Zen, Circular Energy, and the Four Time Dimensions

Zen, Circular Energy, and the Four Time Dimensions

 


The Universe is under no obligation to make sense to you.

~ Neil deGrasse Tyson
 

 

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Expressive Energy originates from your expressive heart/vocal center and flows out of your body through your fingers, sending sound out into the atmosphere.  Your Sensitive Center, based in your head, eyes and ears, receives the signal passively and reacts to it at an emotional and intellectual level.  These two directions of energy balance each other in an ideal performance and create circular energy.  They are separated dimension-wise in time - they represent two beat centers, or two time dimensions.  The first dimension is the moment that the sound enters atmosphere; the second dimension is the moment that the sound reaches your sensitive center.

In performance, the expressive element of this cycle operates outside of oneself, a sort of out-of-body experience free of thought or active control.  The fingers think and feel for themselves and they’ve already moved by the time the felt beat arrives.  When you play in front of yourself, you’re not playing in front of the beat; rather, you’re using a different beat altogether, much like a conductor leading an orchestra. 

The conductor has to reside emotionally in the beat of the orchestra but he has to give out an active/passive beat in another dimension before their beat in order to lead them effectively.  This lapse of time and the feeling that a conductor has that his arms are moving of their own accord outside “real” time, in an imaginary pre-time realm, is very similar to the pianist’s fingers moving on their own with one’s sensitive self responding with the audience in real time, as well as in lapsed time (comprehension comes gradually in the moments after hearing).

The third time dimension, or third beat is the time frame when you pre-hear the music to sound and begin preparing for it mentally, physically and emotionally, as if a conductor outside of yourself were leading you as you let your fingers play on their own.  When I’m in this state, I tend to want to lean back and passively enjoy the miracle in front of my eyes.  It really feels like an out-of-body experience.  This is the essence of Zen.

This is something I regularly experience but I was slow to become aware of the time element.  It’s not an easy concept to grasp, especially if you’ve not yet experienced it.  It seems as if you’re playing somehow indefinitely in front of the beat, but that’s not the case.  The felt or experienced beat is what I’d like to call the shadow beat.  It mirrors the primary beat so that if you play on the back side of this primary beat, for instance, it will sound on the back side of the shadow beat as well, and so on.  This has much more to do than simple physical memory; however there seems to be a correlation between them that I have yet to understand. It has partly to do with having enough physical and mental and emotional understanding of a work or phrase that it doesn’t require active thought.  But it’s more complex than that. 

This type of letting the body move in front of the mind is what I refer to as squirrel mentality.  Squirrels jump from branch to branch, often seemingly on a whim or in a moment of fear, without thinking and without self-doubting.  It’s the most beautiful thing to see.  They seem to follow themselves while remaining perfectly balanced and unified.  The fingers, when left to their own genius, act and create and think and feel on a much higher level than the conscious, present self can duplicate.  When you try to create and express in the present, it’s as if you’re mind slows and becomes 2-dimensional while your emotional center becomes taxed and overburdened, resulting in lack of sensitivity.  This then results in increased physical tension and the spiral continues in this direction until you disengage emotionally, in which case you’ve lost the game.

The fourth dimension is what I call the moment after.  My University Piano Professor, Robin McCabe, once gave a lecture by that title, referring to the silence just after a composition has ended, when its meaning suddenly crystallizes in the listener’s heart and mind.  This moment after exists perpetually, not only for the listener, but for the interpreter.  As you play and your sensitive center remains open, you constantly react emotionally and mentally to the music you’ve just experienced.  If you dwell in it, the music will move on without you unguided.  But if you ignore it, your music will lack depth.  This is the fourth dimension of sound production.

The Four Principle Mallets

The Four Principle Mallets

 

If you use a hammer to brush your teeth, 

or a toothbrush to drive nails, 

you are not likely to meet with great success.

~ John Daishin Buksbazen
 

 

Photo by Afinskaya/iStock / Getty Images

The Piano is ultra-sensitive to touch.  Even though the finger doesn’t have anything close to direct contact with the strings because of its complex mechanism, the piano somehow senses the exact material with which it’s touched and responds honestly.  No two fingers are alike and no two points on the same finger produce the exact same sound.  So there are an infinite number of mallets to choose from, but they can be grouped into 4 basic types and a few added special-effect mallets.

The most common part of the fingertip used to produce sound is the somewhat hard tip, just beneath the fingertips.  It’s a hard and firm and produces a direct, no-nonsense sound. 

The second-most common and more oft praised mallet used is the soft fleshy ball of the finger, which produces a more rounded, felt-like singing sound. 

But less commonly used are the sides of the fingertip and the fingernail itself, all of which produce clearer, brighter, more translucent sounds.

It’s also generally preferred to have a very defined contact point with the keys, such that a small focused point of flesh has contact with the key.  But it’s also possible to use a larger piece of flesh to touch the keys, resulting in many new color possibilities.

The thumb usually plays from the outside edge, just below the fingernail, but there are other contact points that also occasionally produce special colors, for example, the side of the boney first joint of the thumb, which is wonderful for bell-like effects.  The pointed ball of the thumb is great for powerful, penetrating single notes.

My point … get to know your mallets and how the quality and color of their sounds change in every possible dynamic level.  Don’t be afraid to occasionally use your fingernails from the key surface for icy or glasslike melodies and textures.  The fingernails elegantly pierce a warm, hazy texture.  The slightest turn of a finger can lend it a slender, pointed quality through mf or a pointed, forceful but not heavy quality in f and ff.

And clear your mind of the adolescent notion that the fingers must always be curved!  There’s nothing wrong with teaching beginners to gently curve their fingers when playing, but when you become an adult, do away with childish things.  The curved finger played on point sound is but one of countless color possibilities.

Let’s experiment with our Prelude:

First lay out your fingers flat and give no concern as to whether the first joint turns back occasionally.  Play the first page trying to make full contact with every note from the fleshy ball of the finger.  Play it through a few times.  Does it sound less edgy, more rounded?  You may also notice that the sound is slightly softer.  This is because the indirectness of the attack and the soft material of the mallet waste some of your energy.  But this wasted energy is the recipe for a warmer sound.  Simply feed in a little more energy and you’ll achieve the same volume you started out with.  I would recommend that you use this mallet as your principal one, and not as an exception, but that’s a decision that you have to make on your own, depending on your personality and real preferences.

Next, switching extremes, play the entire first page using only the fingernails.  This may be awkward for some of you in the larger chords, but do your best.  The first time through, you may be too busy curving your fingers to hear the sound that’s coming out.  Play it through a few times this way.  Do you hear how crystal clear and ringing the sound is!  It’s an amazing color that virtually NO ONE uses.  It’s verboten.  Again, I think of it as ice or glass.

Next, turn both hands slightly outwards toward the pinkies and play from the sides of the fingers, just next to the fingernails.  Play it through a few times like this and notice the colors you’re producing.  There’s a clearness and a brightness that gently pierces the ear.  It’s a very special color with countless shades.  It requires less relative energy than playing from the point of the finger or from the fleshy ball of the finger because it’s more pointed and direct a mallet.  The flesh is harder, more compressed, and the angle of the attack more direct from the forearm.

Most pianists use a single type of mallet – now you’ve accumulated four – let’s begin to mix them.  First apply the fleshy-ball-of-the –finger mallets to the Red line and its two supporting colors, using a lot of weight and pressure.  For the remaining six levels, turn your hands out slightly and use your sides-of-the-fingers mallets, with less weight and pressure. Try it a few times.  The contrast between these two colors is fantastic.

Try now the opposite – turn your hands out using the sides-of-the-fingertips mallets for the Red level and two supporting levels (again using a lot of pressure and weight), and flatten out your hand using the fleshy-ball-of-the-finger mallets for the remaining six layers.  Try it a few times.  The effect is equally orchestral and no less beautiful.

Now let’s try inserting a third color.  Returning to our initial fleshy-ball-of-the-finger Red, side-of-the-finger Royal Blue, play the Dark Green level from the lh thumb’s fingernail.  Try it a few times.  The effect is haunting and translucent!  Using but little weight, because of the directness and piercing clarity of the thumb’s fingernail, the Dark Green levels shimmers out without overcoming the Royal Blue or the Red.

Now let’s insert our fourth primary mallet, the traditional tip-of-the-finger mallet.  Using the same trio of colors we’ve just attained, substitute the tip-of-the-finger mallet on ONLY the Red line, keeping the sides-of-the-fingertip mallets in its two supporting layers.  Try it a few times.  You’ll notice that the mood of the Red line is more solid and serious, without becoming pedantic. 

In a short amount time, you’ve created the effect of a full orchestra simply by slightly altering the angles of your fingertips!  The piano is a wondrous instrument.

The Four Physical Levels

The Four Physical Levels

 

I don’t let go of concepts – 

I meet them with understanding. 

Then they let go of me.

~ Byron Katie

 

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Whenever I’m on the road for concerts, I’m eager to find ways away from the Piano to keep in pianistic form.  Yoga is wonderful and is practicable anywhere.  Swimming is also great, but only occasionally do I have a pool available.  However odd it may sound, I’ve found that patting and lightly punching away at mattresses does wonders for anyone’s technique.

Pianists spend their entire life developing an uncanny finger independence.  Yet most have a painfully underdeveloped independence between the joints of their fingers to the hand, hand to the forearm, and forearm to the upper arm.  How long has it been since you bounced a basketball?  As a young child, you were probably much more athletic and physically connected than you are now.  Your body simply needs to be reminded of the sensation.

Find a mattress or a couch and with your palms flat out several inches above at, begin lightly slapping it alternately with your from the wrist with a generous rotation upwards before descending.  Neither speed nor power nor endurance is the goal here, simply a light reminder of what it feels like to exercise your wrists independently from the forearms.

After a minute or so, begin patting from the elbow, letting the wrists and upper arms remain relatively static, although not tight or locked.  The movement should be much slower but also much larger to allow for full rotation up before each slap downwards. 

After a minute or so of that, move the movement up to the armpit, with outstretched arms, and continue flapping away with full rotation.

Then move the movement all the way back to the wrists and fingertips, as if scooping up the mattress into your hands with each slap.  Keep it light and comfortable.

Next make a fist and lightly punch the mattress for a minute or so.

Then take it alternately back to the wrists, elbows and armpits, and move it side to side, as if playing octaves or chordal passages all over the expanse of the keyboard.

All of this should take between five and ten minutes – don’t overdo it, especially the first time.  If a piano is nearby, go immediately to it and try out an octave or chordal passage.

You will be amazed at the size and effortlessness of the sound.  You could practice for hours or days and not obtain such results.

What happened?  Did you get stronger or smarter?  In a way, yes, but actually you’ve just opened up paths of energy and strength that have long been dormant.  The body begins accessing its inner wisdom, leaving behind unconscious inhibitions and allowing you to concentrate your mind and emotions on the music.   

The more independence you develop between the joints of the hand and arms, the more virtuoso technique you will find at your disposal.

Movement can be initiated from four primary levels – the fingers, the hands (also commonly designated as the wrist), the forearm, and the upper arm.  Note: The shoulder and torso could be considered Level 5, but it’s rarely brought into direct use in playing the piano; it acts as support.  At the other extreme, the fingertip alone could be considered Level 0, but I treat that technique within the confines of Level 1.

Each of the Four Levels can be compared to an orchestral section.  Each has unique power potential, speed potential and colors.  As a rule principal melodies are generally best played from Level 3 or Level 4 while fast passagework is best played from Level 1.  Level 2 is the least understood and is the great facilitator.  Great facility at this level will give you speed, power and finesse in every type of passage.

Let’s experiment with our Prelude.  First go through the first page playing EVERYTHING from Level 4, the upper arm.  Many of you may still feel uncomfortable playing from the upper arm, but it’s the most natural movement in the world.  Why should piano technique be thought of so differently from normal daily activities like closing a window or pushing in a chair?  With a little experience, you’ll become quite comfortable and be able to achieve a wide dynamic range, from ppp to fff, all from the upper arm.   It’s actually possible and quite effective to play this entire first page solely from Level 4 because it’s slow-moving and chordal.  But there are of course more orchestral ways to approach it.

Now try playing everything from the forearm, like bouncing a basketball but with less play from the wrist for the moment.  Try it a few times until you get used to it.  The effect is still quite solid and strong, yet slightly less serious and mountainous.

Next play the page a few times from the hand alone.  (Again I’ll explain why I say hand versus the more common appellation of wrist.  If you think of moving the wrist, you’ll immediately feel a certain blocking tension in the upper part of the forearm.  But if you think of playing from the hand, you draw the energy from the palm of the hand without blocking the forearm – this is much more natural and efficient.) How does it sound?  It should feel more flexible and intimate, but will still easily fill a large concert hall if you get used to it.  It’s of course not as powerful as Level 3 or 4.

Now try to play the page a few times through from the fingers alone – Level 1.  One teacher of mine pointed out that harpists, often thought of as delicate angels, have fingers of steel from plucking the strings.  Don’t underestimate Level 1!  You can achieve infinite effects and results simply by using a Level 1 technique supported by the arm.  But it can never replace Level 2 or 3 or 4.  The effect of Level 1 alone here is slightly effortful, but very intimate and refined.

Now let’s begin combining Levels.  Play the Red layer and two supporting layers from Level 4.  Play the Royal Blue and remaining 5 layers from Level 2.  Try it a few times.  Two clearly distinct colors are at play.  Experiment with other combinations. 

When I notate the Levels into my score, I prefer to use f. for fingers/Level 1, h. for hand/Level 2, f.a. for forearm/Level 3, and u.a. for upper arm/level 4:

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Work through the entire excerpt notating the Level you want to play from.  Sometimes you may want to notate more than one, such as f./h.  Be aware that no touch is completely isolated; it’s a matter of degree.  For example, if a touch originates from the fingers, the hand and forearm will still be actively supporting it and feeding in energy.  Except in rare circumstances, you don’t want to disconnect the fingertips from your torso.  The elbow is the greatest culprit here.  It traps energy out of fear instead of letting it pass into and through the upper arm.

Whenever you feel disconnected, remind yourself of the simple movement of bouncing a basketball - the fingertips, the hand, the forearm and the upper arm all move in fluid harmony.  And in terms of color potential, be aware that even though the fingers can imitate the sound of the upper arm and vice-versa, the color will never match.  Learn to understand the distinct tonal possibilities of each of your orchestral sections.

Mimicking Masters ~ The Imitation Filters

Mimicking Masters ~ The Imitation Filters

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You cannot teach a man anything;

 you can only help him

find it within himself.

- Galileo

 

Pretending is one of the greatest techniques of learning.  The mind is a curious thing.  Sometimes it only takes giving yourself permission to go beyond yourself to open up doors to higher consciousness.  My almost two-year-old loves pretending to make phone calls.  The other day she pretended to call Korea to talk with her Grandmother, and the next thing we knew, she actually had her on the line!

Sometimes by allowing yourself to pretend to be someone greater than yourself, or simply someone other than yourself, you open up channels in your mind to understand their language from the inside and speak it fluently, as if speaking in tongues.  This is not to say that you’re actually moving outside yourself on some sort of spiritual journey … quite the contrary!  You’re accessing your higher consciousness where you already possess the desired language.

While studying a foreign language, has it ever occurred to you that you dream in that language and actually speak it fluently?  The dream is not an illusion; deep inside you, you already possess a certain degree of fluency that hasn’t reached the conscious level yet.  Children, with their complete inhibition, learn languages like sponges, making mistakes left and right but not caring.  They will themselves to speak and learn, and they do, in a way that can only be described as genius. 

My favorite pianist as a teenager was Arthur Rubinstein.  I spent weeks at a time at the keyboard imagining that I was him.  Through the process, some of his special language passed through me and became my own.  I would spend one week as Argerich, the next as Friedman, the next as Pollini, the next as Arrau, and on and on.  I kept my practicing habits to myself, so each week my teacher would gently encourage me to come back out of my reverie and just play.  But they remained.

This opens a discussion into the nature of filters itself.  This single filter, Mimicking Masters, envelops an infinite number of sub-filters.

One way of defining intuition is as a complex system of filters.  Everything that you allow into your conscious mind has the potential to seep down into your intuition and act as an unconscious filter.  As they say, choose your friends carefully.

Make a list of your favorite twenty pianists.  Add to that five pianists that you respect, but don’t necessarily like or have strong bond with.  Now add five Instrumentalists that you’re particularly fond of {my toplist here includes Heifetz and Casals}, five Singers {here I include Franco Corelli and Maria Callas}, and five Conductors {if you have trouble naming five Conductors that you have a deep enough understanding of to add to this list, you have some serious listening to do…}.

Now take our Prelude, or any excerpt you like, and over the next few days, work through all 40 filters from your list, one by one, staying with each long enough to feel that you’ve captured something of their musical language and persona, something of their essence.   Some will influence you more than others – don’t force or expect too much the first time around.  It may help to take notes along the way about how each makes you feel or play. 

Each of these names over time will become a powerful tool to summon and use at will.  Add names to your list, and work through it at least once with each new interpretation you prepare.  Each has something important to teach you about the work and your relationship to it.  And about what you like and dislike – both are equally important to define to yourself.

Next, make another list of about 20 composers, or as many as you like.  Each Composer inspires a personalized approach; each has his own laws and boundaries and conjures something different out of you.  When you play Bach, you unknowingly pull out your Bach filter and apply it so that your playing sounds stylistically appropriate.  What would happen if you use your Chopin filter on a work of Bach?  Imagine that Chopin had composed a neo-Baroque composition – how would you interpret it? You’ll discover hidden nostalgia, longer lines; you’ll use a more expressive sound, more pedal; you’ll want to sing more.  After you get used to applying this filter, take it away and play it again.  Have you uncovered hidden truths that your conservative Bach Filter had obscured?

Now try a filter slightly closer to Bach – Beethoven. Play your Bach excerpt as if it were a contrapuntal moment in one of Beethoven’s Late Sonatas.

How do you respond?  Can you feel Bach taking on a more visionary, transcendental feel, more bathed in pedal, more vocal?  Now take it away and see what remains.  Beethoven has much to teach about Bach if you listen!  Work through a large sampling of Composer filters on the same excerpt and see what each teaches you about what the music is and isn’t.  You may find yourself enlightened by the knowledge you already possess but had yet to claim. 

Now let’s move into compound filters.  The possibilities are endless.  Choose a favorite interpretation of anything, Friedman’s recording of Chopin’s E-flat major Nocturne, Op. 62 No. 2, for example.  {If you don’t know this recording, it’s a must! – click here to listen on youtube.}

How would Friedman-playing-Chopin’s-E-Flat-Nocturne interpret your Bach excerpt?  Try it.  How does it differ from your Chopin filter?  Apply this same Friedman filter to other excerpts across the repertoire. 

Make a list of favorite recordings and add them to your compound filters list. You now possess a rich complex of filters to apply to any work you study.  Each will teach you something special about the work itself, about your relationship to the work, and about yourself.  The more you use each of the filters, the more it will become a part of you.  This is when copying and borrowing becomes claiming and possessing – you learn to own the filter as its seed grows in you.  Remember something important about using imitation filters – you can only imitate something that you already possess to a certain extent.  Don’t apologize for stealing!  Tap into the energy that inspires the filter rather than the filter itself. 

The Hand of Karajan

The Hand of Karajan

 

It is not in the stars to hold our destiny but in ourselves.

~ William Shakespeare
 

 

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Great conductors have a special relationship to the string-player’s bow-arm.  Karajan taught this to Ozawa, and both are great masters of it.  Karajan infused a great singer’s breath and phrasing into the violinist’s bowing technique.  There’s an expressive, singing weight to most of Karajan’s interpretations, and as a student of conducting, I learned much from imitating him.  The energy is thick and concentrated, the vision long.

One day after working through a Puccini Opera that I was preparing to conduct, I sat down at the keyboard to practice a couple hours in preparation for an upcoming recital.  Suddenly I felt the hand of Karajan guiding my playing, and I began phrasing under the expressive, undulating weight of his baton.  This wasn’t the first time I had worked with imitating bowing at the keyboard, but this was quite different – Karajan’s energy is overwhelming and has such lofty vision.  From then on, I would often invite Karajan, as well as other legendary conductors, to the piano to lead me through the pieces I was studying.

Masterful bowing requires the same three basic types of physical energy that piano-playing does – Speed, Weight and Compression {see Essay below} – but weight seems to be more of a constant because the bow has to cleave to the string and sink into to it to make it vibrate.  A minimum of weight is always there and it constantly varies according to the musical line.  The points of greater emphasis require greater weight and the points of lesser energy less.

As always, it’s best to experience it with your own two arms, so play through the first page of the Prelude with the feeling of constant weight in your forearms and fingertips.  Don’t lock your wrist or elbow.  And don’t worry about phrasing – just be aware of a constant weight like someone standing next to you pushing lightly down on your forearm or hand. 

It’s important to understand that this is different from using a simple weighted attack, or group of weighted attacks, because there’s no relief in between them to regroup and drop the weight anew.  It just stays there and floats forward.

At first you may feel like your fingers are expending too much energy.  Don’t put too much weight in, just enough to give you a constant presence of weight.

Once you become comfortable with the technique of playing with a long, never-ending bow, start from the beginning and shape the phrase according to the Red and Royal Blue Energy Pillars.  Make a crescendo into the Pillars and diminuendo out of them, increasing and decreasing the weight respectively.

Now back away from yourself and begin again, imagining the Hand of Karajan next to you, expressively leading you and shaping phrases.  Don’t lead – follow.  Let Karajan play you; let it play.

Try it a few times until you become comfortable.  Now let him rehearse you as an orchestra.  He’ll work through the other energy levels, separating and combining them as with the other filters.  Soon you’ll be feeling the sound of Karajan’s Vienna Philharmonic flowing out of your fingers.

Consider Leonard Bernstein as your next Guest Conductor.

The Hand of God – Using Hammers and Chisels

The Hand of God – Using Hammers and Chisels

 

Rodin’s Hand of God is one of his best-known and most-beloved creations.  I see Sculpture as a subdivision of Architecture, but it inspires a more physical hands-on approach to molding and shaping the music.

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Once I gave a recital in Parma as a participant of a Liszt Competition.  The repertoire requirements were insane and the semifinal round demanded a full 2-hour recital with many of Liszt’s most arduous works.  My recital began at the ungodly hour of eleven pm!  The first half ended with the final, fateful bars of the Sonata accompanied by the bells of the Cathedral next door ominously tolling midnight.  I was already quite ready to retire, but mustered the strength to go back onstage.  I finished the second half just before one, exhausted in every way, crawled back to my hotel room and collapsed.

I don’t know how I played, but the next day I saw one of the jurors, who offered me an interesting piece of advice:  To play the way you do, under ANY circumstance, you have to have the technique and power of a Gilels.

Gilels is perhaps the greatest Hand of God Pianist ever with a don’t-take-no-for-an-answer approach to pianism.  His fingers dig into the keyboard like chisels into marble, fashioning grandiose, larger-than-life interpretations. 

 

Sometimes when an interpretation doesn’t come under your fingers naturally, you need to forge out an energy-path with a certain degree of force.  Once the path is laid, you can relax and walk effortlessly along it.

 

The Hand of God also helps to forge an understanding of Brass and Percussion.  Listen to Gilels’ recording of Stravinsky’s Petroushka.  Despite his many deviations from Stravinsky’s Piano Transcription { and partly thanks to them }, he gives the definitive recording of the work; it likewise largely defines his Art.  Stravinsky’s Brass- and Percussion-heavy orchestration is brought to life realistically with Gilels’ Hammers and Chisels.  The contrasting colors are simply breathtaking. 

The only way to achieve the orchestral effect that he does is to accept many bright, loud and percussive colors that many pianists eschew, finding offensive.  They’re not beautiful and round enough.  Other pianists use such colors because they’re incapable of producing more rounded sounds; the effect is vulgar.  Gilels, and the greatest of Pianists, accept Brass and Percussion with open arms and integrate them into their concept of Orchestration.  As Horowitz liked to say in his inimitable, heavy Russian accent, The most important thing is CONTRAST!

 

Technically, using Brass and Percussion generally requires more strength and mental energy.  If your mind and body are not prepared for it, you’ll tense up immediately and start banging.  The effect is indeed ugly.  But if you carefully persevere, you’ll discover an oasis of power and beauty on the other side.  Even over a few days, your mind and body grows and adjusts, and your new colors come out quite effortlessly, in a non-forced way. This is the goal.

Whatever Orchestration you envision for your interpretation, it’s always valuable, especially in the immediate days before performance, to prepare a Brass and Percussion Ensemble transcription of your interpretation.  This prepares you for anything – a bad piano, a bad acoustic, not having slept enough and being low on energy, and yes, even starting a finger-bending 2-hour virtuoso recital an hour before midnight!  When you return to your more conservative, less bright and loud orchestration, you’ll find that it flows out of you with almost no mental effort whatsoever.  Perhaps this is what the juror meant…

It only works one way, however.  Try performing on a dull piano or with a dry acoustic or being low on energy, not having prepared yourself with something extra, and you’ll begin wanting to force the sound to compensate.  It doesn’t take long for your muscles to start blocking, your joints to start locking, and a general downward-spiraling meltdown to take place.  Remember this axiom:  Less is included in more, but more not in less.

 

Discover your own Hand of God, Hammer and Chisels, Brass and Percussion interpretation of our Prelude.

After-touch

After-touch

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After-touch lies in the shadow of touch.  Perhaps this is why so many pianists remain oblivious to it.  And yet it’s nearly as important as touch itself.  Just as the pedal can be lifted sharply and abruptly, or slowly and lazily, so individual notes can be raised quickly or slowly, depending on the effect desired.  It sometimes helps, as with pedaling, to envision the dampers raising and lowering.

This subject has been dealt with indirectly in the Essay on Talea, but it’s important to address it head-on.  This is both an artistic and a physical question.  Let’s look first at the physical side.

Every muscle or muscle group tends to have a complimentary muscle or muscle group.  The biceps and triceps are a simple example of this; one without the other is virtually useless, and they work most efficiently when they’re used in a balanced way.

Good runners will tell you that it’s healthiest to raise your feet off the pavement and not simply trod along with minimal effort.  If you get in the habit of lifting your feet up higher, you’ll gain incredible speed and agility, and at the same time avoid injury. 

The fingers work the same way.  When you actively lift them after attacking the keys, the pressing muscles and the lifting muscles balance each other out, and even energize one another!  I was slow to realize this.  It seemed to me that all excess movement should be eliminated and that since the key itself will lift the finger up if you simply stop pressing against it, using the piano’s energy is the most efficient way to engage Tao-like circular energy.  The effect is not Tao-like though; it’s simply lazy!  This passive approach occasionally works effectively when the color desired requires a natural matte release precisely the speed that a given key raises a given finger, but generally it’s physically and artistically wiser to balance depressing and releasing the keys actively. 

The greater question is the artistic one.

The release (after-touch), just like the attack, can have a matte finish or glossy finish.  On the piano, the release is much more complex than the attack because of the mysterious qualities of the pedal, discussed in several other Essays (Pedaling, Finger-Pedaling, Talea). 

The pedaling affects the after-touch and the after-touch effects the pedaling

In effect, when pedal is used, a touch can have two after-touches, the release of the finger - giving the tone and its overtones over to the pedal – and the release or change of the pedal, which actually ends or significantly tapers the sound.

Again, the ear shouldn’t be able to hear whether the finger actually holds a note in the hand or not when the pedal is fully depressed, but it usually can.

An important aspect of after-touch is how the proceeding attack is perceived.  If a note has a high-gloss after-touch, the following note will be attacked more clearly, or be perceived as having been attacked more clearly.

This is one of the reasons that Horowitz’ non-legato approach is so crystal clear and convincing.  Every single note is attacked with a relatively clean slate of sound and physical energy. The clean release of attack, even if not of sound, creates a negative space on which to attack the next note or chord.  You have to experience it to understand it.

Return to our Prelude and try out several different styles of after-touch.  Discover on your own how after-touch affects both the sound of the present note and the sound of the next.  

Is Percussion Beautiful, Zenful?

Is Percussion Beautiful, Zenful?

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Isn’t violence, hardness and percussiveness the antithesis of Zen?

Remember: Zen is not a moral condition, it is not artistically exclusive, and it does NOT mean relaxation – it’s simply the effortless, focused flow of energy.  It can be an idyllic stream of benevolence or the violent, vengeful thrust of a knife in the gut.  It exists in purest form only when active will and control disappear.  The eyes remain soft and listening, free of conscience and blame.

Is percussion beautiful?  This is not a Zen question but an aesthetic one.

The Percussion Section is the toy-box of the orchestrator.  Many of the most magical, transcendental orchestral effects originate from the masterful use of Percussion.  Can you imagine a composer being criticized for including Percussion in his orchestral creations!  Yet that’s the state of pianistic critical thought.

What is Beauty in Art?  Is it only harmoniousness and consonance?  If so, we might as well listen only to Philip Glass.  The beauty of Western Classical Music most often expresses itself through its dissonances.  Harmonic dissonance balances consonance – they form an inseparable pair.  And Percussion can be thought of as the sound-color equivalent of dissonance.

Is the Piano not a Percussion Instrument?  Why should its most natural and instinctive sounds be so assiduously avoided?  Yes, the piano is capable of transcending it’s percussive nature and sing like Caruso.  Yes, the piano can be a one-man orchestra.  But it’s also capable of being a 100-member Percussion Ensemble.  Don’t let conservative aesthetics come between you and your instrument.  (And always remember that you ARE the instrument.)

One of the basic rules of Orchestration regarding Percussion is to use it sparingly.  Its colors are so striking and its effect on the ear so strong that it needs to highlight and reinforce special moments and then disappear. 

 

Let’s look at our Prelude and experiment with Percussion.  Let’s begin by orchestrating it completely for percussion using a touch I call deflection.  There are two good ways to understand deflection. 

First, imagine yourself as a goal-keeper defending penalty shots.  (My real goal-keeper days ended at the age of eight when my piano teacher took issue with my soccer coach…)  When you defend penalties against Zidane, don’t try to catch the ball – simply deflect it away.  Your hands and arms remain weightless after contact. 

You are both shooter and keeper.  You kick the ball with extraordinary power, yet your body retains the grace of a dancer and your face remains expressionless.  A split second later you deflect the ball with equal power and grace.  Mutual respect reigns(provided you don’t insult his mother…).

In boxing, it’s said that if you want to hurt someone, put your full weight into the punch – it goes in deep and heavy.  But be prepared to absorb part of the blow into your body.  If you want to knock someone out, however, jab in-and-out with enormous speed, passing all of your energy into your opponent while remaining passive and weightless, the eyes soft.

Play the first page through a few times using full, bright, deflected, ringing forte sounds.  Don’t concern yourself with shaping phrases or balancing chords.  Simply ring out a chorus of bells.  Timing is of the essence.  Throw your energy into the keys but don’t hold onto it in the arm.  Let the immediate tension bounce off you and any residual tension roll off you like water off a duck’s back.

Next, turn back to the Essay on Gloss and follow the instructions for applying Gloss Horizontally and Vertically.  The results will be similar.

 

Learn about the most important Percussion Instruments.  Develop a clear concept of each of their sounds and try to imitate them on the piano.  What’s the difference between chimes and bells and the xylophone?  How do you reproduce a gong or timpini or whip or snare drum on the piano?  Then move beyond Western instruments and translate instruments such as the Gamelan into piano sounds.  Then embrace percussive sounds from Nature.

The larger your vocabulary of percussive effects, the greater an orchestrator you‘ll become.

Horowitz’ Voicing

Horowitz’ Voicing

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Here’s a curious paradox for you:  often playing the melody with a more percussive, less beautiful, sound creates a more persuasive, beautiful effect.  Horowitz was hands-down the greatest orchestrator-pianist of the 20th century.  One of the main reasons for this is his understanding and embracing of percussive colors and effects.  His language is largely defined by the way he re-defined the piano as a Percussion-inclusive instrument. 

His approach to Percussion is so embedded in his pianistic language that he forces us to reconsider the nature of pianistic sound and of phrasing itself.  Yet contrary to most Horowitz imitators, his Percussion is rarely percussive or heavy – it rings out and soars weightlessly.

 

Slap-and-Caress

Horowitz uses what I call a slap-and-caress approach, both vertically and horizontally.

The best way to get a feel for Horowitz’ technique is to flatten out the hand and fingers and slightly hold the forearms with an expressive resistance.  Don’t be concerned with whether your knuckles collapse – encourage them to.  Show some wrinkles!

Feel an expressive pressure in your finger tips.  They will feel heavier.  And imagine that they are coated in a thin layer of metal, glass, or ice.  Think of your entire finger as a lever, rather than as three joints. 

Horowitz cuts the sound, slicing it like sushi.  He doesn’t force; the shimmer of his tone, especially in the melody, is razor-sharp.  It pierces the texture.  The most common mistake in imitating Horowitz is to force through the texture with a dull mallet.  His touch is much more refined than that; its power comes from its sharpness.

He usually uses the softest part of his fingertip, the fleshy part, to produce sound.  Logically, this would have the opposite effect; it should soften and round the sound.  And it does - it gives the body of the tone a softer, silkier core and a rounded quality.  The cutting quality comes from the speed of the attack, its slapped quality, and the way he compresses his finger and especially fingertip.  As his emotional energy centers in his fingers, they harden expressively, the blood rushing into them, they become heavier, and hyper-sensitive.  They long to cut and sing. 

Remember that touch has three parts – the attack { with a glossy or matte finish }; the body or substance, which is the general quality of the tone, be it water, earth, sand, wood, soft metal; and the release or after-touch, how you release the sound with the finger and with the pedal { separate aspects of after-touch }.

Try the first page of our Prelude or any excerpt you like using these techniques to imitate Horowitz’ sound.  Although at first you’ll feel a need to expressively hold the forearm, don’t tighten or over-do it.  After a couple days, these resisting-and-releasing muscles will have become alive again and you won’t need to consciously hold them.  Also, remember that Horowitz’ is a non legato approach.  He once spent two years playing exclusively non legato – not a single finger-legato!  This can mean anything from staccatissimo to a 99% connection.  Try to be disciplined in this if you desire to unravel some of Horowitz’ great secrets. 

You can spend days or weeks or months on this before reading on if you like …

 

Continuing with the idea of Slap-and-Caress, Horowitz likes to tease the listener {see Essay on Horowitz in Part III}.  He will often slap a few notes in a phrase to throw out a bunch of provocative energy, often mangling part of a phrase, then retreats subito into a gentle caress, apologizing as it were for his misbehavior.  He doesn’t often punch the keys or force them – he generally either pressures his way in, directly or slitheringly, or slaps from the finger or hand (wrist). 

Slapping implies a quick in-and-out, unforced, open palm approach.  The energy passes through electrically, leaving the hand and arm relaxed and energized.  At the piano, there’s an up quality to it.  Nothing of Arrau’s sinking weight.  When Horowitz wants a pesante effect, he does so with a full-arm expressive pressure-attack.

He also uses slap-and-caress vertically.  His voicings are unlike any other pianist in recorded history.  When you hear a Horowitz recording on the radio, you know immediately that it’s him from his unique phrasing patterns and inimitable voicings.  He generally chooses one note in each hand to center his weight over, often turning the hand slightly in that direction.  These two notes he will either slap or pressure in.  They’re usually not only louder, but also brighter than the rest.  He then grades each of the remaining notes in order of importance.  (This is not new to us.)

He takes particular pleasure in searching out the dissonances, the irregularities, the potential contrasts.  If there is harmonic dissonance within the chord, you can be sure that he’ll zero in on it and point it up for heightened effect.  He will also point up the note that the dissonant note is most dissonant against within the chord, making the dissonant interval hit the ear with greater impact.  While doing this he hides notes of lesser import, caressing them lovingly but peripherally, so that the texture never becomes thick or unfocused.  Horowitz loves transparency. 

What’s fascinating through this approach to voicing is that without necessarily playing any louder, it sounds louder and more electric.  The dissonances and contrasts jump out at the ear with absolute vividness!

 

Drop-voicing

In 1928, The Musician published an enlightening article about Horowitz’s approach to practicing voicing.  The following excerpt speaks for itself:

 

"At first thought, it would appear extremely difficult to sound a chord of three or even five notes with the five fingers on one hand in such a manner that one or even two notes are heard above the others and act as a melody while the other notes act as an accompaniment to that melody.  If one were to do it as Horowitz does it, the difficulty would disappear into thin air.
There are two correct, though diametrically opposite, methods of attacking the mastery of this necessary accomplishment for perfect piano artistry.  To avoid confusion, only one method will be explained at this time.  Experience has shown, however, that when one has become a master of this accomplishment by one method, he is also a master by the other even without practice.
To accent a melody note within a chord or octave: raise the whole arm with as little muscular effort as possible, until the fingers are between three and five inches above the key.  During the up and down movements of the arm, prepare the fingers by placing them in position for the depression of the next group of notes and by holding the finger which is to play the melody-note a trifle lower and firmer than the other fingers which are to depress the remaining keys of the chord.  In first attempting this exercise, there is a feeling of stiffened muscular action.  Such a condition is always present in the early stage of mastering this problem and should not cause discouragement.  Continued practice will remove this feeling, leaving a relaxed though firm muscular action.  Continued development will also remove the necessity for raising the hand so high above the keys.
Without ceasing to retain firm though supple joints at the wrists and knuckles, release all tension from the shoulder muscles, permitting the arm to fall with its full weight upon the predetermined keys, the points of contact being the balls of the fingers { the soft, fleshy part }.
The finger which is held a trifle lower and much firmer naturally strikes the key a much firmer blow than do the more relaxed fingers which do not overcome the resistance of the key as easily as does the more firmly held finger. The tone produced by the key so depressed is therefore stronger than the others. Thus, it is plainly seen that in striking a chord, in which a single note is to be accented, the effect can be produced by holding the finger which is to play the melody note a trifle lower and much firmer than the fingers which are to play the unaccented notes. The reason for holding the finger a trifle lower is only psychological in effect; in actual practice, it isn't altogether necessary. Experience shows that in the beginning it is almost impossible to get a student to hold one finger more firmly than the others unless he is also permitted to hold it in a somewhat different position from the others. Holding it a little lower does not change the quality or quantity of tone produced and does not affect the playing in any way but it does put the student's mind at greater ease.  { Not entirely so: playing the note slightly earlier sets it in a different time dimension, making the effect more orchestral. }
There is one more point of vital importance in mastering this problem. In the beginning the super-firmness with which the lowered finger is held will cause a hard tone to be produced. The hardness of tone will disappear with progress in its mastery and freedom of movement in depressing the keys, leaving as a final result a beautiful, sonorous and velvety tone of the desired carrying power."

Speed, Weight and Compression

Speed, Weight and Compression

 

Only when you can be extremely pliable and soft

can you be extremely hard and strong.

~ Zen Proverb

 

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Every touch is balanced between three forms of energy – Speed, Weight and Compression.  Usually, however, one of the three predominates, often to the extent of seemingly negating the other two.  It’s important to learn to separate them as much as possible and master all three.

Speed

Speed is simply a way of defining weightless, free-flowing energy.  It’s the Chi, the life-force.  Argerich embodies it.  The energy of each attack passes out of the arm and finger, leaving them relaxed and refreshed.  It can have the power of a violent storm or the tenderness of a whispered secret, but all energy remains flowing.

The technique of Deflection, even when combined with Weight, is linked more closely to Speed because it’s thrown and not absorbed back into the arm. 

Weight

The arm is relatively heavy.  The higher you drop it from, the heavier it falls.  The forearm has its own weight, as does the hand and each individual finger.  Be sensitive to each unit of weight and learn how to use it.  I find Weight-based playing to be the most relaxing and often the most emotionally satisfying.  Arrau is its Master.

In order to play with weight, you have to drop it or release it into the keys through the finger-tip.  If the finger-tip is too relaxed and doesn’t direct the weight into the keys, the weight becomes useless, ineffective.  You can drop from the finger, from the hand (or wrist), from the forearm, or from the upper arm. 

There are two basic approaches to weighted playing:  Drop-and-Bow and Drop-and-Lift.  Drop-and-Bow means dropping the weight in and then leaving it there as you play on, the weight transferring to each new note or chord, legato.  This gives the sensation and effect of bowing a string.  Drop-and-Lift means dropping weight in and then lifting it back out before you attack the next note or chord.  This allows the following attack to have that extra punch and definition that the drop gives.

Compression

Compression is an expressive energy which involves creating resistance to the sound in your arms, hands and/or fingers before you play it.  Imagine how a mime moves through artificially dense air. 

On the surface, Compression seems like a waste of energy.  If you establish the equivalent energy of one pound of resistance in your arm and play with a two-pound attack, the resulting absolute poundage will only be only one.  But that one pound will be more expressive and have a greater carrying power than a free-flowing,  Speed-based attack of equivalent energy { translate 1-pound of weight into 1-pound of energy to compare} or of a Compressionless Weight-based 1-pound attack.  Compression changes the quality of the sound and the intensity of the expression.  Essentially, Compression translates as espressivo.

Balancing and Combining the Three

A so-called Speed attack is generally about 80% Speed, 10% Weight and 10% Compression.  Any combination of the three is possible.  Try to be conscious when practicing of the basic ratio between them.

A colorful, orchestral pianism treats the three as orchestral color units.  Different styles and composers generally require an emphasis on one of the three, but all music employs all three approaches tastefully balanced. 

Let’s experiment with our Prelude, starting with Speed.  Play the whole first page using only weightless, compressionless energy-based attacks.  After gaining conscious command of that approach, try Weight, then Compression. 

Next see you can play the Red line and accompanying two colors with highly compressed attacks, and the remaining 6 Colors (Royal Blue and Company) with a weightless Speed attack.  Then reverse them. 

Now try the Red line as Weight, and the Royal blue as Compression.  Next the Red as Compressed Weight (50-50) and the Royal Blue as floating Speed.

Every note on the page can have its own unique ratio between Speed, Compression and Weight, so the possibilities are endless.

Earth, Water, Fire and Air

Earth, Water, Fire and Air

 

At the still-point in the center of the circle

one can see the infinite in all things.

~ Chuang Tzu

 

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This variation of the five traditional Chinese elements is closely related to Speed, Weight and Compression.  Air is Speed, Earth is Weight, Fire is Compression; but what’s Water?  Water does not come directly from the fingers or arms – it comes of course mainly from your right foot.

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Pianists can be categorized in relationship to the elements and placed on this diagram.  They translate into tonal colors.  Most pianists are not difficult to label by their most defining element. 

Let’s start with Earth.  The most definitive Earth pianist is Arrau.  He loves to sink his fingers into the earth with relaxed heavy arms.

Air is pure, weightless energy – Argerich embodies it beautifully.  Remember that Wind is an element of Air.

Fire comes from inner passion.  While Pogorelich is the greatest Compression pianist, Kissen more typifies the extreme of a controlled Fire approach. 

And although Horowitz may be the greatest pedaler of the piano, Gieseking (especially in Ravel’s Gaspard de la nuit) best typifies Water.

Other pianists gravitate toward secondary elements formed by mixing two primary elements.  By mixing Fire and Earth, for example, you create Metal and Precious Stones.  The typical Metal pianist is Horowitz, and Gilels is a Precious Stones pianist par excellence.  The entire French School of pianism, such as Casadesus or early Cortot, can be placed between Air and Water { but closer to Air }.  The Czech pianist Ivan Moravec makes his home between Water and Earth, as does his Polish predecessor Ignaz Friedman and virtually the entire Leschetizky School.  Horowitz’ approach to Scriabin can be placed between Fire and Air.  (Horowitz, being one of the greater pianists, finds multiple placement on this chart.)  Another pianist between Air and Fire, although leaning more toward Air, is Zimmerman.

Where do you lie?  Challenge yourself on the one hand to be honest and define yourself by a single element or somewhere between two elements.  But as you study tone colors, try to become not one of the artists in the mix, but the artist holding the palette.

 

Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing there is a field. 

I’ll meet you there.

~ Rumi

 

 

Let’s experiment with our Prelude.

First try by imitating Gieseking’s magical approach to Ravel’s Gaspard de la nuit.  Everything should float and there should be the illusion, even in forte, that the piano has no hammers.  Bells are welcome, provided they’re not struck directly or with hard mallets.  Imagine Water in all its non-violent forms and let yourself remain emotionally cool.  It should feel more like painting in watercolors than singing.

Now try Arrau’s earthy approach.  Every note should be planted lovingly into the earth – some of them roses or lilies, others full-grown Pines or Oaks.  The fingers, like spades of a shovel, sink in backed by the weight of the upper arms, the elbows not locked.  Although it’s all pedaled, let the attacks be dry when possible. Remember that Earth can be dry or wet.  It may help to imagine lying in the ocean near the shore, supporting the weight of your entire body with your fingers, the sand beneath them constantly slipping away.  It’s a sinking approach.

Try now applying Kissen’s Fire approach.  The emotional compression in the fingers and in the arms, the forearms especially, is intense, but never tight or forced.  It’s thick, living, flowing, hot energy, akin to lava, but much more controlled.  (Kissen is of course also a master of Ice and many other colors, but compressed Fire is his home-base.)  He uses a combined Height and Depth finger-based approach.  Let your fingers direct the energy, supported by the arms. They should attack always with oxygen – from at least a centimeter above the key surface – and descend at least a centimeter below the key bottom.  Remember that the Modern Russian School, which Kissen represents beautifully, is powered by expression.  The fingers must be inspired to compress the energy by the desire to play each note.  You must hear every note and sing it in your soul before playing it.  Compression without expression is simply dry, static tension and produces terrible, sometimes physically damaging results. 

Now let’s approach the Prelude with Air.  Let Argerich’s, light, fast, energy-based technique flow through you.  The attacks will be based on Speed, not Compression or Weight.  Release the sounds into the pedal at will.  The legato should always be loose, the hand always relaxed.  A certain amount of hand and arm rotation comes into play, making me imagine Argerich as a free-style kick-boxer.  Granted, hers is never a violent energy, but it’s full of free-flowing, graceful power.   Pull out an Argerich recording of Prokofiev’s 3rd Concerto or Tchaikovsky’s First, or any of them… and see if you can match her color and feel.

Experiment with other colors individually.  Try Horowitz’ singing metals approach, for example, or Friedman’s lightly flowing weighted approach.

Be as specific as possible about the colors on your palette.  Eventually, you’ll feel ready to try combining them.  Start by playing the Red line with Kissen’s Fire approach and everything else with Gieseking’s Water approach.  Continue by following the examples of the exercises for previous filters, and experiment at will. 

Like all of the filters, this is a life-time process. 

 

You are an aperture

through which the universe is looking at and exploring itself.

~ Alan Watts

 

Super-melody

Super-melody

 

Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.

~ Leonardo da Vinci

 

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In any work, the performer must be aware of a single line from beginning to end that acts as its Super-melody.  Clearly define it to yourself and in the moment of performance, try to dedicate 90% of your total energy – mental, expressive, emotional – to that single line.  Everything else should be experienced peripherally. 

Interpretation is not Democratic – it’s Autocratic, Monarchic.  There’s a constant hierarchy.  The general audience, no matter how sophisticated, is attracted to the surface energy, to the all-important melodic aspect of a work.  Even 12-tone music is melodic, just not very singable.

When you watch a film, the director is aware in every frame what the central point is and he highlights it in such a way that the audience has no choice but to look at it.  Have you ever watched an audience watch a film?  Their eyes and heads turn as one, lead by the guiding hand of the Director.

Music is no different.  The audience is going to follow the main melody as the composer has set it up.  If you in your sophistication or lack of preparation give your present energy to anything but the melody, the audience will be unmoved and feel that something is missing.  The main line will lack soul and the timing will be off.  It’s color will be lack-luster, at times to the point of confusing the listener as to what’s really important, and then you’ve really lost the game.  That’s when they wander and start wondering where they should go for coffee the next morning.

Keep a firm guiding hand on your listener by staying with them.

Let’s look at our Prelude again.  This concept is essentially nothing new, except in its intensity and in its point of view.  It’s not as much about the resulting sound as it is about you being aware of concentrating yourself into the main line and resisting the urge to look and feel elsewhere.

The best way to practice carving out a strong Super-melody pathway within yourself is to give it all of your energy.  Take your everything-you’ve-got touch, you’re near-maximum of height/depth/weight/speed/compression/Level-IV (upper arm)/fingers-of-steel f to ff touch and apply it to every single note of your Super-melody. 

It’s important to let everything else remain pp and passive.  The point is about focusing not only for physical strength, but your mental and emotional as well.   Don’t attempt to phrase or shape at first – let it remain a purely vertical exercise.  If you feel tired or spent or experience any sensation of pain or discomfort, STOP.  Shake the tension out of your arms.  Take a few deep breaths. Usually this will pass within about 30 seconds or less, and then you can start playing again.  NEVER PLAY THROUGH DISCOMFORT.

By the third time through, you’ll start experiencing less effort all-around.  The emotional/mental/physical path is becoming wide and clear of clutter.

Now relax the dynamic intensity by a couple notches to give yourself enough room to shape the phrases as you go along, giving a highly energetic accent on each of the Energy Pillars. 

Now lean back and play, passively taking in the Super-melody, with the colors and dynamics that you intend to use.  You will likely experience the sensation at this point of great ease and virtuosity, as if the music is singing freely and shaping itself. 

This is the Alpha and the Omega of interpretation.  It’s where you begin defining your interpretation, where you need to return to occasionally to regain perspective, where you need to be often during the final practice sessions before performance to realign your intentions and be in top form, and where you need to be without fail in the moment of performance.

Memorizing

Memorizing

 

Let go over a cliff, die completely, 

and then come back to life — 

after that you cannot be deceived.”

~ Zen Proverb

 

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You’ll find defining the Super-melody and cleaving to it to be one of the best ways to help you memorize music.  For any of you who have a fear of memory slips during performance, clinging to the Super-melody and letting the other notes go, contrary to what you might think, actually makes the memory much stronger.  You entrust the inner parts largely to your muscle memory and only need to be responsible for singing out a single line.  With a little practice, even an untrained musician can sing through a song from memory beginning to end without fear of losing his place.

Even if something in the inner parts gets off, by clinging to the Super-melody and continuing forward, you’ll find your place again almost immediately.  You’ll find though that with a little practice, you won’t depend on this crutch.  By giving yourself permission to fail, failure generally disappears.

Memory for me is one of the first points of departure when preparing a new interpretation.  It should be an active goal from the very beginning until you achieve it.  Then you should go back and forth between using the score and playing from memory until you learn to realize every single detail therein. 

It’s difficult to reach depth of expression while looking at the notes in front of you.  The page becomes a barrier between yourself and the music. 

 

I find the process of memorizing to be a combination of working at the keyboard and working away from the keyboard. 

Away from the keyboard, I work through many filters of analysis: harmonic analysis, structural analysis, emotional analysis, deep score-reading, rhythmic and metric analysis.  And as a conductor, I prepare the score such that I could conduct a pianist or group of pianists, and I orchestrate it in my mind and prepare to conduct my orchestral transcription.

 

Composers and conductors tend to have a much more strongly developed sense of inner hearing than instrumentalists and singers.  They don’t depend on sonic feedback to inspire them and tell them the notes.  Studying away from the piano, singing all of the lines, learning to hear them and pre-hear them, prepares you for meaningful playing.  It’s a bit like playing blind.  You don’t realize how much you depend needlessly on your eyes until you shut them.

Playing Blind

Playing Blind

 

Relax, Nothing is under control.

~ unknown
 

 

zen-and-the-art-of-piano-david-michael-wolff-playing-blind

One of the first things I do with beginning students, once they’ve learned the names of the notes and how to find them, is have them close their eyes and find notes on command.  Even five- and six-year-olds have no trouble.  They love it – it makes them feel superhuman. 

The eyes should be a tool, not a crutch.  The fingers have eyes of their own – learn to use them.

From around the age of ten, I loved playing from memory late at night in low light, often simply the glow coming from the fireplace.  The combination of mood-lighting and the sensation of not needing my eyes directly to experience the music liberated me and brought me in immediate contact with the music.  The less light the better.

As an Undergrad, I would often practice in the dark in the closets that are commonly called practice rooms.  Vast expanses of space surrounded me as if I had entered Narnia’s Wardrobe.  The only disadvantage was the constant interruption of students opening the door thinking they had found a free room…

For some odd reason, it took me until my early twenties to make the final plunge – closing my eyes.  There’s something disarming and discomforting at first when you close your eyes and begin playing, even if you’re by yourself.  The piano suddenly feels foreign, and BIG.  You’re gripped with fear, but of what?  Do you fear being attacked or hurting yourself?  It’s much more banal than that – you simply fear moving outside of your personal comfort zone and making mistakes.  You’re afraid of losing face in front of yourself.  They say it’s the people closest to you – your friends and family - who often make you most nervous and self-conscious – but sometimes it’s your own self that you fear.

Once you realize that, you’ll see how silly you’ve been.  Close your eyes again comfortably and begin playing, making plenty of mistakes along the way.  Take joy in your imperfection!  Quicker than you expect, the mistakes will become significantly fewer and your fingers will start to experience the keys with new immediacy and intimacy.  Your fingers, hands, arms – your whole body – will start to talk to you, sending you constant signals about how they feel.  They’ll teach you about yourself, about how you should move to regain your animal instincts.  You have to experience it to know what I mean…

And your ears will start to hear with pristine clarity and sensitivity, like you hear things at dawn, before they’ve been corrupted by the white noise, and not so white noise, of the modern world.  You’ll hear things you’ve never heard before because your ears weren’t open to them.

You’ll begin feeling truly sensitive to sound, and the emotional experience will be much deeper and fulfilling.

Because your outer vision isn’t interfering, sending you constant needless, meaningless signals, your inner vision takes over and the imagination you possessed as a toddler and still possess begins to talk to you.  Don’t be ashamed to talk back with your fingers and heart.  You may begin having visions, flights of imagination.  The music may start becoming programmatic…

 

When you open your eyes again and play, you’ll find that all of these experiences have become a part of you and inform your physical approach to playing and your interpretation.  Return to darkness as often as you like for intimate revelations.

You’ll also discover that your eyes aren’t staring anymore.  As they’re only needed occasionally for high attacks or leaps, they relax and simply go along for the ride.  This is the open-eyed state closest to actually closing your eyes.

Try this with our Prelude or any piece you have memorized.  Don’t be discouraged the first time.  It takes a few times through before you start feeling comfortable again.

 

~ End of Part I ~

Part II {Andante con mosso}

Part II

{Andante con mosso}

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Encircling Reflections

 

Horowitz liked to say, “Think orchestrally - play pianistically.”  But what does that mean?  What are the means and techniques of pianistic orchestration?  What is the difference between Energy and Emotion?  What is the Music Theory behind defining Energy Pillars?  These are the lingering questions that are explored further in these pages.  In Part I, I’ve tried to simplify the concepts without over-simplifying, but in Part II I’d like to penetrate more deeply and broadly.  Sometimes the most precious jewels lay deeply enshrouded in stone, or a stone’s throw away.

In my own teaching and studies, I’ve learned that sometimes approaching a subject from a slightly different angle opens the door to new insights and deepens comprehension.  In Schubertian fashion, Part II occasionally meanders into related aspects of pianistic thought and practice, from Practicing, Accompanying, and Using the Metronome to Integrity and Persona. 

Most of Part II is less dense than Part I, and you’re invited to read it comfortably, con mosso.  

 

This is the real secret of life — 

to be completely engaged with what you are doing in the here and now. 

And instead of calling it work, realize it is play.

~ Alan Watts

 

The Myth of Evenness

The Myth of Evenness

Singers spend their lives learning to sing with a perfect, even legato.  Pianists, imitating the ideal of great singing, try to make every note as closely matched to its predecessor as possible.  Why is it that few trained musicians arrive at natural phrasing?  Why is legato so elusive if it’s so easily defined?

The problem lies in the definition itself.  Legato is a paradox because it’s the antithesis of evenness!  Two notes side by side with identical color and volume fight against one another like two positive magnets pushed together – they cancel each other out.  This truth applies not only to legato but to any two notes side-by-side.  Redefine your energy, respecting a phrase’s real energy properties, and you’ll discover true legato and natural phrasing.

As a rule, every note is either in diminuendo, in crescendo or a pressure point {arrival point, Energy Pillar}.  You’ll rarely get tired if you’re always going somewhere or coming from somewhere.  You get tired when you’re directionless, like tagging behind your wife on a shopping trip.  Static energy tires because of its lack of release and renewal.  Oddly, although it’s generally less tiring to walk over flat terrain, in music it’s less tiring to walk over hilly terrain.

The reason for this is that when you give out emotional energy while remaining sensitive to it with listening eyes and open ears, it comes back to you intact, like a boomerang, and refreshing you.  On the other hand, when you hold energy and expression inside, it quickly becomes blocked and produces all kinds of tension – physical, emotional and mental.  And when you release energy expressively but don’t remain sensitive to it, you lose it forever and quickly become emotionally drained and physically tired.  Why this should be remains a mystery.

The reverse side also has a reverse side.  – Japanese Proverb

The reverse side also has a reverse side. – Japanese Proverb

You need release from tension whenever possible.  Only in this way can the points of tension and expression be fully felt and realized.  It’s important to be aware of every crescendo and diminuendo, no matter how small, in order to create a successful interpretation.  In practice, the continual swells need to be exaggerated. 

It may seem like an overstatement to say that every single note is either in crescendo, in diminuendo or an arrival point, but it’s not really.  It would be more accurate of course to say that every note is either increasing in energy (tension), decreasing in energy, or a pressure point; after all, there are a lot of different ways to increase or decrease energy besides altering the volume.  But in general, an increase in energy results in an increase in volume and vice-versa.  {Occasionally the energy either moves forward into a pressure point in diminuendo, or arrives on it with a sudden decrease in volume (negative accent) to stunning effect, but this is the exception.}

As a rule it’s important to keep vision in crescendo and not be overly expressive in diminuendo.  In crescendo, begin without an accent {or even with a negative accent} and keep gently feeding in new energy; in diminuendo, ride out the energy that has been released at the top of the phrase or the beginning of a diminuendo.  You don’t have to deliberately let it deflate, but you needn’t push it or feed in new energy. 

This is particularly difficult for singers and wind players to grasp at first because they need to sustain the breath to the end of the phrase.  The concept of releasing energy sometimes seems to conflict with perceptions about proper breath support, but usually within a couple days, if not almost immediately, this is overcome.  Tenors tend to be a caricature of “expressive sustaining” – they push every phrase all the way to the end, and as they come off it, slap you in the face with their lionesque masculinity.

 

The peak of every phrase or gesture should have an expressive accent that focuses into a single note { and within that note to a single split-second }.  This is why I sometimes prefer the appellation pressure point to arrival point or Energy Pillar.  They usually require expressive pressure:  when placed at the right points, like acupuncture, they realign the energy to its original, natural state.

These notes should be looked forward to – save yourself for them emotionally and physically and they’ll be emotionally rewarding to play.  Otherwise they’re effortful and the whole phrase becomes forced, belabored, or simply wandering.  If you don’t release enough energy at a pressure point or if you miss it entirely, the following notes will tend to want to crescendo to compensate, or they’ll simply fall away in diminuendo and lose their presence.

Why is this?  A good musician instinctively tries to balance negative and positive energy.  He struggles to maintain emotional balance but doesn’t necessary know how to identify the emotional pressure points and organize them.  When an Energy Pillar is miscalculated, the interpreter puts the energy elsewhere, generally over negative, unimportant space.  This reverses the energy poles and the result is confusing to both interpreter and listener.  The interpreter, at least, feels a certain satisfaction in achieving personal emotional balance between positive and negative energy; the listener either wonders what’s missing or accuses himself of not having understood the music.  My very first conducting Guru as a teenager loved to chide his students: “It’s not your job to feel; it’s your job to make others feel!”

 

Technique and interpretation are linked much more intimately than generally realized.  From my own studies, and from my experience teaching instrumentalists and coaching singers, clarifying direction in phrasing often solves a whole slew of technical and expressive problems.  Mastering the flow of horizontal energy focuses the release of energy into key focal pressure points and sets all the rest of the notes in motion under their pull and influence.  It does away with all static energy and defines the architecture of the piece, giving it greater meaning to the listener. 

Undisciplined, unfocused, or misguided expression is tiresome and meaningless to the listener.  You have to choose your moments (or rather become aware of them) and make them count.  Then the rest falls into place.  Don’t buy into the cheap gypsy mentality that improvisational expression is more valuable and true than planned-out expression { see Preparing for Performance below }.

As the emotional energy of an interpretation is defined logically, the physical energy follows, and countless technical problems disappear.  Singers I coach, many of whom sing in the major Opera Houses of the world, often tell me that their technique improves more under my coaching than under the tutelage of their voice teachers.  { In America, voice teachers generally teach “technique” and defer the “music” to vocal coaches. }  Although I’ve studied much of the most-respected literature on vocal technique and have an outsider’s understanding of it, I’m not a singer and couldn’t possibly teach vocal technique beyond a beginner level. 

I simply teach energy management – awareness and understanding of the movement of musical energy.  Learn to manage your energy effectively and you may not need to think as much about “technique”.

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Energy + Form + Color = Emotion

Energy + Form + Color = Emotion

Maybe it’s not E=MC2 but there’s an important truth here.  Energy is not Emotion nor is Color.  Only combined with Form do they transform into the substance of Emotion.  The four are easy to confuse and difficult to separate, but as you gain conscious awareness and control of your art, it’s essential to be able to differentiate them and develop them individually. 

As an adolescent, music is pure emotion.  Color is a subset of emotion and you’re unable to see the skeleton of energy underneath it all.  Gradually I became aware of Energy as a separate force and my Theory of Musical Energy was born.  Not that it’s a new discovery – it’s more of a difference in semantics.  But from a practical point of view, I know of no other musical theory for performers that nears its usefulness.

Imagine Energy as Architecture.  My family’s business was designing and building houses, so I grew up seeing small wildernesses cleared out, plots of land dug up, and skeletons of houses slowly take shape.  At first, every house looked the same.  Even as the foundations and principal pillars were laid, it still looked only like cement spread over dirt with wood sticking out.  {How I loved helping lay cement at $2.50/hour on free Saturdays!  Building foundations appealed to me from early on.}  Gradually, magically, the form started to look more like a house and I looked forward to helping paint the hard-to-reach nooks-and-corners in bathrooms and closets.  There was a satisfaction in seeing a house finished and sold, then become a home as a family moved in.  My not-yet-even-10-year-old self took satisfaction and pride in knowing that my own two hands had helped create something important.

On top of a cleared plot of land springs a skeletal form, which is gradually covered with filled in and colored, and a house is born.  The house then becomes living, breathing home.

This is the proper relationship between Energy, Form, Color and Emotion { and also nears the process of composing and interpreting }.

When I first started studying conducting, my teacher said, David, you possess everything except a skeleton.  By this, he meant of course that my conducting was completely ineffectual because I had no technique and was simply waving my arms in front of people.

Energy + Color = formless, meaningless Emotion.

Energy + Form = colorless, lifeless, non-descript Emotion

Color + Form = motionless Emotion, an anomaly.

The first formula represents the most common form of musical expression among unformed interpreters.  The second is less common among adolescents, but quite common among mature interpreters.  Remember, even boredom is an emotional state.  The third formula is an important analytical state, but is of course impossible to realize.

Defining the underlying energy may seem dry or analytical at first to the young interpreter, but don’t try to construct castles of emotions without first laying the foundation.  First, study the overall design, the plans.  Lay down the foundation and then the pillars.  Don’t build the second floor before the first.

Colors can and must be learned separate from their emotional entrappings and architectural uses.  Next, learn to paint architecture with minimal emotional involvement.  This is the beginning of mastery.  But when you begin to paint, be sure that you have a wall to paint on.  These are basic truths…

And once your house is properly constructed, release it to the world and let it be lived in.  Zen begins when you free your creation and the house becomes a home.

 

There is a way to again be in real time with the universe,

but it is not through force, imagination or manipulation.

It is by finding your true Self.

When you do, you will not need to manipulate life, it will simply flow.

~ Mooji

 

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Technique

Technique

 

The menu is not the meal.

~ Alan Watts

 

It is a truism that technique and interpretation cannot be fully separated, but my view of technique is even more all-encompassing than what is usually described in technique manuals.  It is not a national style or a modern international style – it strives to encompass the possibilities of every style of pianistic interpretation, with an emphasis on the giants of the golden age of pianism.  I hope and believe that the path I am following may help lead you more directly toward the ideal of an all-encompassing, powerfully communicative pianism.

I view technique on the most basic level as the art of imagining and achieving a seemingly infinite variety colors, and ultimately, as the art of balancing colors with energy, emotional expression and sensitivity.  Technique for me is akin to orchestration – both imagining a pianistic orchestration of a work and achieving that vision in performance.  Every color is achieved by a given physical/mental/emotional process.  (The emotional side of color can be removed; however, invariably something is lost without its human aspect.) 

Technique in essence simply involves moving a key down and lifting the finger back up, thereby releasing the key, or letting the key lift the finger back up by ceasing to press against it.  But the number of possible strokes, each with its own distinct color, is astonishing.  The numerous ways that various strokes can be combined at various dynamic levels at the same time even within the same hand is even more breathtaking. 

Learning a technique comprising only a few different colors is the norm in the piano world, especially in today’s black-and-white reality, and these types of technique can be learned and mastered with relative ease (given 20 years or so of extreme dedication…).  But if one is blessed or cursed with an unsatisfied, searching mind that wants to possess all the possibilities of the instrument, a pianistic language will be extremely hard to define and may possibly forever elude him.  This is the purpose of these pages – to clarify the pathway of my own pianistic language to myself and possibly help open up students’ eyes to the infinite possibilities of the instrument and to the techniques to achieve a seemingly endless palette of colors at the keyboard.

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Water

 which

 is

too

pure

 has

no

fish.


Ts’ai

 Ken

T’an


Like a mathematical equation, the simpler the problem, the easier to define the answer and the more perfect and complete the answer itself.  When the equation becomes significantly more complex, the answer sometimes becomes less perfect and very difficult to discover.  I search not for perfection, but for truth and for the greatest possible solution to every technical and interpretational challenge.

Each specialized technical approach to the keyboard seems to require a special preparation and mindset.  Over the years I’ve found it very difficult at times to change from one pianistic style to another in a short amount of time, but gradually I’ve learned to adapt more quickly, such that now it’s usually instantaneous.  It must be remembered that technique at the most basic level simply involves depressing the key, and from this viewpoint, all the various approaches to the piano are very closely related and exist within the same basic physical sphere.  The difficulty is obtaining mental and emotional virtuosity and flexibility.

A recurring question to myself regarding technique over the years has been this:  Is it possible to develop a technique that encompasses the techniques of all the great pianistic schools while allowing me to slip effortlessly between one technique and another from note to note AND be able to maintain it on a daily basis?  Although I have a long way to go, I believe now that the answer, to a great extent, is yes.

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Canvas of Silence

Canvas of Silence

 


A heavy snowfall disappears into the sea.

What silence!

~ Folk Zen Saying
 

 

If you desire a larger-than-life Golden Age pianism, it’s generally best to build from top-to-bottom.  That is, establish your ff and fff and construct downwards from there to pp and ppp.  Always start from exaggeration and gradually minimize until you arrive at your interpretation.

But there’s a real beauty in building up sound from silence.  Silence is your canvas, and in the modern world, it’s ever harder to come by.  Even sleep is often covered by the sound of radio or television.  Re-establishing sensitivity to non-sound for some can be a long process.

When you feel tired or your ears have taken in too many loud sounds, your perception of piano becomes distorted.  You imagine you’re playing from p to f, but you’re actually playing from f to fff, and you wonder why you have the acute sensation of forcing the sound…

Stop.  Take some deep breaths.  Let your ears clear, your heart calm, and your arms relax.  After a minute or two passes, begin playing again, but imagine painting sound onto a canvas of silence.  You’ll notice shortly that your range is again enormous and that you’re enjoying what you’re playing {the subject of the following Essay}.

 

Within each of us there is a silence, a silence as vast as the universe.

And when we experience that silence, we remember who we are.

~ Gunilla Norris
 

 

When I was about twelve, I remember playing Chopin’s “Aeolian Harp” Etude in a masterclass for a visiting concert pianist.  Its difficulty lies in playing very quickly and softly at the same time.  The pianos and pianissimos were all a bit on the mf side, so he pointed out that I had to play softer.  Confident and determined, I slightly raised my shoulders, tightened my forearms, and played as softly as I could.  Just as loud as before, only more espressivo… 

Flustered, he paused for a moment, then said, Try imagining playing just a little louder than silence.

Silence is a state of listening relaxation.  Adding soft sounds to silence feels like gently dipping into a warm pool of water.

I relaxed and slowly slipped into the first notes.  The ah’s in the auditorium confirmed that I had obtained an effortless pp.

 

To the mind that is still,

the entire universe surrenders.

- Lao-Tzu

 

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Enjoyment – The Kernel of Talent and Persuasive Performing

Enjoyment – The Kernel of Talent and Persuasive Performing

 

Follow your bliss

and the universe will open doors for you where there were only walls.

~ Joseph Campbell
 

It is a miracle that curiosity survives formal education.

– Einstein

 

In Korean, the adverb chal { 잘 } has three distinct but intertwining meanings.  The first is well, as in, He plays the piano well.  The second is often, as in, He plays the piano often.  The third is enjoy or like, as in, He enjoys playing the piano.  The correlation is easy to see:  If you enjoy something, you will do it often.  If you do it often, you will do it well.  And if you do well, you will enjoy it even more, and so on, feeding the growth of a virtuous circle.

I’ve always felt that talent, even genius and near-genius, is rooted in a combination of enjoyment and curiosity.  If you cultivate enjoyment in your playing and never cease to be curious about what more there is to learn, there’s virtually no limit to how much you will continue to grow.  Go beyond yourself!

As a performer, the energy you give out is multi-layered.  Many of the layers are buried deep inside of you, containing the endless hours of preparation.  They transmit to the listener as residual energy.  But the audience perceives your present state of mind and emotional generosity on a much more acute, direct level.

They need to feel that you’re enjoying what you’re doing, that you’re giving them something present and honest.  Non-musicians, sometimes even more than musicians, pick up on the quality of the energy you send out in the moment of performance, and they respond more directly to it.  A cold, unenjoyed performance on the part of the performer can occasionally be appreciated for its artistic excellence by an initiated listener, but most people just pick up on the negative energy.  In performance, if you’re nervous, they’ll be uncomfortable.  If you accuse yourself of missing a note carelessly, they’ll take you to task for it.  On the other hand, if you forgive yourself for flubbing and keep on enjoying the music, they will too. 

A six-year-old aspiring virtuoso I once taught asked me, perplexed, But how do they KNOW whether I‘m enjoying myself or not?  And I answered him as directly as I could:  They just do.

 

Life is not about waiting for the storms to pass…

It’s about learning how to dance in the rain.

~ Vivian Greene

 

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