“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.”
Plato

Monday, March 11, 2019

Chopin's Octave Etude

     Sometime ago I posted a YouTube video
Chopin
demonstration of octave playing in Chopin's octave etude. (You can view it HERE.) My point was that fingering octaves using fourth finger on black keys does not make the octaves faster or more legato and the potential for injury is considerable. 

     I received the following two comments:
     "What is wrong with chromatic octave fingerings? My teacher and many pianists use the 4th finger on black keys and 5th on white keys. Is it only bad for small hands? I am confused because all other sources told me to use the latter fingering when playing this piece."
      "I agree that fingering octaves doesn't necessarily make them faster or more legato, but it comes down to the pianist's hands. Some people might find using 4 on black keys more comfortable since there's less movement. With smaller hands this might be uncomfortable but I don't agree with telling everyone to always use 5 just because it's better suited for your hands."

     My use of all fives has nothing to do with the size of the hand. Practicing octaves repeatedly, enough to make virtuoso octave passages secure, the potential for injury is considerable when stretching—1-4 or 1-3 (yikes)—even in a large hand. FYI, moving is more efficient than
Muscles Pulled Against
One Another
stretching. When stretching, muscles tend to work against each other, hence the feeling of tightness pianists often feel when playing these passages. Forearm rotation alleviates this problem. I play consecutive chromatic octaves in line with the black keys and hinged at the fifth finger. The rotation is so slight as to be virtually invisible (something Matthay described at the turn of the last century). 

     Since you agree that nothing is to be gained by fingering octaves, why not explore using the hand the way it was designed to be used? Look up Gary Graffman and Leon Fleisher, the latter of whom developed focal dystonia, a condition ​caused by muscle stress and overuse. Try this: First play a black key octave with 1-4 (or even 1-3). Then, play that octave with 1-5 and ask yourself which feels smaller.

Saturday, March 9, 2019

Muriel Kerr plays Hindemith 3rd Sonata

Muriel Kerr on the Cover of her
RCA Recording
   One afternoon in 1962 I arrived for my piano lesson with Muriel Kerr to find her practicing the Hindemith 3rd sonata, one of her signature pieces. I didn't know the sonata and walked over to the other piano, not the one students played, to look over her shoulder. There was no score. I said,
Paul Hindemith
"Well I guess I'm not ever to know what this is," or words to that effect. She laughed and gave me the title, playing all the while. 

     I never had the pleasure of hearing her in recital, though I played double bass in the university orchestra when she played Brahms' B-flat concerto. There was also  a chamber music concert with Jascha Heifetz, Gregor Piatagorsky and William Primrose in the Brahms C minor Piano Quartet. She appeared again with the university orchestra with the other two faculty pianists in a performance of Liszt's "Hexameron," a pastiche of variations by five  composer-performers, each contributing one variation: Frédéric Chopin, Carl Czerny, Henri Herz, Johann Peter Pixis and Sigismond Thalberg. Kerr played the variation in double notes. (To understand better why she was asked to play the double-notes variation, See Scriabin under the "listen" tab above.)
     Here is the Hindemith from that commercial recording: Muriel Kerr plays Hindemith 3rd Sonata.

Thursday, February 28, 2019

Piano as Sport: Is Competition Really Necessary?

     A FaceBook page I came across offered a comparison of sixteen celebrated pianists playing in succession the famous octave passage in Tchaikovsky's first concerto. The participants in
the discussion opined on which was best, meaning who played them the fastest. This reminded me of being at the horse races, where the winner received a prize and those who bet correctly came away with cash.
     Each of these performances was accurate, dramatic and musically appropriate. How fast does it need to be in order to make the musical point? I
have to wonder why some folks want to turn art into sport. In music, it seems to me, faster is not necessarily more effective musically. I heard a very distinguished pianist with a justifiably legendary technique play the Rachmaninoff 3rd concerto so fast I was left wondering where all the great moments had gone. There's a Sufi saying that goes something like this: The man was in such a hurry to get to heaven that he ran right past it.
      Since concert fees are negotiated in advance, why not just enjoy the music on its own terms? There will be no prize money and the audience hasn't placed any bets. We can compare and admire pianists for their artistry without making a competition out of it. Jody Foster does a funny take in the film Maverick when she asks, "Do you want to see the fastest gun in the west?" Then immediately without moving at all says, "Do you want to see it again?"

Monday, February 11, 2019

Rachmaninoff 2nd Concerto: Small Point, Universal Application

     
   
Rachmaninoff
My student complained of awkwardness in the second movement of Rachmaninoff's C minor concerto, where the hands cross over one another. These measures are in the poco piu mosso section. He tried to keep his left hand in place, which put the thumb on G-sharp bringing the left hand in toward the black keys. This made it more difficult to cross the right hand over to its G-sharp thumb an octave below. Having both thumbs in and the hands crossed is a prescription for awkwardness, if not disaster. Collision is likely. In
physics we learn that two solid objects cannot occupy the same space at the same time. 
Of course, the right hand could play its G-sharp with the second finger, but that feels farther. Use the F-natural as a spring board in order to move laterally (rotationally) over the lower left hand to the low G-sharp.

     Two measures later a similar passage places the thumbs again on the same plane with a crossing, this time out on the white keys—that is, if one chooses to use the thumb both times. I prefer to use the second finger on the low right-hand G-natural this time in order to avoid a possible collision. Keep the left hand out and as low as possible  Because of the ritardando, though, this is not as big an issue.
     The moral, then, is to plan hand crossings in order to avoid having the hands on the same plane whenever possible. One hand is higher, the other lower. I'm thinking now of Ravel, particularly the Sonatine opening. The piano literature is full of these small issues that, without planning, can cause large problems.

Tuesday, February 5, 2019

Brahms and Chopin: Impossible trills in the First Cello Sonata, B Minor Rhapsody, Heroic Polonaise and G Minor Ballade

Brahms
     My very advanced student (young artist, really) had an opportunity to play the Brahms E Minor cello sonata with a colleague. Chamber music excursions are to be encouraged,  as there can be no better opportunity for soloists to learn how to listen to themselves in relation to their surroundings. As we all know, Brahms' piano writing can seem pesky when taken at face (score) value. Consider the "impossible" trills in the D Minor Concerto. But I'll leave those to another time.
     Beginning in measure 20 of the cello sonata's
third movement, a series of octave-infused trills presents pianists with a quandary. We can be pretty sure the rascally composer doesn't mean to trill in octaves with one hand. (This is not the aforementioned concerto.) My student asked the relevant question: "How in the h*** do I do that?" He is not the first to ask. 
     
     The solution is really quite simple. Get off the thumb immediately after striking it and move the weight of the hand over to the ornament. This means that you—yes, you—take your thumb with your hand; don't leave it extended to where it used to be. Now, instead of throwing yourself at a wild and crazy machine-gun trill, decide on how many notes will fit into the space you've allotted. This depends to some extent on your tempo. I've found that a simple turn of five notes creates the desired effect. A touch of pedal added, and the thumb octave also gets its due. My student found that moving from the last beat of measure 23 was the most challenging, which is the 2nd example below.
Brahms E Minor Sonata for Cello and Piano,
third movement mm 22-23
     A similar approach, that is, closing the hand in 
order to accommodate an ornament, may be
Not this!
applied in other repertoire. Look at the opening of Brahms' B Minor Rhapsody. Here the composer writes a changing note group after an octave. This is not the same as a trill, I know, but you would be surprised at how many students don't release the octave, due perhaps to the heightened agitation of the musical effect. Play the octave alone, then begin over with  the triplet, connecting the two with pedal. I call this a technical grouping, not a musical one. 

     And again, in Chopin I can think of two examples off the top of my head (where there used to be a lot more hair). In the "Heroic" Polonaise, second page, play the first sixteenth alone, then group the next four sixteenths together beginning from the short trill, a triplet, really. This approach helps to close the hand, which should not remain open. The solution is similar in measure 119 of the G Minor Ballade, where octave scales begin with a trill on top of an octave. Again, get away from the thumb. Here I play a group of four notes beginning with the thumb F-sharp and moving to the upper F-sharp (1-4-5-4).

Tuesday, January 8, 2019

Brahms Op. 117, No. 1, by Carl Friedberg

Carl Friedberg 1872-1955


     Carl Friedberg was one of the most successful and distinguished pianists who emerged from the studio of Clara Schumann. He was one of the early piano professors at what would later become the Juilliard School. From his studio came some of the biggest names of the first part of the 20th century: Malcom Frager, Bruce Hungerford, William Masselos and Elly Ney. His professional debut was with the Vienna Philharmonic under the baton of Gustav Mahler. Not so bad.
     Now here's where I sat up and took notice when reading his bio. In 1893 he played an all Brahms program with the composer in the audience. Apparently, Brahms admired his playing and coached him in private on most of his pieces. Coached by Brahms! So, when we listen to his playing, we may in fact be coming as close as we can to hearing Brahms himself. Maybe. It's a big responsibility to pile onto Friedberg's hands. Still, we listen to his one commercial recording—Friedberg apparently disliked recorded piano sound—and it gives us food for thought. The eighty-one-year-old pianist plays here the first of the Opus 117 Intermezzos: Carl Friedberg.