Tag: Teaching Methods
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).
I’m back! Revving up your engine. Change of register within a theme. State “A” and state “B”
I haven’t blogged for a while. It’s been a rough month health wise and mood-wise. But here I am again. I’ve nothing too organized to write about today, so please indulge me is I am desultory in this blog entry.
#1 Revving up your engine for a moment before playing a difficult passage.
When confronted with a rapid passage that that moves in a series of notes of equal duration, let us say eighth notes in the right hand, covering several bars of 4/4 time, it is useful to rev up your engine (like a race car driver awaiting the flag to drop to start the race) and then overflow those four notes as the race begins and you cruise through the passage. This ‘revving’ up can consist of playing the first four notes over and over again in a loop, until the thrust of your “jet engine” has increased to the amount when you can then let off the breaks and sail down the runway.
#2 Change of register within a theme statement
When a melody is transferred by the composer from one octave range to another, it is important that the pianist “carries” the sound of the note from one octave to the other. Sorry to mix metaphors, but the listener has to be “led by the hand” from one range to the other, so that the new destination note sounds as alike as possible to the starting note, but for the accident of pitch range. Usually changing the octave of a note causes a major change in the quality of a note. But in this case we want to stress the sameness of the note despite its appearance in different ranges on the piano.
We want the listener to feel that it is the same sound that has taken off one outfit and put on a second, while still being able to recognize the person wearing the clothing.
#3 State “A” / State “B”
Solving technical hurdles, simplifying a passage, If you are not already familiar with the idea of state A and B, see:
do a ‘search’ on the front page for “practice technique”
With my students, I often use the terms “state A” and “state B” when referring, in the first case, to some altered way of playing or approaching a difficult passage that sheds new insight on its meaning or which unlocks the technical difficulties involved in the passage. State B, which follows upon state A, is playing the passage again, but this time as written in the score (in its performance form). The idea is that the insight gained in state A carries over into state B.
The important question is what to do after doing state A followed by state B. Many students will do state A, realize the benefit of doing it as they then play state B, but if they play the passage a second or third time, simply in its state B form, the benefits from having done state A gradually wear off and the passage begins to resume the state it had been in originally. When the student has completed the cycle state A – state B, she should resist the temptation to try the passage again in state B, almost as if to test whether the benefits previously gained are still showing in state B, or perhaps to try to improve the passage even more. Unfortunately the benefit from state A though it normally carries over automatically into the first iteration of state B, by simply following state A closely in time, becomes lost and diluted if you simply replay the passage in state B, over and over, without going back in between to state A again.
Always go back to state A, before doing another try at state B, for state A stands to state B as a going back to the well, the fountain, the source of the inspiration and insight that enlightens the passage.
Thus concludes a series of scattered thoughts. Let me know what you think or have questions about in the comments, and also tell me if you would like me to write about something specific next time. Some health stuff has burdened me, so the posts might be a little scattered. But stay tuned, I’m here.
Changing Fingering. Changing any habit at the keyboard.
B. has been working on the Italian Concerto.
He has discovered places where the fingering he is using is not serving him well, and thus wants to change the current fingering to a fingering that is more ergonomically efficient for his hand. He says that he is OK at figuring out what the better fingering would be, but the problem is that he can’t get his hand to accept the new fingering. Trying to do so simply leads to confusion.
My suggestion: if one wants to change the fingering in a passage from what it has been before, instead of trying out the old fingering abruptly in favor to the new one, it is easier first to go into an in between state: a neutral state, in which the old fingering can go to rest and the new fingering can appear at the door to request admission.*
The neutral state that I suggested was to play every note with the same (sic) finger. Ordinarily, which finger and which note are merged together in the mind. However, playing all the notes with the same finger makes the mind more aware of the identity of the notes apart from the fingers to play them. This frees yourself from dependence on any one particular fingering and opens the door to return from the neutral state into another fingering rather than the wanted one.
*I had the same problem with introducing my old cat to my new cat.
The Aha Moment: Muscles Working in Harmony
The Aha Moment: Muscles Working in Harmony
Rachmaninoff G Minor Prelude (op. 23 no. 5)
I think of physical habits at the piano as falling into three categories.
Category One: Movements that neither help nor hinder playing.
Category Two: Movements that facilitate and help playing.
Category Three: Movements that hinder playing.
I don’t worry too much about students regarding category A, unless their motions mask or keep them from discovering more useful motions.
I encourage or teach students any movements that fall into category B, those that facilitate playing.
At Irving’s lesson today he used a gesture that unfortunately is in the third category, motions that directly hinder the playing. It seemed to be an intentional gesture on his part, done because he thinks it helps his playing. When we would reach the point when one would normally gently release the keys after sounding a note or chord, Irving pressed further into the keys with his hands and fingers and simultaneously raised his shoulders. I think he does the latter in order to cushion the added pressure created by the former. He creates, in effect, an ‘aftershock’ to his sounding of notes. The result blocked the flow of energy down his arms. He make this gesture most often when playing a difficult passage.
We managed to instill a new motion that replaced the harmful motion and moreover achieved the purpose he was trying to achieve by using the harmful motion.
I asked him to drop his arms at his sides, and to begin rocking then swinging them forwards and backwards towards and away from the keyboard. Then I suggested that he start playing the piece again. As he did so, I started to repeat, over and over, the mantra “swing your arms … swing your arms…”. Each I time I said these three syllables, I timed them to coincide with the often repeated rhythmic pattern in the piece: two sixteenths then an eighth.
He played for a while and then stopped. In a frustrated tone of voice he said: “I don’t understand; how I can swing my arms and play at same time. Be more specific, Joe. Tell me how much I should move the arms, in what plane of action, using muscles in particular.”
I said: “Aha! This is the crux of the issue. The fact is that indeed there are too many muscles in the arms to keep track of what each one is doing.”
It is like walking. Almost the entire body is in motion. Many complex interactions of muscles are occurring. Yet, somehow they are harmonized and brought into balance with each other, and work towards the common end of moving the body forwards. If you were to try to be aware of which muscles you were using when walking you would simply cause the motion to become awkward, stilted, and un-flowing through time. But the point is that they do work together, unbidden. They act in harmony.
In this regard, piano playing is similar to walking. Enumerating what to move and when will not produce a fluid motion of the arms.
Irving: “So what can we do – what do I do?”
Joe: “Since there can be no detailed answer to your question about what, and by how much, I can only reply, just trust that any attempt you make to put the arms into any sort of motion, will lead you to more fluidity and better sounding quality while you are playing.”
After a while, Irving got it. He said: “I don’t understand how this is working, or exactly what I am doing other than thinking about motion in my arms, but I hear a difference, and I like the difference.”
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.
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.
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