Tag: sight singing

The Connection and Disconnection of Notes

I’ve had an idea lately that it would be nice to do a lesson and then post a blog post about it right afterwards. I think this will gain in spontaneity and insight, despite what it might loose from lack of editing and proofreading.

A.B. Was playing WTC I C f (which is my short hand for Well Tempered  Klavier, Book One, C Major (C is uppercase), the fugue and not the prelude (f).

This is a new piece.  The first thing he said, was how hard it was to read a fugue.  It poked at his sore spots as a reader and a player.  I said, forget all of that.  Play the chord on the first beat of this measure, and ask yourself what it is the most natural and comfortable of playing it.  By starting there, it is as if you were starting the piece, just from a different measure than measure one.  So your hand had no allegiance to what it may have done a moment earlier if it had played the last part of the previous measure.

Now, before you go on any further, DON’T TRY connect the present arrangement of the fingers in the hand with the next one.  Playing Bach clearly is not a matter of figuring out a fingering, or getting used to making certain connections in the hands and fingers.  One never goes from “here” to “there”.  All there is are “here-s”.  Each one is undiscovered until right now.  It is always as if you are playing the piece for the first time.

With each new note, or if not that frequently then at least with every new eighth note’s worth of the piece, pause and ask yourself “what is the most natural and comfortable of playing these notes”, especially if the hand need no longer “remember” where it was a moment earlier.

Playing through the piece is discovering, as if for the first time, a new position for every moment’s new notes.  In doing it this way you enter into the joy and spontaneity of the fugue; the experience is wonderful, and in no way a chore.

A.B.: So what do I do the next time I play this spot, wouldn’t it help if I gradually got to know, through repetition, where my hands go next?  Me (waxing poetic and philosophical): No, the only thing you have to remember is to forget.  A.B.: But doesn’t that sometimes mean I get further and further into trouble with my fingers and dig myself into a hole from which I cannot get out.  J.B.: There is a simple solution to this.  When you are least sure where to go next with your hands and fingers, when you feel you’ve gotten stuck in the mud and don’t where to go, that is the time to take your hands off the keyboard.  Remove the hands from the piano, even if briefly.  Start with a new slate, for by removing you hands from the keys, you have let go of the immediate past, you can discover, as if for the first time, the most natural and comfortable position for the two hands together on the next notes.  So, if you never know where you are going to get into fingering problems, remove your hands from the piano.

He tried it.  It was a fine sounding connection.  He said:  but if I remove my hands from the piano there will be a break in the sound continuity, things will not sound connected.  I said: then how comes what you just did, which involved letting go of the keyboard and removing the hands from the keys, ended up sounding more flowing and more connected than I have heard it before?  By removing the hand, you have no choice but to find a new position, a new and most comfortable position, for the next notes.

Be careful, I said, of sixteenth notes (or eighths) in one voice that are moving in steps.  That can lead you down a perilous path.  You will stop looking for a new hand position for each sixteenth, until the fingers get caught in the keyboard and get bogged down because you have “run out of fingers”.  No, you never run out of fingers, there are always five new fingers in the hand for each new note.

When I say “find the most comfortable position” I mean one in which no finger ‘remembers’ where it was a moment earlier.  Nothing about its position in the hand is biased or coerced.

To save time in writing, I am using the convention of having:

|: Ernie is the name of my cat 😐

To mean that I have gotten trapped in an endless loop and am saying the same thing over and over.  And in such a way as if I never had said it before, but rather someone recorded me, quickly hit stop, rewind, and play.  The idea is that it becomes a spoken “mantra” whose efficacy is in its being repeated, until the mind’s state becomes transcendental, a state in which one does not connect things physically SO THAT they can connect sound-wise (sorry I’m sounding a little to “new age” for a cynical Jew from Brooklyn).

If you are a draughtsman, and you use the same writing implement over and over again during an hour of work, do you always consciously try to pick it up in the same way as before.  Do you have to think of its position before taking it into your hand.  No, it only becomes natural to do if you allow the body to learn unconsciously, so that the 100th time you take the pencil in your hand, it is consciously just as unplanned and spontaneous as the first time.  From the conscious point of view (and not for the unconscious, which is busy learning and practicing) you are always finding something ‘new’ (not ‘old’) and finding it for the ‘first time ever’.

All of this started falling into place when I physically caused A.B. to remove his hands from the piano after each current sound.  When he resumed, the next sound and all the newness of freshness of the morn: is it ever really the same sun that rises the next day (Thoreau says something about this in “Walden”.   Every hand position is “discovered” spontaneously.  So I sometimes started using the repeating mantra |: every position is new and discovered spontaneously :|.  or just, |: find a new position 😐

Don’t be afraid to let go, for that is the only true way for the body to find what’s next.  It is the opposite strategy that common sense tells us to follow.  Consciously you forget it even happened before.  You think you can’t do this “A”,  but you can.  You just need to keep an experimental mind, and prove it to yourself over and over with the freshness of every new sound.

And, by the way, when you find the ‘new position’ it always for both hands together, never for just one hand or the other.  Let the body, let the ear, always synthesize together every new sound in the piece.  And the listener has no desire to complicate the wholeness of the musical experience by knowing which part of what they hear came from your left hand or your right hand.

After a while, all I was saying to him was “let go” … “let go” … “find the new position”, “find a new position”.  There was one moment I could tell that he was trying to figure out the best fingering for a series of consecutive notes.  I said: that was not a new position, it was a ‘trying to get there from the old position to the new’.  There is never a ‘there’ to which to get, everything is a ‘here’.

A.B. said, how can I have a totally new position in my hands when I am required to hold over one of the notes (holding down a note in one voice while the notes in the other voices change).   I said: I agree that you have some issues with what I might call, by analogy, if it were spatial more than of time, “negative space” (E.G. is it two profiles or is it a vase).  A held note is not due to a finger that holds tightly to its position on the keyboard.  It is do to a new position that that finger assumes every time another voice voices to a different note.  The fact that the finger remains on the same key is secondary and incidental from a physical point of view.  There is no difference between writing a half note, in a score, and writing the same note as four eighth notes, each tied to the next.

Negative space also involves things like, the action of when to release a note in a voice after the finger playing has gotten inured to holding it down when it has been held for a while.  Another example are rests, in general in a particular voice, which must be incorporated into the “sound” continuity of the piece.

So, abandon any noble effort by the left or right hand to connect the notes in the fingers.  Don’t do that!  Let it go.

I would love feedback regarding the usefulness of this type of blog entry.  It probably suffered from repetitiveness but it did not loose my original excitement about discovering these things, and in keeping pace while writing how things evolved through time during the hour of the lesson.  Thanks for reading.

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The Sad Decline of My Absolute Pitch

I have a love and hate relationship with my ear.

For a person with absolute pitch, it is often the case that each individual key (C Major, C Minor, C# Major, etc.) has its own special character and aesthetic, which strongly colors any music that I play or listen to.  What I don’t know is if others with perfect pitch experience the same thing, and perhaps more importantly, whether the character or aesthetic of a particular key matches those of mine.

I learned that I had absolute pitch in gradual stages.  When I was about three years old, I would listen to my older bother play pieces from “For Children” at his lessons.  I knew enough to know that there were qualities about each piece that didn’t vary from one time to another, and that these had to do more than with the particular notes and their sequence.

It was many years before I understood what absolute pitch was and that I possessed it.  Actually it was my friend Jeffrey Rothenberg who discovered it for me.  We were in Mme. F’s French class in our junior year at high school.  I remember two particular events in that class that year.  The first has nothing to do with absolute pitch but is just nice: in the middle of a class meeting, Jeffrey got up from his chair, said somewhat ecstatically “Spring is here, and the cherry trees are in blossom in the quadrangle”, at which point he drifted, almost floated, out of the classroom.

The other, was when my friend Jeffrey was trying to discover if he had perfect pitch.  He would lean over to Edward Goldstein on his right, sing a note into his ear, and ask him to sing it into my ear (I was to Edwards’s right) , and whisper into my ear: Jeffrey wants to know if you think this is an “A”.  The fact that I could do that somewhat surprised me.  I thought: so I guess I must have absolute pitch.

About one out of ten thousand people in the world have perfect pitch.  Most are not musicians and probably do not realize that they have perfect pitch.* I figure they just assume that everyone else in the world hears sound the way they do, and that includes a merger of the effect of the up and down-ness of pitch with the effect of a changing coloration to the sound.  Only if these people study music they will learn, perhaps to their surprise, that every time they hear a note, they are able to give it a name.

In  school I began a phase of showing off my absolute pitch.  I wasn’t good at sports, so this was my way of being “macho”.  For instance, I got a telephone call from my friend Linda who said.  She said: “Do you hear the piece I’m playing in the background, what is it,  I can’t identify it.”  I listened for a few moments.  I that point in my life I had never heard it before, but I knew it was by Bach, that it was a concerto, that there were two pianos playing,  and that it was in the key of C Minor.  So I said to Linda: Well I’ve never heard this before, but I would say it is the Bach Concerto for two pianos in C Minor, the first movement.  We hung up.  Ten minutes later, when they probably announced the piece over the radio, I get a call again from Linda.  She said, “show off!”.

One of my favorite spots during my High School years was the Brooklyn Botanic Gardens.  I probably spent more time there than in classes.  I even had one teacher who would ask one of the students: when you walk home would you look for Joe in the Botanic Gardens.  He is probably sitting by the stream.  If you find him, would you give him the homework assignment.

Yes, I was by the stream, bent over, listening intently to the gurgles of the water, and trying to figure out what the pitches were of this sound.  I never could get them right.  I would notate what was in effect a chord of many notes and would then try it out on the piano when I got home.  There was no similarity (even after allowing for the difference in the sound quality of a piano and a brook.   It wasn’t until another year or two that I learned what “white noise” was.   That the reason I could not notate the brook was because there were so many pitches, all at once, that there was no way for the ear to untangle them each from the other.  Additionally, at every moment the interval pitch make-up of the white noise would change slightly change, but in such tiny degrees that were measurable only in microtones.  Microtones are the unlimited number of pitches that exist, for instance, between a C and a C-Sharp – or a ‘distance’ called a half step or semi-tone.

My experiences at the brook awakened my interest in microtones and today I am using the computer to compose microtonal pieces.   I’ve even trained my ear to detect a difference of two hundredths of the distance between a C and C-Sharp.   But they had to be isolated tones and not in a mixture or hundreds or thousands of tones all closely ‘spaced’.

Which brings up the clarinet.   I had been playing the B-flat clarinet since the fourth grade.  The clarinet is a “transposing” instrument.  When it plays the note which the clarinetist identifies as  a C on the clarinet, it does not match the C on other instruments.   A C on the clarinet was a B-Flat on the piano.   Though I didn’t know it until I was a Junior or Senior in High School, I had developed unconsciously two separate but parallel senses of perfect pitch, one that names the notes as they were called on the piano, and one for the notes as they were called on the clarinet.

In my twenties and thirties, if I was scheduled to teach a lesson, and I felt like I was coming down with a cold, I would protect the student by sitting on the other end of the room from the student.  It somewhat freaked out the student when they noticed no difference in my interaction with them, as when I would say something like: “Irving” you just played an F natural instead of an F sharp” (yes Irving existed even back then).

So, everything was going along swell between me and my absolute pitch, until the  invasion of original instruments.   The difference is: why listen to a clarinet play, in tune, the solo in the slow of movement of Beethoven’s 3rd Symphony, when we could hear it played out of tune on an instrument created during the early 1800s.    I grant that this is just a humorous way to describe the early music movement, but there was something more sinister for people with perfect pitch.   The orchestra tunes the “A above middle C”.  That ‘A’ would vary in pitch through the centuries.  In Bach’s time, the A was almost a half step below normal today’s concert pitch.  Thus began a process that was sully my pristine world of pitch.

At the beginning, when I heard a performance on original instruments, I would say “this is a piece in B Major”.  The piece had all the aesthetic qualities of that were characteristic of the key of B Major.  At the end of the performance I was of confused to hear that it was a piece in “C” Major.  Sometimes it was even a piece I knew but which I suddenly could not identify because it was in a different key.  However the worst thing was that after decades of original instrument performances, my “B” started sounding like a C.   And I was too old apparently to develop a second sense of perfect pitch to go along the first.   Talk about being confused.  I could not really tell any more if the piece I was hearing was in C major, tuned down, or C as I grew up with it.

And so performances on original instruments spread like a virus over my entire nexus of absolute pitch.  This was the beginning of the sad decline of my perfect pitch.

But the next step in this sad story totally befuddled me.  I was in San Francisco giving a lesson over the phone to a student in Oregon.  I did a lot of long distance phone lessons in those days – now I use skype.  She was playing the C-sharp minor fugue from Book One of the Well Tempered Klavier.  I got tired of holding the phone to the same ear (my right ear), so I switched quickly to my left ear.  And lo,  the pitch of the piece dropped by about an eighth tone (25 cents).  At first I thought I was imagining the difference, but wasn’t, on further experimentation the difference persisted.

I wondered whether the ears, like the eyes, consist of a dominant one and non-dominant one. I knew that with my eyes, if I closed one eye and then the other, an object in the near ground or mid ground, would change its alignment with the objects in the far ground. When I used both eyes, what I saw was what I had seen through my dominant eye.   I splendid musician I know, Wendy Loder, has confirmed having the same experience, with an even larger pitch difference than I experience.

Now I was faced with something similar with my ears.  Two pitches, one in each ear, but the higher of those two pitches was the one I head when I was hearing with both ears.  In my case the pitch that I heard through my right ear alone was the same as the pitch I heard with both ears.  That was freaky because I wondered where did the other pitch go.  It must still be in my brain somewhere.

I was offered this explanations.  The cochlea, in the inner ear, shrinks as one ages.  The cochlea in both ears might be aging at different rates.  Analogous single nerve endings in the two cochlea, that had always responded to a middle C still, in a sense did so, but now responded to pitches near middle C, but not exactly at the same.

As I write this, I am seventy-one years of age.  My original perfect pitch has survived through the years in only one case: notes coming from the piano.  Only occasionally for the other instruments of the orchestra.  But at least I’m never off my more than a semitone.

So, things couldn’t get too much worse – right?

Recently, the next nail in the coffin of my absolute pitch occurred in the form of how I was hearing octaves.  I used to object to the “stretching” of octaves that many tuners did when tuning the higher range of the piano.  I used to hate tuners who would tune the high octaves sharper than the mid range octaves.  Suddenly, though, I was now experiencing a distortion in the pitch of the high notes of the piano that made me wish I could stretch the octaves.  If I played a lower C, in the octave of middle C or an octave lower, together with one of the highest C-s on the keyboard, the higher C sounds a half step lower than the lower C.  It was like hearing a C and a B.  To be honest, this phenomenon had been creeping up on my over the years.  At first it was a curiosity.  Now it was intolerable.  The string for the higher C would have to be stretched tighter, almost up to a C-sharp, for it to sound like the same note as the lower C.  Now i know why some tuners stretched octaves.**

To be honest, I would have much rather had my absolute pitch go away entirely rather than in agonizing stages.  But there was always enough left of the absolute to know that something was amiss in my perception.  It was a more benign form of when a patient is consciously able to trace the course of her illness.  Now I am starting crave the bliss of ignorance of not having absolute pitch at all.  I can sense that my ability at relative pitch is asserting itself in situations where absolute pitch made relative pitch unnecessary.

I can now sit and contemplate what might be the next stage in the sad decline of my absolute pitch.

* Research at the University of California in San Diego found that while many may be born with it, discovering the gift is likely more the result of nurture than nature.Sep 18, 2012 (from a Google search)

** About ten years earlier I was offered another more ‘scientific’ and objective reason for stretching octaves.  In physics the string is often considered as a one dimensional object.  This allows the math to be simpler.  But a string is three dimensional.  It has length, width in a horizontal plane, and width in a vertical plane.   There is a “nodal” point at the half way point along the string   which as result divides the string into two parts, each part sounding an octave above the string at full length.   A nodal point is a place along the string where, under certain circumstances no vibration takes place.   But if the nodal point is three dimensional, rather than a nodal ‘point’ we have a nodal ‘sphere’.   This causes each of the remaining, vibrating halves of the string to be slightly less than half the length of the full string, and thereby have a pitch that is slightly higher than one octave above the pitch of the string vibrating as a whole.

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Sight Reading: Isolating Variables

In learning a new piece, the rate of progress is a function of a combination of variables.  Two of these, which are closely integrated, are level of ability to read the note symbols in the score, and the level of ability to translate what’s read in the score to the fingers in the hands.  If these two are not on par with each other, then the entire process of learning a new piece is thrown out balance.   Both  the student and the teacher may not be conscious of the exact source of the difficulties observed in the student’s progress on the piece.   Incidentally, it is probably doubtful if there are man pianists are equally adept at the visual comprehension of the score and the tactile realization of what they are comprehending.   I’d like to talk a bit about the latter part: translating the score into physical actions.

Here is an exercise that evaluates, as well as isolates, the student’s tactile responses to the keyboard versus visual placement of the hands.  It is based on how strongly developed a topological sense of the keyboard resides in the student’s imagination.  We want the hands to find the notes on the keyboard as quickly as the eye recognizes them in the score.

Ask the student to play any single note near the middle of the keyboard.   Let them use whatever finger and hand comes naturally.  Next, ask the student to close their eyes.

The teacher prompts the student to go “up” or “down” to a given other note, and to try to make the connection legato.

This step is repeated over and over.  Each time, the teacher suggests a new “next” note, and the student tries to connect, with eyes closed, from the “current” note to the new note.

There are various forms of feedback that are useful for the student:

The teacher can say whether the student has gotten to note selected by the teacher.  Or, or the student can open their eyes momentarily to see whether they are indeed on the note that has been proposed.  Or, the student can try to locate the next note without sounding it, and then open their eyes and see if they have located it.  Or, the student should judge whether they have found the next note on the basis of the sound of the next note (in  comparison with the previous note).  All these permutations are useful.   Or, the teacher can play the next note, and have the student find it directly or through a process of elimination (all done while the eyes are closed).

As the student improves, the teacher can gradually make the next note harder to locate from the current note.  Smaller distances on the keyboard can grow to larger ones.   Changes of ‘altitude’ can occur by mixing black notes and white notes.

One technique that will sometimes be of a help to the student is to use a sort of “Braille” approach.  The finger tips feel for the cracks between the white notes and the bumps of the black notes as a way of tracing their progress from the current note to the next note.  This technique helps the student to develop their tactile abilities based on subliminal cues based on the hills and valleys of the notes, and to combine this data with a sense of the distance in space to be covered between previous and new note.   As these tactile abilities improve so will the visual image of the keyboard in their imagination.

When doing these exercises, there is an advantage both to having the student choose the next note and having the teacher choose the next note.

A further complication would be to start with two notes held at the same time and suggesting two more notes on the keyboard to find without looking on the keyboard,  Agree on the order in which the new notes are named.  Customarily it would be the lower first and then the higher note.

Later on one can start with three note, and ultimately four notes.   The difficulty moving from one to two to three to four notes, increases in more than a linear fashion.  They get harder, faster.  There is an advantage to the student if at first the destination chords be tonal.

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A Thanksgiving Fantasy; Thank you to all my Followers

I had one lesson today in the early morning.  The ubiquitous “Irving” was over and played the Scriabin Etude in C-sharp minor (Op. 2, No. 1).

My mind was running at a very fast pace dreaming of turkeys with enormous thighs and having visions Japanese sweet potatoes drowning in Vermont maple syrup.  The result was that I gave, let us say, a ‘rambling’ lesson, one in which I let my imagination loose, which caused me to use a lot of mental imagery, flights of fancy and outre analogies.  It definitely wasn’t a very ‘literal’ or scientific lesson.  But it worked.

Here were the main points we covered.

#1:

Irving spent a long time sitting at the piano and figuring just how to play the first chord.   I interrupted the process and said: too much time spent in preparation – just “evoke” the sound out of the piano.  Feel like a magician who casts a spell or waves a magic wand and a beautiful, resonant, soulful, balanced, chord emerges from the piano.  Then I said: and  incidentally, do this over and over again for every sound that wants to come to birth out the womb of the instrument.

#2:

That had an immediate and positive effect on the sound quality, both within and between the chords.  But we weren’t there yet.  It wasn’t the sound I had in my memory and imagination.  At that moment Irving happened to be doodling around with the B key on the middle line of treble clef, playing it -then listening to it.   This inspired my next flight of fancy.  I said: when you play that note, hear it crescendo after it starts.  Every note grows while it sounds.  There is no such thing as ‘decay’ or getting softer.

The great French philosopher Henri Bergson wrote: “What philosophy has lacked most of all is precision. . . (philosophical systems) are too wide for reality.  Examine any one of them . . . and you will see that it could apply equally well to a world in which . . . men . . . born decrepit . . . would end as babes in arms.”

Or, if you remember the TV series “Mork and Mindy” with Robin Williams:  they have a son together, who hatches out of an egg fully grown, looking surprisingly like Jonathan Winters.  Mork explains to Mindy that their son from this point on will grow younger and younger over the years.

I mentioned both of these things just to say that others beside me have had fantasies in which things defy the ‘arrow’ of time, or in my case, that a piano string, once set into motion and left on its own, will vibrate more and more strongly rather than less and less so.

You can also imagine a group of billiard balls, all in motion, which grow closer and closer to each other over the next bunch of seconds, until at the last moment they have come together in a triangular arrangement.   And other such ‘entropy’ defying feats.

#3:

At this point we were getting close to the desired sound.  The sound had been transformed, was lush and lasting.  One more thing was necessary, which had to do with mechanics of playing each chord.  Each time there was a chord to sound (which was pretty much every eighth note in the piece) create the chord out of its lowest note which then, figuratively speaking, opens up to the entire chord – only this has to occur simultaneously.

This is how we approached.  We began by taking one specimen chord and played it, with the pedal down, as a very slow upwards arpeggio.   We did the same again to the same chord only the arpeggio moved a little faster.  Then a little faster…

If I remember my calculus aright, if “delta t” represents the time duration of each note before adding to it the next note of the arpeggio, then, we simply let “delta t” shrink gradually to zero, at which point, though we still feel physically that we are arpeggiating, all the notes of the chord begin at the same instant.

At this point there is no longer a distinction between a simultaneous chord and an arpeggio of notes of a chord.  It is a physiological feeling in the body that the lowest note is played first and that our energy then shifts rightwards.   The listener hears the notes start simultaneously, but notices a richness to the sound.

The player has now been able to make ‘simultaneous in time’ identical with ‘sequential in space’.   The simultaneous chord retains the imprint of the note by note arpeggio.  In the calculus analogy, it like the straight line that connects two separated points on curve, which line, as those two points made to approach each other, changes its slant until, when the points converge, and the line looks like the tangent to the curve at that point.

Part of the retained ‘sequential’ physical experience is that each individual finger will feel totally in control physically of its note and each note sounds with an individual intent.   The bonus is that this is not the result of trying to coordinate the actions of different fingers.  For the feeling of the arpeggio remains, so that the body still feels a rotational change from one note to the next in the chord.  The more notes in the chord the more this rotation seeks its origin and energy from the shoulders and the arms.   In terms of our consciousness, something magical happens, it is as if the single instant at which all the notes start sounding has been expanded into lived duration.

#4:

We turned our attention next specifically to the contrasting section (when it switched from sharps to flats) where utmost anguish is suddenly replaced with great calm, as removed as possible from the original mood.

I made an analogy with a garden hose with a sprayer at its end that is held in the person’s hand, which sprayer contains a lever that makes the spray get stronger and stronger.  There is usually a strong spring in the lever that progressively resists squeezing the handle further, so that if one wants a steady and strong flow. and squeezes it for too long, the hand may grow tired and need to relax, even if just for a moment, before returning the water to the same pressure.  Without those moments of easing off the steadiness of the stream would not remain as continuous.

I wanted to have Irving feel this in relation to the keys going up and down.  The goal in this section is to act like the keys always stay down, but with every eighth note the hand needs to release and retake the keys.  The release of the keys has barely begun when a force from the arms and hands returns the keys to the depressed state.  It’s almost like when having to play the same note over and over, legato, without any use of the pedal.   We learn to strike a balance between there being just one continuous sounding note and the notes separating too far apart.

Looking around for a piano-key-like object, I seized on a pencil (it was the best I could find).   I said: this is a piano key, and, not only is it a piano key it is “Every-key”, in reference to “Everyman” (the 15th century English morality play).  I held one end of the pencil fixed, made the length of the pencil horizontal, and then manipulated the other end of it up and down.  It is like, I said, we are manipulating the same key over and over, imagining the piano keyboard as having just one and not eighty-keys, and that all we were doing was, when playing, was raising that same lever up and down.   And that made all the different pitches and rhythms.

Another way I described it was that part of the magic control that we have over time, when it came time to make the next chord sound, the keys were already down – even, already sounding.

Happy Thanksgiving and thank you to  all, and especially to Sawyer Fuller, our web master.   Save me a piece of dark meat!

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The Challenges of Sight-Singing

Teaching sight reading skills to others is hard for me.  It is the negative flip side of the positive fact of my having absolute pitch.

I start from the opposite end of the spectrum than most people.  I know what the notes are going to sound as soon as my eye sees them on the page, even if I haven’t heard the piece before.  If I am asked to identify an interval by its sound, I already know what the two notes are and from that I can, if I want, calculate the interval.

There is also for me a complete fusion between hearing the sound in advance and my hands going to take the notes on the keyboard that produce that sound.   Additionally, I have a strong and well developed sense of harmony.  Once I know what the chord is, which includes the particular spacing between the various notes of the chord, my hand simply distributes itself automatically on the keyboard to effect that chord.  And, as I read, before I am conscious of the names of the individual notes in the next chord on the score page, I am conscious of the name (the root note, inversion, spacing… of the chord).  It’s as if I see chords and not notes.   It is a bit like the person who, before they are conscious of feeling any pain, has already withdrawn their hand from a hot object or a fire.  As I recall from Junior High biology class, this results from part of a nerve signal making a U-turn in the spinal cord, and the other part of it making continuing to the brain.  When the latter happens, then we know why we just drew our hand away.

I have a strong sense of pulse, which keeps the piece moving forwards even when sight reading.   Part of that has to do with rhythm.  As soon as I foresee a rhythmic pattern among the next group of notes in the score, my body also knows what that rhythm is going to feel like in its execution.  This happens when or a fraction of a second before I read the identity of the pitches of those notes.

Anyway, Irving wants to continue with his diet of 10 minutes of sight reading every day.  We talked for some time about it.  I had to be very quiet and take in what he was saying, and not jumping in with  half baked ideas that were based, without my thinking it through, on the things I do with greater ease when I sight read.

I learned from him one interesting point.  If a person’s sight reading is too “slow”, and if there are too many misplayed notes, the pianist does not get a sense of what the music is like that they are playing.  The latter, though, is what brings enjoyment to the sight reading process itself, and forms the motivation for continuing sight reading, both further into the piece and to want to spend time in general sight reading.   The joy of discovery.

I have to figure this out… (I would love suggestions: please share your ideas)

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