Tag: Practice Techniques

And may there be no moaning at the bar line

Irving is an intermediate student.  We are working on one of the numerous, smaller Schubert pieces: a Waltz in A Minor.

I am aware that at various places he hesitates before going on to the next note.  This seems to happen especially when going from the last beat of one measure into the first beat of the next measure.  It happens much less when going from one beat inside a measure to the next.

This situation reminds me of a “steeplechase,” or any other race in which horse, or human, must periodically jump over hurdles.  In between the hurdles, the path is flat and so it is easier to maintain momentum.  In Irving’s case, it is as if each vertical bar line is a literal hurdle or obstacle to be overcome through a greater amount of effort, although the connections over the bar lines are not generally any more difficult than the connections inside a measure.

Could it be that the bar line is just a psychological hurdle and no more?  Is it the mind’s reaction to seeing a vertical line that, visually, appears as a barrier to be crossed or surmounted to continue in the piece?

It could be that the effect is due to the fact that the first beat of the (next) measure often requires extra energy to create the ictus due to a downbeat?

Or, it could be that there is a certain limit to how many upcoming notes the mind can digest before having to pause and take in some more notes, and that a convenient place to fill up the mental buffer is at the beginning of a new measure.

Let us consider instead the cases where the transition between bars only seems more difficult than the changes that occurred within the measure.

Solution One:

In our case, given the 3/4 time of the waltz, the student should play four (sic) consecutive beats at a time.  Doing this will always involve going over one bar line.   Let us say, Irving is playing from one downbeat of one measure through to the next downbeat.

Having executed these four beats, pause.  Repeat the same four beats as necessary until there is no hesitation going over the bar line.*

Continue by advancing one measure at a time, starting with the downbeat that ended the previous four beat segment.  Advance through that measure and come to a pause on the following downbeat.  Repeat this process, updating the starting point from the downbeat of one measure to the downbeat of the next measure.  In this way, the student continuously updates his mental cursor to the position where he had previously stopped.

Solution Two:

Here is another, more direct technique for crossing bar lines: Get rid of the bar line.  The neatest way to do this is to mentally erase the bar line.  We chose to erase every other bar line.  The result is that piece in 3/4 time now seems to be in 6/4 time.  Doing this often automatically removes any hesitation that occurred between what used to be beat three of the first measure going into beat one of the second measure.  The forward motion flows freely through where the bar line used to be.

* Part of the advantage of practicing this way is that how we play the next measure’s downbeat is not interfered with by any mental or physical preparations we may be making about continuing beyond the new downbeat and further into its measure.

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Two thoughts on playing Legato

Both blog entries today have to do with the undefined, yet very definite influence, that sounds, as imagined in the pianist’s ears, have over the extrinsic sound coming into the listener’s ears.

First thought:

Legato.  Connecting a longer duration note to shorter duration note.

The connectivity of a legato melody is most often broken when a note that has been present for some time (in other words a relatively longer note) is followed by a shorter note.

An example would be a half note tied to an eighth note followed by an eighth note.  The longer note (the half plus the eighth) has had more time to decrease in loudness, and so it is harder to focus the ear on the fainter part of that note that at the point i time just before it connects to the eighth note.  This continuity is also broken because at the moment the eighth note begins there is a sudden change in loudness, as the fainter part of the sound that is left over at the end of the longer note tries to connect smoothly to the suddenly louder beginning, or attack, of the eighth note.

While playing a legato line it is easy to overlook moments such as these and forget that a smooth connection between notes is still required in spite of the change from soft to suddenly loud.  The result, if not handled wisely, will sound to the listener like a sudden and jagged accent instead of a fluid legato.

When we are near the end of the longer sound, we must learn to focus our ear on what’s left of that sound.  Curiously, just the act of becoming aware, a second time, of the same note, causes a subjective sensation of that note suddenly getting a little louder.  The act of awareness acts like a re-kindling the note, like blowing on a fire.   It is then easier to connect the later part of the long sound in a legato manner into the beginning of the next note.

Second thought:

Taking a percussion-like instrument such as the piano, and making it sound melodic (lyrical) to the listener, is a magician’s feat that involves “smoke and mirrors”.  An example of this is what was just said about rekindling the sound of a note near to its termination in time.

The basic fact we are confronted with is that a note on the piano sounds much louder at the beginning than at the end.  The moment of attack arouses a cluster of high overtones which might leave us confused, if all we were to hear of the note was that attack, about the identity of the intended pitch of the note.  This is literally and figuratively a poor beginning to a process that is meant to link one pitch to a succeeding one in a smooth manner.

What should we do, or what can we do, when a sound begins in a chaotic cluster of higher pitches, and then, once the attack is over, what continues is a remnant of the sound that gets softer and softer until crossing over to silence?

If the effect of legato had to do with how we connect the end of one note to the beginning of the next, we would create a ziz-zag curve oscillating rapidly between very soft and very loud.  We would never sing a note this way, and a violinist would never bow this way.

It would almost seem that what is needed is some magical way to connect the middle of one piano sound to the middle of the next.  The middles of piano sounds are special.  They are still loud enough to posses a warm resonance (which emerges out of the louder attack which has now subsided), and not yet soft enough that we would get the feeling that there was nothing left to tangibly connect into the next note.  The piano will sing when we connect the middle of one note to the middle of next: one rich resonance to another rich resonance.  But how would we do such a thing.

This is where the magician’s technique of sleight of hand comes into play (or is it sleight of ear).   This is a reliable principle: what we hear in the sound the audience will hear.  If we hear resonance connect to resonance so will they.  While legato would seem to require a magical transformation of the sound of a piano note, instead it only requires a combination of memory of the recent past and seeing into the immediate future.

As the career of a note ends, we remember what it sounded like just a moment earlier when the sound was most resonant and had the clear sense of singing on a single pitch that was so hard to find in the attack.

We are jugglers of the tenses of time.  Like a juggler we seem to confound the senses of the audience.  We fuse into the current moment a memory of the sound’s resonance a moment or even an instant earlier, and, the anticipated resonance of the note whose attack we are about to execute.  We revive the past and tell the future: at least in the small, privileged unit of time we call the present…the advancing present.*

Maybe this helps explain why the great piano composers chose to write their most lyrical pieces for the piano.   By overcoming the acoustic odds, our magic leaves in its wake an impression of smoothness and consistency to the flow sound.**

In summary, we rely on the fact that the middle of the note’s duration is usually the sweetest and most melodic.  By ignoring the attacks, as well as the last instants of a sound, we begin to be able to link middle to middle, richest moment of sound to richest moment of sound.**

* Most pianists start out earlier in life by being most aware of the onset of each new note: because this is the moment within the course of the sound when the most sudden and acute muscular action occurs.  What we do physically during the remainder of the sound is usually passive in comparison to the beginning.  But, as we have shown, this moment is also when sound is at its least pleasurable, when it is raucous and disagreeable.   The result is that the pianist, usually unconsciously, switches their awareness, at just this moment, from the realm of hearing to the realm of feeling.  In doing so the pianist tends to conflate one sense with the other: I think I heard it when I actually felt it.

**The audience might not be aware of this process as the piece begins, but the more the pianist continues in the piece to try to connect middle to middle in her or his imagination, the more the sound ingredients are there for the listener to believe that it is happening too.

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“Chorale-ing” – the inner illumination of a passage

Transforming a passage into a chorale for harmonic clarity.

This is an excellent skill for the pianist to develop, though it depends on a well developed sense of harmony and the ability to recognize a chord in the piece even when all its notes are not sounding together.

What does doing this achieve?

Playing becomes more assured and more “informed,” as if you are simultaneously playing a passage and explaining it to the audience, only the “explanation” is not verbal or conceptual.  It lies in the very sound of the notes.

Two basic skills are required:

  1. Identifying what chord is ‘controlling’ the current notes in a piece (see “details” below).  The chord is like a magnet which is surrounded by a magnetic field that causes nearby objects (note) to realign themselves.  We need to determine the ‘domain’ of the chord: how far does it’s control and influence extend over the notes (what notes are under its spell).  Where, in a measure or measures, does that control begin; where does it end.

This skill entails knowing which notes to weed out because they are still under the influence of the chord.  They are not notes that belong to the chord (chord tones), but rather tones of embellishment (passing tones, appoggiaturas, neighbor notes, etc.).

The last part of this first skill is creating a version of the chord that specifically has four notes (sometimes more) and lies in the range of a vocal chorus (within an octave and a half to two octaves of Middle C).

2. Taking the chord just created, and “voice leading”* it to the next such controlling chord (and so on). By repeating this and ‘voice leading’ from one controlling chord to the next, we can turn a passage into something like a Bach Chorale.**

These two skills are most often taught in music theory classes at college, where unfortunately they are approached conceptually, with pencil and paper, but not at a piano.

Details of using this method:

It is a basic tenet in music that there is ordinarily something simpler and more basic that underlies the notes that are sounding.   Sort of a distilled version – a more basic idea or concept of what is going in all the notes.  If you find that more basic idea, you will be able to think of the previous totality of the notes as literally an embellishment on the notes of the more underlying entity.

Underlying all the notes of a melody, even when unaccompanied, are certain chords that go well with the melody – which make sense when sounded with the melody.  In that sense the chords represent a more fundamental aspect of the notes that are sounding one after another.

How does one find these chords? 

If, by no other means, then by randomly playing in the left hand, one chord and then another.  Your tonal intuition will be able to tell you that some chords go well with the melody, others go just OK with the melody, and some just sound silly or awful with the melody.   Eventually your ear will find the chord that goes best with the melody, the one that seems to best elucidate its character.

As you play through the tune, you may find that a left hand chord that worked well with melody up to a certain point in the melody stops working well.  This is the time to find another chord that takes over for the first chord.   Knowing these boundary lines between the sway of one chord and the sway of the next is a very important part of the process we are describing.

You don’t need to know anything about formal harmony to do this.  Simply experiment randomly with chords, and using your aesthetic judgment as to whether a chord is a good or a bad match for the current group of melody notes.

Why chorale-ing is good.

I can best describe it by analogy.

By abstracting the piece into its underlying chorale, your role switches from that of a single member of an orchestra to being its conductor.  No longer are you playing just the notes assigned to your own instrument, and tuning out the notes from the other instruments. You become the conductor who understands the music as a whole so that you are able to guide the various players and form them into a good ensemble.

While playing, by bringing back into your present consciousness the memory of what the chorale sounded like, and fitting the sounds of the individual notes that you are playing into that chorale, all the notes you play will suddenly seem more translucent: every one transmitting its meaning in the whole.

“Chorale-ing” is a good term because of the suggestion of a pun on ‘corral’ (the process by which the cowboy rounds up a dispersed group of individual animals and herds them into a smaller, more defined, more concise, space, where they can be dealt with all at once).

If you would like specific examples of applying these principles to a particular passage from a piece you are playing, let me know and I will provide it for you.  In the meantime, I will try to find out if there is a way of printing music notation into a blog.  If anyone happens to know this, please let me know (I am using WordPress).

* A simple but acceptable definition of voice leading is: a process that makes the change from one chord to another sound as smooth as possible to the ear.

** You can find a model of a chorale in the “chorale” movement” of any of Bach’s 215 Cantatas or Passions.

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The Elbow

In terms of its use in the playing mechanism, the elbow can easily be the forgotten part of the arm.  It is remote from the hand and remote from the connection of the arm to the back.  It seems “remote from the action.” However, it is of critical importance as a mediator – a negotiator between shoulder and the fingers.  It is that which insures that energy coming down the arm is not blocked or detoured before reaching the fingers.

When tension occurs and mobility is reduced, the hidden cause often lies in the elbow.  It will often make adaptations in its alignment, not because they are useful to the transmission of power to the hands, but because we are concentrating on our hands and wish to have the hand be in a certain position.  The tension simply gets “referred” up the arm to the elbow, where we are often unaware of it.  But whether recognized or not, when there is tension in the elbow, when its freedom of movement is inhibited, we sever the free connection between shoulder and fingers.

Often the elbow is doing what it “wants” to do, but is at the service of something else.  How do we find out what the elbow naturally wants to do?  It is actually a simple procedure.  If we want to know what the right elbow is doing, use the left hand to embrace, or better, to “cradle” the elbow of the right arm.  If we now play a passage with the right hand, the cradling hand will actively sense what the right elbow wants to do, or more importantly, what it is forced to do in order to accommodate an awkward hand or wrist position.  It will notice when the elbow is coerced into making a sudden or jerky motion, usually to compensate for something occurring at the extremities.

If there is a sudden, unexpected or awkward motion in the elbow, we will want to smooth it out, or slow it down to make it flow.  By keeping in mind that the hand and the shoulder should be two stable points between which is extended the length of the arm, then the elbow modifies its alignment and attitude to find a way of sustaining this equilibrium between the two end points of the arm.  If there is a breach in the continuity of the arm, it is most likely found in the elbow because the elbow controls the motion of both the forearm and the upper arm.

Most illuminating in this regard is to play a scale or an arpeggio.

When you play a scale in the right hand, you may be surprised at what the elbow is doing as you play the scale.  It compensates for, it balances out, it supports what is happening in the lower arm and hand.  If a sudden lurch occurs in the elbow while playing the scale, it is easy to smooth out, especially if the left hand is there cradling the elbow (see above).  The supportive hand of the left arm is, figuratively speaking, saying to the elbow: don’t worry, you don’t have to make a sudden defensive or reactive gesture, because I’m here to support, balance, and give you a grounding against which to move.

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Arpeggios: a musical state that lies somewhere between melody and chord

Consider on the one hand playing the notes of a melody in a slow, leisurely fashion and, on the other hand, sounding all the notes of the same melody simultaneously, mush-ing the melody into a single chord or cluster.   In between these two extremes there are many intermediary possibilities, each one blending insensibly into the next, and forming thereby a continuous spectrum.

At one end of this spectrum, the notes of a melody go by so fast that, like a rapidly arpeggiated chord with the pedal held down, the effect barely departs from that of a simultaneous chord.  The previous sounds spontaneously congeal behind the most recent sound to start, like the ice trail of a jet airliner.  At the other end of the spectrum, the melody slows down so much, that each of its notes sound for so long that we lose even the awareness that we are in a melody.*  We lose track of the current note’s relation with the previous one, and we cease to anticipate that another note might show up after the current.**  In other words, we are locked in the frozen presence of the current note.  This would be like observing a glacier in order to detect its movement.

If I were looking for a position on this spectrum that best combined the qualities of these two ends, I might choose a fluid, somewhat rapid arpeggio.   My choice is based on the fact that an arpeggio is already suggestive of the single phenomenon of a chord, but still retains the order of the single pitches.

One of my favorite practice techniques is to disregard the actual rhythm of the written notes, and convert the pitches into an arpeggio of notes of equal duration, undulating up and down on the keyboard, extending the arpeggio upwards and  downwards past the written notes and into adjacent octaves as suits my fancy.

* The music of Morton Feldman from the 1960s to me seems to gravitate towards the end of the spectrum where a single note of the melody lasts for an unusually long time. Here is an example in his piece ‘Last Pieces’

** At both extremes things become as it were frozen.  Either the melody loses its implied order of notes inside a frozen chord, or all we are conscious of in the melody is the one frozen note sounding currently.

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