On Teaching

November 29, 2016

Gavin Black is director of the Princeton Early Keyboard Center (www.pekc.org) in Princeton, New Jersey, teaching harpsichord, organ, and clavichord. Gavin can be reached by e-mail at [email protected].

Disjunct Motion II

If we observe that some of our students treat notes that are released into silence differently from notes that are released into other notes, we can be fairly sure that this is a mental/psychological issue. There is nothing physical that actually requires that these notes be treated differently. Rather, the situation presents itself to the student’s mind as being different in a way that leads to a different physical behavior. The mental issue is probably, to a large extent, one of awareness and listening. But it can also be about not (yet) knowing how to extend the feeling of “normal” playing—playing one note after another—to playing notes that are followed by a silence that can seem like aimlessness on the part of the hands or feet. 

Why is it important for notes that are released to silence to feel the same as notes that are released to other notes? Is it possible that these situations should feel different? The goal should be for the player to exercise a wide range of control over the timing and sound of the releases of notes. I would say a “full” range of control, except that we should all expect to learn more and more, and we should never look for an end-point at which our control of anything is “full.”


Controlling releases

The starting point for control is always lack of tension. The different feeling that some students experience when releasing a note into a silence is usually one created by tension. The analogy to the feel of “regular” playing is an efficient way of learning to ease or avoid that tension. The actual range of sounds that we want to create and feelings that we use to create them when releasing a note to silence may be in part different from what we want otherwise. But that difference should never come about through inadvertence and especially never as a result of tension. It should be the result of listening, choice, and control.

In a kind of fruitful, paradoxical cycle, since the endings of notes that are followed by silence are more exposed—easier to hear—if we get truly comfortable releasing those notes lightly and smoothly, we can then take that feeling back to other situations, even if we derived the feeling initially from those other situations and learn even better how to play without tension overall. If there are ways of approaching the release of notes into silence that seem really different and particular to that situation, and that arise out of something other than reflex or tension, then adding those things to our technical arsenal cannot help but be valuable.

Here are several brief exercises to help with extending the feeling of “normal” playing to situations of disjunct motion, or of beginning to recognize what it feels like to do so. As usual with my exercises, the point is not so much the specific notes as the way(s) in which they are to be used. Most of these exercises have the unusual feature that part of working on them consists of selectively leaving some of the notes out.


Examples 1 and 2

With Example 1, play this a couple of times, slowly and with as light and relaxed a touch as possible. Keep it more-or-less legato, but don’t worry too much about articulation or style. The fingering 1-2-3-4-5 is fine to start with. Then play just the first four notes, leaving out the G, but trying not to change anything about the feeling of playing the four notes in the first measure, including (this is the main point) the feeling, timing, and sound of the release of the F. Go back and forth between playing the final note and not doing so. That final G will also be released to silence. But the focus for the moment is not on that, since we are focusing on a sort of “A/B” comparison. After you have done this as described a few times, you can play all five notes and try to bring the feeling of releasing the F that you have just been working on to the act of releasing the G. You can vary the length of that G, though I have printed it one way. Give it a fermata, in effect.

Then play all five notes with this fingering: 1-2-3-4-3. Let the release of the final note of the first measure be as smooth and light as it can be, and let the timing of that release be determined physically: that is, release it early enough that moving 3 onto the next note—G—is comfortable. Don’t worry about what the articulation that this creates sounds like—how large an articulation it is. Just let it feel light and smooth. Next, omit the final note. This time let the release of the F by the fourth finger feel the way it did when you were moving to the G with finger 3. This will be a bit different from the feeling of that release when you were about to play the G with finger 5. Both of these should be relaxed and light.

Note that in this case—the 1-2-3-4-3, followed by 1-2-3-4—[nothing]—you are releasing the fourth finger on F into silence either way, but in different contexts. One creates an articulation, the other ends the passage. Do those feel intrinsically different? Can they feel the same? Should they?

Try something similar with the note pattern found in Example 2. Start with the fingering 1-2-3-4-5-4-3-2-1, and keep it slow, light, and basically legato. Then omit various notes—any of them, except for the first. Try to let the feeling of releasing the note immediately prior to any note that you omit be the same as the feeling of releasing that note when you go on to playing another note. Alternate between keeping a given note in and leaving it out to give yourself the most direct experience of keeping that feeling the same. 

Does it feel consistently different when you omit a note that is on the beat and when you omit one that is off the beat? If so, can you describe this difference to yourself? Can you make them feel the same? If so, is it by converging on one or the other of those feelings, or on either or both, or on something different?

All of this can be done on other notes and should also be done with the left hand. It is best to start in a place on the keyboard where your hand position is comfortable: perhaps as written or a fifth or an octave higher in the right hand, an octave or so lower in the left hand.

The principle behind the across-the-barline 4-3 fingering above is that of certain aspects of “early” fingering. If you play a longer passage with that sort of fingering there are various lessons to learn from the recurrent disjunct motion that that creates.


Examples 3 and 4

Try executing the fingerings in Example 3 a number of different ways. Make the 3-4 or 3-2 groupings legato, and place a break between those groupings and the next (third-finger) notes. At first let that break be defined only by feel. Make the release of finger 4 or 2 light and comfortable without worrying about the timing. Then try the same thing, but making those breaks larger—the notes played by finger 4 or 2 shorter. This is the crucial point: when you consciously make those breaks larger, keep the feeling the same. Don’t make the releases any more crisp or perform them with any more force or tension. Then move it in the other direction. Make those breaks as small as you possibly can without making the 4-3 or 2-3 motion into an awkward lurch. This will still be disjunct, and indeed it might not be very different from the first mode, governed entirely by feel. Experiment with amounts of break that are in between.

The next step is this: move away from legato for the 3-4 and 3-2 pairs. Try to make the articulation of all eight note-to-note transitions feel and sound (but especially feel) the same as one another.

Example 4 demonstrates a pattern with more than one note at a time, for trying out similar things. A good starting fingering is 1/3-2/4-3/5-2/4-1/3. Start by playing as written. Move on to leaving out the final chord, then experiment with leaving out other chords. Try this fingering as well: 2/4-3/5-2/4-1/3-2/4. This has something in common with the “early” scale fingering and can be put through the same paces.


Example 5

There is a specialized use to which any of the above exercises can be put, especially if they are elongated a bit, as you will see in Example 5. Start playing this with the usual light, relaxed touch. Allow yourself to start playing more firmly as you go, something like what you would do if you were playing on the piano and making a crescendo. Over the last few notes, move back toward playing as lightly as possible (diminuendo). By the time you reach the last note, you should be playing very lightly indeed and should release that note with a sense that the hand is floating gently off the key. You might want to do this over more ups and downs than I have notated.

You can create your own note patterns for doing this sort of practice. Alternate between moving from a given note to another note and moving from that note to silence. Sit comfortably, remain relaxed, breathe deeply but naturally.


Examples 6 through 8: Patterns and trills

Repeated note patterns and trills are special cases that allow for this sort of practice. Consider now Examples 6 and 7, alternating between the two. You have to make sure that you execute the first pattern lightly and release each finger as smoothly as possible before playing the same note with the other finger. Then, in the second pattern, try to keep the feeling the same.

For our purposes, there are a few uses to which you can put a trill, as in Example 8. After you choose a fingering for it—3/2, perhaps, or 4/3—you can play the trill pattern for an amount of time (a number of iterations of the two notes) that you haven’t settled on before you start playing it. Then at some point simply release a note and end the trill by letting your hand float lightly up off the keys. Don’t plan when you are going to do this, and don’t worry about which pitch it is that sounds last. Just do it when your hand feels light enough. This is another way of addressing the notion of getting used to releasing a note without any downward energy and without allowing the released note to feel accented. There is a bit of kinship between using a trill pattern this way and my so-called trill exercise, which is outlined in my column of February 2010, and can also be found here: http://gavinblack-baroque.com/trills.pdf.

Next, you can do the same thing, but add to it the crescendo/diminuendo idea that I described above. Start playing very lightly (“quietly”) and increase pressure (get “louder”) in the middle of the trill. Then lighten back up as much as possible and allow that increasing lightness to move into the untimed release of the trill.

If you leave out every other note of a trill, it of course becomes a repeated note pattern. The fingering for those repeated notes that arises out of the trill fingering is one that does not involve changing fingers. If you have been playing the upper note of the trill with finger 4, for example, and you then leave out the lower note, you are left with repeating that upper note with 4. This is a non-optimal, or out-and-out bad, fingering for the repeated notes, especially if they are fast—and half-trill speed is still fast for this purpose. It is interesting to notice the difference in feel between these obvious repeated notes played with one finger and the same notes hidden, so to speak, in the trill itself. The chances are that the rocking motion of the trill renders the same-finger fingering of the hidden repeated notes perfectly fine, but that without that rocking motion the fingering is awkward at best.

You can try playing a trill for a while, or a few separate times in a row, and then moving directly to playing just one of the notes. How comfortable can that fingering be for that repeated note pattern? Is it possible to transfer anything—any feeling—from the comfortable rocking motion of the trill to the potentially awkward same-finger repeated-note fingering to make it as comfortable as possible? Does that teach anything about how to make those disjunct releases smooth? This exercise might be helpful in applying the feeling of a smooth, comfortable release for repeated notes to situations where an ideal different-finger approach is for some reason impossible.

Next month I will discuss, among other things, situations in which disjunct motion is created specifically by big leaps. I will extend some of this to pedal playing, where the physical situation is a bit different.

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