Touch

Geez, I feel bad; haven’t written anything here for quite a while. Have been playing a lot of early english music; Byrd, Tomkins, Bull and the like. Amazing music, masterful polyphony and melody. There are so many masterpieces, little ones and big long ones. It’s great music for improving musicianship and expression, the fine pieces support a lot of exploration of possibilities.

I offer an update on harpsichord touch. Recently I sliced a wee piece of my right thumb off during a disagreement with a mandoline in the kitchen. All healed now, nothing serious. But for a week or so, no functional thumb. That’s all right, the early music really doesn’t need much thumb. So I took the opportunity to develop a thumb-deprived touch and hand position. Very interesting. My solution was very flat extended fingers – a neutral plane from the elbow to fingertip, fingers parallel to the keys most of the time, but diagonal when more comfortable. Total relaxation. I mean, a total absence of any perceptible joint tension anywhere from finger to head (not easy or trivial). The fingertips touch the naturals, most of the time, on the very edge of the keys. The hand sort of floats there and as you play, as best I can describe it, it’s a combination of stroking and letting the weight of the fingers depress the keys. Very minimal movement. It seems to me there are two kinds of motion going on; a very little bit of the fingertip inward stroke motion and also a hinging motion at the very top joint between finger and palm. And what I found was a huge improvement in sound quality, more control over every aspect of touch – overholding and releases, and in general a much more supple musical result. As I practice this in, I find that so many things are easier and come out better and more fluid. As long as you retain the body’s sense of effortlessness everything works better. I have read, heard and seen plenty about ‘early’ fingerings without the thumb, but I haven’t seen it applied this way, with the flat fingers. It seems so natural and comfortable I wonder if this was done back then. Have to hop in the wayback machine and see. Back in a min

 

OK, I’m back. The only thing I’d modify is to gently raise the palm of the hand, letting the fingers hang or maybe droop some. Not too much. Make sure you’re sitting at a height comfortable for this, elbows a bit higher than the keyboard so it’s not an effort to raise the hand a little. Now, the fingers stroke inwards a bit, with very little effort. This is hard to describe in a way that’s accurate enough. The other thing I’d mention is that all the experimenting with touch and finger ergonomics results in all the joints of the fingers being activated, so that in the end the fingers move in a pretty complex way. This seems ideal.

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Time

Time is the most important dimension of music. It contains rhythm, tempo, meter, memory, and their close relatives anticipation, predictability and surprise. A deep understanding of time as an expressive element is essential to an interpreter. Looking at a score doesn’t tell you much about where time plays an interpretive role. Baroque scores don’t give very much information about that at all; perhaps that’s why so many players treat time as an inflexible and precisely subdivided thing and their playing sounds dry and lifeless. Of course, it’s not. In music, time breathes, and contains worlds of potential.

Many of the expressive opportunities of time are very subtle; for the harpsichordist it’s not just about well-judged use of rubato. Minute lengthening of a beat can make that beat louder; separating notes that in the score line up vertically creates a hierarchy of louder and quieter, which can also create a kind of three dimensional texture. The shape of the pace of an arpeggiated chord define the kind of energy that is conveyed. All these, and more, are expressive aspects of time. You can’t ever master this; it’s an endless exploration of possibilities. Creativity and imaginative use of time, when done well, is the hallmark of a fine player. Its absence defines a dull one.

I haven’t seen much written about this, and I wonder why. The old school great pianists understood these concepts very well, but it’s less in evidence in most of today’s players.

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They’re not hands

You should not imagine them as fingers; Skip Sempe likes to say that harpsichordists don’t have fingers, they have hands because pianists can make do with fingers since they have the sustain pedal, while a harpsichordist has to play with the whole hand.  I have an image that works for me; they’re tentacles.  It’s not to be funny. They have independent nervous systems but can work together, they slither and ooze around, they have no bones, just supple rubbery gracefulness; they move in arabesques, and they can independently play notes and hold down others.  That’s what a harpsichordist has instead of fingers.

 

Touch is such an important thing to focus on for a musician, because it’s crucial to beauty of tone and gracefulness of phrasing.  At the keyboard everything I do is to improve touch, because from there the musical ideas flow more naturally.  The first thing to do is breathe out any tension from the hands, arms, shoulders and head – as if you’re floating in warm water. Feel the stillness. Then imagine the sounds that will follow – is it a chorus of lutes? A choir? An orchestra? A viola da gamba solo? With an excellent sense of touch, and clarity of musical thought, those first notes can be magical.

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Always questions

One of the great things about early music is that we get to constantly ask ourselves “how does this go”? Because while we have clues, nobody really knows. It’s all well and good for performers or ensembles to claim authenticity but – balderdash. We have no idea, really, of the quality of the instrumentalists or singers 300 or more years ago, in that city or country, or another. No clue how much flair, imagination or personality was in their performances.  We can assume that some players were just incredible, not only in the context of their time but to today’s ears as well. All we can do is to challenge ourselves in the pursuit of how the music can go.  How fascinating is that? It’s a world just riddled with opportunity, still. And all this extraordinary music; William Byrd, John Bull, Chambonnieres, Couperin, Couperin, and more Couperins, Rameau, Bach and all the other Bachs, and lots more. Music that moves the heart, evocative, passionate, noble, bucolic, and every feeling imaginable and more.

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Deeper into understanding the harpsichord

All the practicing in the world won’t get you very far if you don’t fundamentally understand the harpsichord and learn how to get complex sounds of of it. One of the reasons this instrument is so interesting to play is that in the late 20th century and early 21st we are able to rediscover or reinvent its mastery. There are a few historical texts on the harpsichord or clavichord playing; while they have great clues they are quite incomplete. It’s virtually a desert compared to the many published works on the piano. It’s an opportunity to question, and experiment, and think about what works and why.

I have to start with the objective; what should you be aiming for?  Unquestionably, playing that engages you emotionally and compels your attention. And what will do that? It’s simple; listen to the greatest singers and performers – what they all have in common are naturalness and a sense of ease, and a wealth of subtle details and nuances. Great performances are marked by a mastery of the shape of the whole and of the many micro bits.

The way the harpsichord becomes musical is through how the sound texture is created, or manipulated.  Mastering the instrument is about mastering textures; the many plucks and the resonances, creating a three/four dimensionality of sound, which is completely different from playing the notes ergonomically as if playing an organ or piano. it’s a huge guitar, or lute or harp, and needs to be played with that kind of imagination.

I had a realization that the way I was physically approaching the instrument was not conducive enough to coaxing from it the sounds I wanted. So I set about understanding why, and trying to figure out a method I could follow in order to improve. I think I found something useful. Where others’ input stops and my invention begins I don’t really know, so I’ll just assume that all I did was put together clues and suggestions from others into a hopeful coherent whole.

What I validated through a lot of trial and error is this:

1. To make the best sound, you play with a very gentle caressing motion as close to the front of the key as possible.

2. You make the very smallest movements; a finger more than a millimeter or so off the key isn’t good. Think of it kind of like just wiggling the last joint of your fingers to make the pluck.

3. Acquire as great a skill and intuition in holding down notes as in playing them.

4. Lose all tension or rigidity, not just in the hands but through the elbow and shoulders, allowing the most supple gracefulness in the motion of the fingers and hands.

5. Notes are not discrete finger movements, but always thought of in groups that make up some kind of gesture.

6. Notes are never played simultaneously but always strummed, and how they are strummed needs variety and intelligence.

There’s a lot more, but I think these are the most essential concepts from which everything else flows. I developed a series of exercises to be mastered first on the clavichord and then on the harpsichord, which essentially train the hands/fingers to follow these principles. I don’t think such a method exists in the historical literature. for all their thoroughness you don’t find that in either CPE Bach’s The True Art of Playing Keyboard Instruments or in Daniel Gottlob Turk’s School of Clavier Playing. Turk does say something important – that there should be a straight line from the elbow to the first finger joint. The other historical text I put a lot of weight in is Friedrich Konrad Griepenkerl’s description of JS Bach’s harpsichord technique, which is worth considering even though his understanding was transmitted through WF Bach and Forkel and could be inaccurate in any number of ways.

I also think that a harpsichordist should find a set of etudes, in the manner of how the Chopin etudes help a pianist achieve mastery, that develop the skills of applying harpsichord principles and the mastery of texture in the context of music. My favorite such etudes are the preludes and fugues in C major, c minor, C# major, d minor and G major from Book I of the Well-Tempered Clavier; Les Graces and La de Belombre in D from Duphly’s 3rd Book, La Leon and Le Sylvan from Forqueray’s c minor suite (these are the rosetta stones of great harpsichord playing) and the suite in E from Rameau’s 1724 Pieces de clavecin, as well as the 1728 a minor allemande and sarabande. All of these are very sophisticated pieces that require and reward a great investment of time. Do not confuse the occasional apparent simplicity of the score with simplicity of the music, for the score is not, ever, the music.

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Helpful tips

The best strategy for achieving excellent results in a difficult passage is to practice it with rhythmic alterations; instead of playing a passage with equal note values play it with a dotted or double dotted rhythm. And then reverse it; long/short become short/long etc. This works very well for large leaps, as well as practically anything.

I can’t recommend this highly enough; it pays dividends very quickly. For scales, arpeggios, exercises of all kinds it’s the best way to improve accuracy and fluidity. On the harpsichord, this dotting approach allows you to focus on ensuring you land on every note with a caress, or stroke, instead of an attack.  No thudding.

The harpsichord doesn’t require the kind of advanced technique drills that a modern pianist needs to master, thankfully. But in addition to what I’ve discussed in earlier posts there are a few more areas to develop:

Arpeggio patterns; instead of just the up and down kind, vary the pattern a bit. Use your imagination and patterns from the repertoire. No need to get too fancy. As you get better and better, change it up a bit just so you don’t keep only doing the same old thing.

Sixths; there’s no great fingering formula here, but it’s good to practice slightly detached sixths in most keys, at least the common ones, as well a fingering that gives you legato in the top voice.

Trill and melody in the same hand; Either my brain is rebellious and doesn’t like these, or I didn’t learn how to do these early enough. They are a real pain, but necessary. Yes, in all keys even the most inconvenient finger positions because those are bound to be in the pieces you like.

One last thing; while these exercises are important, they don’t do what the harpsichord does best – strumming. So in between sets of technique, spend some time improvising, strumming chords and such.

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The fingers

Every day (nearly) I spend at least an hour conditioning my fingers to be, I hope, graceful. I’ve been recently experimenting with curling the fingers inward, tucked under, and playing with a scooping, inward motion. This isn’t easy to do, if you’ve been playing with the fingers more or less extended for a very long time. The why of this is that I found that scales in double thirds (on one hand) are smoother and more seamless this way. And then, aha, after working on the thirds like this, holding the fingers the same way and practicing trills, the trills are much more effortless.  As I think about the ergonomics of this approach, it seems that several things are going on; one, the hand and finger in general are closer to the keys – less wasted motion; second, the scooping motion is a smoother way of plucking the string and naturally seems to give more control over the release of the key; and it really appears to avoid any kind of ‘hammering’ downstriking motion, which would be ungraceful. So I’m applying this principle to scales as well, where I can already see it’s quite beneficial. Sometimes it helps with arpeggios, but perhaps not always.

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