Tag: Practice Techniques
How to Tackle Difficult Pieces, Practiced Simply
A.B.’s lesson on 4/3/19 on the first prelude from Book One of the Well Tempered Klavier
Balancing memory with freshness:
Be surprised and delighted with each new chord (which is to say each new measure). This is to balance out the impregnation of the piece by memory, from having heard and/or played the piece many times. Instead create a “beginner’s mind” for whom the new chord is fresh, unexpected, and bathed in morning light. You just don’t know what’s coming. Memory doesn’t go away but a proportional balance is attained between memory and the unforeseeableness of the future.
The persistence of a single chord through an entire measure:
In this piece it helps that you were formerly an organist, for as long as you hold the keys down on the organ manual the sounds continue unabated, persistently, and without the piano’s ‘decay’. Hear in your “inner” ear of imagination the five different notes of each measure as a simultaneous ensemble, which continues unbated as a totality from the beginning of the measure to the end of the measure.
A.B. is not satisfied with his control over the evenness of the sounds in a measure:
Take a single measure out of the flow of the piece. Reiterate the first note of the measure over and over until it “sounds like you want”. Do this without thinking of the other notes and whether they will match the first note in sonically – in other words this is not yet about evenness between notes). Then switch to the second note. Play it ever and over, until, as before, it sounds how you want. Repeat this procedure for each further note in the measure. When you play the measure as written you will notice in retrospect that all the notes were even, although you were in no way trying to match them, but instead having each note have its ‘ideal’ sound. A musician with a good ear will always be able to tell when a sound has reached a certain ideal perfection, but not through analysis, through an intuitive sense of the sound.
For evenness when one note, occurring between two other notes, is not balanced sound-wise with the others:
In the measure that begins : f2 f3 a3 c4 e4, the c4 was not balanced with the a3 and e4. I suggested that he hold down the a3 and e4, and while they are being held, repeat c4 over and over.
Another path to evenness: the written notes are part of a larger whole:
In measure one, for example, turn the measure’s notes into a rapid arpeggio that starts, with the highest pitch, e5, descends through the notes of the chord until reaching the bottom note (c4) and without pause re-ascends to the top note. This creates a more cohesive and integrated motion in your hand. Once you have this gestalt, you can remain silent during the first part of this arpeggio and start playing in the middle of it, at the note that is supposed sound first in the measure. Eventually there is no need to pause or mark time for the first half of the arpeggio, it can occur in the inner feelings of the body in just a split second.
Yet another path to evenness:
When a baton twirler causes the baton to make a circle, it is the result of a sequence of different motions all blended together in a one overall fluid motion. I’m ignorant of the breakdown of those motions, but you can still imagine, yourself as twirling a baton, one cycle every half measure (as the note pattern repeats).
I would sing a sustained line for A.B.:
Sometimes I would sing a sustained melody, one note per measure, starting at the beginning of each measure, made up of the top note of each measure. Maybe I thought of doing this because I Gounod’s Ave Maria flitted through my mind. That Gounod may have felt that the Bach begged for a continuous line (adumbrated by Bach made tangible by Gounod). The effect that my singing had unconsciously on A.B. was each note of the measure was instinctively made to balance, or fuse sonically, with the sustained note I was singing.
How to bring out the dramatological curve of a piece, even though it was originally played on an instrument of a constant degree of loudness:
There are not many overtly dramatic moments in the piece that stand out from the monotonous (sic) patterns that repeat every half measure.
And even if we become aware at a certain time of these moments, they will afterwards fade into the background due to the abrasion or erosion of constant playing of the piece. So make the most of these moments.
Here is one example. Chords outlining diminished chords, for instance, happen only a few times in the piece, but each time it does, try to react to the sound of the chord as being jarring, intense, dissonant. This effect can be gained even without making any change in the loudness of those measures versus the surrounding measures. One can intimate a dramatic curve merely with intent and adumbration in the flow of the notes.
One of my other students, while playing through the Adagio from Beethoven’s Op 13, came across of a few measures of diminished chords in the passage leading back to the second A section of its ABA form. She said “diminished chords are ugly”. I said: that’s great, can you make them sound as ugly as possible!
Another example. When an interval of a minor second in the left hand, treat it as an astonishing, unexpected dissonance.
One more example, this time a longer passage:
In the second half of the page there is a long dominant pedal point in the left hand playing g2 (lowest line of bass clef). As he went from one measure to the next I repeated: “long … long endeavor … never stops … we’re not ‘there’ yet”.
Matching two sounds that are separated in time:
When you play the first half of a measure and get to the highest note, consciously hold its sound in your ear’s memory, so that when you play the same note in the second half of the measure you can match it with the first.
Sometimes a “group” of notes is just one note:
In the last few measures of the prelude, I find that it is not useful to think of groups of four notes, or even two notes, the measures are too ambiguous compared to what has preceded it throughout the piece. My way around this is to play these last measures in “groups of ONE” note. To promote this I say out loud as i am playing: “One”, “one”, “one” …. “. Every note bears little allegiance to every other note except when though of in retrospect.
Remember that your pinkie is part of your hand, not a separate appendage:
Often your pinkie seems to be out in right field, detached from the rest of your hand as if it were a separate appendage. Hold the pinkie in the unity of your whole hand.
Isolating Variables: the sequence of fingers as against the sequence of pitches:
This is in line with what we just said about the pinkie being “held” in the hand. In measure three A.B. is using fingers 1, 3 then 5 to play g4 d5 and f5.
I asked him to cover the notes g4-a4-b4-c5-d5 with the five fingers of his right hand. Play it as a cluster and hold it. And while holding all five notes try to lift the thumb and replay the G, then again while still holding all the notes, raise the third finger and replay the d5, and similarly with the pinkie for f5. Just focus on an awareness of the identity of which finger you are playing, as if to say “these are the fingers I’m going to use: 1 3 and 5”. Then use the same fingers but for the written notes (g4 d5 f5). You hopefully will feel an interesting transference of the awareness of which fingers to use, now mapped onto a different set of fingers.
Isolating Variables: The sensation of evenness as against any physical actions taken to instill evenness, especially when there is a new set of notes:
There is an ’emotional’, a generalized physical sense in the body as a whole, of ‘balance’ among the notes of the keyboard that are played together and in close succession. As with any feeling, this emotional state can be reproduced at will under different circumstances. Rather than the details of how to play the next measure evenly, try to reproduce the experience of having this feeling.
This distinction applies to many situations in playing.
For instance: there is the sensation we get of playing an ascending set of pitches. This feeling can be conjured up even if we are playing a descending set of pitches. Sometimes doing this is very useful in a Bach fugue to help homogenize two different voices, so that what a second voice is doing does not sound too dissimilar from what a first voice is doing.
Or, a sense of enlarging and getting louder can overlay a series of notes that are getting softer.
Or, a sense of wide space between the fingers in the hand can overlay a passage that involves a series of notes only one half step apart from each other.
Or, the sense of energy that we get from one very dynamic piece or passage from such a piece, and overlaying that feeling of energy onto all passages, slow or fast, loud or soft.
Making a clear connection between two non-adjacent fingers:
There is a measure in the first part where the pianist plays this sequence of notes: b3 c4 e4 g4 c5 … .
Notice that I tapped your fourth finger when you went from your third finger on g4 to the fifth finger on c5, It was meant to show the hand the focus of the ‘connection’ between the fingers playing g4 and c5, more at being located at the connection between the 3rd and 5th fingers.
At another point in the lesson I slid a pencil between his second and fifth finger. The pencil passed over those two fingers but passed underneath the fingers in between them. This helped him sense that those two fingers don’t act separately, but more at being the two ends of the plank of a see-saw, and thus the result of one single action.
More about see-saws:
Regardless of what two fingers play one after the other, and regardless of the distance between the notes they play, always an imaginary see-saw plank between the current note’s finger and the next note’s finger. Add to this image an almost felt, pivot point, midway between the two fingers. Now pretend you are a very strong person who can make the two ends of the plank move reciprocally move up and down just by leaning first on one side and then the other side of where the pivot.
Once you are on the second note resulting from the first see-saw, move the see-saw’s location so that it connects this second note with the note that follows it.
To develop the sense of this see-saw, and the ability to relocate it quickly, it may help (using measure one as an example) to do this exercise:
Go back and forth between c4 and e4 (something which I notate as |: c4 e4 :|. Once that see saw is functioning organically do the same for |: e4 g4 :|, and so on.
Addendum to the previous section:
It is your tendency, when you encounter a problem in a measure, to just play ahead for quite a long time, and then tend to the problem later. It is good to balance that tendency out with the ability to not move ahead, maybe only as far as the end of the current measure, and then focus in on tiny details. Focusing entails a greater degree of awareness of what is happening physical and sound-wise, plus reiterating that tiny detail until it sounds how you want it to sound.
Don’t rob the last note of each measure of its full duration:
A.B. usually tries to rush into the new hand position at the beginning of the next measure. He feels that he may not have enough time to do it in, and compensates by holding the last note of the current measure a little shorter than the other notes of the measure. I said “it is always good to try to hold longer whatever note sounds just before a leap, a skip, or a change of hand position. One can deal with this near the end of the note by continuing to hold it when your hand tells you it is time to let go of it. There is another way that is just as effective, that is more at being located time-wise at the beginning of the note rather than near the end. Start the note with the “intention” of holding it longer.
We reached the goal of evenness:
Joe: in general today we have accomplished one of your goals: the sound is now even throughout. During the attempt to make each note sound clear and close to its ideal sound, you were finding it easier to do this when playing all the notes a little louder than usual. Often two variables get tied together, “entangled” as it were. On the hand playing more evenly, on the other playing more loudly. The latter helps achieve the former, only at some point, you want to separate the former from depending on the latter. Once you have effected this separation, the evenness and clear-speaking-ness of each sound, no longer depends on loudness and can occur at any dynamic you choose.
General comment #1:
Notice that while you tend to try to solve things with specific actions of specific fingers, I almost never suggest a solution that involves the fingers, but relies instead on a more integrated motion of all the parts of the arm from shoulders to hands.
General comment #2:
I think you are evolving from one species of musician into another species: from an organist to a pianist.
Techniques in Opposition
E. and I were working on Variation 9 in the Brahms variations on a theme by Schumann (in F# Minor). In this variation, at the beginning of each measure, the right hand has two sets of triplet sixteenths in the form of an ascending arpeggio.
We discussed two opposite ways of dealing with the evenness required of the arpeggio.
In method one, the hand makes no rotation, the wrist makes no lateral adjustment, the thumb does not even come under any of the other fingers. The hand retains a constant spatial attitude and alignment. The only adaption necessary, which compensates for the other motions, is that the pianist ignore the moment when the thumb usually wants to begin its journey under the other fingers, and wait virtually up to the moment the next starts sounding before making any motion takes place at all. This delay compresses a spring-like mechanism in the hand, which when it at last releases, causes the thumb to simply ‘show up’ on its next note in the next octave higher.
This worked every time. However he said that it would be difficult for him to remember this procedure in each and every measure. He found it counter intuitive.
Thus, at least temporarily, I set aside method one, and switched to a method that was diametrically the opposite of the first as regards the motion of the thumb in time.
Not only would he pass thumb under the other fingers, but do so very slowly. It exaggerated things in the opposite direction. Thus, instead of one constant motion of the thumb rightwards, made in one brief span of time, I asked him to use a series of smaller motions of the thumb, one leading into the other. At every moment of time when the thumb was in motion, I asked E. to keep track close of where the thumb was exactly in space relative to the keyboard.
The overall motion of the thumb is the fusion of the smaller motions. Why go about it this way; it seems to make things more complicated? If the motions are practiced very slowly, the pianist will become aware that the thumb does not naturally want to move at the same speed through each of the subdivided segments in space. At different points along the thumb’s progress, different muscles will engage to different degrees, different leverages between the thumb and adjacent parts of the hand will become more or less activated. Without this overall flexibilty in stages of the thumb’s progress, then the pianist will assume that whatever way the thumb begins to move should continue to the end of the motion. Without the subtle changes through time and space, what starts as a fluency to the thumb’s motion at the beginning of the overall motion to its new note, can create, an instant later, through inertia, an abruptness or stiffness in the next segment and moment of the motion.
The first method relied on the hand’s ability to move, as if instantaneously, from one discrete position in space to a second, and being in as stable and balanced a stance in the new octave as in the previous. By making the motion unconscious, the body will insure that whatever details there are within the motion, they will automatically occur.
The second method relied on a close examination of the natural propensities of the thumb when assuming different spatial arrangements relative to the second, third and fourth fingers.
In terms of the overall speed and fluency of the arpeggio, each may work as well as the other, or the pianist will discover that one works better than the other, or that sometimes one works better and sometimes the other.
On the one hand there is no consciousness of the motion of the thumb, in the other the the motion of the thumb is being ideally tailored to each subdivision of space.
In the Flow of Time, the Effect Turns Into the Cause
How constantly do we need to be aware of what we are hearing while playing.
I find that I have a tendency for the following to occur when I am trying to pay attention to what I’m playing. For instance if I am playing a string of four sixteenth notes, I seem to be able to pay close attention to how I connect note 1 to note 2 but then, without realizing it, I don’t become attentive again until I’m connecting note 3 to note 4. It seems like my awareness, like my one of my nerves, needs a short period of rest before “firing” again.
If were speaking in the language of cause and effect it would be as if knew that note 1 acted like the cause of note 2, and I knew that note 3 was like the cause of note 4, but note 3 somehow passed by without having an intentional cause. We are so used to thinking of things in groups of two that we missed making the connection between note 2 and note 3. So the latter connection just sort of happened on its own.
Another way of putting this is that at times I fail to recognize that something can be, at the same moment, the effect of one cause, and the cause of the next effect. In the magic solvent of time one note can change from being an effect to being a cause.
The note that has displaced the note immediately past itself becomes eclipsed by the next note in the next moment. The recent past has already gone, and the present is but a flicker of consciousness holding off the future.
I know that one may object to this and say that all the notes are already present because they are all there in front of us printed in the score. But for the listener, who has things revealed to them one moment at a time, the next note is still partially or totally hidden in the future, although if we complacently wait a moment the mystery of the future will subside into the common daylight of the present.
Music exists through time, almost by being time, in a way that no other art is able to do. There is always something happening in space going in the other arts. Music, however, is very close to being in identity with the nature of the flow of time itself.
The current note, itself the most unstable event in the ongoing flow of time, because it will not last, is yet the scene of an alchemical transformation of what has already just passed to what is just about to happen.
If we think that the next moment in time happens because the prior moment has happened, then the current note in the piece starts out its brief, but important life, as an effect of the past but undergoes a transformation under the performer’s hands into the cause of the next note which, very soon, will no longer to be in the future. Each note links past and future through the ephemeral present. It is through the artist’s consciousness this alchemy is made to happen.
How this applies to our attention while playing a series of notes:
As performing artists we cannot let our energy down even for an instant. We cannot “take it easy” during any one of the notes that fly through the sudden illumination of the present. Otherwise we let the state of our energy slump, as if the goal had been reached, and we do not have to think of anything further, at least not for a while, at least for a note? If there really is any “resting on our laurels” for having caused the current note, it can only last for a quiver of time.
It is hard for us to catch in our consciousness that exact instant* when the current note ceases being the result of something and is now the cause of something else. That moment is there, though, if we seek it. A flash in our awareness that the transformation is taking place. A single note, like in the TV commercial is saying “do you hear me now, do you here me now”.
All which lives in time is bound to the advent of change. Every outcome becomes an initialization, every goal becomes a starting point**. A resting point becomes restless.***
* I recall from High School Chemistry about how an atom of one element, if unstable enough, can spontaneously change into an atom of the next element in the periodic table. This happens because a neutron in the nucleus of the atom becomes a proton (plus an electron and a neutrino)***. Since the proton count is the basis of labeling where an atom resides on the periodic table the new proton bumps the atom up to the next position on the periodic table. What we do not know is when one particular atom will go through this process of “beta decay”, but we can detect it as it happens.
** This is a clumsy attempt on my part to diagram what is being talked about:
Less good diagram:
notes: 1 2 3 4 …
cause effect cause effect
notes: 1 2 3 4 …
cause effect ….
*** Perhaps it is like two hemispheres of a spinning top. The two halves may be colored differently, but ordinarily the top is spinning too fast for us to detect one color changing into another (but even in this case, is there not a chance that we see a color, the color that results from the merging of the other two colors).
An Addendum to Sight-Reading Blogs
Links to previous blogs on sight reading are at the end of this post.
Today, we devoted Irving’s entire lesson to sight reading. During the lesson we noticed that these things were recurrent themes.
Trust your ear to judge if there is you have played a wrong note, but that sometimes though a note sounds wrong to the ear it is still correct because you are playing the piece in a slower tempo.
Remind yourself of the key signature in each new measure that you read. If you have an excellent visual imagination, just place the key signature after each new bar line.
Keep track of accidentals that have arisen in the current measure and remember to honor them throughout the rest of the measure* (be on the lookout for a natural sign as one of the accidentals in a measure).
Make sure all the notes your fingers are pushing down are actually sounding.
Try to think ahead.
Try to make the bar lines “transparent”. See if you can use any of the time playing the current measure to read ahead and figure out some or all of the next measure.
Sometimes try to sight read in “real time”, I.E. with no pauses or hesitations. Keep up with the beats, even if it means skipping over notes or even measures.
* even though the accidental sign only shows up the first time it applies in the measure and not the remaining times that it may apply.
Links to previous posts about sight reading:
#1 Habits that produce good sight reading: https://joebloom.com/habits-that-induce-good-sight-reading-skills/
#2 New rule for Irving regarding Sight Reading. https://joebloom.com/a-new-rule-for-irving-about-sight-reading/
#3 Rhythm & rhythmic coordination in Sight Reading. https://joebloom.com/rhythmic-coordination-between-the- hands-in-sight-reading/
Sight Singing Exercises for the Obsessive: Singing Between Notes
Here is a statistically based method for practicing sight-singing. It is based less on musical, harmonic or diatonic context and more on the mathematical permutations that can occur between any notes.
Exercise one. To be done over one or more days or weeks.
Choose a scale. Choose a note from the scale. Let us say as an example you choose the C Major scale and the note E which is the third step of the scale.Sing from the E to each of the other notes in the scale:
thus: E C E D E E E F E G E A E B E C
E C E D (downwards motion)
E E (no motion)
E F E G E A E B E C (upwards motion).
Sixteen notes in all, in eighth pairs.
What was just done for the C Major scale starting always on E, can be done for the same scale starting on any of the other notes in the scale.
If you want to do this in an systematic start with lower C as the first note for a set of sixteen notes, then start with D for another sixteen notes, then E, etc.. until you start with the higher C.
C D C E C F C G C A C B C C
D C D D D E D F D G D A D B D C
Having exhausted the links between two notes of the C major, one can use the Harmonic and the Melodic minor scales in C.
The entire process outlined above can be done for other possible tonics.
Tonic C# / Db
If you sing the name of each note that you sing, then there would be an advantage in doing C-Sharp major and D-Flat major as two separate exercises.
Then proceed with tonics D, D#/Eb … B
Same general principle as exercise one, but based on the notes of a chromatic scale.
Find the lowest pitch you sing easily; the same for the highest pitch you sing easily.. An example might be from Middle-C up to the second G above Middle-C. Or, a more expansive example, might be from a low A up to the second A above that A.
The idea is to sing from one note chosen from that range up to, or down to, every other note in that range. Let us use a somewhat simple example: a lower C to the second E above that.
The first series of notes to sing would be:
c c# c d c d# c e c f c f# c g c g# c a c a# c b c C* c C# c D c D# c E c F c F# c G
* lowercase letters indicates a note in a lower octave, and UPPERCASE a note in the higher octave.
As with exercise 1, you can repeat the exercise starting on first one and then another step of the chromatic scale.
Her e is the beginning of the example of starting on “g”.
g c g c# g d g e# g e g f g f# . . .
If you choose to sing the names of the notes you are singing then sometimes use sharp names and sometimes use flat names.
Mathematical permutation of a chosen number of notes in a scale.
Consider spreading this exercise out over months to a year, so that you don’t have to spend too much time on it on any day.
3A: Choosing 3 different steps:
A good beginning would to choose just three notes from a single scale, later going on to four steps, five, etc..
The simplest choice of three scale steps would be the first three steps of a scale. In what follows we will use the numbers (1, 2 ..) and not letters of the musical alphabet. so that the examples below can be used for any scale with any tonic.
There are only six permutations of the first three steps of any scale:
123 132 213 231 312 321.
Or, three scale steps, using scale steps 1, 2, and 4.
Here are the six permutations:
124 142 214 241 412 421.
Or, three steps: 2 5 and 7:
257 275 527 572 725 752.
3B: Choosing 4 different steps:
By moving from three to four notes chosen from a scale. we significantly enlarge the number of possible “permutations”.
Here is full list of the 24 permutations of the scale steps 1 – 4:
1234 1243 1324 1342 1423 1432
2134 2143 2314 2341 2413 2431
3124 3142 3214 3241 3412 3421
4123 4132 4213 4231 4312 4321
Or, the 24 permutations of the four steps: 1 2 5 and 7
1257 1275 1527 1572 1725 1752
2157 2175 2517 2571 2715 2751
5127 5172 5217 5271 5712 5721
7125 7152 7215 7251 7512 7521
3C: Choosing additional number of steps:
Adding the number of steps chosen from the scale rapidly increases the number of permutations. Choosing 5 different steps leads to 120 different permutations. If you pick the first five steps of the scale you would get 120 permutations starting with 12345 and ending with 54321.
It doesn’t make much sense to go much beyond five steps. By the time you have considered an ample number of different groups of five steps you will have pretty much created singable phrases covering every note of the scale.
3C: Changing the step numbers of the scale into printed notes on the staff:
If I get enough requests, I am willing to create a “Finale 25” file that would flesh out all the exercise sets using each tonic and scale type. Hey, it will take a long time, but why not.
I recommend reading the blog entry “Singing in Tune” published on July 14, 2018. There it is suggested that:
…learn to play the chord that is present in the accompaniment when you are singing a single note, and learn to tune you note into the chord. Learn to do this also if the note sung is not a chord tone but a tone of embellishment.
…when you are sight reading a passage whose notes all belong to a common scale, make a cluster out of all the notes of the scale played simultaneously, and learn out to single out each note with the voice.
Additional Ear Training exercises:
Get used to hearing two notes played simultaneously and learning to sing the lower note then the higher pitch (and if you want the lower pitch again).
Same as the above but hearing three notes played simultaneously, and learning to sing the bottom, middle, top, middle bottom.
Also learn to play a note in any range on the piano, especially the very low or high range, and transpose the note up or down one or more octaves until it lies within the normal range of your singing voice.