“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, September 26, 2014

For Photography Enthusiasts

Zion National Park, Utah
I know some of my readers share  an interest in photography, which is of course off topic. Nevertheless, for those curious shutterbugs here is a link to my recent work: Stannard.SmugMug.com. I'd be glad to know what you think.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Chopin Nocturne Op. 27, No. 1: Getting There from Here, or Leaps of Faith

Frederick Chopin
     A student brought in this soulful nocturne, Op. 27, No. 1, the companion to the famous D-flat, No. 2 of the same opus. He observed that it's not as simple as it at first appears. Naturally, I took up my post as devil's advocate and asked what if we knew at a glance what the piece required technically, would it appear simple? This is another way of saying nothing is difficult if you know how, and learning how is, fortunately, the purpose of this blog.
     My student pointed to the leaping left hand in the  three-four section marked appassionato: 

Chopin Nocturne, Op. 27, No. 1
(Click on example to enlarge.)

When leaping, always be sure to notice
 if there's water in the pool. That is, practice the landing.
The first issue to consider is how to group the left-hand triplets. Instead of thinking 10ths, start each group with the thumb and continue thinking octaves. Always when leaping back and forth take care to group notes in such a way as to avoid feeling as if the arm is going in two directions. In speed this can cause a jamming of the forearm, a condition I call lockjaw of the arm (lockarm?) In this case we start with the thumb to 5 and allow the hand to fall back from 5, passively, to the new thumb. In measure 5 of the example, it's possible to take that last left-hand E-flat in the right hand, although not really necessary. Remember, there is a continual broadening (sostenuto). On the downbeat of measure 6, I take the left-hand A-flat with the right hand.
     But wait! There's more! My student had another question. What about the forte section before that? Where the stretto begins? This is another left-hand leaping issue:
Chopin Nocturne Op. 27, No. 1
(Click on example to enlarge.)
Leaping is easy when you have a running
 start,  when you consider how to do it.
This one is a little harder to describe in words without demonstrating, but I'll try. Notice that most of each measure lies more or less under the hand, if we also shape to the wider intervals as they occur. These notes may be considered a group. The octave represents a separate voice and lies outside of the group of triplets. The technique is a combination of a leap from the octave by means of a pluck, or springing action, and a slight rotation toward the thumb. That is, the 5th finger is like a hinge from which the 3rd finger rotates toward its landing place on the F-double sharp. The feeling is of 5 moving to 3. Once the hand is balanced with 3 on its note, it plays the neighboring notes in succession before opening to accommodate the ever widening intervals played by the thumb. Take care that the hand doesn't remain in an open position.
     The last left-hand note in measure one sends the hand to the following octave by means of a pluck and a rotation. This time 3 is the hinge, which allows the hand to open to the left and land on the octave. The feeling is 3 moving to thumb. Give the octave a little time. By that I mean go to it as if you plan to stay on it, which of course you won't. 

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Tchaikovsky Concerto: Small Point, Profound Result

Peter Tchaikovsky
     A student in the final stages of preparing the Tchaikovsky Concerto for performance pointed out certain passages that didn't feel right. He knows that such discomfort can be a red flag, so he asked, almost as an afterthought, about this measure, 46, in the second movement scherzo: 

Tchaikovsky Concerto, Second Movement, Bar 46.
(Click on the example to enlarge.)

     We had already discussed many passages in the concerto that presented much larger problems, all with satisfactory solutions, making this one little measure seem inconsequential. I had noticed a slight unevenness in his performance and had already made a note to ask him about it. But he brought it up first, for which he gets a gold star.

     Look at the example and see if you can figure out the problem. (I've given some clues in my notes.) When the 16ths begin on the 2nd eighth, the thumb quarter-note needs to be out, toward the torso, in order to accommodate the left hand. It also happens to be easier to play in that position. At the last eighth, though, the thumb plays a black key, C-sharp, requiring the hand to move in. I asked him to play the passage for me, and I observed a sudden lurch in (toward the fallboard) and his wrist made a slight twist toward the thumb side. Both of these gestures are uncomfortable, unnecessary
and the result was not only a bump in the technique, but in the sound as well. The solution is ridiculously simple: move the thumb in in advance by shaping a little up with the third finger on the G-sharp just before the final eighth of the measure. This made all the difference, both in sound and feel of this passage.
     So, dear friends, no problem is too silly to consider. Don't accept less than easy and fluid at the keyboard. Teach the fingers-hand-arm collaboration what it needs to know at the basest level and it will remember the lesson for more complex situations.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Fingering Major Seventh Arpeggios

A student writes: "I have a fingering question. How do you suggest fingering major-7th arpeggios that continue over more than one octave, e.g. C-E-G-B-C-E-G-B-C. Up to now I have been using 1-2-3-4-1-2-3-4, however this does require a little stretch between 3 and 4. Would you consider this ok or would you recommend 1-2-3-5 and then the famous rebound from the 5th finger to 1?"
     My response: Stretching to an extreme is never okay. In
most hands, playing a major third between 3 and 4 feels, at the very least, uncomfortable, though it is not impossible to work in. However, I play the C-major seventh chord with 5 on B when 1 is on C. Depending on the context, the thumb might also start on E:

Fingering Major 7ths

Notice that there will be a shape in the direction of in to play the thumb and back out to play 5. This is particularly relevant when the thumb plays a black key. When 5 plays a black key, the shaping is reversed. Remember, fluency and speed are at issue here, and these only come when the hand is at ease.

Friday, September 5, 2014

Achieving Speed in Chopin's 3rd Prelude and Etude Op. 10, No.2

Frederic Chopin
     A student writes: "Could you please address the issue of speed (tempo)? I find it difficult to get Chopin's prelude number 3 and ├ętude number two up to tempo.  In the past, many of my teachers  have repeated the mantra 'speed will come' but I think this is silly to expect it to simply miraculously happen one day.  I have also had teachers tell me to practice pieces at tempo as much as I can but this also seems absurd (anyone who can immediately play certain
etudes at speed would be a prodigy in my book). So how do we achieve great speed without injury? How can we bring difficult pieces up to tempo?"
     My response: Regarding developing velocity, the one teacher was correct in that speed will come, but only if the underlying mechanisms are understood. Without seeing what you're doing it's impossible to give a completely accurate diagnosis. However, I can generalize.
     When I write about solving technical problems, I mean that we can identify solutions precisely enough to enable us to practice those solutions at a slow tempo. That is, we learn what we need for speed and practice that slowly, gradually working up the tempo. In the G Major Prelude, identify groups of notes that fall more or less under the hand and then practice that group plus one note, allowing the last note of one group to throw your hand to the first note of the next group. (Tiny movements.) I touch on this on page 101 in my book, Piano Technique Demystified: Insights into Problem Solving. There are of course many refinements, such as shaping in in time to use the thumb on a black key, for example (see measure 3 below). Shaping is crucial to the successful realization of this piece.

Chopin Prelude, Op. 28, No. 3
A study for the left hand
(Click on example to enlarge.)

     In the etude (Op. 10, No. 2), the method of working up the tempo is the same, but only after identifying the necessary movements. In this case, the grouping is after the  chord: 3, 4, 5, chord. The fingering in the Paderewski edition works, although I sometimes make adjustments. Remember, a longer finger may cross over a shorter finger (ascending) and a shorter finger may cross under a longer finger (descending). Use the chord to send your hand to the next single note; don't grip the chord. The chord is the diving board that sends your hand to the new position.

Chopin Etude Op. 10, No. 2
Paderewski fingering, mine in parentheses
(Click on example to enlarge.)

       My plan goes like this: write in your score the desired top tempo and a reasonable starting tempo, not slower than you really need. Then work between those two tempos in short sections, even one measure at a time, but always stopping on a strong beat. This is the best use of the metronome I know of. Keep track of your progress in the margins. It's okay if some sections seem able to go faster than others. At this juncture, don't try to put the sections together. If a particular section won't move, that is, it doesn't feel easy, then take another look at your technical mechanisms. It may be necessary to consider additional solutions, i.e., a different fingering, shaping, grouping, etc. Never force the tempo.