piano instuction, piano learning, piano lessson

Piano Playing time zones: Past, Present, and Future

As teachers, and eternal students of the piano, we often have epiphanies that are worth jotting down at peak moments of enlightenment. Certain words, attached to insights that spring up in the course of lessons become thematic, resonating beyond a particular composition under study.

To this effect, over months and years, I’ve heard myself redundantly tell students, that in the act of “recreating” music (as Seymour Bernstein terms it), we are immersed in the past, present and future all at once.

Yet with so much focus on the “here and now” as the highest ideal of Eastern Culture wrapped musical ONENESS–i.e. unity of body, mind and heart, it’s easy to overlook a time dimension that’s imbued in a transit of silence to sound, going beyond PRESENT immersion.

ANALYSIS understandably deepens our understanding of a composition. By mapping out the basic germ cell or motivic idea of a piece, and examining how a composer “develops” it, we invite an awareness of what happened from silence to sound, in an unfolding of phrases that began with an initial musical imprint of flashback relevance. What transpired (PAST) in the opening measures is embedded in the PRESENT, giving it CONTEXT as we flow forward,(FUTURE) with a simultaneous three-dimensional perspective.

A fugue form concretely illustrates a tripartite time dimension: We identify the SUBJECT, COUNTERSUBJECT, and how various voices have a contrapuntal relationship, moving through episodes, where pieces of the Subject and Counter-subject are inverted, etc. By understanding the components of the basic SUBJECT, we cannot forget, (looking BACK), its intrinsic importance as it goes through a tunnel of relationships and attenuations– making its journey to final destination–the last measure.

Since many compositions are not in Fugue form, a sequence of events that spring out of silence to sound must be magnified by the teacher.

In the purely mechanical sense, a student learns that the arms, hands, fingers are in constant MOTION, a tad ahead of themselves, especially in rapid tempo movements.

EX. in this Scarlatti Sonata, K. 430, one must conscientiously practice the jumps in each hand with slow, graceful “transit.” Getting stuck in the PRESENT without a conscious anticipation of where the outflow of the hands leads to, is a glitch waiting to happen. But knowing what preceded the jump is as relevant to what follows. (In this regard, we often tell our pupils to lead into a measure that has a snag or problem.)


In my mentoring, I try to reinforce where one comes from and where one is going through keyboard travels.

One hand may advance and be “ready” while the other is sustaining a chord. Similarly, the way the rhythm of notes “play out” requires being FUTURISTIC, while still having a lingering fixation on a decaying note or sonority in the PRESENT that is disappearing as we PLAY. I often say “LISTEN” to the end of one note as a cue to how you will enter the next. (This directive suggests that the present is ephemeral but its seeds of decay are planted in what comes next.)

A beautiful performance for me is one where the player can reveal many dimensions of a composition in a holistic outpouring that has MEANING on cognitive and affective levels. I want to gain insight into “relationships” as they unfold, past, present and future, not stultified by a vertical perseveration of note to note transit. (And this is where “grouping” notes is another ingredient of time bundling.)

I ask myself and my students, what came before? What is different now as you play through many measures? Where are the phrases heading, and how can you make me understand the mosaic of this composition as a “whole.”

Some of the Russian teachers whom I’ve befriended often advise their students to “tell a story” as they play– the very story that has a beginning, middle, and end.

While all music is not programmatic, or Romantic era framed to embed a literal “story” line, the idea still suggests a time dimension ORDER, where a “Once upon a time” opening or a flashback sets in motion events that follow and come to resolution.

As teachers we are GUIDES during our students’ period of study. We “journey” with them through the great masterworks, often looking BACK to the very beginning steps our pupils took, seeing how far they have come and where they are going.

Music mirrors life in its form, development and growth, so we have to remind ourselves of its three-dimensional richness and beauty.

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