“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.”

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.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Chopin: G Minor Ballade

     A student writes about the Chopin Ballade in G minor. "I'm having a very troublesome time with the right hand at this passage. Particularly the lower octave part. Actually, I don't have a problem with the higher octave part even though they're the same notes as the lower part, but it's GETTING down to the lower one AND hitting the notes (particularly the A). Any idea how to help?"

"PS: If I'm having such a hard time on this passage so early in the piece, is it a good idea to continue or will the coda destroy me?"

     My answer: Here are some thoughts for you. If the upper octave works to your satisfaction, but not the lower octave, lean your torso slightly to your left as the right hand descends in order to keep the same angle of hand to keyboard. When the same passage is repeated lower, it is even more important to lean slightly to the left in order to get your torso out of the way. Remember, we can be at any angle with the keyboard as long as the playing apparatus is straight with itself.
     The second idea is about grouping notes. Think of the chord as the start of each group. It will be very slightly heavier. The technical concept here is that we group from the heavier to the lighter. This can have the effect, if you want, if giving a slight accent on each chord, adding syncopated interest. This last idea is an interpretive choice, a concept with which some disagree.
     Finally, you state that getting there is the problem. If so, use your thumb to propel your hand over from the single D to the new lower chord. This is one use of forearm rotation. Pivot on the thumb to the left as if a string attached to the back of the hand is pulling it. Then, allow the and to fall back to the right on the new chord. Try it fairly big first. Then make it tiny, almost invisible.
     The coda has some different (and similar) issues. Some pianists with average-sized hands tire from keeping the hand more open than it needs to be. Try working out the coda before continuing with the piece. You may need some help from a teacher here.


Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Fingering: Repost

On Fingering Piano Music:
An Introduction to Concepts that Govern Choices

A student came to me recently and asked how to finger a certain passage, claiming that the editor’s fingering didn’t feel right. (This is often the case and you can tell a lot about someone’s understanding of technique when looking at their fingerings.) My student’s question was fair enough, as all questions are, so I set about writing in a fingering for him. I explained as I went what sort of physical movement the passage required, which was the rationale for the fingering I set down. Then it occurred to me to play the devil’s advocate and show him some other possibilities based on a different technical approach. (I wouldn’t try this with a less advanced pianist.) When he tried the various solutions I offered, his response was a very satisfactory, “wow, this one feels so much easier than that one.” I allowed as how that was the correct response.

Here are some thoughts, then, on how to choose fingering. You’ll notice that nowhere in this list is a mention of hand size. So here are a few words about that. Hand size is almost irrelevant; every hand has the same number of fingers and physical properties that mechanize those fingers. Yes, pianists with thicker fingers have to make adjustments when called upon to play in the black keys. Yes, pianists with longer fingers have to make adjustments in order not to twist when avoiding the black keys. And yes, a person with a wider hand has an advantage when it comes to large filled-in chords, especially octaves with a minor third between thumb and first finger. But if underlying principles of movement are well understood, the progression of the fingers up and down the keyboard, that is, the walking from note to note, is virtually the same in every hand.

These concepts are not original to me. I learned them from Dorothy Taubman, who takes credit for organizing them, not inventing them, and Edna Golandsky, who brilliantly illustrated them. Over the years, though, they have become mine, refined and shaped as I applied them to my own playing and teaching.

A List of Concepts:

The hand falls most naturally onto the keys with the long fingers on short keys, short fingers on long keys.

The hand is most comfortable in its closed position.

The fourth finger can be made to feel and sound as strong as the others do, if its movements are understood.

The position of the thumb when passing under the hand is approximately behind the finger that is playing. At no time should the thumb feel pulled or held under or against the hand.

The hand remains straight with the arm, but may be at an angle with the keyboard, not twisted, i.e., to avoid the black keys.

The thumb and fifth finger may play on the black keys with ease as long as it is understood how to get there and away again.

Since piano keys are levers, the point of least resistance is at the end farthest from the fulcrum. Therefore, the thumb should not be required to hang above the white keys. It may be off the keyboard entirely until it is needed.

Select fingering to avoid stretching. Use a thumb crossing instead.

Select fingering to avoid crowding, i.e., thumb next to 5.

Octaves should not be fingered (legato is an illusion at best). Use all fives.

Consider re-dividing between the hands.

Uncross hands where feasible.

Arbitrarily avoiding 5-5 or 1-1 is not necessary.

Choosing consistent fingering merely because the shape of a passage is consistent (i.e., as in a sequence) is not necessary.

Arbitrarily changing fingers on repeated notes is not necessary.

Advanced Concepts:

The fifth finger may cross over the thumb and the thumb may cross over the fifth finger, particularly in the playing of dominant seventh arpeggios.

Rapid repeated notes are best articulated by beginning each group with the thumb followed by 3 and 2 (triplets) or followed by 4,3,2 (quadruplets).

Play chromatic thirds by repeating the thumb and crossing a longer finger over a shorter finger.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Is the Score Sacred?

     An article on treatments of Liszt's piano music discusses the practice of "modifying the score,... sometimes carried out by pianists, of altering a notated musical work by such devices as thickening textures, changing registers or adding pianistic elaborations." 

     Liszt apparently considered the score to be, if not sacred, at least something to be taken seriously. This is why he reportedly used the score when playing his own music in order to show that it was a composed, serious piece, not an improvisation. In fact, it was the norm during that period to use the score. Performance practices at the time also emphasized improvisational skills, which no doubt invited some virtuosi to add their own embellishments to published music. But this, it seems to me, is more about taste than anything else.

     What of the music of other composers? We know that Bach tended to write out ornamentation because of his lack of faith in the taste of virtuosi of his day. We know, too, that Beethoven was very particular about the notation of his scores. Contemporary accounts of his playing, however, report that his interpretations could vary considerably as to tempi. But nowhere, to the best of my knowledge, are there reports of flights of improvisational fantasy in the performance of his own published works. And he was apparently a highly skilled improvisor.

     Such issues as redividing between hands, changing fingering or even making small changes to the notes for technical convenience, in my view do not constitute changing the score, given that these changes don't alter the musical intent. The score tells us how the music should sound, not how it feels in our hands.

     In our own time, improvisation is not something the audience expects or clamors to hear. Today's audiences presumably come to hear what the composer wrote and not marvel at the improvisational skill of the pianist. So for me, the score is the thing. (I also don't have any particular gift for improvisation or interest in it.) Play the music the composer wrote but don't wear it like a straight jacket, impeding physical ease.