“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, 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.  

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

What Was Bach Thinking? Pianist Puzzler Answers

Bach on Schnapps?

     You already get my admiration if you recognize the piece as Sinfonia No. 10 in G Major, BWV 796, for keyboard. Why did he write it, though, and even more pressing, how does one play it on a keyboard?      
Bach Sinfonia No. 10.
     Why did he write it? This question rewards those who pay attention and read introductions. Bach explains in the introduction to his collection of Inventions and Sinfonias why he wrote them as follows: "So that those desirous of learning are shown a clear way not only (1) to learn to play cleanly in two parts, but also, after further progress, (2) to handle three obligate parts correctly and well; and along with this not only to obtain good inventions (ideas) but to develop the same well; above all, however, to achieve a cantabile style of playing and at the same time acquire a strong
foretaste of composition." So, in short, these are teaching pieces. Not only for learning keyboard and compositional techniques, but "above all to achieve a
cantabile style of playing." Surprise. I'll bet you thought Bach on the piano was supposed to sound like a typewriter.
     Finally, how is it played on the keyboard? Look at the articulation. The soprano voice crosses the alto, striking the same note with two different articulations at the same time. This is impossible. Yes, even on a two-manual instrument, if that is where you are headed.      Do you see that the soprano voice plays an eighth-note C while the alto sustains the same note? The pattern is repeated in each measure sequentially. (This is no problem in my string trio version, where violin and viola happily cross lines all the time.) The explanation, of course, is that the master is here concerned perhaps a tad more about the compositional technique of voice leading than he is about keyboard techniques.

     There are two possible performance options. The first is my favorite, although something is lost by removing the short eighth and replacing it with a sustained quarter.
Performance Option 1.
Performance Option 2.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Pianist Puzzler: What Was Bach Thinking?

Bach's Reaction to Schnapps
     Bach was a genius. Bach was a prolific genius. But I wonder if perhaps he and Anna had been sampling the Schnapps when he wrote this example.

     Here are your questions: What is it? Why did he write it? How do you play it? As soon as I get your answers, I'll be able to finish my book. (Just kidding.) Really. What was he thinking?
     Puzzler answers will follow soon.

Friday, October 7, 2016

Bach On the Piano: What? Damper Pedal?

J. S. Bach.

It is rarely, if ever, necessary to use pedal in Bach. It can sometimes be a convenience, though, especially if you share my predilection for physical ease.  In this example from the Sinfonia No. 7, it is quite possible to 
Don't Do This.
simulate a reasonable legato with the fingering I've supplied. Fingerings by some editors suggest an even more extreme finger legato, requiring contortions usually reserved for circus performers. As much as I enjoy the circus, I prefer to leave it under the big top.

Sinfonia 7, M 5, Legato Sixths.
     You may have noticed  that when a finger is repeated, finesse is required to keep an illusion of legato. This can be accomplished by remaining very close to the keys and minimizing each gesture. However, this passage is an ideal example of how we may use the resources of the piano in order to produce an even more convincing legato. Yes, I speak of the damper pedal, but I’ll deny it if you tell anyone. 
Bach Sinfonia 7, M5, Syncopated Pedal.

It's the One on the Right.
Here are the uses of the pedal in Bach: add warmth or accent to a single sonority; provide a connective link in a leap. We must always be diligent in our efforts to avoid blurring sonorities. With this in mind, we may use a syncopated pedal to enhance the illusion of legato in this passage.
     The arrows indicate the direction of forearm rotation. For example, the second finger G-sharp in the alto sends the hand rotationally rightward, so that it may turn back into the sixth with four and thumb.
     When playing Bach on the piano, use the piano's resources. Don't try to imitate the limitations of the harpsichord. Expand. Grow. It will still sound like Bach. I promise.

Monday, September 19, 2016

Bach As Teacher: Invention No. 1


J.S. Bach was a teacher. In his day, teaching was not only about keyboard facility but also included elements of composition and style. In short, Bach taught music. In his preface to the Inventions and Sinfonias, he explains that he has created an “honest method” for the purpose of learning to play “clearly” first two parts, then three parts. Along the way he hoped the “amateur” would develop, in addition to the ability to handle all the parts well, “good ideas.” He writes that “above all” the player should “achieve a cantabile style in playing and acquire a strong foretaste of composition.”
     Let’s talk about cantabile. This is my favorite Bach quote. I
raise it whenever I encounter a pianist who attempts a harpsichord facsimile on the modern piano. You know the type of player I mean. This is someone who feels that all Bach playing is detached.  Even the great harpsichordist Wanda Landowska declared that her playing was connected, not detached. I understand why some pianists do this. They hope to imitate the quill plucking the strings. In the process they discard the natural reverberation that plucking produces. 

   We know that Bach favored the clavichord for its ability to produce nuanced inflections, not unlike a piano, though very much more subtle. The clavichord was an entre nous instrument, its sound intimate and not designed for a modern concert hall. It seems to me Bach had this reference in mind when he wrote that his music should be expressive in the way that singing can be expressive. 
      So here we have a conundrum. On the one hand we are to play the parts clearly, but at the same time be expressive. No worries. We can separate out the two parts of the puzzle and put them back together again. Bach would be proud. 
Invention I, MM 1-2.
    In the first Invention, I have noticed from time to time that students trip over the first leap in measure one. The intention is to begin lyrically with the sixteenths, but the leap from five on G to three on C sounds like a hiccup. Well, it is.
       Use the fifth finger as a hinge to move rotationally to three, and in the process separate the G from the C. It feels connected because of the rotation. Slightly shortening the G, however, gives the passage a characteristic articulation. This is still cantabile.
Pluck and Rotate.

   We look for musical and technical shapes in order give expression to what we play. Here is a good example of grouping and shaping in both guises. Group notes together that move in the same direction. Class, what are the appropriate shapes? Yes, over on the way down, under on the way up. It's the reverse in the left hand.
Invention I, MM 3-4, Grouping and Shaping.

         There is of course much more to consider, and it is a fascinating topic. Every student plays at least some of the inventions at one time or another. Maybe I should write a book on solving technical problems in the Inventions and Sinfonias. Oh, wait. I am.

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Pianist Puzzler: Chopin Ballade in A-Flat My Solution

When I was a college freshman, my teacher, Muriel Kerr, assigned Chopin's A-Flat Ballade. I was glad to play it, but hadn't a clue how to "honestly" negotiate passages like this. So, I just threw myself at them. Somehow I passed muster, but never felt really sure of myself. How did you do with your solution?
     In this particular passage, we have to ask ourselves first how the composer intends for us to play the small notes. We know from notations he made in students' scores that appoggiaturas are to be played on the beat. (See Howard Ferguson, Keyboard Interpretation.) Personally, I sometimes find this idea not aways the most musical of solutions. Here, however, it makes perfect sense. I play this as indicated below.

Chopin Ballade in A-Flat

     As always, when the composer gives us a group of small notes that are not accounted for in the overall rhythmic scheme, we have to decide what that rhythm will be and how to place those notes with the adjoining parts. This goes for arpeggiated chords that are indicated with a symbol, as in the left hand. Side note, the thumb
notes, the A-flats, may be taken with the right hand. This becomes even more of an issue later, when the intervals are more extended. The tied-over melody note will have decayed to such a point as to be inaudible anyway. Test this theory on your own piano to see if I'm right.