“Music is a moral law. It gives a soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination, a charm to sadness, and life to everything. It is the essence of order, and leads to all that is good, just and beautiful, of which it is the invisible, but nevertheless dazzling, passionate, and eternal form.”
Plato

Monday, May 11, 2015

The Case of the Jazz Pianist and the Missing Thumb

     

My student brought questions about descending arpeggiated figures in the right hand. He is a very accomplished and much sought-after jazz pianist with considerable facility, so it was somewhat of a surprise to me that these arpeggiated figures were an issue. For most pianists, descending arpeggios are more reliable than ascending. 

     He has in his arsenal of licks (riffs?) many variants of chromatically-altered figures. These he tosses off at will as embellishments in whatever key happens to be current. This facility, it seems to me, is already remarkable. His complaint, though, was that he doesn't feel that they always sound clear and even.  
     
I asked him to play one for me, which he did. It sounded clear and even but I didn't tell him that at first. I asked him how it seemed to him, and he reported that it was not as clear and even as he wanted and that this has been a frustration for him for some time. After some repetitions, we found that these passages sometimes sounded uneven, too. Here we paused for a brief story.
     Many years ago my teacher, John Crown, invited me to play on his television program on public access, a program featuring new music. I had to play through without the option of do-overs, which added a touch of, well let's say— added excitement.  I played okay, I thought, but fluffed one descending scale-like passage. When the program aired, though, the passage in question sounded just fine. I was relieved, of course, but confused. What made me think the passage wasn't clear? It would be many years before I understood what had happened. 
     
In a nutshell, the note(s) in question sounded but hadn't been completed. That is, the weight of my forearm wasn't supporting all of the notes equally, I wasn't transferring weight from one finger to the next as if walking from note to note. This sensation is translated in the brain as "missed" notes, because, in a way they were. The brain didn't hear them because the arm didn't feel them. Stand up. Try walking as if one ankle is sprained,  not putting any weight on it. This hobbling effect is very like what happened to me on television.
     When we looked again at my student's arpeggios, we found that, almost without exception, his thumb wasn't doing both its jobs, the first of which is to play the note and the second is to throw the hand into the new position. In other words, he wasn't always allowing the thumb to toss his hand beyond the thumb cross-over note as he descended, which gives the hand the possibility of turning back to the next finger rotationally. I know, words fail here. Suffice it to say that rotation was missing. (For a video on rotation, click on the iDemos tab above.)
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