„Fake it until you do it” *
1. When playing, our greatest allies, and at the same time our greatest enemies, are our reflexes and habits, i.e. automatic, subconscious actions. Maybe the term “reflexes” is not used in a strictly medical sense here, nevertheless this truth has been known for a very long time: one of the first pieces of advice given me by professor Woytowicz (educated in the 19th century tradition) was “remember, you must never think when you are playing”! Of course, this is a mental shortcut, because the statement seems paradoxical - after all, somehow you have to think! But what he meant was conscious, excessive thinking that interferes with the subconscious i.e. the functioning of what I personally call “automatic pilot”. During a concert, I often had the impression that I pushed some imaginary button and someone else moved my fingers for me, while I just freely controlled the interpretation. There are also extreme cases when the performer does not remember anything of the course of his performance and seems to “wake up” when playing the very last note**.
2. It has been proven without any doubt, although the quoted numbers may vary depending on the source, that the subconscious is many thousands times faster than the conscious mind. So all complex activities to be performed quickly and perfectly must be steered subconsciously.
3. Correct reflexes enable us to perform difficult and complex tasks, while incorrect reflexes obstruct them. The problem is that incorrect reflexes are very difficult to get rid of when they have already been ingrained in the subconscious. Changing them requires a high level of concentration and consistency, as well as an adequate learning technique.
*„Fake it until you do it” - I mean “Pretend consciously, to the best of your ability, to do the correct movements given by the professor until you begin unconsciously, automatically, to do them correctly”. But the most important is to pretend it in the most correct and coherent manner possible, without changing the parameters during the exercise!
**From an interview by the French pianist Marie-Josèphe Jude for radio France Musique on 2018/09/26:
“[...] I hadn’t memorized anything that had happened between the moment I entered and sat down at the piano and the moment I played the last note. [...] This went on for a very long time, until I was 16 or 17. Yet the fact that I passed all my exams attests to the fact that I was playing. [...] But the day I realized what was happening was the beginning of the end. I started to get stage fright and felt I was facing a mountain I couldn’t climb. [...]”
4. Constants and variables in piano playing
- The speed of the key’s strike, ie. the speed with which the hammer strikes the string, is the only mechanical parameter determining the sonorous volume (dynamics) and the quality of the sound.
- The release speed of the key affects not only a given sound’s articulation, but also the quality of the following sound.
- In both directions, ie. both when the key is struck and when it is released, the same movement produces the same kind of sound.
- Each key is generally struck with a different finger, each of which operating in a slightly different way.
- The order in which the keys are struck and the configurations of the white and black keys in consonance are innumerable and unlimited.
4.3. However, in spite of all the variables, we should be able to maintain unchanged parameters on the keyboard in all situations so as to obtain a uniform and regular play.
5. IMPORTANT! Incorrect way of practicing
The basis of a technically correct piano play is its equalization.
5.1. Unfortunately, it very often happens that a student, full of good will, begins to practice correctly, but after having played for a while following the good rules, he/she involuntarily returns to their old, incorrect way. This is easily explained: the new way of playing is strange to the mind and therefore more difficult to assimilate. Just a little relaxation in concentration during the exercise is enough for the mind to switch to an action which is easier - automatic. Such practicing makes no sense! What’s worse, it does more harm than good, as this leads to the unconscious consolidation of the bad habits! So be very vigilant when practicing.
5.2. It is also extremely important that the Motor Apparatus returns to exactly the starting position. It often happens that by repeating the same difficult fragment several times in a row, one achieves finally a satisfying result. Yet, when playing the whole piece already, one is disappointed because this fragment “does not work” again!
5.3. The solution is theoretically very simple, even though its application may be a little complicated: repeating a fragment, your MA instinctively adopts the correct position after a certain time and a good result is momentarily repeatable. On the other hand, when you incorporate the same fragment in the whole piece, you adopt a different position from that practiced punctually. That is why the result is not always correct. The correct position must simply be well memorized during the repetitions and applied when you play the whole piece.
5.4. Neither should you be in a hurry and skip exercise steps, i.e. pass directly from the practicing of a short fragment to executing a greater part of the piece. One should proceed very progressively, for example by adding one bar before the practiced fragment and another after, then two bars, three bars, and thus include, little by little, the most difficult part into the whole piece.
5.5. Example 1 - exercise:
If you are going to practice, for example, eight bars staccato and fortissimo, you must be coherent: the last notes must have exactly the same volume, the same sound quality and the same length as the first ones. But controlling the length of the note we have to take into account two parameters which must be even:
- the value of a note***, which represents its absolute duration in time;
- and the effective duration of the sound***, determined by the articulation, which has a completely different duration.
- If, for example, we keep exactly the same note values, but each note has a slightly different articulation, our play will not be regular. And inversely.
- In addition, there are dynamic and agogic variations (as I write about below), which, although they deform this basic regularity, must do so in a natural way.
*** The metronomic tempo defines the absolute duration of a note. For example, at tempo 60 BPM, a quaver lasts half a second (i.e. 500 ms) independently from the articulation and the possible reverberation. But the effective duration of the sound itself (the time of the string’s vibration) depends precisely on the articulation: in legato, it will also be of 500 ms, in heavy portato about 400, in staccato 300-400, and in staccatissimo about 150-200 ms. These numbers are given by way of example, I have not tested the exact durations. You can see the real lengths in the chart below: my staccatissimo was more than twice shorter than that played by my student.
5.6. Example 2 - performance, interpretation:
The equalization and invariability of the parameters during practicing are intended to lead to a generally equalized play. This means that the same musical notation must mean the same quality of sound, the same kind of articulation and the same movement of the hand.
Adding an interpretation to an equalized text complicates further the equalization of the play. The music must be shaded and agogically varied (i.e. slowed down and accelerated), but here again, uniformity, the natural and the logic apply: the chart of such an interpretation must be gently curved (green in charts below), and not a broken line.
6. More about automatic actions
Someone told me with admiration that the best tennis players can strike the ball in such a way that it rotates in flight many thousands times per minute. This technique probably increases the accuracy or power of the hit, and the movements of those tennis players are so automated that they play without thinking about it at all.
Of course, I appreciate great sportsmen, but, unfortunately, where they already achieve success, win matches and medals, we, musicians, are only at the starting point of seeking the right artistic expression of a piece. Although many musicians indeed reduce their play to the demonstration of a spectacular technique, but this is not Music with a capital M. After all, the mere fact that a pianist plays a very fast scale, or that a violinist or singer produces a very high note, is not at all indicative of the performer’s artistic ability. At most, it is applauded by listeners inexperienced musically.
- As a complement, I recommend the following videos:
- Global relaxation through the solar plexus - additional information on subconscious playing in the comments.
- How to practice? Movements, articulations, rhythm exercises - examples of how to practice in a rational and methodical way.
>>> Read also How to play the piano rapidly without harmfully tensing up your hand?
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