Body Parts, Chocolate, & Equality
Last Saturday I had the privilege of judging the piano portion of an arts competition in Northern Arizona. I heard 28 pianists play 48 pieces—everything from Cobb’s Chocolate Soldier to Chopin’s Etudes. But wait there’s more!
Not only did I write comments and choose winners (normal parts of adjudicating), I also gave each pianist a short masterclass. Needless to say, it was a busy day. I even brown-bagged my lunch with one of the committee members, tallying points and determining winners in the younger division.
Teachers, students, community members, families, and friends were all invited to participate as audience members. The young musicians were thus inspired and supported in their performances. I, in turn, was inspired by these young artists and continue to be so.
Since time was limited for the masterclass portion of the audition, I had to choose only one or two things to work on. I tried to pick things that would help each person move forward in their playing and there were several issues that kept cropping up throughout the day. So, I am detailing them below in the hope that doing so will help someone else out there.
Your arms should feel like they are participating in your playing. You should feel them in the preparation, performance, and follow though of each phrase. If the wrist is perpetually low and/or locked it will actually choke off both freedom and beautiful tone.
Of course, flailing around without rhyme or reason will result in a mess too, so experiment and use only what you need in each situation. Sometimes it’s very useful to do too much and tone it down. That way you learn to think big. (thinking big and overdoing works for solving other pianistic problems too)
If you are going to count 8th note triplets with syllables, I recommend 1 tri-ple 2 tri-ple. Using 1 and a 2 and a is just to close to 8th notes ( 1 and 2 and) and usually results in the first note being held too long.
The word Chocolate also works very well to help a student spread out the notes evenly (like melted chocolate). If you have a triplet followed by a duplet try Chocolate Hershey. Throw in a quarter note and you have Chocolate Hershey Bar.
These words work wonderfully in any order. Warning: May result in craving a chocolate snack.
You can use any 3 syllable word for the triplets. Like cars? Try Chevrolet Motor Car or perhaps Toyota, Beemer, Porsche. Be sure to clap the beat (not the subdivision) as you play or chant and keep the beat absolutely even.
All Beats (& Measures) Are Created Equal. Not!
As you grow in music, you should also grow in your understanding of meter. Yes 4/4 means that there are 4 beats to the measure and a quarter note is the beat note, but it means more than that. If all the beats are played equally in weight, the music will sound heavy and earthbound. Stresses are implied: a strong downbeat and somewhat strong 3rd beat, lighter 2nd and 4th beats, and even lighter eighths and sixteenths depending on the beat or subdivision of the beat on which they occur.
Once you have mastered those intricacies, you will likely have also taken on more complicated, faster repertoire. Even if you attend to the stresses inherent in meter, your music can still sound and feel heavy. If all measures are played equally in weight, it drags the feel of the tempo down and makes you feel as though you are slogging through muck and mire.
There is a hierarchy of measures within the meter. The good news is that grouping 2 or 3 or 4 measures together and making the first measure stronger and the others lighter will give the music and you an instant lift. The other good news is that you can move the stronger measure toward the middle or the end of the phrase for a variety of expression and phrasing. The faster you want to go, the more distance you put between major stresses.
The bad news is that every piece is different and you have to do a lot of experimenting. Be careful not to over stress the strong measure or the music will come across as a artificial and contrived.