Tag: Practice Technique

Advantages of hearing over seeing.

The miracle of the octave, and the richness and variety of structure in music:

In the domain of colors, red is very close to violet in appearance.   Similarly, in the domain of sound, two notes that are exactly one octave apart bear resemble each other more closely that any other two distinct pitches.  The only interval that can sound more similar  is the perfect unison, when two strings, instruments or voices sound at the same pitch.

If we relate these two similarities to the frequencies of the light waves on the one hand and the sound waves on the other hand, it turns that violet as about twice the frequency of red, and the note an octave higher than a second note has twice the frequency of the lower note in the octave.

Is this a coincidence?  We are often too tempted to make comparisons between a physical cause of a sensation with the way we experience that sensation in our consciousness.  Certainly, when we look at red and violet side by side, the number 2.0 (two times) does not occur to us as being relevant to what we are seeing.   When we hear consonance of the octave in our consciousness,  as in the case of the other sense, the number two does leap to mind.

However, just to indulge myself, I would like to conjecture further about this coincidence.  The spectrum of sound frequencies includes many octaves: about seven octaves on a piano, and basically an unlimited  umber of octaves in principle, only we cannot hear most of those.  The electromagnetic spectrum of frequencies, which includes visible light and colors, has many more “octaves” of frequencies as well, except that we cannot see them with our eyes.

At the “high” end of the visible spectrum, the frequency of light wave causing us to see violet is almost twice that of red, red notably being approximately at the extreme low end of the visible spectrum.  Unfortunately we cannot see “colors” when they are higher than violet or lower than red.

What if we could see other octaves-worth of visible light?  What would these new colors look like to us, and perhaps more interestingly, if there were, would the ‘color’ of ‘light’ we experience that has twice the frequency of violet, resemble violet in a way how violet resembles red.

Perhaps in our galaxy there are creates who could answer this question for us.  Meanwhile, I just have an analogy between the senses, and it only holds for one octave.

However, there is magic enough in the phenomenon of just the octave in sound:

For instance, with colors and light, we cannot see, at the same time, two different colors as well as automatically also seeing the third color that represents the mixture of both.   Of course there is such a third color, but it doesn’t spring to life automatically, we would have another splotch of color separate in space, a third one, next to the original two.

Let’s compare this with sound.  When we hear two sounds at once, we are aware of two very different types of things, both at the same time:


That there are two distinct sounds, and each one, if we concentrate, can be heard “separately” (as if it were ‘alone’ and apart from the other.  Except not alone in space, but simultaneously in time.   With colors, we can only see two different colors, if they are in different places in space in our visible field.


The other, which is also true of sound but not of sight, is that at the same time that we can hear two sounds, we can hear something else that is neither the one sound or the other, but a new an unique sound quality that is the result of the combination of both.  And this isn’t limited to two sounds an octave apart, but of any number sounds, at any distances apart from each other*.

In fact, music seems to be the only art that has been created by homo sapiens that is in time alone but is richer for that reason.


The octave is a miracle.  It is a  pristine example of something that is equally the same as, and yet equally different than, something else.

As much as space may have the seeming advantage of three dimensions while time may have no dimensions whatsoever (or some say just ‘one’ dimension), time, hearing, and music have an advantage over space.   If we consider the possible of forms in structure that exist for the composer, we find that, because of the phenomenon of ‘octave’, its forms can be more endlessly evolved, forms that are both various and complex, and with more emergent forms** arising out of it, than any art.

* … at least until the frequencies of the sounds become too close together, at which point the separate sounds become inseparable to the ear and we are left just with the effect of their combination.  A Perfect example is “white noise” when it is composed at the same time of many different frequencies and those frequencies are “spaced” close together.

** Wikipedia’s (cc) article on emergence begins with these words: “emergence occurs when “the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.”

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Solving technical hurdles in difficult passages

Simplifying a Passage.

There is a general procedure for making difficult passages easier to play.  It involves altering the passage in particular ways, playing it first in that altered form, then immediately afterwards playing it in its notated form.

It is based on finding within the passage certain features that seem key to the passage, and “improving on nature” so that these features play a more central role.

This is going to be a long, long list, compiled over many years of practicing.  Email me if you would like me to send you a copy of this entry as a single Microsoft Word file.

I’ll repeat this reminder at the end of the upcoming list.

None of these procedures should be done haphazardly, there has to be a logic to how the passage is altered.  Each should be crafted to enhance, simplify, make more understandable, … the passage in question.  They should be designed to make something about the passage stand out more to the ear or the hand.

It can involve, among many other things:

Having to do with ADDING NOTES to the passage:

Simplifying by adding notes in a way that makes the physical  execution of the passage easier.

Simplifying by adding notes to a passage to create a fuller,  more architectonically complete passage

Simplifying by adding notes to a passage to create something  that sounds more naturally expressive

Simplifying by adding notes in order to complete a physical motion  that is involved

Evening out a repeating tuplet by adding one or more notes to each group of notes (often with the result of stabilizing the hand).


Simplifying physically by embedding the written notes into a more   easily executed larger group of notes.

Simplifying sonically by interpolating notes that are felt to be missing

Filling in skips with steps (or eliminating steps to create skips)

Having to do with ALTERING the pitches of some or all of the notes:

Altering notes so that the hand finds the passage easier to execute.

Simplifying physically by removing some notes and replacing them with repetitions of previous notes.

Simplifying physically by having both the hands play the same notes


Simplifying physically by altering certain notes for the sake  of symmetry between the hands

Simplifying physically and sonically by changing a scale to an arpeggio

Simplifying physically and sonically by changing an arpeggio to a scale

Simplifying physically by droning on just one (or more) notes.

Simplifying physically by changing the pitch contour of a phrase.

Having to do with CHORDS and HARMONY:

Simplifying by turning melodies into chords

Simplifying harmonically by moving the location of when one chord changes to the next chord

Simplifying physically by leaving notes out of a chord and then adding them back in

Having to do with changing the DURATION of selected notes

Uncovering salient features in a phrase by altering the duration of certain notes.

Having to do with changing the DYNAMICS of the notes

Simplifying sonically by overplaying or underplaying certain notes

Having to do with LEGATO

Leaving a thick trial of notes behind the advancing cursor of the melody by holding the most recently sounded notes into the new note

Having to do with OMITTING notes:

Simplifying physically by judiciously choosing notes to skip or omit

Simplifying physically by omitting one (or more) notes in repeating

rhythmic groups, tuplets for instance – including quadruplets

Simplifying physically by omitting all but notes on the important beats.

Simplifying physically by omitting notes so as to cause greater stability and equilibrium in and between the hands

Simplifying physically by only playing the notes that are played with a certain finger (sort of a “personal history of finger through a passage” – a sort of “Ken Burns” approach)

Simplifying physically by removing most of the notes from one of the hands.

Deconstructing the sound of the passage, uncovering deep and deeper structures, then adding back the layers one by one.

Simplifying sonically by excerpting just a few notes and molding those notes into its own independent, expressive shape

Having to do with changing the RANGE of some of the notes:

Changing the octave in which some or all of the notes sound (to make something sound clearer, more obvious, or more continuous)

Simplifying physically by transposing up or down octaves to that all the notes are in the same octave range


Getting rid of sudden octave jumps

Having to do with RE-DISTRIBUTING the notes in the hands

Simplifying by redistributing which notes are played by which hand

Having to do with RE-ORDERING the notes:

Simplifying physically by taking two or more notes that are supposed to be sounded together and playing them as a sequence of separate notes

Simplifying sonically by making direct connections between notes that don’t follow each other one right after the other in the score.

Simplifying physically by sorting notes by increasing or decreasing pitch.

Simplifying physically by altering the order within a small, figuration, groupet, of notes


Simplifying by changing the rhythm of just the notes that are indicated to be played together in both hands

Simplifying physically by ordering a local group of notes so that they fan out in two directions from a central pitch

Having to do with REPEATING notes:

Reiterating notes to give the hand a moment longer to prepare for playing a next note

Simplifying physically by playing one note over and over in the rhythm of the passage.

Simplifying physically by playing each thumb note twice.  The same regarding the pinkie.

Arriving at a note in a phrase and reiterating several times before proceeding on

By repeating certain notes to change its balance (sound wise or physically wise) in the execution of the phrase

Simplifying physically by reiterating just one (or more) note of each of a repeating group of notes.

Simplifying physically by reiterating, a number of times, the current note while holding down the previous note.


Simplifying physically by playing one group of notes over and over and then skipping directly to the next similar group

Having to do with changing the RHYTHM:

Simplifying physically by holding each note the same duration as the others.

Altering the rhythm so that the passage is easier to physically execute

Simplifying physically by holding certain notes longer and omitting others.

Emphasizing just one rhythmic motive within a larger rhythm group

Clarifying the sound or meaning by changing the meter

Simplifying physically by omitting a note and thereby changing the rhythm

Simplifying physically by holding a current note into the next note.

Simplifying physically by playing only the off-eighths (or off sixteenths, etc.) in just one of the hands while playing the other hand as written

Turning a triplet into a duplet by playing two  simultaneous notes and one single note


Simplifying physically: by turning triplets into quadruplets or duplets

Simplifying physically by coming to a stop in the middle of a phrase and then continuing

Simplifying physically by realigning the notes between the hands

Having to do with altering the TEMPO:

Speeding up and slowing down at certain well chosen places to help unveil or reveal the full shape of a phrase

Simplifying physically by gradually slowing down starting midway through a phrase so that the end of the phrase is handled as much energy and dexterity as the beginning of the phrase

Having to do with TIME:

Turn sequential notes into simultaneous notes and/or change simultaneous notes into sequential notes


Simplifying physically by setting up alternative expectations.

Repeating what I said at the top

None of these procedures should be done haphazardly, there has to be a logic to how the passage is altered.  Each should be crafted to enhance, simplify, make more understandable, … the passage in question.  They should be designed to make something about the passage stand out more to the ear or the hand.

This was a long, long list, compiled over many years of practicing.  Email me if you would like me to send you a copy of this entry as a single Microsoft Word file.


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How to play 3 in one hand against 2 in the other

This is a brief technical manual for coping with the rhythmic situation known as “three against two.”  One encounters this situation when one hand is subdividing a pulse into three equal parts while the other hand is subdividing the same pulse into two equal parts.

I want to break the problem down into a short series of small, doable steps.

We start by taking the two rhythms (triplet and duplet) and superimposing them one upon the other, and derive a single composite rhythm.  Once we have it in the form of a composite rhythm, there is no longer anything special required to address the coordination of one hand with the other.  Once we see 3 against 2 as a single rhythm, it looses all its strangeness, and becomes a very simple rhythm to execute.


One way to write it is: a quarter note – eighth note – eighth note – quarter note.  It does not matter if these note values are different than those in the score.  Any note values would serve the same purpose as long as their durations stand in the following comparative ratio: 2 : 1 : 1 : 2.  Half  -Quarter  – Quarter – Half, or Eighth – Sixteenth – Sixteenth – Eighth ,would do as well.

We no longer have to concern ourselves with the difference in the duration of a triplet versus a duplet.  It is all homogenized in the combined rhythm.

This, then is the composite rhythm of a 3 against 2:

|| quarter – eighth – eighth – quarter ||

|| means a bar line.  We assume the meter to be 3/4 time,

First, let us consider the situation where the 3 (or triplet) is in the right hand and the 2 (or duplet) is in the left hand.


Step 1:

|| quarter – eighth – eighth – quarter  ||

Using both hands at once, tap or play this rhythm (quarter eight eighth quarter) over and over in an endless loop*.  You can keep the hands a foot or two apart as you do this.  Each time you reach the end of the measure recycle, without a pause, to the beginning of the measure.  And continuing in this fashion, doing the measure over and over.  Do it enough times for it to feel completely natural and automatic in the hands.

What to tap on:

You can tap it on the closed fall board at two separated places, or always playing the C below middle C with the left hand and Middle C with the right hand.  Or on two drums, or on your lap, or anything else handy.

Step 2:

Repeat step 1 and add these spoken words to the notes:

|| quarter  eighth eighth quarter || quarter …. <-Play *

|| together  right   left   right”   || together … <- Say

* each note with both hands

Step 3:

Repeat step 1 and 2 with this revision.  The four notes in the composite rhythm are not all played with both hands.

(the rhythm):

|| quarter  eighth eighth  quarter  || quarter ….   || together  right   left       right       || together …

(which hand(s))

here is another description of step 3:

play the first note in both hands and say  “together”

play the second note in just the right hand and say  “right”

play the third note in just the left hand and say  “left”

play the fourth note in just the right hand and say “right”

start the pattern again with “together”

just make sure to stay with the same rhythm: quarter eighth eighth quarter.

Step 4:

4A  for the right hand:

Repeat step 3, but say only the word ‘right’ and only at those times when the right hand is due to play.

|| quarter    eighth   eighth  quarter  || quarter ….    <= play

|| right         right                     right       || right     ….    <= say

4B  for the left hand:

Repeat step 3, but say only the word ‘left’ and only at those times when the left hand is due to play.

|| quarter   eighth eighth quarter  || quarter .

|| left                          left                         || left ….     <= say

Let us now consider the situation where the 3 is in the left hand and the 2 is in the right hand.


Step 1:

Step 1 is the same as before.  Using both hands at once tap or play this rhythm (quarter eight eighth quarter) over and over in an endless loop.  At the end of each measure of 3/4 go back (without a pause) to the beginning of the measure.

Step 2:

Repeat step 1 and add these spoken words to the notes:

|| quarter    eighth eighth quarter || quarter ….   <= Play

|| together  left     right    left        || together …   <= Say this

Step 3:

Repeat step 1 and 2 with this revision.  The four notes in the composite rhythm are not all played with both hands.

|| quarter   eighth eighth quarter  || quarter ….  <= rhythm

|| both left  right left ||  both … <= which hand

here is another description of step 3:

play the    first note  in both hands  and say  “together”

play the    second note  in just the left hand    and say  left”

play the    third note     in just the right hand  and say right”

play the   fourth note    in just the left hand    and say  “left”

start the pattern again with “together”

Once again, just make sure to stay with the same rhythm: quarter-eighth-eighth-quarter.

Step 4:

4A  for the right hand:

Repeat step 3, but say only the word ‘right’ and only at those times when the right hand is due to play.

|| quarter   eighth eighth quarter  || quarter ….  <= play this rhythm

|| right                       right                      || right ….    <= say

4B  for the left hand:

Repeat step 3, but say only the word ‘left’ and only at those times when the left hand is due to play.

|| quarter   eighth eighth quarter  || quarter ….  <= play this rhythm

|| left           left                       left         || left ….     <= say

Have fun. Start slowly until the muscular and vocal habits have had a chance to set in.

I would love some feedback.  For instance,

1) is this technique too complicated to follow

2) does this technique help put the 3 against 2 issue in a clearer light

3) A: didn’t help much. B: helped slightly C: made a difference

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  1. Joe – how do you feel about using a saying/ phrase to learn 3 against 2? I learned it in Sightsinging class as “Nice cup of tea” for 3 against two, where you say that as you tap. The three (nice, cup, tea) is in the right hand, and two is in the left hand (nice, of). It helps to start saying the phrase slowly in rhythm (the one you outlined)
    Then for 2 against 3, we had “Pass the butter” where two is in the left hand (Pass, but-) and three is in the right hand (Pass, the, -ter).
    Does that make sense, or is there any reason that is a bad method to use?

    Joe: It makes perfect sense. Whatever ‘works’ is a ‘good method’.

How one hand can help the other

Summary: Play runs evenly. Be your own teacher by having one hand help the other.

Years ago while I was playing a Mozart Concerto, I was frustrated in the first movement because I could not play evenly a scale-like run in the right hand.  The notes were not pearly.  They were not pellucid, they didn’t shine because of their evenness.

I could not seem to solve this issue myself.  I was an adult pianist, yet I felt I needed a guide, a teacher, to help me.  I needed someone to give me a model of the evenness for which I was striving; a teacher, or if not a teacher, then a conductor to follow.  I wanted something more than just a sound-model – hearing someone else play it and then trying to imitate it.

Quite by accident I took one of the fingers of my left hand (my fourth finger), and began flexing it over and over at the speed of the run, as if chiding my right hand: “why can’t you play it like this?”  Fortunately, the next thing I did was to play the right hand while making the repetitive gestures in the left hand.  All of a sudden, the right hand sounded its notes evenly.  Somehow it seemed as if the finger of the left hand was in control of the fingers of the right hand.  From the right hand’s point of view it seemed something more than just following an example.  What sort of connection had changed between my two hands?

Our body exhibits bilateral symmetry.  The center is unique but the left and right sides are mirror images (or nearly so).  When we clap our hands we take full advantage of the power one arm lends to the other when they make mirror like motions.  The center of the body acts as the mediator and connects and transmits the reinforcing motions of the arms.  Take any passage that is done by the right hand and make corresponding mirror-like gestures with the left hand.  The right hand will feel less isolated, less like it has to take care of the task all by itself.  Something is balancing it, something is making it whole.  It no longer seems awkward or happening at an extremity, “out on a limb,” as it were.

The teacher lies in yourself.

I used to say to tell my students “lessons are all about practicing.”  Everything we do at a lesson is but a model, a sample of a dialogue between the ‘teacher in you’ and the ‘pupil in you.’  Eventually you will successfully internalize both people in this dialogue.

I remembered these words when I was wiggling my left hand finger to even out my right hand fingers.  That wiggling finger had taken on the role of the ‘teacher in me’ and showing the other ‘student in me,’ my right hand, how to go about playing evenly.

It was more than just ‘moral’ support or advice being given from myself to myself.  There was a direct transference of physical energy from one side of the body to the other, each completing in space the movement of the other.

I instinctively had given the single finger in my left hand an important advantage over the right hand.  It was not cramped down onto the keyboard forced to depress certain keys.  It did not have to articulate different fingers according to a certain order.  So, it was more than a model of evenness, it was a model to the right hand of liberation, of not being constrained by which particular finger was playing which particular note at a given time.  My right hand took vicarious pleasure in what the left hand did.  Perhaps due to the “mirror” neurons in my brain, the right hand could take on the feel and internal sense of motion of the left hand, more so because of the literal connectivity of the arms through the center of the body.

Future blogs:  1. Contrary motion versus parallel motion.   2.  Parallel motion in even steps in one hand versus uneven steps in the other.


These blog entries are not ‘timely’:  they do not address issues that relate to the present news of the world.  They address perennial issues faced by most pianists when striving to excel in their playing.  I encourage you to search backwards in the blogs to find the ones that will yield the greatest benefit to you.  You are also welcome to contact me to suggest a topic that you would like to see appear on the site.

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A “crescendo” of relaxation

Illusion of a Crescendo VideoRelated Video: Illusion of a Crescendo

M. and I are working on the second (the fast) movement of the Beethoven Sonata Op 109.

She has small hands and struggles to execute the more difficult passages.  Even the span of an octave requires special effort by her. However, when she relaxes her hand, the span she is capable of between the thumb and pinkie   grows by at least several millimeters. That may be a small difference, but often is enough to determine the difference between ease and discomfort, relaxation and strain, accuracy playing the two keys and inaccuracy.

The more tension there is in the hand, the less it can freely breathe open and closed.  The hand should not remain in a fixed position any longer than it does during the day when we are not at the piano.  It is always fluid, mobile and protean, a mass ever changing in form.

The best playing results when the hand is capable of both taking and loosing any shape or span.  It should remain in its momentary shape without any tension or clinging to that shape, then be able to change to a different shape a moment later without having to overcome any inertia. There should be no resistance to change when it occurs due to any sort of clinging to the previous shape.

Let us say we are playing a series of diatonic triads going up the C Major scale.  It is incorrect to assume that the hand can exactly maintain the same shape for throughout.  Watch closely and you will see that the lateral angle in the wrist, and even in the fingers, is constantly changing.  That the angles in the shoulder and elbow are also changing.  If we freeze the hand as we play the triads, while the first triad may feel comfortable, each subsequent triad will feel more and more awkward.  Sometimes, though, it takes close attention to the changing muscular sensations of our body to notice this change as it occurs.

A crescendo of relaxation:

If, as is often the case, we are unaware of growing tension as we are playing, the only antidote is relaxing over and over as we proceed.  Though we may feel as relaxed now as we were a few measures ago, the chances are good that we are not.  It may seem to us that each time we relax during the piece we are getting more relaxed than we have been any time prior in the piece, but in reality it takes this ‘crescendo’ of renewed acts of relaxing to offset a less conscious drift in the other direction.

Often, when a student is playing a piece, and sees that a more difficult part of the piece is coming over the time-horizon, she will tend to do two things: get louder and get tenser.  It is as much an emotional reaction to worry and fear than a simple physical reaction to cope with the anticipated physical difficulty.  The paradox, of course, is that the less tense the playing mechanism remains, the easier it will be to play the upcoming passage, regardless of its difficulty.

Odd as it may sound, the best physical state while playing is the one that most resembles a quiet state of not doing anything at all.  Often we exaggerate the difference between the former and the latter, and do “too much” in order to play.

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  1. It reminds me of a dancer who stays in a “momentary shape” and also “ever changing in form”. What a lovely image to compare a pianist to a dancer, the expression emerging from the physical into the ethereal in a similar way but heightened with addition of sound.

  2. What is the best way to practice this state of ‘not doing anything at all’ while practicing? Are there any specific techniques you have for that?

    1. Part of the answer is doing the least physical effort that is nonetheless adequate to producing desirable results. It is separating the degree of effort from the degree of the desired result. There was a medieval philosopher, William of Ockham, who in essence said: if there are various ways of solving a problem or achieving a certain result, and some of the ways are complicated and some are much simpler, choose a simpler one – choose the simplest one possible. Ockham himself said: do not multiply entities unnecessarily. Of course, for most people, his way of describing his idea about keeping things simple is not expressed at all simply.

      Another way I think about this is like this:

      When people are singing or playing “in the groove” they often describe the experience as:

      I wasn’t conscious of trying to do anything. Or, it was as if I was listening to singing rather than singing. Or, the sounds flow of their own accord; the notes seem to flow out without prompting; the music is speaking through me; I am only the transmitting mechanism; I feel like everything is under the control of the music; my ego and
      physical intents have little to do with it. All notes, all sounds, come from silence. Silence precedes them, silence surrounds them, silence follows them. They materialize out of the ether and vanish in press of time. Time itself is an artifact that allows us to tell the story one piece at a time, though in the essence it is not yet words, yet all the words are there somehow in a womb; a single pregnant mass.