Tag: piano teacher

Six short blogs about Beethoven’s “Andante Favori” in F Major

#1.  Key Signatures

Some advanced students have trouble changing from one key signature to another, even when they are finished playing one piece and are starting to play another.  The previous sharps and/or flats in the previous piece’s key signature “bleed over”, or persist into the next piece.  For this type of student it is not enough to suggest that they practice scales and get to know key signatures.  One has to reach back further in time to re-build conscious awareness of keys.  Using just one hand, and just one finger from the hand, have the student play, very slowly, one octave’s worth of a scale.  As each note is played the student should say out loud the name of the note being played.  This has less to do with teaching the hand what notes are in the scale and was more about raising to a high state of conscious awareness the “name” of each note.

Only two preliminaries were required to begin this procedure for the major scales in particular:

review of: whole-whle-half-whole-whole-whole-half

the “law of the alphabet”: that each letter in the musical alphabet must show up once in the scale.  The letters should appear, in order and without any omission or doubling.

#2. The use of “Least Common Denominators” to gain control of  rhythmic details.

Counting “beats” out loud is often as difficult as it is unhelpful to straightening out rhythm details.  It is better to “count” the passage of one of the shorter rhythmic values.  J.M. is having difficulty counting the rhythm: dotted sixteenth – thirty second – eighth – eighth.  This appears at the beginning of the Beethoven Andante Favori. Instead of using a counting-ruler that was marked in eighth notes we used a ruler marked in thirty-second notes, four of which equaled one of the eighth notes.

J.M was not used to counting out loud.  She would encounter these obstacles.  1) She couldn’t coordinate doing two things at once, playing a rhythm, and saying a counting.  Even getting the voice to begin speaking while the fingers were playing was difficult.  One took attention away from the other and both would suffer.  2) when she did have her voice and her fingers activated together, the voice tended to follow any inaccuracy in her fingers’ playing of the rhythm.  The fingers were leading the mouth, so to speak.  For counting out loud to work, the voice must take a higher priority than the fingers, so much so that eventually the sounds themselves appeared merely as shadows of what the voice was doing.* They were entirely under dictates of the voice**. 3).  Understanding that what we were counting was not ‘counts’ (I.E. beats), that we were actually counting repeating groups of four thirty-second notes.  That we chose thirty-second notes because 1/32 is the least common denominator if one wants to add together 1/2-s, 1/4-s, 1/8-s, 1/16-s, 1/32-s, and dotted versions of all but the last.***

* I said to J.M.: The louder you say the numbers out loud the better the fingers will cease trying to dictate things to the body and the more the voice takes control so that the notes arrive with the counts.  Also the louder you count out loud the more likely you will notice if there is any unevenness in the way your voice is counting.

** To form a bridge or meeting place between never having counted while playing and doing so competently, as she played the opening notes of the piece I played the notes of the melody an octave higher but I repeated the same note as 2 or more thirty-second notes when the note in the melody was a sixteenth or longer.  As I did this I was using my voice to encourage her voice by my counting the thirty seconds out loud (1 2 3 4).  By relying on following both the notes I was playing and saying the counts I was saying, she broke through the barrier of merging counting and playing.****

*** Funny thing about me and least common denominators.  In grade school I used to think that the phrase least common denominator, meant least-common denominator, and not least common-denominator.  For instance 1/4s seemed to have too much in common with 1/2s to be the least common denominator for the two of them.  Perhaps  something less common, like a 1/16th or a 1/32nd.  I used the term correctly but always with a bit of puzzlement in my mind.

**** I noticed that I changed the inflection of my voice depending on whether she was holding an eighth note, or playing a dotted sixteenth and a thirty second.  In the first case my word ‘one’ was the loudest syllable, and the other three drifted off quieter (though still promptly on time).  Sort of like as if I were taking the 2 3 4 for granted.  In the second case, after putting a certain emphasis on the word ‘one’, I made a crescendo in my voice through the words ‘two’ and ‘three’ as if handing to her, or pointing the way to the word ‘four’.

#3. A tricky rhythm in measure 47.

This is a place where the right hand basically enunciates a scale, two notes a time, each a thirty-second there are the places in the piece where the right hand enunciates a scale, two notes a time, each a thirty-second, but also pauses for two-thirty seconds in between the end of one two note group and the beginning of the next.

I said that many pianists had difficulty with enunciating this correctly (as do certain orchestra conductors in similar sections of works like the slow movement of Mozart’s 40th Symphony in G Minor.

Why is it difficult?  Because when we play two consecutive notes of a scale rapidly, followed by no further note, the first one tends to act like a grace note to the second, with the result that the second gains an emphasis defined the former.  But this is rhythmically incorrect.  It is not the second which should be emphasized.  If anything it is the first note with the second tapering off form it.

#4. A scale like passage in parallel thirds in measure 43.

Rather than getting lost in how to finger such a passage, it is best if the entire arm moves, as a single unit, over and over again regardless of which notes are played and which fingers are used.  As for how to activate the arm to make this identically repeating gesture, I suggest feeling as if the arm is being moved by an external force applied at a particular spot along the forearm.

I demonstrated that this was possible by my moving her entire in repeated groups of four each time by my applying force from a different location along the arm.  I showed her that I could make her entire arm move by moving just one of her fingers through space.  I did something similar with the wrist, the forearm, the elbow.  I even did it with the upper arm, but the result was clumsier (the “tail wags the dog”).

The actual activation point we chose was for the purpose of playing even thirds was underneath of the ridge of the wrist.   I had her create even, soft, random note-clusters with the heel of her wrist.  Then I asked her to switch to articulating the thirds but to feel, as it was happening, that she was activating the entire arm as a unit, and always from the underneath surface of the wrist.

To help her along, I lay my second finger, lengthwise, underneath the span of the ridge of her wrist.  I then asked her to repeatedly push down on my finger with the arm, while all the while I offered resistance to her pushes.

#5.  A scale like passage in parallel thirds in measure 43.

Rather than getting lost in how to finger such a passage, it is best if the entire arm moves, as a single unit, over and over again regardless of which notes are played and which fingers are used.  As for how to activate the arm to make this identically repeating gesture, I suggest feeling as if the arm is being moved by an external force applied at a particular spot along the forearm.

I demonstrated that this was possible by my moving her entire arm in repeated groups, and switching where I was applying my force from group to another.  I showed her that I could make her entire arm move by moving just one of her fingers through space.  I did something similar with the wrist, the forearm, the elbow.  I even did it with the upper arm, but the result was clumsier (the “tail wagging the dog”).

The actual activation point we chose was for the purpose of playing even thirds.  This spot was ridge of her wrist.   I had her create even, soft, random note-clusters with the heel of her wrist.  Then I asked her to switch to articulating the thirds but to feel, as it was happening, that she was activating the entire arm as a unit, and always from the underneath surface of the wrist.

To help this along, I lay my second finger, lengthwise, underneath the span of the ridge of her wrist.  I then asked her to repeatedly push down on my finger with the arm, while all the while I offered resistance to her pushes.

#6. In measure 41, a note held in one voice is interrupted, mid stream, by the same note sounding in a second voice.

Here is a brief example of when one voice of several moves onto the same note that is already being held by another voice.  It occurs one sixteenth note into the measure.  The middle voice has an eighth note g4 on beat one.  One sixteenth note into that beat, the bottom voice sounds the same g4 for one thirty-second note.  The issue, with all such situations, is how to allow the two voices to stay sonically independent of one another.

This is the series of steps through time required to keep the voices separate.

Step 1: start the eighth note g4 in the right hand.

Step 2: immediately  before it is time for the left hand to play the same g4, the right hand partially or completely  lifts the g4 key, so that, an instant later…

Step 3: the left hand can begin the thirty-second note g4.

Step 4: during the duration of this thirty-second note, the right hand silently takes over for the left hand on the g4.

Step 5: after the thirty second note has passed, the right hand goes on holding down the g4 key till the end of the eighth note.

#5. measure 141 for example: a rapid melody in octaves in one hand, in particular a smaller hand.

Because of her small hand, I suggested to J.M. that regardless of how brief each octave is, she not hold onto it its full duration but release before her hand had an opportunity to seize-up, or tried to maintain hold of the octaves by a gripping action.

As a preliminary exercise I asked her to flex the joints in her pinkie and her thumb that are not usually actively flexed when playing octaves.  Just hold out her right hand in front of her, and slowly flex, back and forth, the first knuckle of the pinkie and the first knuckle of the thumb.  Feel like those fingers are growing in length, and have become like fronds of a sea plant that are being stirred by gentle currents in the water.  Then, when playing the passage, try not to loose the feeling that these joints are actively flexing while one octave is being held – even if they are not so doing.  This virtual flexion in the first knuckles is not to be used to push the two keys down to sound the octave, but should occur independently of when and how we activate the keys.

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The Connection and Disconnection of Notes

I’ve had an idea lately that it would be nice to do a lesson and then post a blog post about it right afterwards. I think this will gain in spontaneity and insight, despite what it might loose from lack of editing and proofreading.

A.B. Was playing WTC I C f (which is my short hand for Well Tempered  Klavier, Book One, C Major (C is uppercase), the fugue and not the prelude (f).

This is a new piece.  The first thing he said, was how hard it was to read a fugue.  It poked at his sore spots as a reader and a player.  I said, forget all of that.  Play the chord on the first beat of this measure, and ask yourself what it is the most natural and comfortable of playing it.  By starting there, it is as if you were starting the piece, just from a different measure than measure one.  So your hand had no allegiance to what it may have done a moment earlier if it had played the last part of the previous measure.

Now, before you go on any further, DON’T TRY connect the present arrangement of the fingers in the hand with the next one.  Playing Bach clearly is not a matter of figuring out a fingering, or getting used to making certain connections in the hands and fingers.  One never goes from “here” to “there”.  All there is are “here-s”.  Each one is undiscovered until right now.  It is always as if you are playing the piece for the first time.

With each new note, or if not that frequently then at least with every new eighth note’s worth of the piece, pause and ask yourself “what is the most natural and comfortable of playing these notes”, especially if the hand need no longer “remember” where it was a moment earlier.

Playing through the piece is discovering, as if for the first time, a new position for every moment’s new notes.  In doing it this way you enter into the joy and spontaneity of the fugue; the experience is wonderful, and in no way a chore.

A.B.: So what do I do the next time I play this spot, wouldn’t it help if I gradually got to know, through repetition, where my hands go next?  Me (waxing poetic and philosophical): No, the only thing you have to remember is to forget.  A.B.: But doesn’t that sometimes mean I get further and further into trouble with my fingers and dig myself into a hole from which I cannot get out.  J.B.: There is a simple solution to this.  When you are least sure where to go next with your hands and fingers, when you feel you’ve gotten stuck in the mud and don’t where to go, that is the time to take your hands off the keyboard.  Remove the hands from the piano, even if briefly.  Start with a new slate, for by removing you hands from the keys, you have let go of the immediate past, you can discover, as if for the first time, the most natural and comfortable position for the two hands together on the next notes.  So, if you never know where you are going to get into fingering problems, remove your hands from the piano.

He tried it.  It was a fine sounding connection.  He said:  but if I remove my hands from the piano there will be a break in the sound continuity, things will not sound connected.  I said: then how comes what you just did, which involved letting go of the keyboard and removing the hands from the keys, ended up sounding more flowing and more connected than I have heard it before?  By removing the hand, you have no choice but to find a new position, a new and most comfortable position, for the next notes.

Be careful, I said, of sixteenth notes (or eighths) in one voice that are moving in steps.  That can lead you down a perilous path.  You will stop looking for a new hand position for each sixteenth, until the fingers get caught in the keyboard and get bogged down because you have “run out of fingers”.  No, you never run out of fingers, there are always five new fingers in the hand for each new note.

When I say “find the most comfortable position” I mean one in which no finger ‘remembers’ where it was a moment earlier.  Nothing about its position in the hand is biased or coerced.

To save time in writing, I am using the convention of having:

|: Ernie is the name of my cat 😐

To mean that I have gotten trapped in an endless loop and am saying the same thing over and over.  And in such a way as if I never had said it before, but rather someone recorded me, quickly hit stop, rewind, and play.  The idea is that it becomes a spoken “mantra” whose efficacy is in its being repeated, until the mind’s state becomes transcendental, a state in which one does not connect things physically SO THAT they can connect sound-wise (sorry I’m sounding a little to “new age” for a cynical Jew from Brooklyn).

If you are a draughtsman, and you use the same writing implement over and over again during an hour of work, do you always consciously try to pick it up in the same way as before.  Do you have to think of its position before taking it into your hand.  No, it only becomes natural to do if you allow the body to learn unconsciously, so that the 100th time you take the pencil in your hand, it is consciously just as unplanned and spontaneous as the first time.  From the conscious point of view (and not for the unconscious, which is busy learning and practicing) you are always finding something ‘new’ (not ‘old’) and finding it for the ‘first time ever’.

All of this started falling into place when I physically caused A.B. to remove his hands from the piano after each current sound.  When he resumed, the next sound and all the newness of freshness of the morn: is it ever really the same sun that rises the next day (Thoreau says something about this in “Walden”.   Every hand position is “discovered” spontaneously.  So I sometimes started using the repeating mantra |: every position is new and discovered spontaneously :|.  or just, |: find a new position 😐

Don’t be afraid to let go, for that is the only true way for the body to find what’s next.  It is the opposite strategy that common sense tells us to follow.  Consciously you forget it even happened before.  You think you can’t do this “A”,  but you can.  You just need to keep an experimental mind, and prove it to yourself over and over with the freshness of every new sound.

And, by the way, when you find the ‘new position’ it always for both hands together, never for just one hand or the other.  Let the body, let the ear, always synthesize together every new sound in the piece.  And the listener has no desire to complicate the wholeness of the musical experience by knowing which part of what they hear came from your left hand or your right hand.

After a while, all I was saying to him was “let go” … “let go” … “find the new position”, “find a new position”.  There was one moment I could tell that he was trying to figure out the best fingering for a series of consecutive notes.  I said: that was not a new position, it was a ‘trying to get there from the old position to the new’.  There is never a ‘there’ to which to get, everything is a ‘here’.

A.B. said, how can I have a totally new position in my hands when I am required to hold over one of the notes (holding down a note in one voice while the notes in the other voices change).   I said: I agree that you have some issues with what I might call, by analogy, if it were spatial more than of time, “negative space” (E.G. is it two profiles or is it a vase).  A held note is not due to a finger that holds tightly to its position on the keyboard.  It is do to a new position that that finger assumes every time another voice voices to a different note.  The fact that the finger remains on the same key is secondary and incidental from a physical point of view.  There is no difference between writing a half note, in a score, and writing the same note as four eighth notes, each tied to the next.

Negative space also involves things like, the action of when to release a note in a voice after the finger playing has gotten inured to holding it down when it has been held for a while.  Another example are rests, in general in a particular voice, which must be incorporated into the “sound” continuity of the piece.

So, abandon any noble effort by the left or right hand to connect the notes in the fingers.  Don’t do that!  Let it go.

I would love feedback regarding the usefulness of this type of blog entry.  It probably suffered from repetitiveness but it did not loose my original excitement about discovering these things, and in keeping pace while writing how things evolved through time during the hour of the lesson.  Thanks for reading.

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Further Italian Concerto Progress!

A.B.  was here for his lesson yesterday.  We were working on the third movement of the Bach Italian Concerto.  We brought to the next level his ability of bringing things under the control of the ears.

I was  reminded of medieval philosophers when they talk about god’s  abilities: that god merely needs to think something and it becomes actual in the real world.  So in piano performance the true controller over how a passage sounds is not based on intentional or controlled physical motions, but simply the ‘ear of god’ (actually the ear of the pianist) noticing how things are sounding – which, miraculously, transforms what is heard from potential to actual.

The more I was able to get A.B. to focus on his ear, the more contented he was to practice just a small chunk of the music and not, as is his wont, to continue on and on regardless of what happens in the passage.  We should first ‘frame’ the chunk of the music being undertaken.  That you will  find that the smaller the chunk size, plus, the slower the tempo, the more the ear naturally takes over for the body.

Some other things that I said during the lesson to keep A.B. focused on what he heard rather than what he felt:

1) the notes never escape the reach of your ear.

2) wherever your hand goes, the ear follows.

3) the physical action of making a note often occludes the ear’s ability to hear the same note.  This is an important reason why is it not such an easy matter to “just listen”.

Some of our work had to do with specific spots in specific measures:

In measure 2: the last two quarter notes plus the first notes of the next measure (in the left hand).

The principle here is, in order to get clear and crisp parallel sixths, don’t be content thinking of the three written sixths as being the “complete story”.  I extended the passage by having him play a scale an entire ascending octave of parallel sixths using the notes of the F Major scale.  “This is the ‘larger’, the more complete ‘whole, of which we have but a limited section being quoted.  Once you conceive the part as representing the whole, then no matter how few sixths you play they will come alive.  The listener will have a sense of where the sixths came from before the first one to be played (c3-a3) and where they are going to go if allowed to continue beyond the a2-f3.  It is the “gestalt”, this organized whole, one that is greater than its parts, that should be the object of our perception, and be that which our hand wants to “embrace” when playing.

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In measure  3:  a2-f3 then f2, in the left hand.

Even though the thumb releases the f3 before the f2 is played, let the thumb nonetheless act to balance the pinkie.

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Also in measure 3: the fifth eighth note in the left hand – bf2.  No matter how he tried physical to control and balance the sound of the bf2 from the surrounding notes of the F major scale, he could never get it to sound how he wanted … until, that is, he recognized that the b-flat, though far  removed from the right hand, functioned as the 7th of a third inversion C dominant-7 chord (bf2–e5-g5-c6).  This allowed the bf2 to find its destiny as enabling a brief assertion of a dominant chord, in an unstable  inversion , in the midst of an ascending F major scale.

Relating this to today’s major theme, if not by engaging with the ear, no matter how you to try to play something, it will always sound wrong.  Which leaves the pianist to try one after another physical  experimentation, all the time completely missing the sound-reason for the note.

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In measure 5: the notes on beat one and the following eighth note.  A.B. was having difficulty separating the two voices in the right hand.  I made a suggestion that, agreeably, seemed to have nothing to do with the issue at hand.  Listen, I said, to the f4 in the left hand and hear it meld into the f5 an octave higher (in the right hand’s lower voice). Sometimes we have to think ‘across the grain’ and find the solution to something in a different geometrical dimension than the one in which we first located the issue that required our attention.

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Measures 30 and 31: the left hand

“Throw” the left thumb rightwards as if it would separate itself from the rest of the hand.  Do this with more energy and momentum than would seem to be warranted by the physical distance the thumb has to travel away from the other fingers of the hand.

The principle here, is analogous in a way to the “gestalt” thing we mentioned concerning measure 3, when we spoke of completing the implied whole, not being content with only the notes that literally sound or are literally there.  In these measures the distance the thumb has to travel is expresses a larger distance (subjectively) than the pitches of the notes seem to indicate (objectively along the keyboard).  We sometimes have to ‘overreach’ in order to ‘reach’.

 

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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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A subliminal way of providing music theory information to the student

Today’s incarnation of “Irving”* is playing the C Major Prelude from book one of the W.T.C.  I’m bringing up the subject of chords probably for the first time.

The harmonic-rhythm of the piece (the rate at which the chords change) is slow and even paced; the chords change only when measure changes.  It leaves me ample time to say to him casually, as he playing: “this is now a C major chord”; “this is a now D Minor-7 chord”; this is a G Major Chord, etc..

I do not assume he will understand the bigger part of what I am saying, but it is more at creating a subliminal background to what he is  playing.  Much like those once fashionable “learn while you are sleeping” tapes.  So, even if all he gets are the things listed below, that is more than enough:  1) There is something called a chord and apparently I’m playing first one then another; 2) that these chords apparently come in a wide variety of types; 3) but one can identify these types based solely on the notes I am playing.  He is getting used to hearing the terms I am using, terms like “major”, “minor”, “7-chord”.

It can be an advantage that he does not have to stop the flow of his playing in order to try to understand what these terms mean.   He may know no more than that the terms change in a way that, at this point, almost seem to vary in a patterned way with the sounds he is making.  Each time I use them in the future there will be a growing sense on his part what they mean and how to use them.

* I promise to give Irving a new name one of these days.

 

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