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.
Shifting Perspective to Play Easier
Albeniz: Orientale (At A.B.’s lesson of 6/20/19)
A.B. begins his process of learning a new piece by getting ‘hooked’ on
a detail: what did Albeniz mean here, near the beginning, by joining
two sets of notes with a slur mark but, under the first of the two puts a staccato – it is illogical. He’s seen the staccato on the second of two notes under a slur but never the first.
I get instantly trapped into his way of framing the issue. So I come up with a spread of possible explanations ranging from general comments about the inexactitude of that part of music notation that doesn’t deal with pitches and rhythms, to a mistake by the printer. The latter A.B. corrects: but, he says, it is a Henle edition and the edition is based directly on Albeniz’s manuscript. Being thus cut off at the pass, I attempt to turn his entire process upside down. Why don’t you, I said to him, start with the effect of the piece as a whole. Once that effect is clear to you, extrapolate from this
overall effect to any specific detail you happen to pick up. Make a judgement about that detail that keeps it in line with the overall mood and effect of the piece.
He becomes fixated on the different possible ways of playing the repeating D minor chord at the opening. It is too big for his hand. Should he roll the chord? Play the top note with the right hand? Meanwhile, over inside my head, the only thing I am noticing, as he tries one technique after the other, is that at no time does he effect a balance and unity between the notes of the chord and the notes of the upper melody. Eventually I say this: listen instead to the effect of the d4 (at the beginning of the melody) with the d2, a2 and f3, in the chord that sounds with it. Do all four notes unite into a
balanced, D minor chord? And the same question about the second melody note, the e4, and the chord that is still sustaining. Would anything be gained by keeping your ear on the formation of these overbraced chords between all the notes in both hands, both when the melody in the right hand has a chord tone in its melody and when it has a tone of embellishment. Hear the latter, as being the latter: a purposeful dissonance adding to the richness of the complexion of the chord.
A way of snaking up on this effect is to separately practice the connection between just the d2 and the e4 in the melody. Additionally, if you care to, practice the connection between the a2 (extracted from the chord) to the e4 in the melody (or the same for the f3 and the e4). When A.B. tried this, suddenly all the other problems which he had both went defined and then worried about, went away.
As in number 1, above, often the solution to a perceived problem lies in a shift of perspective, an approach coming from an entirely different point of view than first used. We get stuck with our way of perceiving a problem in our playing the piece, and magnify rather than eliminate the problem by focusing in greater and greater detail on problem as seen from this perspective. Yet often has to wave an arm and dispel the view one has of the passage. To form a new perspective on so that it appears in a totally new light.
There are in this piece frequent passages in which a note is held in the bass while the remaining fingers of the left hand in conjunction with different combinations of fingers in the right hand play a series of parallel triads (often in inversion).
As is his wont, A.B. searching for the fluidity of connection between these triads in the fingering that he is using. I suggested a shift of point of view. Think, I said, of the enunciation of each triad as being broken down into two distinct parts. One is the physical action causing the onset of the sounds of the triad, and the other, a separate, equally specific physical action causing, at a specific moment after the first, the release of those sounds. It is as important that the three sounds of the triad terminate at exactly the
same moment in time as each other, as it is for them to start at exactly the same moment. Without the terminating motion, the different fingers playing the triad all have their own habitual way of letting go of their sound.
Suddenly fingering was no longer an important issue. We had side stepped it. Releasing the notes of the triads at a specific moment unconsciously caused him to control what fingering he was using on each next triad.* The way the pianist ends a triad unconsciously controls the physical way they start the next triad.**
* In the case of number #3. we also experimented with making a single motion (a “heel-toe” motion ***) to play two consecutive triads. This
falls under the heading of the principle of the using the fewest possible motions to execute the largest series of notes.
** Two additional and semi-related points came up while working on
this passage of parallel thirds.
#1 There is a basic difference in effect between a legato achieved
through the use of the pedal and one achieved without the use of the
pedal. It is always best to practice a legato first without pedal: as
best as you can effect it, even when the composer has indicated in the
socre the use of the pedal to sustain one sound into the next. We
want to hear the legato is its purest state before dealing with all
the extra ramifications sound-wise of adding the pedal. Then, feel
free to add the pedal – as much as you want. Just be aware that the
heart of the legato resides in the use of the muscles throughout the
body as well as in the fingers in particular.
#2 on Henle page 1, line 4, measure 2, When one of the fingers playing
the current triad has to, en route to the next triad, ‘dislodge’ from
its current position one of the other fingers playing the current
triad. Feel as if the former finger is able to exert a pressure
through a vacuum to cause the other finger to move out of the way.
*** I refer you here to my forthcoming blog “two or more notes from
one continuous gesture through time”. Among the gestures described is
the one that I refer to here under the nickname of “heel-toe” (a
borrowing from organ foot technique).