Playing With Authority, Intervals, and the Inner Heart of Music
Playing with Authority:
C.P told me at our last lesson: I am very soft spoken in my private life, and in my business life. I am habitually quiet, but you have given me permission to speak out more, even though it is at the piano. I can make more sound and command more attention. Maybe it’s safer to do it on the piano first, but nonetheless it an exciting change.
What I had been doing for the last few months with C.P. was to ask her to speak out her notes with more pride and more certainty. She shouldn’t play it safe, be unassuming and be on guard for mistakes. This was in her Bach prelude. On the other hand, in her “Claire de Lune”, I said: here it less a matter of loudness or authority, and more about richness of tone, finding a deep and sensuous source for all your sounds; but that at heart it is the same thing as expressing yourself more fully.
Later in the lesson we were working on a new Bach Prelude (WTC I c minor). I pointed out to her the intervals that were formed between the two voices, particularly after the first sixteenth note of the measure and the first sixteenth note of beat three of the measure. At first she asked a type a question that I had come to expect from her inquiring mind. “What is the use of knowing intervals”?
First she gained facility in naming the intervals. This led to her noticing how the sixth and the third (sometimes as tenths) were the most frequently used intervals between the hands. I asked her if those two intervals had anything in common. This led to the idea of inverting an interval and that thirds and sixths invert to each other. This led to ask about seconds and sevenths, which meant we could discuss the role consonance and dissonance in a tonal piece of music.
Perspectives leading to the inner heart of the music:
Then I put things in a broader perspective. There are two ways of knowing something: from outside and from the inside. From the inside is the goal. Often we cannot go directly into the inside of something unless we first take a series of perspectives on from the outside. Intervals is one such perspective on the inner heart of music. So are chords, rhythms, structural features, thematic development, listening awareness, and the list proliferates.
I had a friend in High School, Stephen*, who sometimes took walks with me in Prospect Park in Brooklyn. Once we were discussing the first of Emerson’s two essays on “Nature”, and how it is divided into sections, each on viewing nature from a series a different perspective. He said this was like the bible story of Joshua. Joshua’s goal was to get to the inside of Jericho. So for seven days they walked around it getting, as it were, every possible perspective on it. And on the last day the “walls came tumbling down”, or in other words, they now stood on on the inside of the city, just as the musician’s goal is to live in the inner heart of the music.
*An interesting thing about Stephen. He was born with only short stubs in the places where the fingers emerge from the hand. When you are a teenager everything seems possible. So one day Steven asked if I could teach him to play piano. Without hesitation I said yes. We chose the first prelude from the first book of the WTC. By the rotation of his forearm, and thinking of his hand as a wheel, and thinking of the stubs of the fingers as teeth of a gear wheel, we found a way not only to make sounds on the pianos with the his virtual fingers, but gradually gained a sophistication in the control of the rotation, together with the possibility that at any moment the arm could lift the wheel of the hand off the piano so that when the wheel came back down on the piano the virtual finger ajacent to the one that just sounded a note, could land on any key regardless of its distance on the keyboard from the previous note. Steve went on to Cornell, and I wish somehow I could be in contact with him again.
Further Italian Concerto Progress!
A.B. was here for his lesson yesterday. We were working on the third movement of the Bach Italian Concerto. We brought to the next level his ability of bringing things under the control of the ears.
I was reminded of medieval philosophers when they talk about god’s abilities: that god merely needs to think something and it becomes actual in the real world. So in piano performance the true controller over how a passage sounds is not based on intentional or controlled physical motions, but simply the ‘ear of god’ (actually the ear of the pianist) noticing how things are sounding – which, miraculously, transforms what is heard from potential to actual.
The more I was able to get A.B. to focus on his ear, the more contented he was to practice just a small chunk of the music and not, as is his wont, to continue on and on regardless of what happens in the passage. We should first ‘frame’ the chunk of the music being undertaken. That you will find that the smaller the chunk size, plus, the slower the tempo, the more the ear naturally takes over for the body.
Some other things that I said during the lesson to keep A.B. focused on what he heard rather than what he felt:
1) the notes never escape the reach of your ear.
2) wherever your hand goes, the ear follows.
3) the physical action of making a note often occludes the ear’s ability to hear the same note. This is an important reason why is it not such an easy matter to “just listen”.
Some of our work had to do with specific spots in specific measures:
In measure 2: the last two quarter notes plus the first notes of the next measure (in the left hand).
The principle here is, in order to get clear and crisp parallel sixths, don’t be content thinking of the three written sixths as being the “complete story”. I extended the passage by having him play a scale an entire ascending octave of parallel sixths using the notes of the F Major scale. “This is the ‘larger’, the more complete ‘whole, of which we have but a limited section being quoted. Once you conceive the part as representing the whole, then no matter how few sixths you play they will come alive. The listener will have a sense of where the sixths came from before the first one to be played (c3-a3) and where they are going to go if allowed to continue beyond the a2-f3. It is the “gestalt”, this organized whole, one that is greater than its parts, that should be the object of our perception, and be that which our hand wants to “embrace” when playing.
In measure 3: a2-f3 then f2, in the left hand.
Even though the thumb releases the f3 before the f2 is played, let the thumb nonetheless act to balance the pinkie.
Also in measure 3: the fifth eighth note in the left hand – bf2. No matter how he tried physical to control and balance the sound of the bf2 from the surrounding notes of the F major scale, he could never get it to sound how he wanted … until, that is, he recognized that the b-flat, though far removed from the right hand, functioned as the 7th of a third inversion C dominant-7 chord (bf2–e5-g5-c6). This allowed the bf2 to find its destiny as enabling a brief assertion of a dominant chord, in an unstable inversion , in the midst of an ascending F major scale.
Relating this to today’s major theme, if not by engaging with the ear, no matter how you to try to play something, it will always sound wrong. Which leaves the pianist to try one after another physical experimentation, all the time completely missing the sound-reason for the note.
In measure 5: the notes on beat one and the following eighth note. A.B. was having difficulty separating the two voices in the right hand. I made a suggestion that, agreeably, seemed to have nothing to do with the issue at hand. Listen, I said, to the f4 in the left hand and hear it meld into the f5 an octave higher (in the right hand’s lower voice). Sometimes we have to think ‘across the grain’ and find the solution to something in a different geometrical dimension than the one in which we first located the issue that required our attention.
Measures 30 and 31: the left hand
“Throw” the left thumb rightwards as if it would separate itself from the rest of the hand. Do this with more energy and momentum than would seem to be warranted by the physical distance the thumb has to travel away from the other fingers of the hand.
The principle here, is analogous in a way to the “gestalt” thing we mentioned concerning measure 3, when we spoke of completing the implied whole, not being content with only the notes that literally sound or are literally there. In these measures the distance the thumb has to travel is expresses a larger distance (subjectively) than the pitches of the notes seem to indicate (objectively along the keyboard). We sometimes have to ‘overreach’ in order to ‘reach’.
The Effectiveness of Repetition
S.B. came for his weekly lesson yesterday. He is an intermediate student. The piece we worked on was Beethoven’s Six Variations in G Major on “Nel cor piu non mi sento” by Paisiello.
Historically, S.B. has often not had the patience to repeat a passage as often as would lead him to experience confidence in playing that passage. Rather, he gets to a point where he thinks that he has played it often enough that the passage should already be going better, and is then discouraged that it is not getting better faster. This derails his internal process of mastering the piece.
Joe: “We need to overhaul your practicing habits. I would summarize the changes that are necessary as follows:
1) shorten the chunk size that you repeat in practicing until it is mastered.
2) use a touch that demonstrates a high level of confidence rather than a touch which suggests uncertainty about the notes.
3) adjust downwards your practicing tempo to support greater accuracy.
4) increase somewhat your tolerance for playing more repetitions of a group of notes as a prerequisite for attaining the degree of confidence that you deserve when playing those notes.
These four things are all tied together, the success of each depends on the all four being observed. The failure of the passage to proceed smoothly even after a lot of practicing may not be due not to any fundamental inability, but something more subtle: a slight misalignment among the four factors listed above. Currently you arrive at the conclusion “that I should be playing the piece better by now” but you may be speaking a bit too prematurely. First work on equalizing the four factors above Not by a lot but by just enough to assure further progress towards the goal of playing the passage with confidence and accuracy. Rather than being a scenario for discouragement, it is just tweaking the four variables until things come into focus. Instead of an un-crosable barrier, it’s just a habit in your way of practicing that needs a modest adjustment. It is then just a matter of equalizing the variables so that their values are more in accord with one another. Instead of coming up against a perennial state of defeat in each This failure in confidence with regard to having the ability to play new piece, you will feel a steady stream of modest gains.
More about the four variables:
#1. Definition of “chunk” size. How far do you go in the piece playing the same notes again? Do you go from start of the movement to its conclusion? Do you focus in on a smaller group of measures? Perhaps just one measure? Perhaps even just part of a single measure? If you keep experimenting with shorter ‘chunk sizes’ you will inevitably come to one that is of the right size to ensure a sense of mastery over the notes it contains when you choose to repeat those notes, a second time, a third time, etc..
#2. “Confidence” is a subjective emotion. Some of us are bound by ethics to play in a way that sounds confident only if indeed we have mastered the passage. I have found, with many students, that simply acting confident often increases the accuracy of the next iteration of the passage. We didn’t have to earn the privilege of feeling confident. We are like an actor, who is real life lacks confidence, but has undertaken a role in a play of someone who has extreme confidence. In such a case sounding confident is only a matter of acting. The gods are not standing in the wings waiting to punish the actor for such hubris.
S. gave a curious reason why his touch might be less even: he thought that the result would be mechanical sounding and not musical. I suggested that at this stage, prioritize confidence over musicality. The goal of playing more musically may be coming in too early in your process of learning a passage. I propose you first want to get an even layer of notes, and then you can start allowing it to vary according to taste (it’s the part of the recipe that says “now salt and pepper to taste” – which of course may be the most crucial step).
#3. Experiment with the balance between tempo and note accuracy. It is possible that you have chosen a tempo that you think should lead to an accurate and confident rendition of the passage, only to be discouraged when you encounter difficulties with the passage in spite of the chosen tempo. This requires a tweaking in the tempo. Continue to gradually slow it down, and usually sooner, rather than later, you will find a match between the tempo and the accuracy of the results.
#4. Concomitant with the other adjustments you may need to increase you tolerance for repetition, but not by a lot, a minor adjustment is often all the is necessary to open the gateway to accuracy.
To summarize, chances are that the four variables is only slightly out of quilter with each other. A major adjustment is not necessary. For instance you do not need to increase dramatically your tolerance for repetition. Often the new setting for each variable is close to the old one; that only a subtle adjustment to bring the four factors into balance with each other.
Over the course of the hour lesson, there were other things we incorporated into the new practicing procedure. When repeating the same passage trick the hand into playing somewhat faster without its noticing that it is doing that. Repeat the process as long as you can sustain the illusion.
Or, saying the names of the notes in your right hand as you are playing them. This raises to a higher level of awareness the identity of the notes in the passage. Or, saying out loud or to yourself your intent to play a certain notes, then pause a very brief amount of time, and then play that note as if to say “I always keep my word.”
We put these principles into practice at the lesson, which turned into a ‘practicing’ session that lasted a full hour, an hour that went by quickly and with a constant stream of self validation. At the end of the lesson I ventured my opinion that: I don’t think you encountered the same boredom factor, from doing things over and over again, that you might usually experience at home when practicing. If you can raise the duration of the practicing of the repetitions, so as to coincide with what you can achieve, you will be in harmony with yourself.
I try to place the emphases in different places, so it doesn’t sound as if all I’m saying is “just keep repeating this portion of the music”. I try to make it sound like: if you shorten the chunk size, then you might be inclined to perfect that chunk, before going on to the next chunk. It’s all ‘disinformation’, or misdirection as in the motions of the hands of a magician.
As you reduce the chunk size step by step, inversely raise your patience reducing the chunk size.
When you create a chunk that is half a measure in size, always “round it off” into the first note of the next group of notes, the next note that would ordinarily be emphasized.
When you first start a new ‘chunk’, try to remember what I said at this same stage in each previous chunk. “Yes”. “I was sounding the notes too tentatively for the results of my intention to register on me.” Remember we can settle for the delusion of confidence. As long as the other person thinks you are confident it doesn’t matter what your internal state may be.
At this juncture S.B came to a realization: “If I’m not really confident in the note I am playing, I will play it softly and tentatively, and even if it is the correct note, I am not getting as much confirmation of its correctness…my body is not feeling as much “vibration” from the note. I said: “what I am calling confirmation and what you are calling vibration, is a crucial aspect of the process. I made the following analogy: “it’s like I gave you three different mediums out of which to make a sculpture. One of the mediums is just soapy water, capable of forming transient bubbles of different sizes. This wouldn’t give you much feedback as to whether you are creating a certain shape, because the shape would disappear or dissipate as you were creating it.” S.B.: “I would have to sculpt a vessel”. Yes, you have to sculpt it out of a material that resists and yet complies. You are not going to sculpt it out of concrete, because that resists too much being formed under pressure. You can’t shape it. But if it is wet clay of some sort, then, yes, it will offer enough resistance to give you that “vibration”, as you call it, inside your hand, and between the fingers, but will also yields to your intentions. In sum, you want there to be enough ‘resistance’ in the sound to make it clear whether it has yielded to your musical intentions.
In the past I have hesitated to see all the way through a lesson like this S.B. He gets frustrated; and I correspondingly lose heart in my goals. Today was different. I made a decision before we started. If we didn’t get positive results I wouldn’t give up but would stay the course. Although he may become bored, today I wanted to create all the circumstances for a definite practicing breakthrough. “If you got bored, I decided to still persevere.” Like reluctant seeds in the ground, in need of just a little more moisture in order to sprout, I wanted to give the new habits the greatest chance of establishing themselves.
S. also figured out that the rate of increase in mastering a passage might come slower if the chunk size was bigger. And there is even a possibility that by the time you get to the end of the bloated chunk, you will have forgotten what you learned or corrected at the beginning of the chunk. So there is actually a negative possibility of getting worse with each repetition of the chunk. I confessed that I would find this totally demoralizing. And I wouldn’t want to practice any more. “I just don’t see what I’m doing wrong!” But using today’s new tactics, negative feedback was almost eliminated. You may be practicing at a slower tempo, undertaking smaller ‘chunks’, but you are getting more positive feedback, and this can only feel good. And it’s not artificial feedback like the typical new-age parent who gives their child a reward for every everyday thing they do. It is bona fide, deserved reinforcement.
At this point in the lesson we switched from variation 1 to the theme. I said “let’s see if we can combine some of the things we were doing in variation one, and see if by any chance it all comes together quicker. Adjust your speed downwards, but just enough to get the majority of the notes to come out correctly.
At one point he used the thumb on two consecutive notes). I said, the main obstacle to changing to a different fingering is a stubborn resistance on the part of the pianist – they don’t really want accept the necessity of changing the fingering. So, here, take this pencil, and put in a new fingering to try. Note that it is not the teacher saying “change your fingering to such and such”. It’s you yourself, overcoming your own resistance, saying I am going to find a better fingering for that passage. You are in control and are not capitulating to someone else’s voice or even the voice of the “good” person in yourself.
Another splendid thing happened. He played something and said: “I played it at the speed I thought I should be able to play it at by now. Instead I will revised the speed to one that presents the highest degree of probability that I will play correctly all the notes and with confidence.”
The time of the lesson was up. I said: maybe the main point today is that everything you are doing is under your control.
Concert Pianists, and their Performance Arcs
“A. B.” came for his regular Thursday lesson.
Today we examined how a particular pianist puts together their experience of being in control of a musical passage while performing. The pianist forges their experience and control of a piece through various parts. For diagnostic purposes we did these preliminary exercises:
We played a Bach Chorale, looking at the keyboard only for the placement of the beginning chord of the chorale, and then not looking at the hands at all from that point on. The purpose of the exercise is for the pianist to discover how they form their intuitive sense of where their hands and fingers are on the keyboard, and if they get off course, whether they can find their way back without looking at their hands.
Next we did the same for a I-V-I in all keys. We used this particular chord-spacing: c3-g3–c4-e4 g2-g3–b3-d4 c3-g3–c4-e4 (Root-fifth-root-third, root-root-third-fifth, root-fifth-root-third).
I asked him not to look at is hands, neither when going from one chord to the next within the three chord progression in one key, nor when moving each of the notes of the third chord up a half step to begin the progression in the next key. This proved difficult for him. I said “I think we are starting to hit ‘pay dirt'”.
Then we did the same for the first prelude from Book One. This was relatively easy for him. So I added this twist. “Pick a random measure, make a simultaneous chord out of the notes in the measure, release the chord, send the hands to some far away place, then without looking at hands or the keyboard, find your way back to that chord.” As it turned out this was quite easy for him! I said: “I think there is a moral to this story.”
We moved into the second movement of the Bach Italian Concerto, a piece he knows well.
I have come to understand that A. normally bases his performance of a piece mostly on muscle memory, with his ear standing vigilantly as a guard against any wrong note. I said, “You have spent a lifetime carefully building this relationship between muscle memory and the ear. Now I am going to ask you to go into an uncomfortable place. Take any spot in the movement, and as you play the notes, say the names of each note you play in the right hand. If there is any hesitation in your voice, we’ve uncovered even more pay dirt.” We want gradually to shift the identity of a note to something due to a union of a sense clear placement of the hand on the keyboard joined with a clear sense of the name of the note being played.
He said: “I can’t say the note I’m playing play at the same time that I play it: not if I try to say it, not if you do it for me, and not if I say it only in my imagination.” Boom. “I think we just hit the mother lode because of how difficult this is for you to do.” And what an incredible discovery–to find the missing link in the mind, and work towards an exercise to correct it.
To put this in perspective, consider that doing this is not an unusual thing to ask of the student. For example, whether playing either from the score or by memory, I am always conscious of what note I’m playing, even when I steer myself through a group of notes by following the ascending or descending pitch curve of the notes. This awareness keeps me from getting lost in a piece, even when I am struggling. I am not playing by rote or muscle memory and relying on habit: I am choosing what I play and when.
Considering the difficulty of naming the notes as you play them, I recommend that he try to perfect a particular measure in this regard. It is the ‘trying’ to do that is more important than doing it correctly. It is the trying that opens up new possibilities in your mind.
Later in the lesson we went back to the I-V-I exercise we did earlier without looking at his hands, and I asked him to try to name the notes in each of the three chords in each of the three note progressions starting with the bass voice of each chord and proceeding to the soprano voice. This proved far more difficult than he imagined it would. I was pleased with this: he was gaining a direct insight into how his musical brain works.
Returning to the the second movement of the Bach Italian Concerto:
How many, “rhythmic words: are there in the ‘vocabulary’ of this movement. It is a limited set. A word a distinct rhythmic pattern, for instance a word might consist of series of four sixteenths, or a dotted eighth followed by a series of sixteenths, or some other combination of rhythmic note values that repeats frequently in the movement. Note that there is only a limited number of such combinations in this movement. Be aware of which such ‘word’ you are saying at every moment in the movement.” Playing this movement is like speaking a language of rhythmic words, a vocabulary consisting of just a dozen or such words (although they can be put together in many different ways to create different meanings). When I play it I ‘speak’ each such word with its own definite and unique form of expression and inflection – one that pertains just to that rhythmic word.
He objected that the expression of each word would change dependent on the varying setting of the musical context. To which I replied, “I agree that the same word in different settings should be spoken differently, but at first make all the same ‘words’ sound the same“.
He tried this and was surprised that this added to his musicality in playing rather than making it seem less musically nuanced. I said, “The final musical result needs to rest on something solid before the nuances are added. This might not be true of other pianists who can manage both at the same time right from the start, but you often get bogged down coping with the details of the musical meaning that you want to convey before attending to first principles. Start with the language and the vocabulary. Wait until later on before you change it into Shakespearean English.”
We turned next to Mozart’s Adagio in B Minor:
“You and I often have different agendas as to what to work for and what needs the most reinforcement. Today will prove to be no different.” What is missing for me is the basic and constant “flow” wherein you carry each note through its duration of time to the next note, and then that next to its next, etc.. Each note is directed to the next note. I hate to use an analogy that uses the word ‘weight’, which is usually anathema to me, but it as if the note has heft and you have to pick it up and move it through time (or space if it helps to think that way) to the next note*. Every note should experience the full pressure of time – which I call the ‘flow’ of time – to bring it to the sound experience of the next note. Each note has to experience that dynamic sense of motion to the next note. It is hard to describe how to do this other than my making certain gestures as you are playing, but though these are spatial motions, what we are looking to experience is the motion of consciousness through time, without abatement, and mostly felt between the beginning of one note and the beginning of the next note. It is the inevitable and relentless pressure of passing time.
* If you do think of this spatially then let the direction always to the right and not in the direction of the pitches as the arrow of time in Western math and physics is usually depicted rightwards (as it is in the convention of the musical score).
I’m back! Revving up your engine. Change of register within a theme. State “A” and state “B”
I haven’t blogged for a while. It’s been a rough month health wise and mood-wise. But here I am again. I’ve nothing too organized to write about today, so please indulge me is I am desultory in this blog entry.
#1 Revving up your engine for a moment before playing a difficult passage.
When confronted with a rapid passage that that moves in a series of notes of equal duration, let us say eighth notes in the right hand, covering several bars of 4/4 time, it is useful to rev up your engine (like a race car driver awaiting the flag to drop to start the race) and then overflow those four notes as the race begins and you cruise through the passage. This ‘revving’ up can consist of playing the first four notes over and over again in a loop, until the thrust of your “jet engine” has increased to the amount when you can then let off the breaks and sail down the runway.
#2 Change of register within a theme statement
When a melody is transferred by the composer from one octave range to another, it is important that the pianist “carries” the sound of the note from one octave to the other. Sorry to mix metaphors, but the listener has to be “led by the hand” from one range to the other, so that the new destination note sounds as alike as possible to the starting note, but for the accident of pitch range. Usually changing the octave of a note causes a major change in the quality of a note. But in this case we want to stress the sameness of the note despite its appearance in different ranges on the piano.
We want the listener to feel that it is the same sound that has taken off one outfit and put on a second, while still being able to recognize the person wearing the clothing.
#3 State “A” / State “B”
Solving technical hurdles, simplifying a passage, If you are not already familiar with the idea of state A and B, see:
do a ‘search’ on the front page for “practice technique”
With my students, I often use the terms “state A” and “state B” when referring, in the first case, to some altered way of playing or approaching a difficult passage that sheds new insight on its meaning or which unlocks the technical difficulties involved in the passage. State B, which follows upon state A, is playing the passage again, but this time as written in the score (in its performance form). The idea is that the insight gained in state A carries over into state B.
The important question is what to do after doing state A followed by state B. Many students will do state A, realize the benefit of doing it as they then play state B, but if they play the passage a second or third time, simply in its state B form, the benefits from having done state A gradually wear off and the passage begins to resume the state it had been in originally. When the student has completed the cycle state A – state B, she should resist the temptation to try the passage again in state B, almost as if to test whether the benefits previously gained are still showing in state B, or perhaps to try to improve the passage even more. Unfortunately the benefit from state A though it normally carries over automatically into the first iteration of state B, by simply following state A closely in time, becomes lost and diluted if you simply replay the passage in state B, over and over, without going back in between to state A again.
Always go back to state A, before doing another try at state B, for state A stands to state B as a going back to the well, the fountain, the source of the inspiration and insight that enlightens the passage.
Thus concludes a series of scattered thoughts. Let me know what you think or have questions about in the comments, and also tell me if you would like me to write about something specific next time. Some health stuff has burdened me, so the posts might be a little scattered. But stay tuned, I’m here.