Two Shorter Blogs: 1. Two Types of Staccato 2. Playing a “Vamp” to Bring Out the Rhythms of a Piece
November 6, 2018
There are two basic types of staccato depending on how the pianist executes it physically.
In one type, the physical action that is used to push down the key contains within it the action that in a moment will release the key. Sort of a “follow through”.
In the other type, instead of basically one action, as in the above case, there are three different actions: pushing the note down; holding it down even if for a very brief time; and releasing the key.
In the first type the release lies inside the attack. The initial motion telegraphs the release. In the second type there is a neutral body posture in between the attack and the release. The effect of these staccatos on the sound of the phrase is very different.
Generally, staccato does not imply any specific ratio of duration of silence to sound, but covers all cases from the shortest of staccatos, bordering on being unheard or unnoticed, and one that is just shy of being played détaché. Regardless of these variations in the length of the staccato, it can be executed is such a way as to fall into either of the two types above.
A ‘long’ staccato can be of the first type. All it means is that the downward motion, while transitioning to upward motion, gets stuck for a while; gets absorbed into the key, before the finger can get away. But, when the finger does get away from key, it is still a component of the overall motion begun when the note began.
Human consciousness is capable of awareness down to very small durations of time. Thus a ‘short’ staccato can be of the second type. All this means is that, pauses in a neutral, inactive position, for a very small fraction of a second. During this moment, all sense of motion recedes over the mental horizon, so that the release, when it comes, has nothing to do with the attack.
#2. “Vamping” to bring out the rhythm and pulse of a piece
I’m thinking of the vamps played by the pianists or pit orchestras for old-time vaudeville shows. A singer is waiting in the wings to come on stage. There is introductory music that is meant to accompany her while she walks out on stage. The vamp is obvious and blatant in nature, with a very stressed rhythm. It recycles for a while until the singer is ready to sing the first note. At this point the vamp morphs into the proper accompaniment for the song.
Often I will sit at the second piano and play a vamp while the student is playing their piece. It almost seems as if I were trying to turn the piece into something obvious like a Sousa march, like a German oom-pah band. I’m yanking out of the inside the underlying pulse, the meter, the chords, and depositing them onto the outside of the piece.
The general effect of this procedure is that the student becomes more aware of some of the most basic qualities of the piece they are playing, by hearing them emphasized in an accompaniment into which they have no choice but fit their performance. The playing transforms itself so as harmonize and “get along” with the vamp. If effective, when my vamp ceases, the student continues playing in a very alive fashion. Once the outside of the piece is enlivened and comes to life, the more subtle aesthetic effects of the piece can be relied on to come into focus.
Sometimes I will take a vamp that is based on one chord alone, and play it continuously and unchanged as the student’ plays through his piece. Why do this, when there will be many places in the piece where the vamp does not conform harmonically to what the student is playing? Because that makes the pulse and rhythm stand out even more obviously (as the harmony clashes with piece).