Tag: small hand

Brahms: Large Spans – Small Hand

Sometimes what appears to be a single technical difficulty located in a very specific place in the score, turns into, upon closer inspection, a series of  separate but sequential technical issues that happen to cascade by in a short  mount of time.   Somehow, we need to be able to separate one step  from another.

The situation is not unlike something that often happens to our moods.  We feel happy at one instant and then sad at the next.  This may distress us doubly because not only do we find ourselves sad, but because we have no  idea what caused such a sudden change from being happy.  Why this sort of  thing happens is often because between the happy state and the sad state there were, flying through our mind, a series of thoughts, each one  triggering an association with a thought, or memory, a bit more sad than  the last.  A second or two later, at the end of the train of thoughts, we feel  that our mood changed as rapidly as being at the high point on roller coaster, and then finding ourselves hurtling downwards in space.

Understanding how we got there requires capturing in mid-stream each of these thoughts as they occur, and bringing them to full awareness and not leaving them semi-conscious.  This blog entry presents an instance of this related to the piano, from a lesson yesterday when Irving played the  opening of the Brahms Third Piano Sonata, Opus 7, first movement,  specifically measure one, specifically beats two and three.

If you don’t have a big hand, this measure, and the ones following, can be difficult to play.  What follows is on behalf of the person with a more average sized hand.

What at first seemed to be a matter just of coping “somehow” with the large spans, turned out to be a series of difficulties encountered one right after the other. You may solve one, thinking it is the only one, only to find for some reason that you haven’t solved the measure yet. The fact is there is more than one difficulty for the smaller sized hand in this measure.

A more careful analysis is required, with close attention in real time to what different parts of the playing mechanism are in the midst of trying to do.  Playing in tempo obscures each step in the process.

The identity of these steps may not be apparent until we significantly slow down the measure, the same way high speed photography allows us to see a humming bird flapping its wings up and down, even a bullet traveling  through space.

In our case, we slow down the measure to a crawl, and observe what each finger (and the hand too), at each instant, is trying to do.

During the bare second or two it takes to play the measure in tempo, each difficulty needs to be dealt with, separately, and in the order in which it arrives.  Coping with one difficult a moment to early will throw off the  entire process.  It is like an assembly line, each worker takes care of a specific task and then passes things on to the next worker who then does their step.   A worker cannot do their step in the process until the worker before them in the line has completed their step.

What follows are details of the steps that Irving and I found – once he played the measure at an extremely slow tempo.

I do not think these same steps would work for every individual, with every shape of hand, with every complement of fingers.  But it is illustrative of the process itself, which each pianist can then tailor to their own  circumstances.

Beat two going into beat three.

#1: Play the three notes in the right hand on beat two.

#2: Release the lower two notes while continuing to hold the top note.

#3: Substitute another finger for the pinkie on af5.

#4:  Step 3 allows for a more legato execution of the af5 to the g5 to the f5.

#5: One now finds the hand in a position from which it is much easier to get to the particular hand distribution needed for the chord on the third beat.

If it is still difficult to get from the last thirty second note f5 back to the g5 that lies within the chord the chord on beat three, there is a second fake: when playing the thirty second note g5, continue holding down while playing the next thirty second note, f5.

As a further step, you can even hold the g5 into and through the chord on beat 3.

These steps, done in that order, will solve that measure for many pianists who have been intimated by the opening of this sonata.

The segue from one step to the next, however, needs to be handled with an exquisite sense of timing, a rhythm of its own independent of the rhythm of the notes, the rhythm of the body doing first one thing and then another.

When attempting to do these steps in order for the first time, do not try to do it in tempo.  Put a fermata, as long a pause as you would like, after you have done each step.  Don’t worry about going on to the next step until you  feel completely ready.  We a series of motions need to be executed rapidly, it benefits from spreading out the required motions in time, almost as if you are setting them side by side in space, which permits you to dwell for as long as you like on each part.

What we have done for this measure is an analysis that is just a matter of mechanics (though not requiring a degree in physics).  It requires careful and genuine regard for the details of one’s anatomy and how each part wants to behave if it could have its ‘druthers’.  If we observe the process carefully we will find just what motions are appropriate and as well as the time that should be given to each.

(I am going to try to import a photo of the first measure)

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