“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, June 28, 2012

Full Stick, Short Stick or No Stick: The Piano in Chamber Ensemble

An unhappy amateur string player writes:

"So many pianists love to play with strings, but have little awareness of appropriate voicing. Young professional groups have the same problem, using a full stick that overpowers the sound."

I feel (hear) his pain. There is nothing worse than playing one's heart out only to have it trod upon by inconsiderate colleagues. Every player wants his/her lovely inflections to be heard and responded to musically. I think the operative word here is consideration, which is about listening to one another and not about the length of the piano stick. I write as a professional collaborative pianist and amateur string player.

The piano sounds muted if the lid is closed. This would be similar to the string players putting on their mutes, and no one wants to play like that. The short stick can be a solution if the piano is particularly bright and the room is small. But the raised lid is not so much about volume as it is about quality of sound. And here is where the importance of listening comes into play. Very often in amateur groups, the pianist can feel so overwhelmed with the difficulties of his part that there is a disconnect between the ear and the hands. The obvious solution here is that the pianist learn his part. 

But let's say the pianist is in control of the notes and is free to listen. He should be able to hear his colleagues, especially the leading voice(s), just slightly above what he is playing, keeping in mind that the music rack blocks much of what he hears of himself. If he hears his colleagues free and clear, well above what he is playing, then he is too soft and not playing as a full partner. And, of course, if he doesn't hear them at all, he is too loud.

The string player points out: "Chamber Music has traditionally been played on small instruments in intimate settings. After all, pianos originated in the quiet voices of seventeenth and eighteenth century harpsichords and clavichords."

Any pianist can obliterate any string player sonically. This is a given. It is, however, misleading to equate modern instruments with those of the 18th century. Early keyboard instruments were indeed more demure, but so were their string colleagues. Whether the development of these instruments into their modern counterparts was proportional I can't really say, although I suspect the piano made greater strides with its concert hall sizes and the introduction of metal harps. I have to say, though, that's it's a rare situation to find a concert grand housed in a private setting. So size isn't very often an issue. 

Let's make a very general assessment of the repertoire. In the classical period strings began as an obligato addition to the piano part, sometimes only doubling the piano. This is particularly prevalent in many Haydn trios and all but a hand full of Mozart violin sonatas. In the Mozart piano quartets, the piano part is very concerto like. With Beethoven, even already in Op. 1, we begin to get a more equal division of labor. And in the 19th century, finally, we get sonorities of strings vs piano in passionate struggle (I'm thinking of Brahms). Chamber music has traditionally been played in parlors, in intimate settings, yet the music itself has evolved into anything but intimate.

Finally, a word about the practical nature of the setup. The cellists, of which I am one, complain the loudest. He is usually placed right in the bend of the piano, where he is pummeled with sound. What he hears next to him, though, is not what a listener several feet away hears. It's natural for musicians to play to the room and not to the person sitting next to him. The cellist feels the need to either play forcefully all the time or make threatening grimaces at the poor pianist, when it may not really be his fault. So I always suggest, if feasible, that the strings find positions somewhat away from the piano. Or, alternatively, rethink the nature of projection and play for each other instead of for the room. In concert halls I have heard all periods of music played superbly with appropriate balance, yes, using a concert grand with the stick on full extension.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

To Czerny Or Not to Czerny

On Czerny Vs Chopin Etudes

A student asks which Czerny studies he should select in preparation for Chopin Etudes. This student has already played all movements of the Moonlight sonata.

My Response: The Chopin etudes are concert pieces, and in that regard somewhat misnamed. Chopin, I'm quite sure, wasn't thinking pedagogically, about building a technique. Having said that, however, one can learn a great deal studying them, just as we learn technique studying any piece. 

I think Czerny and studies of that ilk are largely a waste of time. They have in their genesis the notion that repetition builds strength and endurance, a notion long since discredited by pianists who've given it any thought. We don't build strength in larger muscles so much as we train muscles for refined coordination. So, I'd rather he use his time working out technique in the Chopin, even if he doesn't get them up to top tempo first time around. Revolutionary is a good place to start. I also like F major from Op. 10 for the right hand. 

For an "etude" on the two-note slur, have a look at the Tempest sonata of Beethoven.

For more on the value of exercises, please see my previous post.

Monday, June 4, 2012

On the Value of Exercises

A pianist writes: "I have been told by some pianists that Hanon's "The Virtuoso Pianist, In Sixty Exercises" is a waste of time....it's stupid and nonsense. One pianist even asked me, "Do you think Tchaikovsky or Mozart played these? Throw the book away."

On the other hand, a piano student studying for her phd in piano performance told me that she plays them every day and that she believes it helps her playing?

What is the general consensus on this? I believe if it works for you then by all means play it. However if that's the case then should all teachers teach all their students Hanon?"

My response: What do you mean by works for you? When playing something (an exercise) that is supposed to prepare you for something else (a piece of music), I think it's important to ask yourself why? What is the purpose of this particular exercise? 

Unfortunately, Mr. Hanon only gives metronome indications and says to repeat the exercises. He doesn't really tell us how to play the exercises, except to lift the fingers high(!). He tells us that they will produce agility, strength(!), independence and evenness. 

The mindset from which this point of view stems has largely been replaced over the years, although some still cling doggedly to it, i.e., that it takes physical strength to play the piano. It does not. (A small child can do it.) We gain power not by lifting the fingers away from the hand, which is something they weren't designed to do efficiently, but rather with the discreet participation of the forearm. Hanon's supposition is that by lifting the fingers they will become strong and independent, but we don't train like weight lifters train, by building muscle mass. Rather, we train for refined coordination. The fingers never will be independent of each other, nor need they be; they can, however, be made to sound that way.

In short, "you can play whatever you want, dear," to quote my teacher, but once you know how to play the exercises correctly, i.e., with the participation of the forearm, there is no longer any reason to play them. In fact, there's no point in playing them at all because the technical issues can be addressed in music.

As for the Phd candidate, that routine may serve several purposes: provide a comforting and mindless routine, a delay tactic for avoiding the real work to come or some other obsessive/compulsive purpose. In graduate school I knew a wonderful pianist who drilled scales for hours. Her scales were indeed perfection and she played the 4th Beethoven concerto like an angel. But the same compulsion that drove her to drill those scales, and they were beautiful, drove her into some sort of breakdown and when I last heard she had given up the piano entirely and joined a protective order of some sort. Admittedly, that is an extreme case and this particular pianist was apparently troubled. Playing Hanon won't necessarily cause so severe a reaction and probably won't case any particular harm, unless the idea of lifting fingers is taken to extremes.

Later in the post someone writes:

"Any system, method, or approach is only as good as the teacher and the student practicing. The success probably goes beyond the method. I think that if something is repetitive, and if the person practicing it is wrongly guided or self-guides, there might be harm because a wrong motion done repeatedly will hurt. At the same time, if a right motion is well-guided, then you have a well-practiced set of right motions that will serve you well."

My Response:

You are right. But just as the success goes beyond the method, so too do the failures. By failures I mean conceptual misunderstandings. Perhaps this is what you mean by practicing "wrongly." But it's more than practicing wrongly. (Please don't think I'm just being argumentative here. I'm genuinely concerned about this issue.)

The concept inherent in exercises in general is that repetition of note patterns will create strong fingers or independent fingers or that these patterns will occur in the same way in music. These ideas date from the 1880's and have their origins in the experience of keyboard players who were steeped in harpsichord techniques. I believe Czerny and Hanon and the others were probably sincere, although I don't completely discount the notion that money was to be made off of the burgeoning piano market. When Hanon, for example, was popular and adopted by so many institutions, Matthay had not yet written about the use of the forearm. Keyboard players thought primarily about lifting fingers, despite Schumann's unfortunate experience. (Google Landowska's photo of her claw-like hands.)

If you discard Hanon's "instructions," as I believe all pianists should, the exercises can be used to show how patterns can be grouped together for technical ease, how to shape. But I learned these techniques in a Mozart sonata (K. 333). If you don't believe in lifting the fingers away from the hand (as he instructs) or training for strength and therefore using repetition for endurance (wrong concepts), then I implore you to ask yourself what specifically you hope to gain by practicing Hanon.

Let me be clear: I don't think the exercises themselves are "dangerous" and carcinogenic (LOL) but the underlying concepts that students take away are not in sync with a system of playing that uses the body efficiently, the way it was designed to be used. Students invariably take away the idea that repetition of patterns is the key to success, when the "working-in" of specific, local and correct physical movements is the key to success. By "local" I mean "what do the finger, hand, arm do in this spot to get easily and efficiently from here to there?" This, of course, requires knowledge of the working mechanism (but one doesn't have to be a doctor).

It is possible to play the piano with great success using many different points of view, or from no point of view at all. I choose to use a specific physical approach that allows my hands to be used according to their design. The fingers are strong and sound independent if the forearm is allowed to play its part, and there is nothing wrong with the 4th finger, just in case anyone was wondering.

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Voices of the Past

Click on the Listen button above to hear some great piano playing by legendary pianists. We need to look back occasionally and notice where we've come from and appreciate that heritage. I've just posted some vintage Moritz Rosenthal, who studied with Mikuli (Chopin's student) and with Liszt. Sometimes we forget, I think, in this anonymous and automated world of ours, how affectionately personal these pianists could be.

Beethoven Sonata Op. 57

Watch for a post on the Appassionata called "A Few of My Favorite Solutions," in which I plan to point out potential problems and offer ways to solve them. Some of the applicable principles will have to do with forearm rotation, grouping and ties to the notation.