Tag: Practice Techniques
A Chopin Nocturne; the Boundary Between Heard and Imagined Sound
S.B.’s lesson on 7/11/19: Chopin: Nocturne in C Minor, Op. 48 / 1.
The piece begins with two solitary c-s (c2-c3). A beat later C is joined by other notes belonging to a C Minor chord. At what point do we begin to hear or sense the full C Minor chord? We may think that one beat is not a long time. That very soon after we play c2, any ambiguity as to identity of the harmony during the first half of the measure will disappear, as the hands complete the C Minor chord on the second beat. But subjectively that first beat can last a long time. Either the pianist, or the listener already quite familiar with the piece, must imagine the rest of the C Minor chord sounding (c2–g3-ef4-g4–g5) before the second beat arrives, while only the C naturals on the first beat are still in the outer ear.
The same applies for all the other half measures in the opening. The pianist should have a pre-vision (sic) – a “pre-audition” – of the full chord in their imagination, as if it is already fully sounding into their outer ear. One of the most subtle and masterly things a pianist works with when constructing with sound is the middle ground between heard and imagined sound. Memory and anticipation are always weaving together in the consciousness of duration in time. The boundary between the two should not be fixed and definite, but blurred. What the pianist imagines has a tangible effect on what the listener thinks they are hearing.
#2. Things that can spoil a legato in a long phrase.
The first phrase is four measures long. There are several places within it where it requires increased additional focus to keep the sense of legato flow alive.
A. Measure one and the first half of measure two
The presence of a rest can indicate two very different things. One
is to force a break in a melody: to consider something as being two
separate things rather than one continuous thing. The other is to
increase the sense of connection in the melody by having to overcome
an obstacle or gap that has been superimposed upon the melody. It is
like the electric charge crossing the gap in a spark plug. It is like
water building up behind a dam. A pressure, or force, builds up
behind the stoppage of the first note which makes going on to the next
note even more inevitable and accomplished with greater momentum.
B. The first two notes in measure two
The g5 comes in as a quarter note but starts on the and of one. If
you think of this quarter note as two eighth notes tied together, the
easiest place to loose the legato is as the first half of the quarter
note ties over the end of beat one into the first part of beat two.
It is in effect a tie to connect two beats. The force of the flow of
that sound has to spill over the boundary between the two beats. It
is not enough to hear one note, but as if that note began a sudden
crescendo just prior to its second half. It is the rhythm and the
meter that forces this imaginary crescendo upon the otherwise formless
sound that lasts two eighth notes.
C. The tied d5 in measure two going to the ef5.
Immediately after the imaginary crescendo during the first d5 in
measure two, we encounter another situation which can attenuate a
continuous legato. It occurs when a relatively long note is followed
by a relatively short note. In this case the first d5 of the measure
is the longer note, lasting for three sixteenths, and the following
ef5 not only is one sixteenth long, but it also comes in after a tie. A
We normally rely on there being enough resonance left to a note to
effect a soldering of one note in a legato to the next. Otherwise the
sudden change from the end of a longer note. which has already
decayed, to the sudden attack of the next note sounds too much like an
sudden accent and defeats the attempt at the legato. To overcome this
difficulty, the pianist’s ear must track the full duration of the
longer note, instant to instant and, in their imagination, sustain
(prop up) the loudness of the note so as to counterbalance the
decrescendo of the decay. Then they must connect this heightened form
of the end of this note not to the attack of the following note but
the level of sound the next note will have a moment after the attack.
Even when it is just a short note.
D. The repeated c5-s in measure three.
When playing the same note several times in row, do we let the legato
come solely from the pedal? Or do we use the more cumbersome but
elegant way of controlling the key dip and not resorting to the pedal.
Or perhaps some of both? This is the pianist’s decision. The purer
legato is always attained by manipulating the key in question so that
at the instant that the key is released, and a minimal fraction of
inch before it reaches the top of the key dip, the arm is already
overriding the upward motion of the key with a strong downward force
to send the key down again.
E. The g4 in measure four going to the the grace note bf4.
This falls under the heading of a relatively longer note going to a relatively shorter note (see letter ‘C’ above). Pianists will often inadvertently make the legato connection occur from between the note before the grace note to the note to which the grace then goes to. The more sublime legato connection is from the note before to the grace note itself, in spite of its very short duration.
#3. Other things contributing to maintaining constancy of flow in the piece.
The way the pianist releases a chord unintentionally affect the way they
attack of the next chord. Thus, when playing the chords on the offbeats in beginning of the piece, don’t “telegraph” the release of the left hand chords into the attack that started the same chord. Regardless of the duration the pianist wishes to hold these chords (some editions show them staccato) there should be two physically dissimilar gestures, one for the attack, one for the release, with a stasis in between them.
The middle section of the Nocturne, where a series of wide chords is
arpeggiated from one hand into the other. The broken chord is
difficult, regardless of the distances between the notes and fingers,
if the chord is first rendered as a melody of single notes, starting
with the bottom note written in the left hand for that chord, and
ascending leisurely a pitch at a time until finishing the melody with
the highest note of the chord that is written in the right hand. The
pedal can be kept down. The finger that has just played one of the
notes can come off that note the moment the next finger has started
its note. This discourages over-stretching the hand when the melody
is turned back into a chord.
C. The section with double octaves.
S.B. has a small hand and was reluctant to learn the piece.
She pointed out that her fingers are hyper-flexible. Watching her
carefully as she played the octaves, I found myself wanting to say, for
the first time to a student, “You may want to not use all that flexibility.”
I called her attention to the shape of her hand and wrist when playing
an octave, in particular along the length of the fingers and a projection of that axis through the hand and wrist. Her wrist was elevated. The third knuckles of her fingers were at a lower altitude in comparison to the wrist, but because the third knuckles hyperextended to a strong degree her second knuckles were at a much higher altitude than the third knuckles.
I suggested that this contour had innate disadvantages when seeking the greatest extension between the fingers without inducing tension. That without coercing anything, she could encourage a shape from wrist to fingers that was more in the spirit of being like, or in the direction of a
straight angle. To coax her hand into that shape, she could rest the
three middle fingers on the surfaces of random keys lying in between
the pinky note and the thumb.
This improved the sound of her octaves, as well as their quality of
resonance, evenness, and her alacrity in changing from one octave to
* Often when I said I noticed a difference she did not. Sometimes it
wasn’t so much that she didn’t notice the improvement, but that the
improvement was short of her ultimate goal and desire. This time
however, she smiled and said, “Oh, that was much better, and much
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/