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The Pedagogical convenience of clavichord

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The clavichord, as a historically reconstructed instrument, offers the possibility of experiencing what we can read in pedagogical sources and early repertoire.


The way a modern performer perceives sensitive experiences, such as touch, dynamics, colour of volume, etc., is not very different from the way an early performer experienced those same sensations. Many points that can be found in historical sources are considered an attempt to express what is naturally ‘hidden’ in the practice of playing and is impossible to verbalize in a convincing way.


Consider the following concepts:


Explicit Knowledge: that which can be verbalized and consequentially articulated, shared, and stored. Explicit knowledge is shared by writing and reading; in this case, explicit knowledge is represented by written sources such as essays and collections of rules on performance practice (Il Transilvano, Girolamo Diruta).


Tacit Knowledge: that which concerns what we cannot verbalize and consequentially not codified in a formal way of communication (such as writing). This kind of knowledge can only be revealed through practice in specific contexts. Most importantly, all knowledge is strongly rooted in Tacit Knowledge. In our case, tacit knowledge is represented through practice on a clavichord reconstructed in a historically informed manner.


For these reasons, historically reconstructed clavichords are an excellent guide for the performer/student to assume the practical skills of starting from natural and physical response of the body to the particular organology of the instrument.


One of the issues to consider at this point is how the student is to organize musical language at the keyboard. Sources are clear concerning the necessity to overcome the simplicity of single notes, organizing the musical language into Neumes or Figuare through specific physical and acoustical gestures derived from the organology of the instrument and the response of the human body. So we can imagine the scheme:


figura (neuma) →  gesture  →  acoustical experience


As an example, we can take the case of Transitus. Girolamo Diruta in his Il Transilvano  describes this elementary neuma in terms of nota buona (‘good notes’ = notes on strong beats), and nota cattiva, (‘bad notes’ = notes on weak beats), offering specific fingerings of figura matching the good notes with good fingers (2, 4) and bad notes with bad fingers (3, 5).

This is what we can consider a sort of Explicit Knowledge of performance practice in the late sixteenth century. But what is described in sources like Il Transilvano is better understood practising the transitus at the clavichord; the combination of good and bad notes forms a unique physical and acoustical gesture, due to the weight of the arm being transferred from the first note (strong) to the second (weak). Weight transference is effective at the clavichord mechanism because of the lack of a true bottom in the keystroke, so that the depth of touch depends on the tension of the strings. This organological fact, evident on a historically reconstructed instrument, leads to the transitus being better performed with a couple of fingers whereas the first finger (the ‘good’ one) gives a small amount of energy to the strings due to the down motion of the key. When the arms move to play the next ‘good’ note, the weak note can be played with no weight transfer at all. The consequence is a visible difference in key depth between strong and weak notes, creating a difference in volume of sound and pronunciation. Through this way, the student becomes aware of the reasoning behind the fingering advised in early sources.


No other instrument urges the performer to experience different fingerings, wrist and forearm positions as the clavichord does, ensuring the performer observes what happens and the kinds of sounds produced. This is the pedagogical convenience of clavichord! On this way the concept of grammatical accent is empirically imposed in musical language and it is as clearly evident as it is important is the art of speaking. This point of view can be used for other sort of gestures cited in the same source, such as clamatione, accentus and minuta.


The large expressive possibilities of the clavichord impresses in the student this skill: transfer a sort of acoustic ideal into a physical gesture at the keyboard. It is in fact a conspicuous part the musical process.

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