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.
A Thanksgiving Fantasy; Thank you to all my Followers
I had one lesson today in the early morning. The ubiquitous “Irving” was over and played the Scriabin Etude in C-sharp minor (Op. 2, No. 1).
My mind was running at a very fast pace dreaming of turkeys with enormous thighs and having visions Japanese sweet potatoes drowning in Vermont maple syrup. The result was that I gave, let us say, a ‘rambling’ lesson, one in which I let my imagination loose, which caused me to use a lot of mental imagery, flights of fancy and outre analogies. It definitely wasn’t a very ‘literal’ or scientific lesson. But it worked.
Here were the main points we covered.
Irving spent a long time sitting at the piano and figuring just how to play the first chord. I interrupted the process and said: too much time spent in preparation – just “evoke” the sound out of the piano. Feel like a magician who casts a spell or waves a magic wand and a beautiful, resonant, soulful, balanced, chord emerges from the piano. Then I said: and incidentally, do this over and over again for every sound that wants to come to birth out the womb of the instrument.
That had an immediate and positive effect on the sound quality, both within and between the chords. But we weren’t there yet. It wasn’t the sound I had in my memory and imagination. At that moment Irving happened to be doodling around with the B key on the middle line of treble clef, playing it -then listening to it. This inspired my next flight of fancy. I said: when you play that note, hear it crescendo after it starts. Every note grows while it sounds. There is no such thing as ‘decay’ or getting softer.
The great French philosopher Henri Bergson wrote: “What philosophy has lacked most of all is precision. . . (philosophical systems) are too wide for reality. Examine any one of them . . . and you will see that it could apply equally well to a world in which . . . men . . . born decrepit . . . would end as babes in arms.”
Or, if you remember the TV series “Mork and Mindy” with Robin Williams: they have a son together, who hatches out of an egg fully grown, looking surprisingly like Jonathan Winters. Mork explains to Mindy that their son from this point on will grow younger and younger over the years.
I mentioned both of these things just to say that others beside me have had fantasies in which things defy the ‘arrow’ of time, or in my case, that a piano string, once set into motion and left on its own, will vibrate more and more strongly rather than less and less so.
You can also imagine a group of billiard balls, all in motion, which grow closer and closer to each other over the next bunch of seconds, until at the last moment they have come together in a triangular arrangement. And other such ‘entropy’ defying feats.
At this point we were getting close to the desired sound. The sound had been transformed, was lush and lasting. One more thing was necessary, which had to do with mechanics of playing each chord. Each time there was a chord to sound (which was pretty much every eighth note in the piece) create the chord out of its lowest note which then, figuratively speaking, opens up to the entire chord – only this has to occur simultaneously.
This is how we approached. We began by taking one specimen chord and played it, with the pedal down, as a very slow upwards arpeggio. We did the same again to the same chord only the arpeggio moved a little faster. Then a little faster…
If I remember my calculus aright, if “delta t” represents the time duration of each note before adding to it the next note of the arpeggio, then, we simply let “delta t” shrink gradually to zero, at which point, though we still feel physically that we are arpeggiating, all the notes of the chord begin at the same instant.
At this point there is no longer a distinction between a simultaneous chord and an arpeggio of notes of a chord. It is a physiological feeling in the body that the lowest note is played first and that our energy then shifts rightwards. The listener hears the notes start simultaneously, but notices a richness to the sound.
The player has now been able to make ‘simultaneous in time’ identical with ‘sequential in space’. The simultaneous chord retains the imprint of the note by note arpeggio. In the calculus analogy, it like the straight line that connects two separated points on curve, which line, as those two points made to approach each other, changes its slant until, when the points converge, and the line looks like the tangent to the curve at that point.
Part of the retained ‘sequential’ physical experience is that each individual finger will feel totally in control physically of its note and each note sounds with an individual intent. The bonus is that this is not the result of trying to coordinate the actions of different fingers. For the feeling of the arpeggio remains, so that the body still feels a rotational change from one note to the next in the chord. The more notes in the chord the more this rotation seeks its origin and energy from the shoulders and the arms. In terms of our consciousness, something magical happens, it is as if the single instant at which all the notes start sounding has been expanded into lived duration.
We turned our attention next specifically to the contrasting section (when it switched from sharps to flats) where utmost anguish is suddenly replaced with great calm, as removed as possible from the original mood.
I made an analogy with a garden hose with a sprayer at its end that is held in the person’s hand, which sprayer contains a lever that makes the spray get stronger and stronger. There is usually a strong spring in the lever that progressively resists squeezing the handle further, so that if one wants a steady and strong flow. and squeezes it for too long, the hand may grow tired and need to relax, even if just for a moment, before returning the water to the same pressure. Without those moments of easing off the steadiness of the stream would not remain as continuous.
I wanted to have Irving feel this in relation to the keys going up and down. The goal in this section is to act like the keys always stay down, but with every eighth note the hand needs to release and retake the keys. The release of the keys has barely begun when a force from the arms and hands returns the keys to the depressed state. It’s almost like when having to play the same note over and over, legato, without any use of the pedal. We learn to strike a balance between there being just one continuous sounding note and the notes separating too far apart.
Looking around for a piano-key-like object, I seized on a pencil (it was the best I could find). I said: this is a piano key, and, not only is it a piano key it is “Every-key”, in reference to “Everyman” (the 15th century English morality play). I held one end of the pencil fixed, made the length of the pencil horizontal, and then manipulated the other end of it up and down. It is like, I said, we are manipulating the same key over and over, imagining the piano keyboard as having just one and not eighty-keys, and that all we were doing was, when playing, was raising that same lever up and down. And that made all the different pitches and rhythms.
Another way I described it was that part of the magic control that we have over time, when it came time to make the next chord sound, the keys were already down – even, already sounding.
Happy Thanksgiving and thank you to all, and especially to Sawyer Fuller, our web master. Save me a piece of dark meat!
The Challenges of Sight-Singing
Teaching sight reading skills to others is hard for me. It is the negative flip side of the positive fact of my having absolute pitch.
I start from the opposite end of the spectrum than most people. I know what the notes are going to sound as soon as my eye sees them on the page, even if I haven’t heard the piece before. If I am asked to identify an interval by its sound, I already know what the two notes are and from that I can, if I want, calculate the interval.
There is also for me a complete fusion between hearing the sound in advance and my hands going to take the notes on the keyboard that produce that sound. Additionally, I have a strong and well developed sense of harmony. Once I know what the chord is, which includes the particular spacing between the various notes of the chord, my hand simply distributes itself automatically on the keyboard to effect that chord. And, as I read, before I am conscious of the names of the individual notes in the next chord on the score page, I am conscious of the name (the root note, inversion, spacing… of the chord). It’s as if I see chords and not notes. It is a bit like the person who, before they are conscious of feeling any pain, has already withdrawn their hand from a hot object or a fire. As I recall from Junior High biology class, this results from part of a nerve signal making a U-turn in the spinal cord, and the other part of it making continuing to the brain. When the latter happens, then we know why we just drew our hand away.
I have a strong sense of pulse, which keeps the piece moving forwards even when sight reading. Part of that has to do with rhythm. As soon as I foresee a rhythmic pattern among the next group of notes in the score, my body also knows what that rhythm is going to feel like in its execution. This happens when or a fraction of a second before I read the identity of the pitches of those notes.
Anyway, Irving wants to continue with his diet of 10 minutes of sight reading every day. We talked for some time about it. I had to be very quiet and take in what he was saying, and not jumping in with half baked ideas that were based, without my thinking it through, on the things I do with greater ease when I sight read.
I learned from him one interesting point. If a person’s sight reading is too “slow”, and if there are too many misplayed notes, the pianist does not get a sense of what the music is like that they are playing. The latter, though, is what brings enjoyment to the sight reading process itself, and forms the motivation for continuing sight reading, both further into the piece and to want to spend time in general sight reading. The joy of discovery.
I have to figure this out… (I would love suggestions: please share your ideas)
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.