Tag: practicing technique
Even More Thoughts on How to Play a Bach fugue
A.B.’s playing of the first fugue of book one of the Well Tempered has improved by leaps and bounds. Due to the high quality of his mind he can contemplate and at the same time be in wonderment at the amazing things, small and large, going on in the piece.
Here is what arose on Thursday, May 16, at his latest lesson.
When he is physically tense, the first place it shows up is in the form of movements with his lips and mouth. He usually makes one such motion per note .
Last week we worked on doing away with these mouth motions. Sometimes such motions help generate pulse and flow but just as often they force the piece to come out uttered in little tiny pieces. A phrase cannot flow through time if it is comes to a stop and then resumes with each new note. Frequent mouth motions can cause unintentional separations between one note and the next. A note should be like each new bead on a necklace. Without gravity and the string holding the beads together the necklace looses its shape and meaning.
He was able to control this for a measure or so before the mouth motions obstinately crept back in.
We worked out a compromise. If he is to make a separate mouth motion for every note, let that motion be that of the expelling of puffs of air. Later on the air can be let out more continuously. The continuing flow of air is the physical equivalent of the flow of sound in a phrase – just ask any singer. The piano, and many other instruments, model their flow and expressivity on the human voice.
Joe: If you think of the physical actions you make while playing, now that they are not the cause of the sounds. Nor are you yourself the cause of the sounds. Sounds just “pass you by”, flowing by your consciousness.
The general question arose of how do we stay on course if we make a mistake and deviate from the printed score. We have to find a way of getting back on track as rapidly as possible – hopefully the the next note. An important component of the alacrity with which you get back on track lies in the answer to the question: how do you react, both morally (I’ve made a mistake and a mistake is bad thing) as well as emotionally (what does it to our self confidence , our self worth). Any negative reaction of either type makes it more difficult to find your way back onto the tracks, and makes it harder, in space-wise in terms of finding where we are in the score, and time-wise, to resume the correct flow.
Here is another way of stating the problem of getting back on the tracks. How quickly can we begin at any random point in the piece (whether at the beginning of a measure or even at an arbitrary point within a measure) and resume the ease and flow that we have at the place if we started the piece from the beginning.
It is good to lard the piece with a plethora of random spots from all of which you want to learn to be able to start up the piece, and ideally take no time to get on board the moving train and flow ahead with the correct notes and rhythms.
Just like coming in at the middle of a conversation and quickly figure out what is being talked about, every note in a piece is (or can be) the beginning of that piece. B.A. summarized how hard this was for him to do: sometimes when I start from a random point in a piece it doesn’t even sound like it is from the same piece. And, where did these notes come from and where are they going … how quickly can one become aware of the answers to these. The answer to the last part: as instantaneously as possible. This reminds me of the famous Gauguin painting “D’où Venons Nous / Que Sommes Nous / Où Allons Nous” (Where are we coming from, what are we, where are we going?”. To put it in another way: how very important it is to spot the common character and individuality of a piece even just within a single minute detail from that piece.
When you practice starting the piece from a random point, just play until you are back on track, don’t keep playing to the end. You want to leave practice time for starting from other points in the piece.
Fingers getting tangled:
There are times when the hands draw very near to each other, touching, overlapping, interfering with each other. In particular the thumbs (and even the second fingers) will cross over each other and afterwards uncross. This situation must be coordinated down to tenths of a second. It is a “pas de deux” between two fingers / hands, wherein the bodies of the ‘dancers’ need to fuse as much as possible into one entity that is constantly changing shape as a whole. Every motion on the part of one dancer must be fused with a simultaneous motion from the other dancer. It is as if there is a common consciousness among the two.
The general question arose as to where does one phrase ends in a Bach fugue and another phrase begins.
This can become marvelously complicated because, in a fugue, two or more voices may be in the process of sounding the main theme, yet, at a given moment one of these voices may be at the beginning of the architectural shape of the theme through time, while another somewhere in the middle of the architecture of the theme, and a third voice might be in the midst of concluding the end of its theme statement.
How does the pianist simultaneously make one voice sound like it is ending while another is beginning when the two voices are clearly both stating the same theme. B.A. had a nice way of putting this: how does a voice say that it’s ending.
Put in terms of the chords that underlie the passing notes in the voice melodies – frequently the shift from one such note governing chord in the harmony of the fugue to the next such chord, does not occur simultaneous in all the voices. One voice may enters the domain of the next chord before the others. They are harbingers of the next chord; pathfinders. Another voice may arrive into the new chord not until the other voices have clearly established the chord.
Situation: one finger is holding an extended note while other fingers in the same hand are enunciating a series of changing notes. This requires that the finger holding the note be very flexible and can change its overall stance in response to changes in what the other fingers are doing. The key to clear articulation often lies less in the equalization of the fingers playing the changing notes, and more in the ability of the finger holding its note to suddenly change it’s alignment with the keyboard, and its stance relative to the other fingers of the hand while, at no instant, losing its the overall equilibrium.
Sometimes a student is confused when the main theme starts on a different note compared to the opening of the fugue. If the change of starting note represents a change of harmonic region, then it makes makes sense to the modern player. However, it is harder situation to make sense out of when when the theme entrance is still in the original harmonic region. Thus a theme entrance, instead of starting on the original series of notes at the beginning (C D E F …) begins instead with D E F G, or E F G A, etc.. That instead of representing a modulation, it represents the desire of the theme to enter on a different note of the C Major scale but cling obstinately to the same scale. Some of us may think of this as a hark back to the Catholic Church modes of the middle ages, in which case D E F G is simply the beginning of the “Dorian” mode, E F G A the beginning of the “Phrygian: mode, etc.. But it is not always clear that this was how Bach may have been thinking. Perhaps the underlying constant is the C Major scale (or tonic of another harmonic region of the fugue) and how it stubbornly controls things even a theme entrance tries to start on a different note of the scale than the tonic.
A part of fugue technique is to instantaneously move one finger left or right, from one note to another, regardless of how far apart those notes are on the keyboard. This is not something mastered by gradually practicing such a motion faster and faster. It is more the absolute determination ahead of time to be on the second note zero seconds (zero fractions of a second) after the first note ends. In other words: for the finger to find itself already on the new note, without any travel time in between. This is quite possible. The body is capable of doing this if one insists this be the case, a determination that starts before one starts moving the finger at all. Such instantaneous change of by just one fingers promotes a greater clarity and crispness in the consecutive notes of a voice. The goal is that no connection of one note to the next be any more sluggish than any other.
This itself is a component of the general ability of the entire hand snap from one hand position to another position. Sometimes fingering alone will not provide a sense of connection (even if allows for singer substitutions). It may require an action like the triggering a mouse trap: with little or no preparation, no anticipation, and seemingly no time at all taken to make the change in position.
To achieve such alacrity in changing the shape of the hand it is necessary for the arms as well as the hands to be weightless, and the muscles in the hand being ‘at attention’ but when the moment comes for the change in the shape of the hand, offers no resistance to the onset of that motion. It as if the muscle is passive and is being moved from an external source of power. Even the forces that initially raise the arms to the keyboard can be felt in the body as if the arm was being moved not by its own muscles, but a force external to the entire body. This feeling can be induced by imagining the arm belongs to a puppet, and an unseen puppeteer moves the arms upwards by pulling on the strings that connect the puppeteer the puppet’s arms.
At a lesson the teacher can literally provide this external force. For instance supporting the student’s hands so they will feel to the student as if they are floating on the keyboard rather than pressing down on the keys. Additionally, should their be any pressure downwards (other than to activate a key) it is more easily detected by the student if they are pushing down on another person than an inanimate object like the keyboard.
We noted a connection between the technique of finger substitution on a held note (in anticipation of using a more convenient finger on the next note) and the technique exercise found, as in “Hanon”, of using the fingering 4 3 2 1 (in the right hand) to repeat the same note four times in a row, and then to do the same on other notes, throughout the exercise. Though the overt purpose of this exercise is to learn fast repetition of the same note (on the assumption that changing from one finger to the next is faster than using the same finger over and over again) it also prejudices the hand for doing a quick substitution of one finger for another on one note without re-sounding the note.
A.B. brilliantly put many of the above points into a common perspective by saying: it is all about who is doing what to whom and when.
We concluded the same lesson by working briefly on the companion prelude in C Major from Book One.
Part of A.B.’s quest has been to play the notes in the prelude as evenly as possible. So much of this depends the balance between the notes of the common chord that is outlined by the succession of notes in each measure.
To make these chord more obvious to the ear let the player while playing, “densify” each chord. For instance, if there is an opening between the written notes for an additional note of the chord, add that note to the chord and play all the notes that now belong to the chord all at once as a vertical sonority. For instance in measure 2, there is room for an f4 between the d4 and a4, so that we create a five-note chord: c d f a d. Or taking it a step forward we can also add a c5 between the a4 and the d4, forming a six-note chord. The chord, has been a D Minor-7 chord the entire time, but the additional chord tones just make the chord stand out more clearly to the ear. This can be done, at one time or another, for every chord in the Prelude when Bach’s written notes allow for such additions.
Note that the additional notes mentioned so far all lie in the range defined by the lowest note of a measure and the highest note of the same measure. An equally valid technique, and one more vivid to the ear, would be to add additional notes belonging to the same chord that are lower than the printed lowest note and the same for the highest note written in the measure.
This way you can generate chord of 8 or more notes, and, if you add the use of the pedal. chords of any number of notes (culling notes from the bass range of the keyboard and the high treble). If you play such a chord then play the chord made up out of just the written in the measure, you will gain a sudden sense of how the written chord is a just a part of the larger chord. And whatever the sound and mood characteristics of the larger chord, they are transferred into the more compact form of the chord without any loss resonance and character.
In terms of this grouping every note of the measure into the unified sound of a single chord (versus hearing just separate notes), it is the pinkie note in the right hand that is “furthest” from the left hand note that is the first note of the measure. And not so much in space as measured on the along the keyboard but in time that has passed since the first note. For some this creates a feeling of the pinkie being a dangling participle after the previous four notes . The feeling can occur even more so when the pinkie plays the last note of the measure prior to the unseating of the current chord and succession by the next chord. Some pianists have a tendency to have their pinkie ‘separate’ from the rest of the hand when an articulating a note that is beyond a certain distance from the thumb, with the result is that there is less rather than more control of how the pinkie notes fits together with the notes the other fingers are playing. There is sometimes a poker “tell” observable by the teacher when the student is singling out the pinkie and feeling like it is not part of the hand. It is if the pianist raises the pinkie higher off the keyboard than the other fingers before playing its note – an attempt on the student’s part to gain better physical control over the pinkie but usually with the result that the pinkie sounds disconnected from the other fingers.
Poetry and Emotion
Mozart: The C Minor Fantasie (K. 475):
-the piece in general:
The piece as a whole is very cohesive and organic n spite of being made up of many small parts, parts that are very different from each other musically, tempo-wise, rhythmically, and most of concern to the piano, requiring very different technical masteries.
Some of the contrasts in the piece are vividly displayed in a way that suggests an almost tangible sense of change of orchestration, as if referencing a full orchestra, sometimes strings, or strings deepened by the sonority of french horns, sometimes winds, sometime voices.
-the opening measures:
Of all the ways I’ve tried to start this with piece so as to achieve a sonorous, commanding sound (similar to the C-s played by the piano alone at the very beginning of Brahms Third Piano Quartet) these have worked, albeit not consistently and not every time I try them.
Practice elevating the arms quite high, and then, very slowly, then lowering them back down. Keep lowering them. past the key slip until the arms and hands are lower than the keyboard. To transfer this feeling into actually playing the opening c-s, subjectively feel the arms descending very slowly, and be un-conscious of where, in the arms’ downward course through space, the notes start sounding. We simply notice unexpectedly that the notes have begun to sound. We just don’t know why. “Somewhere” in the slow descent of the arms. the sounds just begin, but we are unaware of where that happens, and when it happens. Somehow, at some point, the fingers have depressed the keys. We’re not even sure how fast the fingers moved to depress the keys.
If we want to know for certain whether the first note of the piece is resonant enough, it is not what we hear at the onset of the sound that provides an adequate way of determining this. It is more at being what we hear at the end of the sound or, perhaps more useful still, what we would still hear of it if it continued to sound indefinitely, with a next note happening. It is only by delaying our appraisal of the sound of the c-s, that we can first know whether the sound had begun resonantly enough. We are trying to make the ‘decay’ curve of the sounds occur as slowly as possible.
Unconsciousness of how we start the first sound plus waiting at least a second or two before fully listening to the sound. How strange! We control best the present tense by the future tense, at a point in time when arguably we should have no control of how the notes started. This is one of the paradoxes of time that occur in many hidden aspects of music and the performance of music.
She tried first to control the sound at its onset, and then, after a pause, she tried to ‘control’ the first sound after it was already attacked. Comparing the second try to the first, in the second the first instant of her sound was less ‘brash’ and ‘angry’ but the decay curve was slowed down, with the result that the duration of the sound was, as a whole, more resonant than the first time.
The first measure in general.
Let us make in our body’s imagination, a subjective analogy between pitches ascending along the keyboard (I.E. movement horizontally to the right) and the pitches somehow moving upwards a vertical direction, higher and higher off the keyboard. C is now “ground level.” The more the pitches rise through the measure, the stronger the build up of potential energy to return the notes to the ground (C).
As the pitches travel (vertically) “UP” from the C, it is as if we are trying to stretch a very strong spring, and the more we stretch it (as we go through Eb F# G and Af) the greater the resistance of the spring and the harder it is to raise the pitch any further. When we have reached the A-flat we have exhausted our strength, and sink back down to C. We are so exhausted that even C-natural does not stop things but we slide to new ‘ground level’ a half step below C (namely B-Natural).
Measure two. The sixteenth note followed by the sixteenth rest.
possibly Mozart’s way of insuring that the emphasis goes on preceding eighth note chord, which represents distress and tension, and not on the chord which follows it, which represents a letting go, a surcease. an emotional giving in.
-the left hand starting measure 5
So here’s the deal: you are only allowed to play one note at a time, but you must get, starting with the first left hand note, the effect of all four notes sounding together. These ‘sustaining’ chords assimilated from the sixteenths in the bass fructify and enrich the glow of the sound of the melody notes in the right hand. The left hand is not simply an Alberti Bass, it generates warmth that baths the right hand.
-starting measure 10
how to control the repeated thirds in sixteenth notes in the right hand:
Sometimes the ultimate form of control to get each third balanced with the next, and each balanced internally between its two notes, is the most passive method.. Sometimes when playing this passage I simply look at the notes going down and then back up. Nothing more than to look carefully at the keyboard and witness the specific keys in each third going down and then back up. For many of us, just watching the keys move vertically allows the body with its many subsets of muscles to perfectly coordinate among each other and achieve the desired quality, evenness, and balance among the sounds.
In your imagination add a vibrato on each and every note as if the thirds were being played by the first and second violinist of a string quartet. There is nothing you can do physically to create the effect this vibrato, a vibrato that seems to crescendo and decrescendo in warmth within the small compass of time of each sixteenth note.*
The fortes in the left hand at the beginning of the measures, can suggest added warmth and emphasis more than sudden, sheer loudness. It is the effect we get in orchestration when we double an instrument in the bass range with another instrument an octave lower.
-measure 16 and 17
…squeeze “the universe into a ball”…To roll it toward some overwhelming question,” (T.S. Elliot)/
“To see a World in a Grain of Sand” (William Blake)
Such are the microcosms formed by the first two sixteenth notes of each quarter note beat. Within each two notes one runs the gamut of human emotions.
-measure 17 going into 18
The last three notes of measure 17 are d4-s and they sound inside a B-Minor chord (as the third of the chord). Then, suddenly, at the beginning of the next measure, through the d4-s continue to sound, they now appear in the setting of a G-Major chord (as the fifth of the chord). This is no mild switch of mood. The entire meaning and sound quality changes. I make this contrast of chord quality as extreme as possible. Enough that the listener truly thinks the note they are now hearing is not the same note (d4) as the note they were hearing just before.
-measure 25 going into 26
If there is a more extreme example of the last item, it is here. Can we, in our musical imagination, hear the D major chord sounding before completing the fourth, even before completing the third, of the four repeated fs4-s that sound with the F-sharp major chord in measure. So, when it changes to an fs4 in a new chord, a D Major chord, in one way we are very surprised (like a new day has dawned, the sun has just risen and bathed the landscape,but in another feel) but in another, harder to figure way, that somehow we had received an adumbration of that D Major chord.**
J.M said something very nice at the end of the lesson: sometimes my experience with you at lesson is more that of a master class .
* Some string players who also play piano can be seen using a finger on the piano keyboard making the same gesture as on the violin when creating a vibrato.
** A thanks to David Garner at the S.F. Conservatory of Music who, when coaching recitatives at the Bay Area Summer Opera Institute (many years ago), told the singers that when singing the last few notes that are under the control of the current chord from the harpsichord or piano, they should already be hearing those notes as if sounding together with the next chord to come. Thank you David… : https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/David_Garner_(composer).
What to “bring out” in a Complex Passage
Debussy: First Arabesque: the conclusion to the first of the three main parts.
What is the main melody that one should bring out during the passage that concludes the first part and leads to the middle part of the piece. A.J. said that when I played it I was doing something that that made it work sound-wise but he couldn’t figure out what i was doing. He assumed that I was emphasizing one of the three layers of melodic motion embedded in the passage. I said, it is more complex than that. There are three different things going on, but no one of which, by itself, is a significant melody. it is only in the complex ways the three interact that causes the positive quality that I think you noticed. The rising quarters in the rh form a melody of no great significance. The cello=like melody in the left hand does have a singing melody, but by itself it doesn’t seem accomplish that much, as well. Then there are triplets. Are they important or not? The real question is how to bring them together in a complex fusion that makes the passage glow and excite.
To relate the quarter note melody in the right hand with the triplets in the right hand, I played gs4-b4, then held the two notes as i added in ds4, which I also held, and lastly added fs4. If at this point I continue holding those four notes and not go on in the measure, I realize, after maybe about a second, that those notes add up to a four-note chord with a specific flavor that independently of the single notes of which it is comprised, has its own specific flavor and character. I might have missed hearing this had i not stopped to listen to the chord after it was finally formed. The realization of the chord does not come instantaneously to the ear. We have to patient, and wait for the four notes to all be there (five if you add the bass line).
It is a delayed satisfaction, one that is very desirable, but one that cannot be rushed. Thus the triplets get their meaning in the sound mixture by our waiting to hear the result of total participation. Eventually, when we play the passage, he don’t have to pause on the clock to wait for the four notes to congeal, we only have to subjectively, in the imagination, make the pause, to bring the four notes to life as members of a single chord, so that, at the end time-wise, it is not any of the four notes that are significant on their own, but how they loose their identify in the sound color of the chord where they vibrate together – as equals – but to a common good.
When it’s difficult to get from one chord to another
Sorry to have been out of touch for the past two weeks. I had cataract surgery and was waiting for my eyes to be able to read the computer screen again. Anyway, I’m fine now, and the hiatus is over. But please excuse typos and misspellings.
Consider the situation when we try to connect one chord to another chord, but the second chord is a difficult to get to from the first chord, we can do the following. The solution ultimately lies in not going from one chord to to a second. We have to break down this apparent cause and effect within time. Order in time need not dictate to our imagination order in which our body does things.
We let the hand get used to the second chord before playing the first chord. We play the second a series of times. After the first time we move the hand just a little bit away from the keyboard and then find the chord again. Then we can move the hand right (and then left) along the keyboard, horizontally away from the chord, in gradually increasing distances, and each time find your way spontaneously, without thought, without set-up, to the second chord as if you were already on it. Eventually your hand ‘remembers’ what that chord feels like, and can return to it from any place at all on or off the keyboard; from any position in all three dimensions that the hand can first be removed to, including for instance from your lap. Of all these infinite places and positions from which the hand might come to return to that chord, just one such possibility is that the hand is first on the chord that is written first.
Memory is like a glue that adheres to a chord like a familiar friend. Benefiting from this fact, we just have to add in a trick with time. Instead of the ‘first’ chord being followed by the ‘second’ chord, the second chord is there before the first chord. we must feel that he have already been there, that the glue of the memory causes our hand to automatically be on the notes of the second chord. I don’t so much mean that because we have practiced the passage, we get ‘used to’ where the second chord lies. No, this is different. This is truly being convinced that you are about to do two totally new things, for the very first time, and yet in spite of that, you act like you already know have been where the second is on the keyboard, tactilely, coverage-wise and finger-wise.