“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.”

Saturday, February 18, 2017

A Pianist's Puzzler

In the example below, what is the meaning in today's notation (hint) of the bracket? How would you play this passage? The answers will appear in a few days, just as soon as I figure it out. Ready? Pencils up.

Friday, February 17, 2017

Finding a Hand Position at the Piano


     The shape of the hand when playing the piano is rounded, like a ball. No, wait. It's flat like a pancake. That's not it, either. I know! It's splayed like roadkill. Or maybe it's all or none of the above. 
     Method books and their instruments of propagation, piano teachers, often mislead the unsuspecting student into a concept that will one day have to be unlearned. That is, they teach that the hand needs to be molded into a particular shape and made to hold that shape. Usually, the preferred shape is rounded, with all fingers on the keys, including
the thumb. Gentle reader, let me dissuade you of this practice as it requires that the fingers pull in toward the palm, which is work. Though we pianists are not really lazy, we want to avoid unnecessary work.
     This topic came up yet again in an online thread prefaced with a gif of adorable chicks entering a nicely rounded cave formed by, yes, a pianist's hand. You can view the gif here: Chicks in Hand. The pianist who posted this gif swore she meant it as a charming side note and did not mean it as gospel. Well, the ensuing discussion became a firestorm of approval and disapproval. I decided not to weigh in, except for the query "what is to be done when the chicks become adults?"
     The best hand position at the piano is the shape the hand takes when it dangles at one's side while window shopping. It is the naturally rounded shape of a hand that hasn't a care in the world. Try this: Drop your hand to your side, raise the forearm in the elbow hinge and turn the hand/forearm in that elbow hinge toward the thumb (rotation), placing the fingers on the keys. No, do not include the thumb. Conjure up enough tension to allow the fingers to stand there; it takes very little. This is an excellent hand position. Notice that the thumb's position is in the air, in front of and not over the keys. Yes, the thumb is a dangler. Incidentally, this is another one of those early-learned concepts that must at some point be unlearned. The fingers do not each live in their own little houses, they are instead itinerant. And the thumb, poor thing, is at best homeless, finding temporary shelter only when specifically needed. (For a video demonstration of this, click on the iDemo tab above and select Forearm Rotation.)
     So, whether or not you decide to use chicks to demonstrate the shape of the hand, try to avoid teaching that which needs later to be unlearned. This includes, by the way, teaching that a whole note must be held down for four counts...but don't get me started.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

The Pianist's Guide to Practical Scales and Arpeggios

     I love it when my students pay attention.
Today my student brought in excerpts from Beethoven's Op. 57 sonata, the Appassionata. He has been working from my book of scales and arpeggios extracted from standard repertoire. (No, I don't make my students buy my books.) Ever so discreetly, he asked if he could use a different fingering. Well, I'm nothing if not flexible. But  when I looked at what I had written in this example (page 113, example 276, for those of you who are following along), I realized it wasn't actually what I do. The fingering works, but here's a better one, the one my student picked up on.

Beethoven Sonata Op. 57

Friday, December 2, 2016

Bach Trills: How Many Notes Are Too Many?

   My student thought that a trill in Bach had to consist of an even number of notes.  He thought it should be duple and that triple was not correct. This gave me pause, as it had never come up before. Here is my rule: Like all ornaments indicated with a symbol, the trill must be given a place in time. Yes? The composer doesn't tell us how many notes or what rhythm they should have. Sometimes it isn't even clear exactly what pitches to play. So, our
job is to decide on how many notes will fit into the allotted space still sounding clear, emphasis on clear. Obviously, the tempo and character of the movement hold sway over this decision. The next step, of course, is to decide how those notes fit with the other parts.
   Here is the example in question, from the first invention.
Bach Invention No. 1.
I play the trills as indicated in the first example, which is in a slightly faster tempo. The second example is, of course, also possible in a somewhat slower tempo. The main objective is clarity and expressive logic. An ornament should never sound as if someone just pushed you in the back.
Two ways to play the trill.

For more on this topic, see Stannard, Neil, Demystifying Bach at the Piano: Problem Solving in the Inventions and Sinfonias, CreateSpace, 2016.

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Demystifying Bach at the Piano: Inventions and Sinfonias

Pianists are horizontalists. When confronted with competing horizontal lines, though, we are called upon to rethink our predilection for spinning a single line beautifully to the right. To some it may seem sacrilege, but we must think more vertically. In these pages we consider the techniques of coordinating more than one musical line. We learn to apply principles of grouping notes together and shaping lines in certain ways for technical ease. We consider fingerings,
sometimes more than one. When technical solutions coincide with musical objectives, we are delighted. But when there is a technical problem, we examine it on its own merits. No mindless rote here. We consider approaches to ornamentation and articulation and their expressive partners, dynamics and phrasing. All of this gently couched in physical movements so natural to the body as to be irresistible. Includes link to video demonstrations.

Thursday, October 27, 2016

Mystified No More: Further insights Into Piano Technique

     Some interested parties have written me commenting on Mystified No More, my newest book. What's up with the title, they want to know. And how is it different from the first volume? Well, the title is a reference to the first volume, Piano Technique Demystified: Insights Into Problem Solving. 
     So many pianists expressed interest in that first volume and so many questions about technique continued to pop up, I decided a sequel would be in order. The new book is a collection of essays organized like mini lessons on  technical issues in a wide range of repertoire. The overarching idea is to prepare the way for what I call a more "practical technique," an approach to playing the piano that encourages efficiency not only at the keyboard, but in the use of time. It includes access to abundant video demonstrations.
     The writing style is perhaps more literary, dare I say it, and revelatory of personal experiences and behind the scenes anecdotes. The first chapter, for example, explores connotations and denotations of the words work and play when applied to what we do at the piano. I recreate a scene in which a graduate student named David offers "a sturdy performance, quite effortful it seemed, as sweat dripped down the back of his neck and along the bridge of his nose, a precarious situation for his horn-rimmed glasses. Sound took on a physical presence in the room along with the students, drawing the paneled walls inward and giving me a sense that the room was much too small for the lot of us. Afterward, in the ensuing discussion David made a comment that has stuck with me all these
years, 'I don't play the piano,' he said, 'I work the piano.'" From this
a mystery develops. What did he actually mean and what in fact takes place when we deal with demanding repertoire, in this case Chopin's A-Flat Ballade and the first Liszt concerto? Along the way to finding solutions to this mystery I am taken for granted at an after-concert reception, get locked in the theater after a performance, invited to "strum out a tune" at a cocktail lounge and find myself seated at the counter at midnight in a truck stop diner wearing white tie and tails.