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#595809 - 06/29/04 01:22 PM Big, stupid question.
Piano Offline
Junior Member

Registered: 06/29/04
Posts: 6
This is a question for the more advanced players. I saw The Pianist recently, and after I watched the part where he plays the Ballade in G minor, I was sitting with my mouth open like, "People can DO that!?" I have honestly never seen a person's hands when they play a fast passage like the octaves right at the end, or those parts where his hands just seem to be jumping across the keyboard at light speed. I know this is probably nothing new to you advanced pianists out there, but I was wondering if the performer is actually cognisant of each note they are playing, or do they sort of memorize the pattern beforehand and let things fall into place. It seems pretty impossible to me that someone's mind could keep up with his hands in some parts of that piece.
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#595810 - 06/29/04 01:48 PM Re: Big, stupid question.
PJE Offline
Full Member

Registered: 06/12/04
Posts: 28
Loc: United Kingdom
A performer physically feels each note, and hears them as part of the music, but is not "aware" of them (I don't know what you mean by that).

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#595811 - 06/29/04 01:53 PM Re: Big, stupid question.
Mikester Offline
1000 Post Club Member

Registered: 05/17/04
Posts: 1254
Loc: Minneesooota
Piano, if you are amazed at a "feat" like that then you should be amazed at the fact you just typed 621 characters (without spaces)! Can you imagine improvising 621 notes and not think anything of it? The point is we think in terms of words and clauses and sentences, if we thought in terms of individual characters then it would be unfathomable to write books and novels.

Same thing with a piece like the G minor ballade. When I think of a piece I think, "ok there are 3 distinct sections, each section has so and so chord progression or scales, etc." The notes just happen to comprise a phrase, phrase to a greater melody, and so on and so on.

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#595812 - 06/29/04 02:00 PM Re: Big, stupid question.
Ted Offline
1000 Post Club Member

Registered: 04/03/02
Posts: 1514
Loc: Auckland, New Zealand
Funny you should ask that. I gather from what I have read that most of this activity is possible because the human brain, unlike a computer programme, is very good at "chunking" things together so it doesn't have to concentrate on one thing at a time. On the other hand, as I get older I do find that I quite often perceive every note while playing in a way I did not do when younger. I don't think about them but I feel like an observer watching all detail float past, especially when improvising. It's a funny feeling, like looking at a landscape, and I have only had it for a few years - haven't the slightest idea what it means.

Conscious thought about each note though ? - No, not me, only when learning, memorising or practising slowly.
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#595813 - 06/29/04 04:16 PM Re: Big, stupid question.
Piano Offline
Junior Member

Registered: 06/29/04
Posts: 6
So, you basically memorize the phrase as a whole, but aren't focusing on each note individually when you play it. I understand, thanks.
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#595814 - 06/29/04 11:11 PM Re: Big, stupid question.
Pedram Offline
Junior Member

Registered: 04/04/04
Posts: 7
Loc: Dubai
Well, I'm not syure if this is related or not but, well...

There is something called "muscle memory".This is, when you practice a piece for many many times, your muscles and fingers will eventually get used to it, so during a performance they will automaticaly go to the right place and you can play fast passages without even thinking about them.

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#595815 - 06/29/04 11:24 PM Re: Big, stupid question.
Axtremus Offline
6000 Post Club Member

Registered: 08/29/03
Posts: 6186
How intellectually "aware" are pianists to the individual notes in pieces? Try this experiment: ask a pianist who can play a piece with all the right notes on concert stage to write out the whole piece from memory without a piano. Just for fun, ask yourself if you can do that, if you've ever committed pieces into memory for performance. \:D

(That said, I'll admit that I cannot do what's asked above.)
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#595816 - 06/30/04 01:08 AM Re: Big, stupid question.
LudwigVanBee Offline
Full Member

Registered: 06/18/04
Posts: 83
Loc: USA
The purpose of repetition is to get it into the subconcious because the hands are too fast for the brain. If I practice a fast passage and try to be "conscious" of each note I screw it up every time. After a while, I just go with the flow, the notes come as if the hands were doing it alone.
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#595817 - 06/30/04 08:34 AM Re: Big, stupid question.
kenny Offline
7000 Post Club Member

Registered: 05/29/01
Posts: 7051
There are pieces that I can play from memory, both hands of course.
My teacher asked me to play only the left hand.

I thought, of course I can do it.
I can play both hands together, so playing with only one should be easy right?

Go try it.

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#595818 - 06/30/04 09:03 AM Re: Big, stupid question.
Mikester Offline
1000 Post Club Member

Registered: 05/17/04
Posts: 1254
Loc: Minneesooota
Actually, Kenny, Horowitz used to say that the goal of a performance is to have both hands play independently, as if one hand did not know what the other was doing.

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#595819 - 06/30/04 09:27 AM Re: Big, stupid question.
Shrek Offline
Full Member

Registered: 02/18/04
Posts: 205

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#595820 - 07/01/04 06:47 PM Re: Big, stupid question.
Mark Davidson Offline
Full Member

Registered: 06/29/04
Posts: 116
Loc: NC
Not a stupid question at all. In fact, it's perhaps the central question in learning to play the piano at ANY level. What is it that we're really trying to learn when practicing?

Your brain has several different parts that perform different functions. One part, the cerebrum, deals with conscious thought. When you're learning a piece and have to think about every note, you are working this part of your brain pretty hard. And this part of your brain doesn't work quickly enough to think about every note in a fast piece at tempo, as you observed.

Another part of your brain, the cerebellum, is responsible for muscle coordination. It is largely unconscious. When you walk across the room, you use many different muscles, perfectly timed, but you don't think about each one as you contract and relax it, you just walk. You also don't learn to walk overnight. Babies usually need a few months from the time they can stand while holding on until they can walk.

When you are learning to play the piano, especially at the very beginning, you probably DO think about every muscle contraction. You have to figure out what the notes are, where they are on the piano, which fingers to push down while lifting others up, all while counting out loud, under time pressure. Gee, I wonder why it seems difficult? With time and practice you learn more patterns and it gets easier (but there is always something more difficult out there waiting for you).

As you repeat the piece, it gradually works its way from the conscious part of your brain into the unconscious part. This unconscious part is what we call finger or muscle memory. If you play a piece until it becomes "automatic" then you are relying almost entirely on the unconscious part of your brain to coordinate the movements. This is great unless you get interrupted, because you're not consciously thinking about the notes and likely won't be able to resume without starting over.

Now you can't force things into your cerebellum. The only way to get it there is to practice - repeat the muscle movements enough times over a period of time and your brain will learn it.

And if you practice it wrong - well you will learn it wrong and have a hard time unlearning it. I have a very difficult time changing fingerings after working on a piece for a while.

Ultimately the goal is to train your fingers so that most of the details of movement are automatic, but to also know the piece well enough and have enough conscious awareness of it while playing that you can be expressive (and not lose your place!). The concept of chunking that has been mentioned helps to reduce the amount that you have to learn and remember. So you might think something like "This phrase sounds like this and starts with this finger on that note, and has these three notes different from the previous phrase..." The fingers take care of a lot of the details, but you don't give them total control.

Here's an exercise you can try. Use a metronome and play scales 4 octaves up and down with ONE hand. Start slow and repeat until you're comfortable at a given speed. Then up a notch and repeat. Keep jacking up the speed. At some point it will start to get ragged, and at some tempo you simply won't be able to play it. No amount of extra practice at this time will make you go faster. Try to figure out what is limiting you. Sometimes a change to the way you put the thumb under or whatever can help a lot. Do the same with the other hand. Finally do it hands together. Almost certainly, you will play slowest hands together. But you KNOW that each hand can go faster! You are brain limited at this point. Write down your speeds and wait three days. Then try again (hands separate and together). You will probably be able to go faster. If you're not in the habit of practicing scales and pushing yourself this way it might be dramatically faster. You are now less brain limited. Having an objective measure of what your practice accomplished can be rewarding and help you stay motivated on those days when you don't feel like you're getting anywhere.

I always try to be aware of what's limiting me when practicing. Usually these days it's my brain. Occasionally I need to do some sort of exercise to strengthen fingering, but mostly it's just trying to get my brain to keep up.

If the topic interests you, here are a couple of things you might want to read: "Mozart's Brain and the Fighter Pilot" ($10) and "Practicing Perfection: Memory and Piano Performance". The latter is a little dry and expensive ($90) but very interesting if you're into the topic.

Aw heck, I coulda been practicing... ;\)

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#595821 - 07/01/04 07:14 PM Re: Big, stupid question.
Googlism Offline
1000 Post Club Member

Registered: 08/08/02
Posts: 1072
Loc: Toronto
nice novel Mark :>
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