Tag: Relaxation

Sundry thoughts about Trills

Pantomiming:

People seem to use two opposite strategies for trilling.  Either, use excess physical effort to try to maintain the trill going on and on, or use as little physical effort as possible as a way to keep the trill from stalling or changing and maintain its ease and flow.  I subscribe to the later method.

The limiting case for a least-effort-possible while trying to play is to pantomime.  Execute the trill like a “mime,” barely touching or tapping the keys (but in the correct order and speed).  Doing this teaches the body just how effortless a trill can feel when there is no overuse of energy.  The effort is so little that any conscious amount of energy we apply is already too much.

Once you have pantomimed the trill, say to yourself: “what is the absolute least amount of any additional effort or energy I can give in order to make the notes of the trill start sounding.”  Even if only some of the notes end up sounding, just add a bit more energy and leverage than before when you first went from silence to sound.  In making this difference in energy, less is more.

A variation on this technique is to sound and hold down the lower note of a trill while repeatedly tapping and releasing the upper note (either making a sound each time or making no sound – both are effective procedures).

Coming out of a trill

Many of us have difficulty with the last few notes of a trill.  It doesn’t matter how long the trill is, how many beats it is, we’re just fine until we are within a split second of needing to stop the trill.  This last moment is a confusing moment for the hand.  No matter when you think about the trill ending, just by thinking about it – such as the thought “gee, I guess it’s time to end the trill,” you transmit something to your body that gums up the end of the trill.  The last few notes of the trill will not flow smoothly.  It is better for the body, if possible, to remain “ignorant” of when it is time to stop the trill, and then suddenly, without warning, stopping,

Evenness counts for as much or more than speed

It is more satisfactory to the listener if you play a trill slower but evenly than to try to play it faster but and fail to maintain evenness.

It is the body as a whole that does the trill

A trill would seem to be an action limited to the neighborhood of the fingers.  It seems at first sight to be so precise a motion.

Here is a procedure to make the trill a part of a motion of the entire body.  I did this many years ago with my student Rachael:

We stood up.  We started wiggling the tips of our fingers, then spread the motion so it included our hands, then wrists…  At this point, our fingers, hands, and wrists were all moving at the same time in a random fashion.   Developing this idea further, we began randomly moving our forearms, then added our elbows, then our upper arms.  We looked pretty silly at this point.  Finally we added our torsos and eventually our legs.  I said: now you’re ready to play the trill.  Wiggle (or gyrate) your way to the piano, and don’t stop moving all the parts of your body until after you are seated at the piano bench and have started the trill.  The trill came out marvelously.  Unfettered, free, even, fast; as if it could go on forever.

The point was not to move the body like this every time we need to play a trill, but that doing so brings alive all the connections in the body so that any motion is possible, including going back and forth between two keys on the piano.

There is no formula for this procedure.  Nothing is gained by knowing which muscles you are moving or by how much.  The point is simply to bring alive all the parts of the body.

Turning any passage into a continuous trill

Take any melody in a score and create a trill on every note, at least for the duration of that note, if not a good deal longer.  The goal of this process is to make the passage sound like a continuous trill.  In doing so, you are imbuing the passage with the aesthetic qualities of a trill: great continuity, maximum flexibility and sense of motion, sinuosity, élan, continuous change and aliveness…   These are all qualities that you can then preserve into the normal execution of the passage.  All the qualities just mentioned retreat inside the heart of each note as the notes succeed each other.  If we liken a melody to an artery then the trill is like the blood itself flowing through the artery.

A long trill

A long trill can be concatenated out of numerous smaller trills that are stitched together.  Most of us can sustain a trill for a short duration of time but have difficulty if the trill is meant to go on for a long time.  Just knowing in advance that it will be long affects how we start the trill.

Here is a solution.  Start the trill as always, but after a short while, well before we would normally tire out, send a new wave of energy or pulsation down the arm from the shoulder as if to start a new trill.  The important thing lies in the timing of when to initiate the pulse of energy.   It must start out before the current group of trill notes has completed – it needs time to travel down to the fingers.*

Repeat this process as many times as necessary to complete the printed duration of the trill.  At first there might be pauses between the end of group of continuous trill notes and the beginning of the next.  After a while, though, the chunks of the overall trill will be linked seamlessly together.

When I do this, I can go on trilling indefinitely, without any loss of vivacity.  Sometimes I do this to show off for a student, saying as I’m doing it: see, I can go on, and on … and on …  Just by renewing the trill and starting it over fresh each time.

Changing the character within a long trill

Sometimes a long trill can be made to be more expressive if it changes speed in specific ways at specific moments during its course.  It gives the overall trill an architecture, and overcomes any monotony that might otherwise ensue.

A rarer but more extreme version of this would be to apply a ritard and/or accelerando within various portions of the trill.  This requires a fine degree of control so that the trill doesn’t stall out or get tied up in knots.

Special anchor spot in the forearm

There is a spot on the forearm, not far from the elbow, nearer the crease of the elbow than the point of the elbow, that is an effective point from which to experience the motions the muscles that are activated when playing a trill.

Take one of the fingers of the hand that is not doing the trill, place it on the spot described above, and push down on the skin, just until the finger feels something moving underneath the skin while playing the trill.

This is an ideal point from which to experience the reciprocal motion involved in the trill.  You will ensure greater evenness in the trill if instead of focusing on the fingers you focus on what is going on in this spot on the forearm.

An “inductive” approach to a trill

Begin with a single note.  Pose the question to yourself: can I play a single note with great rapidity?  Playing a short staccato is the answer.

Next append a second note to the previous note.  Pose the question: how fast can I play one note and then another?  Answer: I just have to treat the first note as if it is a fast grace note to a longer second note.

We proceed one more note at a time.  We trill three notes, as fast as we can, maybe using our voice to lead the fingers by saying something like “go-ing-THERE.”

Continue the process for four notes of a trill.  How fast can I execute them?  I just need to think of the first three notes as a group of grace notes leading to a the fourth, longer sound.  One can steer it by saying: I’m-go-ing-THERE.   Or thinking of the opening of Beethoven’s Fifth done at an extremely fast tempo.

And so on.  A five note trill.  A six note trill.  At some point we reach a number of notes so that continuing the trill is no problem: the trill has ignited.

I  wish you a trilling experience.

* The experience is not that different than repeating the same note legato a series of times.  Before, and not at the same time as, the key has come up all the way to the level of the other keys a stronger arm pulse is already making its way down the arm to overwhelm the upwards motion of letting go of the key.

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The Elbow

In terms of its use in the playing mechanism, the elbow can easily be the forgotten part of the arm.  It is remote from the hand and remote from the connection of the arm to the back.  It seems “remote from the action.” However, it is of critical importance as a mediator – a negotiator between shoulder and the fingers.  It is that which insures that energy coming down the arm is not blocked or detoured before reaching the fingers.

When tension occurs and mobility is reduced, the hidden cause often lies in the elbow.  It will often make adaptations in its alignment, not because they are useful to the transmission of power to the hands, but because we are concentrating on our hands and wish to have the hand be in a certain position.  The tension simply gets “referred” up the arm to the elbow, where we are often unaware of it.  But whether recognized or not, when there is tension in the elbow, when its freedom of movement is inhibited, we sever the free connection between shoulder and fingers.

Often the elbow is doing what it “wants” to do, but is at the service of something else.  How do we find out what the elbow naturally wants to do?  It is actually a simple procedure.  If we want to know what the right elbow is doing, use the left hand to embrace, or better, to “cradle” the elbow of the right arm.  If we now play a passage with the right hand, the cradling hand will actively sense what the right elbow wants to do, or more importantly, what it is forced to do in order to accommodate an awkward hand or wrist position.  It will notice when the elbow is coerced into making a sudden or jerky motion, usually to compensate for something occurring at the extremities.

If there is a sudden, unexpected or awkward motion in the elbow, we will want to smooth it out, or slow it down to make it flow.  By keeping in mind that the hand and the shoulder should be two stable points between which is extended the length of the arm, then the elbow modifies its alignment and attitude to find a way of sustaining this equilibrium between the two end points of the arm.  If there is a breach in the continuity of the arm, it is most likely found in the elbow because the elbow controls the motion of both the forearm and the upper arm.

Most illuminating in this regard is to play a scale or an arpeggio.

When you play a scale in the right hand, you may be surprised at what the elbow is doing as you play the scale.  It compensates for, it balances out, it supports what is happening in the lower arm and hand.  If a sudden lurch occurs in the elbow while playing the scale, it is easy to smooth out, especially if the left hand is there cradling the elbow (see above).  The supportive hand of the left arm is, figuratively speaking, saying to the elbow: don’t worry, you don’t have to make a sudden defensive or reactive gesture, because I’m here to support, balance, and give you a grounding against which to move.

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The largest possible ambit of motion

The muscular movements used in piano playing, in particular of the fingers which are at the extremities of the body, tend to be limited in scope and range.  However there is an advantage to exploring the full range of motion that is possible with every joint – be it a knuckle, a wrist, an elbow, a shoulder, or the body as a whole.

For purposes of illustration, consider the example of the third knuckle of the second finger.  We can ask what sort of mobility is available to this finger when the motion of the finger stems just from the flexibility in the third knuckle, unaided in any special way by the other two knuckles.

We find that flexing at the third knuckle allows the finger:

1) to move vertically up and down, and

2) to move horizontally, (touching the third finger on one side and reaching in the direction of the thumb on the other side).

What are the limits to these two motions?  Can these limit be exceeded through hyper extending?

What if we combine the linear movements of the finger up and down and side to side, and try to move the tip of the finger around in a circle?

We have no difficulty describing a true circle.  A little exploration though shows us that at some points along the circumference of the circle, the body allows the radius of the circle to increase, though at other points in the circle the body will only tolerate a smaller radius to the circle.  If, at each point around the circle, we move the finger to the maximum possible distension from the implied center of the circle, the result is a rather erratic looking circle, one whose perimeter bulges and contracts.

Another way to envision this same motion is in three dimensions.  The length of the finger sweeps out a three dimensional volume.  Instead of a wobbly circle, we get a wobbly cone.

Is it worth exploring the full mobility of a joint when we rarely use it in practice at the piano?

Before using it to play a note, the finger will be at rest relative to the rest of the hand.   However, there is a difference in feeling between a finger at rest which is “ignorant” of all its possible motions, and a finger, even while at rest, that feels within it, immanently, all the motions and directions in which it can move.

There is an advantage for the finger to know its full potentiality of motion.   If the finger at rest holds its position stiffly, there is little potential of action.  If the finger at rest is ready to move in any and all possible directions and degrees, it will respond with the greatest alacrity and control when playing.

We want to cultivate a state of the a finger that, though not at the moment moving, feels that the most vagrant breeze could set it into motion.  Just a breeze; just a thought, just a whim, is sufficient to set the finger into motion when, because there is no inertia to overcome before it starts moving.  We want as little resistance to motion in any direction.

Though the limit of the range of the finger’s ambit, when it comes time to play, may not be fulfilled, it will retain the feeling of the momentum of the entire potential of movement.  This will be a more confident, well directed and energetic finger.

Generalizing to all parts of the body:

What we have said here about the second finger, and its third knuckle, can be applied to every articulation point in the playing mechanism, (including rotational motions*).

Regardless of the part of the body, if it can move, we should actively explore every plane of motion of which is capable, every plane in all three dimensions and to every permittable degree. This is a healthy body part, ready to move, who knows how far, at the bidding of least, vagrant stirring of a breeze of intent.

A genus is more robust than a species:

Every time we flex the finger the same way, we are digging a deeper ditch into which the finger is constrained to move (like a slave only allowed to move only in one direction and to an extent).  However, the finger which is no longer being coerced into a single type of motion and can move in all ways, when the moment comes to play a note, will have the freedom to make one choice among many.  One choice is a compulsion, two choices is a dilemma.**  Three or more is robust and free.

It is like the difference between knowing just one species in a genus, and knowing the full ramifications of the genus to which it belongs.  If you know just the species then you have a limited idea of the underlying whole, the whole that is here expressing itself in some individual way.  Connecting the species to the genus gives a richer, informed, and liberated identity to the species in question.

At the piano, all motions should be possible at the next instant in time.

* yes, even a finger by itself can rotate slightly around its longitudinal axis.

**thanks to my friend Roy for this interpretation

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  1. Joe,
    I love this post because it reminds us of the nuances that can make big differences. In thinking about freedom in the finger joints, one could also tune in to the freedom in the corresponding elbow, shoulder joints, and even the jaw. Maximum freedom in the finger is related to maximum freedom in the rest of the body. It’s difficult to move your finger freely if your breath is held or your jaw is clenched.

A “crescendo” of relaxation

Illusion of a Crescendo VideoRelated Video: Illusion of a Crescendo

M. and I are working on the second (the fast) movement of the Beethoven Sonata Op 109.

She has small hands and struggles to execute the more difficult passages.  Even the span of an octave requires special effort by her. However, when she relaxes her hand, the span she is capable of between the thumb and pinkie   grows by at least several millimeters. That may be a small difference, but often is enough to determine the difference between ease and discomfort, relaxation and strain, accuracy playing the two keys and inaccuracy.

The more tension there is in the hand, the less it can freely breathe open and closed.  The hand should not remain in a fixed position any longer than it does during the day when we are not at the piano.  It is always fluid, mobile and protean, a mass ever changing in form.

The best playing results when the hand is capable of both taking and loosing any shape or span.  It should remain in its momentary shape without any tension or clinging to that shape, then be able to change to a different shape a moment later without having to overcome any inertia. There should be no resistance to change when it occurs due to any sort of clinging to the previous shape.

Let us say we are playing a series of diatonic triads going up the C Major scale.  It is incorrect to assume that the hand can exactly maintain the same shape for throughout.  Watch closely and you will see that the lateral angle in the wrist, and even in the fingers, is constantly changing.  That the angles in the shoulder and elbow are also changing.  If we freeze the hand as we play the triads, while the first triad may feel comfortable, each subsequent triad will feel more and more awkward.  Sometimes, though, it takes close attention to the changing muscular sensations of our body to notice this change as it occurs.

A crescendo of relaxation:

If, as is often the case, we are unaware of growing tension as we are playing, the only antidote is relaxing over and over as we proceed.  Though we may feel as relaxed now as we were a few measures ago, the chances are good that we are not.  It may seem to us that each time we relax during the piece we are getting more relaxed than we have been any time prior in the piece, but in reality it takes this ‘crescendo’ of renewed acts of relaxing to offset a less conscious drift in the other direction.

Often, when a student is playing a piece, and sees that a more difficult part of the piece is coming over the time-horizon, she will tend to do two things: get louder and get tenser.  It is as much an emotional reaction to worry and fear than a simple physical reaction to cope with the anticipated physical difficulty.  The paradox, of course, is that the less tense the playing mechanism remains, the easier it will be to play the upcoming passage, regardless of its difficulty.

Odd as it may sound, the best physical state while playing is the one that most resembles a quiet state of not doing anything at all.  Often we exaggerate the difference between the former and the latter, and do “too much” in order to play.

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  1. It reminds me of a dancer who stays in a “momentary shape” and also “ever changing in form”. What a lovely image to compare a pianist to a dancer, the expression emerging from the physical into the ethereal in a similar way but heightened with addition of sound.

  2. What is the best way to practice this state of ‘not doing anything at all’ while practicing? Are there any specific techniques you have for that?

    1. Part of the answer is doing the least physical effort that is nonetheless adequate to producing desirable results. It is separating the degree of effort from the degree of the desired result. There was a medieval philosopher, William of Ockham, who in essence said: if there are various ways of solving a problem or achieving a certain result, and some of the ways are complicated and some are much simpler, choose a simpler one – choose the simplest one possible. Ockham himself said: do not multiply entities unnecessarily. Of course, for most people, his way of describing his idea about keeping things simple is not expressed at all simply.

      Another way I think about this is like this:

      When people are singing or playing “in the groove” they often describe the experience as:

      I wasn’t conscious of trying to do anything. Or, it was as if I was listening to singing rather than singing. Or, the sounds flow of their own accord; the notes seem to flow out without prompting; the music is speaking through me; I am only the transmitting mechanism; I feel like everything is under the control of the music; my ego and
      physical intents have little to do with it. All notes, all sounds, come from silence. Silence precedes them, silence surrounds them, silence follows them. They materialize out of the ether and vanish in press of time. Time itself is an artifact that allows us to tell the story one piece at a time, though in the essence it is not yet words, yet all the words are there somehow in a womb; a single pregnant mass.

Pain in the Thumb Solution One: No Motion in the Thumb Independently of the Hand as a Whole.

Example: Right Hand Playing A Scale Upwards.

Pause in the scale on the note played just before passing under the thumb. While paused, don’t let the thumb make any anticipatory gesture of moving under another finger. Just relax and pause.

Raise the entire hand, vertically, until it is several inches above the keyboard. While doing this the thumb makes no movements independent of the hand as a whole.

Have the arm transport the entire hand rightwards, until the thumb, still just an undifferentiated part of the hand, is poised over the note that it is about to play.

Simply lower the hand back down onto the keyboard.  Still without any particular motion in the thumb that is not simply the result of moving the entire hand at once.

Sound the next note by moving the mass of the combined arm and hand.

Get used to there being a silence in the scale between the end of the note before the thumb is used, and the note on which the thumb is used.

Gradually the silence between the notes will shrink towards zero, while the absence of independent motion of the thumb still remains.

Solution Two, Solution Three, Solution Four, Solution Five

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