Tag: teaching tips
Deciding What is Controllable. Also: Transforming the Polyphony of a Gugue
Well Tempered Klavier, Book I, C Major, Prelude
After finishing the piece I simply asked A.B. what he liked and disliked about his rendition. He mentioned several negative things and then struck on the one thing that I had primarily noticed: that he stopped the harmonic flow of the piece every time he went from the end of one measure to the beginning of the next. I missed sensing that inexorable connection that energetically pushed me from the chord in one measure to the chord in the next measure.
He said that he had previously tried condensing the piece into a chorale of whole-note chords (each chord took the place of one measure). However, he had trouble because he couldn’t do it with any speed. I said that the speed was of the essence of the procedure. Ideally, each eighth note’s worth of the piece, in terms of its duration, became the duration of one of the chords of the chorale.
Since it was difficult to shift chords that quickly, I recommended to him that he play just the chord a single measure followed by the chord of the next measure, and then stop. I asked him to play the first chord as if it were a grace note going to the second chord – the latter being held longer.
This he could do. We repeated the process for each measure going into its next measure.
Now that we had merged two amino acids into a somewhat longer chain of molecules, I asked him to play as written, while I, in the higher treble, waited until he was near the end , but not at the very end, of one measure only then played the chord of that measure as a grace note followed the next measure’s chord. Only I would get to the second chord before he finished playing the current measure. That anticipation of my chord connection gave him the necessary push and energy to keep the piece’s harmonic flow going across the bar line. Then I would remain silent at the second piano until he reached nearly to the end of the new measure at which point I would break in with the chord of the new ‘current’ measure played as a grace note to the chord that governed the measure that was about to start. And so on.
A.B. remained worried in particular that the pinkie sixteenth note in the right hand at the end of each measure does not connect smoothly to the next sixteenth note in the left hand at the beginning of the next measure.
His default solution was to figure out exactly how he wants his pinkie to play that note. I solved his issue by stepping entirely around his approach. As he played the piece I sang “la la la…”, but starting with 6th 7th and 8th sixteenth notes of one measure and ended with the fifth sixteenth note of the next measure. on notes to the first note. I then waited too the 6th note of the new measure and began the process of again singing along for 3 + 5 or 8 notes.
In the form I was singing it, with the way I was grouping the notes that I sung versus those I did not sing, I purposely glossing over the connection between the two notes on either side of the bar lines.. It happens automatically. By spreading a solder, or flux over the end of one measure and the beginning of the next, I effectively made less important the connection of the bar line.
I noticed in my singing that I helped things along by making misplaced crescendo starting on my first note and ending towards the eighth note. This helped smooth over A.B.’s faulty connection over the bar line.
At this point we moved on to the fugue: transforming the polyphony of a
fugue in C Major, Book One, Well Tempered:
A.B.: why do I find it so difficult to not hold a voice note longer than it is supposed to last, when the note is already meant to continue sounding through a certain number of the next notes in some of the other voices. For example if the target voice is a quarter note, or longer, and the other voices are enunciating sixteenth notes.
I gave a brief answer: remembering when to lift a sustained note in one voice is the requires the opposite of everything you do right when knowing when to start a note. It’s the “dark side” of piano technique: it requires doing everything the wrong way; or is it now the right way?
A.B.: why did you do that? Why was it working?
Joe: I think it is important to have a distinct pre-vision, pre-conception, of what the beginning of the next measure is going to sound like before you get to it. It is a strange balance of knowing what’s coming and still being surprised by it.
Can we transform the sound the sound of the fugue in the student’s ear?
We experimented using two pianos with re-registering one of the voice of the fugue. He would choose one voice to play, and transpose either an octave higher or lower than it was written, while I played the remaining three voices (without the fourth) at the other piano.
Results: A.B. said:
My voice sounded different than before. I head it saying and meaning other other things than I had before, but then realizing that it was the same voice with the same names to its notes, just transposed, and that there was at the same time an abiding identity between both versions of the voice, an identity which was preserved, was eternal and fixed and was impervious to change of octave. The new stuff that suddenly I heard, in how that voice combined with the other voices, must have been there latent to the note’s names themselves alone, or to say it in another way were just as present as aesthetic and sonic effects when I played that voice in its original octave.
In the future we will have A.B. play just one voice, but in the octave higher than written and the octave lower than written without playing it in the octave is written. Later again we can transpose one voice by more than one octave. If it is the soprano voice we can have it sound in the tenor voice’s range or even below the bass voice. In the case of the bass voice, we can have it sound in the alto voice’s range or so that it is the highest sounding of all the voices. At any time I can choose to play all four voices and not just three, leaving one voice to him. Or, he can choose at random to play just the voices, while I play the other two. Or, three voices.
What to “bring out” in a Complex Passage
Debussy: First Arabesque: the conclusion to the first of the three main parts.
What is the main melody that one should bring out during the passage that concludes the first part and leads to the middle part of the piece. A.J. said that when I played it I was doing something that that made it work sound-wise but he couldn’t figure out what i was doing. He assumed that I was emphasizing one of the three layers of melodic motion embedded in the passage. I said, it is more complex than that. There are three different things going on, but no one of which, by itself, is a significant melody. it is only in the complex ways the three interact that causes the positive quality that I think you noticed. The rising quarters in the rh form a melody of no great significance. The cello=like melody in the left hand does have a singing melody, but by itself it doesn’t seem accomplish that much, as well. Then there are triplets. Are they important or not? The real question is how to bring them together in a complex fusion that makes the passage glow and excite.
To relate the quarter note melody in the right hand with the triplets in the right hand, I played gs4-b4, then held the two notes as i added in ds4, which I also held, and lastly added fs4. If at this point I continue holding those four notes and not go on in the measure, I realize, after maybe about a second, that those notes add up to a four-note chord with a specific flavor that independently of the single notes of which it is comprised, has its own specific flavor and character. I might have missed hearing this had i not stopped to listen to the chord after it was finally formed. The realization of the chord does not come instantaneously to the ear. We have to patient, and wait for the four notes to all be there (five if you add the bass line).
It is a delayed satisfaction, one that is very desirable, but one that cannot be rushed. Thus the triplets get their meaning in the sound mixture by our waiting to hear the result of total participation. Eventually, when we play the passage, he don’t have to pause on the clock to wait for the four notes to congeal, we only have to subjectively, in the imagination, make the pause, to bring the four notes to life as members of a single chord, so that, at the end time-wise, it is not any of the four notes that are significant on their own, but how they loose their identify in the sound color of the chord where they vibrate together – as equals – but to a common good.
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Using Your Voice as a Musical Aid
Pianists are blessed by having access to the most beautiful of instruments – no, not the piano – human voice.
Things for which our voice can be used for in order to improve our playing.
#1. The voice enables us to play legato.
In the hands of a master the piano sings and a melody can sound truly legato. For the rest of us the piano resists our attempts in these directions. However, our singing voice (no matter how bad) cannot but sing legato. Our voice does not stop and then start when changing pitches, it can remain smooth throughout the change. At the piano, the beginning of a new note is always the moment that contains the greatest, sudden contrast between degrees of softness and loudness.
Just as the motions of dancers seem to us to suddenly be less fluid and continuous in space when the accompanying music suddenly stops, so the pianist who is accompanied by their own singing – whether externally audible or audible only in their imagination, nudges the recalcitrant sound of the piano over the boundary that exists between, on one the side, separate and discrete notes, and on the other, a fluid and continuous flow of sound.
#2. The voices refines our ability to play evenly.
The spoken voice can be made to speak a series of syllables that is more regular, as well as even in timbre and in duration, than can be controlled by the fingers at the keyboard. However, if the fingers are inhabited or possessed by the speaking voice they will ‘utter’ their notes as evenly as the voice. It’s just a matter of knowing who’s boss: the fingers or the voice. If the issue is in doubt, shift to the the voice quality of a Marine Drill Sergeant.
#3. The voice can determine and then create the ‘shape’ of a phrase.
Throughout our lives we have gradually learned to communicate in words with a voice that carries a meaning, and guided by that meaning are ‘shaped’, ‘inflected’, and ‘cadenced’. Without the shape given the voice by meaning, we would not be easily understood by others. Pianists need only use their own voice as a model for what a series of “sound-syllables” could “sound like” when under the molding and shaping power of a “meaning”.
Though the meaning of a musical phrase cannot truly be described in words, or vice versa, the two are not so utterly unalike that what goes on in one cannot prompt, promote, model and cajole what the other is doing. By modulating our speaking voice we can shape a phrase at the piano as long as our playing mechanism is under the control of the voice.
#4. The voice can ensure that rhythm is under the control of the meter.
If a quarter note beat is divided into a group of four sixteenths, it is not enough that the four notes be even. It is not even enough that the four notes are shaped or inflected (as by the voice) to become a unit of musical meaning in the architectonics of the of the phrase to which the notes belong (although this is important). There is still the more important demand to be made of the four sixteenths by the meter. They should clearly manifest the meter of the measure.
Any measure in 4 / 4 time should (with only rare intentional exceptions) “sound like” 4 / 4 time. This is imperative regardless of the rhythmic breakdown of the measure (what one might term the ‘modulation’ of the rhythm against the meter). The same for every other meter. The clarity of the manifestation of the meter is probably the most foremost factor in bringing notes to life.
Though ordinarily I find certain combinations of rhythm and pitches harder to play than others, my fingers have no choice but to follow my cheer leading voice as the embodies the incarnation of the meter: “one two three, one two three…”. The cheerleader does not recite the Gettysburg Address. Rather everything is put simply, emphatically, with no room left for doubt or interpretation. Meter will always shed light on rhythm. It will insure that each note in the rhythm has a meaning depending on placement in the measure. And if, momentarily, I notice that my counts are suddenly out of sync with the note I am playing, it is usually because I wasn’t feeling that note in its proper relation to the measure (I had left the decision on how the note should articulate up to the fingers alone).
#5. The voice can eliminate tension in playing.
Whatever is the mechanical effort involved in speaking, it has at least been practiced by us for more hours and years than we have practiced the piano, and therefore requires little conscious effort. The mechanical motions involved in playing piano are a more widely varied set than the postures of the mouth, tongue and lips, and often can lead us into a state of tension among the muscles. We should remind ourselves at these moments that the movements in playing piano are natural body motions and can be done without effort, and that the best form of this reminder is provided by our audible speaking voice, moving in tandem through time with the piano’s notes.*
#6. The voice can overcome the impact of the decay in a long note.
The human voice is the natural embodiment of propelling one sound forwards through time, until it spills over the brim of the vessel containing its duration, and eventuating or blossoming into the next sound. What better model to directly counteract the state of every long piano sound: by which it gets weaker and weaker moment by moment, only to have, in its old age, its pathetic life cut short by the guillotine of the attack of the next note. The voice models the result of when there is a more sustained moment to moment sound in the piano.
One may object that the voice has no power to effect the decay of a note. For more about this objection see “Rekindling A Note (geriatrics for old notes)” https://joebloom.com/3-brief-blogs-technical-situations-that-seem-the-same-but-arent-counting-out-loud-sustaining-a-dying-note/
There are many other purposes for the use of the voice in piano playing, some of which I list in brief in below, and I hope you find others and let me know.
#1 To get to the heart of the music and make it speak emotionally.
#2 To generate excitement and enthusiasm.
#3 To bring out one note (or several notes) in a chord.
#4 To bring out one voice among several or bringing out a hidden voice.
#5 To apply the brakes on a runaway tempo.
#6 To hit the energy accelerator to push the tempo out of being lifeless.
#7 To augment or create a crescendo or decrescendo.
#8. To express rising action towards a long term goal.
#9. To avoid any single note from coming out haphazardly. To “take charge” of every note.
#10. Yo raise the identity of the names of the notes to a higher level of conscious awareness.
#11. To raise the level of conscious awareness of the order in which we use the fingers by saying these finger numbers out loud as we play each note.
#12. To give voice to the ‘whoosh’ of the pulse that propels one sound-event in time into the next.
#13. Yo make small intervals sound like, or feel like, wide intervals, and vice versa.
#14. To allow the body to figuratively take a breath before starting a new phrase by taking an audible breath with our lungs. A to make an audible and prolonged exhalation of air to keep the sound of the notes sustained so they don’t flag.
#15. To emphasize the notes that form the “sonic glue**” or the “physical glue***” in a passage.
#16. To “lasso” a group of notes so they adhere together in a melisma.
#17. To keep the pulse tight and animated.
#18. To give a clear feeling of pitch to the notes at the extreme ends of the keyboard.
#19. To mix together “pulse” and “flow”.
#20. To bring out a detail in a phrase.
#21. To play in a speed that is faster than the fingers can do alone.
#22. Yo push the phrase when the fingers are unwilling to do so.
In all of these cases the purpose is to surround the sound with a vocal ‘glow’ that causes that part of the sound that comes from the piano alone, to incandence.
*For playing a rapid series of notes, especially a prolonged series, a nonchalant and understated voice, one sounding almost apathetic and seemingly devoid of caring, is a perfect model for an absence of overexertion physically.
** Sonic “Glue”. Creating a flowing line is more than a matter of connecting each note to the next. It is also a matter of looking within a measure for repeating pitches, notes that repeat in the same or different octaves but are in a different voices, the other hand, or a different finger. And then insuring that they all sound the “same”, and create a homogeneous sound despite their individual differences.
Sometimes these notes create a separate rhythm than the prevailing melody or the rhythm of the accompaniment. Focusing some of your attention on this rhythm is another way of gluing the sound of the measure together. It can strike the ear as a ‘mysterious’ melody that seems to come out of nowhere.
*** Two complimentary examples of physical “glue”.
Ken Burns pioneered the technique of seeing an historical event refracted through the eyes of various individuals. A Civil War battle would be seen through the eyes of a General, but also through the eyes of a Private who had no special claim to fame in the battle other than they were one of many who were there.
We usually do not pay much attention to a finger that is not at that very moment pressing a key down to make a sound. However, for certain very complicated passages, there is an advantage to tracing the history of one particular finger, one “private” in the army, and noting the notes (‘scenes’) within the passage in which that finger takes action to depress a key. For example, in a certain measure, on the first beat, the second finger is playing a B. Nearer to the second beat of the measure the second finger again is used to play a G#. And so on. It gives us a thread to follow through the intricacies of the narrative. Following the history of just one finger gives us feedback, in the form of check-in points, as to whether we are still on the correct path through the passage.
Another example doesn’t look so much at which finger plays which note but which notes may be played more than once in the passage, though by different fingers (from the same or different hands). By playing just those notes, and leaving out the notes in between, we form a structural filament, as if of a spider’s web, to hold the passage together.