“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, 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.