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.
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.