“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, 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

Wednesday, May 2, 2018

Khachaturian Toccata: Polyrhythms

Aram Khachatrurian

A student writes that she struggles in Khachaturian’s Toccata with the polyrhythms in the slow section—mainly measure 110.
Khatchaturian Toccata MM 109-110
   Without seeing what she's doing, I can only make some general suggestions. I'm guessing her problem is with the combined rhythms and not so much the technique. That is, she is able to play the hands separately.
   On the first beat of M 110, notice that the right hand is duple, the 16th-note triplet equals one eighth. So in the RH you have the equivalent of 2 eighths. Against that in the LH you have an eighth-note triplet, which makes this first beat 2 against three:
Khachaturian Toccata M 110
Try it that way first, then add the extra 16ths. The hands come together pretty much as printed, at least close enough.

   The 3rd beat of M 110 is also 2 against three, but with 16ths, so it feels faster. One way to solve this is to first set a constant eighth-note pulse and fill in the spaces once that pulse is in your bones:
Khachaturian Toccata M 110
   I'll keep you posted as to whether this helped.

Monday, April 23, 2018

Beethoven Op. 111: Double Trills in the Arietta

 Notice the Evil Smirk

A student writes asking for help with this pesky passage in the trill variation. He wants to know how to practice it without damaging his fourth finger, which, no doubt, feels inadequate. This is a very good question indeed.
                                           Beethoven Op. 111, M 121

     I use a trill of a 4th to a 6th, 2-4 to 1-5. (Some folks have tried to trill in fifths, which can be done, but is not worth the trouble. I also think that is not what is meant.) Since this pianist expresses concern about his fourth finger, I conclude that he is isolating fingers, separating them from each other, trying to make a "clean" trill. 
     I suggested he not think fingers so much as shaping, that is, a tiny (tiny) move in for the thumb (1-5) and back out (tiny) for the 2-4. He should practice it rhythmically feeling pulses, remembering that, even though he's identified a technical issue, it isn't what is featured here. So, show the bells in the left hand. If truth be told, and please don't yell at me, a tremolo works just fine, and it wouldn't surprise me to learn that the master played it that way. It'll be one of my first questions in the great beyond.

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.