Concert Pianists, and their Performance Arcs
“A. B.” came for his regular Thursday lesson.
Today we examined how a particular pianist puts together their experience of being in control of a musical passage while performing. The pianist forges their experience and control of a piece through various parts. For diagnostic purposes we did these preliminary exercises:
We played a Bach Chorale, looking at the keyboard only for the placement of the beginning chord of the chorale, and then not looking at the hands at all from that point on. The purpose of the exercise is for the pianist to discover how they form their intuitive sense of where their hands and fingers are on the keyboard, and if they get off course, whether they can find their way back without looking at their hands.
Next we did the same for a I-V-I in all keys. We used this particular chord-spacing: c3-g3–c4-e4 g2-g3–b3-d4 c3-g3–c4-e4 (Root-fifth-root-third, root-root-third-fifth, root-fifth-root-third).
I asked him not to look at is hands, neither when going from one chord to the next within the three chord progression in one key, nor when moving each of the notes of the third chord up a half step to begin the progression in the next key. This proved difficult for him. I said “I think we are starting to hit ‘pay dirt'”.
Then we did the same for the first prelude from Book One. This was relatively easy for him. So I added this twist. “Pick a random measure, make a simultaneous chord out of the notes in the measure, release the chord, send the hands to some far away place, then without looking at hands or the keyboard, find your way back to that chord.” As it turned out this was quite easy for him! I said: “I think there is a moral to this story.”
We moved into the second movement of the Bach Italian Concerto, a piece he knows well.
I have come to understand that A. normally bases his performance of a piece mostly on muscle memory, with his ear standing vigilantly as a guard against any wrong note. I said, “You have spent a lifetime carefully building this relationship between muscle memory and the ear. Now I am going to ask you to go into an uncomfortable place. Take any spot in the movement, and as you play the notes, say the names of each note you play in the right hand. If there is any hesitation in your voice, we’ve uncovered even more pay dirt.” We want gradually to shift the identity of a note to something due to a union of a sense clear placement of the hand on the keyboard joined with a clear sense of the name of the note being played.
He said: “I can’t say the note I’m playing play at the same time that I play it: not if I try to say it, not if you do it for me, and not if I say it only in my imagination.” Boom. “I think we just hit the mother lode because of how difficult this is for you to do.” And what an incredible discovery–to find the missing link in the mind, and work towards an exercise to correct it.
To put this in perspective, consider that doing this is not an unusual thing to ask of the student. For example, whether playing either from the score or by memory, I am always conscious of what note I’m playing, even when I steer myself through a group of notes by following the ascending or descending pitch curve of the notes. This awareness keeps me from getting lost in a piece, even when I am struggling. I am not playing by rote or muscle memory and relying on habit: I am choosing what I play and when.
Considering the difficulty of naming the notes as you play them, I recommend that he try to perfect a particular measure in this regard. It is the ‘trying’ to do that is more important than doing it correctly. It is the trying that opens up new possibilities in your mind.
Later in the lesson we went back to the I-V-I exercise we did earlier without looking at his hands, and I asked him to try to name the notes in each of the three chords in each of the three note progressions starting with the bass voice of each chord and proceeding to the soprano voice. This proved far more difficult than he imagined it would. I was pleased with this: he was gaining a direct insight into how his musical brain works.
Returning to the the second movement of the Bach Italian Concerto:
How many, “rhythmic words: are there in the ‘vocabulary’ of this movement. It is a limited set. A word a distinct rhythmic pattern, for instance a word might consist of series of four sixteenths, or a dotted eighth followed by a series of sixteenths, or some other combination of rhythmic note values that repeats frequently in the movement. Note that there is only a limited number of such combinations in this movement. Be aware of which such ‘word’ you are saying at every moment in the movement.” Playing this movement is like speaking a language of rhythmic words, a vocabulary consisting of just a dozen or such words (although they can be put together in many different ways to create different meanings). When I play it I ‘speak’ each such word with its own definite and unique form of expression and inflection – one that pertains just to that rhythmic word.
He objected that the expression of each word would change dependent on the varying setting of the musical context. To which I replied, “I agree that the same word in different settings should be spoken differently, but at first make all the same ‘words’ sound the same“.
He tried this and was surprised that this added to his musicality in playing rather than making it seem less musically nuanced. I said, “The final musical result needs to rest on something solid before the nuances are added. This might not be true of other pianists who can manage both at the same time right from the start, but you often get bogged down coping with the details of the musical meaning that you want to convey before attending to first principles. Start with the language and the vocabulary. Wait until later on before you change it into Shakespearean English.”
We turned next to Mozart’s Adagio in B Minor:
“You and I often have different agendas as to what to work for and what needs the most reinforcement. Today will prove to be no different.” What is missing for me is the basic and constant “flow” wherein you carry each note through its duration of time to the next note, and then that next to its next, etc.. Each note is directed to the next note. I hate to use an analogy that uses the word ‘weight’, which is usually anathema to me, but it as if the note has heft and you have to pick it up and move it through time (or space if it helps to think that way) to the next note*. Every note should experience the full pressure of time – which I call the ‘flow’ of time – to bring it to the sound experience of the next note. Each note has to experience that dynamic sense of motion to the next note. It is hard to describe how to do this other than my making certain gestures as you are playing, but though these are spatial motions, what we are looking to experience is the motion of consciousness through time, without abatement, and mostly felt between the beginning of one note and the beginning of the next note. It is the inevitable and relentless pressure of passing time.
* If you do think of this spatially then let the direction always to the right and not in the direction of the pitches as the arrow of time in Western math and physics is usually depicted rightwards (as it is in the convention of the musical score).
An Unending Flow of Glowing Sound
Fauré made a solo piano arrangement of the first movement of his “Dolly Suite” better known in its incarnation for piano four-hands. The glowing sound that is so easy for the two pianists to achieve with their control over at least four octaves at once, is very difficult to evoke and sustain for long in the solo piano arrangement, limited as it is to the pianist’s two hands.
At her lesson today, I wanted to show Rachael that even though one couldn’t be “all places at once” (or all octaves at once), there was nevertheless a way for creating an ongoing sound that is infused from all those octaves.
As an illustration I asked Rachael to put the right pedal down, leave it down, and then slowly play the notes of an extended E Major chord, starting with e1 in the bottom octave of the piano, then using both e2 and b2 in the next octave, and from then on proceeding in closed-spacing with e3, gs3, b3, e4, until gs4 (it could just as well have continued higher). After sounding the last note, the gs4, I asked her to wait a second or two, and then concentrate on what she heard coming out of the piano (the pedal still being depressed). After completing her examination of the sound, she could release the pedal at any time. Like a camera set to a prolonged exposure time while focused on an area in space in which there are objects moving about, what Rachael head was a stable, lasting, ‘large’, resonating, eight-note, overarching chord that spanned several octaves and derived its tone quality from all those octaves at once.
One noticeable quality of this sound was that it could be described as ‘glowing’. It glowed in a way not normally heard by the pianist when playing. I said to Rachael, here is a “model” for what you could hear coming out of the piano at all times. What we did was just to isolate it in time, but that potential is always there with every note we play. We may fail to “complete” it when we don’t take the time to accumulate it and then listen to it.
I called her attention to the fact that, in the order we did things, this glowing quality to the sound didn’t become obvious until a moment or two after completing the chord. This is because our habit is to listen to one note at a time when they are played sequentially and not concentrate on their overall effect. But the sound, the glowing sound, is always there, ready to speak back to you if you stop and listen. As you play each sound, almost pause and listen to listen for it to speak back to you. This requires a very active mind which can oscillate rapidly between “doing” or “making” sounds and, passively, “listening” to what was just “made”. The trick is to go back and forth between the two states.
If we see a picture that includes a circle, part of which has been cut off by one of the boundaries of the picture, but which, nonetheless complete in our mind. We complete the form. When we play piano, and especially this piece by Fauré, take any sounds that are part of a chord and complete the chord in your ear.
Afterwards, as Rachael played piece, I no longer heard bumps and zigzags between octave ranges. Nothing seemed to my ear to be missing or incomplete. There was a sustained glow to the overall sound
Where Does Sound Come From?
Stranded on a dessert island.
Imagine a person born blind, living alone, on a proverbial deserted island, out of touch with society, surviving through what she can grasp with her hands. Sight has never had an influence on her notion of reality.
From a hidden vantage point we notice that a bird is singing near where she is standing. We assume she hears it; but cannot see it. For her there is only a certain quality of sound, to which only we can give the name bird. For her, it never gets beyond being just a sound, although she can distinguish one sound from another on the basis of its quality.
Thus she is someone who 1) has never seen, 2) never seen a bird, and 3) wouldn’t be able to conceive that there is something called a bird. There are simply no past connections between the sense of sound and the sense of sight. There is nothing linking the sound of the bird with the sight of a bird.
If the question “why” arises in her mind, probably in the form of “why this sound and not another sound”, the question can only be posed by her within the domain of time and not space: “why do I hear that sound now and not at another time.”
At this moment, a miracle occurs.
Our subject can now see. One of the first things that happens is that she sees a bird, although it is not at that moment singing. Thus at this point there is no reason for her to form any sort of link between the sound of the bird and the image of the bird in front of her.
Some scientists now enter the scene.
They introduce themselves, and present her with a series of pictures. Included is a picture of the same species of bird that she has been hearing. She is asked to choose from among the pictures the one she thinks would be most closely associated with the sound she already knows.
This request perplexes her. She cannot even understand the general form of the question. At this stage of the story, sight is still new to her. She knows of no reason why a sight and a sound should be related to each other, even that they could be related to each other. While the sound, for the scientists is the “sound of a bird“, she has no need to make, or even conceive, such a statement.
She has no grounds for choosing one picture as against another. This makes it arbitrary which picture she chooses. If she is “artistic” by nature, perhaps she may form an aesthetic comparison: which sight feels like it goes with this sound.
Her judgment in this matter cannot yet be based on cause and effect. And even if she has a notion of cause and effect from her previous experiences in which there was no sight, sound as far as she can tell, needs no cause.
“Excuse me”, she asks, “are you saying that a sound requires a sight to cause it? That among all the random lines and shapes I see, which seem aimlessly distributed in space, there are certain lines and shapes that for a reason I cannot conceive ‘belong’ to each other, stand out from the other lines and shapes because of a mysterious relationship, which in turn you call the cause of the sound I have been hearing – not just now, but whenever I hear it.
When you speak of this mysterious connection between just certain lines and shapes, you use the strange word ‘object’, as if by saying that word it should be obvious to me why just those lines and shapes clump together with each other. And then, now that I supposedly believe in something called ‘the object’ whatever an object is, it is also the cause for the sound – something that never seemed necessary to me for the sound to occur. Why should there be such a complicated and seemingly arbitrary way of connecting things in my mind, based on an invisible (at least to me) concept called ‘object’, without which, you say, I would not hear my sounds. Furthermore that I have to choose among several of these objects, and pronounce the words ‘this object is the cause of what I hear?’ That sounds like an enchanter’s spell. My universe was full and complete without sound requiring a cause. Being sighted is sure a complex thing.”
At last she picks one of the pictures. “If I pick this picture today can I pick another picture tomorrow to be the cause of this particular sound in my head? I ask you this because for now, none of the pictures that you show me bear any inner resemblance to the sound that I know.” The psychologists say: “No, you must believe that a sound arises in your consciousness because of a certain event happening in space, which something has to do with a particular object that you see, and always that object and not another.”
She comes to her “senses”.
She is left alone for a few days to ponder this perplexing situation, a situation that until now, without sight, had no reason or necessity to exist.
During one of these days she just happens to hear the sound of the bird at the same time that she is looking at a bird. This may have happened on the preceding days, but this time she notices that the beak of the bird moves in tandem, in time, with the occurrence of the sound. She knows this much more because of time rather than space. The togetherness of the sight and the sound is based on a common moment in time.
This forms the basis of a series of ongoing experiences by which the sound of the bird is gradually linked in her mind to the image of the bird.
As with the pictures of shown by the psychologists to the girl, sights that are visible to a growing, young child at only at certain times, during for example a concert, are only gradually coordinated by that child with something seen in space in the concert hall. It turns out that the people who are holding musical instruments in their hands seem to make motions that are most consistently synchronous in time with the changes of the qualities of the sounds.
Here’s the first important point. Once such an association is made by the child, he or she forgets that there was a time when no such association had been made.
The second point is: was either the woman on the island, or the person in the concert hall, missing anything crucial when they was unable to relate the object ‘bird’ or the object ‘violin’ with a certain specific sound quality of sound? I say no. Nothing essential to our understanding and appreciation of sound is added to by the tacking onto the sound a relationship with sight. And in the concert hall, it adds nothing important to essential qualities of the music as sound alone.*
For those of us who do not need such distractions as sight offers, and can remain glued to the sounds of the piece, we enter an ideal realm of pure relationships between pure sounds, closed off from everything else, and not lacking a thing.
* It is for some but not all of the concert goers, that visual impressions can serve as a distraction or refuge from just having to listen to sound from one moment to the next. For them there are the distractions of the appearance of the concert hall. For them, too, there is the all important information in the program notes, which they are relived to believe captures something essential that they miss in the progression of the sounds alone. But thanks to the program notes, they are able to go up to someone at intermission and say, wisely: “wasn’t it wonderful how the composer used the brass section in the second movement of the symphony to create a delicate halo of sound around the rest of the orchestra!”.
Sound, Hearing, and the Brain
Spoiler Alert – this one is a bit dense and philosophical.
How do sound qualities arise? And how do we hear music as pitch, tone color, harmony, and melody, when nothing like these things actually exist in nature?
Sound waves go through cycles, often countless times per second. During each cycle the “amplitude” (the wave height) changes from one instant to instant. The number of cycles per second correlates with the ‘pitch’ that we hear. But in this conscious phenomenon there is no awareness at all of the loudness changing from instant to instant. As long as the frequency of the wave holds constant, the sound that we hear prolongs itself constantly through duration in time.
Thus, perceiving a steady pitch at a steady loudness is due to something that in terms of what is going on physically in nature is quite discontinuous. When the piano plays a Middle C, we do not hear a series of 261 sudden increases in loudness each second. Nor do we hear 440 sudden increases in loudness when the oboe plays its A above middle C to tune the orchestra. Something discontinuous, fitful and periodic in nature ends up as something continuous and steady in consciousness. Only when the vibration rate drops below around 20 cycles per second do we begin to hear the separate puffs of air, but at the price that we no longer hear a pitch.
What if our consciousness could run at a ‘tempo’ that allowed us to hear these individual peaks in loudness? Seconds would seem to take minutes, and small fractions of seconds would seem like seconds. The result is that the very nature of what we would ‘hear’ would be totally different: discontinuity in time would replace continuity.
This would be the equivalent in time of putting a specimen under a microscope and magnifying it in space. The greater the magnification, the less the specimen looks as it did to the unaided eye. If we were not told that it was the same object in both cases, we would be hard put to realize its identity.
Pitch, the basic substrate of all our musical perception, would disappear, and be replaced with an effect somewhat like a ratchet, or a rapid series of metronome clicks with silence between successive clicks. Gone would be the very building blocks out of which musical structure is created.
Sound: Instrumental Tone Quality versus a Chord of Pitches
Our experience of instrumental tone color (a clarinet’s sound versus a violin’s sound or versus the sound of a human voice) is, as with pitch, based on a fortunate illusion, a simplification and then recasting of sensations reaching our brain.
When an instrument, like a clarinet, plays what we perceive as a single pitch, a scientific examination of its wave form reveals something that resembles more a ‘chord’ of many pitches than what gives us the perception of a single pitch.
There is no ‘reason’ why, we might hear simply one chord versus another in the different instruments, minus any change in instrumental quality. After all, chords are part of the normal conscious phenomena that we perceive about sound. Why do we need something extra when we might content ourselves with just perceiving chords?
When we perceive what we term a chord, most often the various individual pitches in the chord are sounding with approximately the same loudness. What if the different pitches in a chord all had different loudnesses. This would add a serious level of complication. It is this extra layer of complication that the brain “simplifies” for us. What we hear is not different loudnesses among the different pitches in otherwise similar chords, but simply a different tone quality, or timbre, to the overall sound. A French horn and a violin playing Middle C produce the same chord of pitches, but the relative loudness of one pitch to another is different. How impoverished would our perception of sound be if it was bereft of this extra
parameter of tone quality. Sound would “sound” like shades of grey without any other color.
Part of the ‘illusion’ of tone quality is that we hear one pitch instead of many, and our brain casts the lowest pitch in the chord as the pitch we associate with the note, and as for the rest of the notes in the chord, depending on their mutual loudness, the brain recasts the phenomenon of pitch as the phenomenon of tone quality.
What if our brain had the ability to resolve the single sound of an instrument, at a single pitch, into a chord of many different pitches? The answer is simple. Gone would be melody and gone would be harmony.
Conclusion number two: This almost deceitful sleight of hand by the brain allows for the richness of musical structure.
P.S. Two other parameters of musical sounds, rhythm and duration, do not depend on sound to be perceivable. Duration is simply the inner experience of time in consciousness, and needs nothing external to
mark its progress. And rhythm, which in a way depends on duration, can be taught to a deaf person through a sense other than hearing: touch, for instance.
P.P.S. Of all the arts, music comes closest to being the simple conscious perception of time.