“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.”
Plato

Wednesday, July 17, 2019

Scales, Arpeggios and, What? Again? Exercises

     A student writes: "It seems playing technically difficult passages
is only a matter of finding the correct motions. It also seems that most great composers wanted first and foremost to be piano teachers to all posterity, using their compositions (rather cryptically) for that purpose!"
     My Response: You are quite right in supposing that solving technical problems is about finding out how to move at the keyboard, keeping in mind how the playing mechanism was designed to work. Mindless rote is not the answer. I don't agree, though, that all composers wrote music to be teachers, at least not after J.S. Bach. Most composers of the great piano music that has come down to us were themselves accomplished pianists. They wrote music for themselves to play, by and large, incorporating into their pieces the technical devices that came naturally to them. We present-day pianists get to learn all of these techniques. 
     But this student allows as how he had other questions on his mind:  "I'm pondering whether I should get Seymour Bernstein's "With Your Own Two Hands." It seems [that] genuinely interesting remarks are mixed with other things I'm not sure about. For example [he] recommends some form of holding exercises and thumb under for scales. He also recommends scales & arps. I can attest first hand, that playing the Czerny Op. 821 made a big difference in my technique. Bernstein [thinks scales] are 'emancipating.'"   
     My response: Seymour Bernstein was an interesting character and you might enjoy his book. (I haven't read it.) He wrote to me  some time ago asking about aspects of technique that he didn't seem to have considered. "Holding" exercises such as those perpetrated by
Dohnányi are some of the most destructive ever conceived and are evidence that he didn't understand the role of the forearm in piano playing. The use of the thumb in scales has also been misunderstood. (For a video demonstration, see above under the tab iDemos and select "forearm rotation." The thumb crossing is at about 430.) 
     I'll put it this way, and forgive me for sounding like a broken record: Anyone who advocates any exercises, including scales for technique, probably doesn't really understand that we don't train for physical strength, but rather for coordination of the refined muscles. We are not like athletes who train large muscle groups for maximum effort. It takes very little "strength" to play the piano; a small child can do it. It's more effective to practice technique in the music you want to play. Everything is there. 
     You say Czerny op. 821 advanced your technique. I find this curious. I wonder if you had spent the same amount of time on similar passages in, say, Mozart or Beethoven, your technique might also have advanced, the difference being that you would then have some repertoire under your belt. Incidentally, In 65 years of
Carl Czerny Op. 821
playing the piano, I have never come across a passage such as the Czerny example you attach (Op. 821, No. 143). So, I ask, why should I waste my time practicing something that I very likely will never need. I will learn to do that if and when the music demands it. It's unreasonable to expect to be able to do Y because you did X.   

     Scales are important more as an aspect of orientation on the keyboard and for keyboard harmony than for developing technique. Once major and melodic minor keys are understood and thumb-crossings coordinated, it is not necessary to practice them routinely for technique. Rarely, if ever, do scales occur in music the way we learn them in the practice room. I printed in my book the scales plan I once learned because some students feel the need to have a routine for a period of time until they are well worked-in. Sixths and tenths are helpful to train the ear for precision between the hands; it's easier to hear if the hands are out of sync than when playing in octaves.
     So, the short answer is that you don't need to practice scales and arpeggios routinely for technique if you know them well. Exercises,
which were originally designed to develop "strength and finger independence," are at best misguided and possibly harmful. So, toss out those books. Solve the technique in the music you want to play. If you want to be emancipated by practicing scales, practice the scale passages in the scales excerpt book.

Friday, June 28, 2019

Exercises for the Piano: Yes, Again

        
     A teacher posted to FaceBook a proud announcement of her new
Charles-Louis Hanon
(1858-1945)
volume of Hanon studies remade in the style of Bach, invertible counterpoint and all. She proposes that this will be preparation for  J. S. Bach. I asked her if these were meant to be concert pieces and if not, what is it about them that prepares the student for Bach. Why not play actual Bach, I asked. She replied that no, they are not concert pieces and have the same purpose as all such exercises. Needless to say, I was dismayed once again to learn that, even now, some teachers still cling to the notion that by practicing X the student will be able to play Y. Buried somewhere in this fuzzy 
thinking is the idea that it takes physical strength to play the piano and that lifting the fingers away from the hand will develop independent fingers. Both are false assertions. I felt moved to repost the following article:   

Hanon: The Virtuoso Pianist,
60 Exercises
, Table of contents

                                     

      A pianist writes: "I have been told by some pianists that Hanon's The Virtuoso Pianist, In Sixty Exercises is a waste of time....it's stupid and nonsense. One pianist even asked me, 'Do you think Tchaikovsky or Mozart played these? Throw the book away.' On the other hand, a piano student studying for her PHD in piano performance told me that she plays them every day and that she believes it helps her playing? What is the general  consensus on this? I believe if it works for you then by all means play it. However if that's the case then should all teachers teach all their students Hanon?"
     
     My response: What do you mean by works for you? When 
playing something (an exercise) that is supposed to prepare you for 

something else (a piece of music), I think it's important to ask yourself why? What is the purpose of this particular exercise?
   Mr. Hanon, who was trained as an organist, only gives metronome indications and says to repeat the exercises. He doesn't really tell us how to play the exercises, except to lift the fingers high (!). He tells us that they will produce agility, strength (!), independence of fingers and evenness.
     The mindset from which this point of view stems has largely been replaced over the years, although some still cling doggedly to it, i.e., that it takes physical strength to play the piano. It does not. (A small child can do it.) We gain power not by lifting the fingers away from the hand, which is something they weren't designed to do efficiently, but rather with the discreet participation of the
forearm. Hanon's supposition is that by lifting the fingers they will become strong and independent, but we don't train like weight lifters, who work to build mass in large muscles. Rather, we train for refined coordination. The fingers never will be independent of each other, nor need they be; they can, however, be made to sound that way.
     In short, "you can play whatever you want, dear," to quote my teacher, but once you know how to play the exercises correctly, i.e., with the participation of the forearm, there is no longer any reason to play them. In fact, there's no point in playing them at all because the technical issues can be addressed in music.
     As for the Phd candidate, that routine may serve several purposes: provide a comforting and mindless routine, a delay tactic for avoiding the real work to come or some other obsessive/compulsive purpose. In graduate school I knew a wonderful pianist who drilled scales and Hanon for hours. They were indeed perfection and she played the 4th Beethoven concerto like an angel. I asked her why she did that particular routine, and she said she enjoyed it. Well, okay, that's perhaps reason enough. At least she knew why she played them. But the same compulsion that drove her to drill those scales, and they were beautiful, drove her into some sort of breakdown, and when I last heard she had given up the piano entirely and joined a protective order of some sort. Admittedly, that is an extreme case and this particular pianist was apparently troubled. Playing Hanon won't necessarily cause so severe a reaction and probably won't case any particular harm, unless the idea of lifting fingers is taken to extremes.
     
     Later in the post someone writes:
     "Any system, method, or approach is only as good as the teacher and the student practicing. The success probably goes beyond the method. I think that if something is repetitive, and if the person practicing it is wrongly guided or self-guides, there might be harm because a wrong motion done repeatedly will hurt. At the same time, if a right motion is well-guided, then you have a well-practiced set of right motions that will serve you well."
     
      My Response:
     You are right. But just as the success goes beyond the method, so too do the failures. By failures I mean conceptual misunderstandings. Perhaps this is what you mean by practicing "wrongly." But it's more than practicing wrongly. (Please don't think I'm just being argumentative here; I'm genuinely concerned about this issue.)

     The concept inherent in exercises in general is that repetition of note patterns will create strong fingers or independent fingers or that these patterns will occur in the same way in music. These ideas date from the 1880's and have their origins in the experience of keyboard players who were steeped in harpsichord techniques. I believe Czerny and Hanon and the others were probably sincere, although I don't completely discount the notion that money was to be made off of the burgeoning piano market. (I wonder what exercises the five-year-old prodigy Carl Czerny practiced, as he had 
Tobias Matthay
(1858-1945)

not yet written his.) When Hanon, for example, was popular and adopted by so many institutions, Matthay had not yet written about the use of the forearm. Keyboard players thought primarily about lifting fingers, despite Schumann's unfortunate experience. (Google the great harpsichordist Wanda Landowska and look for the dramatic photo of her claw-like hands.)
     If you discard Hanon's "instructions," as I believe all pianists should, the exercises can be used to show how patterns can be grouped together for technical ease, how to shape. But I learned these techniques in a Mozart sonata.  If you don't believe in lifting the fingers away from the hand (as he instructs) or training for strength and therefore using repetition for endurance (wrong concepts), then I implore you to ask yourself what specifically you hope to gain by practicing Hanon.
     Let me be clear: I don't think the exercises themselves are "dangerous" and carcinogenic (LOL) but the underlying concepts that students take away are not in sync with a system of playing that uses the body efficiently, the way it was designed to be used. Students invariably take away the idea that repetition of patterns is the key to success, when the "working-in" of specific, local and correct physical movements is the key to success. By "local" I mean "what do the finger, hand, arm do in this spot to get easily and efficiently from here to there?" This, of course, requires knowledge of the working mechanism, but medical school is not at all necessary.  
     It is possible to play the piano with great success using many different points of view, or from no particular point of view at all. I choose to use a specific physical approach that allows my hands to be used according to their design. The fingers are strong and sound independent if the forearm is allowed to play its part, and there is nothing wrong with the 4th finger, just in case anyone was wondering.

Sunday, May 12, 2019

Piano Technique Books: Summer Sale










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The Collaborative Pianist's Guide To Practical Technique 

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Saturday, May 11, 2019

Staccato, Accent or Both: The Wedge vs the Dot


     
Chopin

     A pianist writes: How do you explain to your students, interpretively, stylistically and practically the tied B pick-up to measure 5 (Ex. 1)? And later, the wedges (Ex. 2)?

Mazurka Op. 17, No. 1,
Ex.1
Ex. 2 Mikuli Edition (1894)


Ex. 3 Schlesinger Edition (1834?)

     In the first example most pianists, myself included, repeat the tied B. (I interpret the tie as a slur and the dot as a direction to re-articulate.)Think of it as a two-note slur but staying on the same note. This is sometimes referred to as an accented slur.
Mazurka: Polish folk dance 
in triple meter
     The wedge (staccatissimo) is often clouded in confusion. In the early 18th century it was interchangeable with the dot and both meant staccato. Later in the century it could be interpreted as a staccato, an accent or both (Schubert used it as the latter). The wedge was defined as shorter than the dot, 1/4 and 1/2 the note's length, respectively. It was codified into the three types—short, accent or both—in 1821 by Friedrich Starke in Wiener Pianoforte Schüle, to which Beethoven
Friedrich Starke
contributed some of his Op. 119. 
We apparently don't know if Beethoven subscribed to the precise definitions of lengths of these articulations, but he did make the distinction between the two. Beethoven: "Where there is a dot above a note a dash must not be put instead, and vice versa...they are not identical."
     Unfortunately, publishers were sometimes cavalier in their representation of these similar marks in their editions, so we are not always sure what was intended. And composers were not always consistent in their usage—I'm thinking now of Schubert, who was apparently somewhat casual proofing gallies. At the risk of sounding like a secluded monk trying to decide how many angels can dance on the head of a pin, I hasten to point out that a first edition of the Mazurkas (1834?) edited by Maurice Schlesinger, placed dots on the three quarter-note Es (Ex. 3), not wedges. All subsequent editions in popular use place wedges over those notes.
     So, after all that, musical context and artistic instinct are the deciding factors. In example 2, I would aim for a separation (not an accent) for the wedges, leaving the most strength for the accented third beat. Unsystematic accents on the second or third beats were characteristic of the Mazurka. Pedal, yes, but discreetly.

Saturday, April 27, 2019

On Practicing the Piano for Children

     A Teacher writes: Would you encourage a
talented 9-year old to practice the piano for 6 1/2 hours a day? What dangers do you anticipate, if any?


       I respond:  My first question would be: Of what does this "practice" consist? Every student is different, of course, but this 9-year-old may be over doing it. Try making out a plan with him. For example: He could start his practice with the newest
piece/concept or memorization while his mind is fresh. Then move on to something that is already underway, trying to move it to the next level. Next, practice performing something that is finished or nearly so, especially if a performance is coming up. This should feel like a performance, so no stopping. Save the post mortem for afterward. Then, if something needs to be fixed,  make the local repairs and, if you like, play the entire piece again as a performance, but under tempo, leaving every passage feeling under control. For desert, some sight-reading of unexplored material that may be in his future. (I used to think of sight-reading as desert.) 

    The danger of setting an arbitrary amount of time for "practicing" may result in rote playing, that is, forgetting to keep the mind engaged at all times. This is the roadmap for future "memory slips" and possible technical misunderstandings. I don't know of any adult who can really focus for such a long period of time, even with coffee breaks and lunch with a walk in the park. This used to be my plan when I was at the conservatory in Berlin, where there were many tempting parks. But my day at the piano was at most five hours. For such a young person, 2-3 hours of work should be more than enough, especially since there probably are—and should be—many other demands on his time.

     For the record, there is a difference between practicing and playing.