“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, June 24, 2013


     A student writes: "I once asked my piano teacher if she ever gives performances and she said no, she does not have time. I then wondered whether if you are qualified enough to teach piano to a high standard, then you could have a career as a concert pianist since you know all there is to know about technique and can play piano to the required standard to get students through high exams."

     My response: The expectation for those who teach at the college level is that they will continue to perform. In the academic world this is considered the equivalent of publishing. A typical teaching load for applied teachers—individual lessons—is about 18 contact hours per week. Add to that departmental, college and university responsibilities such as committees and other faculty advisory groups and office hours for counseling and the time can come to rather close to a 40 hour week. So, your teacher probably doesn't have time.

     In order to maintain repertoire, never mind learn new works, it takes enough hours per day to make teaching and performing nearly two full time jobs. This of course does not take into consideration travel time and time away from students, which somehow has to be made up. For single people with no other life, this might be possible, at least until one or other of the jobs begins to suffer for lack of energy or interest. When I was an undergraduate I knew a faculty member, Lillian Steuber, who practiced three hours daily in the wee hours of the morning before she went to her studio to put in a full teaching schedule. During the time I was at the university, I heard her perform the cycle of Beethoven sonatas, for which she was celebrated, the Tchaikovsky concerto, two of the variations with orchestra from Liszt's Hexameron and a solo recital that included the Op. 25 Chopin etudes. Her playing was immaculate. This is a difficult life.
     Performing is a calling. The love and study of music does not necessarily result in the ability or even a particular desire to perform. Playing the piano at a high level privately and performing publicly at the piano are two different mind sets. Both have value. Both can, but not necessarily, result in excellent teaching. I know fine pianists, brilliantly schooled in the how-tos and wherefores, who are very effective teachers but not so convincing as performers. And we all know those great masters, the ones students flock to for guidance because of their great artistry, the ones who may or may not know how they do it or how to explain it to someone else.
     The student continues: "Forgive me if I am being silly here but do you need special training for playing with an orchestra? Is reading a score for orchestra different. I mean, you have to know when to stop and let the orchestra play and then know when to come in again and play your bit."
     My response: Performing with an orchestra is a collaboration between pianist and orchestra. The audience, presumably, comes to the concert to hear the music. Yes, a particular artist is a draw, but in the final analysis, it is about the music. The orchestra can sometimes provide a supporting role, but how would the music sound without it? The orchestra is not merely an accompaniment but rather a partner. The relationship between piano and orchestra can change depending on the particular work. In Chopin concertos, for example, the orchestra has a more supporting role; in Brahms the orchestra is an equal, symphonic partner. The pianist studies the score in the same way he/she would in a solo piece, working out the solo part and adding to that the orchestra's contribution, so that the entire work is in the soloist's consciousness. This is like an actor in a play who has to learn his speeches, but also those of his co actors.

Saturday, June 22, 2013


     A student writes: "I have a general question about use of the 4th finger. I find myself often considering avoiding the 4th finger on both chords and running passages because I feel mine is too weak. But this avoidance can come with other problems or compromises."
     My response: Unless you've had an injury to your fourth finger or have some other ailment, there is nothing wrong with it; it is not weak. It can seem weak if we try to lift it away from the hand, something that it wasn't designed to do. As you probably know, there is tissue that connects the fourth to the third on the top of the hand. The fourth finger can, however, be made to feel strong by making sure that the arm is behind it and that it plays as a part of the hand, not separated from it. There's really more here to discuss, but I don't want to pummel you to death with words.
     The student continues: "I am presently learning Gershwin's own arrangement of 'Fascinatin' Rhythm' from the Gershwin Song Book.  In measure 12, the first RH chord (A-flat triad in 2nd inversion) must be played with 2-3-5 or 2-4-5. Although 2-4-5 is more comfortable in terms of less stretching, I use 2-3-5 because it feels more solid using the 3rd finger. The compromise is the extra stretching involved. Neither fingering is ideal."
          My response: Since we select fingering in order to avoid stretching, it isn't reasonable to stretch in order to avoid the fourth finger. In the  example, measure three above, fourth finger on A-flat works very nicely if you angle your hand slightly to the right. I call this scissors. This puts more arm weight on the outside of the hand. Incidentally, the last beat of the previous measure can be played with 1, 2, 5 on the C-seven chord, repeating the thumb on the B-flat. This puts your hand in a perfect position to play the triad on the downbeat in measure 12. There are other possibilities involving other technical concepts, but you really don't need to avoid four.
     He continues: "In the very last measure of the piece the fast RH run (G, B-flat, C, E-flat, G) is probably meant to be played using RH 1-2-3-4-5 but this also feels weak to me."
     My response: In the final measure, don't feel locked into any fingering or hand division. If you don't like the division as printed, play the first E-flat a little bit by itself, giving the hand time to open for 3, 2, 1 in succession to G. Start the right hand on B-flat with 1, 2, 3, 5 and cross with left for the top note. In this sense we are seeming to avoid the fourth finger, but not because it's weak or wouldn't work in this passage, but rather to toss off a flourish easily. The division of hands as printed also works using the fourth on E-flat if you tilt your hand slightly to the right (scissors) as in the previous example. Be sure to take your thumb with you; don't leave it on the G.
     There's no shame in looking for facile fingerings. But if we learn how to use the fourth finger to its best advantage, with the arm providing the weight it needs rather than trying to lift it away from the hand, it can serve us very well.
     On a related issue, another pianist asks if he should practice octaves fingered, that is, using the fourth and fifth fingers. In this case, I encourage avoidance of the fourth finger.
     If the hand is large enough to use the fourth finger without reaching to an extreme, one might get away with fingering octaves. But the possibilities for injury are great. Think for a moment about all of the repetitions necessary for working up a showy octave passage. If in any of these iterations the hand tenses, there could be a build up of unnecessary strain.
     I recommend that all octave passages be played with five. The method I use is a combination of staccato and rotation, feeling hinged at five, which is difficult to explain without demonstrating. Fast octaves cannot succeed with just an up and down arm movement. Some will advocate that octaves originate from the wrist, which is not true, although the wrist remains flexible.

     For speed, try staying in line with the black keys in order to avoid extra in and out movements. In smaller hands this can be more difficult, as octaves feel smaller at the outer edges of the keys. In this case, when there are two or more white octaves in succession, it is possible to shape out, toward the torso. Also, group them according to the musical direction and/or leaps vs steps, as in the second-page octaves in the Liszt sonata or the opening of the E-flat concerto. Octaves can also be shaped over and under, as in the left hand passages in the A-flat polonaise of Chopin. (For a glimpse of this shaping, listen to Rubinstein in the Listen tab above.) Make sure to keep track of a pulse in extended passages like those in the Tchaikovsky concerto. The hands need milestones in order to stay organized. Fast, even legato-sounding octave passages can be achieved using all fives.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

On Voicing in the Moonlight Sonata

    A student asks about showing the melody notes in the first movement of the Moonlight Sonata. Sometimes this involves an interval exceeding an octave. We are talking here, of course, about voicing. 

    Voicing chords is the way we give color to our performances. Imagine combining colors of the white and black keys. Gray. Nothing but gray. I once saw a New Yorker cartoon that brilliantly illustrates what we are after as pianists. There was an enormous black grand piano on a stage with black curtains at the sides and upstage. The pianist wore black tails. Such a dreary image. But from inside the raised piano lid came a staff, a musical rainbow with notes of red, blue yellow, you name it.

     If we attack the all keys under our hands with the same weight we get sameness, gray. But if we listen well for relationships, we can begin to feel a difference in weight relationships. This can be applied to any part of a chord, not just the melody. Perhaps there is an inner voice. Or maybe there is one note, or two, that might be shown in the way that a French horn in the orchestra might sound—just for a moment of fleeting color.

     A contributor to the discussion wrote: Dorothy Taubman had a very interesting way of teaching voicing to her students. One of the things she used to say in master class was to play the top note with your finger, and the other notes with your arm. She also used to have her students play the top note separately, producing a full, ringing sound. Then she would have the student play the other notes separately with a quieter, more transparent sound. Once the two sounds could be produced consistently and successfully with their separate fingers, then she had the student play all the fingers together trying to produce their respective colors. If it didn't work right away, she would have the student alternate "separate" and "together" until the voicing was very pronounced.

     How refreshing it was to hear someone quote Taubman. I thought I was the only one who heard her lectures—all of them many times—and participated in her master classes. (My teacher, after I finished my MS, was Golandsky.) I like the idea of finger vs arm when voicing to the outside of the hand. I've noticed a problem over the years, though, with students falling into the trap of disconnecting the melody note from the supporting chord, a sort of rolled effect. I like to use the imagery of the melody finger digging slightly deeper than the other fingers as if making indentations in wet sand. This, of course, is just another way of talking about distributing the weight. This concept can be applied to any part of a group of notes. Try practicing it on a triad, feeling the weight shift on each note in succession with each iteration of the triad.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Don't Interpret My Music!

     A pianist writes: Both Beethoven and Chopin expressed a wish, that players would not attempt to "interpret" their works, but just play them. What does this really mean?
     I  take this comment to mean "please observe what's in the score." Stravinsky, too, made such a comment about his music, preaching "against interpretation." And yet, when you hear him play his own piano music, there is at the very least, breathing, rubato even, not to mention inflection. He famously said, "I haven't understood a bar of music in my life, but I have felt it." Is feeling not "interpreting?"
      We have contemporary accounts of Beethoven's own performances of his pieces, which he apparently played differently every time, including varying tempos. He opposed publishers' notions of giving programmatic titles to his music, yet he made comments like "music should strike fire from the heart of man, and bring tears form the eyes of woman." 
     Chopin: "Sometimes I can only groan, and suffer, and pour out my despair at the piano!" With a comment like this, it's no wonder that pianists moon over his music, perhaps to excess. But how much is too much? What we are really talking about is taste, for which there is no accounting.
     Composers of yore were expressing a lack of faith in future performers of their works, a lack of faith that the score would be adhered to. This lack of faith was justified in the casual approach many virtuosos of the day took to music in performance, which could be subject to the whims of any passing ego. Bach, too, famously wrote out much of his ornamentation in order to thwart the incompetent improvisor. 
     So, as re-creators it is our duty to play what's in the score. But in so doing, we are making decisions as to relationships, how much of what is appropriate. These are personal choices, matters of taste, our taste. CPE Bach wrote all those years ago in his "On the True Art of Keyboard Playing" that, after listing all the rules of performance practice, "If it doesn't sound good, don't do it."
     Some in the discussion commented on authenticity in performance. It is perhaps possible to build instruments as they might have been constructed during a given period and it is possible to study written accounts of performance practices. In so doing, we might gain some insight into how these instruments would have sounded in certain repertoire. But it is impossible to have an authentic period musical experience because we are encumbered of all of the musical styles and performance practices that stand between us and the period in question. We are, so to speak, too jaded to have a pure authentic musical experience. J.S. Bach, by the way, did finally accept the foretpiano shortly before his death, if only half-heartedly.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

On Retraining While Actively Performing

     A professional jazz pianist came to me complaining of discomfort in his right arm. The problem apparently stems from an injury unrelated to the piano, though playing exacerbates the discomfort. Imagine how disheartening it would be to have to suffer while doing the thing that you love. He even considered giving up playing, but finally concluded that wouldn't be an option. This pianist is highly sought after and performs regularly for many hours at a time. It is his livelihood. What to do? How do we treat that part of his underlying technique that is not functioning while he continues to perform in public? 

     Normally when there is pain or discomfort I suggest a piano vacation until the pain subsides. This is because in order to monitor new physical movements, it is easier to work with a fresh playing apparatus. Much of what we consider while training is how the new movement feels; we evaluate the sensations. If the new movement is somehow encumbered with the leftovers from old movements, physical confusion can ensue. Muscle memory is very powerful. After all, we rely on it in speed.

     Since a pianistic vacation was out of the question, we decided to proceed by examining the obvious: What was his relationship of fingers to the key. We found that much of the time—but not always—he hovered above the keys. By this I mean that he wasn't completing each note before moving onto the next. He wasn't allowing his fingers to walk from key to key, transferring weight as he went. Instead, much of the time he held his arm rather rigidly above the keys and depressed the key by isolating individual fingers. This is something like trying to walk down the road without really making a footprint. In order to feel really at home while playing, the sensation should be one of balance, of being at rest at the bottom of each key before moving on to the next. Try this: Stand at ease on both feet. Now, take a step forward, but instead of putting all of your weight on that step, favor it as if it had a sprain. This is a hobble, and at the keyboard the sensation is very similar. I call this a bump in the action. Trust me, these bumps can add up to considerable discomfort over a period of hours.
     In the process of getting him established in the key, by getting his forearm behind the finger playing and developing the sensation of walking note to note through a forearm rotation, we discovered, quite by accident, that some of the riffs he uses regularly in his jazz interpolations contained built-in bumps. These bumps occurred regularly in semi-arpeggiated figures at points where the thumb needed to throw the hand into a new position. By retraining the thumb in these passages, we were able to make considerable progress in a rather short time. He reports that already he is beginning to feel a more agreeable relationship with the keyboard, although there is considerably more work to do.
     So it is possible to retrain while maintaining a performing schedule, though it is not my preferred way to work. When I was much younger and accidentally stumbled upon this way of playing, I, too, was in the midst of a performing career but decided to retrain anyway. Fortunately, though, I wasn't coming from injury but instead was interested in learning how to be in charge of my technique. I write more about these issues in my new book, Piano Technique Demystified: Insights into Problem Solving.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Mozart Sonata, K. 330: Controlling the Left Hand

     A former student writes: "I heard versions of movement one with detached bass measure 26-29 . (A version I preferred opted for pedaling measures 27 & 29.) But trying the 4 measures detached was difficult, as I found myself unable to keep the detached passage QUIET and even.  Any hints?"

Mozart Sonata, K. 330

     My response: Without seeing what you are doing, it's hard to say exactly what might be bothering you. But generically, for detached L.H. in measure [2 above], try starting with 5-4-1, then 5-3-1, 4-2-1. Start a little out with 5 and move in the direction of the fall board (in) for thumb. So, shape from out to in. The finger plucks from the key, as if trying to flick an ash off, but this is tiny, tiny, tiny. You will remain very close to the keys, even riding the key. I wouldn't pedal measure [3 above] but might rather over-hold the L.H. C to give more sonority. 

     The shaping in and out is a more general way to get the forearm behind the finger that is playing. The way we apply the weight of the forearm is how we control the dynamic. The slight plucking motion of the fingers gives the hint of detachment he is looking for.
     The student indicated he had problems with the trill at the opening of the movement. Like all ornaments indicated with only a symbol, it is necessary to assign to it a specific number of notes, a rhythm and determine its relationship to the left-hand figure.
     He'll let us know if this helps.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

On Perfectionism in Piano Performance

     We pianists tend to be compulsive types. If we aren't at the piano, we feel we should be. If we aren't practicing for that next big event, something gnaws at our unconscious. This drive is both an asset and a liability. On the one hand it compels us to achieve great things and on the other it compels us to attempt to over-achieve. Striving for perfection is a good thing as long as we realize how elusive it is.
     There was a time, yes, even in my lifetime—that's how old I am—when a performance was ephemeral. It happened in time. Floated for a magic moment in one's consciousness and then was gone forever, leaving only shards of impression in the listener's mind. Preparing for such a performance was not so different from preparing today, except that today our performances come in the wake of umpteen recordings, shaved to perfection in the studio. How do we compete, live, with such perfection? Well, we can't, not really. Though I would venture a guess that this particular pressure has contributed to the ever-increasing technical prowess of young pianists—and, regrettably, to the homogenization of many of the resulting interpretations. The anxiety level, too, has without doubt risen correspondingly.  And YouTube looms as a burgeoning threat, perhaps to come back and haunt the performer long after the fact. When performances are captured surreptitiously, unauthorized, it is theft and diminishes all of us.
     Standards of accuracy in performance are much higher now than they were even when I was young. It was possible to make an impression with musical effects, though imperfect in technical execution. The Brahms B-flat concerto and the Rachmaninoff third were benchmarks, thought impossible to play technically reliably. I grew up on Rudolf Serkin's technical imperfections and insightful interpretations, thinking that was the standard. Then along came Garrick Ohlsson, who played the Brahms note perfectly one summer at Tanglewood.  I was shocked. Van Cliburn won the Tchaikovsky with a stunning performance of the Rachmaninoff third that was sprinkled with inaccuracies; it's still my favorite recorded performance. Today, every young pianist can play it without event. 
     Just because we now know these spectacularly accurate performances are possible, does not necessarily mean that they are the norm. I've heard many a great artist fail to meet his/her own benchmarks on many an occasion, which is not to say that the performances were at all disappointing. So let us prepare as best we can, setting our goals high, but let the idea of the music carry us along so that, just in case a note or two falls by the wayside, the music will survive.
     Take a look at this video of assorted greats in not so great moments, starting with a spoof by Victor Borge. I was present in the audience for that fateful return to Carnegie Hall by Horowitz. The concert was electric. About halfway through the video, which I assume is authorized, there is a wonderfully insightful interview with the immortal Arthur Rubinstein: Great Pianists, Great Imperfections.

Saturday, June 8, 2013

Producing Tone at the Piano

     I recently participated in a discussion of tone production at the piano. Once again I realized that we pianists are remedial when it comes to understanding our instrument. Wind players know the ins and outs of key pads, air holes, reeds, valves and indeed carry with them repair kits. They know what types of embouchure to employ in order to produce a given effect. String players understand about the relationship of bow speed to downward pressure, that too much pressure—or bow hair—can have the effect of damping the string’s vibration instead of producing more sound. They understand the overtone series as it relates to the vibrating string because they often are called upon to touch these nodes in order to produce harmonic sounds. 
     We pianists, on the other hand, seem more likely to rely on imagery when approaching our instrument. Some respondents in the discussion refer to “caressing the key.” This is the first step toward coming up with a valid musical point of view. Like it or not, though, the piano is a machine subject to certain laws of physics. So, it behooves us as artists to figure out how to communicate our imagery through this machine to the listener. 

However it is achieved, the hammer must cause the string to vibrate in order to produce the sound. 
     There are two types of attack: From above the key, feeling a slight slap against the pad of the finger, and from the key, a sort of springing away as if from a diving board. The former, especially when combined with weight and speed, can produce our most percussive sound, bringing to the fore the upper, more dissonant partials of the over-tone series. The latter, which is for most pianists the default attack, tends to be a more cushioned sound, favoring the consonant partials. So we can control the timbre to some extent. (Remember, in physics quality is determined by the number and prominence of overtones.) 

Of course, movement after the note sounds is not going to change the sound. Only God can do that. Some  pianists disagree, though. Brendel is one. He likes to vibrate on the key after depressing it. I think, as some have suggested, that the intention of the gesture before the sound is made can affect the sound produced. Both types of attack, by the way can be affected by weight and speed. 
     One respondent explained tone production at the piano as follows: “...So you can play from the key, from the bottom of the key or from the air above the key. That's only the beginning. The finger can go straight down, or it can go to the right, or go to the left, and anything in between. Using only the finger, you can move from the tip of the finger or from the second or third joint of the finger, or from behind the knuckles. The entire process of communication begins with your ear, and the audience will listen to you listening.” 
     I like the notion that communication begins with the ear, though I might change that to read “begins with the idea.” Still, listening is paramount to communicating.  If you are going to play from the "bottom of the key," as he states, you would of course have to play from above the point of sound within the key, which is possible, though tonal possibilities are somewhat more limited. I use this often—I call it riding the key—in accompaniment patterns. I can't imagine how approaching from the side or the knuckle would change anything about the actual sound, as we are trying to get the hammer to strike the string. 
     He continues: “The knuckles remain loose with lots of air around them to allow the flow to continue from the front of the hand all the way to your shoulder without any tourniquet restricting that flow.” I’m not really sure what he means. But I notice that nowhere does he—or anyone else in the discussion—mention that pressing levers that cause hammers to strike strings produces the sound we make. Hammers striking strings is the end result of our effort at the key. I am, therefore, hard put to imagine how moving sideways into the key will change how the hammer strikes the string. Having said that, depressing the key with a certain intention, that is, to caress it, could affect how the key is depressed, the speed of descent and the amount of weight applied. I think this use of imagery is fine. I do it myself often. It can help connect us to the music and to the audience. But our connection should also be with the instrument itself and an understanding of its properties. 
     Maybe if we played more 20th century music, such as George Crumb, Henry Cowell and John Cage, we might develop a greater appreciation of the characteristics of our instrument and how to coax from it the effects we want. Additionally, why not offer courses in the maintenance, even the tuning, of the piano in college curricula? This, too, might give us greater insights into the mysteries of tone production.


Thursday, June 6, 2013

Finding a Hand Position at the Piano

     Finding a hand position has long been an issue among teachers. Some advocate rounding the hand into a circle, a sort of fist, as if squeezing a tennis ball. Some feel the fingers should be pulled in (shudder) so that the thumb is in line with the fingers to make a triangle between thumb and index finger.  None of this is in harmony with what I call a natural approach because the hand is being made, forced, to do something requiring work, something it doesn't want or need to do.
     Here's how I find the perfect hand position. Drop your arm to your side. Allow your arm and hand to just hang. Notice what the hand feels like. Look at it in a mirror.Then, raise the arm and hand up from the elbow without changing how the hand feels and rotate the arm toward the thumb in order to place the hand on the keys. This will be a perfect hand position. It will be slightly curved, but not gripped or pulled. 

     The normal placing of the hand is with long fingers on short (black) keys and short fingers (thumb and five) on long keys, although we can of course play anywhere on the key. For adults, the thumb does not need to be over the white keys. This is true even for children, though sometimes its easier to let their smaller hands drop where they like, at least until they can take in more instruction. Chopin taught B major as one of his first lessons in order to instill this idea of positioning the hand on the keys, and because there is only one possible fingering. 
     The fingers do not grip as if pulling inward toward the palm. This gripping motion tends to isolate the fingers from the hand and arm, which is not an efficient or well-coordinated way to play. To me, gripping implies continuing a finger activity after the point of sound has been reached, which would be wasted motion. When I look at my thumb, the opening formed is neither a circle nor a triangle, but rather more like a rectangular window with the index finger forming a slight descending awning. 
    I've never seen a satisfactory answer to the question of hand position in lesson books.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Get a coffee and settle in for a video excursion through an overview of some great 20th century pianists. This is a wonderful survey of pianism with its origins in the 19th century of Liszt. Select the Listen tab and enjoy.