“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.”

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.

Tuesday, November 27, 2018

Chopin's Ocean Etude

A student writes: "Many of [Chopin's] etudes seem to require what feels like an impossible speed to sound even like a slow version of themselves. Short of just working on other things until my technique gets closer to what is needed, is there anything that can be done with the etudes themselves? The Op.25, #12, for instance, is more meaningfully expressive than the combination of groans, sighs and screams that suggest themselves as alternatives. Is there a general strategy to learning “impossible” pieces that is neither a waste of time nor harmful?"

Chopin's Ocean Etude
     The simple answer to the question is yes, there is a strategy for learning the impossible, which, of course, renders such passages possible. In this example the main technical issue—its "etudeness"–has to do with how the hand moves from one octave position to the next. 
     First, a word or two about the Chopin Etudes. These are concert pieces designed to show off different aspects of skilled pianism. They are not a pedagogical tool, at least not in the sense of so-called progressive studies such as Czerny, Hanon or method books. They require an advanced insight into piano technique. Having said that, any piece of music we study is at least in some sense an etude, especially if it contains passages that require special attention to mechanics.
     If this student enjoys the sound of the "Ocean" Etude, then by all means he should work on it. This means that he should first decide on the required movements and work them in gradually, short sections at a time. As always, we use the last note of one group to propel us to the first note of the next group. In this case, the right-hand fifth finger takes the hand rotationally to the thumb. (The left hand is the same movement, thumb to five.) For a succinct demonstration click here:

     Even if he doesn't get the tempo up right away, he will develop important technical concepts and in the process have a head start on a piece he enjoys. 

Thursday, November 8, 2018

Instructive and Cautionary Stories from Musical Life

Other Stories from Musical Life


   One of my readers, a former student, found a few typos in the first edition of my collection of autobiographical stories (sigh). What can I say? Everyone needs an editor. So, I looked at it yet again and made a few changes. Those of you who already have the first edition should hold on to it, perhaps have it bronzed, because one day it will undoubtedly be very valuable. 

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Chopin Etudes

A number of readers have asked me, repeatedly, to write about
 the Chopin Etudes—all of them. This, needless to say, would be a huge undertaking. It's a request I've not taken seriously. Call me daring (foolish?) but now I've decided to at least explore the challenge.  
    The catalyst is a student's gleeful reminder of Alfred Cortot's edition, which carries the misunderstandings of the 19th century to the nth degree, that all we have to do is stretch and pull our limbs until they are "strong"(sic). 
Alfred Cortot
Cortot was himself a remarkable artist, his artistic feet planted firmly in the 19th century. He was supremely gifted as a youth, if not a child prodigy in the usual exploitative sense, as he was admitted to the Paris Conservatory at the age of nine. His professional debut came in his 19th year. This suggests to me that it is unlikely he practiced the etudes using the guidelines he later 
published, which he did, I'm sure, in good faith. This is just a supposition on my part, not unlike my supposition that Czerny never practiced his exercises. Czerny made his official debut at the prodigious age of nine, although he began private concerts much earlier.
     My purpose here is to inquire of you, gentle reader, whether you have particular technical issues in any of the etudes that I might be able to shed some light on. If so, identify the passage using measure numbers and I'll try to include it. Use the  Contact Me tab above or the comment button below, which, I've just discovered has been out of order..

Tuesday, September 4, 2018

Brahms Paganini Variations

Brahms in his study.
A pianist writes asking for suggestions on technical approaches to the fourth variation in this technically challenging set of etude-like variations. I use the word etude advisedly. Everything we play that is of consequence requires us to figure out its etude-ness, the how-tos. 
   "The first 4 measures require a trill," he writes, "presumably on the top note, seemingly with 4 and 5, with other notes of the chord beneath it briefly played by other fingers and then released.  Certainly trills with 4 and 5 are difficult." In his quest for information, he "found a heated debate about whether it is acceptable to use other fingers on the top trill when they become available after releasing the lower notes, especially for smaller hands, or whether one is obliged to employ the very difficult 4/5 trill in these 4 measures." I believe, according to his report, that the word cheating may have been bandied about. (As far as I know, Brahms did not indicate any fingering.)
Brahms Paganini Var. 4, MM 1-2

   Such an important issue has been raised here—yet again. I'm very familiar with the "cheater" school of thought. My answer to that is the score tells us how the music should sound, not how it feels in our hands. This means that we get to choose fingerings and redistribute notes between the hands in any manner that suits us as long as in so doing we don't hamper the musical objective, even uncross hands if it makes the music more technically accessible. The audience doesn't care what fingers you use. They just want a nice concert.
   Most of the concert music we play on the piano was written by great (mostly) pianists for themselves to play. So I read these scores assuming that some built-in accommodations are intended. The composer can't really give technical explanations in his score, if you follow my logic. In the above example, the octave chord is one unit, the trill another. By that I mean, play the chord with 1, 3, 5, bouncing immediately to 5 on the F (yes, 5-5) and trill with 5-3, the F being the second note of the trill. This works very well if the arm is kept at a slight (slight!) angle, the elbow a tiny bit in toward the torso. (It is also possible to begin the trill by starting on 4, yes, over 5, and trill with 2-3 until the triplet [see below], which would be 2-4-3 in order to get the thumb closer to the next octave position.) The D-sharp is the end of the group, which provides the spring-board (slight up) for landing down again on the next chord. This is really rather easy once worked in carefully.

Brahms Paganini Var. 4 M1
Fingerings and Rhythm

More important than fingering, though, is the rhythm of the trill. Many pianists make the mistake of seeing trill and throw themselves at it. All ornaments indicated with a symbol require a place in time. Figure out how many notes you will play and in what rhythms and how they fit with the left hand. Try starting with four groups of two 16ths for each of the eighths in the left hand, making a 16th-note triplet on the fifth eighth. Depending on your tempo, this might actually be enough of a trill. If you want a faster trill (slower tempo?) try making triplets on each eighth. (I think duple is fast enough.) The upshot here is that once this coordination has been well worked in, it is possible to abandon the precise rhythms, letting the trill find its own number of notes. The process teaches the hand what it feels like to be free, and not jam, which is what can happen if tackled without thought.
   In sixty years of playing the piano, I have never felt required to play an extended trill with four and five. If you know of such a passage in standard repertoire, I'd be glad to know about it.

Monday, August 20, 2018

Stories from a Musical Life

I've just published a collection of autobiographical stories. Call them sins of my old age, if you like (apologies to Rossini). Strange as they may at first seem, these stories are as close to the truth as words on paper can achieve. Distinguished young cello virtuoso Sarah Mae Spieler really did receive a dire warning in a Chinese restaurant under the watchful eye, singular, of a lime-green dragon. And only moments later, the oddest coincidence involving a pastry she’d never heard of changed her life. Axel Stowne, in a muddle over a Beethoven piano sonata and, well, his life, really did find a Goldfish on Palm Avenue. Gilbert Trillweiler without a doubt took the most circuitous route possible on the way to finding his way in music. The offspring of British actress Margaret Rutherford makes an entrance at a very unusual tea party in the garden of an historic home in Charleston, South Carolina. 
    The thoughtful reader will notice here an overlapping of certain incidents, the retelling of stories in different contexts, which, if nothing else corroborates their veracity. Sarah Mae, Axel and Gilbert are pseudonyms, as are Dorothea, Cheryl, Susan and Morris. The others are real. Here you will find, gentle reader food for thought, or at the very least, entertainment. I can attest to the fact that the incidents are all true because I was there.
     Read an excerpt here: The Grapefruit Cake incident.