Tag: Sound Production

A “brief” note about sound and staccatos

This is a brief postscript to the blog entitled “Sound, Hearing, and the Brain” published in May.   In that blog I spoke of about how 1) our hearing sound as having a ‘pitch’ and 2) our hearing a sound as having a tone-color are both emergent forms added by consciousness to the physical vibrations in nature.  An emergent form is a more complex form that depends on the prior existence of less complex forms.

A danger in a staccato is that there are not enough fractions of a second during which the sound congeals in consciousness, to reveal more than the mere presence of generalized sound, but also awareness of its pitch, of timbre, and finally the overall harmonic context surrounding the note.  Presence of sound takes the shortest time to be recognized, followed by pitch, timbre and harmony.

If we want a staccato to give the ear more information than that there is sound present and it is very short in duration, then the duration of the staccato note can be no shorter than the minimum time it takes our consciousness to perceive its pitch, timbre, and placement in the harmonic environment.

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Quality distinguished from quantity

Quantity versus quality, the immeasurable versus the measurable.

Non-typically, Irving has chosen to start work on a piece by Debussy.

This affords an opportunity to revise his customary way of approaching a new piece.

Part One: Keeping score on the number of wrong notes.

Usually, when Irving begins a practicing session, he measures his improvement in direct proportion to the increasing percentage of right notes that he plays and the decreasing number of errors.

This means he is devoting his conscious effort to ‘measurable’ quantities (the pitches of notes) rather than other things that are, in contrast to quantities, best termed qualities that are evoked in his playing.

How do we sidestep his “pointillistic” application of correct notes to the piece?

The first step was a bit drastic.  I asked him to leave the right pedal down until a large group of notes were all swimming around in a common and confusing sounding tonal pool.

We then refined this so the notes that were thrown in the pool were only those that were chord-tones according to the current harmony.   By doing this, a chord was being gradually built up, one note at a time, until all the notes of the chord were sounding together.

Now came the leap of musical imagination together with a slight derailing of the forward arrow of time.  “The sound of this chord-cluster in its entirety,” I said,  “should be in your imagination from the moment you play the first sound of the group that is going to form the chord at the end of the process.  It is like a magical pedal that not only combines the sounds left in the wake of each sound, but can also summon up the presence of the sounds that remain to be heard.”

Once this effect is achieved with regularity, the next step is to re-create that feeling at will, with or without relying on the literal application of the pedal.

Part Two: Some other the desirable ‘qualities’ to evoke in the Debussy.

One note then the next:

A new note doesn’t always ‘eclipse’ an old note.  The new note should not be opaque, in time, to the memory of the previous note.  Let each note blend into the next, yielding its essence as an inheritance to the next note.

Melody:

Melodies should seem to leave thick ‘trails’ behind their advancing wave front in time.  The combined presence of their notes persists in time.   Even without the pedal, the melody should sound in the imagination as if it were sounding in a perfect echo chamber; each part of the melody is inseparably bound to the overall shape of that melody.

Tempo:

Even in the early stages of reading a new piece, the pianist sometimes should try to play a passage in the intended final tempo.  Otherwise the pianist who is interested primarily in right notes will automatically exclude from his consciousness the unique musical qualities of the piece that will animate and give life to the performance that will only become manifest in the piece’s proper tempo.   Make the piece yield up its secrets before all the notes are learned.

Quality is so fundamentally different than quantity that the notes, if they are merely correct, eclipse the ability to modulate and shape sound, create tonal imagery, and release – as a flower giving off an aroma –  all that is non-quantitative and miraculous about the piece and its sound.

Tempo can be used generally as a tool with which to experiment for evoking the qualities inherent in a piece.  Playing a passage in its final tempo* sooner rather than later in the learning process, including wrong notes, will bring us to a realization of the indefinable aesthetic essence of the passage, rather than repeating the passage over and over in a gradually increasing  tempo.   The downside of approaching the final tempo gradually and incrementally is that the desired tempo may never actually be reached.  Why?  Because the successful execution, in the final tempo, depends as much on a clear musical vision of the aesthetic qualities of the piece as it does on physical technique.  We need the qualities of the piece to guide and lead the notes into yielding their musical essence that transcends the actual identity of the pitches.

* whether this final tempo is slower or faster than the initial practice tempo

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Two thoughts on playing Legato

Both blog entries today have to do with the undefined, yet very definite influence, that sounds, as imagined in the pianist’s ears, have over the extrinsic sound coming into the listener’s ears.

First thought:

Legato.  Connecting a longer duration note to shorter duration note.

The connectivity of a legato melody is most often broken when a note that has been present for some time (in other words a relatively longer note) is followed by a shorter note.

An example would be a half note tied to an eighth note followed by an eighth note.  The longer note (the half plus the eighth) has had more time to decrease in loudness, and so it is harder to focus the ear on the fainter part of that note that at the point i time just before it connects to the eighth note.  This continuity is also broken because at the moment the eighth note begins there is a sudden change in loudness, as the fainter part of the sound that is left over at the end of the longer note tries to connect smoothly to the suddenly louder beginning, or attack, of the eighth note.

While playing a legato line it is easy to overlook moments such as these and forget that a smooth connection between notes is still required in spite of the change from soft to suddenly loud.  The result, if not handled wisely, will sound to the listener like a sudden and jagged accent instead of a fluid legato.

When we are near the end of the longer sound, we must learn to focus our ear on what’s left of that sound.  Curiously, just the act of becoming aware, a second time, of the same note, causes a subjective sensation of that note suddenly getting a little louder.  The act of awareness acts like a re-kindling the note, like blowing on a fire.   It is then easier to connect the later part of the long sound in a legato manner into the beginning of the next note.

Second thought:

Taking a percussion-like instrument such as the piano, and making it sound melodic (lyrical) to the listener, is a magician’s feat that involves “smoke and mirrors”.  An example of this is what was just said about rekindling the sound of a note near to its termination in time.

The basic fact we are confronted with is that a note on the piano sounds much louder at the beginning than at the end.  The moment of attack arouses a cluster of high overtones which might leave us confused, if all we were to hear of the note was that attack, about the identity of the intended pitch of the note.  This is literally and figuratively a poor beginning to a process that is meant to link one pitch to a succeeding one in a smooth manner.

What should we do, or what can we do, when a sound begins in a chaotic cluster of higher pitches, and then, once the attack is over, what continues is a remnant of the sound that gets softer and softer until crossing over to silence?

If the effect of legato had to do with how we connect the end of one note to the beginning of the next, we would create a ziz-zag curve oscillating rapidly between very soft and very loud.  We would never sing a note this way, and a violinist would never bow this way.

It would almost seem that what is needed is some magical way to connect the middle of one piano sound to the middle of the next.  The middles of piano sounds are special.  They are still loud enough to posses a warm resonance (which emerges out of the louder attack which has now subsided), and not yet soft enough that we would get the feeling that there was nothing left to tangibly connect into the next note.  The piano will sing when we connect the middle of one note to the middle of next: one rich resonance to another rich resonance.  But how would we do such a thing.

This is where the magician’s technique of sleight of hand comes into play (or is it sleight of ear).   This is a reliable principle: what we hear in the sound the audience will hear.  If we hear resonance connect to resonance so will they.  While legato would seem to require a magical transformation of the sound of a piano note, instead it only requires a combination of memory of the recent past and seeing into the immediate future.

As the career of a note ends, we remember what it sounded like just a moment earlier when the sound was most resonant and had the clear sense of singing on a single pitch that was so hard to find in the attack.

We are jugglers of the tenses of time.  Like a juggler we seem to confound the senses of the audience.  We fuse into the current moment a memory of the sound’s resonance a moment or even an instant earlier, and, the anticipated resonance of the note whose attack we are about to execute.  We revive the past and tell the future: at least in the small, privileged unit of time we call the present…the advancing present.*

Maybe this helps explain why the great piano composers chose to write their most lyrical pieces for the piano.   By overcoming the acoustic odds, our magic leaves in its wake an impression of smoothness and consistency to the flow sound.**

In summary, we rely on the fact that the middle of the note’s duration is usually the sweetest and most melodic.  By ignoring the attacks, as well as the last instants of a sound, we begin to be able to link middle to middle, richest moment of sound to richest moment of sound.**

* Most pianists start out earlier in life by being most aware of the onset of each new note: because this is the moment within the course of the sound when the most sudden and acute muscular action occurs.  What we do physically during the remainder of the sound is usually passive in comparison to the beginning.  But, as we have shown, this moment is also when sound is at its least pleasurable, when it is raucous and disagreeable.   The result is that the pianist, usually unconsciously, switches their awareness, at just this moment, from the realm of hearing to the realm of feeling.  In doing so the pianist tends to conflate one sense with the other: I think I heard it when I actually felt it.

**The audience might not be aware of this process as the piece begins, but the more the pianist continues in the piece to try to connect middle to middle in her or his imagination, the more the sound ingredients are there for the listener to believe that it is happening too.

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Riding the forward wave of time: catching the flow of a single note in our consciousness

Awareness of small and smaller subdivisions of time.

First, a bit of metaphysics, courtesy of the French philosopher Henri Bergson (you can skip this paragraph if you want).  He says that no matter how deeply we look into smaller and smaller durations of consciousness, we never stop experiencing time as something flowing.  It never stops.  If anything, the closer we approach what we think is a single instant of time, the more the intensity of its flow increases and immerses us.  An analogy might be the ceaseless activity on the atomic and subatomic scale that went by unnoticed until, in the twentieth century, scientists were able to take a closer look.

When we are playing piano, the very act of playing acts to distract us from the close observation of time.  Our awareness of time becomes synchronized with our depression of the keys, i.e. at the onsets only of the sounds.  As a result, we have a “stop frame” view of time, assuming time has flowed between one frame and the next.  This is the same effect as watching a film.  For all we know, between one note and the next, time itself has stopped, like the silence we hear between one click of the metronome and the next.  Time resumes for us only at the onset – the “attack” – of the next note.

The attack catches our awareness again.  It is suddenly louder than what is left of the sound which preceded it.  The attacks are like the excited gestures of parents attempting to catch the attention of their baby so they can take a photo.

Time is thus porous to us, it has no palpable taste to us if we are trying to eat just one of the holes in a piece of Swiss cheese.

This view of time as discontinuous, and having only an implied continuity, can lead to problems for the pianist when the tempo of the music is too slow or two fast.  If fast, we may not be used to paying full attention to the quality of every sound when the sounds occur in a rapid stream or spray.  At a very slow tempo we may have little idea what to do while waiting for the next note to start.  A whole note is a good time for a pianist to scratch an itch.

How can we ignore the “attack” sequence of time and have our consciousness penetrate into the hearts of the sounds, that is to say the portion of time after the attack during which the sound is enduring.  The only answer can be to listen, and re-listen, to the sound, as often as possible during career of a single note.  During the course of even a relatively short note, we can re-hear, or better, re-initiate our awareness of the sound, over and over.  Even the notion of a note as a single, “solid” thing will disappear under this type of conscious awareness.

Conscious awareness is like a spotlight shown upon an object.  It is like the yellow magic marker that we used in school to highlight text that we wanted to single out from the rest of the page.  Even when the note is long and we re-initiate our awareness of it after a second or two has gone by, there is this curious effect.  Though technically the note is getting softer and softer, at just that instant, the note seems to suddenly get a bit louder.  It didn’t objectively gain in amplitude, but it gained subjective loudness due to the act of attention.

Our moments of re-awareness during the course of a single note are like moments of blowing on a fire to rekindle its strength.

Summarizing:

Ultimately, it is not the vibration of the string that keeps the sound going through time, it is our awareness that keeps the sound alive.  It is this awareness, which isn’t getting less and less as the note acoustically fades away in intensity, that allows us to connect the end of one note to the beginning of the next note with a degree of fluidity that escapes our powers when we are just trying to match one attack with another.

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{4} HEARING THE MIDDLES OF THE SOUNDS

{4} HEARING THE MIDDLES OF THE SOUNDS

We have just spoken about the magic of music existing in the durations between when one note starts and the next note starts (see 3).  That our physical sensations of the action of muscles leads us to concentrate more on the beginning of the sounds.

There is a simple procedure for re-directing our attention away from the beginning of the sounds and towards their “middles”.

Play one note and let it resonate for a while without feeling a physical intention of getting ready to play a second note.  About a second into the course of the sound, tell yourself “now is the time for me to listen to the note”.  If the note started loudly enough, then you can wait another second or so, and then start listening to the note again.

In a way similar to threading a number of beads together by putting a string through holes drilled through their middles, we can train ourselves to experience the shape of the necklace

of a series of sounds, by remaining aware of the string threading the middle of one sound to the middle of the next.

Ultimately one can follow the flow of the sound from instant to instant (see 2), giving life to each moment of the sound as it evolves.  This is much rekindling a flame by periodically blowing on it to add oxygen and re-illumine its brightness.

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