Playing Between the Opposites
A pendulum swings back and forth. The period of the swing sometimes takes years, sometimes months, sometimes days, sometimes just seconds.
For instance: sometimes the pianist is more aware of the harmonies than the melodies, and on another occasion the other way around. The teacher’s job is to keep the two in equilibrium. It is an example of the “Goldilocks” principle: not too hot, not to cold, but just right.
We want to try to maintain, over a prolonged period of time, a balanced position in the middle between two extremes, just as a pendulum set into motion eventually comes to rest in a middle position.*
In talking about this, I like the use of the word “spectrum” because, in addition to the end points, which are the most easily identifiable points, it embraces every possible proportion of blending of the two. While it is easiest to think in terms of the ends, in this melody and harmony, it is actually the middle positions that are most relevant for the pianist.
Here are some other examples of the idea of spectrum applied to piano playing:
playing too softly . . . . playing too loudly
playing too slowly . . . . playing too fast
playing too legato . . . . playing too staccato
playing too mechanically . . . . playing too dramatically/emotionally
having too much variety . . . . playing with too little variety
having too many contrasts . . . . playing monolithically
If we wanted, we could add to this list.
It is the nature of thought and language that whenever we come up with one term to describe a person’s playing that there is usually also a term that would be its opposite.
I told my student Rachael that she was laying too much attention on melody at the expense of harmony. She took the comment to heart and gradually changed her way of playing in this regard. Two years later I told her: Rachael you are laying too much attention to the harmony at the expense of the melody. She responded: “But! two years ago, in fact on October 1st (she has an eidetic memory) you told me I wasn’t laying enough stress on the harmonies. Which is it? Logically, they can’t be both true. Aren’t you contradicting yourself?”
I said: “Is it possible that both statements are true if we take into account an additional reference point: time. Time passes and things change. Two years ago I had to exert a lot of force to pull you away from a sole preoccupation with melody, and in the direction of harmony. Once enough energy is exerted by the teacher to dislodge the student from a frozen position on one end of a spectrum, movement can continue away from that end, pass the midpoint where harmony and melody are balanced, and continue until she finds herself stuck a second time, this time on the other end of the spectrum.
Switching to the analogy to a pendulum, the hope is that once the student “dislodged” from extreme position pendulum, the pendulum will swing back and forth until eventually settling down in a position of relative rest near the midway point between the pendulum’s two extreme positions: so that harmony and melody are in balance.
Staying in the middle is a difficult state to maintain when it comes to human behavior. Time is the bringer of change. You’ve continued to change until you find yourself in an extreme position again, only on the other end of the spectrum. This is but one half of a cycle that repeats and repeats, over days, months or years, until finally settling down at a point of balance, which combines the virtues of both ends of the spectrum, of harmony and melody.*
Here is another case for what, in this blog, I am alternately calling an example of a “spectrum” and an example of a “pendulum”.
The spectrum would represent all the positions between bringing out the likenesses between two similar passages, on the one hand, and the bringing out all differences between the two similar passages. In terms of the pendulum analogy it is the swing between the maximum sameness and maximum difference between two passages that relative to each other have both similarities and differences.**
We can overemphasize the similarities in sound, we can overemphasize the differences in sound, or trying to find that golden mean where the listener is made aware by our playing of both the similarities and differences. This golden mean between is most manifest in the works of the great composers, and it is incumbent on the pianist to make this apparent.
I asked Irving today at his lesson: “where would you locate yourself right now on this spectrum. Are you more captivated by the subtle differences between things that are otherwise alike***, or are you more captivated by overlooking such differences and seeing the underlying similarities between things. Each is equally important, so doing one does not automatically mean that you are attending to the other.” “In my opinion, right now, at this time, this day and date, I feel that you are extremely focused on minute differences, more so than the qualities which act to unite all the passages and in the general the many different parts of the movement that are woven together into one cohesive whole.”
I wanted the left hand to always exhibit the same ineluctable motion in half steps despite the various melodies in parallel thirds that those eighth notes outlined one and another measure. My solution was to play along with him in the bass on the same piano. I played an unending series of eighth notes, like an ostinato****. all on the same pitch, starting with the tonic note in a low octave*****. The overtones of this bass tone created the necessary “glue” to hold the voices together in the soloist’s two hands. Another way of saying this is that the main strata of the piece were now enveloped in a larger, common sonic aura. The voices in these strata could now move around more meaningfully in relation to each other in the shared sound-space.
A last comment on this second example. Sometimes, only sometimes, and then only with the music of a great composer, you can strike up a “deal” with the composer and share responsibilities: “I will take care of all the samenesses if you can take care of the differences…after all I trust you completely to have chosen the best pitches and rhythms.
* The pianist is a dynamic entity, rarely the same twice. We are always traveling back and forth between one pole and the other. We do not remain in a “golden mean” too long, but that we drift to one side or the other. Some students are very good at tracking their location from day to day, or month to month. Others need the application of an outside force in the form of the teacher. The golden mean was Aristotle’s definition of morality. For instance: not cowardice, and not rashness, but courage.
** This situation arises frequently when there is something in the recapitulation of a sonata-form movement that is like, yet not like something in the exposition. Even in the extreme case where the notes are exactly the same in both places, there is still a subtle difference between something we heard once, and then being reminded of it, or calling something we have experienced in the past. It is as if we have “grown” or “matured” through time, not through the years of our life, but in the extremely condensed maturation process of a single movement of a piece. The result is that we can “look back” with at something that occurred “many, may minutes ago”, and see it (hear it) with a greater understanding and familiarity.
*** The piece was Bach’s Italian Concerto, second movement.
“In music, an ostinato [ostiˈnaːto] (derived from Italian: stubborn, compare English, from Latin: ‘obstinate’) is a motif or phrase that persistently repeats in the same musical voice, frequently in the same pitch.”
***** I changed the pitch of my ostinato sometimes to one that was more in concord with the passage he was playing, when it modulated, when it a spent a brief time a new harmonic region. I could of also done this interaction at the second piano. In that case I might have exaggerated the effect of what I was doing by playing not single notes appropriate chords in root position containing four notes Root-Fifth-Third-Root. It would be a D-minor chord at the start of the piece, then later varying it with the piece’s modulatory ambitions. At times I allow the upper two notes of the chord to articulate in a different rhythm than the ostinato rhythm, just enough to give a suggestion of the rhythm of the soloist’s right hand melody.
Brahms: Large Spans – Small Hand
Sometimes what appears to be a single technical difficulty located in a very specific place in the score, turns into, upon closer inspection, a series of separate but sequential technical issues that happen to cascade by in a short mount of time. Somehow, we need to be able to separate one step from another.
The situation is not unlike something that often happens to our moods. We feel happy at one instant and then sad at the next. This may distress us doubly because not only do we find ourselves sad, but because we have no idea what caused such a sudden change from being happy. Why this sort of thing happens is often because between the happy state and the sad state there were, flying through our mind, a series of thoughts, each one triggering an association with a thought, or memory, a bit more sad than the last. A second or two later, at the end of the train of thoughts, we feel that our mood changed as rapidly as being at the high point on roller coaster, and then finding ourselves hurtling downwards in space.
Understanding how we got there requires capturing in mid-stream each of these thoughts as they occur, and bringing them to full awareness and not leaving them semi-conscious. This blog entry presents an instance of this related to the piano, from a lesson yesterday when Irving played the opening of the Brahms Third Piano Sonata, Opus 7, first movement, specifically measure one, specifically beats two and three.
If you don’t have a big hand, this measure, and the ones following, can be difficult to play. What follows is on behalf of the person with a more average sized hand.
What at first seemed to be a matter just of coping “somehow” with the large spans, turned out to be a series of difficulties encountered one right after the other. You may solve one, thinking it is the only one, only to find for some reason that you haven’t solved the measure yet. The fact is there is more than one difficulty for the smaller sized hand in this measure.
A more careful analysis is required, with close attention in real time to what different parts of the playing mechanism are in the midst of trying to do. Playing in tempo obscures each step in the process.
The identity of these steps may not be apparent until we significantly slow down the measure, the same way high speed photography allows us to see a humming bird flapping its wings up and down, even a bullet traveling through space.
In our case, we slow down the measure to a crawl, and observe what each finger (and the hand too), at each instant, is trying to do.
During the bare second or two it takes to play the measure in tempo, each difficulty needs to be dealt with, separately, and in the order in which it arrives. Coping with one difficult a moment to early will throw off the entire process. It is like an assembly line, each worker takes care of a specific task and then passes things on to the next worker who then does their step. A worker cannot do their step in the process until the worker before them in the line has completed their step.
What follows are details of the steps that Irving and I found – once he played the measure at an extremely slow tempo.
I do not think these same steps would work for every individual, with every shape of hand, with every complement of fingers. But it is illustrative of the process itself, which each pianist can then tailor to their own circumstances.
Beat two going into beat three.
#1: Play the three notes in the right hand on beat two.
#2: Release the lower two notes while continuing to hold the top note.
#3: Substitute another finger for the pinkie on af5.
#4: Step 3 allows for a more legato execution of the af5 to the g5 to the f5.
#5: One now finds the hand in a position from which it is much easier to get to the particular hand distribution needed for the chord on the third beat.
If it is still difficult to get from the last thirty second note f5 back to the g5 that lies within the chord the chord on beat three, there is a second fake: when playing the thirty second note g5, continue holding down while playing the next thirty second note, f5.
As a further step, you can even hold the g5 into and through the chord on beat 3.
These steps, done in that order, will solve that measure for many pianists who have been intimated by the opening of this sonata.
The segue from one step to the next, however, needs to be handled with an exquisite sense of timing, a rhythm of its own independent of the rhythm of the notes, the rhythm of the body doing first one thing and then another.
When attempting to do these steps in order for the first time, do not try to do it in tempo. Put a fermata, as long a pause as you would like, after you have done each step. Don’t worry about going on to the next step until you feel completely ready. We a series of motions need to be executed rapidly, it benefits from spreading out the required motions in time, almost as if you are setting them side by side in space, which permits you to dwell for as long as you like on each part.
What we have done for this measure is an analysis that is just a matter of mechanics (though not requiring a degree in physics). It requires careful and genuine regard for the details of one’s anatomy and how each part wants to behave if it could have its ‘druthers’. If we observe the process carefully we will find just what motions are appropriate and as well as the time that should be given to each.
(I am going to try to import a photo of the first measure)
An Addendum to Sight-Reading Blogs
Links to previous blogs on sight reading are at the end of this post.
Today, we devoted Irving’s entire lesson to sight reading. During the lesson we noticed that these things were recurrent themes.
Trust your ear to judge if there is you have played a wrong note, but that sometimes though a note sounds wrong to the ear it is still correct because you are playing the piece in a slower tempo.
Remind yourself of the key signature in each new measure that you read. If you have an excellent visual imagination, just place the key signature after each new bar line.
Keep track of accidentals that have arisen in the current measure and remember to honor them throughout the rest of the measure* (be on the lookout for a natural sign as one of the accidentals in a measure).
Make sure all the notes your fingers are pushing down are actually sounding.
Try to think ahead.
Try to make the bar lines “transparent”. See if you can use any of the time playing the current measure to read ahead and figure out some or all of the next measure.
Sometimes try to sight read in “real time”, I.E. with no pauses or hesitations. Keep up with the beats, even if it means skipping over notes or even measures.
* even though the accidental sign only shows up the first time it applies in the measure and not the remaining times that it may apply.
Links to previous posts about sight reading:
#1 Habits that produce good sight reading: https://joebloom.com/habits-that-induce-good-sight-reading-skills/
#2 New rule for Irving regarding Sight Reading. https://joebloom.com/a-new-rule-for-irving-about-sight-reading/
#3 Rhythm & rhythmic coordination in Sight Reading. https://joebloom.com/rhythmic-coordination-between-the- hands-in-sight-reading/
Simplifying A Difficult Passage
A simple example of the procedure.
Irving is a late beginner. He is playing just the right hand of one of the easier Bach pieces. He thinks it will be too hard to put the hands together. I suggest that the next time he plays just the right hand, he lay his left hand down on the keyboard hand and let it rest there passively. He says: I don’t see any advantage in doing this, it certainly is not going to make playing the two hands together any easier. But he tries it. He is immediately struck by the fact that the right hand seems harder to play when the left hand is simply present on the keyboard. He says the right hand feels different. I agree: what one hand does is influenced by the other hand. Still, he said, this is easier than playing both hands together.
What we had created is an in between point between playing just with one hand and playing with both hands. Instead of one larger ‘step’, going directly from playing with one hand to playing with both hands, we created two smaller steps: 1) right hand alone 2) right hand with left hand running interference, 3) both hands playing the written notes. Instead of going directly from step one to step three, all that’s left for Irving is to go from step two to step three.
However, what if going from step two to step three turns out to be too big a jump? We simply divide that jump into two smaller parts. Between step two and step three we insert this: the left hand, though not yet playing its part, now is moved around while the right hand plays. Not moving any place particular but just so he is conscious of motion occurring in the left hand while trying to concentrate of the right hand.
We were following in the foot steps of one of the great thinkers in the Western tradition. The philosopher René Descartes (1596-1650), in his “Discourse on Method” suggested that one follow a four-step plan for seeking truth in the sciences. The second of these was, in his words “to divide up each of the difficulties which I examined into as many parts as possible, and as seemed requisite in order that it might be resolved in the best manner possible.”
We interpolate new steps as needed. As soon as the transition from one step to the next is not easily accomplished, we interpolate another step. The beauty of this procedure is that one can interpolate as many steps as one wants between the starting state and the final state we are aiming for. The more intermediate steps there are, the smaller becomes the change in difficulty from one to the next. In its ideal form, when using this process, the pianist will not be aware of any increase in difficulty when going from one step to the next, and the final state, the one desired all along, will, when attained, seem no harder than the first step.
A careful analysis:
The trick is how to define the first state. It must bear a direct relation to the last state. In Irving’s case it was easily found: “I’ll start with one hand at a time before trying both hands together”. Other technical and musical difficulties require a more penetrating analysis. Often the starting state is found at the end of a reverse process that starts with the final state, and gradually simplifies it, step by step, each time by removing what is most difficult to execute from what is left, and/or what is least essential musically, until a simplest state is left or revealed, one that is simplest to play yet still bears a resemblance to the final state.* During this process, each stage, while simpler than the last, should still contain the essence of the previous stage.
We operate like a grammarian who diagrams a sentence in a manner that reveals its more essential and less essential parts and clauses. Or like a chemist who by analysis reduces a complex compound into smaller and smaller molecules until at last the atomic structure of the compound is revealed. Or like a philosopher who seeks into an issue to find the more basic principle on which it rests. In my case, it is a procedure I use especially when teaching ear training: taking an ear training ability that is presented as being simple and whole, but then refracting it through a prism and showing that there are other, simpler component abilities that underlying the target ability. And even some of the simpler abilities turn out to be, themselves, complex in relation to even simpler abilities. Start with the simplest abilities and build back up.
* By removing notes without compromising the general meaning of the passage. By removing melodically unessential notes from a melody leaving only the salient notes. By simplifying a complex rhythm into simpler rhythms (simpler in nature and simpler in execution). By simplifying a complex harmonic progression to a simpler one that is easier for the ear to track, and easier for the fingers to play.
Special moments at a lesson
Special moments during a lesson. “Artistic Time” and “Everyday Time”
Rachael is taking a lesson.
I have come to realize that the times when I am most useful to the student is while they are in the midst of playing; not after they have come to a pause. Once the student has stepped back out of the river of time that flows when sounding the piece, it will be too late for her to take my feedback and transplant back into the living flow of sounds she created, where it will do the most good.
The time to strike is in medias res – in the midst of things. The student is then in what I call the “artistic time the flow of ” and not in the flow of what, in contrast, I call “everyday time”. When the stops playing, or a few moments later (although it can be much longer) she simply switches realities, and is back in the everyday. The transition is so automatic that usually the person does not know it is happening: “oh, there is piano again in front of me; there’s Joe again sitting by my side; there’s that awful looking chair he’s sitting in …”. But most of all — there’s “me” again, someone sitting on a piano bench: for if we are immersed in the artistic flow of time we may easily forget where we are, who we are, or even that we are. While playing all that seems to exist is the sound of the music.
During the artistic time the student is in an altered state. If there were a special “artistic-time-clock” available, she would notice it was set to zero when she starts playing, and then continues to marks off time during the duration of her playing. It stops a moment or a longer after she stops playing. At that point she looks at the real clock on the wall, and gets re-synchronized with the time flow of the real world: Oh, it’s 1:30, time for lunch.
The relation of these two times, “artistic” and “everyday”, is expressed by the poet Edna St. Vincent Millay at the beginning of the “On Hearing a Symphony of Beethoven”:
“Sweet sounds, oh, beautiful music, do not cease!
Reject me not into the world again.
With you alone is excellence and peace, … ”
Art (and I might say nature too) has the ability of putting the person into the flow of artistic time, who then may stay in it for a period of minutes, hours, or longer.
If I can join her in the artistic time, what I do or say has a good chance of being absorbed into the fabric of that artistic time, and of staying in that time whenever she plays.
Related to this, there are also brief moments during a lesson, when the teacher can speak directly into the innermost recesses of the student psyche. Moments like these do not occur at every lesson. I can best describe it as something that arises as an unforeseen crack in the fabric of time. A moment later and that opening usually seals over.
The teacher has to alert to when and if such an opening occurs. Something is said or done inside the lesson, that unexpectedly causes the student to let down all the shields and defenses, leaving them open for a moment to new ideas. At such a moment the teacher can carefully and compassionately say something that the teacher has, for some time past, been careful not to say to the student: things that hover near where the student’s personality and musicality intersect.
To take advantage of such a moment, the teacher has to be fine-tuned to the student during the lesson, and remain so as continuously as possible.