Tag: Piano Playing

The Balance Between Hands

B.A.’s Lesson on 3/21/19

His piece: Mozart: Adagio In B Minor:

Sound and time:

Though you are playing the piece, there is no physical intent on the body’s part at any time.  The piece just flows through time as if carried along by the inner pressure and necessity of time itself.  No note that sound wants to ever stop sounding!*  This is true of short and very short notes as well as long notes.  Every note wants its day basking in the sunshine of listener awareness.

Balance of sound between the hands:

A.B. is concerned that his left hand isn’t dexterous (sic) enough to balance with what the right hand is doing.  The only solution that he could think of was that he should practice the left hand alone until it is the way he wants it to be.  But I felt that there is no way of knowing what the left hand should sound like until it is heard together with the right hand.  The sounds of one hand color the contemporary sounds in the other hand.  There is no way of observing how the left hand will sound in ensemble with the other hand, when it sounds alone.

The balance of sounds between the hands has its mechanical side.  Imagine a point in space midway between the hands and on the  keyboard.  For the hands to sound balanced, everything having to do with one side of the body needs to be balanced with everything having to do with the other side of the body.  The imaginary point midway is the balance point to regulate the two sides.  Or you can think of it as the imaginary center of gravity of the two hands.  Sometimes it helps to imagine that it is the point at the center of gravity, and not the separate actions of the hands, that is going up and down to produce the sounds, and when you do this the sounds will occur absolutely simultaneously and in balance.   All this hands, without, or because of avoiding trying to do anything special to regulate one hand or the other.

Balance of sound within a single hand:

A.B. had to play an Alberti-like bass where the following notes are repeated in the left hand |: d3-fs3 a3 :|.  I said you will never know how to balance the a3 with the other two notes until you have already heard the a3 sounding with the other two notes – before you first play the a3.  This is “gestalt-ing” the chord (in this case d3-fs3-a3 or even a grander D major chord spread over many octaves).  Though time fragments it, the whole is nonetheless always there; both in your hand and in your ear.

Control of the fingers comes from further up the arm (who controls whom):

There was one place where B.A, said, no matter how he tried, he couldn’t balance a certain two notes.  They were a third apart, and were played together in the left hand.  My solution was eclipse what the individual fingers were trying by putting the hand into a loose ball or fist.   With the fingers thus neutralized in the presence of the entire hand, flex and un-flex the fingers, all ten at once.  Now, at this point, without any other  preparation or intent, play the third that is troubling you.

If the piano mechanism has a center in the torso and then has interconnected parts leading away from that center to a periphery at the fingertips, then the controller of each segment of that mechanism is the next segment closer to the center and further from the fingers.  When things are not coming out how you want, seek further up the arm (forearm, then elbow, then upper arm, then shoulder…).

Fusing the arms together – putting them into another plane of action:

To demonstrate to him that control of one part of the mechanism often lies in another location, and in particular how this principle applied to the behavior and activity of the hands and fingers, I had him fold his arms in front of his chest (right hand to the left and left hand to the right).  With the arms thus fused, and lying along a horizontal plane, take particular notice of the two elbows.  Gently and weightlessly transport the elbows to the keyboard, with the help of the leaning over the piano.  Now start moving the fused mass of the arms in a way that causes the elbows to push down random clusters if sounds on the piano.  Then, without further thought, without planning anything that your fingers are going to do, play the current passage in the piece.  The difference was striking.  The piece moved in a stately and even flow, which manifested the very flow of time itself.  Every note was subsumed in this inexorably moving flow that brought along with it every note – every note in its right place.

Fusing the arms together – so the hands act as one:

Another means to the same end, that of making the sounds cohere within the flow of time, is to have two hands move absolutely together as if fused, even if there is a separation in space between them.  Have them play random notes that imitate the feel of the rhythmic  coordination of the passage.  “But what about rests in one hand”, he asked.  There is no reason to stop the motion of the hands, though at one moment or another, one hand, though moving, does not produce a sound.

Where did your pinkie go?:

Sometimes your right pinkie, gets detached (figuratively speaking) from the rest of the hand and this causes it to play a note without good control over how it sounds.  Try placing your pinkie silently on the note it is to play.  Now see if, by using mostly the muscles in the pinkie, you can get your entire hand, and even your entire arm, to move around in space.  This will help reestablish an equilibrium between the pinkie and the rest of the hand.  And the entire hand will control how the pinkie makes it sounds.

The persistence of a chord:

Sometimes a chord (or even just a single note of a chord), that sounds at the beginning of a measure, wants to persist through the entire measure as if that measure was nothing more than a comment upon the existence and persistence of that chord.

* Unamuno, the Spanish writer and philosopher, in his book “The Tragic Sense of Life” refers to a passage in Spinoza in which the latter says something to this effect: every being, in that it is a being, strives to persist in its own being.  And that this is the essence of that being (to persist as such through time).

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Wandering Hands in a Performance

Certain pianists are so dependent on their physical sense of where their  hands are on the keyboard, that if they go off track in a piece, by playing a note or notes incorrectly, it is difficult or almost impossible for them to get back on track so that they can continue into the next measure without having to stop and go back.  This was the case with “B.” today.

We analyzed the situation, tried to think of remedies, but found that we had to reject one after another because they were too hard to implement.    We finally distilled down the essence of the problem to a point where a first “exercise” suggested itself to us: a first, simple enough, and thus doable exercise to help with the general problem.

This is the procedure we concocted:

He closed his eyes, and reached out in a random direction with his right arm and played a single note on the keyboard.  Now, often a person will “feel out the immediate neighborhood” of the physical key on which they have put their finger, to confirm its identity by seeing whether its nearest neighbors are black and/or white notes.   But I advised B. to avoid any such almost instinctive exploration.  I wanted the only thing to identify was sound of its pitch.

Next, eyes still closed, he brought his right arm back to his side and then reached out with his left arm to try to play a note that he thought might be in the same general area of the keyboard as the one his right hand played.

He listened to this new sound, and made just one judgment: is this new sound higher in pitch, lower or the same as the first sound.  Repeat this exercise many times.*

When comfortable with this procedure, a next step could be begun: start making a series of corrections to the “second” note until it is identical with the first note.  This is still done with the eyes closed.  If the second note was recognized as being higher in pitch than the first note, then try another note after moving further left on the keyboard.  If that is still higher, try another further to the left.  If it is now lower than the first pitch, then try an adjustment to the right.  Basically we are in what is a sound-driven feedback process of gradually better guesses as to the pitch of the first sound.

There are many more steps and gradations of exercises that we will have to invent over the next few months, but the ultimately the pianist, if they make a mistake in playing the current note or notes of a piece in a performance, will be able to course correct while as soon as they hear the wrong note and almost immediately recalculate how far they have to move on the keyboard to put things back on track by the next note.

What is gradually being developed is a close association of aural cues with a clear mental image of the keyboard. There will be less need of looking down at the hands to figure out what notes are being played instead of others, and then try to make course corrections.

* By the time he had repeated the first exercise about ten times he was able to add information to his feedback … such as: “the second sound is higher than the first but by a single half step”.

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