“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.”

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Speed at the Piano

   A student writes: "Is there a most efficient approach to achieving speed? Unevenness in runs and mistakes in tricky passages often seem to result from inhibitory muscle tension (the readiness to stop a motion that is wrong).  When playing music I can often *feel* mistakes or complete disasters coming seconds before they occur. This may be a slow tightening of the don’t-do-that muscles."
Muscle tension
    My answer: Your main question is about achieving speed and accuracy in scales and passages. From what you describe, though, I get the impression—this is impossible to know without watching you play—that you are not at rest at the bottom of the key. That is, you seem to be holding ("inhibitory muscle tension"), instead of releasing. Try this on one note: drop into the key with your finger/hand/forearm
Sitting upright
 without tension

aligned in such a way that it feels like a single unit. You are not pressing down past the key bed and you are not lifting
At ease
up. Find out what it takes to stand there; you are not tense, neither are you relaxed. This is akin to standing at ease, as in the army, or sitting upright in a chair. The next step is to find out how to transfer that weight to the next note via forearm rotation. (Have a look at the iDemos.)
     If you "cannot play a particular pattern," it means you haven't found the technical solution(s), i.e., grouping, fingering, shaping, etc. I know this sounds like a cop out, but it's really true. There are always answers. When playing a scale, for example, make sure that the thumb is approximately behind the finger playing as you approach the crossing (see iDemo). This puts your forearm at an angle with the keyboard. 
     Once the technical solutions have been worked-in,
Old-fashioned metronome
gradually increase the tempo in units. In the case of the scale, include the thumb crossing in a unit. For example, 1,2,3,1,2 and 1,2,3,4,1,2. This is a very good use of the metronome. Play each unit at least three times at each tempo before going on to the next tempo, noting that nothing changes in the ease of playing. This repetition is not for strength training but for teaching the correct movements to the playing apparatus. When each unit feels great at the desired tempo, then try combining two units and working them up together from slower to faster, although you may not need to start sat the slowest tempo. 
     Don't try to work up speed until you have decided on and worked-in the technical solutions.

Friday, July 17, 2015

Beware the Mouse: Repetitive Use Syndrome and the Pianist

"Oh, no!" mouse.
My student came for a lesson, finally, after having to cancel one because of wrist pain. "Oh, no, what have you been working on, and how could it have gone so badly," I asked. He responded, somewhat sheepishly, that he'd been under pressure to complete a recording project, and that he had had a marathon session at the computer, mousing into the wee hours. Ah, this explains a great deal. Doctors call this repetitive use syndrome; I call it foolish.
     Okay, I understand. One gets carried away with projects and forgets possible consequences—largely because the pain and discomfort usually come the next day. Griping the mouse while
Don't grip mouse.
activating left and right clicks (isolating fingers) over a long period of time adds up to considerable stress on the playing apparatus. Discomfort and pain ensue, and these are bad enough. Unfortuately, this must interrupt piano practice until the pain and discomfort subside. We can't work through pain, despite what some football coaches may advise. How can we evaluate the relative correctness in our technique if there is something already wrong in the system?
     Fortunately, an understanding of how the forearm works can go a long way toward not only solving an issue at the piano, but in the case of this student, it also acted therapeutically. Rotating the
Forearm rotation.
forearm can feel like self massage, immediately releasing tension.
     The moral here is to be self-aware. Take breaks from computer tasks and other repetitive activities that are potentially harmful. As we get older, and we all do (hopefully), physical stress takes a greater toll that when we were young and spry.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

The Collaborative Pianist

Readers have asked about The Collaborative Pianist's Guide to Practical Technique. What, for example, makes it practical? Well, here's the thing. Collaborative pianists as a group have been neglected when it comes to studying technical matters. Collaborators must, of course, have all the basic technical skills as soloists and be able to apply them from mezzo forte and under. Collaborators, too, will have studied solo repertoire on their way up the ladder to excellent pianism, to the place where they feel the calling to collaborate with other artists. But what then? If we don't recommend exercises by Czerny and
Carl Czerny
Hanon and their ilk, and we don't, then how is the collaborator to continue to advance in a logical fashion? Well, I'm glad you asked. Instead of wasting time on mindless exercises or taking up precious practice hours on solo etudes by Chopin or Rachmaninoff (not that that would be a bad thing, only time-consuming), studying technical excerpts from the collaborator's repertoire would be time well-spent. These are
Charles-Louis Hanon
passages that will be needed at some point in the collaborative pianist's career. Better to get a head-start because that emergency call may come tonight for a concert tomorrow that includes the Kreuzer Sonata. (I'm not kidding.) Say "no" once and they don't call again.

Saturday, July 11, 2015

Bach Sinfonias for String Trio

     Yes, I know this is a piano blog. But many of us also have an unfathomable love for string instruments and the playing of same. So, let it be known that, in an effort to add to the repertoire for this combination, I have transcribed Bach's keyboard Sinfonias. I did this originally for my own use, but after some persuasion, I've decided to make them available for others at Amazon     
     When I play Bach’s music, I can’t help thinking of a quote from his son, Carl Philip 
Carl Philip Emanuel Bach
Emanuel. In his Essay on the True Art of Keyboard Playing, Bach the younger begins his explanation of style “my late father told me...” This gives me goose bumps even now. One of the things his late father told him—this also appears in papa’s preface to the Inventions and Sinfonias—is that we should work above all to “achieve a cantabile style in playing and at the same time acquire a strong foretaste of composition.”  It’s this endeavor to achieve a singing style that gave me the idea to transcribe these little gems, part of the pianist’s catechism, for literal “singing” instruments—that and my desire to have more repertoire to play as a cellist in a string trio.
J.S. Bach
     Often referred to as three-part inventions, Bach’s Sinfonias (Sinfonien) reflect the master’s continuing concern for the complete education of musicians. They were indeed conceived originally for keyboard—and are rather more difficult to play than the two-part Inventions—but as always in Bach’s keyboard works, their probative value reaches far beyond the mere pressing down of keys in the proper order. Bach sought to teach the complete musician in his Clavier Übung, of which the Sinfonias are a part. Übung is translated for our purposes not just as practice in the general sense of learning keyboard technique. It also means emersion in the professional essence of the art, as in the practice of medicine or law. These pieces are about learning composition and style, and, in short, how to bring music to life.
String trio.
Notice how colorful music can be.

     We know that Bach transcribed not only his own works for different combinations of instruments, but also the works of other composers, particularly those of Vivaldi. It

has been speculated that this was for him a method of study or an effort to make rare compositions more generally available to the public. Possibly. I am more moved, however, by A. Schweitzer’s assertion that “this was his way and it gave him pleasure.” It is in the latter spirit that I offer up these tasty morsels.
     My urtext soul at first balked at the many edits I’ve included. My justification is that students sometimes need guidelines, though professionals may curse me. All markings can of course be ignored, including metronome and expression indications, but they are an outgrowth of many years of study. Even so, when I play these on the piano I often take exaggeratedly different expressive approaches, including tempos. To quote again from Bach the younger in his passage on performance, “If it doesn’t sound good, don’t do it.”

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Hélène Grimaud Playing Brahms' Burly D Minor Concerto

Helene Grimaud

     Well, okay, in an earlier post about the little lady and Brahms' concerto, I left my gentle readers hanging. Regular readers will know what I was getting at, that it takes rather little physical strength to play the piano. This is another way of saying that efficiency is more useful than exaggerated movements, efficiency being the key word. It would  be more efficient to move by some natural means than it would be to stretch the hand to an extreme, which is not a natural thing to do. By that I mean that even though the hand can be forced to extend, it doesn't like it because that is not in sync with its design.

     This brings me to another point, that what we are able to see in
Tobias Matthay

the technique is not necessarily the whole story. As you know from an earlier post, I am particularly intrigued by the title of Matthay's book, The Visible and Invisible in Piano Technique. I can't know what Grimaud is thinking when she plays this piece, but I can see that, although she allows her hands to open as needed, they never stay that way and they don't appear to be locked into an extreme position. But what is underneath, what invisible resource gives her so much power? If you close your eyes and listen, you might suppose that she would need to come down into the keys from some extreme height. But logic dictates that, in speed, there wouldn't be time for that. Open your eyes and notice that she is rather close to the keys. Whether the passage is lyrical and spread out beyond the octave, or whether she plays chords or crashing octaves, her hands remain more or less in contact with the keyboard.

No Hammering.
     The answer, of course, is that her power comes from discrete use of the forearm as described by Matthay, and she achieves speed by allowing the forearm's natural movement to propel her. This natural movement of the forearm, of course, is called forearm rotation. It underlies all that we do at the keyboard, particularly in speed, and is virtually invisible. Not to put too fine a point in it, I feel the need to add that octaves or chords in speed will not succeed if the forearm is employed in an up and down, hammer-like movement. This is not an efficient movement in speed.