The Connection and Disconnection of Notes
March 7, 2019
I’ve had an idea lately that it would be nice to do a lesson and then post a blog post about it right afterwards. I think this will gain in spontaneity and insight, despite what it might loose from lack of editing and proofreading.
A.B. Was playing WTC I C f (which is my short hand for Well Tempered Klavier, Book One, C Major (C is uppercase), the fugue and not the prelude (f).
This is a new piece. The first thing he said, was how hard it was to read a fugue. It poked at his sore spots as a reader and a player. I said, forget all of that. Play the chord on the first beat of this measure, and ask yourself what it is the most natural and comfortable of playing it. By starting there, it is as if you were starting the piece, just from a different measure than measure one. So your hand had no allegiance to what it may have done a moment earlier if it had played the last part of the previous measure.
Now, before you go on any further, DON’T TRY connect the present arrangement of the fingers in the hand with the next one. Playing Bach clearly is not a matter of figuring out a fingering, or getting used to making certain connections in the hands and fingers. One never goes from “here” to “there”. All there is are “here-s”. Each one is undiscovered until right now. It is always as if you are playing the piece for the first time.
With each new note, or if not that frequently then at least with every new eighth note’s worth of the piece, pause and ask yourself “what is the most natural and comfortable of playing these notes”, especially if the hand need no longer “remember” where it was a moment earlier.
Playing through the piece is discovering, as if for the first time, a new position for every moment’s new notes. In doing it this way you enter into the joy and spontaneity of the fugue; the experience is wonderful, and in no way a chore.
A.B.: So what do I do the next time I play this spot, wouldn’t it help if I gradually got to know, through repetition, where my hands go next? Me (waxing poetic and philosophical): No, the only thing you have to remember is to forget. A.B.: But doesn’t that sometimes mean I get further and further into trouble with my fingers and dig myself into a hole from which I cannot get out. J.B.: There is a simple solution to this. When you are least sure where to go next with your hands and fingers, when you feel you’ve gotten stuck in the mud and don’t where to go, that is the time to take your hands off the keyboard. Remove the hands from the piano, even if briefly. Start with a new slate, for by removing you hands from the keys, you have let go of the immediate past, you can discover, as if for the first time, the most natural and comfortable position for the two hands together on the next notes. So, if you never know where you are going to get into fingering problems, remove your hands from the piano.
He tried it. It was a fine sounding connection. He said: but if I remove my hands from the piano there will be a break in the sound continuity, things will not sound connected. I said: then how comes what you just did, which involved letting go of the keyboard and removing the hands from the keys, ended up sounding more flowing and more connected than I have heard it before? By removing the hand, you have no choice but to find a new position, a new and most comfortable position, for the next notes.
Be careful, I said, of sixteenth notes (or eighths) in one voice that are moving in steps. That can lead you down a perilous path. You will stop looking for a new hand position for each sixteenth, until the fingers get caught in the keyboard and get bogged down because you have “run out of fingers”. No, you never run out of fingers, there are always five new fingers in the hand for each new note.
When I say “find the most comfortable position” I mean one in which no finger ‘remembers’ where it was a moment earlier. Nothing about its position in the hand is biased or coerced.
To save time in writing, I am using the convention of having:
|: Ernie is the name of my cat 😐
To mean that I have gotten trapped in an endless loop and am saying the same thing over and over. And in such a way as if I never had said it before, but rather someone recorded me, quickly hit stop, rewind, and play. The idea is that it becomes a spoken “mantra” whose efficacy is in its being repeated, until the mind’s state becomes transcendental, a state in which one does not connect things physically SO THAT they can connect sound-wise (sorry I’m sounding a little to “new age” for a cynical Jew from Brooklyn).
If you are a draughtsman, and you use the same writing implement over and over again during an hour of work, do you always consciously try to pick it up in the same way as before. Do you have to think of its position before taking it into your hand. No, it only becomes natural to do if you allow the body to learn unconsciously, so that the 100th time you take the pencil in your hand, it is consciously just as unplanned and spontaneous as the first time. From the conscious point of view (and not for the unconscious, which is busy learning and practicing) you are always finding something ‘new’ (not ‘old’) and finding it for the ‘first time ever’.
All of this started falling into place when I physically caused A.B. to remove his hands from the piano after each current sound. When he resumed, the next sound and all the newness of freshness of the morn: is it ever really the same sun that rises the next day (Thoreau says something about this in “Walden”. Every hand position is “discovered” spontaneously. So I sometimes started using the repeating mantra |: every position is new and discovered spontaneously :|. or just, |: find a new position 😐
Don’t be afraid to let go, for that is the only true way for the body to find what’s next. It is the opposite strategy that common sense tells us to follow. Consciously you forget it even happened before. You think you can’t do this “A”, but you can. You just need to keep an experimental mind, and prove it to yourself over and over with the freshness of every new sound.
And, by the way, when you find the ‘new position’ it always for both hands together, never for just one hand or the other. Let the body, let the ear, always synthesize together every new sound in the piece. And the listener has no desire to complicate the wholeness of the musical experience by knowing which part of what they hear came from your left hand or your right hand.
After a while, all I was saying to him was “let go” … “let go” … “find the new position”, “find a new position”. There was one moment I could tell that he was trying to figure out the best fingering for a series of consecutive notes. I said: that was not a new position, it was a ‘trying to get there from the old position to the new’. There is never a ‘there’ to which to get, everything is a ‘here’.
A.B. said, how can I have a totally new position in my hands when I am required to hold over one of the notes (holding down a note in one voice while the notes in the other voices change). I said: I agree that you have some issues with what I might call, by analogy, if it were spatial more than of time, “negative space” (E.G. is it two profiles or is it a vase). A held note is not due to a finger that holds tightly to its position on the keyboard. It is do to a new position that that finger assumes every time another voice voices to a different note. The fact that the finger remains on the same key is secondary and incidental from a physical point of view. There is no difference between writing a half note, in a score, and writing the same note as four eighth notes, each tied to the next.
Negative space also involves things like, the action of when to release a note in a voice after the finger playing has gotten inured to holding it down when it has been held for a while. Another example are rests, in general in a particular voice, which must be incorporated into the “sound” continuity of the piece.
So, abandon any noble effort by the left or right hand to connect the notes in the fingers. Don’t do that! Let it go.
I would love feedback regarding the usefulness of this type of blog entry. It probably suffered from repetitiveness but it did not loose my original excitement about discovering these things, and in keeping pace while writing how things evolved through time during the hour of the lesson. Thanks for reading.