“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, January 25, 2016

Chopin Étude Op 10, No. 1, My Favorite Fingerings: But Is This Cheating?

F. Chopin
Étude  is a French word meaning study. For pianists, this conjures the horror of hours and hours spent on mindless rote repetition, as in Czerny or Hanon and their international accomplices.   Over the years—centuries, even—this has come to suggest a means to an end: do this and it is a sure bet you will be able to do that. Torture your mind and body for awhile and we, the above-mentioned gang,  promise you will develop the skills required to play actual music. I'm not a betting man. Can you sense my skepticism? I hope so.

     Chopin's études are not studies in the above-referenced sense. They are instead concert pieces designed to showcase skill; they are not a pedagogical canon. It goes without saying, of course, that any technical issue in a piece of music is a learning experience, a study, if you like. So this begs the question, when I play a concert piece called étude, am I supposed think of it as a stepping stone to some other piece that I may or may not play later on? Am I to follow the fingerings imposed by the editor—even those offered by the composer, who has a very different skill set? I'm glad you asked. The answer is no.
     This reminds me of a passage I once read in an essay by the distinguished 
Sir Donald Francis Tovey
musicologist (and pianist) Sir Donald Tovey. He wrote apropos of Beethoven's gnarly Hammerklavier Sonata, Op. 106, that it is a technically difficult piece and is meant to sound that way, or words to that effect—his point being that one should not seek to make it feel technically easy. Sorry, Sir Donald. If the piece must sound difficult, I will find an easy way to do that.

     The sound of Chopin's Étude Op. 10, No. 1, is that of cascading arpeggios. The difficulty, if there is one, is that the cascades cover wide open spaces, encompassing a tenth or more at the outer edges. Standard triad fingerings are not always possible for the average hand, as these fingerings often feel like awkward stretches. The over-all technical approach to this concert piece has to do with an understanding of shaping and grouping. But some judicious re-fingering can make all of the difference.
     Here are some of my favorites:
Chopin Étude Op. 10, No. 1 MM 33-39
Many more similar opportunities for expeditious fingering exist. Look for them. This is not cheating.

Friday, January 22, 2016

Forearm Rotation: Just a Tool

     My student had experience of forearm rotation before coming to me and understands it quite well. He is an advanced pianist with considerable facility, though he is not happy with the way passages feel as he careens laterally up and down the keyboard.
     As I watched him play, I could detect what seemed to me to be extra movement, though it was very slight. When we discussed this, he explained that in speed he reduced the rotation to the smallest movement possible. Here lies the difficulty.
     There is often misunderstanding about this very easy, natural and essential gesture, a gesture that underlies all of our playing. When teaching rotation, the first concept I explain is that it is an underlying tool; it is not how we move—it is not what we think of—in speed. Its purpose is to teach the finger/hand/arm alliance what it feels like to complete each note in succession as if walking—transferring weight from finger to finger. The result is the sensation of being at rest at the bottom of each key. Notice I didn't say relaxed—some effort is required in order to stand on a particular note, just as it takes some effort to stand upright on our feet, though we can do both without feeling tension.
     Forget the rotation. Yes, in speed we no longer attempt to
exaggerate the rotation, particularly when moving stepwise as in a scale passage. We use a more general way to support fingers with the forearm. This is called shaping. We rely on the playing apparatus to remember the sensation of transferring weight, of walking note to note. (Look for demos in the tabs above.)

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Reading About Piano Technique: Where to Start?

     A pianist in France wrote asking for suggestions on which of my books to read first. I was of course flattered that she had some interest. It occurred to me that others may have similar questions, now that I've exceeded my original plan and flooded the canon of rhetoric on piano study. Lest I be accused of deliberate obfuscation, I wish to register here that my intentions are in fact to illuminate.

     In order to learn about a natural, effortless way to play the piano from my point of view, you might find Piano Technique Demystified: Insights Into Problem Solving useful. If that seems compelling, then the new book, Mystified No More: Further Insights Into Piano Technique, would be a logical continuation. If you want to put into practice some of the ideas,

particularly that of practicing technique in repertoire instead of using exercises, then you could have a look at The Pianist's Guide to Practical Technique and The Pianist's Guide to Practical Scales and Arpeggios. And for those readers with a shorter attention span, I have a new feature article in the January/February issue of American Music Teacher titled "Practicing the Piano."

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Chopin Etudes: Arpeggios in the First and Last

Carl Czerny
     A reader in Norway wrote with kind words about my new book, Mystified No More. He seemed particularly interested in my contention that it is more efficient to solve technical problems in repertoire than by using prefabricated exercises, practicing X in order to play Y.  Playing devil's advocate, he offered a quote by the distinguished Russian pedagogue Heinrich Neuhaus, mentor to Sviatislov Richter, Radu Lupu and others with major careers in the 20th century. 
Heinrich Neuhaus, the Russian
Neuhaus writes in The Art of Piano Playing, "One should not forget that, having begun the study of arpeggios...with the Czerny étude from the School of Velocity or the Art of Finger Dexterity, it [the study of arpeggios] should be completed with Chopin's Etudes Op. 10, No 1 or Op. 25, No. 12." Neuhaus seems to feel that practicing X will provide a path to Y. Keep in mind that the Chopin Études are concert pieces and not meant to be pedagogy, at least no more than any other technical passage in a piece of music—meaning that we learn from everything we play.

Czerny School of Velocity No. 3
Czerny Art of Finger Dexterity No. 2
     The arpeggiated figures in Chopin's first and last études are indeed related to the Czerny examples, related in the sense that they are arpeggios. The techniques, though, are quite different, so why not practice them in the actual pieces? In the C major étude, notice that the expanse covers a tenth. So, the first issue to consider is how to avoid feeling too open:
Chopin Étude Op. 10, No. 1

Simply put, take the thumb along. This is accomplished by means of a walking hand, thumb to second finger as indicated by the bracket above. Shape slightly in for four and five by raising the forearm slightly, giving security and "strength" to those fingers (indicated by arrows). One way to practice this feeling of being "closed" is to regroup the sixteenths, feeling a start on the second finger:

Incidentally, look for more agreeable fingerings later on. For example, in measure thirty-one I use the following:

     The C minor étude is more about the repeated note than the arpeggio. Use forearm rotation from five to one in the right hand and one to five in the left in order to move to each new octave position as indicated by the dotted arrows:

Chopin Étude Op. 25, No. 12
The arpeggio, then, is shaped slightly under in the right hand when ascending and over on the descent. The left hand is just the opposite. 
     Well, then, since I don't agree with Neuhaus on a pathway to music by means of Czerny studies, I ask myself what as a matter of policy do I recommend? Virtually any arpeggiated passage in the repertoire, I tell myself, that teaches the finger/hand/arm alliance what it feels like to shape. The final movement of Beethoven's Sonata Op. 27, No. 2, "Moonlight," comes immediately to mind, as do the C major concerto and the Sonata Op. 2, No. 3. Many examples abound if you want to prepare yourself for Chopin, but don't yet feel ready. Look into The Pianist's Guide to Practical Scales and Arpeggios or The Pianist's Guide to Practical Technique for more ideas. Don't waste time on exercises for which you have no particular use. Don't practice X in order to play Y. 

Thursday, January 7, 2016

They Left Us Too Soon

Lipatti at his final concert
Dino Lipatti was one of the greats who didn't get a fair shake. You can hear his last public performance of Mozart K. 310, September 16, 1950, here: Lipatti's final performance, a concert he was unable to finish. He was 33. If you want to read more about that event, go HERE.
I grew up on his recording of the Grieg concerto, a definitive performance still.
William Kapell

     William Kapell, killed in a plane crash at the age of 31 while on tour, was near the start of one of the most brilliant careers ever. He was compared to Horowitz. His recording of the Khachaturian concerto is still a benchmark. Here he is playing Mephisto Waltz.

Google Account

Dear Readers,

     I just received this notice from the folks who provide the mechanics of this blog:

We encourage you to tell affected readers (perhaps via a blog post), that if they use a non-Google Account to follow your blog, they need to sign up for a Google Account, and re-follow your blog. With a Google Account, they’ll get blogs added to their Reading List, making it easier for them to see the latest posts and activity of the blogs they follow.

   We bloggers are assured that this will enhance the experience for everyone. I hope so.