When Practicing is Emotionally Painful
S.B.’s lesson on 6/25/19
S.B. is sensitive to good music, his soul clearly derives sustenance from it. Part of him loves being at the piano. The fly in the ointment is his sight reading.
Because of his love for music he periodically subjects himself to prolonged periods of discouragement by trying to learn pieces. The discouragement stems mostly from the difficulties he experiences in sight reading.
He could possibly become better at sight reading if he did more of it. But without a proximate aesthetic reward to be gained from the playing of the piece, there is little incentive to practice sight reading.
Reading pieces that are simple enough for him to sight reading produces apathy on his part. The music has little to offer his rather refined artistic sensitivities.
Difficulty in sight reading leads to prolonged practicing time before
the musical qualities of a piece begin to emerge in the player’s consciousness, which can then be savored by our aesthetic sensitivity. The longer this delay, the more bogged down the pianist gets in the tangled web of a forest–with no apparent way out. Just more and more forest, without
Eventually, the displeasure of making gradual, fitful, disconnected small gains in learning the piece, that cumulatively don’t seem to be leading anywhere, outweighs any pleasure, even anticipated pleasure, that the learned piece would bring him. Thus a lot of work is continuously required without the goal of enjoying the piece seeming to get any closer. This is compounded by the growing feeling that he is incapable of learning the piece. Eventually one is forced to the conclusion: “this piece, musical as it is (when I first heard it in performance), may not be worth the effort I have to put into learning it.” With great patience, discipline and fortitude, one might hold out against this discouragement, even for a long time, but time always wins in the end … the discouragement does not go away.
A tall order:
As a first step in dealing with these issues, I suggested that during the coming week’s practicing, he should take notice of the moments of
pleasure that may occur, even if they are in the minority. To identify to himself that THIS is the state he wants to experience at the piano; the one that makes it all worthwhile. Then to stay with that a moment before going on, to stave off heavy and seemingly ineluctable drift of displeasure that is waiting to take over.
Two or More notes by the Application of a Single Motion Through Time
In today’s earlier blog post (6/23/19), about Albeniz’s Orientale, reference is made (see footnote three, ***) to a forthcoming blog: two or more notes from one single continuous gesture through time. This is it. The specific gesture referred to is one I refer to under the nickname of “heel-toe” (a borrowing from organ foot technique).
Sit in front of a table or desk top.
Rest the crease of the wrists on the very edge of the table.
Flex the wrists vertically so that the following two things happen at once: the wrist remains in contact with the desk as it flexes, and, the remainder of the hands are raised above the desk so that the the finger tips are at the highest elevation above the desk and the parts of the palm nearest the wrist are at the lowest elevation above the desk.
Next: flex (almost snap) the wrist back downwards, causing the hand to
slap back down on the table.
Do this a second time, but with this difference: as the wrist un-flexes, and the hand comes back down, the wrist rises an inch or two above the desk. The result will be that the energy with which the hand slams back down the desk top has increased several fold.
In organ technique, when using the feet on the pedal keyboard, it is often the case that the pedal for one note is depressed using portion of the shoe nearest the heel, and the the pedal for the next note, especially if it lies at a relatively close distance to the first pedal, is depressed using the toe portion of the same shoe. This is simpler to do, and usually faster than trying to use the same part of the shoe for both consecutive notes.
Any single motion, that contains a spatially distinct beginning and an ending part to its course of motion, can occur faster than two single-intended motions. Whether one is playing octaves, or thirds, or chords, or sixths, or even just a series of single notes, “heel-toe” can produce two sounds in not much additional time to what it would take to produce only one such sound. In this, and in other examples of one motion replacing two motions, the single motion develops more force and energy than the single motions. The more energy a motion contains, the more successful it is in executing a specific mechanical effect, especially if one “steps down” or “compresses” the more overt form of that motion into a scaled down, more compressed, version of the motion. By becoming more condensed into a smaller spatial gamut, and attains at the same time a greater physical efficiency. There is no technical problem at the piano keyboard that cannot be solved, or better solved, by the application of a greater deal of energy.
Deciding What is Controllable. Also: Transforming the Polyphony of a Gugue
Well Tempered Klavier, Book I, C Major, Prelude
After finishing the piece I simply asked A.B. what he liked and disliked about his rendition. He mentioned several negative things and then struck on the one thing that I had primarily noticed: that he stopped the harmonic flow of the piece every time he went from the end of one measure to the beginning of the next. I missed sensing that inexorable connection that energetically pushed me from the chord in one measure to the chord in the next measure.
He said that he had previously tried condensing the piece into a chorale of whole-note chords (each chord took the place of one measure). However, he had trouble because he couldn’t do it with any speed. I said that the speed was of the essence of the procedure. Ideally, each eighth note’s worth of the piece, in terms of its duration, became the duration of one of the chords of the chorale.
Since it was difficult to shift chords that quickly, I recommended to him that he play just the chord a single measure followed by the chord of the next measure, and then stop. I asked him to play the first chord as if it were a grace note going to the second chord – the latter being held longer.
This he could do. We repeated the process for each measure going into its next measure.
Now that we had merged two amino acids into a somewhat longer chain of molecules, I asked him to play as written, while I, in the higher treble, waited until he was near the end , but not at the very end, of one measure only then played the chord of that measure as a grace note followed the next measure’s chord. Only I would get to the second chord before he finished playing the current measure. That anticipation of my chord connection gave him the necessary push and energy to keep the piece’s harmonic flow going across the bar line. Then I would remain silent at the second piano until he reached nearly to the end of the new measure at which point I would break in with the chord of the new ‘current’ measure played as a grace note to the chord that governed the measure that was about to start. And so on.
A.B. remained worried in particular that the pinkie sixteenth note in the right hand at the end of each measure does not connect smoothly to the next sixteenth note in the left hand at the beginning of the next measure.
His default solution was to figure out exactly how he wants his pinkie to play that note. I solved his issue by stepping entirely around his approach. As he played the piece I sang “la la la…”, but starting with 6th 7th and 8th sixteenth notes of one measure and ended with the fifth sixteenth note of the next measure. on notes to the first note. I then waited too the 6th note of the new measure and began the process of again singing along for 3 + 5 or 8 notes.
In the form I was singing it, with the way I was grouping the notes that I sung versus those I did not sing, I purposely glossing over the connection between the two notes on either side of the bar lines.. It happens automatically. By spreading a solder, or flux over the end of one measure and the beginning of the next, I effectively made less important the connection of the bar line.
I noticed in my singing that I helped things along by making misplaced crescendo starting on my first note and ending towards the eighth note. This helped smooth over A.B.’s faulty connection over the bar line.
At this point we moved on to the fugue: transforming the polyphony of a
fugue in C Major, Book One, Well Tempered:
A.B.: why do I find it so difficult to not hold a voice note longer than it is supposed to last, when the note is already meant to continue sounding through a certain number of the next notes in some of the other voices. For example if the target voice is a quarter note, or longer, and the other voices are enunciating sixteenth notes.
I gave a brief answer: remembering when to lift a sustained note in one voice is the requires the opposite of everything you do right when knowing when to start a note. It’s the “dark side” of piano technique: it requires doing everything the wrong way; or is it now the right way?
A.B.: why did you do that? Why was it working?
Joe: I think it is important to have a distinct pre-vision, pre-conception, of what the beginning of the next measure is going to sound like before you get to it. It is a strange balance of knowing what’s coming and still being surprised by it.
Can we transform the sound the sound of the fugue in the student’s ear?
We experimented using two pianos with re-registering one of the voice of the fugue. He would choose one voice to play, and transpose either an octave higher or lower than it was written, while I played the remaining three voices (without the fourth) at the other piano.
Results: A.B. said:
My voice sounded different than before. I head it saying and meaning other other things than I had before, but then realizing that it was the same voice with the same names to its notes, just transposed, and that there was at the same time an abiding identity between both versions of the voice, an identity which was preserved, was eternal and fixed and was impervious to change of octave. The new stuff that suddenly I heard, in how that voice combined with the other voices, must have been there latent to the note’s names themselves alone, or to say it in another way were just as present as aesthetic and sonic effects when I played that voice in its original octave.
In the future we will have A.B. play just one voice, but in the octave higher than written and the octave lower than written without playing it in the octave is written. Later again we can transpose one voice by more than one octave. If it is the soprano voice we can have it sound in the tenor voice’s range or even below the bass voice. In the case of the bass voice, we can have it sound in the alto voice’s range or so that it is the highest sounding of all the voices. At any time I can choose to play all four voices and not just three, leaving one voice to him. Or, he can choose at random to play just the voices, while I play the other two. Or, three voices.
Creating Harmonic Clarity
Bach: C Major Prelude, Book I, Well Tempered Klavier
Part of A.B.’s quest is to play the notes of this prelude “evenly”. Achieving this has to do with the chord outlined by the notes of each measure, and the balance of the notes in the chords in creating a clear impression of that chord as a whole. To make this chord more obvious to the ear, the player, when practicing, can “densify” each chord: if there are openings between adjacent written notes in the chord to squeeze in additional notes from the same chord, add those notes in. For instance in measure 2, there is room for an f4 between the d4 and a4. If we add in that f4, we create the denser five-note chord: c4 d4 f4 a4 d5. We can take that chord a step forward and 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 it stand out more clearly to the ear what chord it is. Do this for every chord in the Prelude when Bach’s written notes allow for such additions.
An equally valid technique to add density to the character of a chord is add in chord tones in lower and/or higher octaves not used in the printed chord. In this form a chord could contain 8 – 10 notes, or by adding the pedal, larger numbers of notes, spanning the low bass to high treble. In this form, the “quality” of the chord reveals itself at its most obvious. This technique, helps “set” the sonority of the written chord inside a larger entity to which it in turns belongs.
Whatever are the sound characteristics and the mood characteristics of the individual chord, they become in this manner magnified to the ear. From this form of the chord we can then re-compress the chord (through the aesthetic equivalent of a ‘trash compactor’) without losing any of the sound ‘material’ present in the larger version of the chord: the larger instance of the chord being condensed into a smaller chord without losing any of the fullness or meaning of the uncompressed version of the chord.
Leverage and Sound
Chopin, Etude in C# Minor from Opus 25:
Irving’s brother came today. We wanted to get a rich cello-like / vocal-like tone out of the piano for the notes of the opening “baritone” melody for the left hand. It is in single notes without accompaniment, so it is very exposed. We need our entire sound/mechanical tool-kit to keep it resonant and sustained so there isn’t a moment’s break in the flow of the line. Their softness shouldn’t belie their resonance.
Our first exploration was with leverage, the principle being that the greater the leverage you have over the production of each sound, the more that sound approaches the ideal piano-resonance.
The effectiveness of a lever is a function of how long the lever is and where you place the fulcrum on which to rest it*. Leverage increases with the length of the lever and how remote the fulcrum is from the end of the lever that, from which in this case, the pianist initiates the motion of the lever. If, for example, the lever is solely the length of a finger, and the third knuckle is where the fulcrum is, there is little mechanical advantage to depressing the key through the motion of that lever. If the lever extends back into the wrist, and includes the finger, there is greater leverage on behalf of the movement of finger tip. So the question is, how we can create the greatest leverage with the human body.
We ended up using a curious combination of several different levers, that ended up being connected one to the other.
The length of the arm, from shoulder to finger tips, while perhaps not the longest lever we can make of the body, is a conveniently long one that is still easily manipulated.
We started by his holding out both his forearms; straight out in front of him so that they parallel with each other and were horizontal to the ground. We Left a comfortable distance between the two hands, about the same as the distance between the two shoulders.
We then had him move his arms up and down using just the shoulders as pivots. At their highest points the arms were aiming well above the horizontal, at an angle of about forty five degrees. At their lowest points the arms were just slightly below the horizontal.
Very soon, we changed it to an oscillating motion between the arms. One arm was at its lowest when the other was at its highest. And they exchanged these positions. We did this until he felt a sort of physical exhilaration from all that motion.
The next thing we did was to create a second, more imaginary, lever. At the same time the arms were moving, we pretended there was the plank of a see-saw that connects the two hands (traversing the empty space between the hands), which, as a result of the arm motions, was itself going up and down as if two people were seated at each end of the see-saw. The pivot of this imaginary see-saw was exactly half way between the hands, so that neither hand or arm had a mechanical advantage over the other – the advantages were equal.
I also had him imagine a secondary but similar see-saw between his two shoulders, as if an, albeit, small person was seated on each shoulder. We continued exercising the combination of these levers until he felt a definite exhilaration from making these motions.
We then ‘elected’ his two index fingers as the sole ‘beneficiaries’ of all the motions he was making, so that the each index finger was backed up by the entire arm and contributing see-saws.
While continuing the oscillation of the arms he used alternating index fingers to play first the opening note of the second note. The solo was no longer distributed solely to the left hand but alternately, from note to note, between one arm lever and the other. If he played the first note with his left index finger, then he played second note with his right index finger. Then back to the left index finger to sound the third note, the right again for the fourth note, and so on through the line.
During this procedure the fingers were to never loose their connection to the hand, and on to the wrist, the forearms, the elbows, all the way to the shoulders.
Sometimes the arms had to cross one another, but the more important thing was the swinging motion from one arm to the other regardless of which one was to the right or left of the other.
When he did this with physical abandon fervor, without thinking so much of the ‘proper’ or ‘usual’ way of pushing the notes down, the result, to our joint delight, was an unusually rich sound, one that he was unaccustomed to getting on single notes.
Even when consecutive notes were ‘next door’ to each, only a half step or whole step away, we did not diminish the feeling of the widest possible see-saw between the arms. In other words, while the objective distance between the consecutive notes might lessen, the subjective sense of how long that distance was always remained large.
The last step was to preserve the widest and most dynamic sense of an oscillating motion when going not just from one hand to the other, but from one finger of one hand to another finger of the same hand.
* The saying, concerning how levers work, as attributed to Archimedes, is: Give me the place to stand, and I shall move the earth.