The Newness of Time Itself
“Les sons et les parfums tournent dans l’air du soir” (Baudelaire courtesy of Debussy).
Notes, sounds, meld and melt in time. Memory and anticipation interpenetrate each note heard in the present tense. And memory also coerces the immanent future to follow the patterns of the past.
Sometimes, in our performing, this leads to a sense of taking a piece for granted: we’ve heard it all before, nothing is new to us, no surprises are left for us. The piece starts, we dutifully endure through its time span playing each note in its place. The piece ends, we stop playing, we bow and go through the ritual of accepting the praise of the audience.
Are there steps we can take to bring life, spontaneity and freshness, back into the performance. We cannot re-order the notes; we seem to be chained to an ineluctable sequence of cause and effect. And though we are free to pick up the implication of where the current note seems headed, when we do get to play the note and hear it through our outer ears, it can remain essentially a surprise. Though we expect time to repeat, we are nonetheless free to consider each next moment an open question. We live in in immanent cloud of possibilities where there is always more than one direction the music might head next. When we ‘finally’ get to hear it, all the possibles are wiped away, effaced in the blatancy of the bright light of the actual present. This is no less true when we have wagered on one particular note and we win the hand: the note we thought would happen did happen. We find that we were ‘correct’ in our assumption of what sound (not manifested yet in time), does indeed become manifested in the richness of time as it flows into the present.
Yet this bright light of the present, though it remains shining as long as we remain in the present, shines only briefly on any particular note. As far as the note is concerned, this light is good for only one transient moment.
So if we don’t want to fall back into the darkness of the non-present, somehow we must live within the light of this omnipresent present.
To offset the staid performance is the conviction, remaining in our consciousness, that every note we take the trouble to hear is the first note of the piece. Like a true beginning, like the promise of each day’s sunrise, it opens up for us a world of infinite possibilities. And for us to maintain this through the very last note of the piece (which itself could have been followed by another – but just wasn’t).
To the extent that we can we let each note within the piece shed at least some of its accumulation of the past, an accretion that is rapid and inevitable under normal circumstances, the piece fights its way back into a state of alertness and freshness.
Mental presence is the key.
Emotional Expression; Changing from Flats to Sharps
CP’s lesson 8/29/19 “Claire de Lune”
C: Everything I do, both in general, and specifically at the piano I when practice, is rational, organized and methodological. This includes the fact that once I start something I must complete it regardless of the months it takes me. Moreover, I’ve never noticed any emotional expression in my playing, and I feel it is a lack on my part.
J: Your contention about emotional expression is belied by the natural beauty of your sound quality, and how unerringly you hit just the right feeling-tone of the piece you are playing.
(C seemed pleased that I thought so)
J: So if you believe that the last mentioned traits exist in your playing, where do think they come from; how do you get them?*
C: I don’t know. Partially because I don’t know when I’m getting them.
J: Exactly! You are not supposed to know, because they do not come from a part of you that is identifiable with words. If so, would you be OK if we use words like irrational or non-conscious, to signify why you cannot tell precisely where they come from within yourself. A bigger question: is it OK with you to have these two contrasting natures in yourself: one organized, under your control, and available to consciousness, the other, just as potent, but uncontrollable because inaccessible to your conscious or rational mind?
(She always knew about the organized one but had been very concerned that might not have the other. She was pleased to know she did have it, as well)
J: These two do not necessarily have to contradict each other or conflict with each other. Any conflict we sense comes from the rational side of our selves, when we try to define one in the terms of the other. In truth, each can amplify and encourage the other.
(She described an analogous situation in her life)
C: In my business life I frequently have to get to understand the
inner workings and organization of a large, international company.
The task seems daunting. There are too many interconnecting parts,
each pair seeming to interrelate in its own way and according to its
own customs. However, given enough time, I find that I begin to
grasp the whole and the parts.
J: My guess is that the foundational work you did was largely rational, but the insight that eventually came about how the company, despite its many parts, worked as an organic unity, came unexpectedly and was not directly
caused by its conscious antecedents in time. Again, we do not know from where this insight comes from, but it represents a direct intuition of the companies inner, organic unity.
In Claire de Lune there is a moment when the key signature changes
abruptly from five flats to four sharps. C. says this change causes
her great difficulty.
Here began a diagnosis.
1) I picked a passage in the flats section: in your imagination, rather than thinking about the key signature, just put, in your imagination, a flat sign in front of each and every note in the score. Note that this produces a somewhat different sequence of notes than what Debussy wrote. C had little trouble doing this.
2A) Then we picked a passage in the sharps section. Now do the same thing again, only with sharps. Put an imaginary sharp sign in front of every note you see in the passage and don’t think any longer about key signatures. This too, though producing a passage that sounded different than the piece she was used to, offered her no difficulty.
2B) Play the same passage again as in #2A, but this time, in your imagination, put a flat sign rather than a sharp sign in front of every note. She had little little difficulty doing this.
Just so you know, all of these three things are much harder to do than play the score as written. So you have all the mental equipment necessary to make a successful shift from flats to sharps. Yet it is still giving you trouble. We must explore further.
She said: the confusion occurs at the moment it changes key. It’s barely marked in the score. I’ve gotten so used to being in the flats for the last few pages, I need just as long a period to get used to the sharps.
I said: this is very useful. It’s time for me to ask a stupid question. Do you start practicing the piece starting from the change of key, or do you usually start at the beginning of the piece?
She: the latter. Remember, once I start something I have to see it through the end.
I think you have just diagnosed your problem as well as solved having found the solution to the problem. Simply get in the habit of sometimes starting your practicing from the beginning of the sharp section until you are used to that part as you are to the opening section.
She asked me how I handle this sort of situation. I said: it’s probably different for a professional musician, and different from one professional to the next. Here is a part of my process in handling keys and changes of key that had remained unconscious to me for many years, but which after starting teaching others, became more accessible to my consciousness.
Here is a simple example. I encounter a piece in G Major. One sharp. F sharp. I am sight reading the piece. I come, in the score to an “F”. It genuinely does not look like an F. It looks like something else: it looks like an F-sharp. There is nothing in the vicinity of the note on the page to cause it to look any different. But nothing you can say to me, will change the impression that it looks different than an F natural. There is little my mind can do to make it look again like an F and not an F#. It is as if its printed in a different color. It produces a different emotional state in my mind. It is as if the # sign was printed just left of the note.
That indicates how a strongly I am affected from the start by hearing the piece sound in the key of G major. It is the obvious presence to my ear that we are in a tonal world known as “G Major”, and how that affects every note in the piece, not just F#.
* With certain students I do teach things like being musical, understanding that inner thing-in-itself of the music. I am surprisingly successful in doing this. But when I have a student in front of me who does these naturally, the worst thing I can do is make them aware of it in a way that includes how I think they are achieving it.
Sight Reading Gets in the Way of Learning a New Piece
S.B’s lesson on August 27, 2019
S.B. who is quite musical and is in his early thirties, has great physical coordination at the piano even though he is playing only at an intermediate level. He could be playing at a much higher level, doing more technically challenging music. What is preventing this is his sight reading. If I were to try to place his sight reading scales on a scale from one to ten, it would approximately 2. At the same time, his ability to get around the piano acrobatically is at least an 8. We have tried all sorts of approaches to improving his sight-reading-alacrity; all with minor progress. As he puts it, “Each time I play or practice the same piece again, it is almost like sight reading it again.”
If we wanted him to undertake much more difficult and musically rewarding pieces, we would some have to set a goal of somehow getting rid of the sight reading stage in his learning process, or to put it more practically, get rid of it to whatever degree possible. To move ahead in this direction we will depend on a third variable in addition to physical coordination and sigh treading. This variable is his ability to memorize.
His usual method to memorize is to play the entire piece over and over again. However, because his sight reading skill is low, and since each repetition is more like sight reading it again, he does not get gradually more familiar with the piece; his memory doesn’t kick in very much.
We tried a new procedure.
I gave him a random score. I asked him to carefully sightread the first measure, and pay close attention to what notes were being played in his hands. Then, without further ado, try to play that measure by heart. It took just a couple of tries until he was able to do that. At that point we simply played the measure number of times by memory. When it seemed to be locked into place, which was about after the fourth repetition, I asked him to play the measure faster (by memory). Then even faster. This proceeded fairly effortlessly (the physical coordination ability kicking in with its contribution).
Instead of reading-on in the piece (his usual procedure is try to play through an entire piece), we cleared his mind by talking for a minute on some irrelevant topic. Then we went through the same exact procedure that we used for the first measure, but this time for the second measure. This proved harder than measure one but not by much.
Then we went into a phase in which I would say in some random order, something like: “play measure two”, “play measure one”, “play measure one” …
After that we began fusing the two measures together into one continuous unit. The difficulty in this was finding a smooth way of getting from the end of measure one into measure two. This was due to less to an unfamiliarity in how to start measure two and more in doing so when immediately preceded by measure one. I suggested he first try measure two alone, followed momentarily by playing measure one and two.
At the conclusion of this process, he pronounced that on a scale from one to ten, his memorization ability was about a five. So, with the 5 for memorizing together with the 8 for physical coordination, they will hopefully, on their own, help him wipe out the 2 for sight reading, simply because we are minimizing its presence in the learning process.
Commitment to Every Note and Its Meaning
C.R.’s lesson on 7/9/19: Beethoven’s Rondo in C Major, Op 51 / 1.
This lesson was about total dramatic, musical and emotional
commitment to the work one is playing.
Take for example the left hand at the beginning |: c4-e4 g4 :|. This is no trivial Alberti-like bass figure. It is no simple or gentle oscillation. It is Atlas with the world on his shoulders, shifting its weight from one shoulder to the other and back and forth. As a result, people on earth are first washed into the sea, and then hurled on shore again.
Never let your personal dislike of or disinterest of a passage, affect your ability to be a dedicated advocate if that passage. It is the same as being a
“Paraclete”, or a great defense attorney, who still puts on the best defense regardless of any personal feelings about their client. Or, think of yourself, as a great actor who regardless of their feelings about a particular line says it as if it were a great line. When I listen to you play this piece in concert, I would be able to say to someone at intermission, “Well, I happen to know she doesn’t really like the sound of those diminished chords, but portrays every one as being something wonderful. It is as if she takes what is
disagreeable in the sound of that chord, and magnifies it in its disagreeableness until striking the essence of the effect of the diminished chord.”.
The piano is a marvelously safe place to “act out” at the same time as “hide”. For no one in the audience knows whether whether the effect of what they hear at any moment is due to Beethoven or to you. In fact if you are playing the piece well, you are eclipsed as an entity leaving just the music.
In the piece where there is a long quasi-chromatic scale upwards in
groups and fours and then downwards in triplets.
“Is the way down usually the same as the way up”. Do you subscribe to the view of the ancient Greek philosopher, Heraclitus, who said “The way up and the way down are one and the same.” I feel that in music the way up and the way down are substantially different in aesthetic and in structural meaning.*
The scale up, because of its use of chromatic, non-scale tones, is
like the first long, slow incline up a roller coaster, a time during
which one’s anticipation of the rapid descent to follow builds and
builds in one’s apprehension and/or excitement. And when it changes
direction at the top, we get sea sick. Afterwards, for a moment here
and there we may level off, but it is those minimum and maximum points along the curve of the track that keep us clinging to the coaster – to the melody. One the way down, the scale of the melody, faster and less chromatic this time, pushes aside all obstacles on its way to is eventual goal.
As your listener, I want you to make me seasick, just from the changing direction of the pitches, slowed and sped up by the melody’s rhythm. If you don’t make me sea sick I’m just not that interested in the kinetic motion of the passage.
* There are exceptions of course, some passages are designed to simply
move away from something and then return in an inevitable circle.
Where the meaning lies in the starting point / = ending point and not in the
Sometimes Fundamentals Need to Come First
A.B.’s lesson on Thursday 7/25/19 Orientale (Albeniz)
A.B. prefers to “front-load” his practicing. His first consideration in learning a new piece is to decide on all the details: not only fingering, notes and rhythm, but things like crescendos, dynamics, which notes to feature in a phrase front loading, what touch to use on what note, etc., etc..
While there is much to recommend in this sort of approach, especially
when one is a good sight reader, it is a disadvantage when certain
more fundamental things are left unattended. In A.B.’s case the thing
that is most neglected is evenness, whether in the form of evenness of
touch, evenness of sound, evenness of note durations (when they are
supposed to be the same), etc.. For me evenness is in the category of
axioms: things that are given because of their obviousness. They are
not the later theorems that are built on the bedrock of the axioms.
When he puts the end results before the beginning requirements he
becomes frustrated that he cannot properly execute the details as he
has defined them for himself.
His analytical musical brain leads him directly to hear that one detail mars an otherwise perfectly rendered phrase (this reminds me of my mother, may she rest in peace).
The curative for A.B. is the one word mantra “details?”. If he is in the midst of figuring out the fingering for a measure, he should chasten himself by saying out loud “detail”, meaning “not yet” (for pursuing this too early leads to such an uneven playing field that the listener cannot discern any of his musical intentions).
Or, “which note should sound the loudness among these four notes” …
interrupt the thought with “details”, therefore not yet: “I don’t have
to wait very long, but first make sure the notes sound even”.
The same when playing a scale: “how should I connect this one
particular note to the next?” (so it is like all the previous
connections). “Should I start the crescendo on this note of the
phrase or the next?”, “Details!” – not yet. First get the notes even.
For A.B., premature concern with details leads to looking for a purely
physical solution to each problem as he perceives it, with the ear
playing little role in checking the results of these physical actions. Details cause him to loose the overall impression rather than help complete the later.
What feels even may not sound even; what sounds even may not feel
Here is an example of how to attain evenness in a recalcitrant
In measure 32 the pinky of the left hand is required to hold a note
in the bass, while at the same time playing a scale upwards in the
baritone/tenor range which becomes more and more distant from the
pinky until it is beyond the hand’s span .
Right now he has decided to play the scale with just two fingers (one and two). I suggested he do the scale with just the thumb. It sounds implausible, but it came out perfectly even. I said: can you now, with the added luxury of having two (or more) fingers work with, imitate the effect in sound you just attained with one finger.
The moral is: it is hard to play unevenly a series of notes all with the same finger.
Here is a general example how to get evenness when playing a rhythmic
As you play the figure, convince yourself you are not playing a particular example of a more general version of that rhythm (a certain combination of
different note values), but rather that you are playing the very prototype of that rhythm. That any other conceivable version of this same rhythm, regardless of the pitches involved … and their are an endless number of them … should be a only a copy of the original prototype that you are now playing.
In music, always think of an instance of a rhythm pattern as the model on which any other copy of that rhythm, played any time in past or future, has to be copied. Thus the rhythm as we hear it now must be a perfect model of that rhythm : an alive and “dynamic” sounding of the rhythm – abstract and specific at the same time.
The rhythm you play now, in the present tense of the artistic flow of
time, is the only one the listener can hear. It must be capable of acting as the only model available to the person of the essence of that rhythm. From your model flows all other examples of that rhythm. As long as your model is perfect any copies made of it will be OK.
I enhanced this procedure for bringing a rhythm alive (and thereby
capable of reproduction) by pounding the rhythm on his shoulders as he
played. The idea was to leave his playing mechanism no choice but for
the notes to show up at their right times.
I sometimes amplified the pounding by speaking nonsense syllables, as
if I were tracing out or dictating to an actor on stage the dramaturgical curve of the meaning and action of what they are saying.
Further observation – on his fingering:
Joe: A lot of your uncertainty about what finger to use next, or more
basically, what note to play with what finger, may disappear sooner by
memorizing the notes when you first start learning the piece. Your
least fluent playing occurs at the same time when I notice your eyes
going wildly back and forth between the score and your hands.
It is important to pick a doable sized chunk of notes to memorize.
Doing that will ameliorate the difficulty many players have starting
up a piece from a randomly chosen spot in a score.
After memorizing it, see what happens if you play that ‘chunk’ with
your eyes remaining on your hands. When we tried this, the results
were very encouraging. Things were not perfect, but they were