On Teaching

November 3, 2014

Gavin Black is director of the Princeton Early Keyboard Center in Princeton, New Jersey. During the 2014–2015 concert season he will present a series of five recitals at the center, offering a survey of keyboard repertoire from the sixteenth through eighteenth centuries. Details about this and other activities can be found at www.gavinblack-baroque.com. Gavin can be reached by email at [email protected].

Keeping It Going II

This month I continue my musings about how to approach the important goal of always keeping your playing going through wrong notes or other distractions. Most of this month’s column consists of suggestions that I would offer to students about concrete ways of practicing the art of keeping it going. These practice approaches are, in a sense, a bit odd or unusual, since they are predicated on making wrong notes. Normally we practice not making wrong notes in the first place. A student who doesn’t ever naturally generate the wrong notes necessary to do the things described below is, first of all, both very accomplished and very lucky. He or she is also almost certainly someone who has already mastered the art of keeping the playing going through wrong notes—as well as through other distractions—because unless you have learned to do that, you are unlikely to reach a state of playing with accuracy and security.


Keep it slow

The overriding technique or method for practicing keeping a passage going through wrong notes is, not surprisingly, the same thing that makes all sorts of practicing work best: keeping it slow enough. And there is, of course, an element of trial and error about this. If a student practicing a passage is making a lot of wrong notes, then the practice tempo is too fast: that is always the most essential fact about practice procedure. However, if the student is making some—a few—wrong notes while practicing and having trouble keeping the passage going through the wrong notes—that is, having trouble recovering from them while moving forward, rather than being derailed by them and going back—then that is a further and even stronger case for slowing the practicing down. For most students with most pieces, there will probably be a tempo at which a wrong note will occur now and then, and at which there is time to remember to keep playing through that wrong note. If a student is practicing a passage and making no wrong notes, that is commendable and suggests that the practice tempo is fine or even ripe for being shifted up a notch. 

Other techniques for working to assuage a student’s feeling that it is impossible or too difficult to keep a passage going through a wrong note or a series of wrong notes should only kick in after the passage has been slowed down. If things are too fast, it is unnecessarily difficult to do this: maybe even impossible (but it’s only ever impossible if it is too fast). This slowing down in itself will make the process sufficiently easier that nothing else may be needed—nothing except the student’s commitment to keeping the concentration and the hands and feet moving along in the music. However, there is still a lot to be gained by analyzing in some detail the thought process involved in keeping a passage going—or really the several different possible thought processes, which work separately and together. Different students will get more out of some of these than others.


Aural analysis

The most rigorous and challenging way of figuring out what to do with your hands or feet once you perceive that you have made a wrong note is to analyze by ear what the physical nature of the wrong note was and to compensate for it physically. (This is oddly analogous to what a GPS system will do if you take a wrong turn, only without the synthesized voice calling out the word “recalculating.”) A wrong note at a keyboard instrument can only be one of two things: too high or two low. Or, to be even more physically matter-of-fact about it, too far to the left or too far to the right. Correcting for this is conceptually simple, and is simple as a practical matter as well when the music is straightforward.

If you are supposed to play what is shown in Example 1, but instead start with what is shown in Example 2, then as soon as you hear the d you should think: “OK, I played one note too high. In order to reach the next note correctly, I have to move one note farther down than I would otherwise have had to.” And you end up having played what is shown in Example 3.

The physical reality of this will depend on the planned fingering. If you were going to play the second and third notes of this example (Example 3) with 5–4 (fairly likely) then you will have to open the space between 5 and 4 up a little bit more than you would have had to after playing the c with 5; if by any chance you were planning to play both notes with 5, then you will have to move 5, or in a sense your whole hand, over a bit farther than you had planned to.

If you are supposed to play Example 1 and instead start with what is shown in Example 4, then you should be able to notice that the note you have just played is the same as the note that you should be playing next, and just repeat it.

This is all 1) basic and probably sort of obvious; 2) very easy to forget about, or just not focus on, in the flurry of trying to respond to having heard a wrong note—especially for less experienced players; and 3) easier to do in a clear simple situation like that in this exercise than it would be in a more complex texture. 

It is not a bad idea to use simple passages like this to purposely practice keeping going when you play a wrong note. (Though, as I mentioned, this can seem like an odd sort of practice, since it is actually based on making wrong notes.) Start by choosing something straightforward—that is, one line per hand, at least for the most part, not too intricate, and in a harmonic idiom that you are familiar with. (Or a passage that fits this description for one of the hands but not the other: this can be used to practice this technique with that one hand.) It can be something that you know or something that you are more-or-less sight-reading. It can also be a simple exercise such as the above, that you write yourself. The extent to which you already know the passage will determine the right tempo at which to play it. The choice of that tempo is tricky, or at least it is done on an unusual basis. You have to try to choose a tempo at which you are reasonably likely to make some wrong notes—at least if you purposely relax your attention a little bit—but at which you can expect to be able to think (in plenty of time) about how to respond to the wrong notes. 

Play this passage analyzing every note that you hear for its relationship to the correct notes, and make the necessary adjustments. Do this one hand at a time at first, if you are working with a manual passage, then hands together; then, if the passage is for manuals and pedals, the pedal part, and finally everything together. If you are using a passage that you already know, either from having played it or from having heard it, then you will intuitively and promptly know whether a note is wrong. If you are using a less familiar passage, then pay attention to your sense of what the notes on the page tell you that the sound should be. This adds an element of an ear-training exercise to this protocol. Most students—especially people who are or who think that they are “beginners”—have a lot of doubt as to whether they can do this. But in fact, by paying attention, most people can.

Doing just some of this can attune the student to the importance of listening systematically for where the wrong notes are, and remembering that the keyboard is still where it was, and is laid out logically. This is not just a technique for actually finding the next note, but also an antidote to any tendency simply to freak out in the face of wrong notes. 


Visual reminders

For the purposes of the above exercise, it is very important not to look down at the hands at all, ever, since its express purpose is to work on adjusting back to the correct note by ear and through your awareness of the physical layout of the keyboard. However, as I wrote last month, the situation in which you have just heard yourself play a wrong note—or a cluster of wrong notes—and you feel very committed to not hesitating or stopping, but you feel flummoxed about where the next note or notes can be found is one situation in which looking down at the hands can be the best solution. If you feel the need to do this, then you must make sure to do it in a focused and efficient way. First of all, by the time you think that you hear a wrong note you are no longer concerned with getting that note right (or shouldn’t be.) So, when you look at your hands or feet, you should not be looking to check or confirm anything about the note that you have just heard. You should be specifically and only looking for the next note. That of course means that your eyes have to have told you, before they leave the page, what that next note is supposed to be. In general, as I have written before, not knowing what the next note is supposed to be is a much greater source of wrong notes than not knowing where on the keyboard the next note is to be found. In this situation, by definition, the player is at least uncertain about where the next note is to be found, but the focus on what the next notes are supposed to be shouldn’t be lost.

Also, if you are going to look down for the next note, this must be a quick glance, prior to which you make sure to be absolutely grounded in your awareness of your place on the page, and after which you return to that place on the page immediately. For me there is a feeling of not shifting weight. The eyes, head, and shoulders remain anchored where they should be to continue reading the music, and the glance down feels light. 


Continuing through

The final technique for becoming increasingly sure about keeping a passage going is nearly entirely mental, but can be subjected to planned practice. It is to be willing, whether in a practice situation or in performance, to hear a lot of wrong notes in a row rather than to hear yourself stop. A student should be encouraged to believe that keeping the fingers—quite possibly the right fingers, according to the planned fingering—moving over random notes in the correct rhythm is a good and productive thing to do. This will lead to the development of more accurate and reliable playing. 

So a student can take an extended passage or create an extended exercise, like that shown in Example 5, say, and move the hand at random at some point, to get something that starts like Example 6, and purposely take a while to get back on track. This can seem silly, but it is useful practice for real-life situations. (A teacher can also use it to demonstrate that an extended passage of wrong notes, in rhythm, with an eventual return to the correct notes, sounds a lot better than even a little bit of hesitation or stopping.)

Other distractions

We certainly live in an era when distraction is celebrated. The computer term “multitasking”—which seems to date from only the late 1990s—serves as propaganda in favor of being primed for perpetual distraction. It is possible that it is actually harder for people who wish to concentrate well on their practicing to do so now, when there is a certain amount of pressure always to answer the phone, and so on, than it used to be. Or perhaps this is a red herring, since real focus and concentration has always been difficult. To be honest, I am easily distracted, and I have learned to close the curtains on any windows that are nearby when I am practicing (or writing). I also like to have the phone off or not even present in the practice studio. This is tricky, since sometimes worrying about whether there might be a phone call waiting can be more distracting than just checking the phone once in a while, or even letting it ring and answering if necessary. These things work a bit differently from one person to another. However, it is a good idea to invite students to think honestly about how best to set things up for focused practice. During lessons I have always tried to sit or stand where the student can’t see me too easily (while playing), and I certainly try to keep as quiet as possible when a student is playing. 

However, since we are primarily talking about distraction that arises during and from the act of playing, I will mention an exercise that I sometimes perform with a student. I will have the student play something that he or she knows quite well. The task is to keep it going and play as well and accurately as if there were nothing unusual going on. Then, however, I will do things like arbitrarily change stops, get up and leave, turn lights on and off, perhaps sharpen a pencil, and so on. The changing of stops—including the most dramatic and disturbing, like adding something much too loud, or taking off all of the stops (briefly) or making something noisy happen with pistons—is a very apt and useful sort of distraction to ask a student to try to ignore. 

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