Tag: sight singing
Shaping an Ostinato-like Section of Repeated Groups of Four Sixteenth Notes
S.E.’s lesson on 9/7/19: Rachmaninoff 3rd concerto. first movement: when the endless sixteenths begin after the first statement of the main theme.
There is a lot of “interlacing” of the hands. I don’t mean simultaneous interlacing, I mean within four consecutive sixteenths some may be with the left hand some may be with the right hand.
This requires laying down a foundation of groups of four clearly stated sixteenths, whose musical contour, crescendo and decrescendo, is always sculpted the same regardless of what the notes are and which hands are playing particular notes. I spoke the words “one two three four” monotonously, over and over, as S. played through the passage. This should be done prior to any attempt at phrasing. The one of the four should always sound like the first of a group of four. The two of the four should always sound the second of a group of four. Etc.. This establishes first an unyielding base, over which the more musical details can then flicker and modulate.
While doing this first phase it was noticeable to me exactly where his playing of a sixteenth note was not exactly together with my count. At today’s session, this took place mostly with the placement of the two following upon the one, of the four sixteenth note groups.
As a way of ‘shading’ from the first stage (mechanically and
metronomically) to stage two, where music ideas played over that surface of rigid evenness, I started counting, not mechanically or in an uninvolved or apathetic tone of voice, as if it were my job, or duty, simply to count evenly, but with shaping, phrasing and expressivity in my voice. I made this transition without abandoning the syllables “one”, “two”, “three”, “four”. I “rounded” each spoken four note group into a resonant, glittering shape. But rather than shape the phrase in response to inner meaning of each group of pitches, I was more at using a “one size fits all” (one shape fits all) method. My voice was full of emotional expression but it was as if each time I repeated the four syllables, it was less a repeat, but more at an attempt to perfect one, constant, musical shape.
Stage three is to let the two meanings blend, the more idealized emotional and structural content of each perfectly shaped group of four, and how each group different from the others in terms of musical meaning when one added the specific pitches Rachmaninoff chose. The most convenient analogy for what the result is, is seeing an early Italian Renaissance painting by a master, in which the body, for instance of the Virgin, is fully clothed, but the folds of the drapery of the clothes perfectly intimate the shape of the body beneath it.
Flow, Versus a Sequence of Separate Notes
H.P’s lesson on 8/13/19 Menuet from Ravel: Tombeau de Couperin
Joe: “Our recent work has focused on flow versus the pointillism of
notes. As we go on today, let’s use two very restricted definitions of
these two terms, ‘Notes’ will simply mean knowing what notes to play
at the next moment and ‘flow’ will simply mean getting to those notes
from the preceding notes without even the most minimal of hesitation.
For many pianists it is a long held view that they must master the
“notes” before attempting the musical qualities of the piece, the
latter of which includes the manner of flow of the sounds through
Depending on the student I have been known to reject this premise on the ground that unless the musical qualities of a piece enter into our intuition of the piece at the beginning of the learning process, by the time the pianist masters the notes, the musical characteristics of the piece have suffered from neglect to the point that it is now hard to install or instill this musicality into the slow setting cement of the notes only.
What I am pleased to notice is how lately you have been working from “both ends at once,” gains in note accuracy are bootstrapping gains in musical flow, while at the same time working for the flow is bootstrapping note accuracy. You have found a way to working simultaneously for both goals, and thereby leaving the question of “which came first, the music or the notes”, into the category of similar questions like “which came first the chicken or the egg.”
About a third of the way into the lesson we focused on the middle section of the movement and in particular who to connect one chord with another without any break in the flow of the sound. Joe: “we must make ourselves take responsibility for never allowing any a break in the sound flow. What I am hearing when you play this passage are periodic, brief hesitations before continuing on to the next chord.. You seem to exert a lot of focus and energy on playing a group of chords with good continuity of sound, but then need to take a pause to recharge your batteries. It is as if to say: “I’ve been working very hard, physically and mentally, through these last few chords, I need a break.”
When we take that pause, we push the question of the flow temporarily out of our consciousness and awareness. We do not notice that we are pausing. It exists in a momentary blind (sic) spot brought on by fatigue. The question is whether the listener hears the pause, notices that we are momentarily clinging to the current notes before going on to the next notes.
The answer is that they always know though in different ways and to different conscious degrees. Some not only hear the pause but are upset at the application of the brakes to the flow, and have a difficulty in reestablishing their attention afterwards. For others the reaction is more subconscious. For some reason, of which they are not aware, there is a slackening in their attention to the music, which just happens to occur at the same point in the score where the pianist has broken the flow. For some the reaction is even less actively conscious. They will not notice the hesitation in any way as it happens, but further on in the piece they notice that their emotional reaction to the music has taken a negative turn. They will ascribe this to either the piece itself, or their inability to listen sensitively to the music.
The pianist’s ears must always be on “sentry duty”, otherwise it increases the likelihood that they will not notice deviations from the constancy of the sound flow. When this happens the sound flow can become distorted. knowing and being on alert is the best way to prevent something happening in the first place.
Some necessary connections will always seem un-doable to us; just beyond the realm of the possible, as will some of the chord connections in this middle section. Without going into the specific physical procedures to make these connections easy (something which usually forms a large segment of my teaching), it may be enough simply to say to yourself “I must do this”, “there is no option but that it has to happen smoothly”. And if we leave ourselves no way out, the body discovers the solution for itself, without conscious awareness by us of the how. Most of us when practicing a difficult group of notes will suddenly play it once the way we want it to sound. We also have experienced that trying to repeat this success often fails. We don’t learn the right way through repetition. Nonetheless we should pause after the successful rendition and absorb the very important fact that we are capable of doing it. It may be too early in the learning process to be able to reproduce it whenever we want. The one success is enough, however, to open the path to a confident discovery of the recipe for the solution. I can try to accelerate this progress by explaining or demonstrating to the pianist what things were happening physically when it came out correctly. The problem with any explanation though is that regardless of the teacher, some part of the solution remains unconscious to that particular teacher, and is therefore left out of the explanation.
A timely aside:
There is a peculiar blending of time tenses that occurs when we try to maintain the flow of the sound through obstacles in its path. When we are about to play a challenging connection, we should, at the same moment, already be hearing that connection happening, and furthermore, evaluating whether it happened without any signs of interruption. Looking at this a little more closely, the present tense is transmuted, in part, to the past tense (if our imagination is already hearing it). The immediate future is prematurely transmuted into part of the present tense. And the somewhat less immediate future (as we evaluate or notice that it flowed well) is made part of a bloated present tense. Beyond this I can only say that this weird stew of time tenses it is one of the fundamental mysteries of time in the consciousness of the performing musician.
How to Tackle Difficult Pieces, Practiced Simply
A.B.’s lesson on 4/3/19 on the first prelude from Book One of the Well Tempered Klavier
Balancing memory with freshness:
Be surprised and delighted with each new chord (which is to say each new measure). This is to balance out the impregnation of the piece by memory, from having heard and/or played the piece many times. Instead create a “beginner’s mind” for whom the new chord is fresh, unexpected, and bathed in morning light. You just don’t know what’s coming. Memory doesn’t go away but a proportional balance is attained between memory and the unforeseeableness of the future.
The persistence of a single chord through an entire measure:
In this piece it helps that you were formerly an organist, for as long as you hold the keys down on the organ manual the sounds continue unabated, persistently, and without the piano’s ‘decay’. Hear in your “inner” ear of imagination the five different notes of each measure as a simultaneous ensemble, which continues unbated as a totality from the beginning of the measure to the end of the measure.
A.B. is not satisfied with his control over the evenness of the sounds in a measure:
Take a single measure out of the flow of the piece. Reiterate the first note of the measure over and over until it “sounds like you want”. Do this without thinking of the other notes and whether they will match the first note in sonically – in other words this is not yet about evenness between notes). Then switch to the second note. Play it ever and over, until, as before, it sounds how you want. Repeat this procedure for each further note in the measure. When you play the measure as written you will notice in retrospect that all the notes were even, although you were in no way trying to match them, but instead having each note have its ‘ideal’ sound. A musician with a good ear will always be able to tell when a sound has reached a certain ideal perfection, but not through analysis, through an intuitive sense of the sound.
For evenness when one note, occurring between two other notes, is not balanced sound-wise with the others:
In the measure that begins : f2 f3 a3 c4 e4, the c4 was not balanced with the a3 and e4. I suggested that he hold down the a3 and e4, and while they are being held, repeat c4 over and over.
Another path to evenness: the written notes are part of a larger whole:
In measure one, for example, turn the measure’s notes into a rapid arpeggio that starts, with the highest pitch, e5, descends through the notes of the chord until reaching the bottom note (c4) and without pause re-ascends to the top note. This creates a more cohesive and integrated motion in your hand. Once you have this gestalt, you can remain silent during the first part of this arpeggio and start playing in the middle of it, at the note that is supposed sound first in the measure. Eventually there is no need to pause or mark time for the first half of the arpeggio, it can occur in the inner feelings of the body in just a split second.
Yet another path to evenness:
When a baton twirler causes the baton to make a circle, it is the result of a sequence of different motions all blended together in a one overall fluid motion. I’m ignorant of the breakdown of those motions, but you can still imagine, yourself as twirling a baton, one cycle every half measure (as the note pattern repeats).
I would sing a sustained line for A.B.:
Sometimes I would sing a sustained melody, one note per measure, starting at the beginning of each measure, made up of the top note of each measure. Maybe I thought of doing this because I Gounod’s Ave Maria flitted through my mind. That Gounod may have felt that the Bach begged for a continuous line (adumbrated by Bach made tangible by Gounod). The effect that my singing had unconsciously on A.B. was each note of the measure was instinctively made to balance, or fuse sonically, with the sustained note I was singing.
How to bring out the dramatological curve of a piece, even though it was originally played on an instrument of a constant degree of loudness:
There are not many overtly dramatic moments in the piece that stand out from the monotonous (sic) patterns that repeat every half measure.
And even if we become aware at a certain time of these moments, they will afterwards fade into the background due to the abrasion or erosion of constant playing of the piece. So make the most of these moments.
Here is one example. Chords outlining diminished chords, for instance, happen only a few times in the piece, but each time it does, try to react to the sound of the chord as being jarring, intense, dissonant. This effect can be gained even without making any change in the loudness of those measures versus the surrounding measures. One can intimate a dramatic curve merely with intent and adumbration in the flow of the notes.
One of my other students, while playing through the Adagio from Beethoven’s Op 13, came across of a few measures of diminished chords in the passage leading back to the second A section of its ABA form. She said “diminished chords are ugly”. I said: that’s great, can you make them sound as ugly as possible!
Another example. When an interval of a minor second in the left hand, treat it as an astonishing, unexpected dissonance.
One more example, this time a longer passage:
In the second half of the page there is a long dominant pedal point in the left hand playing g2 (lowest line of bass clef). As he went from one measure to the next I repeated: “long … long endeavor … never stops … we’re not ‘there’ yet”.
Matching two sounds that are separated in time:
When you play the first half of a measure and get to the highest note, consciously hold its sound in your ear’s memory, so that when you play the same note in the second half of the measure you can match it with the first.
Sometimes a “group” of notes is just one note:
In the last few measures of the prelude, I find that it is not useful to think of groups of four notes, or even two notes, the measures are too ambiguous compared to what has preceded it throughout the piece. My way around this is to play these last measures in “groups of ONE” note. To promote this I say out loud as i am playing: “One”, “one”, “one” …. “. Every note bears little allegiance to every other note except when though of in retrospect.
Remember that your pinkie is part of your hand, not a separate appendage:
Often your pinkie seems to be out in right field, detached from the rest of your hand as if it were a separate appendage. Hold the pinkie in the unity of your whole hand.
Isolating Variables: the sequence of fingers as against the sequence of pitches:
This is in line with what we just said about the pinkie being “held” in the hand. In measure three A.B. is using fingers 1, 3 then 5 to play g4 d5 and f5.
I asked him to cover the notes g4-a4-b4-c5-d5 with the five fingers of his right hand. Play it as a cluster and hold it. And while holding all five notes try to lift the thumb and replay the G, then again while still holding all the notes, raise the third finger and replay the d5, and similarly with the pinkie for f5. Just focus on an awareness of the identity of which finger you are playing, as if to say “these are the fingers I’m going to use: 1 3 and 5”. Then use the same fingers but for the written notes (g4 d5 f5). You hopefully will feel an interesting transference of the awareness of which fingers to use, now mapped onto a different set of fingers.
Isolating Variables: The sensation of evenness as against any physical actions taken to instill evenness, especially when there is a new set of notes:
There is an ’emotional’, a generalized physical sense in the body as a whole, of ‘balance’ among the notes of the keyboard that are played together and in close succession. As with any feeling, this emotional state can be reproduced at will under different circumstances. Rather than the details of how to play the next measure evenly, try to reproduce the experience of having this feeling.
This distinction applies to many situations in playing.
For instance: there is the sensation we get of playing an ascending set of pitches. This feeling can be conjured up even if we are playing a descending set of pitches. Sometimes doing this is very useful in a Bach fugue to help homogenize two different voices, so that what a second voice is doing does not sound too dissimilar from what a first voice is doing.
Or, a sense of enlarging and getting louder can overlay a series of notes that are getting softer.
Or, a sense of wide space between the fingers in the hand can overlay a passage that involves a series of notes only one half step apart from each other.
Or, the sense of energy that we get from one very dynamic piece or passage from such a piece, and overlaying that feeling of energy onto all passages, slow or fast, loud or soft.
Making a clear connection between two non-adjacent fingers:
There is a measure in the first part where the pianist plays this sequence of notes: b3 c4 e4 g4 c5 … .
Notice that I tapped your fourth finger when you went from your third finger on g4 to the fifth finger on c5, It was meant to show the hand the focus of the ‘connection’ between the fingers playing g4 and c5, more at being located at the connection between the 3rd and 5th fingers.
At another point in the lesson I slid a pencil between his second and fifth finger. The pencil passed over those two fingers but passed underneath the fingers in between them. This helped him sense that those two fingers don’t act separately, but more at being the two ends of the plank of a see-saw, and thus the result of one single action.
More about see-saws:
Regardless of what two fingers play one after the other, and regardless of the distance between the notes they play, always an imaginary see-saw plank between the current note’s finger and the next note’s finger. Add to this image an almost felt, pivot point, midway between the two fingers. Now pretend you are a very strong person who can make the two ends of the plank move reciprocally move up and down just by leaning first on one side and then the other side of where the pivot.
Once you are on the second note resulting from the first see-saw, move the see-saw’s location so that it connects this second note with the note that follows it.
To develop the sense of this see-saw, and the ability to relocate it quickly, it may help (using measure one as an example) to do this exercise:
Go back and forth between c4 and e4 (something which I notate as |: c4 e4 :|. Once that see saw is functioning organically do the same for |: e4 g4 :|, and so on.
Addendum to the previous section:
It is your tendency, when you encounter a problem in a measure, to just play ahead for quite a long time, and then tend to the problem later. It is good to balance that tendency out with the ability to not move ahead, maybe only as far as the end of the current measure, and then focus in on tiny details. Focusing entails a greater degree of awareness of what is happening physical and sound-wise, plus reiterating that tiny detail until it sounds how you want it to sound.
Don’t rob the last note of each measure of its full duration:
A.B. usually tries to rush into the new hand position at the beginning of the next measure. He feels that he may not have enough time to do it in, and compensates by holding the last note of the current measure a little shorter than the other notes of the measure. I said “it is always good to try to hold longer whatever note sounds just before a leap, a skip, or a change of hand position. One can deal with this near the end of the note by continuing to hold it when your hand tells you it is time to let go of it. There is another way that is just as effective, that is more at being located time-wise at the beginning of the note rather than near the end. Start the note with the “intention” of holding it longer.
We reached the goal of evenness:
Joe: in general today we have accomplished one of your goals: the sound is now even throughout. During the attempt to make each note sound clear and close to its ideal sound, you were finding it easier to do this when playing all the notes a little louder than usual. Often two variables get tied together, “entangled” as it were. On the hand playing more evenly, on the other playing more loudly. The latter helps achieve the former, only at some point, you want to separate the former from depending on the latter. Once you have effected this separation, the evenness and clear-speaking-ness of each sound, no longer depends on loudness and can occur at any dynamic you choose.
General comment #1:
Notice that while you tend to try to solve things with specific actions of specific fingers, I almost never suggest a solution that involves the fingers, but relies instead on a more integrated motion of all the parts of the arm from shoulders to hands.
General comment #2:
I think you are evolving from one species of musician into another species: from an organist to a pianist.
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.
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.