“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, 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.


Wednesday, August 26, 2020

Great Pianists of the 20th Century


If you find yourself at a loss for something to do, have a listen to
 Chopin's Berceuse  as played by:

1. Benno Moiseiwitsch, rec. 1916 (pupil of Leschetitzky) 

2. Josef Hofmann, 1918 (pupil of Anton Rubinstein) at 4:02

3. Wilhelm Backhaus, 1925 (pupil of Eugen d'Albert) at 7:18

4. Alfred Cortot, 1926 (pupil of Louis-Joseph Diémer) at 11:08

5. Ignaz Friedman, 1928 (pupil of Leschetitzky) at 15:30

6. Mark Hambourg, 1928 (pupil of Leschetitzky) at 18:57

7. Eileen Joyce, 1939 (pupil of Tobias Matthay) at 22:34

8. Mieczyslaw Horszowski, 1940 (pupil of Leschetitzky) at 26:48

9. Solomon (Cutner), 1945 (pupil of Mathilde Verne) at 30:58

10. Arthur Rubinstein, 1958 (pupil of Karl Heinrich Barth, who was a pupil of Hans von Bülow, Hans von Bronsart and Carl Tausig) at 36:04

Friday, July 31, 2020

Enslavement at the Piano

     I recently came across an article in a national magazine in which the author advocates what he calls "grounding." His idea is that in order to facilitate leaping in both hands, the right hand should cling to certain melody notes in an attempt to produce a finger legato, "grounding" them. The theory seems to be that by grounding one hand, the other will be more accurate. The piece under scrutiny here is Brahms' Variations on a Theme of Robert Schumann, Op. 9, Var. VI.
     He writes: "If the pianist keeps the melodic notes of the right hand legato during the leaps of the left hand, the pianist has effectively 'grounded' this passage. For those with large hands, the entire melodic contour of the right hand can be grounded." My first thought was, what about us smaller-handed folks?
     No, not really. My first thought was that this professor of piano doesn't understand about leaping. What he calls being "grounded", I call being enslaved. As much as I applaud his attempt to find rational, physical solutions to technical problems, I wish he were more in tune with the design of the playing apparatus, what it can do easily and what it shouldn't do. In the example below, he suggests using all of the up-stemmed sixteenths to form a finger legato. As the intervals become wider, the challenge is still greater even for a large hand, I would think.

Brahms Variations on a Theme
of Robert Schumann, Op. 9. Var. VI
As Printed
     Holding down the notes with up-stems (sixteenths, I hasten to repeat), causes an unnecessary stretch between the melody notes and tends to lock the hand into an open position. A more efficient way to solve this problem is to use
the note before the leap as a springboard to get the distance. I've indicated these leaps with arrows. After the leap, land on the next starting note. I've indicated these groups with slurs. This works in both hands, which, by the way, feel as if they are making the same gestures because they move in opposite directions. The pedal will provide ample connection between melody notes. I've included some possible fingerings, though there are other possibilities.
An Efficient Solution
        Other examples in the article would benefit from a reconsideration of more efficient ways to move: Leaping chords, unison scales (a grouping issue), alternating hands and octaves. "Grounding" is for me an unfortunate image, as it suggests being stuck in the keys. It is in fact easier and more efficient to move than it is to stretch.

Wednesday, July 22, 2020

Schubert Sonatinas for String Quartet

     It occurred to me at the dawn of our universal shut-in that the Schubert Sonatinas for Piano and Violin needed an incarnation as a string quartet. So, for my pianist readers who are also string players, here is a link to said score. I assume that we shall all be able to safely gather together at some point in the not too distant future. The parts are available individually or in a volume (cheaper) that requires manual separation by means of minor violence:

Wednesday, July 8, 2020

Memorizing Piano Music

     A student asks: "Were you taught memorization skills anywhere on your piano journey? What do you think is most important when memorizing music?"
     No, none of my teachers taught how to memorize. To them, memorization was a nebulous thing, a topic not to see the light of day.
     If there's one "most" important issue, it would have to be the inclusion of all of the memories. I think it's a mistake to rely solely on digital memory, which is what mindless repetition gives us. So when memorizing, I suggest removing as much digital memory as possible as soon as
possible, which will force the engagement of the ear, eye and the most important of these, the intellect, which includes grasping musical intent and structural details such as harmonic vocabulary and form.
     When I was a student I memorized by accident, not on purpose. It's important to notice the difference. The former consists mostly of rote
learning, training the digital memory; the latter stresses thought and imagination. I probably noticed more than I realized, having been steeped at the time in intensive music theory studies. I tell students—and myself—to say out loud, "Now I'm going to memorize." They should notice whatever they can—this note is the same as that note one octave higher. Or this passage is in or around the tonic. It isn't necessary to make a formal analysis. I notice beginnings and endings—phrases, periods—and make sure I can start at any of these junctions. 
     My favorite strategy for testing memory is to first play through a passage excruciatingly slowly. This removes much of the digital memory and reveals weaknesses in the other senses. It also gives time to imagine what comes next so that it can be played on purpose, deliberately and not on auto pilot. Even better, and much harder, is to think through the piece away from the piano, seeing your hands playing on the keys. This reinforces visual and aural memory and also will 
reveal problem spots. Certainly, in performance we rely on the automatic responses of motor memory, but without having trained the other senses, too, it's like flying without a net.