Dissecting the Dissected

See the smaller picture!

Having already written about piano components, I couldn't stop thinking about expanding upon the idea, especially in combination with comments on my videos and private correspondence.  The result is this article.

It is not at all uncommon for a pianist of any level to feel overwhelmed with a piece of music, style or technical requirement which is currently considered 'difficult'.  A lot of advice exists regarding how one can overcome the obstacle, from simple repetition and slowing down to spending time away from the piano and coming back with a clearer mind.  I, of course, have nothing against these bits of advice but it must be said that none of them imply the philosophy of: master the small to achieve the great, which is the focus of this article.

Every skill or knowledge base has a kind of hierarchy in terms of what one would do well to study first before moving on to... moving on to... moving on to... but, as I mentioned above, even well-experienced performers encounter difficulties and that is not because they have not followed a hierarchical path to expert levels; they have simply forgotten the smallest components of their difficulty and not considered breaking it down into them and then having fun with them, relaxing with them and being crazy with them before returning to the difficulty to discover it no longer exists.

In the other components article, I explained how all pianism is made up of chromaticism, broken chords and leaps (/intervals); nothing ever written does not contain at least these three elements in some form or another:  chromaticism makes up melodies or bass line accompaniment, broken chords make up melodies or bass line accompaniment and leaps make up melodies or bass line accompaniment.

As one is expanding repertoire and discovering how these three major components appear in real music in all their forms, one will eventually come across a difficulty, an obstacle, a frustration; something which acts as an absolute brick wall to the hands and the mind.  One will then repeat it, slow it down or leave it for a while, as mentioned above, in order to overcome it but rarely will one take a step back and observe its smaller components and then have fun with them (!), resulting in much more progress than just having dealt with the difficulty.

Here, I present two of the most common brick walls I am written to about, along with a brief analysis and how one might have fun with them, thereby relaxing and taking attention away from the bigger picture for a while.  Upon your return, however, you will find a remarkable difference in your physical and mental condition.

1.  Rapid arpeggios (right-hand dominance):  Chopin and Liszt, Rachmaninoff and Beethoven, to name but a few, require exceptionally fast and/or accurate arpeggios in many works.  There are three reasons why they are difficult to execute:  (a) conscious interference (worrying about doing it 'right'); (b) the physical leap required of the thumb (depending on the hand and direction, of course) from one octave to the next; (c) comfort in all twelve major scales.

You will find that (a) applies to everything you will ever play on a piano and the simple solution is to play in absolute darkness, wear a blindfold or be visually distracted and read a book or watch TV simultaneously.  Conscious interference is truly the greatest bane to any pianist; it negatively impacts all aspects of playing, with each thing being worried or thought about cutting actual output in half each time until eventually, 10% of your mental energy is on playing the piano and 90% of it is worrying about a huge array of distractions!

Whilst (a) is the Mind component as discussed in my Water Pianism philosophy and (c) comes under the Piano (theory) component, I'd like to focus on (b) which comes under the Body component.

As you may be expecting, we are breaking down the leap (where have you seen that word before?) of the thumb in the right hand as it leaves the root note of the arpeggio and lands an octave higher on the note that the little finger (or perhaps ring finger) just left so that it may repeat the chord again and again à la arpeggios.  You see, we are dissecting the dissected piano element which is causing the problem (rapid arpeggios) and moving away from the whole issue to focus on its smaller components.

With conscious interference limited using whatever means you wish (closed eyes is usually easiest), spend time finding your natural limit at which you can simply jump between octaves using all twelve notes of the chromatic scale.  As your hand physically jumps, visualise on your internal piano and see the notes pass under the thumb as you ascend.  Starting slowly with eyes closed, this will become easy quicker than you may initially believe. Trust me, the hand and mind together will acquire this skill without your ego telling you that it's impossible or that you're not good enough.  What nonsense.

The next small component of an arpeggio is the placing of the next comfortable finger onto the next note of the chord so, whatever the finger and note may be for your exercise/requirement, spend time inside one octave playing the thumb and second note repetitively (with your eyes closed).  It will sound like a horse running, perhaps, but do keep doing it.  If you wish, add the third and perhaps fourth notes but do not yet put them all together.  Second with third only, then third with fourth only, then first with second and third, then second with third and fourth, then all together.  Make it fun by changing the rhythm, the key and even the chord type.  Use as many octaves as possible and create your own little exercises.

Then, after some hours or days of this in different keys, even with different chord types if you so desired, put these two components together, slowly at first and then with speed, eyes always closed.  You will truly be amazed at how much easier the arpeggio feels even without speed... the speed, however, will come as a by-product of slower, regular efforts and Steady Persistence.

2.  Weaker-hand scales (usually left-hand related):  Knowing a scale theoretically is where you must begin, before even starting to play it on the piano.  This can take place on the internal piano or even using a pencil to touch the notes on the piano.  Only once the desired major scale (which should be all twelve) is mastered should you move on to actually playing it with your hands.  This is the first component of dealing with hand-strengthening; without knowing the scale, how do you suppose to be able to correctly and accurately train your fingers to play it fluently?

First, work on actual hand and arm muscle strengthening.  To save repeating myself, see here.

A next tiny component is finger combinations.  Different scales require different fingering (whatever may be natural for you but not every scale is the same as every other).  For this reason, spend much time (with your eyes closed and with a metronome, increasing the speed as you feel comfortable) playing the notes of the mastered major scales in finger combinations both usual and unusual to that scale.  Work in two, three, four and five-finger combinations across the scale.  You will find that this enhances your awareness of the scale, detaches the fingers from excessive conscious involvement and makes the muscles work in ways they never imagined they would!

For example, the feeling and muscular requirement is quite different when the little finger plays a white note and the ring finger plays the next black note (in a scale such as E) than when they must play two black notes (such as in F#).  Getting used to these differences individually is all part of mastering the smaller components so that the greater is achieved without stress or excessive mental or physical strain.

Once you come back to play the scale as it should be played, perhaps for an exam, you will feel an absolute comfort, both mentally and physically.

Finally, I would like to bring your attention to a very important teaching known as Shuhari.  Whilst this is rooted in Japanese martial arts, the philosophy applies to anything one may wish to eventually master.  For us, of course, this is pianism and it goes hand-in-hand with what you have read so far.

Shu, ha and ri each refer to the stages one passes through from beginner to master and have two meanings each.  Shu means to protect and obey, ha means to detach and digress and ri means to separate and leave, or 'transcend' in our context but let's read what a true Master has to say on this:

"In shu, we repeat the forms and discipline ourselves so that our bodies absorb the forms that our forebears created. We remain faithful to these forms with no deviation. Next, in the stage of ha, once we have disciplined ourselves to acquire the forms and movements, we make innovations. In this process, the forms may be broken and discarded. Finally, in ri, we completely depart from the forms, open the door to creative technique and arrive in a place where we act in accordance with what our heart/mind desires, unhindered while not overstepping laws".

Thus, shu is your mastery of the three components and their forms in all their glorious, intricate nature; ha is your exploration of these forms and discovery of their use in repertoire, composition and improvisation; ri is your effortless ability to execute whatever is desired minus any conscious interference or physical limitation.

What must be understood at all times, however, is that the the philosophy also works in reverse; a Master never forgets the rules or content of shu so maintains them as would a beginner and values at all times the importance of the constant discovery of ha and all that is associated with it.  Likewise, an individual of ha will always backtrack to the rules and content of shu so that the path towards ri is maintained.

I do hope that you are now able to approach a perceived difficult in a very proper manner, dissect it to its smallest components and have fun with them until they are mastered, then return a greater pianist.

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