Tag: Solving a Technical Difficulty
Sundry thoughts about Trills
People seem to use two opposite strategies for trilling. Either, use excess physical effort to try to maintain the trill going on and on, or use as little physical effort as possible as a way to keep the trill from stalling or changing and maintain its ease and flow. I subscribe to the later method.
The limiting case for a least-effort-possible while trying to play is to pantomime. Execute the trill like a “mime,” barely touching or tapping the keys (but in the correct order and speed). Doing this teaches the body just how effortless a trill can feel when there is no overuse of energy. The effort is so little that any conscious amount of energy we apply is already too much.
Once you have pantomimed the trill, say to yourself: “what is the absolute least amount of any additional effort or energy I can give in order to make the notes of the trill start sounding.” Even if only some of the notes end up sounding, just add a bit more energy and leverage than before when you first went from silence to sound. In making this difference in energy, less is more.
A variation on this technique is to sound and hold down the lower note of a trill while repeatedly tapping and releasing the upper note (either making a sound each time or making no sound – both are effective procedures).
Coming out of a trill
Many of us have difficulty with the last few notes of a trill. It doesn’t matter how long the trill is, how many beats it is, we’re just fine until we are within a split second of needing to stop the trill. This last moment is a confusing moment for the hand. No matter when you think about the trill ending, just by thinking about it – such as the thought “gee, I guess it’s time to end the trill,” you transmit something to your body that gums up the end of the trill. The last few notes of the trill will not flow smoothly. It is better for the body, if possible, to remain “ignorant” of when it is time to stop the trill, and then suddenly, without warning, stopping,
Evenness counts for as much or more than speed
It is more satisfactory to the listener if you play a trill slower but evenly than to try to play it faster but and fail to maintain evenness.
It is the body as a whole that does the trill
A trill would seem to be an action limited to the neighborhood of the fingers. It seems at first sight to be so precise a motion.
Here is a procedure to make the trill a part of a motion of the entire body. I did this many years ago with my student Rachael:
We stood up. We started wiggling the tips of our fingers, then spread the motion so it included our hands, then wrists… At this point, our fingers, hands, and wrists were all moving at the same time in a random fashion. Developing this idea further, we began randomly moving our forearms, then added our elbows, then our upper arms. We looked pretty silly at this point. Finally we added our torsos and eventually our legs. I said: now you’re ready to play the trill. Wiggle (or gyrate) your way to the piano, and don’t stop moving all the parts of your body until after you are seated at the piano bench and have started the trill. The trill came out marvelously. Unfettered, free, even, fast; as if it could go on forever.
The point was not to move the body like this every time we need to play a trill, but that doing so brings alive all the connections in the body so that any motion is possible, including going back and forth between two keys on the piano.
There is no formula for this procedure. Nothing is gained by knowing which muscles you are moving or by how much. The point is simply to bring alive all the parts of the body.
Turning any passage into a continuous trill
Take any melody in a score and create a trill on every note, at least for the duration of that note, if not a good deal longer. The goal of this process is to make the passage sound like a continuous trill. In doing so, you are imbuing the passage with the aesthetic qualities of a trill: great continuity, maximum flexibility and sense of motion, sinuosity, élan, continuous change and aliveness… These are all qualities that you can then preserve into the normal execution of the passage. All the qualities just mentioned retreat inside the heart of each note as the notes succeed each other. If we liken a melody to an artery then the trill is like the blood itself flowing through the artery.
A long trill
A long trill can be concatenated out of numerous smaller trills that are stitched together. Most of us can sustain a trill for a short duration of time but have difficulty if the trill is meant to go on for a long time. Just knowing in advance that it will be long affects how we start the trill.
Here is a solution. Start the trill as always, but after a short while, well before we would normally tire out, send a new wave of energy or pulsation down the arm from the shoulder as if to start a new trill. The important thing lies in the timing of when to initiate the pulse of energy. It must start out before the current group of trill notes has completed – it needs time to travel down to the fingers.*
Repeat this process as many times as necessary to complete the printed duration of the trill. At first there might be pauses between the end of group of continuous trill notes and the beginning of the next. After a while, though, the chunks of the overall trill will be linked seamlessly together.
When I do this, I can go on trilling indefinitely, without any loss of vivacity. Sometimes I do this to show off for a student, saying as I’m doing it: see, I can go on, and on … and on … Just by renewing the trill and starting it over fresh each time.
Changing the character within a long trill
Sometimes a long trill can be made to be more expressive if it changes speed in specific ways at specific moments during its course. It gives the overall trill an architecture, and overcomes any monotony that might otherwise ensue.
A rarer but more extreme version of this would be to apply a ritard and/or accelerando within various portions of the trill. This requires a fine degree of control so that the trill doesn’t stall out or get tied up in knots.
Special anchor spot in the forearm
There is a spot on the forearm, not far from the elbow, nearer the crease of the elbow than the point of the elbow, that is an effective point from which to experience the motions the muscles that are activated when playing a trill.
Take one of the fingers of the hand that is not doing the trill, place it on the spot described above, and push down on the skin, just until the finger feels something moving underneath the skin while playing the trill.
This is an ideal point from which to experience the reciprocal motion involved in the trill. You will ensure greater evenness in the trill if instead of focusing on the fingers you focus on what is going on in this spot on the forearm.
An “inductive” approach to a trill
Begin with a single note. Pose the question to yourself: can I play a single note with great rapidity? Playing a short staccato is the answer.
Next append a second note to the previous note. Pose the question: how fast can I play one note and then another? Answer: I just have to treat the first note as if it is a fast grace note to a longer second note.
We proceed one more note at a time. We trill three notes, as fast as we can, maybe using our voice to lead the fingers by saying something like “go-ing-THERE.”
Continue the process for four notes of a trill. How fast can I execute them? I just need to think of the first three notes as a group of grace notes leading to a the fourth, longer sound. One can steer it by saying: I’m-go-ing-THERE. Or thinking of the opening of Beethoven’s Fifth done at an extremely fast tempo.
And so on. A five note trill. A six note trill. At some point we reach a number of notes so that continuing the trill is no problem: the trill has ignited.
I wish you a trilling experience.
* The experience is not that different than repeating the same note legato a series of times. Before, and not at the same time as, the key has come up all the way to the level of the other keys a stronger arm pulse is already making its way down the arm to overwhelm the upwards motion of letting go of the key.
Maintaining Control of Both Hands
Cross fertilization of the hands, bordering on hybridization
Bach: The Italian Concerto: II
Irving is having difficulties maintaining control over both hands at once. I attribute this to the very different rhythmic character of each hand (in general, the right hand has faster notes while the left hand has relatively slower notes).
He has been trying to maintain separate but simultaneous control of each hand. This wasn’t working. To solve this, we established a process in which the notes in one hand could flow back and forth into notes in the other hand.
A frequent occurrence in the movement is for the left hand, as part of its melody, to play an eighth note on the first beat of a measure, and then, after a pause of a thirty-second note, the right hand plays three thirty-second notes as part of its melody.*
In this situation, we connected legato between the left hand eighth note at the beginning of the measure and the right hand thirty-second note that followed a thirty-second later.
There were also the analogous occurrences when the right hand melody contained several thirty-second notes followed by the left hand playing an eighth note. We formed a sonic bridge between the last right hand note and the left hand note.
Unlike the more usual procedure in Bach, which is to separate the voices, we did the opposite. We fused two voices together to create a single, new voice line: one that was a hybridization of each of the two original voices.
In this way the sound of one hand could cross-fertilize with the sound of the other, creating a series of “shunts” interconnecting their notes. The next note in one hand could derive its momentum, both pulse-wise, and melody-wise, from the note just prior to it in the other hand.
It was the ear that forged these unions, and the body responded by organically connecting the two hands. Each hand took renewed life from the other hand.
*In many of these cases the right hand had just tied the last note of the previous measure over into the downbeat of the new measure.
How one hand can help the other
Summary: Play runs evenly. Be your own teacher by having one hand help the other.
Years ago while I was playing a Mozart Concerto, I was frustrated in the first movement because I could not play evenly a scale-like run in the right hand. The notes were not pearly. They were not pellucid, they didn’t shine because of their evenness.
I could not seem to solve this issue myself. I was an adult pianist, yet I felt I needed a guide, a teacher, to help me. I needed someone to give me a model of the evenness for which I was striving; a teacher, or if not a teacher, then a conductor to follow. I wanted something more than just a sound-model – hearing someone else play it and then trying to imitate it.
Quite by accident I took one of the fingers of my left hand (my fourth finger), and began flexing it over and over at the speed of the run, as if chiding my right hand: “why can’t you play it like this?” Fortunately, the next thing I did was to play the right hand while making the repetitive gestures in the left hand. All of a sudden, the right hand sounded its notes evenly. Somehow it seemed as if the finger of the left hand was in control of the fingers of the right hand. From the right hand’s point of view it seemed something more than just following an example. What sort of connection had changed between my two hands?
Our body exhibits bilateral symmetry. The center is unique but the left and right sides are mirror images (or nearly so). When we clap our hands we take full advantage of the power one arm lends to the other when they make mirror like motions. The center of the body acts as the mediator and connects and transmits the reinforcing motions of the arms. Take any passage that is done by the right hand and make corresponding mirror-like gestures with the left hand. The right hand will feel less isolated, less like it has to take care of the task all by itself. Something is balancing it, something is making it whole. It no longer seems awkward or happening at an extremity, “out on a limb,” as it were.
The teacher lies in yourself.
I used to say to tell my students “lessons are all about practicing.” Everything we do at a lesson is but a model, a sample of a dialogue between the ‘teacher in you’ and the ‘pupil in you.’ Eventually you will successfully internalize both people in this dialogue.
I remembered these words when I was wiggling my left hand finger to even out my right hand fingers. That wiggling finger had taken on the role of the ‘teacher in me’ and showing the other ‘student in me,’ my right hand, how to go about playing evenly.
It was more than just ‘moral’ support or advice being given from myself to myself. There was a direct transference of physical energy from one side of the body to the other, each completing in space the movement of the other.
I instinctively had given the single finger in my left hand an important advantage over the right hand. It was not cramped down onto the keyboard forced to depress certain keys. It did not have to articulate different fingers according to a certain order. So, it was more than a model of evenness, it was a model to the right hand of liberation, of not being constrained by which particular finger was playing which particular note at a given time. My right hand took vicarious pleasure in what the left hand did. Perhaps due to the “mirror” neurons in my brain, the right hand could take on the feel and internal sense of motion of the left hand, more so because of the literal connectivity of the arms through the center of the body.
Future blogs: 1. Contrary motion versus parallel motion. 2. Parallel motion in even steps in one hand versus uneven steps in the other.
These blog entries are not ‘timely’: they do not address issues that relate to the present news of the world. They address perennial issues faced by most pianists when striving to excel in their playing. I encourage you to search backwards in the blogs to find the ones that will yield the greatest benefit to you. You are also welcome to contact me to suggest a topic that you would like to see appear on the site.
Practice Procedures: Part 18 Cradling A Part of the Playing Mechanism
Let’s say we are trying to play an even sounding scale. Our ear detects minor glitches in the flow, for instance after passing the thumb under the other fingers. The solution may often lie in examining a nearby part of the playing mechanism. I watch myself play the scale and I notice that at certain moments my wrists move unintentionally as if trying to compensate for a momentary lack of balance in the rest or the hand. The only problem is that it lingers in that position and does not instantly return to its more normal position.
So I ‘ask’ my wrist: what is it exactly that you want to do during this scale, and when do you feel you need to do it. To discover this I take my other hand and embrace the wrist of the ‘target hand’. Now I can be directly aware, through the pressure of the wrist on the embracing hand, what the target wrist is trying to do. Often the ‘answer’ is unexpected. It may include sudden and jerky motions by the wrist done to apparently to compensate for something going on in the rest of the hand.
So, now rather than embrace the wrist, I ‘cradle’ it in a ‘comforting’ and ‘protective’ environment. And I say to the wrist: whatever you think you need to do in order to balance the fingers and the hand, I, the cradling hand, will in turn support your movements and not let them become overdone. As I do this, I notice that every time the wrist wants to make a jerky motion to keep to permit something smooth in the fingers, my ‘cradling’ hand steadies the wrist so that it does not have to make too sudden, or jerky, or too large a motion in the act of taking care of the fingers.
And I discover that the unevenness that I heard in the scale was not due to the fingers as much as it is in the wrist.