Tag: Practice Techniques
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.
Sundry thoughts about Trills
People seem to use two opposite strategies for trilling. Either, use excess physical effort to try to maintain the trill going on and on, or use as little physical effort as possible as a way to keep the trill from stalling or changing and maintain its ease and flow. I subscribe to the later method.
The limiting case for a least-effort-possible while trying to play is to pantomime. Execute the trill like a “mime,” barely touching or tapping the keys (but in the correct order and speed). Doing this teaches the body just how effortless a trill can feel when there is no overuse of energy. The effort is so little that any conscious amount of energy we apply is already too much.
Once you have pantomimed the trill, say to yourself: “what is the absolute least amount of any additional effort or energy I can give in order to make the notes of the trill start sounding.” Even if only some of the notes end up sounding, just add a bit more energy and leverage than before when you first went from silence to sound. In making this difference in energy, less is more.
A variation on this technique is to sound and hold down the lower note of a trill while repeatedly tapping and releasing the upper note (either making a sound each time or making no sound – both are effective procedures).
Coming out of a trill
Many of us have difficulty with the last few notes of a trill. It doesn’t matter how long the trill is, how many beats it is, we’re just fine until we are within a split second of needing to stop the trill. This last moment is a confusing moment for the hand. No matter when you think about the trill ending, just by thinking about it – such as the thought “gee, I guess it’s time to end the trill,” you transmit something to your body that gums up the end of the trill. The last few notes of the trill will not flow smoothly. It is better for the body, if possible, to remain “ignorant” of when it is time to stop the trill, and then suddenly, without warning, stopping,
Evenness counts for as much or more than speed
It is more satisfactory to the listener if you play a trill slower but evenly than to try to play it faster but and fail to maintain evenness.
It is the body as a whole that does the trill
A trill would seem to be an action limited to the neighborhood of the fingers. It seems at first sight to be so precise a motion.
Here is a procedure to make the trill a part of a motion of the entire body. I did this many years ago with my student Rachael:
We stood up. We started wiggling the tips of our fingers, then spread the motion so it included our hands, then wrists… At this point, our fingers, hands, and wrists were all moving at the same time in a random fashion. Developing this idea further, we began randomly moving our forearms, then added our elbows, then our upper arms. We looked pretty silly at this point. Finally we added our torsos and eventually our legs. I said: now you’re ready to play the trill. Wiggle (or gyrate) your way to the piano, and don’t stop moving all the parts of your body until after you are seated at the piano bench and have started the trill. The trill came out marvelously. Unfettered, free, even, fast; as if it could go on forever.
The point was not to move the body like this every time we need to play a trill, but that doing so brings alive all the connections in the body so that any motion is possible, including going back and forth between two keys on the piano.
There is no formula for this procedure. Nothing is gained by knowing which muscles you are moving or by how much. The point is simply to bring alive all the parts of the body.
Turning any passage into a continuous trill
Take any melody in a score and create a trill on every note, at least for the duration of that note, if not a good deal longer. The goal of this process is to make the passage sound like a continuous trill. In doing so, you are imbuing the passage with the aesthetic qualities of a trill: great continuity, maximum flexibility and sense of motion, sinuosity, élan, continuous change and aliveness… These are all qualities that you can then preserve into the normal execution of the passage. All the qualities just mentioned retreat inside the heart of each note as the notes succeed each other. If we liken a melody to an artery then the trill is like the blood itself flowing through the artery.
A long trill
A long trill can be concatenated out of numerous smaller trills that are stitched together. Most of us can sustain a trill for a short duration of time but have difficulty if the trill is meant to go on for a long time. Just knowing in advance that it will be long affects how we start the trill.
Here is a solution. Start the trill as always, but after a short while, well before we would normally tire out, send a new wave of energy or pulsation down the arm from the shoulder as if to start a new trill. The important thing lies in the timing of when to initiate the pulse of energy. It must start out before the current group of trill notes has completed – it needs time to travel down to the fingers.*
Repeat this process as many times as necessary to complete the printed duration of the trill. At first there might be pauses between the end of group of continuous trill notes and the beginning of the next. After a while, though, the chunks of the overall trill will be linked seamlessly together.
When I do this, I can go on trilling indefinitely, without any loss of vivacity. Sometimes I do this to show off for a student, saying as I’m doing it: see, I can go on, and on … and on … Just by renewing the trill and starting it over fresh each time.
Changing the character within a long trill
Sometimes a long trill can be made to be more expressive if it changes speed in specific ways at specific moments during its course. It gives the overall trill an architecture, and overcomes any monotony that might otherwise ensue.
A rarer but more extreme version of this would be to apply a ritard and/or accelerando within various portions of the trill. This requires a fine degree of control so that the trill doesn’t stall out or get tied up in knots.
Special anchor spot in the forearm
There is a spot on the forearm, not far from the elbow, nearer the crease of the elbow than the point of the elbow, that is an effective point from which to experience the motions the muscles that are activated when playing a trill.
Take one of the fingers of the hand that is not doing the trill, place it on the spot described above, and push down on the skin, just until the finger feels something moving underneath the skin while playing the trill.
This is an ideal point from which to experience the reciprocal motion involved in the trill. You will ensure greater evenness in the trill if instead of focusing on the fingers you focus on what is going on in this spot on the forearm.
An “inductive” approach to a trill
Begin with a single note. Pose the question to yourself: can I play a single note with great rapidity? Playing a short staccato is the answer.
Next append a second note to the previous note. Pose the question: how fast can I play one note and then another? Answer: I just have to treat the first note as if it is a fast grace note to a longer second note.
We proceed one more note at a time. We trill three notes, as fast as we can, maybe using our voice to lead the fingers by saying something like “go-ing-THERE.”
Continue the process for four notes of a trill. How fast can I execute them? I just need to think of the first three notes as a group of grace notes leading to a the fourth, longer sound. One can steer it by saying: I’m-go-ing-THERE. Or thinking of the opening of Beethoven’s Fifth done at an extremely fast tempo.
And so on. A five note trill. A six note trill. At some point we reach a number of notes so that continuing the trill is no problem: the trill has ignited.
I wish you a trilling experience.
* The experience is not that different than repeating the same note legato a series of times. Before, and not at the same time as, the key has come up all the way to the level of the other keys a stronger arm pulse is already making its way down the arm to overwhelm the upwards motion of letting go of the key.