“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.”

Monday, December 23, 2013

Fingering In Haydn Piano Sonata Hob. XVI/23

    A student writes: "In Haydn Sonata Hob. XVI:23 in F major, measure 25, I have trouble starting from 3, through 4 to 5 and back. It just ruins my hand and makes it completely weak. I can play from 5 to 1 easily. I can play from 1 to 5 easily."
MM 24-25

     My response: The issue you raise in m. 25 of the Haydn is common to many players. Coincidentally, this type of issue is the first I discussed with Mrs. Taubman when I first met her. If you choose to begin the passage with 3 on the E, it's necessary to shape the passage in order to accommodate the shorter finger, the 5.  If you keep your hand at the same height as finger 3, finger 5 will feel too short, like a child sitting in a large chair in which her feet don't reach the floor. 
    This can be accomplished in two ways: 
    (1) After 3, feel a slight under shape to 5 (notes moving in the same direction upward in the right hand often take an under shape). Then from 5, which is the lowest point, begin an over shape on the way down. This helps power 4.
   (2) From 3, which will be the highest point, gradually lower the forearm (very slightly) to 5, and back up again on the way to 3. 

Having said all of that, I use a different fingering. Try this:

MM 24-25
My fingering

    "A secondary question I have is about the bench. I've been messing around with the height, and I can't tell if I'm too high or too low."
    I usually recommend that the player sit with the elbow no lower than the key bed, ideally just above the key bed, which gives the forearm a slight downward angle into the keys. Take care that your hand and arm are aligned, that is, the wrist is rather like a bridge between hand and forearm, level, though not rigid.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

They Studied Piano with Clara Schumann! They Knew Brahms!

Clara Schumann
     A recent article by Tim Page in the New York Times, Clara Schumann and Her Pupils, brings to light a recent release of old recordings by pupils of the great Clara Schumann (1819-1896), arguably the first piano diva. Her pianistic descendants have much to say about her teaching and her milieu, including hobnobbing with Brahms, Liszt and the like.  She was "one of the most soulful and famous pianists of the day," according to Edvard Grieg and is credited with virtually inventing the piano recital as we know it today. She was one of the first to perform in public without the score, a shocking thing to do in 1830 and something that caused a stir. In addition to her extensive concert career, she was wife to Robert, mother to eight children
Clara Schumann
and a respected composer. And letters! Did she ever write letters. Thousands, apparently. She corresponded with the musical greats of her day. 
  Get a coffee, slip on your pajamas with the bunny-rabbit slippers and allow your mind to wander back in time to a very different place. Listen to Ilona Eibenschütz talk about her lessons with Madame Schumann and how she spent much of her time with Brahms during the last decade of his life.
     Listen to what de Lara has to say about Madame Schumann's technique. On the one hand it isn't right to make a passage easy with fingering, on the other hand she seems to be saying that it is okay to divide a passage between the hands in order to make it easy. 

Robert Schumann, Novelette No. 8, Op. 21 (Recorded in 1952) 
From the YouTube notes: Adelina de Lara (23 January 1872 - 25 November 1961) was a British classical pianist and composer.
Adelina de Lara

She was educated at the Hoch Conservatory in Frankfurt under Iwan Knorr, and studied piano with Fanny Davies and Clara Schumann, whose work she championed for most of her life. She was close friends with Johannes Brahms through her studies. As an adult, Adelina de Lara performed in public for the first time following her studies in 1891 and continued for over seventy years, making her final appearance on 15 June 1954 at the Wigmore Hall London. She made many recordings for the BBC and appeared on BBC Television on her 82nd birthday.
     During World War II she played for Dame Myra Hess at the National Gallery and later in life, Sir Adrian Boult. In 1951 Adelina was appointed an Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE). The late Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother was both an admirer and a friend and sent good wishes for concerts on many occasions. She also worked as a teacher, her students including Eileen Joyce and many other distinguished pianists. She composed many pieces which have included ballads, song cycles and many for piano including two concertos. There were also two suites for strings, including 'In The Forest', which was performed in 2005, in Gloucester Cathedral by the Gloucester Academy of Music.
     Adelina de Lara's autobiography entitled Finale was published in 1955 and she died at the age of 89 in Woking, Surrey on 25 November 1961.

Ilona Eibenschütz, piano
Recorded probably in the 50s.

Ilona Eibenschutz
From the YouTube notes: 
Ilona Eibenschütz (May 8, 1872 in Budapest, Hungary - May 21, 1967 in London, England) was a Hungarian Jewish pianist from Budapest. She received her first instruction in music from her cousin Albert Eibenschütz. At the age of five, Franz Liszt is said to have played at a concert with her (other sources say she played a Duet with Liszt when she was six years old). She later studied with Carl Marek, and from 1878 to 1885 at the Leipzig Conservatory under Hans Schmitt, and then, from 1885 to 1890, with Clara Schumann in Frankfurt. There she met Johannes Brahms in 1886, and she knew him until his death in 1897. She heard him play his own music on various occasions, and in 1926, she wrote (as Mrs. Carl Derenburg) for The Musical Times, "[Brahms] played as if he were improvising, with heart and soul, sometimes humming to himself, forgetting everything around him. His playing was altogether grand and noble, like his compositions." In the summer of 1893, Brahms privately premiered his piano pieces, op. 118 and op. 119, to Eibenschütz. She later wrote, "It was of course the most wonderful thing for me to hear these pieces as nobody yet knew anything about them. I was the first to whom he played them." Her teacher Clara Schumann (1819-1896) was Brahms's closest personal and musical friend, but expressed reservations privately to Brahms
Ilona Eibenschütz with Brahms
about Eibenschütz's playing, writing to Brahms on 1 February 1894 that "she goes too quickly over everything." (The translation is by Jerrold Northrup Moore in his booklet notes to the Pearl CD, "Pupils of Clara Schumann" - Pearl CDS 99049 - which includes recordings of Eibenschütz.) Following her education, she undertook a successful performing career that led her throughout Europe. She married Carl Derenburg in 1902 and retired from the stage, living the rest of her life quietly in London. She died there on May 21, 1967. 

Fanny Davies (1861-1934)
After her studies with Clara Schumann ended, (she had previously been a pupil of Carl Reinecke), Fanny Davies (1861-1934) became one of the most celebrated of English pianists. She gave the first performances in England of Brahms Klavierstucke, Op 116 and 117. And of course, Davies carried on the style and tradition of the performance of Schumann's piano music that she had learned from the composer's widow, Clara.
     At the age of 67, Davies made her first recording in 1928 performing the Schumann Piano Concerto. The following year she recorded Schumann's Davidsbundlertanze, Op 6. In December of 1930, Davies made her last released recording of the same composer's Kinderszenen, Op. 15. She also recorded that same month Schumann's Fantasiestucke, Op 12, Romanze in F sharp, Op 28, No. 2 and the Study in canon form Op. 56, No 5. Unfortunately, none of these have been published and may have been lost.

Carl Friedberg
Carl Friedberg plays Schumann "Symphonic Etudes"

From Marston liner notes: 
Carl Friedberg (1872-1955)
was a leading 20th-century representative of the Brahms/Schumann pianistic tradition. During his teens, Friedberg enjoyed regular lessons from Clara Schumann as well as the friendship of Johannes Brahms, who coached the young Friedberg in the interpretation of his piano works. Friedberg performed occasional concerts but made no commercial recordings until two years before his death. The only Friedberg recording has long been a prime collector’s item. The entire contents of that disc, taken from the original master tapes, may now be heard on this two-CD Marston release, together with additional works from the same sessions and live performances from Friedberg’s 1949 and 1951 Juilliard recitals. The repertoire includes music of Schumann, Brahms, Beethoven, Chopin, Mozart, and Mendelssohn as well as several improvisations by Friedberg himself. Friedberg was a teacher at the earliest incarnation of the Juilliard School.

Friday, November 15, 2013


    Questions about the nature of talent come up from time to time. What is it that a "talented" pianist does that makes him talented? Is it that he plays really well? He can learn a piece in a day? He can play pieces with his back turned to the piano? Does it have something to do with the arrangement of neurons in the brain?

     Well, I have no experience measuring the
response time of synapses in the brain. I'm not even sure that talent is something measurable; I'll leave that to the scientists. For practical purposes, though, there are ranges of talent. The most talented—in any field I would think—are those who can produce excellent results with a minimum of effort in the least amount of time. These folks are sometimes called prodigies. 
     When evaluating a student, I'm interested to know if he/she has perfect pitch or a "photographic" memory. These talents are not necessary for success, but can aid in developing skill. The most talented pianists tend to retain a variety of information—physical and intellectual—and are able to reproduce a performance reliably on demand. This last is what I call star quality. Having said all of this, I still believe that most "talents" can be developed over time with perseverance, including a sense of pitch, if not exactly perfect, and a reliable memory. Audiences don't care how long it takes a performer to prepare a performance; they want a memorable experience. So, if we prepare ourselves throughly, chances are good that we will give a successful performance and sound like a talented pianist. Where does teaching come into the picture? Have you ever heard someone say that if a pianist plays badly, he's had bad training? Or, if he plays well he's very talented?  The poor teacher can't seem to win. Sigh.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Scary Starts

A student writes: "Some pieces have very difficult beginnings. Some of those are Ondine, Feux follets and just now, Mozart KV. 333. It seems so simple, [yet] I have never heard it done well. It's becoming something of a nightmare just to get it underway. I'm psyching it up, I know, but what a hard start."  
     Here's what I think: If a start seems scary, chances are there's something missing in the preparation, i.e., have all of the technical issues been worked in completely? But I know what this student means, I think, about getting started, as in getting the motor going. I think this is largely psychological and the way around it is to be able to "just play the notes in time," as a teacher once told me. In other words, don't focus on throwing yourself into the sublime musicality of the passage, just get the notes in the right tempo and chances are very good that the rest will be there.
     I think these ideas apply particularly well to the first two pieces. The Mozart, however, I think is more about tempo than notes. I always feel that the opening should be lyrical, perhaps slightly on the slow side of allegro. But then I feel stuck when the 16ths start. What to do? Well, I try to play lyrically a little faster from the start. I think of the piece as having started before I begin. The pulse is already going, as in a merry-go-round, and all I have to do is jump on. Also, I take care not to over-do the two note slurs so that I can make a longer line. By this I mean that it's important to show the long notes on the 2nd beats as real melody notes, as if a soprano were holding their full value, evening making a crescendo (wishful thinking, of course, on the piano). I don't play these long notes softer that the down beat.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Photography As Art

This is, of course, off topic, but I wanted you to know about one of my other passions, photography. I have a new site where you can browse the galleries and have a look at my efforts as an art photographer. At present, there are three galleries, Moods, Urban Contrasts and Gardens. Eventually there will be a series on instruments and other musical topics. Let me know what you think. 
"Kiss of the Stone People" From the Moods Gallery
     Yes, you can also buy (blush) prints and other merchandise, including note cards that you can design yourself, mugs and many other gift items. Oh, are the holidays coming up? Have a look: Stannard.SmugMug.com.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

On Finger Evenness

     A student writes: "I don't know what the exact
term is, but I am referring to say each note in a scale played with the exact same intensity and touch...I struggle with this. It seems that my 1st and 3rd fingers always hit a note stronger than say the weaker 4th and 5th fingers. When I really concentrate, hands separate and glaring down at my fingers with the tempo significantly slower, I can get a smoother and more equal passage down...but it goes out the window as soon as I increase the tempo. What are some good approaches towards tackling this issue?"
     The response: Unevenness is caused by isolating the fingers from the hand, by lifting them away from the hand. In order to control the weight evenly, the fingers, hand and forearm work as a unit in a coordinate manner, dropping into the key, not pulling away from it. There is a shape to the lateral movements that propel us up and down the keyboard. 
     Simply put, this shape allows the forearm to be behind the each finger as it plays. Try this as an introduction to shaping: In a five-finger pattern, allow your forearm to rise slightly behind each finger as it plays, the highest being at the point where the longest finger plays (3). Then, allow the arm to drop slightly behind the shorter fingers (4
and 5). The fingers are not independent agents, but they can be made to sound that way by allowing this coordination. (There is much more to consider, of course, particularly as the thumb crosses.)
     Any solutions you come up with must feel easy. Otherwise, they are not the answer.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Why is the Fourth Finger the Weakest? : The Question That Won't Die

  The fourth finger is not weak; it is misunderstood. It can feel just as "strong" as the other fingers if used according to its design. 
No amount of so-called strength-training exercises will produce positive results, but will more likely cause harm. The fingers are not independent agents, but they can sound that way if it is understood how to use the finger/hand/forearm as a unit. Simply put and without going into great detail here, the fingers do not pull away from the hand individually but rather act as a unit,  dropping into the key from above with the assistance of the forearm. This is known as forearm rotation.
   Do not try to strengthen your fourth finger because it is not weak!
    Another student responds:
    "I don't understand how this works in the context of, say, a Bach fugue, where it seems to me that all of the fingers often need to be independent, because there are all kinds of complex situations involving some notes being held while others move. If several fingers need to be held down while others need to play notes, how can you rotate the forearm to make it happen? The very first study in Clementi's Gradus [Ad Parnassum] is devoted to this very kind of thing, and I don't understand how one could play it via the method you describe."

   To which I respond:
   The sort of rotation you are probably imagining is one in which the direction of music changes with each note, as in an Alberti figure. This is usually what people think of first as forearm rotation. The idea is much subtler than that; it is an underlying tool that permeates all of what we do at the keyboard. The first etude of Clementi's Op. 44 is very easy to do using forearm rotation. In fact, trying to do it without understanding rotation is potentially harmful, in that the tendency might be to pull some fingers away from the hand while pressing some downward. That exercise is also unnecessary. As are all such exercises, in my view. In contrapuntal music we aim to make voices sound independent. We do not achieve this by separating our fingers from our hands, that is, by lifting them away from the piano.

   For a more detailed explanation, see other articles in this blog.

Monday, October 7, 2013

The Role of the Forearm in Piano Playing: Getting to the Bottom of Things

A student writes:

1. How is it possible to establish the right amount of forearm weight to be used when playing, without falling into the trap of the so called "relaxation"? I mean, starting to loose fulcrums in the shoulder, elbow or other fulcrums.   I very
often experience right shoulder pain, and am not sure if this is due to a break in a fulcrum or not staying down properly on the key bottom.

2.  When we play a key, we do it trough coordinate forearm/hand/finger motion, using the forearm weight to overcome the key's resistance. Then, we balance the weight on the bottom of the key (at the moment very hard for me to balance properly).

Then, when we want to play another key we use the rotation to transfer the weight of the forearm.

My question is: while we do a preparatory swing in order to play, let's say from a "C" with the 2nd finger, to a "D" with the 3rd finger, are we still balancing on the 2nd finger?
When is the right moment to let the weight go from the 2nd finger and swing it to the 3rd?

My answer:

    I don't think I can answer your questions completely without working with you in person, but I'll give you some things to think about. Your first question is a very good one and it is the first issue I deal with when introducing these ideas to a new student. Simply put, you need to find out how much effort it takes to just stand on one note, feeling the connection from the tip of the finger that is playing all the way back to the elbow. Keep in mind that this unit is "like a tennis racket," as Taubman would say, though it is not rigid. The wrist is level, like a bridge between the hand and forearm.  It takes some effort—not much—and this is why the concept "to relax" is not useful. You must get to the point of feeling comfortable with this balance before going on with the transfer of weight.
     Try this: Practice dropping your arm into individual keys, as a unit, using one finger at a time (2-5) landing straight, upright. Stand on each finger for a few seconds and ask yourself if you feel you could stand there indefinitely—not pressing down, but not lifting up. The best analogy I can think of is that of standing upright on your feet at ease, the way I learned to do when I was in the army. The drill sergeant taught is to stand without locking the knees, crucial to being able to stand for a long period of time without fainting.
     You should not experience shoulder pain from
playing the piano. Again, without looking at you I can't really diagnose accurately. However, first check the height of your bench; the elbow should be level with or slightly above the key bed. Then, try dropping your right arm down to your side and notice how the hand/arm unit feels. Raise it up from the elbow and rotate the hand toward the thumb side and place it on the keys, keeping that same, closed and at ease feeling. You should now be in a perfect position to play, with all the fulcra available. It is from this position that you should explore what it feels like to stand on one note. Remember, the hand/arm unit can be at any angle with the keyboard as long as it is straight with itself.     
  Your second question addresses the transfer of weight from one key to the next. I liken this to walking. At some point
when we lift a foot and attempt to propel our bodies forward, one foot leaves the floor and all weight is on the other foot. So, just as in walking, when we swing away from one note toward another note—as in C to D with 2 to 3—at the moment 3 arrives at the bottom of the key, 2 releases, thus having transferred its weight forward. Note that if a finger strikes a key but doesn't actually feel "complete," that is, doesn't really arrive at the bottom of the key even thought it sounds, the arm registers what I call a sort of bump. This is very much like what happens if we attempt to place one foot in front of the other without transferring the weight. We call this a limp and the result of continuous limping can be the involvement of other muscles trying to accommodate the lack of coordination. At the
keyboard, this limp translates as holding, or hovering above the keys and could be a source of shoulder discomfort. 
     So, the simple answer to your question is yes, the weight is still on the 2nd finger until its rotation is complete, and has transferred its weight to the bottom of the next note.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Beethoven Sonata, Op. 81a. Das Lebewohl. Les Adieux.

     A student writes: I have a weakness at playing thirds which I can't understand. I can descend in the right hand 53 - 42 - 31, but climbing especially 42 to 53 feels totally unnatural and my fingers feel paralyzed when I try to play at speed. For example Beethoven op 81a (Lebewohl) allegro, I can play the rest of the movement up to speed (including bar 17 which is supposed to be much more difficult) but I can't play those rising thirds.
     Is there something about the technique I might be missing? Is there an exercise that might help? I doubt that simply playing rising thirds is going to work as I have practised that bar hundreds of times and still can't play it.

     The thirds is question are in measure 3 above. (Please excuse the water mark. It's a long story.) This is an infamous passage, although most pianists have trouble later on, with the repeated chord. 
     Here's my answer: Yes, you are missing an understanding about the technique. No, you do not need exercises. (Someone in the forum suggested Dohnanyi exercises, all copies of which should be burned in a ritual bonfire.)
     Fingering starting with A-C: 1-3, 2-4, 1-3, 2-4, 3-5. From your brief description it sounds as if you are trying to play the thirds as separate units, that is, by articulating with up/down arm or hand movements or by isolating your fingers. From the B flat-D (2-4), feel hinged on 4, release 2 and rotate slightly in the direction of the music (right). Then, turn back to 1-3 (left). The third finger will cross over 4, the principle being that a longer finger may easily cross over a shorter finger. 
     You mention that 4-2 to 5-3 feels unnatural. Again, it's likely that the rotation is missing. Feel hinged on 4, rotate to the right, turn back to 5-3. This has the effect of playing 4 to 3. Alternatively, moving from 4-2 to 5-3 can be accomplished easily by shaping slightly in the direction of in, toward the fallboard as you move to 5-3. These movements are much easier than they sound when described in words. A demonstration is much easier to grasp.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Stage Fright: Them or Us

     There are two possible scenarios for dealing with performance anxiety, otherwise known as stage
fright. One scenario is that we allow the audience to draw us out to them. We do this by buying in to what might be on their minds, by focusing on them. What do they think of me? Do they like me? Do I seem foolish and incompetent? This line of negative thinking  also includes the feeling of not being good enough, which is another way seeing ourselves from the audience's point of view—a point of view that is spurious at best. The audience has come to enjoy a concert and are not looking for failure. 
 The other scenario is one in which we on the stage draw the audience to us by focusing on what it is we have to say. Have you ever noticed that if you stop on the sidewalk and stare up at something, other passersby will invariably stop and look to see what it is you have discovered? This focus is a powerful draw.  If we can get to the point where we have prepared thoroughly enough technically and made clear choices about the meaning of the music, that is, what we want to share with the audience, then we will be able to draw them to us on the stage. When we walk out
and begin to bow, our minds should already be forming the topic sentence, so to speak. What is the first idea we intend to present and what does it feel like physically to play those notes.
     This is for some performers easier said than done. It requires calm at a time when the body is gearing  up for a fight or flight response. So, in preparation for walking out on stage in a state of calm focus, practice conscious breathing back stage. This is a focusing on the breath, slowly inhaling and exhaling. This can slow the pulse and increase the chances of finding the right tempo at the start.
     Butterflies are normal. Every performer has them. But I put this in the category of excitement at the opportunity to share something important with others who are eager to hear what I have to say. We want to be excited but not fearful. We can achieve this by focusing on the message and the means of delivery and not on the messenger or the listener.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Stage Fright

   A contributor to a pianist's forum writes: "Stage Fright! How do you deal with it? Tips?

As much as I believe that getting over stage fright is a personal thing, I'm wondering how you help your students get over debilitating stage fright."
One way to zap performance anxiety is to walk out onto the stage secure in the knowledge that you are technically aware. I call this having a good conscience. This is not just about putting in enough hours; it is about solving problems of movement at the keyboard, not just by mindless repetition but by understanding how the body works. Have you ever stood back stage wondering if this time that passage will go well? This is the sort of thought that comes from not quite understanding how you do it. Horowitz famously reported that he didn't teach because he didn't know how he did what he did. I wonder if this is partly to blame for his psychotic behavior, resulting in a 12-year absence from the concert stage. 
Fears of memory lapses can contribute to anxiety, but what may seem like a memory slip is more often than not the result of some deficiency in the technical preparations—the playing apparatus hasn't completely worked in a particular solution. Memory issues in slow passages can be the result of not quite understanding the musical point, the harmonic progression or any number of other memories that are not related to muscle memory. Butterflies never go away completely, but there is no better feeling than knowing exactly how it is that you do, physically, what you are about to do. 
     At the moment we walk out on the stage,
secure in the knowledge that we know our business, the focus should then be on the first musical points—what is this passage about? What does it fell like in my hands to produce the sound I want?
     Another contributor felt that the answer was insufficient, pressing the point further: "What makes some people function under stress and pressure so well, and some go to ruin, [both] on and off the stage."
     Well, I responded, this is, it seems to me, taking the discussion to a different place. Heretofore, I assumed that the student in question felt an innate desire to perform. 
      There are performing personalities.
These are the ones who crave the lime light and failure is not something that crosses their minds. I know some of these and I'm not one of them. This is one extreme of the spectrum. There are other types of personalities all along this spectrum, including those who love the music, the study of it, the playing of it, but perform mostly because that seems a reasonable outcome of the study. Learning to perform reliably
becomes for these people a study in itself. I'm more like one of these, someone who has performed a great deal largely because in the beginning, at least, others thought I should because I could. 
The "thing(s)" that help these latter types of personalities achieve a point of reliability in performance hinges on a thorough understanding of what it is that they are doing when on stage and on building a positive basis in experience. Another way to express this is that their concentration skills need to be developed. A person who "falls apart" is probably allowing his focus to be taken to the audience: do they like me? what if I forget? what will they think of me? The successful performer is able to draw the audience to him by focusing on the thing that he is doing. This is achieved by the kind of preparation I suggested in the earlier post. The best way to build confidence is to know how you move from one note to the next, how you play fast octaves, how you manage a large leap, why does the composer write a certain dynamic (what does it mean?), what is the music about?. 
      It's true that for some people to organize their thoughts and focus on the task at hand is harder than for others. One exercise I've used is about breathing: Learn to focus only on the breath, the regularity of it, the slowness of it. This can help to slow the pulse and reduce the chance that tempos will be out of control. In the 
end, though, everyone
has butterflies before a performance. I think without these butterflies there would be no flight.

There is more on performance anxiety in Piano Technique Demystified: Insights into Problem Solving, by yours truly.

Friday, August 16, 2013

An Arch in the Palm of the Hand: Tennis, Anyone?

     I often hear comments from teachers and pianists about the need for a pronounced "arch" in the palm of the hand. Apparently, many people sincerely believe that an arch is a necessary part of good technique and some of these arch-ists are very accomplished players. They insist on the need for it.
     The "arch" does not exist anatomically. If you look in an anatomy book at the drawings of the constituent parts of the hand, looking for the specific structure of the palmar "arch," you will not find it. There are no bones, muscles, tendons, fascia or other membranes that make this up. According to the medical people, such a structure does not exist, nor is it necessary for the proper functioning of the hand or fingers.
Let me repeat: an arch in the palm of the hand is not necessary for the proper functioning of the hand or fingers. Why then does this old wives' tale about the golden arch persist?
     Those of you who have followed my posts know that what one sees at the keyboard sometimes can be open to interpretation. The "golden" arch, not to be confused with the gateway arch in St. Louis, is what occurs when the hand is in its unforced and naturally curved position. That's what makes it golden. When someone decides they have to make the hand into a curve, sometimes referred to as a tennis ball, then it becomes an arch made of lead. Sometimes we fall victim to misunderstanding when viewing the image of a beautifully and naturally curved hand at the keyboard and think, ah ha, that pianist must be making his hand into a curve, as if gripping a tennis ball. Gripping, forcing the hand into a curved position, requires muscles to actively pull the fingers in toward the wrist, an unnecessary and potentially tiring gesture.
     The concept of the arch may have arisen in order to correct various collapses that sometimes occur in the all-important fulcra, the knuckle joints. Gripping a tennis ball, however, does not fix these collapses. And repairing collapse is a different topic.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Beethoven Sonata Opus 110

  A student asks about approaches to this late and remarkably expressive sonata, one of a trilogy of final works in the form that bring to a close the  composer's thoughts on the subject. The opening is string quartet-like, featuring first violin, with support in the cello, though each voice has its own inflection. Take care to play legato, with pedal assistance, without clinging to the notes like an organist. The tune that emerges is in the nature of an arioso, almost operatic, requiring a simple though well-voiced accompaniment, which can be nicely controlled by riding the key. That is, stay in contact with the surface of the key, returning only just past the point of sound before depressing it again. Divide the arpeggios  between the hands if you like (much easier). It's possible to play this passage beautifully either way. Take which ever feels easier. It's not cheating to redivide the hands. The dots (wedges) over the first note of each group of four are not staccatos, but rather indications to show them, like accents.

     In the second movement, Beethoven turns from the sublime to the ridiculous. So, don't fuss over elegance here, or even force a super fast tempo. Legend has it that the tune is based on a folk song: "I'm a bum, You're a bum, We're all bums!"
     The fugues, of course, are to sound like lines moving horizontally. As pianists, though, we have to consider for technical reasons the verticalness. That is, what happens in the hands at points where the hands come together. Once you figure this out, mastering the counterpoint is much easier.
     Do read the score carefully. Beethoven was particular not only about notation but other instructions as well, even pedaling in the transition leading up to the first slow section. The word ermattet in the Klagender Lied, for example, means spent or exhaustedAnd what is that repeated note all about? Some authorities think of it as a bebung, a sort of vibrato left over from clavichord technique.
     Most of all, enjoy this remarkable piece.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Forearm Tension

A new student came to me complaining of pain and tension in his right forearm. This young man is an active performer in a rock band, though his initial training was in standard classical repertoire. I asked him to show me what he had been playing most recently when he noticed the discomfort, though of course this sort of complaint can be the result of cumulative actions. His basic position at the keyboard appeared remarkably healthy, his hands well positioned in a relatively closed position. But when he played the sort of passages he associated with discomfort, all of that changed. He locked his hand in an open position, to an extreme, and played a series of filled-in chords in an octave position, at which point I stopped him immediately.  
     Missing from his understanding is a basic concept of how to play rapid octaves. I doubt he gave the technique any particular thought. So, what resulted was an up and down arm movement, which is not a quick movement. Combined with this was his open hand, tensed to an extreme, especially when called upon to play a minor third between thumb and index finger. Gentle reader, if you have been following these pages you know by now that a rotation of the forearm is our quickest movement and underlies virtually all of our movements at the keyboard. 
     Our next step was to examine how to play successive octaves—without the filled-in chords, although it would later turn out that something had been missing from the description of his performance. Octaves are played by means of a plucking action from the key, hinged at the fifth finger, which throws the hand to the next octave, a passive action facilitated by a slight rotation of the forearm back toward the thumb. I know, words usually fail without a visual aid. But this is indeed how extremely fast octaves can be managed without tension or fatigue. Because the wrist appears to be active, some pianists assume that the movement is initiated from the wrist, but it is not.   
Then, quite by chance in a passing remark, came the big reveal. It seems that the rest of the band left the stage drenched in perspiration due, no doubt, from jubilant gyrations at the microphones. Apparently, guitars and other instruments can be played successfully while being thrust about in high-spirited dance moves. The poor keyboard player, though, doesn't get to dance. So our pianist under discussion felt moved to get into the spirit of the music by playing with wild abandon, attacking the keyboard from high above and pressing into it in order to show—emphasis on show—how involved he was in the music. This, I pointed out, comes under the heading of acting, not piano technique. 
The great English actor Laurence Olivier once explained to a reporter that it would be impossible for him to actually be Hamlet eight times a week by experiencing all of the emotions that role expresses. But by means of acting technique he could make the audience believe he was Hamlet. I suggested to this pianist that we focus on piano technique and then he could figure out, as needed, what he could do to add to his external display. Instead of throwing his arms at the keyboard locked and stretched, pressing and clinging to the keys, he should focus on how to achieve the sound he wanted. Pressing into the key after reaching the point of sound is useless. Remember, once the key has been depressed, only God can change it.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Arthur Rubinstein at Steinway: Have you Hugged Your Piano Today?

Get a coffee then click on the video link below and settle in for half an hour in the presence of joyous music making and insightful banter with the great Arthur Rubinstein, one of the last of the 19th century romantics. Then go hug your piano. 
     Rubinstein, whose career spanned most of the 20th
century, studied in Berlin under the supervision of Joachim, friend and colleague of Brahms.  I had the opportunity to hear him (Rubinstein, not Brahms) in concert twice in New York, once at Carnegie Hall in recital and once in a pension benefit concert with the New York Philharmonic, with whom he played three concertos—a the age of eighty-something.
"The 27-minute film featured on You Tube, captures Rubinstein’s embracing personality and joie de vivre. A celebrated raconteur, he intersperses colorful comments and stories at the drop of a note.
     Above all, viewers will experience the pianist’s artistry in full bloom, as he tries out a familiar Hamburg Steinway that had repair work done by factory technicians. They wrap themselves around him like fawning parents as he “improvises” and then plays snippets from the following works:

“Chopin: Etude in A-Flat Major, Op. 25 No. 1;
” Etude in C Major, Op. 10 No. 1;
” Etude in A minor, Op. 10 No. 2;
” Ballade No. 1 in G minor, Op. 23;
“Szymanowsky: Symphonie Concertante, Op. 60;
“Ravel: Valses nobles et sentimentales;
“Schubert: Sonata in B-Flat Major, D. 960.”

No further introduction is needed, except to say that the film will draw you back for repeated viewings.

Oh, and don’t forget to click CC on the screen bottom to activate English sub-titles."

Video link—Rubinstein at Steinway in Hamburg:

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Hands Together, Please

     I have been following a lengthy, sometimes heated, discussion on the turn-of-the-20th century practice of splitting chords between hands, sometimes referred to as rolling chords. The evidence in support of this theory is based largely, if not entirely, on recordings made at the ends of the careers of some legendary pianists who may or may not have sensed the import of these recordings. At the time, recording was a novelty, not the industry that it has become, and pianists very possibly were not thinking in terms of posterity, that they would be held up as an example of a particular style of playing. Still, there they are, these recordings, for us to ponder and marvel at. I personally love feeling the connection to the musical  past.

I don't dispute the notion that chords were often rolled for expressive purposes, rolled without authorization from the composer. I do dispute the notion that composers accepted this as a given, calmly acquiescing to the casual whims of any flamboyant virtuoso who happened to pick up a score. Here's why: Brahms and the others knew how to put a wavy line in the score—they often did—so why not put more of them in if that is really what they heard? It seems to me that by not putting in more wavy lines, they are telling us not to roll those chords. We have written accounts of distinguished musicians praising public performances for not deviating from the score. This tells me that, even though the practice may have been prevalent, it was not considered tasteful even at that time. It is definitely out of fashion today.
     I think what we're talking about is the propensity for playing with the hands slightly askew, a sort of rolled effect, to show how meaningful the music is. This was a style of playing that was both tolerated and enjoyed by different groups of players/listeners. I used to do it myself during the throes of adolescence to show how musical I was, not having heard anyone do it or being told to do it. It was both natural to me and annoying when I heard it back. I thought it distracted from the music. I still think so. I'm sure some pianists in the 19th century did it and some not. I would guess that Clara Schumann did not, as she was an advocate of the score and to my knowledge didn't write about this or make any indications in her editions. She virtually single-handedly changed the concert from a circus to the more serious piano recital we know today. So, for me, she has a certain authority. It seems to be about taste, which as we know changes. 
     It was suggested in the discussion that the modern way of playing, without rolling chords at will, began with pianists like, Backhaus, Rubinstein and Arrau. Well, Backhaus studied with Eugen d'Albert and heard d'Albert play the Brahms concertos with the composer conducting. Rubinstein's education was supervised by Joseph Joachim, a close associate of Brahms. Arrau studied in Berlin with Martin Krause, a pupil of Liszt. So, I have to wonder what influenced their approaches to expressive playing. Why did they opt not to roll chords and perpetuate a style of playing that is now considered old-fashioned? I suspect they caught on to the notion that music could be still more expressive without the distraction of superfluous ornamentation, which is what a rolled chord is, an ornament.     
I propose that those who enjoy this way of playing do so, keeping in mind that they might be thought eccentric by people who know the score. Yet, others who do not know the score might find it charming. This would be along the lines of Gould's experiments in playing "wrong" or differently in order to get people to listen to familiar music with fresh ears.

Friday, July 26, 2013


     A student writes that he suffers immensely from performance anxiety. He practices diligently but feels out of control in performance and he can't stop negative thoughts from interfering. 
     My response: It sounds as if you are at that place where trust is an issue: You don't trust yourself to do what you know how to do. Developing this self trust comes with experience, but there are specific steps you can take. If most of your practicing consists of playing at tempo, then change that to practicing mostly under tempo. For many pianists, playing from memory is a major anxiety factor. So, take away most of the digital memory by playing so very slowly that you can think of the next notes before you play them and then play them deliberately. We rely on digital memory in speed, of course, but constant repetition in speed sends the other types of memory—aural, visual, intellectual—further into the unconscious. By reinforcing the other memories, you will be able to say to your yourself, yes, I know this piece. I call this giving ourselves permission to do what we know. 

     I know it's easier said than done, but try to find a still

point in your mind before you walk on stage. I call it a safe house. In this place I can control my breathing, which I do by deliberately concentrating on it, taking deep, slow breaths. This will help slow your pulse and increase the chances of finding the right tempos, reducing that feeling of being out of control. Next, I transfer that focus to the first piece. What is the mood and what does it feel like to play the opening notes? Every pianist is unique. You will find your way. 
     There is more about performance anxiety elsewhere in this blog and a chapter on it in Piano Technique Demystified: Insights into Problem Solving.