“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

Tuesday, January 8, 2019

Brahms Op. 117, No. 1, by Carl Friedberg

Carl Friedberg 1872-1955


     Carl Friedberg was one of the most successful and distinguished pianists who emerged from the studio of Clara Schumann. He was one of the early piano professors at what would later become the Juilliard School. From his studio came some of the biggest names of the first part of the 20th century: Malcom Frager, Bruce Hungerford, William Masselos and Elly Ney. His professional debut was with the Vienna Philharmonic under the baton of Gustav Mahler. Not so bad.
     Now here's where I sat up and took notice when reading his bio. In 1893 he played an all Brahms program with the composer in the audience. Apparently, Brahms admired his playing and coached him in private on most of his pieces. Coached by Brahms! So, when we listen to his playing, we may in fact be coming as close as we can to hearing Brahms himself. Maybe. It's a big responsibility to pile onto Friedberg's hands. Still, we listen to his one commercial recording—Friedberg apparently disliked recorded piano sound—and it gives us food for thought. The eighty-one-year-old pianist plays here the first of the Opus 117 Intermezzos: Carl Friedberg.


Friday, January 4, 2019

Bach on the Piano


J.S. Bach
     A student asks for opinions regarding articulation when playing Bach on the piano. Should it mostly be detached in order to imitate the harpsichord, she wonders, "which couldn't sustain long notes like the modern piano does."
     She's right. The harpsichord can't sustain long notes "like the modern piano," though it can sustain significantly longer than many modern pianists seem to think. This is based on my observation of how short and detached harpsichord imitators of today play. 
Harpsichord
     And to those who declare Bach didn't know, play, approve of or write for the new fortepiano I say nonsense. Though his friend and instrument builder Silbermann was at first unsuccessful in
Fortepiano
impressing the composer with his first attempts in the 1730s, eventually Bach declared his "complete satisfaction" with the improved fortepiano. According to pianist and musicologist Charles Rosen, the six-voice ricercare from The Musical offering, a fugue many consider Bach's greatest, was "
the most significant piano work of the millennium, as it is perhaps the first piece composed for the recently invented piano—at least, the first piece that a composer knew would certainly be played on a piano."
     Articulation is of course a main consideration in Bach. How we treat the differences between long and short notes is crucial to bringing the music to life and giving it its Baroque flavor. Some rules of thumb (no pun intended) might be to play conjunct notes more connected and disjunct notes more detached. Two-note slurs are virtually always realized with emphasis on the first note, relaxing on the second. This can be achieved with sound (louder/softer) or by length of notes (longer/shorter). The last note in a group of conjunct notes might be articulated. These are, of course, just general guidelines. As CPE Bach writes: "If it doesn't sound good, don't do it." In the final analysis, our expressive decisions are based on taste, for which there is often no accounting—and study.
     In the introduction to the Inventions and Sinfonias Bach writes: "Those desirous of learning... [will] ABOVE ALL [my emphasis] achieve a cantabile style in playing." Length of notes relative to one another becomes more crucial in quick, characterful pieces; it is less so in slower arias. We get to decide if we want to imitate the harpsichord, as many do, or play the piano using its resources, which I personally believe Bach would applaud. As long as the counterpoint isn't swamped with pedal, the piece will still sound like Bach. My personal view is that if you want "authenticity," play the harpsichord, which I have done on occasion. I prefer the piano.
     I came across a comparison of these instruments, which includes the clavichord, reportedly Bach's favorite: Listen.


Friday, December 21, 2018

Chopin Etude in C, Op. 10, No. 1

Vladimir de Pachman
1848-1933

Here is an engaging performance by Vladimir de Pachman at a time well before the Chopin etudes became part of the Daytona 500 races. Think about it. Chopin Etude Op. 10, No. 1

     De Pachman studied with Joseph Dachs, a  pupil of Carl Czerny. He was nicknamed "Chopinzee" by one critic because he specialized in that composer and his stage manner was eccentric, including muttering and odd gestures. George Bernard Shaw reported that he "gave his well-known pantomimic performance, with accompaniments by Chopin." But his performances, almost exclusively Chopin, were highly regarded as authentic and he was considered one of the great pianists of his day.

Monday, December 17, 2018

Stories from Musical Life

Gentle Readers:

I'm happy to announce that THE GRAPEFRUIT CAKE INCIDENT AND OTHER STORIES INSTRUCTIVE AND CAUTIONARY FROM MUSICAL LIFE has been corrected, yet again, and is back on the shelves at Amazon. So, if you've been waiting for Santa's elfin editors to finish their proofing, now is the time. And to those of you who've endured the typos, please accept my apologies. If you didn't notice them, then never mind. 



                        

Thursday, December 13, 2018

How to Practice

A student asks: "What is the most efficient way of approaching a new piece that has a wide range of technical demands (i.e. varies from sight-readable to very demanding)?"

           
            

                 At the risk of overkill, I've decided to post my mini-treatise on the topic of practicing. You may of course skip at will to the paragraph NEW PIECE.     

               There are three main types of practicing and many variables. The first type of practicing is employed in learning a NEW PIECE (or a new technical concept). The second type is for a piece that is IN PROGRESS; the third type is for a FINISHED PIECE, one that is ready or nearly ready for performance. In an ideal world, there will be fewer new pieces at any given time than in-progress or finished pieces. All practice requires intense focus and concentration. But I find that the concentration required in the solving of problems in a new piece can be the most intense and should therefore come at the beginning of the practice session, when the mind is fresh.

            Psychological impediments sometimes stand in the way of good practicing, or of even getting started. I call these psychological impediments “the committee” that sits on our shoulders giving negative feedback. “Just sit down whether you want to or not,” says cellist Gordon Epperson. And he’s right. The ritual of preparing to work itself can be cathartic.
            But there’s more to it than that, of course. While getting set up, think about a basic plan, i.e., what types of pieces will you practice: new, in progress, finished. Where will you start and what is the first thing you will do and how will you do it? In other words, THINK FIRST before the hand touches the keys. It is the thinking process that protects us from falling victim to what I call MINDLESS ROTE, which is when automatic pilot takes over from the deliberate act of thinking about what you are doing. If you find yourself thinking about what’s for lunch, take a break: a short walk, go for a coffee, read a chapter, play solitaire (but don’t wear out your thumbs texting). For most types of practicing, one hour at a time with a 10 or 15-minute break between hours is ideal. At the end of the break start the THINKING over again: where will I start, what will I do and how will I do it---WHERE, WHAT, HOW?

THE BASIC PLAN

NEW PIECE

1.  SCAN. Play through the piece at a comfortable tempo, stopping and starting as necessary, not to amaze yourself with what a fine sight-reader you are, but rather to identify problem spots. MARK THE HARD SPOTS.

2.  FOCUS. Having located spots that need extra attention, figure out possible fingerings, several even. WRITE THESE IN THE MUSIC in pencil. You won’t remember them, I promise. When deciding on fingerings, try to keep the musical intentions of the composer in mind. (See “Fingering Concepts.”)

3.  LIMIT. Reduce the amount of information you process, even down to just one interval or one leap. Start this very slowly and GRADUALLY, increasing the tempo to as close to the performance tempo as you can, but not faster than you can at this early point!

4.  PROCEED.  Go on to the next hard spot. Do not try to put the measures together yet. Make notes in the margin if you have questions about technical or musical issues. Do this very detailed work for as long as you can concentrate fully. (This type of practice has a learning curve, but in the long run it will cut your required practice time for a successful performance by at least 50%, probably more.)

5.  CONTEXT. Once a particular spot is feeling EASY and rather consistent, even if not quite up to tempo, try putting it in context with the material immediately before it and immediately after. Do this several times. DO NOT FORCE THE TEMPO. A good technique is one that feels easy, never rushed, even in speed.

6. TEMPO. Hard spots must be worked up through several tempos from very slow to the performance tempo. When you’re ready to work up the tempo, that is, when you have solved the technical problem(s), play NO SLOWER THAN YOU NEED TO and NOT FASTER THAN YOU CAN. The metronome can be useful here to keep track of your progress.

7.  MUSIC. The objective, always, is to make music. Keep in mind the quality of sound, the type of articulation required for the musical effect, the dynamic variety.

A PIECE IN PROGRESS

1.  EVALUATE. Make conscious decisions as to what sections need the most technical work. Start with those sections, working through several tempos. Most work should be under performance tempo. Keep in mind that the technique should always feel easy and unhurried.

2.  PERFORM. Try playing at tempo or near tempo in PHRASES or larger MUSICAL SECTIONS. For example, look at the musical form and select part of a section such as a first theme group or the development or the “A” section. This is also a good tool for examining the overall structure or architecture of the piece. Do not play through the piece non-stop at this point.

3.  SHAPES. Look for musical shapes. Where are the highest points in pitch? The lowest? What direction does a line seem to move over all? One approach to bringing the music to life is to play with increasing intensity as a line moves up and less intensity as a line moves down. This is just a starting point, of course.

4.  ARTICULATION. The length of individual notes has a great deal to do with musical expression. Should a group of notes be played very short or played with exaggerated length? What combinations of notes can be grouped under the hand without a thumb-crossing? The composer or editor often makes these decisions, but they are not etched in stone.

5.  DYNAMICS. Make some clear choices about how loud or soft a given passage will be. Where is the loudest place in the piece? The softest? Where are the crescendos? Are any passages especially accented?

FINISHED PIECE

1.  MUSICAL OBJECTIVE. As you worked through the previous section, particularly on SHAPES, ARTICULATION and DYNAMICS, you will have begun to form opinions about the meaning of the music. Ask yourself what the piece is about (happy?sad?). What is it that you like about it? How will you make your listener hear what you hear?

2.  PRACTICE PERFORMING SECTIONS. At this point it is time to start playing in large sections, i.e., an entire exposition or from point A to point B, without stopping. Try to incorporate everything that you have considered in the above. Don’t be discouraged if it doesn’t come off as planned on the first try. Keep in mind that the technique should always feel easy, unforced, unhurried.

3.  PRACTICE PERFORMING. Play the entire piece through up to tempo without stopping no matter what happens. This is a diagnostic tool and sometimes it can be helpful to record the effort. Afterward, consider how close you came to meeting your goals. It won’t be 100% the first time. Don’t expect it to be. Do whatever cleanup is necessary. Make notes in the score. Try again, but not more than 3 times in one sitting. After the final try, do whatever cleanup you need, i.e., slow technical work. Then LEAVE IT. Go on to something else or take a break.

4.  PRACTICE PERFORMANING SLOWLY.  Play the entire piece as a performance, but well under tempo. This removes much of the tactile memory, requiring more thoughtful, deliberate playing. It is also a very good test of memory


NINETY PERCENT OF PRACTICING IS SLOWER THAN THE PERFORMANCE TEMPO.

Thursday, November 29, 2018

Smoothing Bumpy Scales

     A student writes: "I have noticed that if (during practice) scales or runs begin to feel a bit uneven or bumpy, this can often be corrected by playing the scale or run up and down four octaves at a moderate tempo while randomly stopping momentarily just before playing a particular note (i.e. stopping short and then continuing without any preconceived pattern in mind). The “stopped” finger (the one that would play next) is held back from playing for a quarter-note rest, and then I continue on for a few more notes before stopping again with another finger, etc.
     My best guess is that the sudden stopping of a finger and then releasing it has the effect of contracting and then releasing opposing muscles that I was allowing to tense up.  This random-stoppage approach seems to add something to the rag-doll relaxation-and-shake-out approach to creeping tension."

     Without seeing what he is doing, it is difficult to diagnose the unevenness of his scales. What he describes as a remedy strikes me as arbitrary and perhaps less reasonable than examining underlying causes. 
     
     Usually "bumpiness" is the result of a misunderstanding of how the thumb works in crossing. When anticipating a thumb crossing, allow the thumb to hang—yes, hang—behind the next finger. It should hang more or less behind the finger that is playing. Also, he should allow the forearm to move at an angle behind the playing finger in the direction of the music. This puts the playing apparatus in a perfect position to play the thumb rotationally. 
     But first, he should make sure that he is really completing each note of the scale before going on to the next. This is an opportunity to review basic forearm rotation. If the weight of the forearm is really transferred to each note as if walking, and if his fingers are each "at rest" at the bottom of the key, evenness should come easily. Feel the rotation a little exaggerated  at first, but then in speed don't think of it at all. I know, this is what confuses a lot of people. In speed we rely more on shaping and the "memory" of the sensation of completing each note.

     There are video demos under the iDemo tab above.