“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

Friday, May 26, 2017

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

Chopin
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 23, 2017

Memorial Day Sale

Dear Readers:
My publishers tell me I can offer two of my books at a discount until the end of May. So, if you
would like to add to your library Demystifying Bach at the Piano: Problem Solving in the Inventions and Sinfonias (reduced to $16.95) or Mystified No More: Further Insights into Piano Technique (reduced to $16.95), now would be a good time to visit Amazon.

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

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

A perceptive student writes: 
Chopin
"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


Thursday, March 30, 2017

Bach's A Minor English Suite: Oh, No! Three Separate Lines

     My student brought the prelude to Bach's A
J.S. Bach
Minor English Suite, which he played quite fluently and with excellent understanding of the style. He knows not to accept "just okay" technically, because he knows complete ease is possible. So, he asked me about measure nineteen, where the bass note is held while the tenor rambles about in the same hand. Although he could play the notes so that they sounded just fine, he felt constricted. Clever lad that he is, he asked about the rotation.

Bach A Minor English Suite, M 19 Prelude, Rotation
     Remember, forearm rotation is only an underlying tool. The concept sometimes confuses and confounds the uninitiated, especially absent an in-person demonstration. In this case, feeling the difference between single and double rotation can help to unlock the hand where it feels constricted. Admittedly, this example is a somewhat small point, but working in the rotation here can have a profound result elsewhere.
     Notice the angled arrows in the example. The angle indicates the direction from which the finger strikes the key. Since the fifth finger remains in place, the rotation can't be very exaggerated. This is fine, because we always want tiny movements for speed anyway. Where there are consecutive arrows in the same direction, the movement is called a double rotation, rotating both to and from a note. When the music changes direction with each note, the movement is called single rotation. This is what most pianists think of when forearm rotation is mentioned; it is what occurs in an Alberti bass figure or a trill. (For more on forearm rotation and other issues, see Piano Technique Demystified: Insights into Problem Solving.)
     What happens here, then, in measure nineteen, is a release of tension in the left hand, slight though it may be, by allowing the rotation its freedom. The result is an avoidance of finger isolation.
There's more to it than spinning.
      It turned out, though, that there was also a coordination issue in my student's approach. We pianists learn from day one to spin a musical line beautifully to the right. This is good. But what if we have two or more lines that crave spinning beautifully to the right. What then?
     Ah. I'm glad you asked. We have to ween ourselves from the horizontal and consider the vertical. That is, what happens at points (as in counterpoints) where the voices come together. Here, if there is a coordination issue, we have to feel the combined downs, the verticalness as indicated but he doubled-headed arrows in the example.
Bach A Minor English Suite, M 19 Prelude, Verticalness

          Practice stopping on each eighth and notice which two fingers are partnered. Feel the down into the keys in each hand. My teacher used to say, 
"Dear, the piano is down. We only come up in order to go down again." Say the finger numbers numbers aloud. Notice how the pairs change. I know it seems silly, but do it. It works. (For more on coordination in contrapuntal music, see Demystifying Bach at the Piano: Problem Solving in the Inventions and Sinfonias.)

Sunday, March 26, 2017

How is Schumann's Fantasy Like Beethoven's Sonata Op. 111?

   
Robert Schumann
My very advanced student brought the first movement of Schumann's Fantasy, Op. 17. He played rather convincingly, if a bit overwrought for my taste. That is, he had in mind that this

is a 'big' piece. Well, yes, it covers a lot of emotional ground, but sometimes, as in the opening, it's only forte strings with no brass doublings.
     His question for me, though, had to do with discomfort on the second page where the second violins play trills against the first violins' descending melody notes. This became a technical challenge for him:
As Written
     I told him to reference the penultimate page of Beethoven's Sonata Op. 111, where a similar confusion of voices and trills encumber the unsuspecting pianist. The Schumann example is played:
As Played
     Once the coordination between the voices in the right hand has been solved and coordinated with the left hand, the thirty-second-note trills can relax a bit, if desired.
     I leave it to you, gentle reader, to solve Beethoven, armed now as you are with the technical tools.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Kabalevsky's Sonatina, Op. 13, No. 1: A technical Detail

     
 
Dimitri Kavalevsky
    

     My adult student brought this familiar foray into classical style a la the 20th century. He stumbled often, but not always, at the two scale passages, G minor as shown here (Ex. 1), and the same passage on C minor a few measures later. Notice that nothing could be more innocent harmonically: a G minor scale over a first-inversion arpeggio, also G minor: 
Kabalevsky Sonatina, Op. 13, No. 1, Third Movement
Reliable fluency, however, eluded my student. So, we set out to solve this mystery.

     Two issues are in play here: the musical objective and the
technical means. I know, I know. What else is new? I point this out because my student fell victim to the musical objective as indicated in the score, trying for a whoosh without feeling the milestones along the way. 

 Step one is to notice which fingers of each hand partner and encourage them to cooperate by feeling a down together. Do this very slowly. (I've indicated these fingerings in Ex. 2.) Feel these pairs first on each eighth. Then, moving on to step two, feel the pairs on each quarter—still very slowly. Then comes the crucial third step: Notice the pair of fingers on the downbeat of measure two. Aha! This is not the beginning of the scale. Feel a secure starting place here. Gradually work up the tempo feeling, though not necessarily hearing, the pulses. Go ahead. Try it. It's fun.
     I'm happy to report that my student was able to solve the issues in the lesson. I sent him home, though, having elicited a promise that he will continue to practice along the same lines.