Tag: Tension

Where Does Sound Come From?

Stranded on a dessert island.

Imagine a person born blind, living alone, on a proverbial deserted island, out of touch with society, surviving through what she can grasp with her hands.  Sight has never had an influence on her notion of reality.

From a hidden vantage point we notice that a bird is singing near where she is standing.  We assume she hears it; but cannot see it.   For her there is only a certain quality of sound, to which only we can give the name bird.  For her, it never gets beyond being just a sound, although she can distinguish one sound from another on the basis of its quality.

Thus she is someone who 1) has never seen, 2) never seen a bird, and 3) wouldn’t be able to conceive that there is something called a bird.  There are simply no past connections between the sense of sound and the sense of sight.  There is nothing linking the sound of the bird with the sight of a bird.

If the question “why” arises in her mind, probably in the form of “why this sound and not another sound”, the question can only be posed by her within the domain of time and not space: “why do I hear that sound now and not at another time.”

At this moment, a miracle occurs.

Our subject can now see.  One of the first things that happens is that she sees a bird, although it is not at that moment singing.  Thus at this point  there is no reason for her to form any sort of link between the sound of the bird and the image of the bird in front of her.

Some scientists now enter the scene.

They introduce themselves, and present her with a series of pictures.  Included is a picture of the same species of bird that she has been hearing.  She is asked to choose from among the pictures the one she thinks would be most closely associated with the sound she already knows.

This request perplexes her.  She cannot even understand the general form of the question.  At this stage of the story, sight is still new to her.  She knows of no reason why a sight and a sound should be related to each other, even that they could be related to each other.   While the sound, for the scientists is the “sound of a bird“, she has no need to make, or even conceive, such a statement.

She has no grounds for choosing one picture as against another.  This makes it arbitrary which picture she chooses.  If she is “artistic” by nature, perhaps she may form an aesthetic comparison: which sight feels like it goes with this sound.

Her judgment in this matter cannot yet be based on cause and effect.  And even if she has a notion of cause and effect from her previous experiences in which there was no sight, sound as far as she can tell, needs no cause.

She expostulates.

“Excuse me”, she asks, “are you saying that a sound requires a sight to cause it?  That among all the random lines and shapes I see, which seem aimlessly distributed in space, there are certain lines and shapes that for a reason I cannot conceive ‘belong’ to each other, stand out from the other lines and shapes because of a mysterious relationship, which in turn you call the cause of the sound I have been hearing – not just now, but whenever I hear it.

When you speak of this mysterious connection between just certain lines and shapes, you use the strange word  ‘object’, as if by saying that word it should be obvious to me why just those lines and shapes clump together with each other.  And then, now that I supposedly believe in something called ‘the object’ whatever an object is, it is also the cause for the sound – something that never seemed necessary to me for the sound to occur.   Why should there be such a complicated and seemingly arbitrary way of connecting things in my mind, based on an invisible (at least to me) concept called ‘object’, without which, you say, I would not hear my sounds.  Furthermore that I have to choose among several of these objects, and pronounce the words ‘this object is the cause of what I hear?’  That sounds like an enchanter’s spell.  My universe was full and complete without sound requiring a cause.  Being sighted is sure a complex thing.”

At last she picks one of the pictures. “If I pick this picture today can I pick another picture tomorrow to be the cause of this particular sound in my head?  I ask you this because for now, none of the pictures that you show me bear any inner resemblance to the sound that I know.”  The psychologists say: “No, you must believe that a sound arises in your consciousness because of a certain event happening in space, which something has to do with a particular object that you see, and always that object and not another.”

She comes to her “senses”.

She is left alone for a few days to ponder this perplexing situation, a situation that until now, without sight, had no reason or necessity  to exist.

During one of these days she just happens to hear the sound of the bird at the same time that she is looking at a bird.  This may have happened on the preceding days, but this time she notices that the beak of the bird moves in tandem, in time, with the occurrence of the sound.  She knows this much more because of time rather than space.  The togetherness of the sight and the sound is based on a common moment in time.

This forms the basis of a series of ongoing experiences by which the sound of the bird is gradually linked in her mind to the image of the bird.

As with the pictures of shown by the psychologists to the girl, sights that are visible to a growing, young child at only at certain times, during for example a concert, are only gradually coordinated by that child with something seen in space in the concert hall.  It turns out that the people who are holding musical instruments in their hands seem to make motions that are most consistently synchronous in time with the changes of the qualities of the sounds.

Here’s the first important point.  Once such an association is made by the child, he or she forgets that there was a time when no such association had been made.

The second point is: was either the woman on the island, or the person in the concert hall, missing anything crucial when they was unable to relate the object ‘bird’ or the object ‘violin’ with a certain specific sound quality of sound?  I say no.  Nothing essential to our understanding and appreciation of sound is added to by the tacking onto the sound a relationship with sight.  And in the concert hall, it adds nothing important to essential qualities of the music as sound alone.*

For those of us who do not need such distractions as sight offers, and can remain glued to the sounds of the piece, we enter an ideal realm of pure relationships between pure sounds, closed off from everything else, and not lacking a thing.

* It is for some but not all of the concert goers, that visual impressions can serve as a distraction or refuge from just having to listen to sound from one moment to the next.  For them there are the distractions of the appearance of the concert hall.  For them, too, there is the all important information in the program notes, which they are relived to believe captures something essential that they miss in the progression of the sounds alone.  But thanks to the program notes, they are able to go up to someone at intermission and say, wisely: “wasn’t it wonderful how the composer used the brass section in the second movement of the symphony to create a delicate halo of sound around the rest of the orchestra!”.

 

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The Aha Moment: Muscles Working in Harmony

The Aha Moment: Muscles Working in Harmony

Rachmaninoff G Minor Prelude (op. 23 no. 5)

I think of physical habits at the piano as falling into three categories.

Category One: Movements that neither help nor hinder playing.

Category Two: Movements that facilitate and help playing.

Category Three: Movements that hinder playing.

I don’t worry too much about students regarding category A, unless their motions mask or keep them from discovering more useful motions.

I encourage or teach students any movements that fall into category B, those that facilitate playing.

At Irving’s lesson today he used a gesture that unfortunately is in the third category, motions that directly hinder the playing. It seemed to be an intentional gesture on his part, done because he thinks it helps his playing.   When we would reach the point when one would normally gently release the keys after sounding a note or chord, Irving pressed further into the keys with his hands and fingers and simultaneously raised his shoulders. I think he does the latter in order to cushion the added pressure created by the former.  He creates, in effect, an ‘aftershock’ to his sounding of notes. The result blocked the flow of energy down his arms.  He make this gesture most often when playing a difficult passage.

We managed to instill a new motion that replaced the harmful motion and moreover achieved the purpose he was trying to achieve by using the harmful motion.

I asked him to drop his arms at his sides, and to begin rocking then swinging them forwards and backwards towards and away from the keyboard.  Then I suggested that he start playing the piece again.  As he did so, I started to repeat, over and over, the mantra  “swing your arms … swing your arms…”.  Each I time I said these three syllables, I timed them to coincide with the often repeated rhythmic pattern in the piece: two sixteenths then an eighth.

He played for a while and then stopped.  In a frustrated tone of voice he said: “I don’t understand; how I can swing my arms and play at same time.  Be more specific, Joe.  Tell me how much I should move the arms, in what plane of action, using muscles in particular.”

I said: “Aha!  This is the crux of the issue.  The fact is that indeed there are too many muscles in the arms to keep track of what each one is doing.”

It is like walking.  Almost the entire body is in motion.  Many complex interactions of muscles are occurring.  Yet, somehow they are harmonized and brought into balance with each other, and work towards the common end of moving the body forwards.  If you were to try to be aware of which muscles you were using when walking you would simply cause the motion to become awkward, stilted, and un-flowing through time.  But the point is that they do work together, unbidden.  They act in harmony.

In this regard, piano playing is similar to walking.  Enumerating what to move and when will not produce a fluid motion of the arms.

Irving: “So what can we do – what do I do?”

Joe: “Since there can be no detailed answer to your question about what, and by how much, I can only reply, just trust that any attempt you make to put the arms into any sort of motion, will lead you to more fluidity and better sounding quality while you are playing.”

After a while, Irving got it.  He said: “I don’t understand how this is working, or exactly what I am doing other than thinking about motion in my arms, but I hear a difference, and I like the difference.”

 

 

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The Elbow

In terms of its use in the playing mechanism, the elbow can easily be the forgotten part of the arm.  It is remote from the hand and remote from the connection of the arm to the back.  It seems “remote from the action.” However, it is of critical importance as a mediator – a negotiator between shoulder and the fingers.  It is that which insures that energy coming down the arm is not blocked or detoured before reaching the fingers.

When tension occurs and mobility is reduced, the hidden cause often lies in the elbow.  It will often make adaptations in its alignment, not because they are useful to the transmission of power to the hands, but because we are concentrating on our hands and wish to have the hand be in a certain position.  The tension simply gets “referred” up the arm to the elbow, where we are often unaware of it.  But whether recognized or not, when there is tension in the elbow, when its freedom of movement is inhibited, we sever the free connection between shoulder and fingers.

Often the elbow is doing what it “wants” to do, but is at the service of something else.  How do we find out what the elbow naturally wants to do?  It is actually a simple procedure.  If we want to know what the right elbow is doing, use the left hand to embrace, or better, to “cradle” the elbow of the right arm.  If we now play a passage with the right hand, the cradling hand will actively sense what the right elbow wants to do, or more importantly, what it is forced to do in order to accommodate an awkward hand or wrist position.  It will notice when the elbow is coerced into making a sudden or jerky motion, usually to compensate for something occurring at the extremities.

If there is a sudden, unexpected or awkward motion in the elbow, we will want to smooth it out, or slow it down to make it flow.  By keeping in mind that the hand and the shoulder should be two stable points between which is extended the length of the arm, then the elbow modifies its alignment and attitude to find a way of sustaining this equilibrium between the two end points of the arm.  If there is a breach in the continuity of the arm, it is most likely found in the elbow because the elbow controls the motion of both the forearm and the upper arm.

Most illuminating in this regard is to play a scale or an arpeggio.

When you play a scale in the right hand, you may be surprised at what the elbow is doing as you play the scale.  It compensates for, it balances out, it supports what is happening in the lower arm and hand.  If a sudden lurch occurs in the elbow while playing the scale, it is easy to smooth out, especially if the left hand is there cradling the elbow (see above).  The supportive hand of the left arm is, figuratively speaking, saying to the elbow: don’t worry, you don’t have to make a sudden defensive or reactive gesture, because I’m here to support, balance, and give you a grounding against which to move.

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The hand can act like a bouncing ball

Release a rubber ball so it falls to the ground.  It does not remain on the ground but bounces back up and then repeats the same cycle over again a number of times until it is finally still. If we treat our hand as if it were imitating a bouncing ball, then the impetus we need to repeat a note a second (third, fourth…) time originates from what we did to play the first note: no additional energy is required.

The use of this effect isn’t limited to repeating the same note, it can apply to any series of notes or chords of equal duration.  Our physical intent can be limited to playing the first of the series, and simply allow the others to happen.

If the arm is in motion horizontally at the same time that the hand is bouncing, then the effect is like skipping stones at a lake.  The stone makes contact with the water (keyboard) then leaves the keyboard to make contact again, further in the same direction.  The only intentional motion required is the one initiating the process, the rest happens as if on its own.

The most useful way to apply this at the piano is to do it simultaneously in both arms, in a motion that begins near the extremes of the keyboard and works its way inwards towards the center of the keyboard.*  This puts the two sides of the body into symmetric harmony with each other, one side aiding and advancing the progress of the other.

* in some cases there is enough momentum left for the hands actually to cross each other.

 

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A “crescendo” of relaxation

Illusion of a Crescendo VideoRelated Video: Illusion of a Crescendo

M. and I are working on the second (the fast) movement of the Beethoven Sonata Op 109.

She has small hands and struggles to execute the more difficult passages.  Even the span of an octave requires special effort by her. However, when she relaxes her hand, the span she is capable of between the thumb and pinkie   grows by at least several millimeters. That may be a small difference, but often is enough to determine the difference between ease and discomfort, relaxation and strain, accuracy playing the two keys and inaccuracy.

The more tension there is in the hand, the less it can freely breathe open and closed.  The hand should not remain in a fixed position any longer than it does during the day when we are not at the piano.  It is always fluid, mobile and protean, a mass ever changing in form.

The best playing results when the hand is capable of both taking and loosing any shape or span.  It should remain in its momentary shape without any tension or clinging to that shape, then be able to change to a different shape a moment later without having to overcome any inertia. There should be no resistance to change when it occurs due to any sort of clinging to the previous shape.

Let us say we are playing a series of diatonic triads going up the C Major scale.  It is incorrect to assume that the hand can exactly maintain the same shape for throughout.  Watch closely and you will see that the lateral angle in the wrist, and even in the fingers, is constantly changing.  That the angles in the shoulder and elbow are also changing.  If we freeze the hand as we play the triads, while the first triad may feel comfortable, each subsequent triad will feel more and more awkward.  Sometimes, though, it takes close attention to the changing muscular sensations of our body to notice this change as it occurs.

A crescendo of relaxation:

If, as is often the case, we are unaware of growing tension as we are playing, the only antidote is relaxing over and over as we proceed.  Though we may feel as relaxed now as we were a few measures ago, the chances are good that we are not.  It may seem to us that each time we relax during the piece we are getting more relaxed than we have been any time prior in the piece, but in reality it takes this ‘crescendo’ of renewed acts of relaxing to offset a less conscious drift in the other direction.

Often, when a student is playing a piece, and sees that a more difficult part of the piece is coming over the time-horizon, she will tend to do two things: get louder and get tenser.  It is as much an emotional reaction to worry and fear than a simple physical reaction to cope with the anticipated physical difficulty.  The paradox, of course, is that the less tense the playing mechanism remains, the easier it will be to play the upcoming passage, regardless of its difficulty.

Odd as it may sound, the best physical state while playing is the one that most resembles a quiet state of not doing anything at all.  Often we exaggerate the difference between the former and the latter, and do “too much” in order to play.

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Comments

  1. It reminds me of a dancer who stays in a “momentary shape” and also “ever changing in form”. What a lovely image to compare a pianist to a dancer, the expression emerging from the physical into the ethereal in a similar way but heightened with addition of sound.

  2. What is the best way to practice this state of ‘not doing anything at all’ while practicing? Are there any specific techniques you have for that?

    1. Part of the answer is doing the least physical effort that is nonetheless adequate to producing desirable results. It is separating the degree of effort from the degree of the desired result. There was a medieval philosopher, William of Ockham, who in essence said: if there are various ways of solving a problem or achieving a certain result, and some of the ways are complicated and some are much simpler, choose a simpler one – choose the simplest one possible. Ockham himself said: do not multiply entities unnecessarily. Of course, for most people, his way of describing his idea about keeping things simple is not expressed at all simply.

      Another way I think about this is like this:

      When people are singing or playing “in the groove” they often describe the experience as:

      I wasn’t conscious of trying to do anything. Or, it was as if I was listening to singing rather than singing. Or, the sounds flow of their own accord; the notes seem to flow out without prompting; the music is speaking through me; I am only the transmitting mechanism; I feel like everything is under the control of the music; my ego and
      physical intents have little to do with it. All notes, all sounds, come from silence. Silence precedes them, silence surrounds them, silence follows them. They materialize out of the ether and vanish in press of time. Time itself is an artifact that allows us to tell the story one piece at a time, though in the essence it is not yet words, yet all the words are there somehow in a womb; a single pregnant mass.