A Chopin Nocturne; the Boundary Between Heard and Imagined Sound
S.B.’s lesson on 7/11/19: Chopin: Nocturne in C Minor, Op. 48 / 1.
The piece begins with two solitary c-s (c2-c3). A beat later C is joined by other notes belonging to a C Minor chord. At what point do we begin to hear or sense the full C Minor chord? We may think that one beat is not a long time. That very soon after we play c2, any ambiguity as to identity of the harmony during the first half of the measure will disappear, as the hands complete the C Minor chord on the second beat. But subjectively that first beat can last a long time. Either the pianist, or the listener already quite familiar with the piece, must imagine the rest of the C Minor chord sounding (c2–g3-ef4-g4–g5) before the second beat arrives, while only the C naturals on the first beat are still in the outer ear.
The same applies for all the other half measures in the opening. The pianist should have a pre-vision (sic) – a “pre-audition” – of the full chord in their imagination, as if it is already fully sounding into their outer ear. One of the most subtle and masterly things a pianist works with when constructing with sound is the middle ground between heard and imagined sound. Memory and anticipation are always weaving together in the consciousness of duration in time. The boundary between the two should not be fixed and definite, but blurred. What the pianist imagines has a tangible effect on what the listener thinks they are hearing.
#2. Things that can spoil a legato in a long phrase.
The first phrase is four measures long. There are several places within it where it requires increased additional focus to keep the sense of legato flow alive.
A. Measure one and the first half of measure two
The presence of a rest can indicate two very different things. One
is to force a break in a melody: to consider something as being two
separate things rather than one continuous thing. The other is to
increase the sense of connection in the melody by having to overcome
an obstacle or gap that has been superimposed upon the melody. It is
like the electric charge crossing the gap in a spark plug. It is like
water building up behind a dam. A pressure, or force, builds up
behind the stoppage of the first note which makes going on to the next
note even more inevitable and accomplished with greater momentum.
B. The first two notes in measure two
The g5 comes in as a quarter note but starts on the and of one. If
you think of this quarter note as two eighth notes tied together, the
easiest place to loose the legato is as the first half of the quarter
note ties over the end of beat one into the first part of beat two.
It is in effect a tie to connect two beats. The force of the flow of
that sound has to spill over the boundary between the two beats. It
is not enough to hear one note, but as if that note began a sudden
crescendo just prior to its second half. It is the rhythm and the
meter that forces this imaginary crescendo upon the otherwise formless
sound that lasts two eighth notes.
C. The tied d5 in measure two going to the ef5.
Immediately after the imaginary crescendo during the first d5 in
measure two, we encounter another situation which can attenuate a
continuous legato. It occurs when a relatively long note is followed
by a relatively short note. In this case the first d5 of the measure
is the longer note, lasting for three sixteenths, and the following
ef5 not only is one sixteenth long, but it also comes in after a tie. A
We normally rely on there being enough resonance left to a note to
effect a soldering of one note in a legato to the next. Otherwise the
sudden change from the end of a longer note. which has already
decayed, to the sudden attack of the next note sounds too much like an
sudden accent and defeats the attempt at the legato. To overcome this
difficulty, the pianist’s ear must track the full duration of the
longer note, instant to instant and, in their imagination, sustain
(prop up) the loudness of the note so as to counterbalance the
decrescendo of the decay. Then they must connect this heightened form
of the end of this note not to the attack of the following note but
the level of sound the next note will have a moment after the attack.
Even when it is just a short note.
D. The repeated c5-s in measure three.
When playing the same note several times in row, do we let the legato
come solely from the pedal? Or do we use the more cumbersome but
elegant way of controlling the key dip and not resorting to the pedal.
Or perhaps some of both? This is the pianist’s decision. The purer
legato is always attained by manipulating the key in question so that
at the instant that the key is released, and a minimal fraction of
inch before it reaches the top of the key dip, the arm is already
overriding the upward motion of the key with a strong downward force
to send the key down again.
E. The g4 in measure four going to the the grace note bf4.
This falls under the heading of a relatively longer note going to a relatively shorter note (see letter ‘C’ above). Pianists will often inadvertently make the legato connection occur from between the note before the grace note to the note to which the grace then goes to. The more sublime legato connection is from the note before to the grace note itself, in spite of its very short duration.
#3. Other things contributing to maintaining constancy of flow in the piece.
The way the pianist releases a chord unintentionally affect the way they
attack of the next chord. Thus, when playing the chords on the offbeats in beginning of the piece, don’t “telegraph” the release of the left hand chords into the attack that started the same chord. Regardless of the duration the pianist wishes to hold these chords (some editions show them staccato) there should be two physically dissimilar gestures, one for the attack, one for the release, with a stasis in between them.
The middle section of the Nocturne, where a series of wide chords is
arpeggiated from one hand into the other. The broken chord is
difficult, regardless of the distances between the notes and fingers,
if the chord is first rendered as a melody of single notes, starting
with the bottom note written in the left hand for that chord, and
ascending leisurely a pitch at a time until finishing the melody with
the highest note of the chord that is written in the right hand. The
pedal can be kept down. The finger that has just played one of the
notes can come off that note the moment the next finger has started
its note. This discourages over-stretching the hand when the melody
is turned back into a chord.
C. The section with double octaves.
S.B. has a small hand and was reluctant to learn the piece.
She pointed out that her fingers are hyper-flexible. Watching her
carefully as she played the octaves, I found myself wanting to say, for
the first time to a student, “You may want to not use all that flexibility.”
I called her attention to the shape of her hand and wrist when playing
an octave, in particular along the length of the fingers and a projection of that axis through the hand and wrist. Her wrist was elevated. The third knuckles of her fingers were at a lower altitude in comparison to the wrist, but because the third knuckles hyperextended to a strong degree her second knuckles were at a much higher altitude than the third knuckles.
I suggested that this contour had innate disadvantages when seeking the greatest extension between the fingers without inducing tension. That without coercing anything, she could encourage a shape from wrist to fingers that was more in the spirit of being like, or in the direction of a
straight angle. To coax her hand into that shape, she could rest the
three middle fingers on the surfaces of random keys lying in between
the pinky note and the thumb.
This improved the sound of her octaves, as well as their quality of
resonance, evenness, and her alacrity in changing from one octave to
* Often when I said I noticed a difference she did not. Sometimes it
wasn’t so much that she didn’t notice the improvement, but that the
improvement was short of her ultimate goal and desire. This time
however, she smiled and said, “Oh, that was much better, and much
Details on Solving Technical Issues in the Chopin Etudes. Part Three.
Op 10: #5, #7, #8, #9, #12. Op 25: #1
“Chopin: Etude: Op 10 / 5 in G Flat Major
- Op 10 / 5 : general, for the right hand
As I get older the black keys on the piano seem to get narrower and
narrower increasing the probability that I will be off center when
playing one. This could be a delusion on my part, or a result of
having undergone a major weight loss program. Since it is on my mind
today, I’ve experimented with steps to compensate for this effect
(real or imaginary).
I am looking at the spaces in between the adjacent fingers of my right
hand. When the hand is in a closed position these spaces disappear,
but as the finger tips move apart relative to each other a wedged
shape space develops between the fingers. The space is widest between
the tips of the adjacent fingers, and progressively narrows down until
the fingers join the rest of the hand. The bottom of this empty wedge
is located just prior to the bumps of the third knuckles on the upper
surface of the hand.
Now I take the index finger of my left hand, place it in between the
tips of two adjacent fingers in the right hand, and draw the left hand
finger along the narrowing space between the right hand fingers, until
the left hand finger is blocked and can go no further.
I keep the left index finger at this point. If I pull it any further
in the same direction I will, in effect, be pulling the entire right
hand away from the fall board. I proceed to do just this. The hand
and the fingers move towards the body. If one of the two adjacent
fingers happens to be lying on the surface of a black key, I can use
the pull into the body as a way also of depressing the black key.
As I pull horizontally along the longitude of the black key I also
apply a slight vector downwards. The further the finger tip slides
along the black key the more the black key secondarily is urged
downwards into the key dip. As the second finger nears the lip of the
black key, the black key has settled downwards into the altitude of
the neighboring white key (which is still at the top of its key dip).
I thus use this semi horizontal motion towards the body and away from
the fall board, to sound the black key. I think of this motion as
being along the hypotenuse of a long skinny right triangle, whose
shortest side is the distance the black key travels vertically
downwards to reach the bottom of the key dip.
By tracing the length of the black key before sounding the note, it is
like landing an airplane along a runway. I use the full distance of
the runway (the black key) to insure I am centered left and right.
It is then just a matter of internalizing this motion into my imagination. Subjectively I still feel that I am travelling along the longitude of the black key, but objectively my finger does not appear to change location along the key’s longitude.
“Chopin Etude in C Major, Opus 10, Number 7. Oscillating thirds and
- Op 10 / 7
Take a pair of right hand sixteenth notes that begin on an eighth note
beat, such as at the beginning of measure 1. We have e4-g4 and then
e4-c5. Combine those notes together into a single chord. The c5
repeats in both sixteenths, so we end up with a three note chord
e4-g4-c5. I use the thumb and second finger of the right hand to play
the e4, the third finger for g4 and the pinkie for c5.
The next step is to play that triad twice in a row, at an extreme
speed, the second just a ricochet off the first. As soon as the first one sounds, almost before the fingers have had a chance to fully
release the keys, slap the fingers down a second time to repeat the
chord. We are aiming for a difference in time between the beginning
of the two triads that approaches zero.
I go into a loop and repeat the two identical triads over and over. As I do, I gradually try to be aware that there is a third (e4-g4) in the first iteration of the triad and a sixth (e4-c5) in the second. There is no more than a hint at this awareness, so that the two iterations of the triad can be part of a single action rather than two separate actions.
Once I’ve repeated and repeated this triad twice, without thinking I
segue into the actual written order of the pitches. In each beat, the
third is barely more than a very rapid grace note to the sixth.
“Chopin Etude in F Major: Opus 10 number 8
hold the right arm and hand several inches above the keyboard,
hovering over the part of the keyboard which contains the notes to be
applied. Apply a sharp, sudden torque of the wrist starting at the
pinkie side of the right hand and going to the thumb side. The total
rotation is no more than a matter of just a few degrees, but this
small quantitative measurement should be in inverse proportion to the
suddenness and force of the twisting action. Let that torque like
motion result in the articular of four notes in a row (such as a6 g6
f6 c6 in measure one).
Now we need to get the wrist and hand back into their starting
position before the action in order to use the same motion for the
next four notes in the next octave range. Something about the
suddenness of the counterclockwise jerk of the hand towards the thumb,
is so strong, that when it is arrested after just a few degrees
rotation, it ricochets back in the other direction, thus setting up
the hand for the next octave. By doing things this way the hand is
ready for the next octave without any delay in finishing one octave
and beginning the next.
The reverse procedure is used for ascending arpeggios.
“Chopin Etude in F Minor, op 10 / 9
- op 10 / 9: the beginning and in general
Play the pinkie note in the left hand, f2. Next, rotate the hand sideways
with only the pinkie staying in contact with its key. When in this
position, fully curl the entire length of the fourth finger. Do this
with great force and rapidity. The plane in which the curling occurs,
is horizontal. Act as if you are trying reach the fourth finger as
far as possible towards the next note to be played, c3. The pinkie
remains on f2 as you do this. Then, play the c3 with the fourth
finger. Once in contact with the c3 key, immediately restore the
fourth finger to its normal posture and spatial orientation.
A similar procedure can be used on the behalf of the fifth finger,
when the sixth note of the current left hand group of six notes is
about to go to the pinkie on the first note of the next group of six
notes. When you play the sixth note, c3, with the fourth finger, turn
the hand sideways, pinkie side down. Flex the pinkie rightwards (sic)
so as to make a slapping sound or concussive sound against the hollow
of the palm. Slap it over like a mouse trap closing. Now translate
the plane of the hand back to normal and have the pinkie go leftwards
instead of rightwards.
“Chopin Etude in C Minor, Opus 10, number 12 (“the Revolutionary”)
- Op 10 / 12 : measure 9, 13, et. al.
Take the right hand and surround and cradle the left wrist. When I
come over the thumb, which is playing c3, in order to play d3 with the
fourth finger, at first sight it may seem that the overall motion
should go entirely to the right – over the thumb. A closer analysis
shows that there is also a compensatory motion to the left. This
force is easiest to create using the right hand to prevent the left
wrist from rotating rightwards. It is only through the principle of
balancing two oppositely directed forces that we attain the stability
in the hand needed to effect the complex motion of putting the fourth
finger over the first finger. One force plays off the other force
with the result that neither vector by itself throws the hand offside
and cause it to loose equilibrium.
- Op 10 / 12, measure 70, 71, et al
The arm is used consciously only to carry the hand carry the left hand
from the c2 to ef4 (in measure 70), or the b1 to the d2 (in measure
71). On the way from the lowest note to the highest note, the arm
ignores any motion designed to carry the hand from note to the next.
In making such an overall motion with the arm, the most important
thing is to have no foreknowledge, no adumbration in the hands and
fingers, of the notes that will later be inserted. For, in figurations like this, the required motions in between the lowest and highest notes are too subtle, too many, and need to be too exact, to rely on any conscious control over them. Intention can never duplicate the organic cohesiveness of the required of the melding and harmony of these component motions, one of which is the passing over the thumb of the fifth, fourth or third finger to continue flow of pitches upwards through the next octave.
That it is why we dictate to the hand only the scope of the motion by
defining its lowest and highest points, knowing that whatever else the
playing mechanism (including the individual fingers, the wrist, the
forearm, etc.) needs to proportionally contribute to the indivisible
series of motions required will happen automatically if not coerced.
We must let go of all intent, all trying, all tending to specific
details. There is no component, unnatural motion, that need to occur.
- Op 10 / 12 : measure 73 and 74.
Just play the first note of every two sixteenth note dyad. You can
even use solely the thumb to articulate this chromatic scale.
“Chopin Etude in A Flat Major, Opus 25 Number 1
Keep the hands soft and closed. Throughout each sextuplet, use the
arm alone to transport each finger to next note. Avoid any motion in
the fingers which would attempt to make a connection between notes.
Such motions by the fingers (or the wrists, etc.), if intentional, can
only lead to stiffness and inexactitude. Go through one sextuplet in
this manner, rather slowly, and immediately afterwards at full speed,
trusting that the playing mechanism will unconsciously add whatever
nuances and helping motions are required to supplement the simple
left-right motion of the arm.
This principle can be taken to another level of detail by applying it
to the notes of a simultaneous chord. Close the hand, turn the chord
into a slow arpeggio of individual notes, again with no motion in the
fingers to make connections between the notes, but only the ‘pick up
and deposit’ of hands by the arms of the required finger onto the next
note. Without any opening, or closing, of the spaces between the
fingers in response to the changing distances between the adjacent
notes of the chord.
The Fusion of the Hands
A.B. playing Albeniz: Orientale
As a general principle the left hand should always be playing with and encouraging the right hand. When nothing is written for the left hand in a particular measure, then, for practicing purposes, the left hand can either provide notes that support the right hand harmonically, or make gestures as if playing these notes but without sounding them – as long the physical effort involved is tantamount to or greater than the effort that would be made to sound the notes.
In the section where A3 is held and the remaining fingers play a series of parallel triads in inversion, AB’s right hand feels insecure; he says that it doesn’t feel balanced; the fingers feel awkward trying to play the exact notes of the triad. I asked him to play the octave a2-a3 in the left hand, and to re-play with each triad in the right hand. “Miraculously”, his right hand no longer felt out of balance. The reason that it is best when both hands are lending mutual support to each other is because we are bilaterally symmetric creatures – our arms and legs are mirror images of each other.
If we interlace the fingers of our two hands and then move our hands conjointly around in space (up and down, sideways, it doesn’t matter), we are no longer automatically conscious of what one hand is doing versus what the other hand is doing. They have lost their individual identities once fused together in a larger, single, natural entity. Starting with this larger unit, we can then farm out assignments to each hand. There is a ‘pulse’ generated by the center of the body that travels like an electric current down both arms in concert. This pulse can also cross from arm to arm in analogy to how the optic nerves crisscross on the way from the eyes to the brain. We should assume, in both cases, that each gains support from the other.
The hands form a unity such that each hand suffers when that unity is broken.
A chord is the same regardless which hand plays it:
In the same section of the piece, where a sequence of parallel triads occur over a held a3, A.B. says that if he uses his right hand to play all three notes of each triad, his ear is more able to be aware of the chord that is formed by the three notes. I said that ideally, we want to reach a point where what we hear is not dependent in any way on which hand is playing which notes of the chord. The chord exists as a single sound unit regardless of which notes in the chord are played by the right hand and which by the left hand – it’s always the same chord with the same sound. Physical differences are secondary.
Sometimes, it Really Is Black and White
Key signatures remain a stumbling block for certain types of students.
We were reading the middle section of the Mozart “Rondo alla Turca” – the section with the seemingly endless running sixteenths in the right hand.
If I am reading a piece in G Major, when I come to a note in a measure that that is printed on the top line of treble clef it simply doesn’t “look like” an “F” to me. It looks different, it “looks like” an “F#.” I’m lucky that way. For many students however F-s do not magically transform in appearance to F#-s.
I also carry around the inductive logic of the circle of fifths as a fixed and clear model in my mind. There is no trouble in remembering that if there are three sharps in the key signature they will be F#, C# and G#. I don’t have to examine the key signature to come to this conclusion. For many, though, regardless of experience, they have to look at the sometimes dense group of sharps or flat signs at the beginning of each line, an decipher for which line or space each is centered on, then try to remember, each one separately, to go through a check list, as it were, for each note they encounter in the piece to figure out of it is a natural or not.
These students have difficulty every developing more than a rudimentary sense of what a “key” is. They are apt to forget each time, for instance, that if there are three sharps in the key signature, they are always the same sharps, and that these F#, C#, G#.* Sometimes they will find it easier to they remember the three as C# F# G#, so at least they are sorted alphabetically. A typical question from such a type of student is “how do you know if the piece is major or minor?” “Can you tell from just looking at the notes at the beginning of the piece; or is it something to do with the sound?” Attempting to explain the answer to this question in terms of there being certain statistical likelihoods for certain notes and chords to show up in the first measures of the piece, further complicates and mystifies.
The inductive logic of the circle of fifths doesn’t establish itself firmly in their minds. They do not see an imaginary sharp or flat sign to the left of each note along a line of music, whose existence is confirms a sharp or flat that in the key signature at the beginning of the line. And practicing scales until they become automatic in the fingers seems a daunting task, as difficult and time consuming as learning entire pieces.
For many years I stubbornly retained the simple logic of he circle of fifths as the only unambiguous way of clarifying key signatures to students for whom this posed an issue. Logic, I felt, will always win out. It took a while to mature out of this notion.
At today’s lesson I chose a less elegant, a less logical, but simpler expedient. I told Rachael that my intuitive impression was that as she was reading the notes on the page it didn’t seem immediately clear to her whether the next note to play was a white note or black note. I took the first measure of the passage, and I asked her to play the passage as slowly as she needed to in order for her to say for each next note that she read, “this is a black note”, or “this is a white note”. How she determined this was unimportant, it was just the final experience of the hand on the keyboard that mattered.
This shifted the emphasis from remembering the key signature and how it applied within the measure, and raising to a higher level of conscious awareness the identity of that note as simply being a white note or a black note. There was no more key signature present. There was just the individual identity of each note as falling into the class black note or white note. If it was a black note it didn’t matter if it was written as a sharp or as a flat. Only key color mattered. The same with regard to white notes, whether their note names were naturals, or flats or sharps.
This first measure of eight sixteenth notes was just memorized as a sequence of words. Just as a binary number is a series of zeros and ones in a certain order, so the measure was a series of the words ‘back’ and ‘white’.
At first she seemed skeptical that this could work, since it seemed to beg the question of needing to know and retain in her mind the key signature. But it turned out otherwise. Now that there was only one of two things to choose about each note, and after putting in the initial downloading time it took to put the measure into this on/off, zero/one, black/white form, her confidence level in playing the notes correctly rapidly increased. She felt a certainty and a mastery over what to play. There were no questions left. No uncertainties. Just the color of the notes. She bypassed any worry about applying a ‘template’ of white and black notes, first to the key signature, and relate things from there to the notes of a measure.
*Or furthermore that the first two of those sharps are always the same as the sharps that appear when there is only two sharps in the key signature.
Sight Reading: Isolating Variables
In learning a new piece, the rate of progress is a function of a combination of variables. Two of these, which are closely integrated, are level of ability to read the note symbols in the score, and the level of ability to translate what’s read in the score to the fingers in the hands. If these two are not on par with each other, then the entire process of learning a new piece is thrown out balance. Both the student and the teacher may not be conscious of the exact source of the difficulties observed in the student’s progress on the piece. Incidentally, it is probably doubtful if there are man pianists are equally adept at the visual comprehension of the score and the tactile realization of what they are comprehending. I’d like to talk a bit about the latter part: translating the score into physical actions.
Here is an exercise that evaluates, as well as isolates, the student’s tactile responses to the keyboard versus visual placement of the hands. It is based on how strongly developed a topological sense of the keyboard resides in the student’s imagination. We want the hands to find the notes on the keyboard as quickly as the eye recognizes them in the score.
Ask the student to play any single note near the middle of the keyboard. Let them use whatever finger and hand comes naturally. Next, ask the student to close their eyes.
The teacher prompts the student to go “up” or “down” to a given other note, and to try to make the connection legato.
This step is repeated over and over. Each time, the teacher suggests a new “next” note, and the student tries to connect, with eyes closed, from the “current” note to the new note.
There are various forms of feedback that are useful for the student:
The teacher can say whether the student has gotten to note selected by the teacher. Or, or the student can open their eyes momentarily to see whether they are indeed on the note that has been proposed. Or, the student can try to locate the next note without sounding it, and then open their eyes and see if they have located it. Or, the student should judge whether they have found the next note on the basis of the sound of the next note (in comparison with the previous note). All these permutations are useful. Or, the teacher can play the next note, and have the student find it directly or through a process of elimination (all done while the eyes are closed).
As the student improves, the teacher can gradually make the next note harder to locate from the current note. Smaller distances on the keyboard can grow to larger ones. Changes of ‘altitude’ can occur by mixing black notes and white notes.
One technique that will sometimes be of a help to the student is to use a sort of “Braille” approach. The finger tips feel for the cracks between the white notes and the bumps of the black notes as a way of tracing their progress from the current note to the next note. This technique helps the student to develop their tactile abilities based on subliminal cues based on the hills and valleys of the notes, and to combine this data with a sense of the distance in space to be covered between previous and new note. As these tactile abilities improve so will the visual image of the keyboard in their imagination.
When doing these exercises, there is an advantage both to having the student choose the next note and having the teacher choose the next note.
A further complication would be to start with two notes held at the same time and suggesting two more notes on the keyboard to find without looking on the keyboard, Agree on the order in which the new notes are named. Customarily it would be the lower first and then the higher note.
Later on one can start with three note, and ultimately four notes. The difficulty moving from one to two to three to four notes, increases in more than a linear fashion. They get harder, faster. There is an advantage to the student if at first the destination chords be tonal.