“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.”

Monday, December 23, 2019

Demystifying Bach: Introduction Continued

The Technique

         In these pages we consider the techniques, the how-tos, of coordinating more than one musical line. We learn to apply principles of grouping notes together and shaping lines in certain ways for technical ease. We consider possible fingerings,
sometimes more than one, depending on the desired effect. Often, technical solutions coincide with musical objectives. This makes us happy. But when there is a technical problem, we examine it on its own merits. No mindless rote here. 
Often in the text I refer to rotation. This is shorthand for forearm rotation, of which there are two types, single and double. The terminology is not important. Suffice it to say that single rotation is the sort applied
when changing direction with each note, as in a trill or an Alberti figure. Double rotation occurs when the finger moves both to and from notes that move in the same direction, as in a scale. 
        When the hands work together rotationally there are four applications: parallel left, parallel right, opposite inward and opposite outward. Parallel right means that the two hands both open to the right, then rotate back leftward into the note. Parallel left is the reverse. Opposite inward means that the hands both open with their backs toward each other. Opposite outward is the reverse, the palms are facing each other. I know it sounds confusing, but the applications are quite simple. Not only that, these are natural movements that the body will accept without complaint. 
          Occasionally a technical solution will require what I call a
walking hand or walking arm.  This is nothing more than a combination of rotation with a lateral movement and slight opening of the hand. Remember, the hand can be open without feeling stretched to an extreme. 
          Sometimes I use the word pluck to indicate a springing action away from a note. This is akin to what happens when bending the knees to create thrust from a diving board. I don’t necessarily mean that the note is staccato. This movement is always tiny and propels the hand laterally, not vertically. In a leap, this plucking action achieves the distance to the point over the desired landing spot. Gravity and rotation then help create the note.
          If a passage of counterpoint feels uncoordinated, it is very
likely that one hand is trying to do what the other is doing. The best way to solve these issues is to first examine the type of forearm rotation required in each hand separately. Then, feel them together. The hands can be a little stupid sometimes. They need to be shown what the mind knows. 
            (For a video demonstration of the aforementioned, click on the iDemos tab at the top of the page and select Inventions and Sinfonias.)
           To be continued:

Tuesday, December 17, 2019

Demystifying Bach At the Piano: Introduction


    We pianists are both blessed and cursed. On the one hand we glory in the totality of musical possibility, controlling as we do 
massive sonorities. We can be the entire string quartet, the singer and accompanist, the full orchestra. We learn at an early age to be horizontalists, the producers of a musical line.  We learn that music exists in time and travels logically from point A to points farther along an horizontal continuum. This is all good.
        On the other hand, when confronted with competing horizontal lines, we are called upon to rethink our predilection for spinning a single line beautifully to the right. Students suffer the shock of having to abandon preconceived notions of technique, at least for the amount of time it takes to organize more than one line traveling together at the same time along the same continuum. Yes, and to some this may seem sacrilege, but we must think more vertically. 
        Mastering contrapuntal playing at the piano is about physical coordination. What do the two hands feel like at crucial points
where the multiple voices come together vertically? Since the piano is down—we play down into the key—the feeling where voices come together is a combined down.  I know, this flies in the face of our notion that music moves laterally.
Bach was a teacher. In his day, teaching was not only about keyboard facility, but included elements of composition and style. In short, Bach taught music. In his preface to the Inventions and Sinfonias, he explains that he has created an “honest method” for the purpose of learning to play “clearly” first two parts, then three
parts. Along the way he hoped the “amateur” would develop, in addition to the ability to handle all the parts well, “good ideas.” He writes that “above all” the player should “achieve a cantabile style in playing and acquire a strong foretaste of composition.”
      Let’s talk about cantabile. This is my favorite Bach quote. I raise it whenever I encounter a pianist who attempts a harpsichord facsimile on the modern piano. You know the type of player I mean. This is someone who feels that all Bach playing is detached. (More about articulation later.) Even the great harpsichordist Wanda Landowska declared that her playing was connected, not detached. I understand why some pianists do this. They hope to imitate the quill plucking the strings. In the process they discard the natural reverberation that plucking produces. 
We know that Bach favored the clavichord for its ability to
produce nuanced inflections, not unlike a piano, though very much more subtle. The clavichord was an entre nous instrument, its sound intimate and not designed for a modern concert hall. It seems to me Bach had this reference in mind when he wrote that his music should be expressive in the way that singing can be expressive. In the above-referenced preface Bach gives us leave to use the resources of the piano.

So here we have a conundrum. On the one hand we are to play the parts clearly, but at the same time be expressive. No worries. We can separate out the two parts of the puzzle and put them back together again. Bach would be proud. 
        To be continued...

Friday, December 13, 2019

Chopin's Fourth Ballade: The Tempo is Only Andante

     Okay, the tempo is actually andante con moto (moderately slowly but with motion). Even so, it's only that and doesn't change much except for a few authorized slowings down and speedings up. Really. Look at the score. 
     Coincidental to my restudying of Chopin's F Minor Ballade, the other day I came upon  a FaceBook post offering an historical recording of Glenn Gould playing Beethoven's Appassionata, first movement. The eccentric genius plays at about half tempo, what I would call a good practice tempo. The
Glenn Gould
comments ranged from "execrable" to "genius". 
I think that this performance is more Gould than Beethoven, who directed that the movement is to be played allegro assai, very fast. Still, we know that Gould's stated purpose was to play standard repertoire "wrong" in order to force listeners to hear the music with fresh ears. He was a pianist of extraordinary skill and possessed a remarkable intellect. Nevertheless, I personally prefer Beethoven to Gould and find my ears, experienced as they are, to be quite fresh still, thank you very much. (The movement is easier to play at this tempo, I'll give him that.) Listen here: Gould's Appassionata.
     As I thumb through the pages of Chopin's Ballade, I notice no
Frédéric Chopin
marked tempo changes. Andante con moto applies to the entire piece. If memory serves, though, most pianists take several liberties, increasing in speed to an extreme. 

     I make this comparison because the issue is about trying our best as artists, as re-creators, to realize the composer's intentions, keeping in mind that a composer like Chopin, for example, has it over us as a creative genius. Regrettably, I'm not able to declare that any of the pianists I've heard had, like Gould, an educational purpose in mind as they disregarded Chopin's instruction—or anything at all in mind, except perhaps, and I think I'm being generous here, to amaze their listeners.
     I'm thinking now of the passage beginning in measure 100, the onset of a development. Yes. Chopin thinks Classically. (Notice the capital 'C'.) This is all the more reason to think of a more consistent (not rigid) tempo. Here the composer writes a tempo. As we all know, this means return to the main tempo—which in this case is after a ritardando—not take a new one. Many pianists take off like a Czerny machine gone mad, but these passages are so much more meaningful than that and take on a remarkable expressiveness when played more or less in tempo—the indicated tempo—and with lyrical intent. 
Chopin's F Minor Ballade, MM 100-103
(The 'a' of a tempo is in the previous measure.)

     At the variation beginning in measure 152—yes, we have variations on a theme, another Classical convention—which is also typically played too fast. The melismas should each be allowed to speak for themselves, not pressed together like a glissando.
Chopin's F Minor Ballade, MM 150-155

     Even the etude-like passage in measure 191 (think 'Ocean' Etude) doesn't need to speed up, though I think Chopin might approve a slight forward tilt. There is no change of tempo indicated in the score. If this passage becomes too climactic, what are we going to do with the coda? The coda, by the way, has no tempo change, either. This is fortunate because it can be sticky to play cleanly, and we do want to hear the new material. (Richter, whom I admire greatly, plays so fast one can't hear anything.)
Chopin's F Minor Ballade, MM 190-193

     So, aside from a stretto in measure 199 and an accelerando from measure 227 to the end, there are no indications from the composer to make significant tempo changes.
     Okay, I hear the "but, but..." Yes, Chopin's music is nothing if not flexible, like his hands, apparently. But we are not talking here about the so-called "tempo rubato", referring to the rhythmic relationship of the hands, which can be "out of phase." We learn
Karol Mikuli
from Karol Mikuli, a prominent student of Chopin, that "In keeping time Chopin was inexorable, and some readers will be surprised to learn that the metronome never left the piano." Mikuli's comment is applicable both to a discussion of the tempo rubato and Chopin's overarching bent toward Classicism, which for me includes basic, if not rigid, adherence to a unifying tempo. Sectional changes such as the ones cited above demand not a new tempo but rather a change of mood or character. 

Friday, October 18, 2019

Sight Reading at the Piano: An Acquired Skill

     My student wants to play chamber music, but doesn't trust his sight-reading skills. They are in fact, he says, non-existent. He is not a born sight reader, but his ear is good. I've found over the years that most pianists are proficient in one, but not both of these skills. Of course, there are a few who have both skills. We are allowed to dislike these people very much.
      When someone is a good sight-reader, it means they are able to bring the score to life at first look,
making it sound like the piece. Some pianists, I've noticed, think that sight-reading means being able to read music. If one can read music, of course, one is using the eyes to do so. But poking out notes a few at a time is not what I call sight reading. A good sight reader learns to automatically associate the passage on the page with its location on the keyboard without passing through the intellect. This is the crux of sight reading.
     Now for an about face. There is really no such thing as sight reading, that is if one has at least some experience with notation. By that I mean the
process of reading music fluently can be reduced to simply recognizing a finite (probably?) number of patterns, repeated over and over again in various permutations. I know, this is not really very helpful. There are, however, exercise volumes addressing this very concept, deadly dull, mind-numbing whole pages of patterns to play repeatedly. Never mind. You don't need them.
     But do learn to recognize patterns. Our common practice music is made up largely of
scales and arpeggios. Look for these. Our music is also largely made up of tertian harmony, so learn to feel shapes of chords and their inversions. This will help with Alberti figures, too. 
     If you want to systematically work to improve your sight-reading skill, here is a plan:
     1. Do it. Every day. Set aside ten minutes of practice time. Really. Every day. I know it is not satisfying to have to do something that seems
incomplete. Keep scores handy that are much easier than you are capable of actually playing. A hymnal is a good place to start, as hymns are mostly homophonic. Or Anna Magdalena Song Book. Or easier sonatinas or other Classical era teaching pieces.
     2. Scan. Before beginning, look through the piece. Look for any surprises, i.e., change of key or meter, technical challenges. I do this myself  when someone hands me something I don't know.
     3. Tempo. Decide on a tempo that
accommodates the quickest note values.
     4. Continue. Begin to play keeping track of the pulses and don't vary. If something goes wrong, don't stop. Go on to the next beat or the next measure. If this happens often, the tempo may be too fast.
     5. Focus. Keep eyes on the page and don't look down. There are many great blind pianists, so we know it is not necessary to look at our hands. Did I say keep eyes on the page? This is important.
     6. Anticipate. As you are already keeping eyes on the page anyway, you might as well look ahead. It doesn't help to continue to stare at what you've just played. This is particularly wise at ends of lines.
     7. Find a partner to read with. This is a good
way to force yourself to continue. A partner who reads well and is willing to play simpler music with you is ideal. There are also collections of teacher/student four-hand pieces. (I've published some of these myself for just this purpose. Look for them in the column at the right.)
     For this study, it is okay to "sight read" the selection two or three times. And as always, try to see everything—dynamics, articulation—and enjoy the music.

Thursday, September 12, 2019


     I was delighted recently to receive a thoughtful response to my essay on the value of etudes ("Scales, Arpeggios..."). My correspondent argues that "most exercises are NOT training for strength, but rather they are more NEUROMUSCULAR in
nature." And he has a use for exercises. I'm glad he agrees that strength training is not the objective. I suspect this is a forest-for-the-trees situation. But I think it's worth working through the concepts.
     Unfortunately, the impression many students and teachers take away from exercises has to do with strength training. The two most ubiquitous composers of etudes, Hanon and Czerny, have created a strength and 
Charles-Louis Hanon
finger-independence cult. In the preface to his 60 Exercises, Hanon states that "The fourth and fifth fingers are almost useless for lack of special exercises for these fingers, which are always weaker than the rest." There is nothing wrong with the fourth and fifth fingers unless at some point they've been slammed
in a car door. Our job at the keyboard is to learn how to use them according to their design. (Making the fingers feel "strong" is addressed elsewhere in these pages.) Further, he instructs students to "lift the fingers high." This is pointless and possibly dangerous, but again that is a different topic. The fingers are not physiologically independent of one another but can be made to sound that way.

     Czerny, on the other hand, gives almost no
Carl Czerny
instructions on how to master his studies—just play them. Some of the titles in The Art of Finger Dexterity, though, give hints as to what he is thinking: "Action of the Fingers, Quiet Hand." One of my favorites is titled, "The Passing Under of the Thumb." This isn't really about strength, but it is one of the old wives' tales that have come down to us. The most efficient use of the thumb is not achieved by "passing under." (Thumb crossing is discussed elsewhere.) I often wonder what studies the five-year-old prodigy practiced. (Doesn't he resemble Schubert?)

     But my correspondent's main point of contention, which he argues ever so politely, is that exercises are useful because they are not music. "They are NEUROMUSCULAR in
nature." "Technique," he says, "is in the brain, not the body." The first half of that statement is right on point. Yes, we think first. But we think about what the body needs to learn. This is what I call practicing on purpose, working into an automatic response the appropriate technical solutions which we first have to conceive of.  Everything we play is, of course, neuromuscular. We rely on physical conditioning, particularly in speed. He points out that students have "too many distractions" in a piece of music: "reading, tone productions, balance, phrasing, tempo." If he really wants to play unmusically (I'm sure he doesn't), he can do that in passages in a piece of music just as well as in an exercise.
     And this is really what I'm talking about. When I say ignore exercises in favor of music, I mean select challenging passages in the music to use as etudes. This might be a scale passage in one hand, an arpeggio, two measures of double notes or an octave group. In so doing, we have a head start on a piece we really want to play. If you master Hanon, say, you have, well, an exercise that trained your hands to play that exercise. This will not necessarily transfer to a piece of music. 
     "With exercises," my correspondent states, " we can revel in the beauties of pure technique." We can do that in technical excerpts from music, too. If a student has a problem in a particular passage, that becomes an etude independent of the rest of the piece. Personally, I see no reason to ever play ugly; we should always be aware of the quality of sound and maybe even articulation and dynamics. That's not too much to think about in, say, a four-measure excerpt. I have the sinking feeling that many teachers run to the shelf to select a book of exercises because that seems easier than thinking about what technical help the student needs for a particular piece. 
     I can hear my teacher now: "Dear, you can play whatever you want as long as you play it correctly." Of course, if you know how to play your exercise correctly, then you don't need to play it.

Wednesday, September 11, 2019

Arthritis and the Piano, Repost

Here is a repost of one of the most popular posts:
     In a forum for pianists, a physical therapist remarked that one of her clients, a doctor, had
been advised to stop playing the piano because of painful arthritis. There ensued much discussion about whether or not piano playing causes, exacerbates or alleviates symptoms. My advice in these circumstances is—keeping in mind that I am not a medical doctor—first get a thorough evaluation from medical experts. After that, proceed gently using methods that do not interfere with the body’s natural design.
     My response to the poster was: Your client should find a teacher who understands how the
playing mechanism works. In brief: The fingers do not act by lifting away from the hand, but rather operate as a connected unit with the hand and forearm, through a forearm rotation. This particular action is a natural, quick and easy one and has proven to be therapeutic. It's not possible to play the piano without it; trying to thwart it causes injury. There is a series of DVDs published by the Dorothy Taubman Institute that might be a good starting point. Avoid at all costs exercises by Czerny, Hanon and the others. They are at best a waste of time and at worst can create a misunderstanding of what is needed to play.
     One possible approach for this pianist would be to explore how the forearm works. She could try this: Lift the arm up from the elbow and notice the
hand is in a karate-chop position with the heel of your hand facing the keys. In order to play at all we have to turn (rotate) the forearm toward the thumb. When this movement is not understood, it is possible that unnecessary tension will exacerbate the arthritis symptoms. This rotation gets the forearm behind the finger that is playing and is the
source of power and speed. But it is only a tool. We move laterally up and down the keys using other mechanisms which I don't have time to describe here. We play the piano with our fingers in alignment with the wrist hand and arm. Also, it is a mistake to think of originating a movement from the wrist because then the fingers, more often than not, turn to wet noodles.

      It was suggested that she study Czerny and Hanon, which many people use with enthusiasm—even today in the face of what we now know. My feeling is that if you know how to play them technically, then you don't need them. Their premise is that we train for endurance and physical strength similar to the way weight-lifters train. This is a fallacy. We train refined muscles for coordination. A small child is "strong" enough to play the piano. Repetition training of the sort advocated by the authors of these exercises falls too easily into the category of mindless rote.
     I think it's more important to examine how this arthritic pianist moves at the keyboard, rather than the issue of what repertoire to play. In general, though, she may want to take care not to extend
her hands to extremes. That is, avoid stretched intervals, particularly octave positions with a minor second in the index finger. And of course, if something causes discomfort, don't do it. Since she's a doctor, she may have an advantage.
     Some pianists argue that they don't use forearm rotation, so I repeat: Lift your forearm up from where it hangs at your side. Lift from the elbow. Do nothing else. Your hand will not be in a playing position. In order to be in a playing position you must rotate your forearm in the elbow axle toward the thumb. This is the first example of forearm rotation as an UNDERLYING TOOL. It is only one of many refinements we use. It is not  the only way to play the piano. But you can't play without it. Moreover, understanding forearm rotation as an underlying tool contributes to an efficient and fluent technique.           
     In all fairness, I think I understand where the rotation doubters come from. They can see applications in Alberti figures because that’s rather obvious. If they play naturally and with ease and if they had facility at an early age, it is difficult for them to understand what is underneath and why it's important for people with less natural facility to discover for themselves what works. 
     I also can understand why they might think movements originate from the wrist. In a well-coordinated technique in which lateral movements are incorporated—walking arm and shaping—the wrist moves in ovate gestures, giving the appearance of being the motor behind the fingers. The piano is played with the fingers in collaboration with the wrist. It is not useful to think of initiating the movement from the wrist,
but rather allowing the wrist to participate. This takes some deliberation. And unless a pianist is willing to give it thought, the understanding will never come. 
     So I say to pianists faced with arthritic pain, find ways to use the playing mechanism in the manner to which it was born. That is, use it according to its design. Never mind the rotation doubters. It’s possible to make music at the piano from many different points of view, or from no point of view at all, the latter approach being the most common. I choose to make use of knowledge. If the choice is between ease or difficulty, I choose ease. This knowledge can be therapeutic.