‘Notes’ will simply mean knowing what notes to play
at the next moment and ‘flow’ will simply mean getting to those notes
from the preceding notes without even the most minimal of hesitation.

For many pianists it is a long held view that they must master the
“notes” before attempting the musical qualities of the piece, the
latter of which includes the manner of flow of the sounds through
time.

Depending on the student I have been known to reject this premise on the ground that unless the musical qualities of a piece enter into our intuition of the piece at the beginning of the learning process, by the time the pianist masters the notes, the musical characteristics of the piece have suffered from neglect to the point that it is now hard to install or instill this musicality into the slow setting cement of the notes only.

What I am pleased to notice is how lately you have been working from “both ends at once,”  gains in note accuracy are bootstrapping gains in musical flow, while at the same time working for the flow is bootstrapping note  accuracy. You have found a way to working simultaneously for both goals, and thereby leaving the question of “which came first, the music or the notes”, into the category of similar questions like “which came first the chicken or the egg.”

About a third of the way into the lesson we focused on the middle section of the movement and in particular who to connect one chord with another  without any break in the flow of the sound.  Joe: “we must make ourselves take responsibility for never allowing any a break in the sound flow. What I  am hearing when you play this passage are periodic, brief  hesitations  before continuing on to the next chord.. You seem to exert a lot of focus and  energy on playing a group of chords with good continuity of sound, but  then  need to take a pause to recharge your batteries.  It is as if to say: “I’ve  been working very hard, physically and mentally,  through these last few  chords, I need a break.”

When we take that pause, we push the question of the flow temporarily out of our consciousness and awareness. We do not notice that we are pausing.  It exists in a momentary blind (sic) spot brought on by fatigue.  The question is whether the listener hears the pause, notices that we are   momentarily clinging to the current notes before going on to the next  notes.

The answer is that they always know though in different ways and to different conscious degrees. Some not only hear the pause but are upset at  the application of the brakes to the flow, and have a difficulty in  reestablishing their attention afterwards. For others the reaction is more  subconscious. For some reason, of which they are not aware, there is a  slackening in their attention to the music, which just happens to occur at  the same point in the score where the pianist has broken the flow.  For some  the reaction is even less actively conscious.  They will not notice the  hesitation in any way as it happens, but further on in the piece they notice that their emotional reaction to the music has taken a negative turn.  They will ascribe this to either the piece itself, or their inability to listen  sensitively to the music.

The pianist’s ears must always be on “sentry duty”, otherwise it increases the likelihood that they will not notice  deviations from the constancy of the  sound flow. When this happens the sound flow can become distorted.   knowing and being on alert is the best way to prevent something happening in the first place.

Some necessary connections will always seem un-doable to us; just beyond the realm of the possible, as will some of the chord connections in this middle section.  Without going into the specific physical procedures to make these connections easy (something which usually forms a large segment of my teaching), it may be enough simply to say to yourself “I must do this”, “there is no option but that it has to happen smoothly”. And if we leave ourselves no way out, the body discovers the solution for itself, without conscious awareness by us of the how.  Most of us when practicing a difficult group of notes will suddenly play it once the way we want it to sound.   We also have experienced that trying to repeat this success often fails.  We don’t learn the right way through repetition.  Nonetheless we should pause after the successful rendition and absorb the very important fact that we are capable of doing it.  It may be too early in the learning process to be able to reproduce it whenever we want.  The one success is enough, however, to open the path to a confident discovery of the recipe for the solution.  I can try to accelerate this progress by explaining or demonstrating to the pianist what things were happening physically when it came out correctly.   The problem with any explanation though is that regardless of the teacher, some part of the solution remains unconscious to that particular teacher, and is therefore left out of the explanation.

A timely aside:

There is a peculiar blending of time tenses that occurs when we try to maintain the flow of the sound through obstacles in its path. When we are about to play a challenging connection, we should, at the same moment, already be hearing that connection happening, and furthermore, evaluating whether it happened without any signs of interruption. Looking at this a little more closely, the present tense is transmuted, in part, to the past tense (if our imagination is already hearing it). The immediate future is prematurely transmuted into part of the present tense. And the somewhat less immediate future (as we evaluate or notice that it flowed well) is made part of a bloated present tense. Beyond this I can only say that this weird stew of time tenses it is one of the fundamental mysteries of time in the consciousness of the performing musician.

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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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