“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.”

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

On Sight Reading

There is really no such thing as "sight reading." Sight reading consists of learning to recognize already familiar patterns that are put together in different ways, very much like the way letters are put together to form words. This sounds like evasion, I know, but if you consider the topic with this idea in mind, you will conclude that the best way to learn to sight read well is to do it on a regular basis.

I know this is how I developed my reading skills. From my first piano book, The Adult at the Piano, I was armed with the ability to associate note-heads with keys of the piano and I was off and running through any literature I could get my hands on. And incidentally, being a fluent sight-reader will open many doors, sometimes lucrative ones.

There are sight reading exercises available that approach the topic in this way, gradually increasing the types of figures that are combined. But I've concluded that that approach is too dry and a-musical. It's best to have available some pieces that are several levels easier than what one can actually play.

Some procedures:

1. Scan the piece before playing, noticing the composer's directions and any oddities, i.e., accidentals, tempo changes, etc.

2.  Think of a tempo that should work for the quickest passages.

3.  Set that tempo and don't stop for anything. If you have trouble, go to the next beat or next measure, but keep the pulse going. Teacher/student duets are great for this and there are many such collections: Diabelli Op. 149 & Op. 163; Four Centuries of Piano Duet Music by Cameron McGraw in four volumes and graded for difficulty. These are not transcriptions, but rather original pieces for piano duet.

4.  Make a conscious decision from the start to try to notice all musical directions in the score: dynamics, articulation, etc.

5.  Keep eyes on the music; not on the hands.

6.  Always look ahead in the score, not at what has just been played.

7.  No mental judgements while playing. A post mortem afterwards, if you must.

8.  Keep in mind that the objective is to make music, not just rattle off notes.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

On Practicing (Again)

A student writes: "So I play every single day, at least 3 hours and some of the time feel like I am in control of my playing completely, while other days I feel like I never played piano. "

Well, everyone has a bad day. But what this student describes probably has as much to do with focus at that particular moment as with preparation. 

But I suspect the quality of his practicing is deficient in some way. This is a valid subject to bring up with a teacher. How should I practice? What should I do with a given passage?

Briefly: For me, most practicing is under tempo and in small segments. In this way details are more easily absorbed. I begin with the most problematic spots; I almost never begin at the first measure (unless that's a problem spot). Then, there is another type of practicing called "performance" practicing, in which I play through without stopping and then take stock of how it sounded and how it felt.

A lesson, for me, is not necessarily a performance in which the student plays through a piece. I would rather the student show me the places where he/she has trouble, rather than try to hide problems (as one does in a performance). We can then work on the problems together.

Ideally, the working-out process protects us from making errors. If we first decide on technical solutions (fingerings, shapes, what the hand needs) and then work these solutions in gradually from slow to fast (not slower than you need or faster than you can), then the learning process is always positive. I point out that a learning process is always taking place whether it's right or wrong. So, it behooves us to practice thoughtfully and with deliberation. Avoid rote playing at all costs.

(See my post On Practicing elsewhere in the blog.)

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

The Pressure of the Practice-Room Peer

It's Not A Competition

A student traveling abroad wrote to me of his experience at Steinway, where he had rented a practice room. My student is fairly new to formal piano study, though he has worked on his own for many months. He has the advantage of being able to learn repertoire very quickly and is able to play quite creditably several of the WTC, all movements of the Moonlight Sonata and a few of the Chopin Nocturnes, all from a very secure memory. (I find this ability to be remarkable.)

He found himself in a room next to a much more experienced pianist who was practicing a modern, very complicated-sounding piece, which had an intimidating effect on my student. He apparently began to feel inadequate, even to the point of not being able to remember the pieces he had come to practice. 

So let me say this: Comparisons with other pianists are both inevitable and futile. It can turn you into a ghost. Try to avoid listening to other pianists playing your repertoire (I know!). If you do listen to recordings, listen to more than one performance of the same piece in order to prove to yourself there can be differences in approaches. This will give you permission to be your own pianist. Go to live performances when possible, as these are more human and can be very instructive. When I was working on the Liszt sonata, I had the opportunity to hear Emil Gilels play it in Los Angeles. It was a piece he had recorded and was known for. Well, it was a wonderful performance in many ways, but not at all pristine. Over the years, I've had many such experiences hearing the great and famous appear in public as human beings. Finally, try to limit your comparisons to yourself of today with yourself of before. Revel in your progress and this will give you courage. We have to evaluate our performances in order to make progress, so take note of your needs (notice I don't say weaknesses). Be kind to yourself in the process.

My student says he left early because he just couldn't concentrate; this practice peer had ruined the whole thing. And when he snuck a peek into the neighboring room he saw a young Asian man, dancing wildly at the keyboard, and looking everywhere BUT the keys. "Seriously I don't know how his fingers found the notes, he was moving so much." My student had the impression that this other pianist could play any repertoire with ease and his own efforts, my student's, seemed to pale in comparison.

The pressure of practice-room peers! This is something most music students in conservatories have to deal with. But since my student hadn't been in a formal music school, he had no experience of this. It takes getting used to. I remember the practice room days when there would be a constant awareness that someone could hear what I was doing. Sometimes, it was difficult to resist the urge to perform, instead of practice, which are of course two different activities.

What really is at issue is the ability to focus and concentrate on what you have before you. It takes a fair amount of discipline sometimes not to be drawn into someone else's work. But this is, after all, what we have to learn to do for successful public performance. And it is not a reasonable assumption that this other pianist would be able to do your work better or even as well as you. But even that is of no consequence. Your practicing is only about you. Patience with the self is a necessity for improvement. I advised my student to try it again.

Side note: It's not necessary to look at the keys at all in order to play with accuracy. We have among us exemplary pianists who are without sight.