Tag: Time

Micro-managing the motions of the fingers by micro-managing time

When playing we are lulled into a sense that we make one physical motion for every note we play.  That, however, leaves out many subtle motions we make before we play a note and while we hold a note (even if the note is brief).

I wanted to call Irving’s attention to motions that take place so rapidly that we are unaware of them, but at the same time are motions that are critical to the successful execution of the connection from the current note to the next note.

As an example we used the “Revolutionary” Etude (Chopin’s op 10 / 12).

The first four notes in the left hand at the beginning of the piece (A-flat, G, F, D in the octave of middle C).  We used the fingering 2 1 2 4.

I raised these questions for Irving.  They were rhetorical in the sense that I did not want a verbal answer, but wanted him to be aware of what he was doing physically from instant to instant in time.

-At what exact instant does the thumb start moving under the second finger on its way towards the F.

-At what exact moment does the second finger, in turn, start its motion leftwards to pass over the thumb (the latter now being on F).

When our awareness re-sets itself only one to three times per second, we sometimes we ‘lump’ together certain physical motions.  We assume that they either will occur together, or one right after the other.  This is often too vague a description of what goes on in our hands.  Smoothness is something that exists to the finest perceivable granularity in time.  The smoothness of the execution of a group of notes depends on the exact moment during that execution when one particular component of the motion begins relative when another component begins.

Note, too, that the exact proportion of when these timings occur will probably need to change if you change the tempo.  Sometimes one of the components does not make this adaptation, and the group is spoiled.

We can call the above an example of “finger ergonomics”.

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Connections between notes separated in time

Music and Memory: Connections between past and present.

Summary: The relationships that we notice most between notes are those between two consecutive notes in a melody or two notes sounding in the same chord.  If one tries to notice the relationship, for example, between the first note of a melody, and the fourth note of the same melody, it isn’t as easy to hear or be aware of.  In effect, we have to ignore the notes in between.  The first note has already happened; it has largely slipped out of memory.   To experience this relationship as sounds rather than merely as ideas requires that they be more proximate in time.

The most tangible form of connection in sound is that between two notes that come one right after the other in time, the second beginning as the first, ends.  In such a case the presence of the first note is still viscerally present in the finger and hand as the second  note begins.  We feel and hear how the second note changes, continues, distorts, deforms the first note.  These latter qualities are not exactly present in the sounds themselves, but hover as an emergent form just outside of the conscious embrace of the sounds.

In the space of a painting, two objects adjacent in space remain side by side regardless of when we choose to look at the painting.  In music, time defeats, or abolishes, space, because one moment in time eclipses another.  The longer we wait between starting the current note and the next note, the harder it becomes to make a tangible, felt, as well as audible, connection between the notes.

The relationship between two sounds is harder to grasp or feel when there is one or more additional notes in between the two sounds.  Physically, it is hard to make a connection or relationship between two such separated notes in time.

A simple example of this is the first entrance of the fugue theme in the Bach Toccata and Fugue in D Minor (the one Disney used in the first “Fantasia” movie and not the “Dorian” Toccata).  The sense of the melody “A G F E D C# D…” is present and clear although there an A is constantly being interpolated between each pair of melody notes: “a G a F a E a D a C# a D…”.

This is a case wherein it is relatively easy to connect the notes of the “hidden” or camouflaged melody, which our ear forges on the spot out of notes that are separated by the presence of other notes. In the case of the Bach, the interpolation of an A-natural.

If short term memory can create a tangible and sensual link between every other note in a passage, then why not between notes that are more remote from each other in time sequence.

A good friend or spouse may be currently wearing clothes of a particular color, when we next see them be wearing a different a color. When that happens, we know two things: 1) we are looking at the same person, and 2) the outward color is different than the last time.

It is the same with music.  At a later time in a piece we can hear something that we immediately recognize or, intuitively sense, as being the same or related to something heard before.  At that moment, the past is suddenly brought very close to the present.  This effect is fundamental to the creating a structure of sounds that exist in time only without space.

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Quality distinguished from quantity

Quantity versus quality, the immeasurable versus the measurable.

Non-typically, Irving has chosen to start work on a piece by Debussy.

This affords an opportunity to revise his customary way of approaching a new piece.

Part One: Keeping score on the number of wrong notes.

Usually, when Irving begins a practicing session, he measures his improvement in direct proportion to the increasing percentage of right notes that he plays and the decreasing number of errors.

This means he is devoting his conscious effort to ‘measurable’ quantities (the pitches of notes) rather than other things that are, in contrast to quantities, best termed qualities that are evoked in his playing.

How do we sidestep his “pointillistic” application of correct notes to the piece?

The first step was a bit drastic.  I asked him to leave the right pedal down until a large group of notes were all swimming around in a common and confusing sounding tonal pool.

We then refined this so the notes that were thrown in the pool were only those that were chord-tones according to the current harmony.   By doing this, a chord was being gradually built up, one note at a time, until all the notes of the chord were sounding together.

Now came the leap of musical imagination together with a slight derailing of the forward arrow of time.  “The sound of this chord-cluster in its entirety,” I said,  “should be in your imagination from the moment you play the first sound of the group that is going to form the chord at the end of the process.  It is like a magical pedal that not only combines the sounds left in the wake of each sound, but can also summon up the presence of the sounds that remain to be heard.”

Once this effect is achieved with regularity, the next step is to re-create that feeling at will, with or without relying on the literal application of the pedal.

Part Two: Some other the desirable ‘qualities’ to evoke in the Debussy.

One note then the next:

A new note doesn’t always ‘eclipse’ an old note.  The new note should not be opaque, in time, to the memory of the previous note.  Let each note blend into the next, yielding its essence as an inheritance to the next note.


Melodies should seem to leave thick ‘trails’ behind their advancing wave front in time.  The combined presence of their notes persists in time.   Even without the pedal, the melody should sound in the imagination as if it were sounding in a perfect echo chamber; each part of the melody is inseparably bound to the overall shape of that melody.


Even in the early stages of reading a new piece, the pianist sometimes should try to play a passage in the intended final tempo.  Otherwise the pianist who is interested primarily in right notes will automatically exclude from his consciousness the unique musical qualities of the piece that will animate and give life to the performance that will only become manifest in the piece’s proper tempo.   Make the piece yield up its secrets before all the notes are learned.

Quality is so fundamentally different than quantity that the notes, if they are merely correct, eclipse the ability to modulate and shape sound, create tonal imagery, and release – as a flower giving off an aroma –  all that is non-quantitative and miraculous about the piece and its sound.

Tempo can be used generally as a tool with which to experiment for evoking the qualities inherent in a piece.  Playing a passage in its final tempo* sooner rather than later in the learning process, including wrong notes, will bring us to a realization of the indefinable aesthetic essence of the passage, rather than repeating the passage over and over in a gradually increasing  tempo.   The downside of approaching the final tempo gradually and incrementally is that the desired tempo may never actually be reached.  Why?  Because the successful execution, in the final tempo, depends as much on a clear musical vision of the aesthetic qualities of the piece as it does on physical technique.  We need the qualities of the piece to guide and lead the notes into yielding their musical essence that transcends the actual identity of the pitches.

* whether this final tempo is slower or faster than the initial practice tempo

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The printed score and its limitations

A lesson with Irving on the Chopin: F Minor Nocturne

He is an intermediate level student, and has not had enough years of experience in reading scores to not be thrown off by ambiguities in the music notation.   In particular the rhythmic counter-intuitiveness of even an unusually fine edition like “Henle.”  Here are some of the issues we encountered.

Issue 1:

Sometimes it is difficult to tell that a series of eighth notes in the right hand line up simultaneously with a series of eighth notes in the left hand.  This is simply because of the optical illusion produced when the stems of the notes in one hand go up and the stems of the notes in the other hand go down.  We tend to be less aware that the note centers are vertically aligned and more aware of the left-right offset of the stems.

Issue 2:

The printed symbol for a whole note often takes up more horizontal space than that of a shorter note, for example a half note.  If there is a whole note and a half note in the same chord played by the same hand, before we can interpret the rhythmic relation between the two notes, we have to first ‘translate’ the feeling of horizontal imbalance on the page into a more mathematical sense of the ratio of the durations of the notes.

Issue 3:

In the edition of the Nocturne we are using, the first measure of the cadenza-like, cascading downward run in sixteenths, begins after a quarter note.  The publisher has left very little horizontal space between the quarter note and the first of the sixteenth notes.  The intuitive impression is that the sixteenth notes start sooner than they actually do.  As a result we may find it harder than usual to  play the simple rhythm of a quarter followed by four sixteenths.

Issue 4:

The width of two measures containing the exactly the same number of notes and in the same rhythm, vary because of the extra horizontal room taken by accidental signs, especially the double flat sign.

Issue 5:

Near the end of the piece there is a wonderfully chromatic and somewhat dissonant pair of voices converging in the right hand. The printed notes are already counter-intuitive because of a sort of staggered chromaticism between the two voices.  This makes the notes even more difficult to read because the edition compresses the width of that particular measure to save room.  The notes seem harder to read, not as much because of the composer’s unique choices of pitch, but because they are jammed together left and right.

One can adduce many more such examples.

In general, a publisher assumes that the exact rhythm of a passage can be gleaned from, or sometimes in spite of, the horizontal spacing of the notes on the page.  That it is up to the pianist to “translate” the spatial information into a durational awareness of what the rhythm is.  Only sometimes does the rhythm on the page “look like” what it “sounds like” through time.

We forget this because of years of unconsciously making this translation, but for the less experienced pianist it helps to point out the when the appearance of the notes on the page make the rhythm even more ambiguous than usual to discern.

In Irving’s case we discovered just how strongly his subconscious brain rebelled against all of the above types of visual incongruities on the page.  And since this was occurring on a subconscious level, he did not stop to make himself aware of the cause of his discomfort.  He assumed that he somehow was doing something badly, or was having more trouble than other pianists learning the piece.  But once he became conscious of these ambiguities, he was able to stop blaming himself for the results of those ambiguities.  Irving could feel himself in the privileged position of a critic who is looking down upon the spatial appearance of the rhythms, but who out of kindness will correc in his mind the incongruities so that the rhythm sounds as the composer intended.

Singers have a particular issue with one aspect of the printed display of rhythms.  It results from which notes are beamed together with others notes as against a note having its own self-standing flag.  The publisher is more interested in showing where the last note of one syllable changes to the first note of the next syllable and does so by not beaming together those two notes.  They have prioritized syllabification over a clear portrayal of rhythm.  The result of seeing all the resulting isolated stems is to confuse the eye so that we cannot divine even simplest of rhythms, as when a quarter note divided into four sixteenth notes.

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Rubato. How to make the piece “breathe”

P. is an adult student who is playing Brahms.  She asked me, “How do I make my playing sound like the recordings of it I enjoy?”

“I know there is flexibility in the performer’s playing. I sense it, I ‘hear’ it.  It sounds so natural and obvious, yet I don’t know how to reproduce it when I am playing the piece.  I can’t make it sound as musical.  Why?”

My answer: “Welcome to the wonderful world of rubato!”

The following was my attempt to “teach” rubato.

First, I said that I thought the way by which she evaluated her success at playing a piece was ‘measured’, and in inverse proportion, by the number of mistakes.

P: “Shouldn’t I know all the notes solidly before I start playing around with them musically?”

Me: “To develop rubato, you may need to change some long term habits.  Don’t evaluate your success by right or wrong notes.  And don’t wait until you know the notes of the piece before you add musicality as if it were an added ingredient.  It’s the other way around: you learn the notes more quickly if you play musically if, for no other reason, than  you come to understand more quickly why the composer the chose the notes that he chose.”

Michelangelo said that he could envision the finished shape of his sculpture when he was looking at the untouched block of marble, from which the sculpture was to be carved.  He would then cut away the material of what in retrospect would be the “negative space” surrounding the inner form, until the positive space of the inner form was revealed.

His first cuts of the chisel were probably rough and not meant to be specific.  Your first experiments at rubato can also be rough and random.  Pick a spot in the piece, any spot, and try speeding up or slowing down the next group of notes.  As the sculptress of the musical phrase, you then ask yourself, did this change, did this bending of the steady tempo into a curve, make the piece sound better?  Did the change make the music make more sense to the ear?  If not, pick a different random spot and try to distort it again with a change of speed lasting a group of notes.  It will not take much experimentation to discover the proper places and degrees of “bending” in the phrase.

In the above analogy, the un-hewn block of marble stands for the piece played with correct notes but without rubato.  The final form of the marble is what results from the rubato.

A “planar” (and “plainer”) version of the Venus de Milo would be far less inviting to the eye than the curvaceous form we see in the Louvre.  A musical phrase is an elastic thing, it stretches and contracts.  It is a living thing that constantly breathes in and out.

The violin bow must distend the linear shape of the violin string before it will ring true to its pitch.  Harmony is always the result of a reconciliation of conflicts.

In the following more geometric analogy a base,  or unvarying tempo, is like the x-axis of a graph: an unvarying straight, horizontal line.

The application of rubato creates a curve that is sometimes above the x-axis and sometimes below.  If the y-coordinates of this curve are summed up over an entire cycle or phrase then, the positives added to the negatives, in a true rubato, will result in the values canceling each other out by the end of the phrase.  This leaves us arithmetically a net value of zero, but at the expense of loosing any aesthetic shape.

This balancing out can happen in many ways. Only rarely will the speed-ings up (positive y values) and the slow-ings down (negative y values) exhibit the same values as each other, although this can happen in principle.  More likely there will be an unequal division of the musical phrase through time in terms of when accelerando is taking place and when a ritard is taking place.

Here is one of many possibilities: a few large positive y values (a few notes dramatically speeding up) can be balanced out by a large number of small negative y values (a greater number of notes slowing down but little by little).

The result of this final balancing out by the end of the phrase is that the next phrase tends to begin at the same time on the clock that it would have begun if the phrase had been played without rubato, but in a steady tempo.  But in the interim instead of a static phrase we have one that exhibits a dynamic equilibrium of opposing forces.

P’s first attempts at rubato resulted in her playing a measure or two in one steady tempo followed by another phrase at a different, but still steady, tempo.  Rubato probes more deeply into the evolving phrase.  The changes occur more frequently and dramatically.  Slight ritards and accelerandos may not always be enough to carve out a shape to a phrase.

A last word about “emotion.”

P. said, “I try to feel the emotion in the Brahms but it doesn’t seem to emerge. ”

Joe: “You don’t put emotion “in,” the emotion comes “out” as a byproduct of the bending and shaping of the phrase.  Then the phrase resonates with emotion, both pianist and listener experiencing it for the first time.  When properly shaped the phrase ‘rings’ like a bell when struck.”

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  1. This is brilliant. From a listener’s point of view, maybe you don’t hear the rubato, but the curves in the phase that cause you to emote. What an insight you have here! Genius! I guess this is why that I always hear music when you play, and not just a composition.

  2. I agree that one can create rubato by trying things out and manipulating the tempo and push and pull of the notes to see what sounds or feels best. However, I think that the true rubato that makes us want to play comes from emotion. So I don’t know if I agree that you don’t put emotion in, that it comes out. I think it only comes out naturally if you have it first – you don’t ‘put’ it in, but you feel it, you hold it. I think that, like the Michaelangelo statue, an emotion or thought triggers how the rubato happens. Otherwise it sounds too calculated and logical – unnatural. Or, even if it’s beautiful, it’s lacking that something – the feeling and trueness that we only get when we can hear it or imagine it how we want it before. That hearing it or imagining it isn’t always thought out of course, most of the time it happens naturally in a performance state. But we can practice it the same way. I do agree that every time we play something, we need the musicality and emotion from the beginning, but that happens when we have an idea of how we want it at the beginning. The same way that when we listen to our favorite performances, we feel something, and when we think about a certain piece, we feel something (or lots of things!). We can always change it (and should, every time because no feeling is alike). I would approach it by having someone have a story or a feeling to go with a chunk (meaning they know how they want that chunk to go), then inner sing or play a small chunk in that way, then play it right afterward. Trying this in different forms I think can trigger the rubato naturally, and do what music is supposed to do – communicate. I guess the main difference in method then is more imagination or feeling on the front end rather than playing and seeing how it makes you feel.