“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, September 17, 2017

Practicing Scales and Arpeggios

     A student asked me recently about the
importance of practicing scales and arpeggios. "Do I really have to," was the gist of her plea. I was happy to oblige with the answer, no, of course not.
     Years ago, when I was a new university professor, this answer got me into some controversy with the local music teachers. Word got around that I didn't "believe" in scales, as if scales were somehow decreed in the Ten Commandments. Well, I had some explaining to do to avoid being excommunicated from the music community.
     Here's what I think. We have to know all the major and melodic minor scales as a matter of basic keyboard topography. The thumb crossings should be well worked in and the coordination between the hands second nature. After that, though, practicing scales for "technique" is a waste of time. Or let's say it's a delay tactic. It's
something that can be done without thinking, the operative root here is think. Scales and arpeggios rarely, if ever, appear in repertoire they way we practice them in isolation. When we encounter them in music we have to re-learn them anyway.  

     So, if you want to practice scales, practice them in music you want to play. We pause here for a message from the sponsor. I have put together just such a volume: The Pianist's Guide to Practical Scales and Arpeggios, As they Occur in Pieces You Want to Play. The excerpts are the result of rummaging through a significant amount of repertoire—Bach, all of the Haydn, Mozart, 
Beethoven and Schubert sonatas, as well as selected fantasies, variations, concertos and occasional pieces. There are also fragments from Chopin, Brahms and Debussy, although what was once ubiquitous in the Classical period becomes in later periods less so. 
The repertoire encompasses middle intermediate to advanced levels. Of course, the preponderance of material lies in the least complicated keys, although there are examples in theoretical keys such as G-sharp major, D-sharp and C-flat, keys the indignity of which only pianists bear; string players are generally excused, except in certain orchestral works by Mahler or Richard Strauss.
     Have a look. I'd be glad to know what you think. It's available here.

Monday, September 11, 2017

CHOPIN DEMYSTIFIED: Problem Solving in the Nocturnes

Announcing a new volume to be available soon:

Here is an excerpt from the introduction:
In this volume we consider the technical means by which a happy collaboration between the hands becomes second nature. In my experience, if there is an impediment to a successful performance, that impediment originates in the left hand. If the fingering and its technical logic are not well understood, the right-hand fioriture have no place to take root, and more often than not die on the vine. If you will pardon a metaphor shift, when the coat-hanger is shapeless and weak, the garment has nothing to cling to.
     Recently, a student brought the Nocturne Op. 9, No. 2, that expressive and, well, ubiquitous exercise that all students seem to take up and all teachers must endure. If there is fault, it is of course not with the work itself, but rather with the approach to it. My student complained of confusion as to where to place all of those “extra” notes, the ones that don’t really have rhythmic specificity. I responded, cipher that I am, that the right hand is confused because the left hand jabs aimlessly at notes in what I call a hunt-and-peck manner. (Those readers old enough to remember manual typewriters will identify with that description.) The left hand hasn’t discovered its path. It doesn’t know how to group those chords or where the bass notes belong. It, therefore, hasn’t learned to use each eighth as a direct spring-board for each succeeding eighth. This is what I mean when I say notes must proceed easily and naturally from one to the next, as if each propelled the other inevitably. When the first bass-note sounds, the hand must already know its next landing place. You wouldn’t jump off a diving board without first looking to see if there is water in the pool.
     Chopin advised that in this nocturne, in order to avoid sounding
like a waltz or worse—an Austrian oom-pah band, the “bass be practiced first by itself, divided between the two hands; and each of the chords following the main bass beats in the 12/8 should sound like a chorus of guitars…This should be done piano and in a strict time, maintaining an absolutely steady allegretto without the 12/8 lapsing into triplets.”   This is not a bad idea, and I blush at my impertinence. But the master stops short of telling his student the technical how-tos and where-fors. In this example, as in virtually all of the examples we shall examine, the technical solutions tend to be variations on similar ideas having to do with grouping notes together for ease and selecting fingering that allows the hand to move fluently, without feeling overly extended.

 Once the accompanist left-hand knows its job well, we shall 
introduce it to the singing right-hand. It is at this point we find ways to accommodate the seemingly arbitrary fioriture, the melodic embellishments that distinguish Chopin from all other masters of concert music for the piano. We learn how to manage an accompaniment figure that seems to tease the hand into awkward stretches. We explore ways of organizing melismas of 27 notes against 6. We learn how to interpret all those dangling grace-notes, wantonly attached to arpeggiated figures, not to mention all those other enigmatic symbols.

Sunday, September 3, 2017

Chopin's Octave Etude

(Resting his hands?)
 Many students have asked about  Chopin's octav
e etude. I'm guessing this comes under the heading of "because it's there." It seems to me that this is not a very attractive piece—that the only reason to play it is to show that you can. As we all know, Chopin's collection of etudes are not really etudes in a pedagogical sense. Rather, they are show pieces designed to display a range of facility. Nevertheless, we learn from any piece we play, so in that sense passages in Mozart might be thought of as etudes. The Chopin etudes as a rule require considerable expertise to begin with, but for showy octaves, this etude is as good a place as any to begin. You can watch me talk and poke my way through it here.


Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Dame Myra Hess Interview 1963

Chopin Nocturne in C Minor
I came once again across this interview of one of Britan's great pianists, a link to the 19th century and a student of Tobias Matthay. It's worth a re-post: Dame Myra Hess Interview 1963. Among her students is the noted pianist,  Stephen
Kovacevich (then known as Stephen Bishop). Here is a radio broadcast (1948) of Chopin's C Minor Nocturne at generously laid-back tempos.

Friday, May 26, 2017

Chopin's Polonaise in A-Flat, Op. 53: Chromatic Fourths

A student writes asking for a demonstration of the opening passages of Chopin's grand Polonaise. The question came out of my earlier presentation of the etude in sixths, no doubt because all passages in parallel double notes have much in common. That is, we choose a fingering that will allow us to play legato without feeling clingy. This often necessitates crossing a longer finger over a shorter one, which both Bach and Chopin taught us to do.
Chromatic means "colorful."
(Yes, really.) The technique will also demand an understanding of how to use one note of the chord, usually the top note, as a hinge and use forearm rotation to facilitate the movement.

Chopin Polonaise Chromatic Fourths
In speed, which is not really very fast, we can also feel a slight (tiny) up before each thumb. Rotation is crucial in the third example, where the thumb is repeated. See the demonstration here: Chromatic Fourths.

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Parallel Intervals On the Piano: Sixths in Chopin's Op. 25, No. 8

A perceptive student writes: 
"The Chopin Etude op. 25, no. 8, in sixths is marked molto legato.  What are we to make of this marking?  A lot of advice given on the subject of double notes seems to suggest connecting the top notes but allowing the bottom notes to be detached.  This certainly seems more comfortable and less likely to result in some kind of injury and sooner or later even connecting the top notes brings about some questionable stretches.  Yet when I listen to recordings of great artists it really doesn't sound like many of them connect the top note.  In fact, some of them really sound quite detached and almost toccata-like.  Others seem to adapt a sort of varied approach in touch which, I must admit, sounds very interesting though not necessarily what Chopin might have in mind.  Sooner or later even connecting only the top notes brings about some questionable stretches.  I suspect that Chopin's instrument
No Stretching
would have allowed the legato for which he appears to ask but which may be injurious on our modern instruments.  So, my question to you is how we are to handle Chopin's instruction of molto legato in such a piece as this etude.  Is it a literal finger legato?  I don't see how it can be without risk of injury.  I had considered separating each sixth just slightly to at least suggest legato through consistency with use of the pedal."

My Response; You ask excellent questions. The simple answer is no, it is not a literal finger legato. And yes, it is more comfortable and less strenuous to repeat the thumb, staying as close to the key as possible, as if stroking it. As you know, legato on the piano is an illusion at best. We can
It's an Illusion
conceptualize all we want, imagining organs and choirs, but the fact of the matter is that in the physical world the piano is a percussion instrument; its sound is produced by a hammer striking a string.  Chopin took this into consideration when marking his scores. So when he gives us the instruction to play molto legato, he's telling us to select a fingering and manner of playing that is connected given the circumstances. He reportedly offered this advice: “.. mould the keyboard as if with a velvet hand and feel the key rather than striking it!”.

The closest we can come to legato on the piano is to over-hold each note until striking the next or playing in the decay of each note. This latter approach can be very effective, reducing the amount of percussion, though it produces a diminuendo. Neither of these approaches is practical in speed. So what we are left with is Chopin's advice, to stroke the key, which I take to mean we should stay close to the keys and use pedal as appropriate. Remember, too, the faster we play, the more obvious the articulation becomes, that is, the hammer striking the strings.

So, fingering and a connected feel are what we should explore. Use five and four on the tops, repeating thumb on most of the lower notes. For most of the ascending top notes, consider crossing a longer finger over a shorter one. I use the thumb on most of the lower notes. In order to feel connected, use a tiny (minuscule) rotation toward the thumb side. Consider regrouping the triplets to facilitate the above. (See example, in which the brackets show how I group some of the sixths.) For a demo of the rotation, click here: Parallel Intervals
Opening Measures of Op. 25, No. 8