Joe's Blog

What happens in performance if the hands wander off course by playing incorrect notes

December 22, 2018

Certain pianists are so dependent on their physical sense of where their  hands are on the keyboard, that if they go off track in a piece, by playing a note or notes incorrectly, it is difficult or almost impossible for them to get back on track so that they can continue into the next measure without having to stop and go back.  This was the case with “B.” today.

We analyzed the situation, tried to think of remedies, but found that we had to reject one after another because they were too hard to implement.    We finally distilled down the essence of the problem to a point where a first “exercise” suggested itself to us: a first, simple enough, and thus doable exercise to help with the general problem.

This is the procedure we concocted:

He closed his eyes, and reached out in a random direction with his right arm and played a single note on the keyboard.  Now, often a person will “feel out the immediate neighborhood” of the physical key on which they have put their finger, to confirm its identity by seeing whether its nearest neighbors are black and/or white notes.   But I advised B. to avoid any such almost instinctive exploration.  I wanted the only thing to identify was sound of its pitch.

Next, eyes still closed, he brought his right arm back to his side and then reached out with his left arm to try to play a note that he thought might be in the same general area of the keyboard as the one his right hand played.

He listened to this new sound, and made just one judgment: is this new sound higher in pitch, lower or the same as the first sound.  Repeat this exercise many times.*

When comfortable with this procedure, a next step could be begun: start making a series of corrections to the “second” note until it is identical with the first note.  This is still done with the eyes closed.  If the second note was recognized as being higher in pitch than the first note, then try another note after moving further left on the keyboard.  If that is still higher, try another further to the left.  If it is now lower than the first pitch, then try an adjustment to the right.  Basically we are in what is a sound-driven feedback process of gradually better guesses as to the pitch of the first sound.

There are many more steps and gradations of exercises that we will have to invent over the next few months, but the ultimately the pianist, if they make a mistake in playing the current note or notes of a piece in a performance, will be able to course correct while as soon as they hear the wrong note and almost immediately recalculate how far they have to move on the keyboard to put things back on track by the next note.

What is gradually being developed is a close association of aural cues with a clear mental image of the keyboard. There will be less need of looking down at the hands to figure out what notes are being played instead of others, and then try to make course corrections.

* By the time he had repeated the first exercise about ten times he was able to add information to his feedback … such as: “the second sound is higher than the first but by a single half step”.

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