On Teaching

January 31, 2017

Gavin Black is director of the Princeton Early Keyboard Center in Princeton, New Jersey. He can be reached by e-mail at [email protected].

Disjunct Motion III

For reasons that were random and fleeting, I did not write columns for November 2016 or January 2017. Thus these three columns on disjunct motion have themselves been presented in a disjunct manner . . . .

As I have mentioned a couple of times in passing, disjunct motion can be created by an interval’s being too wide for the player to get to the new note(s) before releasing the old. This is common. It is usually (always?) about an interval in one hand (or in one foot, but see below for a few thoughts about how all of this applies to the pedals), and it is easy to encapsulate in Example 1 for almost everyone and in Example 2 and Example 3 for everyone.

One interesting thing often occurs in these situations. Having purposely not decided, for any interpretive reason, to make the interval detached and therefore not “owning” the feeling that it should be non-legato, a student will do something physical that represents a doomed effort to make it legato. For example, in Example 1 (assuming right hand), someone might play the middle C with finger 1, and then stretch the hand out as much as possible, maybe getting the fifth finger as far as the air space over the E before having to release the C in order to play the G.

In the third example, someone might finger the first chord with 1-2-4 or 1-2-3, and try to stretch upward, with the fifth finger or with the fourth and fifth, while holding the chord, in an (again utterly doomed) effort to find a way to start the second chord sounding before the first chord is gone. These sorts of efforts twist the hand into uncomfortable positions for no actual gain or purpose.


Effect of articulation

For me, the first principle of comfortable execution of wide intervals is a fish-or-cut-bait attitude about articulation. If an interval is, though a real skip, one that you can physically play legato, and if you in fact want it to sound legato, then by all means it is important to choreograph that legato gesture in a way that works, even if it is difficult or (fleetingly) awkward. If legato is impossible, as in the case of the intervals discussed here, then a half-way attempt to connect the notes will create considerable awkwardness and tension. This is likely to lead to a more disjunct-sounding, more abrupt result. Embrace the non-legato happily!

So, in the examples above, the first question is what fingerings make the most sense. If we abandon the effort to stretch fingers 1 to 5 to make the leap (I’ll come back to that word below) from C to G, then very likely any fingering that creates a comfortable hand position for each note is acceptable. It could be 1-5, of course. But maybe 2-5 or 2-4 would be more comfortable—might, in particular, allow for a more natural and relaxed hand position. This will differ from one player to another. The student should try all of these, especially any that initially seem counterintuitive specifically because they are farther from the unsuccessful legato attempt. The overriding point is this: where distance makes joining two successive events impossible, the fingering that is on paper closest to one that would have joined them is no more likely to give a musically successful result than a fingering that is maximally disjunct.

If this interval is in some context like Example 4 or Example 5 then that context might suggest something about fingering. And it is important that that fingering choice not be distorted by the false pull of legato. In the first instance, 2-1-2-5 or perhaps 3-2-3-5 might make sense. In the second case, perhaps 2-1-2-3-4-5 or 1-2-1-3-4-5 or even 3-2-3-3-4-5. The fixed points in the process of choosing fingerings are the notes before and after the “leap,” not that interval itself. 

In the chord example, the “obvious” fingering of 1/3/5—1/3/5 would probably work well. There are not as many other possibilities here as there can be with a one-note-at-a-time passage. For some players, 2/3/5­—1/2/4 would work; it happens to feel especially comfortable to me. There are a couple of other possibilities, all of them entirely disjunct, as they must be for this note pattern.

Once a student has accepted the notion of not trying for doomed legato fingerings when legato is physically impossible, the next step is to work on executing these fingerings in ways that takes full advantage of their potential to be comfortable. A starting point in thinking about this is the following empirical observation: if you start out practicing a disjunct interval with the break between the two events as big as is needed to feel comfortable, then it will (always) be possible to close that break up substantially as you practice it and get used to it. And, related to that, if, even with a comfortable fingering, you try as hard as you can to make a physically necessary break as small as possible too early in the practicing process, it will sound abrupt and disruptive from the beginning, and it may be hard to move it towards sounding smooth and natural. 

So in the chord example above, the starting point is to allow it to come out, at first, something like Example 6, even if you want it in the end to sound like Example 7.

These notations are approximate. In particular the point of the first one is not for the chord to be a measured sixteenth-note, but for the player/student to allow it to be as short as necessary for the gesture to be comfortable. Again, practicing like this at first is the way to end up with the most convincing and non-disruptive breaks between distant notes or chords. 


Leap or jump or . . . ?

The words “leap” or “jump” for certain intervals have always bothered me. They refer to intervals above a certain size (not well defined) that is probably pretty similar to the size at which an interval becomes necessarily non-legato. The problem is that these words suggest extra energy and an approach in which the crucial or active moment is the leaving of the first note or chord of the interval. After all, a leap or jump happens when you push off from the ground or trampoline or diving board or whatever. The rest—the landing—happens of its own accord. For playing a large and disjunct interval on a keyboard instrument this imagery is wrong. The more the gesture that constitutes negotiating the interval can feel normal—no extra energy, no pushing off, no landing (in other words, no leaping, no jumping)—the more chance there is that the execution of the interval will be accurate and that the shaping of the articulation and timing will be under the player’s control.

The key to this is the realization that, exactly opposed to the imagery of a leap or a jump, in playing a necessarily disjunct interval you actually don’t have to do anything to release the first note or chord. It will be released whether it wants to or not: that is what it means for it to be a disjunct interval. The less you do to make that release happen, the better a chance it has of sounding natural, of avoiding sounding cut off or choked off, or of creating a feeling of brokenness in the line. 


Practicing releases

There are two good and complementary ways to practice the feeling of releasing a note without a leaping or jumping gesture when that note will be followed, after the silence that defines disjunct motion, by a note that is far away. The first practice technique is to omit that first note, but start with the hand hovering over where that note would have been. So, based on the first exercise above, we would let the (right) hand hover over the middle C area of the keyboard, and count 1-2-3-4-1, and then on the next “2” just play the high G. This should be one smooth simple gesture. This can (should) start out slowly and then speed up. A variant of this is to play the first note or a cluster of notes in that region of the keyboard, early and unmeasured. Then do the same counting and playing of (in this case) that high G, starting with the hand not hovering above the keyboard, but, in effect, hovering on the keyboard, as in Example 8.

Try not to be aware that your fingers are playing any notes. It helps for the sound to be a quiet one, or perhaps for there to be no stops on at all.

The second approach is to play the first note or chord without any planning when you will release it. Hold the note(s) until you have felt yourself relax, perhaps after a comfortable breath or two. When you are completely relaxed, release the note(s) by letting your arm float upwards off the keyboard, drawing (inevitably) your fingers with it. Again, there is no need for a separate felt release of a note if you are moving to a region on the keyboard that is far away. Let your arm float in the direction of the note that is to be played next, but don’t actually play it.

Example 9 presents a special case of disjunct motion created by a wide interval. At least there is a particular way of thinking about it that is fruitful. The wide interval that we seem to see is the low D to the middle B: an interval of an octave and a sixth. It is entirely likely, absent any other context, that the low note would be played with finger 5 and the high note with 1, though 2 could also make sense for the B. If these notes are to be played at anything other than a very slow tempo, it will be a challenge to get from the lowest to the highest note in a natural and smooth way. In part this is because the hand has just been moving downward, away from the direction of the “leap” that it must take. This observation, however, is the key to making the gesture work. If we don’t let the hand really move or turn down, and in particular if we play the low note lightly, essentially just brush it, then the whole thing becomes easier. It should feel as if the wide interval being negotiated is actually from the G to the B, and the low D is sort of an afterthought, just hooked on lightly as the hand goes by. 

We can practice this by leaving the low D out a few times, as demonstrated in Example 10. The fingering is determined by our awareness that we are going to add the low D back, but in every other respect we should forget about that for now. Keep the hand position comfortable, and remember everything that we have been saying about executing disjunct motion without tension. After you have played this a few times, add the low D back—lightly, and almost without noticing that it is there.


Pedal disjunct motion

In principle, the goal in executing disjunct motion in the pedals is the same as the goal when executing it in the hands. The awareness that we are releasing a note into silence should not be allowed to create tension or to manifest itself in a release that doesn’t sound the way that we want it to sound. But the physical situation is different, for all of the usual reasons that pedal playing is different: we are using a whole foot at a time, not the toes (which would be the analogy to fingers, but which could never work!) and therefore are using bigger muscles; the keys are bigger, and we are traveling longer distances; the sounds are (usually) deeper, and their relationship to the acoustics of the room accordingly different. Also, pedal lines are shared between the two feet a much greater proportion of the time than lines are shared between the two hands in manual playing. So quite often if we want to release a note early in a pedal line (that is, introduce an interpretive articulation) the foot releasing the note will remain, in effect, in silence for longer than that articulation, while the other foot plays the next note. The timing and feel of what that foot does often cannot be shaped as directly by the placement of the next note in the musical line.  

The meaning of large, disjunct intervals in pedal playing is also different. In a passage that looks like Example 11, nothing about the articulation of the wide intervals is determined by the physical side of pedal playing and, conversely, nothing about the physical side of pedal playing either helps or hinders us in making articulation choices. Only for the last motion, middle D to middle C, are there interesting choices to be made about pedaling, and possible implications of those choices for articulation. If this were a passage to be played in one hand, this situation would be exactly reversed.

An exercise such as Example 12 can be used in the manner of some of the manual exercises from the last couple of columns. First play it a few times as is—all the notes, alternating toes. Then leave out first the right-foot notes, then the left-foot notes. The purpose here is to try to let the releases of the notes feel the same whether the other notes are there or not. Try the same exercise, through the same stages, but playing all the notes with the heel, then alternating toe and heel in each foot’s line. Is the comfortable control of releases easier with one part of the foot than with another? Do the two feel similar or different? Is it easier to keep the feeling of the releases the same when playing in only one foot with heel or with toe? Or is it the same?

It is important to be sitting at the right height to enable pedal note releases to be tension-free. In general, if a player is sitting too low, the act of releasing a note involves too much work on the part of the upper leg, and can become tense, even to the point of being painful. This is true for releases that are not disjunct. But with releases into silence it is more exposed and easier to notice. If you are sitting too low, you may notice yourself releasing by pushing off rather than by floating up. 

Sitting too high tends to be less common. It creates problems playing notes in the first place, which are easy to notice. But it also creates problems for releasing notes. If you are sitting too high, then a release may seem to lead inevitably to toppling over towards the keyboards. The effort to avoid this can cause tension in pretty much every muscle of the body. This is a problem whether the release is to silence or to a next note. It is circular but still true that the correct height can be recognized by the absence of the problems created by sitting either too high or too low. Releasing notes into silence is the most focused way to observe these issues.

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