Tag: Teaching Methods

Changing Fingering

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.

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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.”

 

 

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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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Habits that induce good sight reading skills

Those who have difficulty sight reading may shy away from the following techniques, but please give them a try.  They are designed to leave you with no choice but to improve your sight reading skills by derailing your usual work-arounds.

1. There is a procedure that is favored by students with a good ear, good chops, and bad sight reading skills: when they get stuck somewhere in the score, their fingers go on an exploring mission, trying this note or that note, until finding one that sounds right.

A better procedure is to immediately remove the hands from the piano.  Then, switch control from the fingers to the eyes and brain, and patiently try to locate the place in the score at which the mistake has occurred.   This is not a physical skill or one that is usually aided by a good ear.  Rather it is a reading comprehension and ear skill.  Next, keeping control with the eyes and brain, closely examine the score to discover the identity of the correct notes.  This may take some time.  Only then play the notes.

Even after a piece is thoroughly learned, sight-reading remains a real-time component of playing the piece.  Things are going along swimmingly and then an uncertainty arises as to what comes next.  The hands feel lost.  That is the moment to switch into sight-reading mode, continuing in this mode until the hands remember where they are and continue on their own.

2. Learn to start playing the piece from any point in the score. A person with sight reading difficulties will tend to have to go back to a ‘known’ place in the score, even sometimes having to begin again at the beginning. The ability to start the piece from any beat in any measure in the score requires and encourages maximum sight reading skill.  Continue playing in sight reading mode, until you pick up the flow of the piece again.

3. Some students become dependent on playing a passage with both hands, so that if you ask them to play just the right hand or the left hand at a given spot, they cannot do so. The only way to satisfy the request is to sight read the notes for that hand.

4. Wrest control from body, and become more like a conductor. In lieu of a baton, count out loud and require that the musicians (the ten fingers) follow the voice of the leader.

I would like to publish any other techniques that people have found that are useful to improving sight-reading. Please comment below.

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Synchronizing with the student at the lesson

Synchronizing communication between the student and the teacher is a very important part of any lesson.

There is a tempo to the way the student and the teacher interact that varies from student to student and lesson to lesson.  One of the most important factors in their dialogue is how well-synchronized their minds are.

1. Here is an example of lack of synchronization.   Patricia is a dynamic and forceful person with an extremely active mind.  She is used to taking charge of things.  When I start expressing a thought to her about how to improve the current passage, perhaps trying to demonstrate it at the piano, before she has had a chance to understand the idea I’m conveying, she has already started playing the passage again.  If she had waited another few seconds she might have understood the gist of what I was trying to communicate, but as it was, she formed a different idea of what I meant.  My concern in this is not that I have been interrupted, but that no communication resulted.

We have working on this issue, and gradually we are learning to ‘tune’ ourselves to each other.

2. Rachael is a student who, in her professional life, in an executive.  She wants information communicated to her quickly.  Once she gets the gist of what she thinks I’m trying to say, she doesn’t care to hear the rest.  In this case, most of the adaption has to come from my side.  I have learned to sense the moment when she has gotten my idea, usually in the middle of a sentence, at which point I simply stop talking.  It has become an easy habit for me, and she appreciates it.

3. With my student Irving, there is another type of timing related factor that effects communication between us.  I usually start my feedback by referring to the place in the score about which I’m going to comment.  Even if that spot is the one just played a moment earlier, Irving needs a long time to visually locate the spot in the score.  Until he does, all that I say is vague or confusing to him.  In this case, the best thing is for the teacher to wait for a sign, usually an eye cue, that the student has found the spot, and then start talking about the passage.  The teacher cannot expect the student to speed this process up.  Often the student is reluctant to inform the teacher that he is still trying to find the place on the page and experiences that terrible feeling of not understanding something that the teacher obviously thinks is simple enough to understand.

Another option with this type of student is to, by default, always point to the place on the page that he is about to talk about.

4. A sensitive time factor in communication is how long the student waits before putting the teacher’s advice into practice.  This advice has a short “half-life” during which its effect will carry over into the student’s hands.  This time is exceeded if, for instance, the student first speaks about something else, or goes back too far in the score to start playing.

Conclusion:

Staying present with the student is a full time occupation, but one that is well worth the effort; the lesson will be more successful and the student will feel seen and heard as an individual.

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