“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, August 4, 2018

Practical Technique for Pianists

The Pianist's Guide to Practical Technique
Put away studies by Czerny. Put him and the others into a closet and turn the key. Instead, use these passages from music you intend to play—music by master composers—as building blocks for technique and musicianship. Suppose for a moment that we don’t accept the notion that a good piano technique requires strength training, or that it is even really possible to “strengthen” the fingers to any noticeable degree, in the way that authors of yore would have us believe. Those concepts indeed have long ago been discredited. Suppose, too, we discard the notion that independence of fingers is a physical action and not instead a musical objective. Well, you might ask, for what then do we train? Let's use our knowledge of how the hand was designed to work in order to train for refined coordination. In this volume you will find ample material for just such a study. Here are threads of Bach Inventions, early Haydn episodes and mainstream Mozart. Here are passages from the grandeur of late Beethoven and the Romantic exuberance of Schumann and Chopin. Here are morsels from standard repertoire that, if used as part of your daily regimen, will at the very least provide a colossal head start on the building of skills, musicianship and a catalog of music you want to perform.

Sunday, June 24, 2018

Alfred Cortot and "The Poet Speaks"

Alfred Cortot
     My pianist friend reminded me the other day of the great early 20th century French pianist Alfred Cortot. He made many recordings, some more accurate than others, but always with the musical objectives in tact. Don't bother with his editions of Chopin Etudes with endless examples of mindless exercises meant to strengthen the fingers. They are at best a waste of time and potentially harmful. Personally, I doubt he ever used them himself, as he was a prodigy. 
     Still, he was a fine musician and eloquent teacher. Here is his explication of the final piece in Schumann's Kinderszenen, Der Dichter Spricht: Cortot and "The Poet Speaks."

Thursday, June 21, 2018

Bach-Philipp and Issues of Pedaling

J. S. Bach
     My far-flung student, the one who prefers not to Skype but rather send videos with written questions, startled me with some unusual pedal issues. He is playing the Isador Philipp transcription of the "Little" G Minor organ fugue of Bach. He complained of cramping in his calf as the result of pedaling in this piece. Well, I've never before heard of leg injuries from playing the piano. Since I
Isador Philipp
didn't have a clear view in the video of his foot, I responded first to his written statements with some basic pedaling techniques in Bach.

      In unadulterated Bach, which this isn't, pedaling is almost non-existent. That is, we pedal in such a way as to avoid blurring textures. So, we can use pedal on a single chord for warmth or accent; we can use pedal to assist in making a legato connection in a melodic leap (rarely necessary). In Philipp's transcription, I would begin with these ideas in mind, particularly regarding clarity of textures—where he allows for that possibility. We can think of this piece as more romantic than Baroque, imagining a large organ resonating in a cathedral.
     Now, for the more pertinent issues of pain in the leg. Remember, playing the piano is easy and doesn't hurt, not even when using the pedals.  The ball of the foot remains on the pedal, rising only to the point where the dampers release. More than that is overkill. With a properly adjusted pedal, the movement of the foot is almost imperceptible. The basic pedal technique is the so-called syncopated pedal in which the pedal acts on a note to sustain it while the hand moves to a different note, at which time the pedal is reactivated. A flutter pedal is used to release some of the accumulated sound, but not all of it. You can experiment with this technique by playing a chord, putting the pedal down, releasing the keys just to near the point of sound and allowing your foot to come up only part way, not all the way to a complete release of sound. 
     Listening to the sound you make is, of course, always a good
approach, particularly apropos of clarity. I think most advanced pianists pedal "by ear." That is, listening for the degree to which sonorities overlap and how much of that is desirable. If there are passages that are particularly confounding, you can take a technical approach to the use of the pedal, deciding when or if it should be applied and on exactly which note it should be depressed. Do this slowly and thoughtfully, gradually working in the pedal technique the way you would other techniques.
     I concluded that his piano has to be some how out of adjustment if he can't depress the pedal easily with the ball of his foot. He should not have to stomp on it.

Wednesday, June 6, 2018

Beethoven's Waldstein Sonata: Food for Thought

     One of the questions tossed at me during my doctoral orals had to do with the importance of music theory when making interpretive
decisions. In other words, why bother to analyze a score? Isn't this a little bit like having to understand how a car works in order to drive it, as one colleague put it?
     If in performance our objective is to convey meaning or emotion, then one question is, whose meaning or emotion are we offering? Is it our own, the performer's point of view? Or the composer's? Both? If the performer is the interpreter, then what is he/she interpreting? For me, performance begins with the score. There we find the composer's precise intentions, that is, precise as notation and words with all of their limitations allow. The notes and other markings are surface directions; in order to go deeper, we performers have to think.
   This, it seems to me, is why we need to understand how the piece was put together structurally. Where are the sign posts, the guard rails, the inn at the side of the road? In Beethoven's time a diminished seventh was still a scary chord. A deceptive resolution was still a surprise. In other words, we need to learn how to take the scenic route and enjoy its offerings. Stay off the interstate and much more will be revealed. And no, we don't have to be an auto mechanic to drive a car. We just have to know how to tell it where to go.
     So, I propose some questions. What does it mean that, in his Waldstein Sonata Beethoven  repeats the opening statement on B-flat, pianissimo? How incongruous is that? We are prepared for sunshine on a field of poppies and instead we get a small lake. Soon, with all those borrowings from the parallel minor, we get a sliver of doom, perhaps precipitation, on the horizon, only to be saved again by the sun. What do we think about the choice of keys? Is that incongruous B-flat a hint that things are not going to be as expected? What should we—could we—do about the second subject appearing in E Major instead of the usual dominant? E major seems to me even warmer, after  C major and especially after that soggy B-flat.
     Hah! I'll bet you thought I would tell you the answers, as if there were absolute answers. No, this is my way of thinking aloud, my way of getting the engine started. To view one person's analysis of the first movement, visit Waldstein. And do enjoy the view.


Monday, May 28, 2018

Haydn Sinfonias for String Quartet

     Yes, I know this is off topic. But, I hasten to point out that many of my followers play string instruments, as do I. So it may be of interest to those folks that I have been at it again, transcribing from one venue to another, which would be considered quite normal in Haydn's day.
Joseph Haydn
Many of the symphonies of Joseph    Haydn, delightful as they are with wind doublings, work very well as string quartets. Titled "Sinfonias" by the composer, these charming morsels provide an informing glimpse into the musical development of one of the Classical period's great composers, the composer credited with inventing the string quartet. Do we really need more Haydn quartets, someone asked. Well, I respond, does one really need a slice of Sacher torte or a glass of schnapps? Play through these movements and travel along in time with the composer as he almost single-handedly invents the classical style.

     Have a look at these five Sinfonias, full score and individual parts, at Amazon: Haydn Sinfonias for String Quartet.

Monday, May 21, 2018

Jakob Gimpel Plays Johann Strauss: With the Help of Tom the Cat

   Every now and then I find myself reminiscing. This, I'm told, is a symptom of age. Never mind, I say. As long as I don't stay there in the past, it's okay to visit. And if I'm repeating myself, well just nod politely and pretend interest.
Jakob Gimpel
   When my undergraduate piano teacher, Muriel Kerr, died, her replacement was Jakob Gimpel. Gimpel was a distinguished Polish pianist with an established European career, although he lived in Los Angeles. I hadn't heard of him, though, until I met him that fall of 1963 when he took over Kerr's studio. I hadn't heard of him, but I had indeed heard him without knowing it.
   Gimpel was the go-to pianist in Hollywood. He provided the piano in "Gaslight," in which he appears on screen, "Possessed," "Letter from an Unknown Woman," "Strange Fascination," "The Story of Three Loves," "Planet of the Apes" and "The Mephisto Waltz." But perhaps most notably were his performances in two Tom and Jerry cartoons, one of which, "Johann Mouse," won an Academy Award for best short.
   I had been admiring Gimpel’s virtuosity, albeit unwittingly, since childhood. Some afternoons in the summer of my tenth year I would be allowed to visit a school friend, Marlene Harkelroad, who lived on my street several houses down. Her family owned a television, a rarity in those days. My mother was suspicious of the contraption, so these cherished occasions would be rare. Marlene and I watched “Sheriff John’s Lunch Brigade” and ate along with one of the sheriff’s many cartoon characters, Crusader Rabbit. The sheriff was a remarkable man, as he could see into TV land and would know if we had finished our milk and made our beds. If we were good, that is, if we didn’t talk back to our mothers, Sheriff John played special cartoons for us, one of which was  “Johann Mouse.” 
"Johann Mouse"
   Narrated by the distinguished actor Hans Conreid, the cartoon begins: "This is the story of a waltzing mouse. His name was Johann and he lived in Vienna in the home of Johann Strauss."  Jerry is the waltzing mouse who can’t resist coming out of his mouse hole when Strauss plays the piano. While the maestro is away, Tom, a cat with homicidal aspirations, learns to play the piano in six easy lessons in order to entice jerry back out into the open. It’s Jakob Gimpel who provides Tom’s virtuosity with his own extravagant arrangements of “The Blue Danube,” “Kaiser-Walzer” and “Trisch, Trasch Polka.” I didn’t realize it at the time, but it was Tom’s remarkable piano playing—after only six lessons—that gave me the courage to stamp my little foot and demand that I be allowed the same. If you've made your bed and finished your milk, you can watch some of it here: Tom and Jerry