The Slingshot Effect On The Piano

The Slingshot Effect On The Piano

The Slingshot Effect On The Piano, Or How To Increase The Tempo Of Your Piece When Nothing Works.

Do you know what is the most common thing students and pianists want to achieve with their pieces? Is it to make them softer? To make them more convincing, perhaps? Well, none of those noble things. In my minute experience as a piano teacher and aspiring pedagogue, what most students want most of the times, is to make their pieces faster.

That’s good, though! Besides, I do not know of any pianist (dead or alive) that was considered a great by just playing second movements of sonatas. Do you know of any? Most of the pianists that we consider great are the ones that play, as an old friend used to say, frantically.

You’ve got to play frantically if you want to be considered the next Michelangeli in this show-offy world. You will never achieve true greatness with second movements, nocturnes, adagios and the rest of lesser pieces the professional musician secretly despises and frowns upon – well, when you ask a pro pianist if they like second movements and slow pieces they would bend over backwards to persuade you they do like them. But they fully well know those pieces won’t cut the mustard in the 21st century pianistic arena. You’ve got to play frantically… Welcome to human superficiality.

So, it’s no surprise that most of my students always want to notch up their speed and always feel that their playing is not sufficient to enter the sphere of real pianism.

“I have to play it faster, sir,” they would say.

“Oh, I wish I could play it as fast as you, miss.”

“This pianist on YouTube plays my study in less that a minute!”

And so on and so forth – you get my gist. By the way, they never seem to say, “I wish I could play it more slowly and poised, sire.” Oh, well.

But enough of my rumbling and let’s get on with the franticness of our pieces.

So, for the purpose of this article, the initial problem a student wants to solve is how to increase the speed of a piece that doesn’t seem to get any faster. Here’s how most students would practice; they would start from practising the piece at their current fastest speed, and then they would try to push the tempo forwards, starting from that very speed. Most of the time the speed will not increase sufficiently, of course, especially if the piece is virtuosic. When they finally play the piece a little faster, it lacks clarity in both technical and musical articulation, and it feels unbalanced in its structure. 

And so they despair.

They would come to their teachers confused, lacking of confidence. The teacher, more often than not, will resort to saying the same cliché things, such as, “play it a bit slower”, or “just keep at it”, or even, “your technique is not there yet” (Guilty your honor).

Playing slower is, of course, a sage thing to suggest. Who wouldn’t agree. But the secret here is how slow should they play. This is where I suggest my pupils to utilise my “Slingshot Effect”.

The Slingshot Effect 

 

So, what is that slingshot effect that I so pretentiously advocate, then? To start, I would say that the slingshot effect is not a step-by-step analogous action of the slingshot transferred to piano technique. If I was to support this claim, I would significantly add to the preposterousness of this website. 

The slingshot effect is just a sort of freely fashioned expression to get the student’s mind geared towards how they should practise.

To simplify the demonstration of this technique, I won’t use tempo markings but beats per minute (BPM). Follow the steps below with precision.

How the slingshot effect works

Say that your desired ultimate speed of the piece is at 120 BPM.

1. First, stop practising the piece at once. If possible, leave the piece to settle – Three days without practising it should be sufficient.

2. In your next practising session, practise the piece at 50% the speed you normally practise it. Not just a little slower, but close to 50% slower. Repeat at that slower speed for at least a couple of times. Example: You usually practise the piece at 100 BPM. You practise it at around 50 BPM. (Speed 1 = 100 BPM. Speed 2 = 50 BPM.)

3. Right after you complete part III from above, increase the speed significantly and closer to your intended speed of 120 BPM (perhaps increase to 115 BPM). Do not practise your piece at your usual speed (Speed 1).

4. Repeat steps 2 & 3, daily.

That’s it. You will miraculously increase the speed of your piece and, hopefully, keep it up there.

Why the Slingshot Effect Works

 

By significantly decreasing the speed of our piece, we allow our brain more time to contemplate its doings, and also let our fingers to “sit” better on the keys.

The slingshot effect reinforces the influence of good muscle memory practices and just leaves our minds free to apply speed.

The Metronome Effect

The Metronome Effect

The metronome is this lovely machine that keeps the tempo for you boldly without allowing you to deviate from it.

as a matter of fact, we all owe to have one, so if you can afford a proper old-fashioned one, just buy an electric one. However, as you know, music is not always played in inflexible tempi and needs to swing freely. The vast majority of the piano repertoire is not to be performed robotically. Except if the composer has specifically indicated that you must follow the metronome precisely – However, no great recording or live performance is played with the precision of a metronome. And that’s the point of it all – we should count when playing but not sounding like robots.

However, this little musical dictator that we call “metronome” can be a very useful tool to us if used sensibly and cleverly. Here’s what I mean by that: the metronome, I have concluded, can massively accelerate our mastering of a piece. How? By starting at a much slower tempo and getting gradually to its normal speed. Everybody knows this method. However, I have tried to refine this tactic by using what I call the “Metronome effect’’.

I discovered the Metronome effect when I was studying Bach’s first prelude and fugue in C many years ago. I remember that I had only a day to learn the fugue, and I was sitting on the piano desperately thinking of how I was going to get through this. Then it came to me; I took my little white metronome and started from the beginning by playing each crotchet on 40.

However, and here’s where the secret of the metronome effect lies, I promised to myself that I would not increase the tempo if I haven’t played the previous part with no mistakes. Playing the piece at 40 BPM, felt was so easy. The same was at 41 BPM one. No mistakes. At 42, even though I was feeling a little bit more challenged, I still managed not to make any mistakes.

It was until I reached 42, when the first wrong note came in. That was it. I had promised to play the passage again and at the same speed. Torture? Yes, but three hours later, I could play the fugue really successfully and without slowing down at the more technically complex parts. Of course, I knew that the piece couldn’t have sounded robotic, so I was then ready to practice it more naturally, and giving more thought to its musical flow.

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Copyright ©May 2010,  by Nikos Kokkinis – Republished with a new image from Wikipedia on the 17th of March 2021.

 

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Mezzo-Staccato and Non-Legato: Two Sides of the Same Coin?

Mezzo-Staccato and Non-Legato: Two Sides of the Same Coin?

One question that pianists ask every so often is the following: Does mezzo-staccato simply means non-legato?

My answer derives from my provenance as a student of the English Piano School—a pianistic school that (surprisingly to many) exists, and to my mind has one main axiom: Attention to detail. But what is the English piano school is a subject for another article, one that I will tackle one day, hopefully. Anyway, attention to detail is what helps us separate the different notions and aftertastes of notes and can show us that different articulations have different names.

Now, coming to why mezzo-staccato is different to non-legato, it is indeed a question that has two answers. And that’s only to start with…

Firstly, if the definition of mezzo-staccato was firmly established in the pianistic world, it wouldn’t need an endless charade of debating, a constant going back and forth explanatorily, or philosophical nights with cheese and pinot noir from Patagonia. And secondly, because the articulation simply contains the word “staccato” in its name. If it wasn’t affiliated with staccato and was closer to the notion of legato (or non-legato in our case) it wouldn’t have had that staccato word hanging around.

I often (usually out of the blue) ask my students the following question:

“How much is one plus one?”, only to be looked at as if I were some kind of mad person (not that I’m not) and I receive the following reply:

 “Um, it’s… two sir”, they would softly reply looking at me perplexed,

followed by me saying

“Are you sure?”

“Um, yes, sir!”, with a smile on their faces.

The reason I ask this question is to persuade my students that if something in life is well established, it does not need regular examination of its validity and it does not have a controversial status. One plus one equals two indeed, and no-one in this world can deny it. Whereas, If I asked my students “what is fast in music?” Or “who is the best pianist in the world?”, they would have had a different story as to why their opinion is the correct one.

 

 Scolding commences:

So, yes, do make this “leap of faith” and believe it: Mezzo-legato is not the non-legato; if we want to fix our salty soup we do not add sugar, if you get my gist (Wait what?). A drink that is non-hot does not mean it is medium-cold, okay? Non-hot means it is not lip-burning hot but still lingers to the sphere of “hot”—it is by no means medium-cold and you should be extra careful when you are trying to consume it. So.

Same with the dreaded mezzo-staccato. Mezzo in the Italian language means ‘half’—medium, middle, in the midst of something. Staccato means ‘detached’. Of course, you could argue that the etymological zeitgeist of every word constantly changes, and that we should not take every word too seriously and perceive it to its face value, per se, still, mezzo-staccato, means medium STACCATO! Okay? Medium, what? Medium-Staccato!

S T A C C A T O. ST – AC – CA – TO. S-T-A-C-C-A-T-O. Yes, it’s my website and I can do whatever I want. (Sorry, by the way).

Okay. Now that we have established (through my bullying) what mezzo-staccato is and none of you have any objections (!) 👀,

*with a woman’s soft and deliberate voice*

let’s get to how to play this articulation on our wonderful instrument.

 

 Appearance

The articulation is presented with a slur & a dot on a group of two or more notes:

mezzo-staccato example

 

Play

  1. In piano-playing mezzo-staccato involves the use of pedal. We tackle the quavers above as we would if they were simply written as staccato, but by adding the pedal, as well—the pedal could be half-pressed, fully pressed, and so on and so forth. Sometimes the pedal is not written, but assumed.
  2. The notes of the mezzo-staccato are naturally treated as part of a group and not as individually articulated entities.
  3. The mezzo-staccato articulation is often used in pianistic passages where the composer desires a sense of ethereal sound combined with a kind of a pitter-patter feel.

 

 Difference to other short articulations

Mezzo staccato is different to staccato, since it requires invariably the use of pedal; otherwise it would have been almost impossible to distinguish between the two.

It is different to tenuto, because it doesn’t require the note to sport its full value, nor pushes for a sense of crescendoing as on every tenutoed note.

Again, its distinction to non-legato is apparent since a) non-legato passages do not necessarily require the use of pedal, b) the non-legato is closer to the notion of legato (as forcefully presented above), c) non-legato should be held for almost three quarters of its full duration, in contrast to the mezzo-staccato which should be held for up to half of its full duration, and d) because non-legato is more versatile since contextually can be used in more compositional circumstances.

 

In context

 In Liszt’s Années de Pèlerinage II, in the Piu lento section we encounter this passage which requires the use of pedal in every beat (à chaque mesure) to facilitate a sense of broadness in the sound that gently prepare us for the finale’s eminent agitation:

mezzo-staccato example 4

 

In another of Liszt’s works, Paysage, from his Twelve Trancendental Etudes, the use of mezzo-staccato is ample. Here’s an instance were Liszt intensifies the serenity of the study’s landscape descriptiveness:

mezzo-staccato example 2

In Beethoven’s Op. 111, a little after we are introduced to the tempestuous Allegro con brio ed Appassionato, Beethoven chooses to not continue with the uniformity of the rushing semiquavers and opts for extra turbulence by hitting the breaks by repeating the previous phrasing with mezzo-staccato. Here are bars 30-31:

mezzo-staccato example 3

As with all piano music it all depends on context of course (how convenient, eh?) and you should exercise caution when trying to interpret works that have been established in the ears of audiences and in the scholars’ doctrines. And always remember: no matter what a website, an article or a self-appointed expert says (*cough), nothing can beat the piano teacher in the class.

Copyright © October 1st, 2020 by Nikos Kokkinis

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All examples above were engraved in-house using the music engraving software Dorico.
Muscle Memory: The One Caveat

Muscle Memory: The One Caveat

So, when you do something repeatedly for many, many times, your body learns it and then it repeats it efficiently and with ease. This, pretty much, what muscle memory is.

It is like when we are cycling; we are not thinking “now I am going to do a pedal stroke with my left foot and at the same time I will be raising my right foot while releasing tension on the pedal, and then, I am going to repeat this same process with my right foot.” No. We just set our minds to our preferred destination and let our feet do their task—A task that we have practised countless times and has been embossed on our minds forever.  Of course, we would still have to deliberately contemplate the pedaling process, but this thought is being done with minimal strain on our mental capacity; the muscle memory of our feet kicks in and we will just follow along.

Equally, the same applies to any disciple that involves repeated use a particular part of our bodies that possesses muscles; seasoned painters use muscle memory to draw a perfect circle. Pole vaulters to jump over the bar. Writers swear on their writing routine because they have learned to work with a particular set of tools that free their minds and let them concentrate on the story—So the saying goes that an artist’s tools are sacred. And they are, indeed, because they closely relate to a muscle memory. Talking about writers, Cormac McCarthy used his beloved Olivetti Lettera 32 typewriter for over 40 years. And when it broke he didn’t choose a trendier tablet to “write” at Starbacks; He used another, same typewriter, to continue his art. As you may appreciate, muscle memory exists everywhere. 

Olivetti-Lettera-32

Figure: An Olivetti Lettera 32 typewriter similar to the one used by Cormac McCarthy to write his novels. A possible reason he insisted on writing with this typewriter is that he found comfort in using his preferred tools; muscle memory at its best. 

One Caveat: 

Now let’s move on to the piano, because, as you may understand, the examples to reinforce the importance of muscle memory are innumerable.

First thing to realize is that our hands (and feet, and posture, etc.) do not know what is right or wrong when playing the piano—Our brain does. Our muscles only learn to play what they are instructed to play. They cannot judge the legitimacy, per se, of what they play. And as we all know, the more we play something the more we chisel it on our minds.

If we instruct our hands to play a wrong note, they won’t know if the note is indeed wrong, or otherwise. Our hands will just play that wrong regardless; equally, they will wrongly phrase a passage, they would keep stopping at the end of a phrase, and generally they would remember to do the same thing if this thing is done repeatedly for a certain amount of times.

So, when you ask yourself “Why I keep playing that F instead of the correct F sharp?” The answer is because you taught your hand to do so (by playing it incorrectly). Or, you might have said to yourself “I cannot play this piece, it is too hard for me.” Yes, again the reason is because you have taught your hands to use a specific way to approach this type of music, and now it is very difficult to let go that muscle memory and start afresh. 

To finish this, I would say that not only can we teach our hands to play correctly but we are responsible when “teaching” them to play wrongly, too. As I said, hands do not know right from wrong—our brain does. What hands repeatedly do, they learn it as is.

So, our ultimate task when practising a piece is to minimize the number of wrong doings we inflict upon our hands, and increase the amount of times they do right.

Let’s tame the beast of muscle memory and keep it our friend in our life’s pianistic journey.

 

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Copyright © 1st of April 2020 by Nikos Kokkinis

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Staccatissimo and Its Differences to Staccato

Staccatissimo and Its Differences to Staccato

In music we have two similar words to describe two musical pals, the staccato and the staccatissimo.

Each comes with its own notion, of course, but sometimes it is very difficult to distinguish between the two, especially when we listen to a performer playing a piece new to us.

Those two not so well-documented articulations can be used interchangeably depending on context, but also on the composer. Often, it can be hard to separate them even within the works of the same era. Depending on context, their implementation is usually very easy to decide, however.

Here’s an example that the staccato, can be translated differently within the same piece. In the second movement of Mozart’s famous K 545 sonata, we are asked to approach the staccato in a more subtle manner. Notice that in bar 58 of the second movement—the ligature does not exist in the urtext edition—the staccato should have a light and airy feel, almost as if the performer was trying to “featherly” lift the melodic line to the skies in this G major scale.

Mozart k545

However, this time in the third movement of the same sonata the staccato on the semiquavers signals a more exciting moment, longing for the performer to thrill their audience as the piece bears towards its finale:

Mozart staccato

In both of those instances the staccato would inevitably sound differently. The performer cannot do much here, since the stories of both movements are contrasting. The performer should just let themselves go, and would feel adrift by the music, since the composer himself dictates the performance of this articulation through the speed, the rhythm and the gestalt of the sound of this passage.

Next, I compare Mozart to an eminent composer of the 21st century; a composer that has made his mark in the musical zeitgeist of the era, has infused his musical style widely and influenced one too many composers with his genius: me. You: (?) The piece I use in the example below is the Little Knight’s Horse from my collection of pieces Scenes From A Child’s Mind, that you should buy at once if you want to become an amazing pianist! ◔_◔

On we go. In the K 545 sonata, the staccatissimo in the urtext edition is vastly different to the staccatissimo in “Little Knight’s Horse”:

Here, Mozart’s staccatissimo compared to a contemporary work—a work played on the modern piano of course, a piano that would have been considered as an imaginary conception in Mozart’s era—will simply sound too different: Mozart’s has a more down-to-earth feel and a more sensible aftertouch, compared to the pointy stacatissimo pertained to the style that Little Knight’s Horse wants to achieve in its unconstrained-type of sound.

Below, Mozart’s staccatissimo is in actuality a more exciting staccato; often Mozart wrote staccato, but wrote the word “staccatissimo” next to it to simply imply that the passage is still staccato, but… even more staccato:

Mozart staccatissimo

The staccato on Little Knight’s Horse, however, is more forceful and not as tender as it would have been on Mozart’s delicate Keyboard instruments; it requires a more abrupt sound and longs for today’s mighty-sounding, rigidly-manufactured piano:

staccatissimo

So, what is the true difference between the two in mathematical terms, I hear you ask. Well, If I was forced to answer this today, and only if my life was depending on it, I would just say that “staccatissimo is when you hold a note for equally or less than a quarter of its original value”. And yes, it would just be simple to say that it is a shorter staccato, but always bear in mind that it really depends on the context.

I hope this makes sense. If it doesn’t, well, it doesn’t matter. This is just an article, and you won’t learn the piano from reading it, anyway. So, off you go! Go and do some practising already.

Copyright © 29 of February 2020 by Nikos Kokkinis

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Tenuto, Tenēre, Tenure

Tenuto, Tenēre, Tenure

One of the most misunderstood articulations in the arena of piano techniques, tenuto, traditionally suffers from lack of identity.

“What am I? Who am I? What is my purpose in this life” asks tenuto, and often there are vague answers and contextual definitions that are often conveniently chosen by both teachers and performers—guilty as charged, your honor.

I like to simplify things when tenuto appears in my score. I simplify chiefly because of my vast ignorance when it comes to performance and pianistic articulations, but also for a reason that, despite my musical incapacities, I find noble; I simplify the explanation of tenuto, because my pupils deserve a clear definition of what tenuto represents and how to perform it. At least in their early encounters with this articulation.

Thus, I believe students must have a concrete “first” answer of what something means, before trying to translate it into different musical contexts and even define it themselves eventually.

How to play tenuto

For me tenuto on the piano means to play a note (or chord) with an inner intention to crescendo it—“amplify it”. An impossible task for the piano, crescendoing an already pressed note, shouldn’t stop us, however, from dreaming and imagining that a note has the potential to widen once it has been pressed and that it can be urged to kind of grab the next one.

Tenuto is so different from immediate dynamics that show the intensity of a note’s attack, such as fz, or sffz, and, naturally, different from dynamics such as p or ff. Unlike other piano techniques, tenuto implies that its ultimate effect is to have an inner development.

This for me is in essence when Elaine Gould writes “…holding a note for its full length…” in her monumental masterpiece Behind Bars. She also adds in her brief explanation that tenuto can also be “…a slight separation from surrounding notes…”, but I tend to concentrate on her first definition, that coincides with mine. Since, if a composer had to really persuade the listener that he intents to separate each note, all he had to do is to just write a note au naturel. No need really to add the tenuto line, since the end result, arguably, can be indistinguishable from the non-legato articulation. Except… if you stress the note. Hm…

And this is why in most contexts and composers, I would shamelessly assert to my pupils that there is perhaps only one definition to this tenuto riddle. Then, when students will have grasped my central definition of it, they can then experiment with stresses, durations, eras, schools of pianism, etc., and even later develop their own philosophy behind this dreaded articulation.

Let’s see in context:

Bach

At the ending of Christian Petzold’s Minuet in G Major (anh 114), every so often we see in editions that the last note (G) is to be played tenuto—Bach didn’t add this to the original 1725 manuscript. For most performers tenutoing this last note means that they should carefully place their hand on the key and firmly (quickly) press the note to achieve a deeper, kind of louder effect, and sort of emphasise that last note. See example below:

 

For me, a use of tenuto in this context implies that this very last note is equally important, and signals a not-so-unnoticed ending to this famous minuet. It demands from the performer to try and crescendo that very last note, as you would on the last chord of the first movement of Beethoven’s 4thquartet. See below; performers would customarily crescendo that last chord after it has been struck, and let it develop before its rounded-up finish.

Rachmaninov

In Rachmaninov’s prelude No 3, Op.23 in G minor, the use of tenuto (edition Boosey & Hawkes) signals a conscious effort of the first chord to both have a presence (mf), and also to “crescendo” before it grabs the next one in A major.  See example below:

This attempt to crescendo that first chord is by no means futile, and tenuto possesses a unique capability, indeed, to describe this dynamical endeavour: You wouldn’t necessarily use a crescendo line here (even a dotted one), because it would have been harder to show that this first chord of the piece has a significant presence, as well— At the same time, the use of a musical directions, such as sfz or >, won’t do here either, because they would subconsciously imply a defuse of that first chord after it was played— The engraver here, clearly wanted the pianist to think that this first chord is “opening-up” its dynamic level.

A contrasting crescendo of an already pressed key, however, can be seen in the next example from Brahm’s third violin and piano sonata op.108 in D minor (third movement, bar 37, Edition Peters).

Here, Brahms wants an inner crescendo on the D of the left hand, but he wants the crescendoing to develop from the ground up in contrast to tenuto; Brahms doesn’t want that D to have a weighty musical posture, because it will arguably steal some presence from the C major chord of the next bar.  See example below:

Prokofiev

Here’s another example that shows that notes with tenuto on the piano are asked to do something that is not pragmatically possible. In the following example from Prokofiev’s fourth piano sonata, the composer is adamant that there’s only one way to show that the notes on tenuto are to be held for as much as possible, and even develop after they have been pressed.

Non-legato or any other articulation won’t be enough for the composer to assert that even the notes that belong in the weaker part of the measure, do still have a long journey to travel. See below:

As am I closing this, and before I further talk your heads off,  I would like to gently remind you that portato is equally waiting just around the corner to baffle you… Pfff.

But that’s for another episode.

Copyright © Nikolaos Kokkinis – 30th of April 2019

 

 

The examples in this article were engraved from their original sources (where mentioned) using the notation software MuseScore version  3.0.5.21343. The quotes used in this article are taken from Elaine Gould’s book on music notation Behind Bars: The Definitive Guide to Music Notation (Faber Edition). This essential book can be acquired from here or from here, amongst others.

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