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 quality of his mind he can contemplate and wonder at the amazing things, small and large, going on in the piece.
Here is what arose on Thursday, May 16, at our latest lesson.
He tends to express tension in the form of movements with his lips and mouth. One such motion per note of the piece. Last week we worked on doing away with such motions, for the reason that a phrase cannot flow through time if it is comes to a stop and then resumes with each new note – each new bead in a necklace. We was able to control this for a measure or so at a time before it 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 for the expelling of puffs of air. This would be a step in the direction of letting air flow out of the mouth in a steady flow while playing (for the flow of air is the physical equivalent of the flow of sound in a phrase – just ask any singer).
Joe: In terms of the physical actions you make when playing, they are not the cause of the sounds, you yourself are not the cause of the sounds, the sounds just “pass you by”, pass by your consciousness.
The general question arose of how to stay on course if you make a mistake and experience a deviation from the printed notes. An important component in answering this question is to answer the question: how do you react, both morally and emotionally, to making a mistake. Any negatively framed reaction of either type, magnifies the deviation from the ‘tracks’ and makes it hard and harder, in space and in time, to resume the correct path.
The issue of quickly getting back on track after a hesitancy or note mistake is tantamount to the question: how quickly can you begin playing ahead in the piece from any randomly selected measure, or beat within a measure, or note within a beat, with the ease and flow that you would have if you started the piece from the beginning. One might lard the piece with a plethora or random spots from all of which you want to learn to be able to start and ideally take no time to get on board the moving train and flow ahead with the correct notes and rhythms. Figuratively, every note in the piece is (or can be) the beginning of the piece. B.A. summarized how hard this was for him: sometimes when you start from a random point in the piece it doesn’t even sound like it is from the piece you are in. And: where did these notes come from and where are they going … how quickly can one become aware of the answers to these. Reminds me of a famous Gauguin painting made in Polynesia: “Where are we coming from and where are we going?”. Put another way: how very important it is to recognize the character of a piece within its most minute detail.
To develop this technique it is best, once one has started at a random place, and then has found the way back onto the track, that one not to linger too long on the track, before stopping and picking another place from which to stop.
There are times when the two hands draw very hear to each other horizontally, even overlapping slightly. When this latter happens it is statistically most likely that the thumbs (and even the second fingers) will need to cross and uncross. The coordination between the hands, or just in some of their fingers must be as carefully executed as a “pas de deux” in ballet, wherein the bodies of the dancers fuse to the greatest extent possible, so as to perform joint actions that simultaneously cause different parts of the dancer’s bodies to form a larger undifferentiated mass. Every sub-motion on the part of one dancer must be fused with a simultaneous sub-motion of the other dancer. There is a common consciousness.
The general question arose as to where does one phrase end and another begin.
This is sometimes marvelously complicated, because in a fugue, two or more voices may be in the process of sounding the theme, yet, at a given moment one of these voices may be at the beginning of a theme entrance, another somewhere in the middle of the theme entrance, and another closing off the end of a theme entrance. How does the pianist simultaneously make one voice sound like it is ending while another is beginning? Another way of saying this is: how does a voice say that it’s ending.
Put in other terms: frequently the shift from one chord in the harmony to the next in a fugue, may not occur at the same moment but is shaded across several notes, even several beats: one voice enters the domain of the next chord before another. Some voices are harbingers of the next chord while others may be late arrivals.
The need for a single finger in one of the hands to be very flexible through time regarding its stance on its note-key when other fingers in the same hand, in another voice plays two or more notes while the first note is being held in the first voice. The key to clear articulation often lies less in the equalization of the two or more fingers playing the changing notes, and more in the ability of the held finger to changes its alignment with the keyboard, I.E. in the angle with which the longitude of that finger meets the horizontal surface of the keyboard. The equilibrium of the finger must always be maintained regardless of how the shape or stance the finger is in the midst of changing. It is to be accomplished without any moment of imbalance in the firmness of the finger’s contact with its key.
Sometimes the student is confused when a fugue theme entrance starts not on the original starting note at the beginning of the first theme entrance at the beginning, but does not represent a movement into a different region or key. So, without leaving C Major, the first four notes of the theme entrance can be, D E F G, or E F G A, instead of C D E F, etc..* 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 scale of the original key.
It is vital to practice the instantaneous motion laterally of one and the same finger from one note to another regardless of how far apart they are on the keyboard. It is not a matter of practicing to make the motion gradually faster (and faster again). The absolute determination is to be that the finger take zero seconds, zero fractions of a second, to find itself already on the new note, without any travel time in between. The body is capable of doing this if one insists, before one starts moving the finger, that that be the case. This leads to an ongoing crispness in the immediate connection of any one note in a voice to the next, so that no connection of one note in a voice to another in that voice be any more sluggish than any other.
More generally this is one of the components in enabling the hand as a whole to snap from one hand position to the next position in which it needs to be. It is like the triggering a mouse trap: little or no preparation, no anticipation, and seemingly no time at all taken to make the change in position.
To achieve this general alacrity it is necessary for the arms and the hands to be weightless. The force that raises the arm to from the side of the body to the keyboard is an external force, not initiated or executed by the muscles inside the body, but as if the arm were part of a wooden puppet, and some unseen manipulator pulled upwards on the strings that connect the puppeteer to the arms. At a lesson the teacher can simulate this feeling by keeping the arm floating next to the keyboard by placing some part of their own anatomy just under the player’s arm as a support. The player is more likely to notice whether they are applying any pressure downwards on someone else than on the keyboard which is inorganic.
We noted a connection between the technique of finger substitution on a held note (in anticipation of using convenient fingers on the next few notes) and the exercise, as in Hanon, of using the fingering 4 3 2 1 (in the right hand) to repeat the same note four times and then go on to the note representing the step of scale. Though the overt purpose of the second case is to learn fast repetition of the same note, secondarily it prejudices the hand to a quick substitution of one finger on a constant note without resounding the note being played.
A.B. brilliantly put many of the above points into a common perspective by saying: it is also 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 is to play the notes of the prelude “evenly”. So much of this has to do with the balance within the notes of the chord that is outlined by the succession of notes in each measure. To make this chord more obvious to the ear let the player, when practicing, “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, 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, the additional chord tones just make it stand out more clearly to the ear. Do this for every chord in the Prelude when Bach’s written notes allow for such additions.
All these additions should occur between the lowest and highest note Bach writes, as against the equally valid technique of reproducing notes from Bach’s written chord in lower and higher octaves with the result of creating a chord of 8 – 10 notes, or by use of the pedal, chords of as many notes as one wishes from the bass range of the keyboard to the high treble. This technique is also useful to help set the sonority of the written form of the chord inside a larger entity to which it in turns belongs. Whatever the sound characteristics and mood characteristics are of the chord in question, they become magnified to the ear, with the aim of then doing the aesthetic equivalent of a ‘trash compactor’ whereby, through compression, when the larger instance of the chord is condensed into the smaller chord with the same harmonic identity, is achieved without losing any of the fullness or meaning of the uncompressed version of the chord.
In terms of 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 “further”, not so much in space measured on the keyboard from the two left hand notes, but further in time from the occurrence of the left hand notes, and may as a result end up dangling like a loose participle compared the previous four notes of the half measure group. This, together, with some pianists’ tendency to have their pinkie ‘separate’ from the rest of the hand in order articulate its note, can lead to there being less control of the pinkie note’s sound, in terms of being a part of the chord, than the other notes in the measure. There is sometimes a visual “tell” observable by the teacher when the student is singling out, and therefore loosing control of the pinkie. It is that the pianist raises the pinkie higher off the keyboard than the other fingers before playing its note – in an attempt to having better physical control.
* One could liken such entrances to hark backs to the old modes (D E F G as being the start of the Dorian Mode, E F G A s being the start of the Phyrigian Mode, etc..
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.
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.