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Nothing in-between.

As we grow and mature, we tend to perceive life more in shades of gray rather than black or white. We see multiple forces in situations that previously might have seemed clear cut, so we respond more often with nuances in our personal and professional lives. Although this sometimes creates contradictions and ambivalence during decision making, it also empowers us as we experience the richness of an increasingly greater "life chromaticism."

Despite this philosophical observation, pedagogically speaking, certain piano-playing skills are not this way--they're inherently "either-or" propositions. By this, I don't mean the results of temporarily simplifying complex facts or gestures for beginners--educational fibbing--that will later be expanded and made more three-dimensional. Instead, I'm referring to specific polished skills that must be done one way or the other (with nothing in-between) to achieve ease and accuracy.

For example, consider the technique of shifting hand positions on the keyboard. Students learn this securely by swiftly and smoothly moving as soon as possible (preferably by using the release of the previous key as the beginning of the breath toward the next key) and then relaxing before playing, momentarily feeling the keys. This is called play-prepare or touch-first, and it's best when students learn this at their first lesson involving shifting so it becomes part of a solid technical foundation on which to build other skills. Later however, as their music advances, some shifts need to be faster than what is possible with touch-first, so an entirely contrasting technique is required: a throw. Here the hand is tossed into the new position and seamlessly plays upon arrival without touching the keys first. Crucially, students fail at this if they "apologize" for a lack of touch-first in the throw by trying to do something in-between--fixating fingers while moving, which causes tension. The principle is: "Touch-first if you can; if you can't, don't even try! Instead, throw guiltlessly and fearlessly." Thus, all shifting is physically a binary activity--to touch or not to touch.

The same is true about staccato. Although there are a multitude of durations at our disposal along a continuous spectrum (portato, short, even shorter, ad infinitum), there are only two ways to play staccato, physically speaking: the hand rests on the keyboard and "plucks" (on-the-key or touch-first staccato), or, the hand dances continuously up and down (off-the-key or bouncing staccato). Elementary students naturally do touch-first staccato at slow tempos and bouncing in fast tempos, so those are ideal places to start. However, at midrange speeds, many students tend to bounce prematurely before they have the skill to choreograph the gesture slowly enough (a skill that intermediate students develop). That's when staccatos induce rushing. The solution acknowledges that the technique is binary: increase the tempo at which the student can comfortably stay with touch-first staccato, avoiding bouncing. This barrier tempo varies with the physical aptitude of each student. With more advanced players, the texture involved--single notes, octaves, chords--also becomes a determining factor.

Another binary skill is when one hand is called upon to play legato in double notes. For example, when consecutive thirds extend past the handspan:


The upper notes can be connected but of course the three consecutive thumb notes cannot be. The easiest and best-sounding way to do this is for the thumb to play lightly and leave each key in plenty of time to gently get to the next one. But many students mistakenly try to do the impossible--create legato by waiting until the last possible moment to jerk their thumb into position (which counter-productively produces an ugly accent). The mantra is: "Connect where possible--where it's not possible, don't even try!" Nothing in-between is also true for other legato dyads (most commonly octaves) and chords. Piano legato is, after all, more about tone matching than key connection.

It's fascinating that although most parameters of music making and piano playing vary along a continuous "analog" spectrum, a number of others (including more than what I've discussed) are "digital," varying between binary states. These are more difficult to discern because as previously mentioned, we inhabit an everyday world that seems analog, a world that can obscure the simplicity of underlying binary patterns.

By Bruce Berr


Bruce Berr is a member of the full-time faculty of the Chicago College of Performing Arts, where he teaches musicianship and pedagogy. He also maintains a home piano and pedagogy studio in suburban Glenview, where he works with children and other piano teachers. He is known nationally as a clinician, educational composer and author.
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Title Annotation:ad lib
Author:Berr, Bruce
Publication:American Music Teacher
Article Type:Column
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 1, 2017
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