Tag: TECHNIQUE:

Even More Thoughts on How to Play a Bach fugue

A.B.’s playing of the first fugue of book one of the Well Tempered has improved by leaps and bounds.  Due to the high quality of his mind he can contemplate and at the same time be in wonderment at the amazing things, small and large, going on in the piece.

Here is what arose on Thursday, May 16, at his latest lesson.

#1.

When he is physically tense, the first place it shows up is in the form of movements with his lips and mouth.  He usually makes one such motion per note .

Last week we worked on doing away with these mouth motions.  Sometimes such motions help generate pulse and flow but just as often they force the piece to come out uttered in little tiny pieces.  A phrase cannot flow through time if it is comes to a stop and then resumes with each new note.  Frequent mouth motions can cause unintentional separations between one note and the next.  A note should be like each new bead on a necklace.  Without gravity and the string holding the beads together the necklace looses its shape and meaning.

He was able to control this for a measure or so before the mouth motions obstinately crept back in.

We worked out a compromise.  If he is to make a separate mouth motion for every note, let that motion be that of the expelling of puffs of air.  Later on the air can be let out more continuously.  The continuing flow of air is the physical equivalent of the flow of sound in a phrase – just ask any singer.  The piano, and many other instruments, model their flow and expressivity on the human voice.

#2

Joe: If you think of the physical actions you make while playing, now that they are not the cause of the sounds.  Nor are you yourself the cause of the sounds.  Sounds just “pass you by”, flowing by your consciousness.

#3

The general question arose of how do we stay on course if we make a mistake and deviate from the printed score.  We have to find a way of getting back on track as rapidly as possible – hopefully the the next note.  An important component of the alacrity with which you get back on track lies in the answer to the question: how do you react, both morally (I’ve made a mistake and a mistake is bad thing) as well as emotionally (what does it to our self confidence , our self worth).   Any negative reaction of either type makes it more difficult to find your way back onto the tracks, and makes it harder, in space-wise in terms of finding where we are in the score, and time-wise, to resume the correct flow.

Here is another way of stating the problem of getting back on the tracks.  How quickly can we begin at any random point in the piece (whether at the beginning of a measure or even at an arbitrary point within a measure) and resume the ease and flow that we  have at the place if we started the piece from the beginning.

It is good to lard the piece with a plethora of random spots from all of which you want to learn to be able to start up the piece, and ideally take no time to get on board the moving train and flow ahead with the correct notes and rhythms.

Just like coming in at the middle of a conversation and quickly figure out what is being talked about, every note in a piece is (or can be) the beginning of that piece.  B.A. summarized how hard this was for him to do: sometimes when I start from a random point in a piece it doesn’t even sound like it is from the same piece.  And, where did these notes come from and where are they going … how quickly can one become aware of the answers to these.   The answer to the last part: as instantaneously as possible.  This reminds me of the famous Gauguin painting “D’où Venons Nous / Que Sommes Nous / Où Allons Nous” (Where are we coming from, what are we, where are we going?”.   To put it in another way: how very important it is to spot the common character and individuality of a piece even just within a single minute detail from that piece.

When you practice starting the piece from a random point, just play until you are back on track, don’t keep playing to the end.   You want to leave practice time for starting from other points in the piece.

#4

Fingers getting tangled:

There are times when the hands draw very near to each other, touching, overlapping, interfering with each other.   In particular the thumbs (and even the second fingers) will cross over each other and afterwards uncross.  This situation must be coordinated down to tenths of a second.  It is a “pas de deux” between two fingers / hands, wherein the bodies of the ‘dancers’ need to fuse as much as possible into one entity that is constantly changing shape as a whole.  Every motion on the part of one dancer must be fused with a simultaneous motion from the other dancer.  It is as if there is a common consciousness among the two.

#5

The general question arose as to where does one phrase ends in a Bach fugue and another phrase begins.

This can become marvelously complicated because, in a fugue, two or more voices may be in the process of sounding the main theme, yet, at a given moment one of these voices may be at the beginning of the architectural shape of the theme through time, while another somewhere in the middle of the architecture of the theme, and a third voice might be in the midst of concluding the end of its theme statement.

How does the pianist simultaneously  make one voice sound like it is ending while another is beginning when the two voices are clearly both stating the same theme.  B.A. had a nice way of putting this: how does a voice say that it’s ending.

Put in terms of the chords that underlie the passing notes in the voice melodies – frequently the shift from one such note governing chord in the harmony of the fugue to the next such chord, does not occur simultaneous in all the voices.   One voice may enters the domain of the next chord before the others.  They are harbingers of the next chord; pathfinders.  Another voice may arrive into the new chord not until the other voices have clearly established the chord.

#6

Situation: one finger is holding an extended note while other fingers in the same hand are enunciating a series of changing notes.   This requires that the finger holding the note be very flexible and can change its overall stance in response to changes in what the other fingers are doing.  The key to clear articulation often lies less in the equalization of the fingers playing the changing notes, and more in the ability of the finger holding its note to suddenly change it’s alignment with the keyboard, and its stance relative to the other fingers of the hand while, at no instant, losing its the overall equilibrium.

#7

Sometimes a student is confused when the main theme starts on a different note compared to the opening of the fugue.   If the change of starting note represents a change of harmonic region, then it makes makes sense to the modern player.   However, it is harder situation to make sense out of when when the theme entrance is still in the original harmonic region.  Thus a theme entrance, instead of starting on the original series of notes at the beginning (C D E F …) begins instead with D E F G, or E F G A, etc..  That instead of representing a modulation, it represents the desire of the theme to enter on a different note of the C Major scale but cling obstinately to the same scale.  Some of us may think of this as a hark back to the Catholic Church modes of the middle ages, in which case  D E F G is simply the beginning of the “Dorian” mode, E F G A the beginning of the “Phrygian: mode, etc..  But it is not always clear that this was how Bach may have been thinking.  Perhaps the underlying constant is the C Major scale (or tonic of another harmonic region of the fugue) and how it stubbornly controls things even a theme entrance tries to start on a different note of the scale than the tonic.

#8

A part of fugue technique is to instantaneously move one finger left or right, from one note to another, regardless of how far apart those notes are on the keyboard.  This is not something mastered by gradually practicing such a motion faster and faster.  It is more the absolute determination ahead of time to be on the second note zero seconds (zero fractions of a second) after the first note ends.  In other words: for the finger to find itself already on the new note, without any travel time in between.   This is quite possible.  The body is capable of doing this if one insists this be the case, a determination that starts before one starts moving the finger at all.  Such instantaneous change of by just one fingers promotes a greater clarity and crispness in the consecutive notes of a voice.  The goal is that no connection of one note to the next be any more sluggish than any other.

This itself is a component of the general ability of the entire hand snap from one hand position to another position.   Sometimes fingering alone will not provide a sense of connection (even if allows for singer substitutions).  It may require an action like the triggering a mouse trap: with little or no preparation, no anticipation, and seemingly no time at all taken to make the change in position.

To achieve such alacrity in changing the shape of the hand it is necessary for the arms as well as the hands to be weightless, and the muscles in the hand being ‘at attention’  but when the moment comes for the change in the shape of the hand, offers no resistance to the onset of that motion.  It as if the muscle is passive and is being moved from an external source of power.  Even the forces that initially raise the arms to the keyboard can be felt in the body as if the arm was being moved not by its own muscles, but a force external to the entire body.  This feeling can be induced by imagining the arm belongs to a puppet, and an unseen puppeteer moves the arms upwards by pulling on the strings that connect the puppeteer the puppet’s arms.

At a lesson the teacher can literally provide this external force.   For instance supporting the student’s hands so they will feel to the student as if they are floating on the keyboard rather than pressing down on the keys.  Additionally, should their be any pressure downwards (other than to activate a key) it is more easily detected by the student if they are pushing down on another person than an inanimate object like the keyboard.

#9

We noted a connection between the technique of finger substitution  on a held note (in anticipation of using a more convenient finger on the next note) and the technique exercise found, as in “Hanon”, of using the fingering 4 3 2 1 (in the right hand) to repeat the same note four times in a row, and then to do the same on other notes, throughout the exercise. Though the overt purpose of this exercise is to learn fast repetition of the same note (on the assumption that changing from one finger to the next is faster than using the same finger over and over again) it also prejudices the hand for doing a quick substitution of one finger for another on one note without re-sounding the note.

#10

A.B. brilliantly put many of the above points into a common perspective by saying: it is all about who is doing what to whom and when.

We concluded the same lesson by working briefly on the companion prelude in C Major from Book One.

#1

Part of A.B.’s quest has been to play the notes in the prelude as evenly as possible.  So much of this depends the balance between the notes of the common chord that is outlined by the succession of notes in each measure.

To make these chord more obvious to the ear let the player while playing,  “densify” each chord.  For instance, if there is an opening between the written notes for an additional note of the chord, add that note to the chord and play all the notes that now belong to the chord all at once as a vertical sonority.  For instance in measure 2, there is room for an f4 between the d4 and a4, so that we create a five-note chord: c d f a d.  Or taking it a step forward we can also add a c5 between the a4 and the d4, forming a six-note chord.  The chord, has been a D Minor-7 chord the entire time, but the additional chord tones just make the chord stand out more clearly to the ear.  This can be done, at one time or another, for every chord in the Prelude when Bach’s written notes allow for such additions.

Note that the additional notes mentioned so far all lie in the range defined by the lowest note of a measure and the highest note of the same measure.  An equally valid technique, and one more vivid to the ear, would be to add additional notes belonging to the same chord that are lower than the printed lowest note and the same for the highest note written in the measure.

This way you can generate chord of 8 or more notes, and, if you add the use of the pedal. chords of any number of notes (culling notes from the bass range of the keyboard and the high treble).  If you play such a chord then play the chord made up out of just the written in the measure, you will gain a sudden sense of how the written chord is a just a part of the larger chord.  And whatever the sound and mood characteristics of the larger chord, they are transferred into the more compact form of the chord without any loss resonance and character.

#2

In terms of this grouping every note of the measure into the unified sound of a single chord (versus hearing just separate notes), it is the pinkie note in the right hand that is “furthest” from the left hand note that is the first note of the measure.  And not so much in space as measured on the  along the keyboard but in time that has passed since the first note.   For some this creates a feeling of the pinkie being a dangling participle after the previous four notes .  The feeling can occur even more so when the pinkie plays the last note of the measure prior to the unseating of the current chord and succession by the next chord.   Some pianists have a tendency to have their pinkie ‘separate’ from the rest of the hand when an articulating a note that is beyond a certain distance from the thumb, with the result is that there is less rather than more control of how the pinkie notes fits together with the notes the other fingers are playing.  There is sometimes a poker “tell” observable by the teacher when the student is singling out the pinkie and feeling like it is not part of the hand.  It is if the pianist raises the pinkie higher off the keyboard than the other fingers before playing its note – an attempt on the student’s part to gain better physical control over the pinkie but usually with the result that the pinkie sounds disconnected from the other fingers.

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Deciding What is Controllable. Also: Transforming the Polyphony of a Gugue

Well Tempered Klavier, Book I, C Major, Prelude

#1

After finishing the piece I simply asked A.B. what he liked and disliked about his rendition.  He mentioned several negative things and then struck on the one thing that I had primarily noticed: that he stopped the harmonic flow of the piece every time he went from the end of one measure to the beginning of the next.   I missed sensing that inexorable connection that energetically pushed me from the chord in one measure to the chord in the next measure.

He said that he had previously tried condensing the piece into a chorale of whole-note chords (each chord took the place of one measure).  However, he had trouble because he couldn’t do it with any speed.   I said that the speed was of the essence of the procedure.  Ideally, each eighth note’s worth of the piece, in terms of its duration, became the duration of one of the chords of the chorale.

Since it was difficult to shift chords that quickly, I recommended to him that he play just the chord a single measure followed by the chord of the next measure, and then stop.   I asked him to play the first chord as if it were a grace note going to the second chord – the latter being held longer.

This he could do.  We repeated the process for each measure going into its next measure.

Now that we had merged two amino acids into a somewhat longer chain of molecules, I asked him to play as written, while I, in the higher treble, waited until he was near the end , but not at the very end, of one measure only then played the chord of that measure as a grace note followed the next measure’s chord.  Only I would get to the second chord before he finished playing the current measure.  That anticipation of my chord connection gave him the necessary push and energy to keep the piece’s harmonic flow going across the bar line.  Then I would remain silent at the second piano until he reached nearly to the end of the new measure at which point I would break in with the chord of the new ‘current’ measure played as a grace note to the chord that governed the measure that was about to start.  And so on.

#2

A.B. remained worried in particular that the pinkie sixteenth note in the right hand at the end of each measure does not connect smoothly to the next sixteenth note in the left hand at the beginning of the next measure.

His default solution was to figure out  exactly how he wants his pinkie to play that note.  I solved his issue by stepping entirely around his approach.  As he played the piece I sang “la la la…”, but starting with 6th 7th and 8th sixteenth notes of one measure and ended with the fifth sixteenth note of the next measure. on notes to the first note.  I then waited too the 6th note of the new measure and began the process of again singing along for 3 + 5 or 8 notes.

In the form I was singing it, with the way I was grouping the notes that I sung versus those I did not sing, I purposely glossing over the connection between the two notes on either side of the bar lines..  It happens automatically.  By spreading a solder, or flux over the end of one measure and the beginning of the next, I effectively made less important the connection of the bar line.

I noticed in my singing that I helped things along by making misplaced crescendo starting on my first note and ending towards the eighth note.  This helped smooth over A.B.’s faulty connection over the bar line.

At this point we moved on to the fugue: transforming the polyphony of a

fugue in C Major, Book One, Well Tempered:

A.B.: why do I find it so difficult to not hold a voice note longer than it is supposed to last, when the note is already meant to continue sounding through a certain number of the next notes in some of the other voices.  For example if the target voice is a quarter note, or longer, and the other voices are enunciating sixteenth notes.

I gave a brief answer: remembering when to lift a sustained note in one voice is the requires the opposite of everything you do right when knowing when to start a note.  It’s the “dark side” of piano technique: it requires doing everything the wrong way; or is it now the right way?

A.B.: why did you do that?  Why was it working?

Joe: I think it is important to have a distinct pre-vision, pre-conception, of what the beginning of the next measure is going to sound like before you get to it.  It is a strange balance of knowing what’s coming and still being surprised by it.

#2

Can we transform the sound the sound of the fugue in the student’s ear?

We experimented using two pianos with re-registering one of the voice of the fugue.  He would choose one voice to play, and transpose either an octave higher or lower than  it was written, while I played the remaining three voices (without the fourth) at the other piano.

Results:  A.B. said:

My voice sounded different than before.  I head it saying and meaning other other things than I had before, but then realizing that it was the same voice with the same names to its notes, just transposed, and that there was at the same time an abiding identity between both versions of the voice, an identity which was preserved, was eternal and fixed  and was impervious to change of octave.   The new stuff that suddenly I heard, in how that voice combined with the other voices, must have been there latent to the note’s names themselves alone, or to say it in another way were just as present as aesthetic and sonic effects when I played that voice in its original octave.

In the future we will have A.B. play just one voice, but in the octave higher than written and the octave lower than written without playing it in the octave is written.  Later again we can transpose one voice by more than one octave.  If it is the soprano voice we can have it sound in the tenor voice’s range or even below the bass voice.  In the case of the bass voice, we can have it sound in the alto voice’s range or so that it is the highest sounding of all the voices.  At any time I can choose to play all four voices and not just three, leaving one voice to him.  Or, he can choose at random to play just the voices, while I play the other two.  Or, three voices.

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What to “bring out” in a Complex Passage

Debussy: First Arabesque: the conclusion to the first of the three main parts.

What is the main melody that one should bring out during the passage that concludes the first part and leads to the middle part of the piece.  A.J. said that when I played it I was doing something that that made it work sound-wise but he couldn’t figure out what i was doing. He assumed that I was emphasizing one of the three layers of melodic motion embedded in the passage. I said, it is more complex than that.  There are three different things going on, but no one of which, by itself, is a significant melody.  it is only in the complex ways the three interact that causes the positive quality that I think you noticed.  The rising quarters in the rh form a melody of no great significance.  The cello=like melody in the left hand does have a singing melody, but by itself it doesn’t seem accomplish that much, as well. Then there are triplets.  Are they important or not? The real question is how to bring them together in a complex fusion that makes the passage glow and excite.

To relate the quarter note melody in the right hand with the triplets in the right hand,  I played gs4-b4, then held the two notes as i added in ds4, which I also held, and lastly added fs4.  If at this point I continue holding those four notes and not go on in the measure,  I realize, after maybe about a second, that those notes add up to a four-note chord with a specific flavor that independently of the single notes of which it is comprised, has its own specific flavor and character.  I might have missed hearing this had i not stopped to listen to the chord after it was finally formed.  The realization of the chord does not come instantaneously to the ear.  We have to patient, and wait for the four notes to all be there (five if you add the bass line).

It is a delayed satisfaction, one that is very desirable, but one that cannot be rushed.  Thus the triplets get their meaning in the  sound mixture by our waiting to hear the result of total participation.  Eventually, when we play the passage, he don’t have to pause on the clock to  wait for the four notes to congeal, we only have to subjectively, in the imagination, make the pause, to bring the four notes to life as members of a single chord, so that, at    the end time-wise, it is not any of the four notes that are significant on their own, but how they loose their identify in the sound color of the chord where they vibrate together – as equals – but to a common good.

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When it’s difficult to get from one chord to another

Sorry to have been out of touch for the past two weeks.    I had cataract surgery and was waiting for my eyes to be able to read the computer screen again.  Anyway, I’m fine now, and the hiatus is over.  But please excuse typos and misspellings.

Consider the situation when we try to connect one chord to another chord, but the second chord is a difficult to get to from the first chord, we can do the following.  The solution ultimately lies in not going from one chord to to a second.  We have to break down this apparent cause and effect within time.  Order in time need not dictate to our imagination order in which our body does things.

We let the hand get used to the second chord before playing the first chord.  We play the second a series of times.  After the first time we move the hand just a little bit away from the keyboard and then find the chord again.  Then we can move the hand right (and then left) along the keyboard, horizontally away from the chord, in gradually increasing distances, and each time find your way spontaneously, without thought, without set-up, to the second chord as if you were already on it.  Eventually your hand ‘remembers’ what that chord feels like, and can return to it from any place at all on or off the keyboard; from any position in all three dimensions that the hand can first be removed to, including for instance from your lap.  Of all these infinite places and positions from which the hand might come to return to that chord, just one such possibility is that the hand is first on the chord that is written first.

Memory is like a glue that adheres to a chord like a familiar friend. Benefiting from this fact, we just have to add in a trick with time.  Instead of the ‘first’ chord being followed by the ‘second’ chord, the second chord is there before the first chord.  we must feel that he have already been there, that the glue of the memory causes our hand to automatically be on the notes of the second chord.  I don’t so much mean that because we have practiced the passage, we get ‘used to’ where the second chord lies.  No, this is different.  This is truly being convinced that you are about to do two totally new things, for the very first time, and yet in spite of that, you act like you already know have been where the second is on the keyboard, tactilely, coverage-wise and finger-wise.

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Leverage and Sound

Chopin, Etude in C# Minor from Opus 25:

Irving’s brother came today.  We wanted to get a rich cello-like / vocal-like tone out of the piano for the notes of the opening “baritone” melody for the left hand.  It is in single notes without accompaniment, so it is very exposed.  We need our entire sound/mechanical tool-kit to keep it resonant and sustained so there isn’t a moment’s break in the flow of the line.   Their softness shouldn’t belie their resonance.

Our first exploration was with leverage, the principle being that the greater the leverage you have over the production of each sound, the more that sound approaches the ideal piano-resonance.

The effectiveness of a lever is a function of how long the lever is and where you place the fulcrum on which to rest it*.  Leverage increases with the length of the lever and how remote the fulcrum is from the end of the lever that, from which in this case, the pianist initiates the motion of the lever.  If, for example, the lever is solely the length of a finger, and the third knuckle is where the fulcrum is, there is little mechanical advantage to depressing the key through the motion of that lever.  If the lever extends back into the wrist, and includes the finger, there is greater leverage on behalf of the movement of finger tip.  So the question is, how we can create the greatest leverage with the human body.

We ended up using a curious combination of several different levers, that ended up being connected one to the other.

The length of the arm, from shoulder to finger tips, while perhaps not the longest lever we can make of the body, is a conveniently long one that is still easily manipulated.

We started by his holding out both his forearms; straight out in front of him so that they parallel with each other and were horizontal to the ground.  We Left a comfortable distance between the two hands, about the same as the distance between the two shoulders.

We then had him move his arms up and down using just the shoulders as pivots.  At their highest points the arms were aiming well above the horizontal, at an angle of about forty five degrees.  At their lowest points the arms were just slightly below the horizontal.

Very soon, we changed it to an oscillating motion between the arms. One arm was at its lowest when the other was at its highest.  And they exchanged these positions.  We did this until he felt a sort of physical exhilaration from all that motion.

The next thing we did was to create a second, more imaginary, lever.  At the same time the arms were moving, we pretended there was the plank of a see-saw that connects the two hands (traversing the empty space between the hands), which, as a result of the arm motions, was itself going up and down as if two people were seated at each end of the see-saw.  The pivot of this imaginary see-saw was exactly half way between the hands, so that neither hand or arm had a mechanical advantage over the other – the advantages were equal.

I also had him imagine a secondary but similar see-saw between his two shoulders, as if an, albeit, small person was seated on each shoulder.  We continued exercising the combination of these levers until he felt a definite exhilaration from making these motions.

We then ‘elected’ his two index fingers as the sole ‘beneficiaries’ of all the motions he was making, so that the each index finger was backed up by the entire arm and contributing see-saws.

While continuing the oscillation of the arms he used alternating index fingers to play first the opening note of the second note.  The solo was no longer distributed solely to the left hand but alternately, from note to note, between one arm lever and the other.  If he played the first note with his left index finger, then he played second note with his right index finger.  Then back to the left index finger to sound the third note, the right again for the fourth note, and so on through the line.

During this procedure the fingers were to never loose their connection to the hand, and on to the wrist, the forearms, the elbows, all the way to the shoulders.

Sometimes the arms had to cross one another, but the more important thing was the swinging motion from one arm to the other regardless of which one was to the right or left of the other.

When he did this with physical abandon fervor, without thinking so much of the ‘proper’ or ‘usual’ way of pushing the notes down, the result, to our joint delight,  was an unusually rich sound, one that he was unaccustomed to getting on single notes.

Even when consecutive notes were ‘next door’ to each, only a half step or whole step away, we did not diminish the feeling of the widest possible see-saw between the arms.  In other words, while the objective distance between the consecutive notes might lessen, the subjective sense of how long that distance was always remained large.

The last step was to preserve the widest and most dynamic sense of an oscillating motion when going not just from one hand to the other, but from one finger of one hand to another finger of the same hand.

* The saying, concerning how levers work, as attributed to Archimedes, is: Give me the place to stand, and I shall move the earth.

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