“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, September 19, 2016

Bach As Teacher: Invention No. 1


J.S. Bach was a teacher. In his day, teaching was not only about keyboard facility but also included elements of composition and style. In short, Bach taught music. In his preface to the Inventions and Sinfonias, he explains that he has created an “honest method” for the purpose of learning to play “clearly” first two parts, then three parts. Along the way he hoped the “amateur” would develop, in addition to the ability to handle all the parts well, “good ideas.” He writes that “above all” the player should “achieve a cantabile style in playing and acquire a strong foretaste of composition.”
     Let’s talk about cantabile. This is my favorite Bach quote. I
raise it whenever I encounter a pianist who attempts a harpsichord facsimile on the modern piano. You know the type of player I mean. This is someone who feels that all Bach playing is detached.  Even the great harpsichordist Wanda Landowska declared that her playing was connected, not detached. I understand why some pianists do this. They hope to imitate the quill plucking the strings. In the process they discard the natural reverberation that plucking produces. 

   We know that Bach favored the clavichord for its ability to produce nuanced inflections, not unlike a piano, though very much more subtle. The clavichord was an entre nous instrument, its sound intimate and not designed for a modern concert hall. It seems to me Bach had this reference in mind when he wrote that his music should be expressive in the way that singing can be expressive. 
      So here we have a conundrum. On the one hand we are to play the parts clearly, but at the same time be expressive. No worries. We can separate out the two parts of the puzzle and put them back together again. Bach would be proud. 
Invention I, MM 1-2.
    In the first Invention, I have noticed from time to time that students trip over the first leap in measure one. The intention is to begin lyrically with the sixteenths, but the leap from five on G to three on C sounds like a hiccup. Well, it is.
       Use the fifth finger as a hinge to move rotationally to three, and in the process separate the G from the C. It feels connected because of the rotation. Slightly shortening the G, however, gives the passage a characteristic articulation. This is still cantabile.
Pluck and Rotate.

   We look for musical and technical shapes in order give expression to what we play. Here is a good example of grouping and shaping in both guises. Group notes together that move in the same direction. Class, what are the appropriate shapes? Yes, over on the way down, under on the way up. It's the reverse in the left hand.
Invention I, MM 3-4, Grouping and Shaping.

         There is of course much more to consider, and it is a fascinating topic. Every student plays at least some of the inventions at one time or another. Maybe I should write a book on solving technical problems in the Inventions and Sinfonias. Oh, wait. I am.

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Pianist Puzzler: Chopin Ballade in A-Flat My Solution

When I was a college freshman, my teacher, Muriel Kerr, assigned Chopin's A-Flat Ballade. I was glad to play it, but hadn't a clue how to "honestly" negotiate passages like this. So, I just threw myself at them. Somehow I passed muster, but never felt really sure of myself. How did you do with your solution?
     In this particular passage, we have to ask ourselves first how the composer intends for us to play the small notes. We know from notations he made in students' scores that appoggiaturas are to be played on the beat. (See Howard Ferguson, Keyboard Interpretation.) Personally, I sometimes find this idea not aways the most musical of solutions. Here, however, it makes perfect sense. I play this as indicated below.

Chopin Ballade in A-Flat

     As always, when the composer gives us a group of small notes that are not accounted for in the overall rhythmic scheme, we have to decide what that rhythm will be and how to place those notes with the adjoining parts. This goes for arpeggiated chords that are indicated with a symbol, as in the left hand. Side note, the thumb
notes, the A-flats, may be taken with the right hand. This becomes even more of an issue later, when the intervals are more extended. The tied-over melody note will have decayed to such a point as to be inaudible anyway. Test this theory on your own piano to see if I'm right.

Thursday, August 4, 2016

Pianist Puzzler: Chopin A-Flat Ballade

Here's an easy one with at least two parts. But beware, there's a bit of a trick. (Hint: Howard Ferguson.) The solution will appear in these pages as soon as I figure it out. ;-)
Chopin A-Flat Ballade

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Losing the Audition: A Road Not Taken

My student failed an audition. Failed was the word he used, but I tried my best to point out that it was just one lost job opportunity and that he was not himself a failure because of it. And just at that moment I understood yet again why it is important to study poetry in high school. Robert Frost's, "The Road Not Taken" popped into my mind. You know the one I mean. It begins:
Robert Frost
TWO roads diverged in a yellow wood,

          And sorry I could not travel both

 and ends:              

           I shall be telling this with a sigh
           Somewhere ages and ages hence:
           Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
           I took the one less traveled by,
                                  And that has made all the difference.

     Frost relates his poem "with a sigh" not because the road he took was the wrong one, but rather because he could not take both. As we all know that's life. When choices are made—or in the case of a failed audition, made for us—we have to accept that something must be given up. The road less traveled, the one less fathomable, shall we say, turned out to have made all the difference.
     In summer of 1969 I was just out of the army and sending out feelers for work. One afternoon Gwendolyn Koldofsky, the accompanying teacher at USC, called to let me know that the great Jascha Heifetz was looking for a pianist for his violin class. I hadn't touched the piano in months, but, I thought, why not? His assistant gave me instructions to the effect that I should arrive exactly at the appointed hour at the entrance to his studio, not the front of the house, which I did. Needless to say, I was somewhat apprehensive, as we had had encounters before—pleasant enough—but I thought of him as perhaps just a touch on the severe side.
Jascha Heifetz
The master received me himself with reserved politeness and indicated I should take a seat at the piano. No small talk. First we played the exposition to Brahms' G major sonata. "Who have you played this with?" he asked. I told him I had toured a great deal with a German violinist. "They play too slow," he said. Then he put his transcription of Jamaican Rhumba on the rack and asked me to sight read it with him. This seemed to impress, as he quizzed me again on whether I was really sight-reading. (I was.) Next he pulled out the Tchaikovsky concerto and asked me to start with the orchestral tutti. I arrived at the violin solo entrance, which he played all the way up to the top, where he stopped suddenly. Then Heifetz, perhaps the greatest violinist in the world, looked me straight in the eyes and said, "I never could play that." 

     I didn't get the job. If I had, I would not have been free to accept engagements in New York the following January and my first professional tour. These engagements were the beginning of not only an unimagined road, but also an unimagined redevelopment of my craft. The road I chose—the road that chose me—turned out to have made all the difference. I didn't get the job, but I got a life—not to mention a nice little anecdote.

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Pianists in Performance: What Should I Think About?

     Have you ever experienced in performance what I call mind
chatter? This is an interruption in the logical flow of musical thought. It can occur without even noticing; the focus of the playing seems intact, but there is some peripheral distraction. This is akin to being in a theater thoroughly entranced by a film, yet at the same time aware that someone has come in and sat down next to you.
     This concept came up the other day during a lesson in which the student found herself caught somewhere between reading the score and playing from memory. I pointed out that memorizing was the surest way to make the music a part of her psyche. It does not matter in performance whether the score is present or not. But if it is present, the player has to know when and where to look, where on the page is the passage in question. This, then, becomes part of the thought process. 
     The great harpsichordist Wanda Landowska, a musician who many thought had a direct line of communication with Bach in the great beyond, was once being interviewed by some eager young
Wanda Landowska
admirer. "Oh, Madame Landowska, when you play I feel the presence of Bach himself. The music speaks to me in such a special way. Tell me, please, what do you think about when you perform?" To which the great lady replied, "The notes, dear, the notes."

     Well, yes, first the notes. But probably not in isolation. The notes are connected to an idea of their relationship to one another and to some concept of how smaller ideas add up to the whole of the piece. When we sit down to play, we must start with the big ideas. In speed, it is impossible to conceive of individual notes. It is better to be like the orator who speaks off the cuff, who embraces his audience with his full attention and speaks warmly and enthusiastically of the big ideas he finds compelling, rather than the public speaker who, not really wanting to be there, reads with precision from a printed speech. Of course, in addition to being inspiring, we pianists are required to be precise, too.
     Once when performing the fugue in Beethoven's Op. 110 sonata, I became aware, suddenly, that in addition to feeling the mounting excitement of the passage, I heard an inner voice chanting, "come on, Beethoven." This was a sort of cheering section, encouraging me on to victory. This had never happened before, but I suspect it had to do with an underlying apprehension of playing a fugue from memory, even though I had already done it many times. I'm happy to report that we were victorious, Beethoven and I.
     I think it comes down to this, and every performer is different, just as each occasion can inspire different results. Whatever we can latch on to that keeps us in the groove, that keeps us focused on the expression of the music, that is fair game; whatever works. But beware the voice that asks what's for supper. Slap him down and get back to the matters in hand.

Saturday, July 23, 2016

Crossing Hands at the Piano: Jascha Heifetz and "Frère Jacques"

Jascha Heifetz
     The great violinist Jascha Heifetz had his studio on the second floor of Clark House at USC, northwest corner. It was across the hall from Muriel Kerr's studio, where one afternoon when I arrived for my piano lesson, I heard much giggling and what sounded like beginners playing "Frère Jacques" as a round. I didn't want to interrupt, so I waited. Just as I was about to knock, the door opened and there I was face to face with the master himself, Heifetz in the flesh. We had had encounters before, not necessarily unpleasant, but if truth be told, a little scary. He could seem quite severe. So there we were, face to face and I felt my
tongue wrap itself into a series of knots. But no matter, without so much as cracking a smile, he calmly explained as if it were the most normal of circumstances that he had been teaching Kerr how to play the round with hands crossed. And without stopping for a response, he strode across the hall and disappeared into his studio.
     It's not so easy. Try it.

Frère Jacques
     Heifetz could play the piano tolerably well. I suspect he thought this exercise would help develop something or other pianistically—coordination, independence—I don't really know. But as you know, gentle reader, if you've been paying attention to this blog, I am not a fan of practicing X in order to achieve Y. If you want some crossed-hands experience, look at Mozart K. 331, first-movement variations. Even in the Mozart, I might look for opportunities to uncross. In the Frère Jacques example, it isn't necessary to cross the hands, so there's really no reason to do it—except, oh, well, it's kind of fun.

     Kerr took great delight in showing me what she and Heifetz had been doing. I tried it. Fortunately, though, she didn't make me practice it.