“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, March 26, 2020

Grapefruit Cake Incident on Kindle

Dear Blogees,

Some of my readers—well, a few—okay, two have wondered why my semi-autobiographical book The Grapefruit Cake Incident and Other Stories Instructive and Cautionary from a Musical Life isn't available on Kindle. This set me wondering, too. And, having put the correct wheels in motion, the said book is now available for direct download to your own device or visit Amazon here:

Thursday, March 12, 2020

Chopin's Barcarolle: Trills and Other Imposibilities

     A student writes: "There are so many passages [in Chopin's Barcarolle] that at first view seem basically impossible. I am intimidated any time I see trills and other ornaments."
      Whenever a student complains of difficulty with ornaments, I feel moved to begin my standard lecture on the topic. It begins: All ornaments indicated only with a symbol require a place in time. We pianists have to decide which notes to play, how many, in what rhythm and how to fit them with other voices. When someone has trouble with a particular ornament, it usually means they are throwing themselves at it, trying for a machine-gun effect, when in fact, a carefully worked-out rhythmic plan will solve the problem. 
      This does not mean that in performance a trill or other ornament needs to sound pedantic. Once the design of the passage that includes the ornament has been carefully worked-out, it is usually possible to disguise the rhythmic regularity or abandon it entirely, leaving the coordination between it and the other voices intact.
       Consider this example in measure 20. It really is not necessary to hire an assistant.
Chopin Barcarolle, M 20
      Now have a look at a simple solution.

Where you see the arrows, use the 5th-finger E-sharp to rotate the hand toward the chord. It is not necessary to hold down the thumb eighths, as the pedal will do that for you. Likewise, measure 21 may be executed as follows.
Chopin Barcarolle, M 21, As Played
(Alternatively, the 16th-note F-sharp may be played with the left hand.)
     Understandably, my correspondent adds to his complaint several passages of trills in thirds, such as the ones in measures 27 and 28. They all may be handled in much the same way. I finger them using 1-5 to 2-4. It is possible to use 2-3 on the minor third.
Chopin Barcarolle, MM27-28, Thirds Trill
The upward pointing arrow signifies a slight move in toward the fall board. Remember, the thumb likes to play in the direction of in. The downward pointing arrow indicates a slight move back out again toward the torso. Practice these gestures first alone very slowly to feel the pulse. Then add the left hand to feel the coordination. At first, it may seem a little like patting the head and rubbing the stomach. Allow the hand to be mostly perpendicular to the keyboard in this case, rather than at a marked angle.
     The next impossibility has to do with playing passages in sixths. Very often, perhaps usually, the technical grouping is different from the way the notes appear on the page. The sixteenth-note sixths in measure fourteen are printed with six notes under one bar. This causes brain freeze. We could try to play in groups of two from upper to lower. This is already an improvement. But there is a still an easier way. Do you see it? Try this:
Chopin Barcarolle, M 14, Sixths grouped in pairs from lower.
A few comments: I play the dotted-quarter sixth with 1-5 (a small point). Remember, after a long note it is perfectly alright to start over with fingering; it is not necessary to make a literal connection to what follows. No one will yell at you, or even notice. The final sixteenth, the octave, will propel you very easily to the next downbeat if you use the fifth finger as a hinge and move rotationally. This approach to parallel sixths works well in other passages.


Sunday, February 23, 2020

Arms and the Pianist

     A student writes: "For years I have heard about
using arm weight when playing and that we should 'drop weight' into the keyboard. I have seen demonstrations of this method in which people have literally held their arm up high and then allowed it to drop as dead weight into the keyboard espousing this to be how we should get a deep, rich tone and also how to play forte. This has always seemed so vague to me as how can one be close to the keys and also drop from a distance? How can one play this way? And should one?" 
     The weight of the forearm is essential to all playing. We apply more or less weight depending on the dynamic. This begs the question of how to get that weight into the key. Yes, we can drop from above into the key. I use this gesture in teaching, but only to help the student feel what it's like to play a single note that is supported by the arm. This is not a 'dead weight,' but rather a controlled movement. (I use the idea of 'dead weight' in the context of making leaps, which is another topic.) If you do this, go no farther down than the bottom of the key with the forearm. The downward motion stops at that point. I mention this because many pianists continue to drop the wrist after the note has been struck.

     We need the wrist to be straight (but flexible), like a bridge, between the hand and forearm in order to access the weight of the forearm rotationally. If you allow the wrist to drop, the weight goes into the floor, which is counter-productive; once the note has been played only God can change it. But this is not, of course, a quick movement.  
     The rotation of the forearm is how we transfer
the weight from one note to the next. It's like walking, putting one foot in front of the other, shifting all the weight in doing so. This is another tool I use to help students feel what it's like to have the arm behind the note that is being played. Again, though, forearm rotation is only a tool designed to demonstrate a sensation. In order to progress laterally up and down the keyboard in speed, we rely on a more general way to get the arm behind the finger. This is called shaping. 
     The student responds: "Then it is not necessary to lift high and drop? But what about very loud, chordal playing? Does this involve a drop from above? I have seen pianists play chords with their hands already resting on the keys with no drop at all. Is the sensation anything like pressing into the keys?"
     No, it is not necessary or even desirable to drop from a height, which is not a quick movement for fast playing. In fact, the chances of hurting yourself increase proportionately the higher you drop from. I tell children not to hit the piano or it will hit you back. As I mentioned above, I use this "drop" only as a teaching tool to feel the sensation of weight. 
     For slow playing you can "use a broom handle," as Taubman would say. You can get just as much sound springing from the key as you can dropping from above, as in, say, the opening chords of the Tchaikovsky concerto. The sensation is rather like flexing your knees when attempting to dive from a diving board. If you want a percussive sound as in, say, a Prokofiev concerto, go quicker into the keybed, but still from the key, or slightly above the key, depending on the tempo. Though it may sometimes look otherwise, most playing is from the key, yes, even leaps.

Friday, February 14, 2020

Notes from a Life in Music


Neil at Six,
Music still in his future.
He could, however, carry the
Beethoven 5th in a 10 lb.
album of  78s

     (You may fast-forward to the next entry. Oh, shoot. I haven't written it yet. But it will probably be about articulation in Mozart and how, despite modern scholarship, the primary sources haven't changed. )  
     My recent autobiographical, not entirely expurgated collection of stories is available again freshly proofed. If in the process of reading these blog entries you've ever wondered how the author came to be or what influences shaped his approach, here is your chance to explore those questions.  

All Southern California High School Orchestra. I'm the principal Double Bass at the right

A House Concert in New York
Juilliard Years

Be the first on your block to find out why eminent young cellist Sarah Mae Spieler really avoided Mondays. When anyone asked her, "Sarah simply referred them to the policies of fine restaurants and hairdressers. Even her astrologer wouldn't take clients on Mondays, except in emergencies." Who do you think the woman in
Newly graduated trained killer.
black is, the one who posited a riddle, and was then erased as if she'd never been? Find out how he learned to "get after" a technical problem and play more "honestly." Follow the protagonist's circuitous routes and happy accidents to 

The Porgy and Bess years.
performances at Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Center, The Kennedy Center, Moscow, Berlin and a career in music. 

(Sales of this volume help support the continuation of this blog.)

Thursday, February 13, 2020

Beethoven's Tempest Sonata, 3rd movement: Fingering

     A student inquires about fingering choices in
Beethoven 1770-1827
the third movement of Beethoven's Sonata Op. 31, No. 2, the so-called "Tempest" (composed 1801-02). Of course Beethoven did not attach that name to it. When asked 
for interpretive hints by Schindler, Beethoven's friend and helper, the master apparently referred him to Shakespeare's play, The Tempest.  No doubt Beethoven had in mind the first scene of the play, which takes place at sea during a storm.
     Personally, when considering the opening of
Gretchen at her Spinning Wheel
the third movement, I think of Schubert's "Gretchen am Spinnrade" (Gretchen at the Spinning Wheel), also inspired by a high-class poet, Goethe. The Schubert Lied, of course, had not been written yet. (Stay with me here. I promise to attach all of this to matters of fingering.)                         
     I could over-simplify and suggest looking at an unedited edition. Oh, okay, I will. 
Beethoven Op. 31, No. 2, MM 1-5
     Notice that there are no pedal indications. Notice, too, and this is stylistically the most important, Beethoven gives the first bass note in each measure an extra stem and two flags. This bass-note is not a pedal point, meaning that it should not be held or caught in the pedal as some editions (Von B├╝low, for example, or even Arrau) would have us do—and many fine contemporary pianists take that advice. I don't. Beethoven gives length instead to the A, which comes on the weakest part of the beat, yet has slightly more importance.
     Now look at the melodic notes on the downbeats of each measure. Beethoven places a dot on these notes. At the risk of being excessively picky, I ask you to consider: Is this a staccato? If so, should it be the same length as the bass 16th? If that's so, why didn't he make it a 16th, too? Just lazy? Okay, I'll cut to the chase. I play the eighth-note it's full length with a slight melodic accent. We know that Beethoven used the dot sometimes in this way. (Have a look at the arpeggios on the first page of his Op. 110 sonata.)
     Articulation is important to consider apropos of fingering because of the tiniest coordination issue that occurs between right and left hands when giving the right-hand eighth some length and accent while getting off of the 16th in the left hand. Once organized—and it really isn't difficult—the result is a more transparent, slightly askew, slightly agitated forward motion, not unlike the sound of a spinning wheel and its foot treadle. Gretchen is not at sea in a storm, but she is on the edge of madness as she spins.
Schubert's "Gretchen am Spinnrade"
     Editions differ as to how to finger the left hand, some seeming to ignore what I think are Beethoven's intentions. The issue hinges on which finger to use for the repeated A—4, 3 or 2. Here are my suggestions: 
Beethoven Op.31, no.2 MM 1-5
My Fingering
Since allegretto is not very fast, it is possible to detach the bass note and leap to the A with the fourth finger. I would never use three, as it creates a stretch to the second finger.
     And in case you don't believe me regarding the articulation, look at measures nine to thirteen, where Beethoven changes his mind.

Tuesday, February 11, 2020

Skype Piano Lessons

Piano by Skype

     Over the years, some of my students who've moved away have asked for Skype lessons. At first, I wasn't sure I wanted to teach long distance, but once I tried it I found it to be nearly as
effective as in-person lessons. The only thing missing really is the ability to physically guide the student's hand. A flexible camera aimed at the keys and access to Skype are all that's necessary. So, I've decided to open up Skype lessons for anyone who would like to explore long-distance piano. To inquire, use the "contact' tab above, leave a comment below or visit my website.