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!”
How to Physically Relax: Chopin Edition
S.B.’s lesson on 8/3/19
-Nocturne, Op 48 / 1, in C Minor
Eliminating tension from the playing mechanism.
Any tension, in any muscle, versus a buoyant physical state, impedes
the alacrity with which one can play any passage.
How can we most effectively deal with tension once it exists in the
It tends to be easiest to be relaxed when first starting a piece.
With each succeeding note of the piece there is the possibility of a
subtle but continuous rise in tension.
Because the rate in increase of tension can be very gradual we may not
be conscious of it. By the time we are usually aware of it there may
no longer be a “way out”.
A relevant question is: how many notes can you play through before
tension sets in? Is it just a couple of notes, or a measure, a couple
of measures, through an entire long phrase, through a major section of
the piece, etc.?
If we can come up with a procedure whereby to rid the body of tension,
is there a way we can activate that procedure periodically, regardless
if we do or do not perceive that there is tension at that moment in
We want to find a procedure that restores relaxation, regardless of
what degree of tension my at that time be present. The procedure
should insure sudden relaxation versus gradual relaxation.
A preliminary exercise:
I ask S.B. to play a comfortable chord (she chose the chord
d4-fs4-a4-d5). I asked her to let the chord continue to sound. While
holding it, before changing any of the notes, I asked her to practice
ADDING tension until there was great tension throughout her body. We
started with the fingers, then added the hands, arms, etc.. She was
now gripping the chord in a panicked way – holding on for her life.
We exaggerated the tension, beyond what might exist in the middle of a
piece after tension had grown over a prolonged period of time without
our having been aware that it was happening. In our preliminary
exercise we have simply shrunk the period of increasing tension, until
it is obvious that it was happening.
That is part one of the preliminary exercise – suddenly and
overwhelmingly increasing the tension.
The next phase is, while still holding the chord, to eliminate the
tension in noticeable stages until the tension is gone. Through
repetition the time it takes to undo the tension gradually shrinks,
until it happens in as short a time as would elapse in performance
between one note and the very next note.
These are the two complementary parts to the preliminary exercise.*
The passage beginning at measure 49 (“doppio movimento”)
S.B. knew what she wanted but felt hopelessly blocked from attaining
it. I said that when something is this complicated to figure out, it
is often helpful as a first step to “orchestrate” the passage, so that
in our mind we are no longer dealing just with a piano. And at least
in our imagination we are no longer limited by the ideosyncrasies of
the piano as an instrument.
The cellos and basses play a series of half notes starting
with c3-c4 on the first beat of measure 49, followed by another half
note, f2-f3 on the third beat. And so on through the next measures.
Start by playing just these two instruments. Everything else, whether
in the left hand or the right hand. is left out and all we hear is the
long bass tones sustaining for two beats each. Let there be a certain
buoyancy in the way the left hand starts these sounds. And let the
left hand float upwards between the onset of one tone and that of the
next. This floating motion is not separate from the attack on the
notes but somehow already contained in the gesture of the attack.
During each half note, in the growing vertical space between the hand
and the keyboard, you can imagine playing the missing notes.
There are other instrumental assignments to the other notes and layers
of sound. However, even without going further, often the player can
already switch to playing all the notes in the score – but, constantly
tell themselves that all these other notes, every one of them, is
inconsequential. Everything is still there, every detail, including
crescendos and decrescendos. gradations in loudness. The same
regarding bringing out the main melody on beats 2 and 4 in the right
hand. Nonetheless they are all the result physically inconsequential
gestures. Almost at the verge pantomiming but still audible in every one their details of line, expression, emotion, intensity, etc..
Complex measures with a wide variety of variables.
S.B. jokingly complains that her brain’s ‘bandwidth’ doesn’t permit
her to focus simultaneously on as many different things, technical
and musical, as she needs to be aware of in a complex measure. I said that
no one’s brain has that capacity. Before there were parallel
processors, when computers used to run several apps at once, they were
not really multitasking. They simply spent a certain number of
millionths of a second updating one app and then switched to another
app and spent a similar amount of time updating it.
Before the early 2000s, films were delivered to movie theatre in the
form of physical reels of film. When run through a projector, it was
usual for 24 frames of film to run through the projector each second and be displayed on the screen. At 24 frames per second, motion will seem continuous even though it has been broken down into discreet chunks with noticeable changes from one frame to another if the two are displayed side by side. The multi-tasking we are describing for computers operated by up to a million times per second, so there was no problem convincing the user that more than one thing was happening at the same time, both continuously.
In a very complicated measure of music we can multi-task by thinking
of one thing at a time. As soon as the first thing has borne fruit in
the ear, we may let our attention go to another and reasonably assume
the first will continue as it was. Some of these things may be
physical in nature and have to do with body use or body sensations,
others with music feelings, ideas, and aspirations. Each time one
thing has caught fire from the spark of our imagination, go on to the
next thing. There may be four or more different things to think about
in one measure. This is possible, but only if we go from one to
If we propel an elastic ball down against the group, but once it has
started bouncing back up, then down… it will continue bouncing that
way until the bouncing has to be re-initiated by us again (or in our
case ‘thought’ about again).**
The key ingredient in this process is mental flexibility, the ability
to think of one thing and then another, without clinging to one in
particular. As a general rule, in piano playing, it is not as much
the what you think about, but the when you think about it.
Beware of playing at your maximum loudness.
If you are maxed out loudness-wise, and you see a crescendo coming up
that is indicated in the score, there is no way to play that crescendo.
Even within the span in time of the loudest phrase, some sub-groups of
notes in the phrase need to undergo some process of growth and decline
or the phrase will have no shape.
There always has to be a reserve tank of greater loudness available.
Don’t dig a loudness well out of which you cannot get back out.
#4 An unexpected cause for difficulty.
A. Measure 49, left hand
I said to S.B., one of the left hand notes during the first two beats
of the measure is not sounding anywhere as near as loud as the other
notes, and I don’t think this was on purpose by you. Can you spot the
note? She played and listened and gradually went through a list of
possible note culprits, starting with the note that she felt was most
likely and then less and less likely ones.
She only failed to suggest one note as a possible culprit. Of course
that was the note that didn’t sound equal with the others, in fact far
softer if at all. It was the g3 in the third triplet eighth of the first group of triplet eighths.
She thought she was listening but was actually feeling what was going
on in her muscles. She wasn’t listening for every note.
#2. Measure 46
This is a measure in double octaves that unlike similar double octave
measures that came before, skips around more, pitch-wise.
The further into the measure she went, the more difficulty she
encountered playing what was let of it. The tension occurred when she had to move between octaves. It was a blip on a radar that lasted too short a time to be noticed by the radar screen observer. It is especially important at those very brief moments that the arm and hand, like a very flexible blade of grass, be set into motion from the least hint of a vagrant breeze. The blade may have rested still for quite some time (in our case the duration the octave is held down) but it is in a state of willingness to be moved.
-Nocturne Op 15 / 2 in F# Major
Cadenza-like runs as in measures 11, 18, 20. 50.
The unsuspected cause of impediments to the constancy of flow in these
runs was a greater physical tension in her thumb than in her other
fingers. She had been unaware of this. It only was observable in
comparison to the somewhat less tension in the other fingers. It did
not stand in a self-evident way. Once she evened out the muscular
tension in all the fingers (keeping that common degree at a minimal
value) the interruptions we first noticed in those runs was replaced
by an even flow of tones.
Unexpected causes of problems: “turn around” points
Again an unevenness in the way the sixths rose and again fell.
I offered a solution before the explanation for why the solution
Notice that the score asks you play the bottom note of the sixth
twice, one before rising the sixth the other after the sixth
re-descends. Why not try playing the upper note of the sixth twice, as
Instead of starting the measure with: b4 gs5 b4 as4 fx5 as4 …
play it this way: b4 gs5 gs5 b4 as4 fx5 fx5 as4 …
This seemed odd but she tried it. Joe: now try it as written. The
surprise was the eliminating of the tiny resistances to the evenness
in the whole cadenza.
Then, the explanation. The gs5 at the beginning of the measure is the
result of a rightwards motion from the b4. What about the second b4?
It is the result of a leftwards motion from the same gs5. This creates
a problem for the single gs5, in that it has to be two things at once:
the result of an upward motion, and the cause of a downward motion.
Repeating the gs5 twice gave that note an opportunity to distinguish
between those two roles rather than try to combine them as part of one
Measure 50 again. This time when the motion in sixths cedes to
Where exactly is the turning point between the two? The pivotal note
is the d5 which is the result of an upward skip from es4 but also the
cause of the succeeding chromatic scale (d cs c b as … ).
Hitherto, once she started the measure she would go right though this
pivot point without fully being conscious that she had already passed
it. It took only the awareness of which note was the pivotal point
and that she was aware of the moment when she was about to play that
note, in order to homogenize the entire cadenza.
Again a pivot moment. To solder the two main pieces of this cadential
phrase into a homogeneously flowing ribbon of sound, we simply
identified the point when chromatic motion downwards in the right hand
turned into motion in broken thirds. That point was at the ds5, which
happened to fall exactly on beat two of the measure.
Measure 25 …
To bring out the principal melody in the right hand, she had to play
its notes louder than she wanted to.
From my privileged position as the unmoved observer I noticed that
when the right hand played an octave (for instance as the first and
sixth note of the measure). What she didn’t notice, because she
happened at that moment to be more physically involved in her playing
than listening to that playing, was the that the thumb note of the
octave tended to play a moment after the pinkie its note in the
octave. When I brought this to her attention, at first she didn’t
believe that this discrepancy in onset time was happening. So I asked
her to play some of the passage again, but this time I physically
intervened with the right hand with my two hands to force the two
notes to happen at the same moment. Then, of course, because it felt
physically different than how she played it before, she became
conscious of the delay.
An unexpected dividend of this newly forged simultaneity between the
notes of the octave, the octaves not only sounded cleaner and clear,
but perhaps more importantly, the note at the top of the octave (the
melody note) sounded slightly louder than before. The result was that
she now had an additional way of causing sounds to be louder, one that
was not simply a matter of dynamics.
* If one were making a graph of an increases then decreases in
tension, the resulting curve would gradually climb higher off the
x-axis until reaching a peak value, then return in short course back
to the x-axis. This is similar to shape of what is called a “saw
tooth wave”. The difference is only in that instead of plotting the
details of increase and decrease in the amplitude (y-axis) of a sound
wave through time (x-axis), it was plotting the increase and decrease
of bodily tension.
** you can set many balls into a bouncing motion but not if you have
to start all of them at the same moment in time. But once they are
all in motion they will all continue to be in motion for a while. The
same with the fruits of thought.
Commitment to Every Note and Its Meaning
C.R.’s lesson on 7/9/19: Beethoven’s Rondo in C Major, Op 51 / 1.
This lesson was about total dramatic, musical and emotional
commitment to the work one is playing.
Take for example the left hand at the beginning |: c4-e4 g4 :|. This is no trivial Alberti-like bass figure. It is no simple or gentle oscillation. It is Atlas with the world on his shoulders, shifting its weight from one shoulder to the other and back and forth. As a result, people on earth are first washed into the sea, and then hurled on shore again.
Never let your personal dislike of or disinterest of a passage, affect your ability to be a dedicated advocate if that passage. It is the same as being a
“Paraclete”, or a great defense attorney, who still puts on the best defense regardless of any personal feelings about their client. Or, think of yourself, as a great actor who regardless of their feelings about a particular line says it as if it were a great line. When I listen to you play this piece in concert, I would be able to say to someone at intermission, “Well, I happen to know she doesn’t really like the sound of those diminished chords, but portrays every one as being something wonderful. It is as if she takes what is
disagreeable in the sound of that chord, and magnifies it in its disagreeableness until striking the essence of the effect of the diminished chord.”.
The piano is a marvelously safe place to “act out” at the same time as “hide”. For no one in the audience knows whether whether the effect of what they hear at any moment is due to Beethoven or to you. In fact if you are playing the piece well, you are eclipsed as an entity leaving just the music.
In the piece where there is a long quasi-chromatic scale upwards in
groups and fours and then downwards in triplets.
“Is the way down usually the same as the way up”. Do you subscribe to the view of the ancient Greek philosopher, Heraclitus, who said “The way up and the way down are one and the same.” I feel that in music the way up and the way down are substantially different in aesthetic and in structural meaning.*
The scale up, because of its use of chromatic, non-scale tones, is
like the first long, slow incline up a roller coaster, a time during
which one’s anticipation of the rapid descent to follow builds and
builds in one’s apprehension and/or excitement. And when it changes
direction at the top, we get sea sick. Afterwards, for a moment here
and there we may level off, but it is those minimum and maximum points along the curve of the track that keep us clinging to the coaster – to the melody. One the way down, the scale of the melody, faster and less chromatic this time, pushes aside all obstacles on its way to is eventual goal.
As your listener, I want you to make me seasick, just from the changing direction of the pitches, slowed and sped up by the melody’s rhythm. If you don’t make me sea sick I’m just not that interested in the kinetic motion of the passage.
* There are exceptions of course, some passages are designed to simply
move away from something and then return in an inevitable circle.
Where the meaning lies in the starting point / = ending point and not in the
When Practicing is Emotionally Painful
S.B.’s lesson on 6/25/19
S.B. is sensitive to good music, his soul clearly derives sustenance from it. Part of him loves being at the piano. The fly in the ointment is his sight reading.
Because of his love for music he periodically subjects himself to prolonged periods of discouragement by trying to learn pieces. The discouragement stems mostly from the difficulties he experiences in sight reading.
He could possibly become better at sight reading if he did more of it. But without a proximate aesthetic reward to be gained from the playing of the piece, there is little incentive to practice sight reading.
Reading pieces that are simple enough for him to sight reading produces apathy on his part. The music has little to offer his rather refined artistic sensitivities.
Difficulty in sight reading leads to prolonged practicing time before
the musical qualities of a piece begin to emerge in the player’s consciousness, which can then be savored by our aesthetic sensitivity. The longer this delay, the more bogged down the pianist gets in the tangled web of a forest–with no apparent way out. Just more and more forest, without
Eventually, the displeasure of making gradual, fitful, disconnected small gains in learning the piece, that cumulatively don’t seem to be leading anywhere, outweighs any pleasure, even anticipated pleasure, that the learned piece would bring him. Thus a lot of work is continuously required without the goal of enjoying the piece seeming to get any closer. This is compounded by the growing feeling that he is incapable of learning the piece. Eventually one is forced to the conclusion: “this piece, musical as it is (when I first heard it in performance), may not be worth the effort I have to put into learning it.” With great patience, discipline and fortitude, one might hold out against this discouragement, even for a long time, but time always wins in the end … the discouragement does not go away.
A tall order:
As a first step in dealing with these issues, I suggested that during the coming week’s practicing, he should take notice of the moments of
pleasure that may occur, even if they are in the minority. To identify to himself that THIS is the state he wants to experience at the piano; the one that makes it all worthwhile. Then to stay with that a moment before going on, to stave off heavy and seemingly ineluctable drift of displeasure that is waiting to take over.
An Unbroken Persistence or Continuity of Sound
J.M’s lesson around Friday June 14, 2019 on the Beethoven “Andante Favori”
#1. The beginning of the piece.
Stated ideally there should be no difference between, on the one hand, playing and sustaining a single chord throughout the first measures of the “Andante”, and, articulating all the written notes (in their written rhythms). It is as if the latter “lived inside” the former, but that the former is where the unbroken continuity of the sound comes from.
At first these two ways of playing the opening will strike the pianist as sounding extremely different. There will be a constant feeling that something is missing in the former that can only be supplied by the latter. However, by making several “side by side” (sequential) comparisons of the former with the latter, the perceived difference between the two will gradually seem to subside, as the former begins to inhabit the latter, and
the latter seeks the stability of the former.
The goal is to play the written passage with an absolute connectivity of sound, sounds that fuse together in spite of time, which in turn brings on changes in pitch and rhythm.
It is perhaps more realistic to say that former and latter are descriptions of two ideally defined end points of a continuous spectrum of possibilities that lie between the stasis a single, enduring chord, and the interruptiveness, or disjointedness, of one single note replacing another.
At the beginning of the lesson J.M. was too close to the latter end of the spectrum, and we wanted to seek a position more in the middle, that preserved the best qualities of both ends.
What we’ve said about the opening measures of the “Andante Favori” can
apply as well at any point along the course of the piece. While playing through the work, as soon as one feels they are loosing the connectivity in the flow of sound, perhaps attained in the earlier measures of the piece, as soon as one hears that the measures begin ‘breaking up’ disjointed parts, one can form a new series of side by side comparisons of the two extreme
states, bringing them closer together, until even changes in rhythmic values from longer notes to sixteenths or thirty seconds. Still, feel that they emerge out a non-change, a constancy, a prolongation of the fabric of sound-as-sound.*
Here is a tip on how to bridge the gap between the two ends of the spectrum: disruption and continuity in sound. Take the first chord of the piece and repeat it exactly, in the rhythm of the opening passage. Instead of changes in pitch, only rhythm remains, with a droning over and over of the same chord. When repeating the chord, do not let its sound ever disappear. Play the notes of the chord in the balance (or aftertouch) of the keys so that each new intonation of the chord fits, like a tongue and groove, into a prolongation of the previous chord. An unabated, yet murmuring sound.
#2. The measures with ascending and then descending parallel thirds
in the right hand.
Play c2-c3–c4-c5 and hold it. Once that sound is imprinted on the musical memory, imagine that that is all you hear when playing the written notes. All the thirds seek their home in this prolonged unison. I held her right arm, pressing downwards with medium pressure: so something physical was constant that underlay the changes that were happening in pitch and rhythm.
I said: if you were able to play all the thirds at once, creating a cluster based on an extended C-major scale, that cacophonous cluster could or would act as a model for the constancy of sound that persists and underlies the activity of the changing thirds which show up as an archipelago of islands in that sea of sound.
* The pure presence of sound: what is left to sound when one discounts the pitch of the sound, its loudness, timbre and duration.