Practical Application of the Rudiments of Harmony – Piano

By Silas G. Pratt

After having acquired, by slow and careful practice, a command over some difficult piece, and when a rapid performance has been attained by many repetitions and patient reiteration of the difficult parts, teachers frequently find when they attempt to play the piece, especially for others, the fingers suddenly refuse their office, the mind becoming confused, and, as it were, a stranger to the music apparently learned.

This was the present writer’s experience frequently when studying with Theodore Kullak (the elder). Only by going back and taking passages so slowly that each separate note could be recognized, with the mind absolutely know what the fingers were doing. His experience, so, to the majority of players, results from the fact that the mind is trained only to know the notes as they are printed separately – as though one were spelling out the letters of each word one reads – instead of comprehending them collectively, as a cord or skill passage, as one recognizes a number of letters as a word.

In training a child to read, one teaches the letters first; then these are applied to spell single syllable words, and these are immediately applied to a little story (usually a picture goes with it). If the teacher should go on compelling the child to do nothing but spell words with his alphabet and never make them tell anything or represent an idea, he would be considered something of an idiot; it how many teachers of the piano do practically that same thing?

The study of piano music presents so many difficulties that these should be minimized as much as possible; the mind should be trained as well as the fingers; mental study should proceed muscular effort so that actual knowledge should lead and not follow physical exertion.

Referring to illustrate my idea, I would say that the scale represents in music with the alphabet doesn’t written language; the common quarter triad, the simple words. Since all music is made up of scales and chords it is reasonable that the player should become familiar with these – not merely theoretically, but in practice (exercises and pieces). A simple illustration familiar to all teachers may be taken from Czerny’s “Velocity Studies,” Book I, No. 3.

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If the broken cord is taught as the simple triad of C major containing but three letters, viz.: C, D, and G, and the pupil is taught to think each group before notes as a unit, striking them together as a cord, thus:

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he will quickly acquire the habit of thinking each group rapidly and the fingers will willingly perform them. Again, I thinking the entire six groups of notes as one cord in its three positions, the mind grasp them as one phrase, and thus at a glance the entire passages understood, the fingers performing at with certainty and precision.

The entire exercise should be studied and played first is cords, then practiced as written. The last passage, written on the court of C, thus:

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should be studied according to the positions of the hand from the thumb to the little finger, as indicated by the bracket, because one can think that position as a unit and the mind is not confused by the changing a position in every group, as it is if one begins to finger from the first of each group commencing with the fifth finger and ending with the fourth finger.

Another familiar exercise in Kohler’s Velocity, Book I, No. 5.

A very interesting example of brilliant and difficult music based upon two simple chords is found in Chopin’s favorite waltz, Op. 70 (posthumous) and G – flat. The four measures here given on the dominant D – flat seventh chord, and the Tonic, (G – flat), being repeated, constitute the first strain.

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The student should learn these two cords in the bass first. Then the melody and the right hand will be found composed of the same tomes (widely extended, to be sure) with a passing note in each measure, marked thus ( ). The entire difficulty (technically) of this strain will be found in the wide reaches in the second, third, and fourth measures. These should, therefore, be picked out and studied with the chords underneath. When these three skips can be made with ease, the entire 16 measures can be executed without difficulty.

The next strain of 16 measures written and D – flat major is composed on the same two cords, viz.: Dominant and Tonic, the very widely extended use of the arpeggios in the right-hand first on the cord of A – flat ascending, then on D – flat descending, making an exceedingly brilliant effect. The difficulty in this strain, like that of the proceeding, lies in the quick movement for long reach from E to A – flat and D – flat to A – flat. The reaches or long skips in the last two measures should be practiced alone, thus:

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Litolff’s familiar “Spinnerlied” furnishes an easily understood example of broken chords with a passing note, and I was suggested the student go through the entire piece, writing the name of the cord under each run. If you measures are here given; the passing note being indicated thus: ( )

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In “Narcissus,” by Nevin, eight measures comprising the second part, are written on the two cords Dominant seventh and Tonic. These are repeated a half step higher each time when the pupil studies them is cords (as shown), he will understand and play them for memory with ease and accuracy. The notes not belonging to the chords are indicated thus: ( )

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If the student would play it in the following manner he would play all the notes of the phrase. By placing a hand on the next key above and repeating it, just a half step higher, the entire part is performed.

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In Beethoven’s “Sonata,” Op. 2, No. 3, occurs the following passage, (part of a Cadenza), near the close of the first movement:

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The down stamps indicate the notes forming the cord of C upon which the passages written.

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It is formed on the triad of C major, the first and last note of each group comprising the three letters of the cord C, D, and G. Commencing on G, the fifth of the triad, the composer uses one note below and one note above each letter of the cord, the result being a very brilliant passage. This is the run that von Weaver afterwards used and elaborated with great effect in his celebrated “ConcertStuck” at the commencement of the piano solo of the March movement. He makes an entire page out of it on the cord of C, then D, then F, and G. The student’s mind is trained to think his music will recognize the entire passage as a unit. For one was an used to this mental process, I would advise the following method a practicing the above and similar passages:

  • play the first group and rest upon the last note, the thumb
  • play the second group and rest upon the last note, the thumb
  • play the third group and rest upon the last note, the thumb

These three groups written on G, C, and E are then repeated higher up; so that when these three groups are learned, the entire passages acquired. It is accomplished in two or three minutes.

In Raff’s popular “La Fileuse,” the need of studying from the cord construction becomes at once apparent, the very first being composed of broken chords. At the eighth measure occurs the following brilliant passage, the difficulty of performing which is practically eliminated by analyzing it so as to let the mind comprehend his construction:

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Every note of the entire passage is comprised in the cord of the Diminished seventh, indicated in brackets ( ), with the exception of one note in each group marked ( ):

For the student who does not recognize the construction I would advise the following method of practice:

  1. Learn the left 10 notes as F sharp, D sharp, Be sharp, and reversed order.
  2. Learn the right hand, leaving out the passing note, each group separately, thus:

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striking the two keys together forming the notes of the cord.

3. Put the left-hand note with these and they will complete the cord.

By this time the student has learned to think all the notes of the group, (except the one passing note ( )) as a unit, and may now practice it as it is written and, I presume, think each group as one; and, in fact, the entire passage as a cord in for positions.

As one proceeds from the simpler to the more difficult compositions, the necessity of applying the rudiments of harmony to their accomplishment becomes more and more apparent. While the present writer considers it just as essential to the beginner to commence the habit of thinking in groups (as chords and scales or parts of scales) and must be plain and for the more advanced student, it is absolutely indispensable to an intelligent mastery and a reposeful performance.

By using the mind, a large part (fully one half, if not more) of the time and muscular effort is saved. The endless repetition of passages (with the mind wandering off an entirely different subjects) is avoided, and the slow, mechanical acquirement of unconscious finger knowledge (which is certainly unreliable) is replaced by absolute knowledge, confidence, and repose. Again, that terrible nervous strain and the ruinous habit of hurrying through difficult passages (to avoid thinking them) is escaped, the mind saving the muscles, the sense saving the physical effort.

It must, I think, be apparent to any thoughtful teacher that not only a command of harmony as an abstract study is essential, but it’s practical application. Should not a teacher be able to explain the harmonic construction of a passage to pupil, and tell what key is performing in? One expects every teacher in the public schools to explain the significance of any combination of letters into words, and words into sentences. Should not the music teacher know as much about the notes?