Sunday, October 26, 2008

 

Between the notes


Watching my teacher play the Breval Sonata last week was an eye-opening experience. I couldn't stop thinking about how easy she made it look. But more than that, I was interested in how she seemed to have all the time in the world to make string crossings and change positions, and so on. All the while her left hand is vibrating on most of the notes. Whew. I struggle just to find enough room between notes to be able to grab for the next one. This started me thinking about my approach to those tough parts of my lessons.

I spend my practicing time trying to learn how to play the notes, but nowhere near enough time thinking about what goes on "between the notes". I fuss a lot about each sound that I make, but not enough about all those little spaces before and after. This is not about the measured rests with their programmed durations. It's those minuscule pauses while I reset my fingers and retake the bow.

There's so much to do during these intervals. The bow usually has to stop moving; the left-hand finger has to release pressure on whatever note it was stopping; a finger has to move to the next note and apply enough pressure to stop it; meanwhile the bow has to reset on that new string (for string crossings); and then it's time to make the new note. [In fact I'm sure there are many more steps involved than this.]

Making the more complicated fingering changes uses up all of that space (and more) that exists between the notes. Then when you think about bowing slurs across strings or across positions, the complications increase as the available time between the notes decreases.

Of course my practice regimen often focuses on making those specific changes rapidly and fluidly, and practicing them over and over and over eventually works. As I'd worked on the first string crossing passage in the Breval piece, I felt I wasn't really getting anywhere. At my last lesson we talked about breaking this passage down into individual micro-steps and working on various aspects of them. All along I'd been trying to do everything at once, and of course, way too fast.

Way back when I was an industrial drone, one of my projects was setting up a program to analyze and write industrial operating procedures, such as how to start a pump, how to shut-down a compressor, etc. It wasn't as easy as it sounds, because any one of these involved dozens of critical steps that had to be done in a precise order. If a step was done out of sequence, or skipped, or done improperly, the pump or compressor could be wrecked, the unit could trip off line, etc., etc. Long before we actually started writing our procedures, we spent quite a bit of time carefully identifying these steps and figuring out which ones were the most critical.

So with a little time and focus I've started to apply this approach to my music. It will be interesting to see if it helps any.

Comments:
have your read the practise revolution? I'm finding it very helpful for the practise sessions with my kids...
I also like the fundamentals of piano practise, which is a web book / podcast. it is about piano but says good things about practising and rhythm etc.
 
So much of you reminds me of me. I recognize the same kind of thinking, and I feel that we are following very similar paths; I started first but you'll soon pass me by. Maybe already. Whishhh.....

Without taking away any of the validity of the point of your post, though, I'm now finding myself more and more in a different place, where's it's not about analysis, but rather synthesis, and letting things happen by themselves. Momentum and flow. Momentum, or a loss of control, is becoming more and more what I crave.

Walking is a complex act, but we don't control each muscle and action, in a set sequence, like in the manual. We just let it happen. Consider the difference between an instruction manual on how to waltz, and what we might see from expert dancers at the local Country/Western bar/dance hall. Worlds apart.

I think we admire skill sports, like figure skating and gymnastics, not for the control these athletes exhibit, but for the vicarious thrill we get when they surrender control, and momentum takes over. So too with cello?
 
Terry, that's going to be the topic of a future post... reaching a point where you can let go of all those details and just play. The best athletes are the ones who manage to make it all appear so effortless, as if spinning on one skate tip while holding your partner above your head with one hand was not any big deal.

It's clear from watching my teacher [and for that matter the guest soloists I've been fortunate to listen to, and in fact most of the YouTube stars] that she's not caught up at all by the details of how she is playing.

I'm convinced, just from watching other students in my orchestra, that various aspects of playing music come easier to some of us than others, and that the younger you are [the closer you are to first learning how to walk :)], the easier it all seems to be. That, or their expectations aren't getting in their way as they so often seem to do with me.

The trick, at least for me, is learning how to play these notes and spaces between the notes, before I can begin learning how to do these things without thinking about them. I have to say that my hyper-analytical approach these past few days has done wonders for my string crossings in that Breval passage.

Erin at Fugue State often posts about the concept of being able to play without thinking of all the things you have to do in order to be able to play. I'm hopeful that at some point I'll move beyond this analytical stage to the more difficult stage of letting all that go...
 
apparently there are 4 stages:

unconsciously unskilled
consciously unskilled
consciously skilled
unconsciously skilled

it appears you're at the 2nd stage and working your way to the 3rd.
The performers you are referring to are at the 4th stage.
It's just a matter of time and practise. Just like learning to drive a car.
Keep at it.
 
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