Playing Priority Number One: Evenness
A.B.’s lesson on 8/22/19
First, an example of a playing goal that depends in turn on evenness of sound.
Let us say we want to ‘orchestrate’ a passage, meaning that the piano must be capable of uttering a variety of tone qualities. Timbre change on the piano is most easily achieved as a secondary effect to changes in dynamic intensity of the sound. It is therefore advisable to first be able to level the tonal playing field so that every note speaks with an equal volume, regardless of its pitch range. Its duration, touch, attack, and way of connecting to the next note; all equal. Then, on this base of evenness, we can orchestrate by sculpting a ‘relief’. So, timbre and orchestration at the piano have a prerequisite evenness of sound, then that evenness can then be altered specifically.
If we make a list of important goals in our practicing, it would include both the ability to orchestrate and the ability to play evenly. However, evenness has a priority over orchestration. Some goals simply depend on first attaining mastery in some other goal. Differences among sound, including timbre, cannot be noticed in a constantly changing, uneven tonal environment.
The same dependency on evenness as a prerequisite applies to:
- Having a clearly articulated rhythm.
- Crafting the ‘shape’ of a phrase.
- Revealing the structure of a piece.
- Responding to different emotional states through sound.
Before being able to play a crescendo or a decrescendo we need to have a foreground of – evenness, that makes it clear to a listener that certain notes are getting progressively softer or louder. Anything to do with sound, rhythm, fingering, and interpretation depends first on the ability to play evenly.
Evenness is a complex amalgam of different facets.
- The way one note connects to the next.
- The loudness of the notes.
- The same quality of sound regardless of each note’s duration.
- The quality of the touch, and of the onsets of the sounds.
- The extraction of the same resonance in the sound regardless
of pitch range constant,
These evenness-es must then be combined when two hands are playing together, or whenever there is more than one voice occurring at the same time.
A.B. has a tendency to want to try perfect the tiniest details in a piece before addressing the more general and mundane matter of evenness. This prioritization doesn’t minimize the importance of the details, it just postpones their achievement for just a moment. For once the passage is even, A.B. finds that the details are more easily controlled and perfected.
Another example. Before choosing the ‘best’ fingering, be able to play the sequence of notes evenly regardless of the fingers being used. Then, the final choice of fingering is made in a more revealing atmosphere, so that the effect of the passage is not primarily dependent on the fingering but that rather the effect is clear in the pianist’s mind prior to any particular fingering.
Playing the “correct” notes would seem to be on an equal level of importance to ‘evenness’. Psychologically, though, trying to get the right notes to sound, without first demanding that they sound evenly, has the counter-intuitive effect of adding time to the process of learning the correct notes.
Once the pianist explores evenness, she or he becomes more and more sensitive to when evenness is not occurring. And with this growing awareness, the parallel question evolves: how fine a tolerance should go into setting the standard for the evenness. At what point does the evenness ‘click in’ as factor that brings a passage to life? And related to this is the question: how much of evenness is measurable on a sound meter? How much is dependent on an actual conglomeration of factors that intuitively the ear must be aware of and process?
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).
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.
“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!”.
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.”