“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.”

Sunday, May 24, 2020

Is It Really Necessary to Practice Scales?

     Well, yes and no.
      I recently read a comment from a pianist (?) who didn't like something I'd written about the relative benefits of practicing scales. This person
sounded angry. It may be because I propose using the body in the way it was designed to be used, which sets aside all those chattering
old wives who think we need to train for physical strength. Folks who have been shooting themselves in the foot all their lives often don't like to hear that that approach does not produce excellent results.

 So. Yes. We have to learn all scales, major and melodic minor, for two reasons. First, we need them as a function of keyboard harmony and topography. More importantly from a technical point of view, we need to be completely fluent coordinating thumb crossings in both hands. As interesting as they are, the harmonic minor scales don't really pop up in pianistic gymnastics all that often. But do include them, if you want, for a feeling of completeness.

     And no. Once the scales are well worked-in and completely fluent in both hands together at a moderate tempo, there is no reason to practice them on a daily basis for technique. This is not an efficient use of time. When we confront scale passages in a piece of music, they are rarely (never?) in root position the way we learned them. So we have to practice them again anyway. I would rather spend time working on technical issues in the music itself. These are my etudes.
     My critic also took issue with  my mention of practicing scales in rhythms, something some of my early teachers advised without explaining why. (I don't think they knew why.) There is some confusion here. By practicing in rhythms, I mean stopping on each note in succession. For example, in running sixteenths with groups of four, stop on the first note, then the second, third and so on. The point seems to be to feel the weight of each finger when it takes its turn. This is more efficiently and easily accomplished by understanding how the forearm works on every note with every finger. (See chapters on forearm rotation.) 
     For the record, I have no objection to practicing scales with different pulses, as in duple, triple, quadruple. This is a good way to work on coordination.

Monday, May 18, 2020

Chopin's F Major Ballade: Double-Note Tremolo

     A pianist writes: "I was wondering if you could
F. Chopin 1810-1849
offer any suggestions for how to approach the following right hand passage in the F major ballade, particularly the lower line. 
 I don’t see another fingering option besides 32-51.  The thumb and fifth finger are so different in length that I can’t get them to sound their notes simultaneously, and I feel like I am sort of stabbing at the B natural and A with an independent motion of my thumb.  At speed, it doesn’t work at all."  
Chopin F major Ballade Excerpt

     Since I can't see exactly what she's doing, it's
hard to give a precise diagnosis. However, there are certain issues that are common to this sort of passage that she might want to consider. The first three bars apparently work satisfactorily. One way to start is to try to figure out what is different about the first three bars and the subsequent bars. Yes. Instead of relatively small intervals in close proximity, we now have larger intervals making the distance between the top notes farther.
    Since the passage is directly in front of the torso, try leaning slightly to the left in order to avoid twisting and feeling constrained. Remember, too,
that the thumb likes to play in the direction of in. Play slightly in the direction of in for the chord with the thumb and five (shorter fingers) and slightly out again for the longer fingers. These are tiny gestures. 
      This shaping may solve the problem for her. If not, she can try adding grouping from the wider interval to the smaller one. It's a little like a series of two-note slurs, but very close to the keys and virtually imperceptible. By thinking of starting from the larger interval, you give yourself a nano-split-second of time to get to it from the interval of a fourth without stretching.


Friday, April 17, 2020

Concerto Accompanying

     My student asked for advice on playing the orchestra part to the Grieg concerto so that he could accompany several of his students. He showed me certain tutti passages that presented technical problems, which we solved. But we both
agreed that his main issue was that the notes weren't learned. I know. Bummer. Just because you can play the solo part doesn't necessarily mean you have the accompaniment in your fingers. When sight-reading is not your forte, there's no way around learning the notes. 
     Still, other considerations arose. An orchestral reduction is just one editor's opinion as to what
notes to include, even if that reduction is by the composer himself, it isn't necessary, especially for rehearsal, to be locked into those particular notes. So, pick and choose what to play. My suggestions are these: 

Cut tutti passages (unless the soloist really wants to feel a completeness). This will save note learning time. Play a few measures before the solo entry to give the soloist a running start.

Keep a steady tempo under the soloist, allowing his/her rubato to play off of your regularity. This is the most important. The second piano in this situation is both conductor and orchestra. Breathe with the soloist without disturbing the pulse. The orchestra is not allowed to adjust the tempo in order to search for the correct notes.

Play with sufficient sound so that the soloist feels  supported.


Tuesday, April 14, 2020

Bach Sinfonias for String Trio; Haydn Sinfonias for String Quartet

During this period of sheltering in place I have felt inspired to be better organized and review my publications, among other things. For my string-player friends, I can now offer transcriptions of Bach's keyboard Sinfonias at 15% discount. Each part is now $5.95. The score is $6.95. As an amateur cellist, I find these morsels both fun and inspiring, having played them all on
J. S. Bach
 the keyboard. Bach stated in his introduction that "...above all a cantabile style" is desired. What better way to realize Bach's objective that to play them with instruments whose primary goal is to sing. Click on the links below to visit Amazon:


Franz Joseph Haydn
In other news, selected early Haydn Symphonies are available in string quartet form for immediate digital download HERE. What! You say. No offense to our wind-player friends, but they work quite well as quartets.

To be used only after the all clear is sounded!

Monday, April 6, 2020

The Pianist in Isolation

    Today I finally finished all of my New Yorker back issues, all the way back to January of 2018. Yes. Then, thinking forced isolation shouldn't mean that my brain and all systems need to be shut down, I read through all the Haydn piano sonatas. Yes. This was very enjoyable. Next are the Mozart sonatas, then Beethoven. Probably then I'll finish all the oatmeal cookies I baked three days ago.
Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven

     It's very satisfying to go through "all of" something. My German friends tell me that finishing something, anything, is considered a good deed in Germany.
     So, my piano friends, during our isolation period, why not make a point of, say, reading through a complete cycle of something. Take some music at your level. Take music you can manage without struggle, even at a snail's pace. This can be very instructive. If you
don't have any complete cycles in your library, you can fill in the gaps for free at imslp.org.

     Do it. Start now.

Thursday, March 26, 2020

Grapefruit Cake Incident on Kindle

Dear Blogees,

Some of my readers—well, a few—okay, two have wondered why my semi-autobiographical book The Grapefruit Cake Incident and Other Stories Instructive and Cautionary from a Musical Life isn't available on Kindle. This set me wondering, too. And, having put the correct wheels in motion, the said book is now available for direct download to your own device or visit Amazon here: