“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, May 12, 2019

Piano Technique Books: Summer Sale

             Click on the titles 
                    to visit Amazon!

The Collaborative Pianist's Guide To Practical Technique 

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                  The Pianist's Guide to Practical 
                           Scales and Arpeggios

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The Pianist's Guide to Practical Technique

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Saturday, May 11, 2019

Staccato, Accent or Both: The Wedge vs the Dot


     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. 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.

Monday, March 11, 2019

Chopin's Octave Etude

     Sometime ago I posted a YouTube video
demonstration of octave playing in Chopin's octave etude. (You can view it HERE.) My point was that fingering octaves using fourth finger on black keys does not make the octaves faster or more legato and the potential for injury is considerable. 

     I received the following two comments:
     "What is wrong with chromatic octave fingerings? My teacher and many pianists use the 4th finger on black keys and 5th on white keys. Is it only bad for small hands? I am confused because all other sources told me to use the latter fingering when playing this piece."
      "I agree that fingering octaves doesn't necessarily make them faster or more legato, but it comes down to the pianist's hands. Some people might find using 4 on black keys more comfortable since there's less movement. With smaller hands this might be uncomfortable but I don't agree with telling everyone to always use 5 just because it's better suited for your hands."

     My use of all fives has nothing to do with the size of the hand. Practicing octaves repeatedly, enough to make virtuoso octave passages secure, the potential for injury is considerable when stretching—1-4 or 1-3 (yikes)—even in a large hand. FYI, moving is more efficient than
Muscles Pulled Against
One Another
stretching. When stretching, muscles tend to work against each other, hence the feeling of tightness pianists often feel when playing these passages. Forearm rotation alleviates this problem. I play consecutive chromatic octaves in line with the black keys and hinged at the fifth finger. The rotation is so slight as to be virtually invisible (something Matthay described at the turn of the last century). 

     Since you agree that nothing is to be gained by fingering octaves, why not explore using the hand the way it was designed to be used? Look up Gary Graffman and Leon Fleisher, the latter of whom developed focal dystonia, a condition ​caused by muscle stress and overuse. Try this: First play a black key octave with 1-4 (or even 1-3). Then, play that octave with 1-5 and ask yourself which feels smaller.

Saturday, March 9, 2019

Muriel Kerr plays Hindemith 3rd Sonata

Muriel Kerr on the Cover of her
RCA Recording
   One afternoon in 1962 I arrived for my piano lesson with Muriel Kerr to find her practicing the Hindemith 3rd sonata, one of her signature pieces. I didn't know the sonata and walked over to the other piano, not the one students played, to look over her shoulder. There was no score. I said,
Paul Hindemith
"Well I guess I'm not ever to know what this is," or words to that effect. She laughed and gave me the title, playing all the while. 

     I never had the pleasure of hearing her in recital, though I played double bass in the university orchestra when she played Brahms' B-flat concerto. There was also  a chamber music concert with Jascha Heifetz, Gregor Piatagorsky and William Primrose in the Brahms C minor Piano Quartet. She appeared again with the university orchestra with the other two faculty pianists in a performance of Liszt's "Hexameron," a pastiche of variations by five  composer-performers, each contributing one variation: Frédéric Chopin, Carl Czerny, Henri Herz, Johann Peter Pixis and Sigismond Thalberg. Kerr played the variation in double notes. (To understand better why she was asked to play the double-notes variation, See Scriabin under the "listen" tab above.)
     Here is the Hindemith from that commercial recording: Muriel Kerr plays Hindemith 3rd Sonata.