“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 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 and where-fors. 
   "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.

Sunday, June 24, 2018

Alfred Cortot and "The Poet Speaks"

Alfred Cortot
     My pianist friend reminded me the other day of the great early 20th century French pianist Alfred Cortot. He made many recordings, some more accurate than others, but always with the musical objectives in tact. Don't bother with his editions of Chopin Etudes with endless examples of mindless exercises meant to strengthen the fingers. They are at best a waste of time and potentially harmful. Personally, I doubt he ever used them himself, as he was a prodigy. 
     Still, he was a fine musician and eloquent teacher. Here is his explication of the final piece in Schumann's Kinderszenen, Der Dichter Spricht: Cortot and "The Poet Speaks."

Thursday, June 21, 2018

Bach-Philipp and Issues of Pedaling

J. S. Bach
     My far-flung student, the one who prefers not to Skype but rather send videos with written questions, startled me with some unusual pedal issues. He is playing the Isador Philipp transcription of the "Little" G Minor organ fugue of Bach. He complained of cramping in his calf as the result of pedaling in this piece. Well, I've never before heard of leg injuries from playing the piano. Since I
Isador Philipp
didn't have a clear view in the video of his foot, I responded first to his written statements with some basic pedaling techniques in Bach.

      In unadulterated Bach, which this isn't, pedaling is almost non-existent. That is, we pedal in such a way as to avoid blurring textures. So, we can use pedal on a single chord for warmth or accent; we can use pedal to assist in making a legato connection in a melodic leap (rarely necessary). In Philipp's transcription, I would begin with these ideas in mind, particularly regarding clarity of textures—where he allows for that possibility. We can think of this piece as more romantic than Baroque, imagining a large organ resonating in a cathedral.
     Now, for the more pertinent issues of pain in the leg. Remember, playing the piano is easy and doesn't hurt, not even when using the pedals.  The ball of the foot remains on the pedal, rising only to the point where the dampers release. More than that is overkill. With a properly adjusted pedal, the movement of the foot is almost imperceptible. The basic pedal technique is the so-called syncopated pedal in which the pedal acts on a note to sustain it while the hand moves to a different note, at which time the pedal is reactivated. A flutter pedal is used to release some of the accumulated sound, but not all of it. You can experiment with this technique by playing a chord, putting the pedal down, releasing the keys just to near the point of sound and allowing your foot to come up only part way, not all the way to a complete release of sound. 
     Listening to the sound you make is, of course, always a good
approach, particularly apropos of clarity. I think most advanced pianists pedal "by ear." That is, listening for the degree to which sonorities overlap and how much of that is desirable. If there are passages that are particularly confounding, you can take a technical approach to the use of the pedal, deciding when or if it should be applied and on exactly which note it should be depressed. Do this slowly and thoughtfully, gradually working in the pedal technique the way you would other techniques.
     I concluded that his piano has to be some how out of adjustment if he can't depress the pedal easily with the ball of his foot. He should not have to stomp on it.