“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.”

Tuesday, November 2, 2021

Piano and the Virtuoso Squeeze

Edvard Grieg
(Doesn't he look like Mark Twain?)

 A pianist writes: "I was following with the score the Grieg concerto recently in a performance by Rubinstein.  I was struck in the last movement by a particular scale passage written to be played in 2 beats, if taken literally.  I was wondering what your opinion is of passages such as this one where many performers lengthen the time required to play all the notes and why some performers choose to do this.  I've seen many such passages."

    I put that scale and others like it (Liszt E-flat concerto) in the cadenza catagory, meaning that it can be interpreted.  Since the
orchestra is tacet, it doesn't matter if the pianist takes a bit more time. Percy Grainger's suggestion is not a bad idea (upper version). Rubinstein's moderate tempo gives him more time for the scale. (No, it isn't about fingers.) Also, starting with the E, you can make a group of four thirty-seconds at the end of the previous bar, leaving only twenty for the rest of the scale, two groups of ten, which can be pulsed in various ways. It won't work if you throw yourself at twenty-two notes; the hand has to feel some rhythmic organization.
    Keep in mind that this is a romantic concerto with occasional flashes of virtuosity. This is the era of "effect;" there is no letter of
the law in the Classical sense, rather more like the wild west. The exact meaning of notation becomes increasingly more open to interpretation in the 19th century and beyond. The notational demands of Beethoven begin to recede, although even Beethoven could at times make exceptions, as in Opr. 106 and 111. Free at last!
    The pianist responds: "This reminds me of another thing.  I have for years been obsessed with Chopin's op. 10, no. 2.  Badura-Skoda's edition of the etudes offers a few facilitations in the case of 10/2 and the Chopin International, which I understand is the recommended edition of the Chopin International Competition, even sanctions the elimination of notes in two places.  Peter Orth, Ruth Slencynska, and Ian Hobson explicitly indicate their own facilitations in various etudes including 10/2.  If luminaries such as these can openly do this why should us ordinary people feel guilty about it?  Still one runs across those individuals who piously assert that 'cheating' defeats the purpose of the etude. " 
    It's not cheating if the music works. I hereby absolve you of all guilt. The audience doesn't care what fingering you use or how you
redistribute the notes between the hands or even (shudder) omit a small detail in order to increase facility or accommodate your hands in order to play another day. For all of those on the cheating committee I say that the purpose of a concert etude is to give a musical experience to the listener. It is not a vehicle for displaying how hard you've worked. An etude with slight inaudible adjustments is just as exciting. For those who insist on feats of derring-do, I suggest they go to the circus.
     Here's some food for thought: Why not play
Ravel's left-hand concerto with two hands, if you have them? Would that be considered a transcription? Is left-hand piano a thing?  No one would dare play the left-hand repertoire with two hands, and yet I hear the nagging question "why not"? Those pieces were written for a one-armed pianist. I have two. If it's really just about the music, then... (Maybe it sounds quite different when one hand tries to make up for two.) Just food for thought.

Monday, April 19, 2021

Forearm Weight at the Piano: What?

      A student writes:"I wonder if you might be willing to explain exactly what arm weight is. Or maybe the better question would be to ask what arm weight is not. I remember someone saying that using arm weight does NOT involve pushing into the keyboard. Someone else says that it is a deadweight drop.  Surely we can't be expected to play in some limp manner."

     No, we cannot play the piano in a "limp manner." We rely on various fulcra to support the fingers: knuckles, wrist, elbow. If one of these collapses, the whole system tends to break down, or at least falter. The playing apparatus consists of a connection from the finger tip that is playing to the elbow. The wrist, which remains flexible, makes a relatively flat bridge between hand and forearm.     

     And yes, it's correct that we do not "push" into the keyboard.  Once the key has been depressed, only God can change it, so there is no point whatsoever to continue applying weight into the key after reaching the point of sound. 

     The idea of a "deadweight drop" is problematic as a playing concept because at the point of sound the arm cannot continue moving downward, collapsing, which is what happens when thinking "deadweight." It is ludicrous to think that continued up and down arm movements can produce quick and efficient playing. The
deadweight concept is however quite useful in teaching the playing apparatus what it feels like to let go of weight, as in for example, learning what it feels like to make a leap.

At Ease
     Tobias Matthay writes about the visible and invisible in piano technique. Arm weight is one of the latter and one of the most important concepts to understand. To put it as briefly and simply as I can, it is the amount of weight it takes to produce the desired sound on one note and be able to stand on the note as if "at ease" there, not pressing and not lifting. In other words, we drop into the key to the point of sound and stop there. It's like sitting in a chair. One is at ease, supported, yet not relaxed in the real sense of the word. If we really relax, we fall out of the chair or

off the piano bench. So, the process of learning the sensation of arm weight at the piano is learning how much is required—no more, no less. It is a process of training the playing apparatus what it feels like to complete a note and be at rest on the key. 

     Once the arm weight is established in a single key, that weight is transferred from note to note by means of forearm rotation, which is an underlying tool and not the end result. Forearm rotation is not, repeat, not how we propel our hands laterally up and down the keys in speed. 

     This is an important study and not one I can describe in print without perhaps creating more confusion. For a video demonstration, click on the iDemo tab above and select Forearm Rotation.

Friday, April 16, 2021

 Dear Readers,

The "Follow by Email" function will no longer be available after July, 2021. If you would like to receive future posts automatically, please click on the Follow button in the column on the right to subscribe. You will surely want to read about "How Old is Too Old" to study piano and "Why Do They Write It That Way?" And other pressing issues that come up during cyber lessons.

Sunday, March 21, 2021

Chopin Preludes 1 and 8: Sound or Sensation

     A pianist cites a "raging debate as to whether the thumb note in Chopin's Prelude No. 8 should be held." Some debaters were of the opinion that "'in all Chopin', notes are to be physically held for their notated duration. No sources were cited. Others insisted that Chopin himself would not have held the notes. My question to you is whether Chopin said anything definitive about this issue of holding notes. I have not been able to come up with anything." 

Chopin's Prelude No. 8

     This issue is at the heart of many (most?) technical problems that uninformed pianists suffer. It is about enslavement to the notation, particularly in music of the romantic period and beyond (I include Beethoven, particularly in his late period). My mantra: The score tells us what the music sounds like, not how it feels in our hands. To my knowledge, Chopin is not on record as having said "don't hold those notes." He did say, however, over and over again, that "flexibility" and "freedom" and other such concepts are of extreme importance. 

     I can't imagine he would have held down those notes. Their lengths and melodic importance are indicated with the quality of sound. To the nay sayers I would point out that in Prelude No. 8 as well as Prelude No. 1, C. has indicated pedal for the entire measure. Holding down both the note and the pedal seems to me like two jobs where one will suffice. I opt for the easier one, the one that gives me freedom.

Chopin's Prelude No. 1

Sunday, February 28, 2021

Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata: Pesky Third Movement


A pianist writes that he has problems with the opening bars of the last movement of the Moonlight Sonata, RH. "No matter how I go about it, I can feel that awful burning sensation starting to happen in my forearm. " 
     "I always try my utmost to avoid any stretching and reaching. I'm guessing [the problem is] partly because there are so many narrow black notes involved. It always has that awkward feel to it."

Beethoven "Moonlight" Sonata,
opening of third movement


     Without seeing what he's doing, it's difficult to make an accurate diagnosis. However, most people who have problems here are failing in some degree
to keep the hand more or less closed. That is, making sure that the thumb moves along with the hand as it moves to the second finger. He probably needs to move a little out on second and third in order to move slightly more in on five, which is where the pulse is, making sure that as he plays five, the thumb falls to its next starting place. This is a good practice morsel: Move to five and allow it to throw the thumb to its place silently. Then start the next unit. So, this is more of a very tiny in/out shape than under/over. 

     In order to feel more secure on the black keys, find a slight hand angle that gives your fingers a little more flesh contact. This diminishes that uneasy feeling of slipping off the narrow keys.

Tuesday, December 1, 2020

Collaborative Pianist: The Lazy Idiot

     A pianist writes: "A violin student intended to play [a duo sonata]
from memory. Friction apparently ensued when the pianist sug-
gested that it was not appropriate for the violinist to play from memory when the pianist was playing from score." The teacher, Dorothy DeLay of Juilliard fame, responded that the pianist was "being lazy" and that if he wanted to "look like an idiot," let him. "How is such a conflict to be handled," asks the pianist. "What is your opinion on the 

     I never met Ms. DeLay, though I worked with some of her students in the 1970s. (Yes, that's how old I am.) I can't confirm the accuracy of the remarks attributed to her, but I can verify that such attitudes were in circulation at that time, perhaps not so much these days. The comments are typical of a type of diva, one who perhaps hasn't performed much professionally, but rather has developed a reputation for shaping well-prepared students for high-profile careers, i.e., Perlman and Zuckerman.

     A person who would make such a remark doesn't know diddly-squat about performance practices and related courtesies. Had I been that pianist, I would have responded, "But Ms DeLay, I have to learn not only violin repertoire, but also that of the cello and other instruments, as well as art songs and opera arias for all voice types, sometimes having to play the same songs in different keys."

     For me though, it's a non-issue. When I began working with violinist Christiane Edinger for a concert at Carnegie Recital Hall—she was a student of Joseph Fuchs who was a colleague of DeLay—she asked me if I minded that she played duo sonatas from memory. She offered to set up a music stand with the score on it, but she wouldn't read it because she couldn't see well enough without her glasses and she didn't want to play with them on. I didn't care one way or the other. It was my belief—and still is—that everyone on stage should feel comfortable. Typically, though, in chamber music everyone uses the score. Only once in my concert-going life have I heard a collaborative pianist perform without the score. That was David Garvey, Michael Rabin's pianist.