“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 30, 2014

Sight-Reading: There's an App for That?

   Well, maybe not exactly an app, but there is a new book just published and available for perusal at Amazon. The idea here is to practice sight-reading with a partner in four-hand settings. When playing with others, one feels more pressure to keep going no matter what. Here's the publication blurb:
   Learn to sight-read more fluently by practicing with a partner, an experienced guide at your side. Of course, we know to keep our eyes on the page and look ahead. We know to begin by scanning for surprises of meter, accidentals or key change. We know, too, that setting a reasonable tempo based on the fastest note values ensures a successful performance. But in the final analysis we must learn not to stop for mistakes, the wayward flat, the dangling mordent or what-in-the-world-kind-of-scale was that, anyway. It would be rude to abandon a partner in search of the aforementioned and if social pressure isn’t enough, just remember that might very well be your teacher there at your side, cracking the whip. So, look into these pages of colorful harmonizations from the collection of chorales by J.S. Bach, just to get started. There are forays into rare occasional pieces by Chopin, Schumann, Arensky, Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff. And the intrepid will find a 20th century organ prelude and a complete duet sonata by Mozart, just to name a few.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Slow Practice: Eliminating Errors?

A student writes: I want to apply this type of [slow] practice to one piece in particular I am having difficulty with, mainly with random errors. So I have a couple of questions:

1. Is slow practice good for eliminating random errors?
2. How slow should you go? (I have read half or quarter speed) 
3. How many repeats in a session should you do in this slow practice?
4. Should you alternate tempos within a session or over days?
5. How long would you stay doing these slow practice sessions?

     My reply: Yes, random technical errors will be solved in slow practice if it is conscious slow practice. Slow practice is essential for working in quick technical passages. The finger/hand/arm collaboration works best when it has the opportunity to sense clearly the movements required of it. The first
step, though, is to figure out what those movements are, which, of course includes such details as the best fingering to employ. Many pianists make the mistake of playing slowly without discovering what it is they need for speed. Then in speed they do something different from what they did at the slower tempo. 
     Once you are comfortable at your slowest speed, gradually work through several tempos to the desired tempo.This is not for an entire movement, necessarily, but rather for the particular
passage. Make sure that the passage continues to feel easy at each successive tempo. If it doesn't, that means something technical hasn't been solved. This is my favorite use of the metronome. Write in your score the metronome mark of your desired tempo, the top tempo. Then below it write your starting tempo. Work between these two tempos. I usually say that you shouldn't play slower than you need to or faster than you can (easily). Don't be discouraged if one passage seems to want to go faster than another. But do keep track in your score by marking the metronome setting of your fastest, easy tempo.
     This is a good way to begin your daily work on a given piece, starting with those passages that feel difficult. But once you have achieved the desired tempo (feeling easy) in all of the questionable passages, it is usually not necessary to go back to the original slow tempo, although I always practice two or three tempos slower as a review.
Extremely slow practice, even in a slow movement, can also be helpful in securing memory because it removes some of the digital memory.

Friday, June 6, 2014

Stretching Exercises for Pianists: The Topic That Won't Die

One contributor to a music forum for pianists offered a YouTube video of a pianist "stretching" his fingers using the keyboard as his stationary block. He worked his fingers in and out of the black keys and against the rail, claiming that these stretches made him limber. Needless to say, discussion ensued. Some wise pianists—these are the ones who agree with me—observed that such gesticulations had nothing at all to do with piano playing. If that's true, if these stretches are not about piano playing, what might they be about. I say "might" because I can only speculate. I put these "limbering" exercises in a category with other feel-good, possibly therapeutic, activities that are akin to warmup stretches that dancers, athletes and yoga practitioners use.
     I know how good stretches can feel because I do them myself— on a mat on the floor—in order to increase circulation in my limbs and "wake up." I can imagine that this pianist of the video experiences similar feelings of release as he manipulates his fingers. But, no, this has nothing to do with piano playing.
     The size of the hand is determined genetically. Tendons cannot be stretched. This is not to say that we can't learn to use what we have without abusing it. Speaking of abuse, one contributor shared that he derived benefit from Dohnanyi exercises. Do you know the ones? The pianist is asked to hold down certain notes and lift other fingers away from the hand. This pianist feels he derives a "certain kind of overall limberness that's hard to describe." I suspect he can't describe it because he can't relate it to piano playing.
     Another writer felt moved to compare what pianists do with athletic training, claiming that "piano playing is above all else a motor skill." Well, I don't argue against that. But he goes on to explain that the refined motor skills we need at the piano are the same as what athletes use, suggesting that stretching and building strength are also part of the pianist's catechism. He could not be persuaded that athletes train large muscle groups for strength and endurance, whereas pianists train for refined physical coordination.
Alicia de la Rocha
     Alicia de la Rocha, the distinguished, diminutive pianist of the Spanish persuasion entered the discussion by way of support for the idea of stretching. Someone claiming to know whereof he spoke stated that de la Rocha stretched her tiny hand so that it could reach a tenth, enabling her to play Rachmaninoff and other giants. Well, I don't know what she did. But she herself stated that she was blessed with a wide space between thumb and index finger and an extra long fifth finger, enabling her to reach a tenth despite having a small hand. 
   So, don't waste time and energy and risk injury by stretching and pulling your fingers. Use them according to their design in the way that produces maximum results with the least amount of effort.