There are certain places in the repertoire where I can predict that a student is going to hurry. They will usually tend to rob long notes of their value by rushing on to the next event. Perhaps our instincts tell us we should be busy making sound, playing notes rather than holding them? I surmise it has a lot to do with the nature of sound production at the piano: once we have made the sound, we need do nothing to prolong it except to hold the keys with our fingers, or hold it in the pedal. Wind and string instruments require a continuous and sustained effort of the breath or of the bow throughout the life of the long note, in other words movement. I would suggest that we pianists need also keep long notes alive – physically and in our imagination.
I liken the arm in piano playing to the breath in wind playing or singing, and to the bow in string playing. If we don’t incorporate the articulations of the fingers into bigger, longer gestures of the arm we end up playing syllabically, robotically and thus without real expression. If we stop all movement as soon as we have played a long note or chord, we disconnect from our conductor (our body) and thus from the musical flow, that sense of arch that takes us from the first note of the piece to the last.
There is nothing more disturbing than seeing a pianist flailing themselves over the keyboard with excessive movements that are so often irrelevant – a substitute for real listening, or built in for theatrical effect. This is not what I mean. A good example of very basic arm choreography is Chopin’s Prelude in C minor, op. 28 no. 20:
The follow-through arm stroke from the first chord leads into the up-beat for the next chord, and so on until the end of the piece. There ought never to be a moment when the arms stop moving (only to have to start up again). One chord blends into the next in every way, the whole thing should feel circular.
We can encourage movement on a long note by feeling a sub-rhythm, a pattern that fills in a long note either with basic subdivisions, or (better) with rhythmic cells that can be flexible. I am speaking here of the opposite of sterile metronomic counting out, rather a living pulse that responds to the ebb and flow of the music.
One such instance is the second bar of the Rachmaninov Prelude in C sharp minor, op. 3 no. 2 that I discussed in my second post on chords:
My solution to situations like this, where hurrying is the norm, is to find the lowest common denominator (the fastest note value), in this case a quaver. To prevent rushing, mentally fill in the long note either with the correct number of quavers (“one and two and three and four and”, etc.), or (and this is perhaps more imaginative) a rhythmic cell of your choosing, a design that counteracts the tendency to push through the long note. In this Rachmaninov example, one can actually imagine the whole of bar 3 taking place silently in bar 2.
The opening of Mozart’s Sonata in B flat, K570, consists of a rhythmic pattern of minim, crotchet, minim, crotchet, etc., followed by a stream of flowing quavers:
I have often found a tendency for the tempo to establish itself only with the quavers in bar 4, the opening sounding rushed and unstable. The instant fix is to feel the hidden quaver pulse lurking in the longer notes. Playing (or imagining) it like this a couple of times provides the necessary framework.
Having taught Beethoven’s Sonata Pathétique dozens of times, I can predict the opening tempo will most often only feel settled from the fifth bar, when Beethoven gives us a pulse based on constant semiquavers.
Feeling an underlying pulse of semiquavers in the first four bars would do the trick. Much more meaningful and alive would be to feel that the opening chord is haunted by a premonition of the rhythmic cell to come (in much the same way as the Rachmaninov example). The benefit of filling in the long notes and silences with this (rather than a perfunctory sub-rhythm of semiquavers), is that we can subject the cell to inflections of time. (My skills with the Musescore application are as yet basic, I would have wanted to put in forward and backward arrows – please imagine them!) After it has served its purpose, like any scaffold this can be dispensed with.