“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, December 2, 2016

Bach Trills: How Many Notes Are Too Many?

   My student thought that a trill in Bach had to consist of an even number of notes.  He thought it should be duple and that triple was not correct. This gave me pause, as it had never come up before. Here is my rule: Like all ornaments indicated with a symbol, the trill must be given a place in time. Yes? The composer doesn't tell us how many notes or what rhythm they should have. Sometimes it isn't even clear exactly what pitches to play. So, our
job is to decide on how many notes will fit into the allotted space still sounding clear, emphasis on clear. Obviously, the tempo and character of the movement hold sway over this decision. The next step, of course, is to decide how those notes fit with the other parts.
   Here is the example in question, from the first invention.
Bach Invention No. 1.
I play the trills as indicated in the first example, which is in a slightly faster tempo. The second example is, of course, also possible in a somewhat slower tempo. The main objective is clarity and expressive logic. An ornament should never sound as if someone just pushed you in the back.
Two ways to play the trill.

For more on this topic, see Stannard, Neil, Demystifying Bach at the Piano: Problem Solving in the Inventions and Sinfonias, CreateSpace, 2016.

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Demystifying Bach at the Piano: Inventions and Sinfonias

Pianists are horizontalists. When confronted with competing horizontal lines, though, we are called upon to rethink our predilection for spinning a single line beautifully to the right. To some it may seem sacrilege, but we must think more vertically. In these pages we consider the techniques of coordinating more than one musical line. We learn to apply principles of grouping notes together and shaping lines in certain ways for technical ease. We consider fingerings,
sometimes more than one. When technical solutions coincide with musical objectives, we are delighted. But when there is a technical problem, we examine it on its own merits. No mindless rote here. We consider approaches to ornamentation and articulation and their expressive partners, dynamics and phrasing. All of this gently couched in physical movements so natural to the body as to be irresistible. Includes link to video demonstrations.

Thursday, October 27, 2016

Mystified No More: Further insights Into Piano Technique

     Some interested parties have written me commenting on Mystified No More, my newest book. What's up with the title, they want to know. And how is it different from the first volume? Well, the title is a reference to the first volume, Piano Technique Demystified: Insights Into Problem Solving. 
     So many pianists expressed interest in that first volume and so many questions about technique continued to pop up, I decided a sequel would be in order. The new book is a collection of essays organized like mini lessons on  technical issues in a wide range of repertoire. The overarching idea is to prepare the way for what I call a more "practical technique," an approach to playing the piano that encourages efficiency not only at the keyboard, but in the use of time. It includes access to abundant video demonstrations.
     The writing style is perhaps more literary, dare I say it, and revelatory of personal experiences and behind the scenes anecdotes. The first chapter, for example, explores connotations and denotations of the words work and play when applied to what we do at the piano. I recreate a scene in which a graduate student named David offers "a sturdy performance, quite effortful it seemed, as sweat dripped down the back of his neck and along the bridge of his nose, a precarious situation for his horn-rimmed glasses. Sound took on a physical presence in the room along with the students, drawing the paneled walls inward and giving me a sense that the room was much too small for the lot of us. Afterward, in the ensuing discussion David made a comment that has stuck with me all these
years, 'I don't play the piano,' he said, 'I work the piano.'" From this
a mystery develops. What did he actually mean and what in fact takes place when we deal with demanding repertoire, in this case Chopin's A-Flat Ballade and the first Liszt concerto? Along the way to finding solutions to this mystery I am taken for granted at an after-concert reception, get locked in the theater after a performance, invited to "strum out a tune" at a cocktail lounge and find myself seated at the counter at midnight in a truck stop diner wearing white tie and tails.  

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

What Was Bach Thinking? Pianist Puzzler Answers

Bach on Schnapps?

     You already get my admiration if you recognize the piece as Sinfonia No. 10 in G Major, BWV 796, for keyboard. Why did he write it, though, and even more pressing, how does one play it on a keyboard?      
Bach Sinfonia No. 10.
     Why did he write it? This question rewards those who pay attention and read introductions. Bach explains in the introduction to his collection of Inventions and Sinfonias why he wrote them as follows: "So that those desirous of learning are shown a clear way not only (1) to learn to play cleanly in two parts, but also, after further progress, (2) to handle three obligate parts correctly and well; and along with this not only to obtain good inventions (ideas) but to develop the same well; above all, however, to achieve a cantabile style of playing and at the same time acquire a strong
foretaste of composition." So, in short, these are teaching pieces. Not only for learning keyboard and compositional techniques, but "above all to achieve a
cantabile style of playing." Surprise. I'll bet you thought Bach on the piano was supposed to sound like a typewriter.
     Finally, how is it played on the keyboard? Look at the articulation. The soprano voice crosses the alto, striking the same note with two different articulations at the same time. This is impossible. Yes, even on a two-manual instrument, if that is where you are headed.      Do you see that the soprano voice plays an eighth-note C while the alto sustains the same note? The pattern is repeated in each measure sequentially. (This is no problem in my string trio version, where violin and viola happily cross lines all the time.) The explanation, of course, is that the master is here concerned perhaps a tad more about the compositional technique of voice leading than he is about keyboard techniques.

     There are two possible performance options. The first is my favorite, although something is lost by removing the short eighth and replacing it with a sustained quarter.
Performance Option 1.
Performance Option 2.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Pianist Puzzler: What Was Bach Thinking?

Bach's Reaction to Schnapps
     Bach was a genius. Bach was a prolific genius. But I wonder if perhaps he and Anna had been sampling the Schnapps when he wrote this example.

     Here are your questions: What is it? Why did he write it? How do you play it? As soon as I get your answers, I'll be able to finish my book. (Just kidding.) Really. What was he thinking?
     Puzzler answers will follow soon.

Friday, October 7, 2016

Bach On the Piano: What? Damper Pedal?

J. S. Bach.

It is rarely, if ever, necessary to use pedal in Bach. It can sometimes be a convenience, though, especially if you share my predilection for physical ease.  In this example from the Sinfonia No. 7, it is quite possible to 
Don't Do This.
simulate a reasonable legato with the fingering I've supplied. Fingerings by some editors suggest an even more extreme finger legato, requiring contortions usually reserved for circus performers. As much as I enjoy the circus, I prefer to leave it under the big top.

Sinfonia 7, M 5, Legato Sixths.
     You may have noticed  that when a finger is repeated, finesse is required to keep an illusion of legato. This can be accomplished by remaining very close to the keys and minimizing each gesture. However, this passage is an ideal example of how we may use the resources of the piano in order to produce an even more convincing legato. Yes, I speak of the damper pedal, but I’ll deny it if you tell anyone. 
Bach Sinfonia 7, M5, Syncopated Pedal.

It's the One on the Right.
Here are the uses of the pedal in Bach: add warmth or accent to a single sonority; provide a connective link in a leap. We must always be diligent in our efforts to avoid blurring sonorities. With this in mind, we may use a syncopated pedal to enhance the illusion of legato in this passage.
     The arrows indicate the direction of forearm rotation. For example, the second finger G-sharp in the alto sends the hand rotationally rightward, so that it may turn back into the sixth with four and thumb.
     When playing Bach on the piano, use the piano's resources. Don't try to imitate the limitations of the harpsichord. Expand. Grow. It will still sound like Bach. I promise.

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Pianist Puzzler: Chopin Ballade in A-Flat My Solution

When I was a college freshman, my teacher, Muriel Kerr, assigned Chopin's A-Flat Ballade. I was glad to play it, but hadn't a clue how to "honestly" negotiate passages like this. So, I just threw myself at them. Somehow I passed muster, but never felt really sure of myself. How did you do with your solution?
     In this particular passage, we have to ask ourselves first how the composer intends for us to play the small notes. We know from notations he made in students' scores that appoggiaturas are to be played on the beat. (See Howard Ferguson, Keyboard Interpretation.) Personally, I sometimes find this idea not aways the most musical of solutions. Here, however, it makes perfect sense. I play this as indicated below.

Chopin Ballade in A-Flat

     As always, when the composer gives us a group of small notes that are not accounted for in the overall rhythmic scheme, we have to decide what that rhythm will be and how to place those notes with the adjoining parts. This goes for arpeggiated chords that are indicated with a symbol, as in the left hand. Side note, the thumb
notes, the A-flats, may be taken with the right hand. This becomes even more of an issue later, when the intervals are more extended. The tied-over melody note will have decayed to such a point as to be inaudible anyway. Test this theory on your own piano to see if I'm right.

Thursday, August 4, 2016

Pianist Puzzler: Chopin A-Flat Ballade

Here's an easy one with at least two parts. But beware, there's a bit of a trick. (Hint: Howard Ferguson.) The solution will appear in these pages as soon as I figure it out. ;-)
Chopin A-Flat Ballade

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Losing the Audition: A Road Not Taken

My student failed an audition. Failed was the word he used, but I tried my best to point out that it was just one lost job opportunity and that he was not himself a failure because of it. And just at that moment I understood yet again why it is important to study poetry in high school. Robert Frost's, "The Road Not Taken" popped into my mind. You know the one I mean. It begins:
Robert Frost
TWO roads diverged in a yellow wood,

          And sorry I could not travel both

 and ends:              

           I shall be telling this with a sigh
           Somewhere ages and ages hence:
           Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
           I took the one less traveled by,
                                  And that has made all the difference.

     Frost relates his poem "with a sigh" not because the road he took was the wrong one, but rather because he could not take both. As we all know that's life. When choices are made—or in the case of a failed audition, made for us—we have to accept that something must be given up. The road less traveled, the one less fathomable, shall we say, turned out to have made all the difference.
     In summer of 1969 I was just out of the army and sending out feelers for work. One afternoon Gwendolyn Koldofsky, the accompanying teacher at USC, called to let me know that the great Jascha Heifetz was looking for a pianist for his violin class. I hadn't touched the piano in months, but, I thought, why not? His assistant gave me instructions to the effect that I should arrive exactly at the appointed hour at the entrance to his studio, not the front of the house, which I did. Needless to say, I was somewhat apprehensive, as we had had encounters before—pleasant enough—but I thought of him as perhaps just a touch on the severe side.
Jascha Heifetz
The master received me himself with reserved politeness and indicated I should take a seat at the piano. No small talk. First we played the exposition to Brahms' G major sonata. "Who have you played this with?" he asked. I told him I had toured a great deal with a German violinist. "They play too slow," he said. Then he put his transcription of Jamaican Rhumba on the rack and asked me to sight read it with him. This seemed to impress, as he quizzed me again on whether I was really sight-reading. (I was.) Next he pulled out the Tchaikovsky concerto and asked me to start with the orchestral tutti. I arrived at the violin solo entrance, which he played all the way up to the top, where he stopped suddenly. Then Heifetz, perhaps the greatest violinist in the world, looked me straight in the eyes and said, "I never could play that." 

     I didn't get the job. If I had, I would not have been free to accept engagements in New York the following January and my first professional tour. These engagements were the beginning of not only an unimagined road, but also an unimagined redevelopment of my craft. The road I chose—the road that chose me—turned out to have made all the difference. I didn't get the job, but I got a life—not to mention a nice little anecdote.

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Pianists in Performance: What Should I Think About?

     Have you ever experienced in performance what I call mind
chatter? This is an interruption in the logical flow of musical thought. It can occur without even noticing; the focus of the playing seems intact, but there is some peripheral distraction. This is akin to being in a theater thoroughly entranced by a film, yet at the same time aware that someone has come in and sat down next to you.
     This concept came up the other day during a lesson in which the student found herself caught somewhere between reading the score and playing from memory. I pointed out that memorizing was the surest way to make the music a part of her psyche. It does not matter in performance whether the score is present or not. But if it is present, the player has to know when and where to look, where on the page is the passage in question. This, then, becomes part of the thought process. 
     The great harpsichordist Wanda Landowska, a musician who many thought had a direct line of communication with Bach in the great beyond, was once being interviewed by some eager young
Wanda Landowska
admirer. "Oh, Madame Landowska, when you play I feel the presence of Bach himself. The music speaks to me in such a special way. Tell me, please, what do you think about when you perform?" To which the great lady replied, "The notes, dear, the notes."

     Well, yes, first the notes. But probably not in isolation. The notes are connected to an idea of their relationship to one another and to some concept of how smaller ideas add up to the whole of the piece. When we sit down to play, we must start with the big ideas. In speed, it is impossible to conceive of individual notes. It is better to be like the orator who speaks off the cuff, who embraces his audience with his full attention and speaks warmly and enthusiastically of the big ideas he finds compelling, rather than the public speaker who, not really wanting to be there, reads with precision from a printed speech. Of course, in addition to being inspiring, we pianists are required to be precise, too.
     Once when performing the fugue in Beethoven's Op. 110 sonata, I became aware, suddenly, that in addition to feeling the mounting excitement of the passage, I heard an inner voice chanting, "come on, Beethoven." This was a sort of cheering section, encouraging me on to victory. This had never happened before, but I suspect it had to do with an underlying apprehension of playing a fugue from memory, even though I had already done it many times. I'm happy to report that we were victorious, Beethoven and I.
     I think it comes down to this, and every performer is different, just as each occasion can inspire different results. Whatever we can latch on to that keeps us in the groove, that keeps us focused on the expression of the music, that is fair game; whatever works. But beware the voice that asks what's for supper. Slap him down and get back to the matters in hand.

Saturday, July 23, 2016

Crossing Hands at the Piano: Jascha Heifetz and "Frère Jacques"

Jascha Heifetz
     The great violinist Jascha Heifetz had his studio on the second floor of Clark House at USC, northwest corner. It was across the hall from Muriel Kerr's studio, where one afternoon when I arrived for my piano lesson, I heard much giggling and what sounded like beginners playing "Frère Jacques" as a round. I didn't want to interrupt, so I waited. Just as I was about to knock, the door opened and there I was face to face with the master himself, Heifetz in the flesh. We had had encounters before, not necessarily unpleasant, but if truth be told, a little scary. He could seem quite severe. So there we were, face to face and I felt my
tongue wrap itself into a series of knots. But no matter, without so much as cracking a smile, he calmly explained as if it were the most normal of circumstances that he had been teaching Kerr how to play the round with hands crossed. And without stopping for a response, he strode across the hall and disappeared into his studio.
     It's not so easy. Try it.

Frère Jacques
     Heifetz could play the piano tolerably well. I suspect he thought this exercise would help develop something or other pianistically—coordination, independence—I don't really know. But as you know, gentle reader, if you've been paying attention to this blog, I am not a fan of practicing X in order to achieve Y. If you want some crossed-hands experience, look at Mozart K. 331, first-movement variations. Even in the Mozart, I might look for opportunities to uncross. In the Frère Jacques example, it isn't necessary to cross the hands, so there's really no reason to do it—except, oh, well, it's kind of fun.

     Kerr took great delight in showing me what she and Heifetz had been doing. I tried it. Fortunately, though, she didn't make me practice it.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Piano Puzzle: Appassionata, My Solution

Here is my preferred fingering. I take the lower octave B-flat on the second beat of measure two with the left hand. It's so much more fluent. Prepare the left-hand thumb by using third-finger D-flat as a hinge. Although possible, it is not necessary to cling to the top of the octave, the fifth-finger B-flat. Play it melodically.
Beethoven Op. 57 Fingering

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Dame Myra Hess: Pianistic Heroine

     Readers of this blog will have noticed references to Tobias Matthay, distinguished British pianist and pedagogue.
Tobias Matthay
His scientific investigations into piano technique brought to him both distinction and controversy. He was perhaps the first to explore the role of the forearm as applied to the piano, although there are those of us who think he came upon this principle too late in life to fully understand its potential. 

    My favorite Matthayism is the title of one of his books, The Visible and Invisible in Piano Playing. Even without reading the book, the title itself conveys a very important concept—what we see is not necessarily what we get. Whatever the merits of his ideas, he was a much sought after teacher and some very successful pianists with major careers passed through his studio. Among them were York Bowen, Myra Hess, Clifford Curzon, Moura Lympany, Eunice Norton, Lytle Powell, Irene Scharrer, Lilias Mackinnon, Guy Jonson, Vivian Langrish and Harriet Cohen. One of my teachers at USC was collaborative pianist Gwendolyn Koldofsky, also from Matthay's studio. She enjoyed a fine performing career working with the likes of Lotte Lehmann, Hermann Prey and Marilyn Horne.
Dame Myra Hess
  I'm thinking now of Dame Myra Hess, heroine of the London concert scene during WWII. Hess sensed the need to boost morale in London at the start of the war, "as nothing was going on." So, she initiated concerts that were presented Monday through Friday at the National Gallery in Trafalgar Square. Even during the German Blitz, the concerts continued without fail, although they moved to a smaller, safer room. The schedule continue for more than six years, throughout the entire war. There were in all 1,968 concerts heard by 824,152 people. Hess appeared in 152 of them. Listen here to what is "not an interview," but rather a ten minute portion of a conversation with her recorded by radio commentator Jim Fassett in 1952. I think it is a wonderful portrait of a remarkable woman. There is another, more extensive interview from 1963. Once when asked by a reporter why she played from the score in a concerto performance, Dame Myra snapped back, "well, the band has theirs, why shouldn't I have mine." This alone has endeared her to me forever.

     Hess was noted for her interpretations of Mozart, Beethoven and Schumann, though she had a large repertoire, including new works. There are numerous recordings available, one of my favorites being this live performance of the Brahms D Minor concerto with Dmitri Mitropolous.

Monday, July 18, 2016

William Kapell's Recital

     I've made some corrections and additions to the Listen tab above. William Kapell's recital link has been repaired and I've added his performance of Liszt's Mephisto Waltz, a performance many feel is among the finest available. 
    When you have some extra time, listen to the variety of interpretations in the collection of ten great pianists of the 20th century as they play the Chopin Berceuse.

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Piano Puzzle: Beethoven Appassionata, Op. 57


   Here's a brain teaser for you.  Look at the  example below. I think the editor devised the fingering while riding the bus to his regular day job. Try to find a more agreeable fingering for these measures. We want fluency and lyricism, not to mention ease of execution. The answer will appear in these pages in a few days. Your reward will be the satisfaction of knowing that you can make virtually any passage feel easy. Your friends will marvel at the brilliant glow of your new aura.
Beethoven Sonata Op. 57

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Legato at the Piano: Music is not a Democracy

A pianist writes asking for clarification regarding my views on producing legato at the piano. I have in the past startled the unwary by stating that legato on the piano is in fact an illusion. The piano is a percussion instrument. Sorry. That's a fact. It's about physics. (I shall now take cover under my very sturdy Mason and Hamlin BB, built in 1926 and weighing more than 1000 pounds.)
          We can create whatever imagery we like in order to help with our illusions—imagination is good—but the fact remains, a hammer hits a wire. That's percussive—not quite on the order of a snare drum, but, well you get the picture. The wire vibrates, which in turn causes the air around it to vibrate sympathetically. This vibrating air is what tickles our ears.
     Some pianists, even distinguished ones—I'm thinking now of Alfred Brendel—feel that by wiggling the finger on the key surface after striking it, a sort of pitched vibrato occurs, a violin-like effect. The hope is, as I understand it, that the sound will have more warmth and perhaps seem more connected to the next pitch. I'm sorry to have to report that only the key wiggles in its bed; the hammer has done its job and moved away. Once the  hammer has struck the string, only God can change it, that is, until we release it. Some may argue that it's the intention of the attack that counts. If the key is depressed with the intention of vibrating afterwards, the sound may be affected. This argument seems weak to me.
     Side note: Years ago (meaning half a century), I had the opportunity to hear my piano teacher, Muriel Kerr, play the Brahms
Jascha Heifetz, violin
C Minor Piano Quartet with Heifetz, Primrose and Piatigorsky. For my younger readers, they were the superstar string players of the 20th century. It was my first time hearing the work, and I was, of course, stunned by its drama and lyricism. Not long after that, I found myself engaged for a
William Primrose, viola
performance of the same piece and, looking at the score for the first time, I noticed that the piano starts with a forte octave tied over two bars with a diminuendo to 
piano for the entrance of the strings.  This diminuendo must take place in tempo, an Allegro non troppo. So I puzzled over how to make a quicker diminuendo. You've probably already guessed the answer.
Gregor Piatigorsky, cello
Inexperienced as I was, though, I had to ask Miss Kerr. She was glad to oblige, and with a giggle, struck the octaves and allowed them to ring for most of the first measure, then  released the keys part way and fluttered the pedal for the
Muriel Kerr, piano
remaining three beats, releasing the keys even more. It was a perfect diminuendo from forte to piano in exactly the right amount of time, controlled by the pianist. No need to bother God about it.

      Now back to our regularly scheduled topic.
      I have written about producing the illusion of legato on the piano by, for example, playing into the decay of each successive note. This is perhaps the closest we can come to the sort of legato a string player can manage, or a singer. Of course, though, this approach produces a pronounced diminuendo, which is not always the desired effect. 
     My correspondent quotes Samuil Feinberg's book, which  "argues that the acoustical illusion of legato has actually more to do with joining together the initial sounds (the immediate sound of the attack), rather than their decay, because if not, he argues, all legato would be diminuendo. And so then, how do you create illusion of legato in a crescendo cantabile line." This is the question we deal with on a daily basis. Feinberg solves this dilemma by "joining the beginnings of each sound, or at least the memory of it."
     Exactly right. Music is not a democracy. Every note does not get an equal vote. Feinberg is right. I call this the hierarchy of notes. We must have the musical idea of the line in mind as we play the first note. What are the dynamic relationships?  In a lyrical crescendo, each attack of each successive note must be louder in relation to the initial attack of the previous note. 
      I think the manner of attack is the most important issue in a moving legato line, that is, play from the key, minimizing downward speed of the key. This removes much of the "attack," but we can still control the dynamic with weight. When Feinberg states that legato is the result of "joining initial sounds," I think he is referring to hierarchy, or put another way, the audible shape of a line. If we take care to control each dynamic ascent in the right relationship to the initial attack of the previous one, controlling the speed of descent into the keybed, a convincing facsimile of legato occurs. Imagine a string of beads in which each bead is graduated from smaller to larger in carefully managed increments.