Playing Priority Number One: Evenness
A.B.’s lesson on 8/22/19
First, an example of a playing goal that depends in turn on evenness of sound.
Let us say we want to ‘orchestrate’ a passage, meaning that the piano must be capable of uttering a variety of tone qualities. Timbre change on the piano is most easily achieved as a secondary effect to changes in dynamic intensity of the sound. It is therefore advisable to first be able to level the tonal playing field so that every note speaks with an equal volume, regardless of its pitch range. Its duration, touch, attack, and way of connecting to the next note; all equal. Then, on this base of evenness, we can orchestrate by sculpting a ‘relief’. So, timbre and orchestration at the piano have a prerequisite evenness of sound, then that evenness can then be altered specifically.
If we make a list of important goals in our practicing, it would include both the ability to orchestrate and the ability to play evenly. However, evenness has a priority over orchestration. Some goals simply depend on first attaining mastery in some other goal. Differences among sound, including timbre, cannot be noticed in a constantly changing, uneven tonal environment.
The same dependency on evenness as a prerequisite applies to:
- Having a clearly articulated rhythm.
- Crafting the ‘shape’ of a phrase.
- Revealing the structure of a piece.
- Responding to different emotional states through sound.
Before being able to play a crescendo or a decrescendo we need to have a foreground of – evenness, that makes it clear to a listener that certain notes are getting progressively softer or louder. Anything to do with sound, rhythm, fingering, and interpretation depends first on the ability to play evenly.
Evenness is a complex amalgam of different facets.
- The way one note connects to the next.
- The loudness of the notes.
- The same quality of sound regardless of each note’s duration.
- The quality of the touch, and of the onsets of the sounds.
- The extraction of the same resonance in the sound regardless
of pitch range constant,
These evenness-es must then be combined when two hands are playing together, or whenever there is more than one voice occurring at the same time.
A.B. has a tendency to want to try perfect the tiniest details in a piece before addressing the more general and mundane matter of evenness. This prioritization doesn’t minimize the importance of the details, it just postpones their achievement for just a moment. For once the passage is even, A.B. finds that the details are more easily controlled and perfected.
Another example. Before choosing the ‘best’ fingering, be able to play the sequence of notes evenly regardless of the fingers being used. Then, the final choice of fingering is made in a more revealing atmosphere, so that the effect of the passage is not primarily dependent on the fingering but that rather the effect is clear in the pianist’s mind prior to any particular fingering.
Playing the “correct” notes would seem to be on an equal level of importance to ‘evenness’. Psychologically, though, trying to get the right notes to sound, without first demanding that they sound evenly, has the counter-intuitive effect of adding time to the process of learning the correct notes.
Once the pianist explores evenness, she or he becomes more and more sensitive to when evenness is not occurring. And with this growing awareness, the parallel question evolves: how fine a tolerance should go into setting the standard for the evenness. At what point does the evenness ‘click in’ as factor that brings a passage to life? And related to this is the question: how much of evenness is measurable on a sound meter? How much is dependent on an actual conglomeration of factors that intuitively the ear must be aware of and process?
The Newness of Time Itself
“Les sons et les parfums tournent dans l’air du soir” (Baudelaire courtesy of Debussy).
Notes, sounds, meld and melt in time. Memory and anticipation interpenetrate each note heard in the present tense. And memory also coerces the immanent future to follow the patterns of the past.
Sometimes, in our performing, this leads to a sense of taking a piece for granted: we’ve heard it all before, nothing is new to us, no surprises are left for us. The piece starts, we dutifully endure through its time span playing each note in its place. The piece ends, we stop playing, we bow and go through the ritual of accepting the praise of the audience.
Are there steps we can take to bring life, spontaneity and freshness, back into the performance. We cannot re-order the notes; we seem to be chained to an ineluctable sequence of cause and effect. And though we are free to pick up the implication of where the current note seems headed, when we do get to play the note and hear it through our outer ears, it can remain essentially a surprise. Though we expect time to repeat, we are nonetheless free to consider each next moment an open question. We live in in immanent cloud of possibilities where there is always more than one direction the music might head next. When we ‘finally’ get to hear it, all the possibles are wiped away, effaced in the blatancy of the bright light of the actual present. This is no less true when we have wagered on one particular note and we win the hand: the note we thought would happen did happen. We find that we were ‘correct’ in our assumption of what sound (not manifested yet in time), does indeed become manifested in the richness of time as it flows into the present.
Yet this bright light of the present, though it remains shining as long as we remain in the present, shines only briefly on any particular note. As far as the note is concerned, this light is good for only one transient moment.
So if we don’t want to fall back into the darkness of the non-present, somehow we must live within the light of this omnipresent present.
To offset the staid performance is the conviction, remaining in our consciousness, that every note we take the trouble to hear is the first note of the piece. Like a true beginning, like the promise of each day’s sunrise, it opens up for us a world of infinite possibilities. And for us to maintain this through the very last note of the piece (which itself could have been followed by another – but just wasn’t).
To the extent that we can we let each note within the piece shed at least some of its accumulation of the past, an accretion that is rapid and inevitable under normal circumstances, the piece fights its way back into a state of alertness and freshness.
Mental presence is the key.
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Emotional Expression; Changing from Flats to Sharps
CP’s lesson 8/29/19 “Claire de Lune”
C: Everything I do, both in general, and specifically at the piano I when practice, is rational, organized and methodological. This includes the fact that once I start something I must complete it regardless of the months it takes me. Moreover, I’ve never noticed any emotional expression in my playing, and I feel it is a lack on my part.
J: Your contention about emotional expression is belied by the natural beauty of your sound quality, and how unerringly you hit just the right feeling-tone of the piece you are playing.
(C seemed pleased that I thought so)
J: So if you believe that the last mentioned traits exist in your playing, where do think they come from; how do you get them?*
C: I don’t know. Partially because I don’t know when I’m getting them.
J: Exactly! You are not supposed to know, because they do not come from a part of you that is identifiable with words. If so, would you be OK if we use words like irrational or non-conscious, to signify why you cannot tell precisely where they come from within yourself. A bigger question: is it OK with you to have these two contrasting natures in yourself: one organized, under your control, and available to consciousness, the other, just as potent, but uncontrollable because inaccessible to your conscious or rational mind?
(She always knew about the organized one but had been very concerned that might not have the other. She was pleased to know she did have it, as well)
J: These two do not necessarily have to contradict each other or conflict with each other. Any conflict we sense comes from the rational side of our selves, when we try to define one in the terms of the other. In truth, each can amplify and encourage the other.
(She described an analogous situation in her life)
C: In my business life I frequently have to get to understand the
inner workings and organization of a large, international company.
The task seems daunting. There are too many interconnecting parts,
each pair seeming to interrelate in its own way and according to its
own customs. However, given enough time, I find that I begin to
grasp the whole and the parts.
J: My guess is that the foundational work you did was largely rational, but the insight that eventually came about how the company, despite its many parts, worked as an organic unity, came unexpectedly and was not directly
caused by its conscious antecedents in time. Again, we do not know from where this insight comes from, but it represents a direct intuition of the companies inner, organic unity.
In Claire de Lune there is a moment when the key signature changes
abruptly from five flats to four sharps. C. says this change causes
her great difficulty.
Here began a diagnosis.
1) I picked a passage in the flats section: in your imagination, rather than thinking about the key signature, just put, in your imagination, a flat sign in front of each and every note in the score. Note that this produces a somewhat different sequence of notes than what Debussy wrote. C had little trouble doing this.
2A) Then we picked a passage in the sharps section. Now do the same thing again, only with sharps. Put an imaginary sharp sign in front of every note you see in the passage and don’t think any longer about key signatures. This too, though producing a passage that sounded different than the piece she was used to, offered her no difficulty.
2B) Play the same passage again as in #2A, but this time, in your imagination, put a flat sign rather than a sharp sign in front of every note. She had little little difficulty doing this.
Just so you know, all of these three things are much harder to do than play the score as written. So you have all the mental equipment necessary to make a successful shift from flats to sharps. Yet it is still giving you trouble. We must explore further.
She said: the confusion occurs at the moment it changes key. It’s barely marked in the score. I’ve gotten so used to being in the flats for the last few pages, I need just as long a period to get used to the sharps.
I said: this is very useful. It’s time for me to ask a stupid question. Do you start practicing the piece starting from the change of key, or do you usually start at the beginning of the piece?
She: the latter. Remember, once I start something I have to see it through the end.
I think you have just diagnosed your problem as well as solved having found the solution to the problem. Simply get in the habit of sometimes starting your practicing from the beginning of the sharp section until you are used to that part as you are to the opening section.
She asked me how I handle this sort of situation. I said: it’s probably different for a professional musician, and different from one professional to the next. Here is a part of my process in handling keys and changes of key that had remained unconscious to me for many years, but which after starting teaching others, became more accessible to my consciousness.
Here is a simple example. I encounter a piece in G Major. One sharp. F sharp. I am sight reading the piece. I come, in the score to an “F”. It genuinely does not look like an F. It looks like something else: it looks like an F-sharp. There is nothing in the vicinity of the note on the page to cause it to look any different. But nothing you can say to me, will change the impression that it looks different than an F natural. There is little my mind can do to make it look again like an F and not an F#. It is as if its printed in a different color. It produces a different emotional state in my mind. It is as if the # sign was printed just left of the note.
That indicates how a strongly I am affected from the start by hearing the piece sound in the key of G major. It is the obvious presence to my ear that we are in a tonal world known as “G Major”, and how that affects every note in the piece, not just F#.
* With certain students I do teach things like being musical, understanding that inner thing-in-itself of the music. I am surprisingly successful in doing this. But when I have a student in front of me who does these naturally, the worst thing I can do is make them aware of it in a way that includes how I think they are achieving it.
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Sight Reading Gets in the Way of Learning a New Piece
S.B’s lesson on August 27, 2019
S.B. who is quite musical and is in his early thirties, has great physical coordination at the piano even though he is playing only at an intermediate level. He could be playing at a much higher level, doing more technically challenging music. What is preventing this is his sight reading. If I were to try to place his sight reading scales on a scale from one to ten, it would approximately 2. At the same time, his ability to get around the piano acrobatically is at least an 8. We have tried all sorts of approaches to improving his sight-reading-alacrity; all with minor progress. As he puts it, “Each time I play or practice the same piece again, it is almost like sight reading it again.”
If we wanted him to undertake much more difficult and musically rewarding pieces, we would some have to set a goal of somehow getting rid of the sight reading stage in his learning process, or to put it more practically, get rid of it to whatever degree possible. To move ahead in this direction we will depend on a third variable in addition to physical coordination and sigh treading. This variable is his ability to memorize.
His usual method to memorize is to play the entire piece over and over again. However, because his sight reading skill is low, and since each repetition is more like sight reading it again, he does not get gradually more familiar with the piece; his memory doesn’t kick in very much.
We tried a new procedure.
I gave him a random score. I asked him to carefully sightread the first measure, and pay close attention to what notes were being played in his hands. Then, without further ado, try to play that measure by heart. It took just a couple of tries until he was able to do that. At that point we simply played the measure number of times by memory. When it seemed to be locked into place, which was about after the fourth repetition, I asked him to play the measure faster (by memory). Then even faster. This proceeded fairly effortlessly (the physical coordination ability kicking in with its contribution).
Instead of reading-on in the piece (his usual procedure is try to play through an entire piece), we cleared his mind by talking for a minute on some irrelevant topic. Then we went through the same exact procedure that we used for the first measure, but this time for the second measure. This proved harder than measure one but not by much.
Then we went into a phase in which I would say in some random order, something like: “play measure two”, “play measure one”, “play measure one” …
After that we began fusing the two measures together into one continuous unit. The difficulty in this was finding a smooth way of getting from the end of measure one into measure two. This was due to less to an unfamiliarity in how to start measure two and more in doing so when immediately preceded by measure one. I suggested he first try measure two alone, followed momentarily by playing measure one and two.
At the conclusion of this process, he pronounced that on a scale from one to ten, his memorization ability was about a five. So, with the 5 for memorizing together with the 8 for physical coordination, they will hopefully, on their own, help him wipe out the 2 for sight reading, simply because we are minimizing its presence in the learning process.
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A Cluster of Thoughts
Getting lost in a large group of notes beamed together
When more than four notes are beamed together, it is difficult for
some pianists to keep their eye focused on each note of the group,
especially the notes that lie somewhere in the middle of the group.
Exercise for the eye alone:
Take any such group. Perhaps six or more notes sharing the same beam. Without playing any of the notes, see if the eye can parse through the group without loosing their place. It may be helpful to say:
“Now my eye is on the first of the six notes.” “Now my eye is on the second of the six notes.” The third, and so on.
If the eye gets confused it will tend to be starting around the fourth note.
It is helpful to mentally divide the group into two parts, and then gradually change the point of division. “Push” to left all the notes left of the the note we are currently looking at. “Push” to the right all the notes, starting with the current note and going through the end of the group. It is like a Mel Brooks version of the exodus, in which Moses chooses a spot to part the Red Sea, then changes his mind and parts it a bit further downstream, and still not satisfied continues parting it further and further downstream.
The reason for doing this exercise with the eye only, and without
playing or sounding the notes, is because it is sometimes helpful to take apart what the eye does from what the playing mechanism does. Otherwise there is numerous semi-conscious cross-influences between the two. Unless the pianist is still a beginner, the physical and the visual automatically fuse together so that it is very difficult and misleading to try to determine what the playing mechanism is doing from what the eyes are doing. Or, to put it in a more East Coast way: it would be like driving through the Lincoln Tunnel from Jersey to Manhattan, and after a while, loosing a specific geographical sense of how into the tunnel we’ve already gone and much is left to go, based solely on the visual appearance of
the tunnel without switching to a reliance on our sense of how much time duration has passed since we entered the tunnel.
JM’s lesson 8/2/19 on Debussy’s “Soiree en Grenade”. It helps to know that JM has a small hand.
A sudden jump in the left hand without loosing the continuity of a
Somewhat late in the piece there is a measure where the pianist’s left hand needs to go with alacrity from the single note e1 to the octave a3-a4. How do we execute such a leap without loosing the flow of sounds.
One thing that helps in such a case is to focus on the fact that no matter where on the keyboard the E is, and where on the keyboard the A’s are, E going up a fourth to an A. It doesn’t matter how many octaves intervene or whether there are multiple E’s and A’s.
Now, play the following series of 4-note groups:
e1 a1 gs1 fs1
e1 a2 gs1 fs2
e1 a3 gs3 fs3
e1 a4 gs4 fs4
Focus on just what feels and sounds identical in all four cases. If they feel or sound different in any way, you are still conscious of certain differences and you want to make these differences become unconscious. The objective was for J.M. is to feel that she was playing exactly the same thing all four times: focusing on only one type of difference and ignoring all others. Everything but the names of the notes E A G# F# in their most abstract form – without position in one octave or another in the keyboard, have vanished from consciousness, including any physical sensation having to do with left- right motion on the keyboard (except a rise of five half steps). Also ignore any sound information to the ears about change of octave range. An E, for instance, should sound like an E no matter where it is located on the keyboard or what other instrument is playing it. An E is an E is an E (apologies to Gertrude Stein). And the same for A.
The only thing that is kept in mind physically is the fact that the E
lies on the right side of the clump of two black notes and the A lies
in the middle left of the clump of three black notes. Even when
changing octave, that should be the only thing remaining in consciousness.
The only that is kept in mind sonically, among all the other sound
data coming into the ear, is that A (anywhere on the keyboard) sounds a “perfect fourth” higher than an E, no matter how far the E is from the A on the keyboard. It should never sound like an eleventh for instance.
Here is another example in the same piece of a sudden jump in the left hand that cannot interrupt the fluidity of the sound motion.
It is located in the score not far from the previous example. It involves Jumping in the left hand from some low sounds to a four note B minor chord (b4-d5-fs5-b5) in the treble.
We began by focusing on just the B minor chord.
Play b4 with the left pinkie several times in a row and play the last one in the series longer than the ones leading up to it.
Now play the b4 and d5 together – several times in a row holding on to the last one longer than the preceding ones. This last iteration helps the notes to “settle in”. Play the two notes with the fingers that you will use when you eventually play all four notes in the chord simultaneously.
The same for b4-d5-fs5.
The same for b4-d5-fs5-b5.
Approached this way, through gradual addition, you end up with a balanced four note chord, played without a forced, overstretched or awkward hand position.
If you look closely at the hand as you play this exercise, you should notice that each time one more note is added, the entire hand automatically assumes a different overall shape. Part and parcel of this change in the whole hand, is that a single finger, especially one that is used used in more than one stage of the exercise, will be curved differently, angled differently, and aligns itself with its note differently.
To transfer the benefit of this exercise into the performance of the passage, imagine that the hand is going through all these four stages, one at a time, in order, in the short amount of time while the left hand is moving from the bass to the treble. Finish the fourth (the last) stage before acting to sound the chord.
Four-hands: as a way of inspiring a student
Four-hands can give a student a new motive to practice. In part it’s due to our working together rather than alone: learning together, sight reading yogether, solving things together, trying things out together. When practicing on his own he often gets to a point with a new piece where he no longer notices a return in improvement that is proportional with the time he is investing in practicing. And he gives up on the piece. When we play together, no matter how many mistakes happen, he is suddenly transported to a state that is much closer to how we wishes the piece could sound.
Accompaniment and melody.
S.B. Chopin: D-flat major Nocturne
The Nocturne begins with the left hand alone. The right hand has not yet come in with the melody. She finds it difficult to get the first measure to sound as she would like it to sound.
All it took to bring the left hand to life without the right hand, was to copy and paste the right hand melody from measure two into measure one. The left hand now knows instinctively what to do. It relies of the synthesis, both physically and sound-wise, of the two hands. What had been missing, when she originally played the left hand alone, was a clear intimation of what was going to happen next: that the left hand knew already what it would need to do to fit in exactly with the immanent melody.
Richness of the sound: spongey fingers
S.B. Chopin: F# Major Nocturne
She couldn’t get the melody to sound how she wanted.
I made a radical suggestion to her: depress each as slowly as you can, so slow that, you shouldn’t be able to produce a sound when you reach the bottom of the key dip. It’s not that you should play exactly like that, it is more in the nature of a countermeasure to balance out a chronic stiffness and tension in your fingers. Imagine a continuous spectrum from the most stiff hand to the most flaccid hand. You have been dwelling near the stiff end of that spectrum. We want to do something to offset that extreme position, using a restorative measure exerted in the opposite direction along the spectrum. When this is combined with the propensity for stiffness you will reach a balanced point at the middle of the spectrum – not too stiff, not too flaccid.
She tried it. The results where soulful, rich, resonant sounds, and
not as she had anticipated: that there would be no sound at all. “Oh — I think this can be life-changing!”