Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Some more haphazard thoughts about grouping

For the past four weeks I've been fixated on the concept of grouping notes together. To sum up, this is important for both the learning process and for the understanding and communication of music. You've got to take a breath somewhere! but....

Grouping is not the same as phrasing. Groups of notes are usually in smaller packages than phrases, and function more like words or phrases in English than sentences, which might be the equivalent of a musical phrase. They are smaller units. And one doesn't necessarily "breathe" after each group. However...

One needs to be able to breathe mentally. That is, you have to make a mental break between those groups, understanding them as separate units of music. Within those groups, however, it is important not to make breaks.

Here is something from a recording I made yesterday...


Notice how the last three chords sound like one group. They even feel like one group, with a forward momentum that carries them through with one gesture. While my fingers have to play and release, moving up and down three times, my arm is moving forward only once, unifying the disparate motions of my fingers so that to me this entire grouping feels like one motion--toward the piano. This is the physical, technical side of grouping. The audience hears this as well, which makes aural interpretation much easier, since the mountain of material has already been sorted and grouped. It also makes it, in this case, more exciting to listen to, because the contents seem alive. Now I'll play you the whole passage. The musical selection itself will come next week!


Finally, being able to group is an invaluable aid in the learning process. I can remember a 7-digit phone number much more easily if I group it into chunks of 3 and 4 digits. And while a seven digit number has been shown to be a limit for our immediate memory, there are no such limits for our long term capacity, however "Whereas a chain of letters like CBSMTVIRSSUVTNT might be difficult for labile memory to hang onto, once the letters are chunked into CBS-MTV-IRS-SUV-TNT, the task becomes much easier, and what would never have made it into stable memory has a greater chance of consolidating." point out four brilliant authors of "Individual and Collective Memory Consolidation" Anastasio, Ehrenberger, Watson, Zhang, 2012). Full disclosure: one of these brilliant authors is Mrs. Pianonoise.

In the example above, it turns out that chunking the information into 3-digit pieces produces recognizable acronyms. However, in musical interpretation, different players may come to quite different results. (How about if I group them so they all rhyme? CB-SMT-VIRSSUV-TNT! works as a cheer--has a nice chanting rhythm to it--and as a young person I may not recognize CBS anyhow!) Generally, however, the chunks are fairly short, sometimes they overlap (thus the final note of one may also be the beginning of the other) and they can often be found because of some relation they have with the preceding or succeeding material (such as a pure repetition, a sequence, some kind of development, or the start of a new chain of similar cells). Chunking is fun, chunking is a necessity, it is a way of life. It brings order to disparate elements, and ease of understanding. It separates professionals from amateurs, skilled interpreters from people who are just playing notes and don't sound like they know what they are musically "talking" about.

It is strange people didn't spend time talking about this at the conservatory. Still, you can hear an element of this in the practice room, as people take small bits of pieces and play them over and over in order to acquaint their fingers, wrists and arms with their routes. If the mind is engaged in the process, all the better. And all the difference.

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