“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.”

Saturday, November 18, 2017

Bach Fugue C-Sharp Major Book One: No Stretching

 My student complained of feeling "stretchy" in measures eleven and thirty-three. He also felt "slippery" on the black keys, which is not good when playing in seven sharps.
     A show of hands please: Is it ever acceptable to feel stretched? That's right. The answer is never. Remember, the hand can be open, flexible, without opening to an extreme, extreme being the operative word. The solution to this student's problem lies in re-thinking the fingering as follows:
Bach Fugue in C-Sharp Major, Book One MM 11 and 53.
Notice the angle of the hand on the third beat.

Trying to balance the fingers along the razor's edge in what is essentially a black key study can be challenging. Again, the solution is simple. Angle the right hand slightly to the right in order to provide more finger flesh to the key. This will feel more secure. Don't try a perpendicular approach to the keys. 

Friday, November 17, 2017

For Collaborative Pianists (And Soloists, Too)

     Yesterday I found myself enthralled by historic
performances of vocal music—historic but still sonically palatable. There was the complete Turandot with the dream cast of Nilsson, Tebaldi, Bjorling and Tozzi. Then I heard the first act of Butterfly with Scotto and Bergonzi,
although, these great singers notwithstanding, that performance is molded by the able baton of Sir John Barbirolli. I was struck suddenly by how important the conductor really is. (Duh.) No, really. 

The conductor does much more than wave a stick until the music stops, then turn around and bow. He/she accommodates the singers in such a way as to allow the music to expand and contract as required in order to make its dramatic points. But wait, there's more. He also protects the balance between soloist and orchestra in such a way as to provide clearance for the voices but without yielding structural support. And, wait for it, he also voices the choirs within the orchestra in order to give credence to the composer's color palette, which in the final analysis makes it all work. That's a lot. And none of it is possible without technical command of the available forces.
     This is on my mind because a student asked recently about help becoming a more proficient collaborative pianist. We do all of the above conductor's tasks, but with our bare hands. And without a firm technical foundation, success will be ellusive. Have a look at The Collaborative Pianist's Guide to Practical Technique, I saidfor stepping stones to becoming the best conductor at the piano possible. Here you will find examples from standard repertoire that hone pianistic skills while integrating a variety of styles into your repertoire. This is the study that helps develop color and variety in solo repertoire, as well.

Sunday, October 29, 2017

Etude in Double Notes: Please Don't Isolate Fingers

     A student writes asking for advice about playing an etude that is clearly designed to teach the playing of double notes. Her approach at first was to employ only fingers, which is a mistake because the fingers do not act alone. Separating the fingers from the hand/arm alliance produces considerable strain, especially in speed.
Double-Note Etude

     Instead of thinking of individual intervals played with separate fingers, consider shaping the intervals in pairs. The thumb likes to play in the direction of in, toward the fall board but still at the outer edge of the key. So, the sixth feels slightly in and the third slightly out, toward the torso. These are very small gestures, a sort of moving in place, so to speak. 
     Some might argue that down and up motions are called for. This can work, but the inclination is to make down and up gestures too large.
     Having said all this, I ask why bother with this etude? If you want to play double notes look at passages in Beethoven's Appassionata or the Schumann Toccata. You don't need to play the entire work, just the salient measures. If those are too challenging, find passages in other repertoire to work on. Playing etudes like the above is a little like practicing X in order to do Y.

Saturday, October 7, 2017

Chopin Nocturnes

I'm happy to announce the publication of my newest book:

Available now at CreateSpace E-store.

Playing Chopin successfully is a lot like being both singer and accompanist— sorry, collaborative pianist. Achieve a successful collaboration between the hands with imagination and an understanding of style, and colorful scenes galore emerge along the way. In this volume we consider the technical means by which a happy collaboration between the hands becomes second nature. In my experience, if there is an impediment to a successful performance of the Nocturnes, that impediment originates in the left hand. If the fingering and its technical logic are not well understood, the right-hand fioriture have no place to take root, and more often than not die on the vine. How do we negotiate an accompaniment pattern that seems to tease the hand into awkward stretches? How do we organize a melisma of twenty-seven notes against six? And how on earth do we interpret all those grace-notes attached to appoggiaturas and other pesky symbols? With over two hundred musical examples and references to selected video demonstrations, all of these questions and more are answered here as they occur in nineteen Nocturnes.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Practicing Scales and Arpeggios

     A student asked me recently about the
importance of practicing scales and arpeggios. "Do I really have to," was the gist of her plea. I was happy to oblige with the answer, no, of course not.
     Years ago, when I was a new university professor, this answer got me into some controversy with the local music teachers. Word got around that I didn't "believe" in scales, as if scales were somehow decreed in the Ten Commandments. Well, I had some explaining to do to avoid being excommunicated from the music community.
     Here's what I think. We have to know all the major and melodic minor scales as a matter of basic keyboard topography. The thumb crossings should be well worked in and the coordination between the hands second nature. After that, though, practicing scales for "technique" is a waste of time. Or let's say it's a delay tactic. It's
something that can be done without thinking, the operative root here is think. Scales and arpeggios rarely, if ever, appear in repertoire they way we practice them in isolation. When we encounter them in music we have to re-learn them anyway.  

     So, if you want to practice scales, practice them in music you want to play. We pause here for a message from the sponsor. I have put together just such a volume: The Pianist's Guide to Practical Scales and Arpeggios, As they Occur in Pieces You Want to Play. The excerpts are the result of rummaging through a significant amount of repertoire—Bach, all of the Haydn, Mozart, 
Beethoven and Schubert sonatas, as well as selected fantasies, variations, concertos and occasional pieces. There are also fragments from Chopin, Brahms and Debussy, although what was once ubiquitous in the Classical period becomes in later periods less so. 
The repertoire encompasses middle intermediate to advanced levels. Of course, the preponderance of material lies in the least complicated keys, although there are examples in theoretical keys such as G-sharp major, D-sharp and C-flat, keys the indignity of which only pianists bear; string players are generally excused, except in certain orchestral works by Mahler or Richard Strauss.
     Have a look. I'd be glad to know what you think. It's available here.

Monday, September 11, 2017

CHOPIN DEMYSTIFIED: Problem Solving in the Nocturnes

Announcing a new volume to be available soon:

Here is an excerpt from the introduction:
In this volume we consider the technical means by which a happy collaboration between the hands becomes second nature. In my experience, if there is an impediment to a successful performance, that impediment originates in the left hand. If the fingering and its technical logic are not well understood, the right-hand fioriture have no place to take root, and more often than not die on the vine. If you will pardon a metaphor shift, when the coat-hanger is shapeless and weak, the garment has nothing to cling to.
     Recently, a student brought the Nocturne Op. 9, No. 2, that expressive and, well, ubiquitous exercise that all students seem to take up and all teachers must endure. If there is fault, it is of course not with the work itself, but rather with the approach to it. My student complained of confusion as to where to place all of those “extra” notes, the ones that don’t really have rhythmic specificity. I responded, cipher that I am, that the right hand is confused because the left hand jabs aimlessly at notes in what I call a hunt-and-peck manner. (Those readers old enough to remember manual typewriters will identify with that description.) The left hand hasn’t discovered its path. It doesn’t know how to group those chords or where the bass notes belong. It, therefore, hasn’t learned to use each eighth as a direct spring-board for each succeeding eighth. This is what I mean when I say notes must proceed easily and naturally from one to the next, as if each propelled the other inevitably. When the first bass-note sounds, the hand must already know its next landing place. You wouldn’t jump off a diving board without first looking to see if there is water in the pool.
     Chopin advised that in this nocturne, in order to avoid sounding
like a waltz or worse—an Austrian oom-pah band, the “bass be practiced first by itself, divided between the two hands; and each of the chords following the main bass beats in the 12/8 should sound like a chorus of guitars…This should be done piano and in a strict time, maintaining an absolutely steady allegretto without the 12/8 lapsing into triplets.”   This is not a bad idea, and I blush at my impertinence. But the master stops short of telling his student the technical how-tos and where-fors. In this example, as in virtually all of the examples we shall examine, the technical solutions tend to be variations on similar ideas having to do with grouping notes together for ease and selecting fingering that allows the hand to move fluently, without feeling overly extended.

 Once the accompanist left-hand knows its job well, we shall 
introduce it to the singing right-hand. It is at this point we find ways to accommodate the seemingly arbitrary fioriture, the melodic embellishments that distinguish Chopin from all other masters of concert music for the piano. We learn how to manage an accompaniment figure that seems to tease the hand into awkward stretches. We explore ways of organizing melismas of 27 notes against 6. We learn how to interpret all those dangling grace-notes, wantonly attached to arpeggiated figures, not to mention all those other enigmatic symbols.