“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.”

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.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Pianistic Ancestry: Schools of Influence?

     I can claim to be a pianistic descendent of Beethoven. Yes, it's true. Not only that, my heritage travels through Czerny, Liszt and Chopin. (Blush.) But I wonder how informative such a claim really is, aside from the fact that I totally identify with the great masters' music and play it all with pleasure and awe.
    I grew up hearing about a so-called Russian School of pianism, a
Heinrich Neuhaus

French or German school. I never really considered what those designations intended to convey or whether it was important.
Sviatislav Richter
During the Cold War, we undergraduates came under the influence of the Great Sviatislav Richter or Emil Gilels, two dynamic and wildly contrasting Russian exports. I remember gushing to my teacher, Muriel Kerr, having just come from a Richter recital. She sighed and said, "If you must have a Russian god, let it be Gilels." (You can hear Kerr playing Scriabin Op. 8, No. 10, at the age of 17 in the Listen Tab above.)

    Richter and Gilels, both students of the legendary Heinrich Neuhaus, could not have been more different in the impressions they made on the audience. Richter
Emil Gilels
seemed interested in projecting brilliance and virtuosity boardering on the eccentric (Chopin Etude Op. 10, no. 4), whereas Gilels (Brahms Op. 116) seemed the more lyrical and "musicianly." Yet, they both had spectacular technical skill. They were graduates of the same "school" of piano playing, so I concluded that a "school" had to do with the mechanics of playing. 

Rosina Lhevinne
(with husband Josef)
 During my time at Juilliard, Rosina Lhevinne was the reigning 
queen of the piano department, hailed as a remnant of the Russian school. And yet, my friends in her class told me that she did not teach technique. She said as much: "Dear, I don't teach piano." In fact, she had American assistants, Martin Canin and Jeaneane Dowas, to tutor students who needed technical help. I don't know their lineage, other than that they studied with Lhevinne. (?) So much for my theory that a "school" meant the study of mechanics.
Ania Dorfman
     A school, then, must be something more ephemeral. Distinguished pianist Stephanie Brown studied with Ania Dorfman, who was born in Odessa but studied with Polish pianist Teodor Leschetizky (student of Carl Czerny) and French pianist Isidor Philipp (studied with George Mathias [pupil of Chopin] and Theodore Ritter [pupil of Liszt]). [Click on the link to hear her play Chopin Nocturne Op. 62, No. 2, recorded in 1938. Notice the robust tone
Teodor Leschetizky

and absence of misaligned hands.] Leschetizky, according to information handed down by his disciples, developed a "method" of "agility, especially on the weakest fingers." Books are available purporting to describe his "method." According to Leschetizky himself, however, "there is no fixed method and [I] specifically catered to [my] students' individual needs." According to legend, "Leschetizky's students are said to have certain similarities when playing the piano, such as
Isidor Philipp
their sitting position/posture and tone of playing." Philipp, on the other hand, published numerous exercises.

   Brown says that "teaching is the passing down of traditions." I wonder if she means something as specific as taking a certain rubato in a particular passage, or phrasing a certain way, or perhaps a particular quality of sound. All of these seem to me to be so personally variable as to be untenable. (In the world of opera, the handing down of traditions has more to do with adjusting the score to suit a certain soprano's particular skill set.) One critic wrote of Brown's playing that she has a "sound of her own and a distinctive artistic personality to match." Perhaps today we have become so internationalized that ferreting out the particulars of national schools is no longer possible, if it ever was.
    My connection to a distinguished past, one of them, comes
Moritz Rosenthal
through John Crown, who had been a student of Moritz Rosenthal in Vienna. Click on the link to hear Rosenthal's recording of Chopin's B minor Mazurka Op. 33, no. 4, recorded in 1935. Notice the delicacy and flexibility—if I knew the steps to the mazurka, I
Karol Mikuli
would get up and dance. Rosenthal claims interpretive authenticity from his studies with Karol Mikuli, Chopin's most influential student. Rosenthal also studied with Liszt. 

     Another student of Liszt, Emil von Sauer
Emil von Sauer
, recorded Chopin Etude Op. 10, No. 3, in 1928. The style seems to me to be quite "modern," rather straight forward and unfussy. Again, the hands are well together. 

    I think it is difficult to impossible to trace particular performance style or techniques from our time back to Beethoven with any precision, as much as we may want to romanticize this or that detail. This is not to suggest that we don't study and listen and try to get to the composer's intentions as best we can. But descendants of a particular point of view, it seems to me, tend to become their own points of view. Light a candle. Pour a glass of wine. Moon over a Chopin Nocturne. Enjoy. Identify with pianistic greats. But is any one pianist's interpretative approach more authentic than another? Well, I'll let you decide that. 
Dorothy Taubman
As for me, despite my distinguished lineage, I credit pianistic knowhow to the work of Dorothy Taubman, which I acquired from her and her chief disciple, Edna Golandsky. Taubman is not a method. It is not a style. 
Taubman did not invent these movements. She recognized and organized  principles of movement based on what the body was designed by nature to do. Having charge of these principles gives me the freedom to play music of the masters, yes, under the guidance of pianists who were guided by earlier pianists, who were guided by earlier pianist, who were guided...
     And of course I listen to historic and modern performances, all of which combines in me a concept of style that is at least as much a part of me and from me as it is an amalgamation of all those distant influences. Being even a small part of this continuum is wherein for me lies the joy of making music

A few more historic recordings:

Moritz Rosenthal (1862-1946)

Chopin Black Key Etude

Nine Chopin Preludes (1929-1935)

Chopin Nocturnes Op. 9.No. 2 and Op. 27, No. 2

Emil von Sauer (1862-1942)

Liszt la Campanella

(Slower somewhat more labored)

Chopin Nocturne Op. 9, No. 2

Liszt Concerto No. 1

Friday, July 1, 2016

Practicing with a Plan: Repost

The eternal question of how to practice, how to best use time, came up again the other day. Here is a repost of my general thinking: 
   A prospective student came for an interview explaining that even though he practiced, he felt there was little or no improvement. This, unfortunately, is a common woe. For this student, practicing was little more than putting in time. It does take time to practice, of course, but for progress to be made, the time spent must involve the brain, not just the fingers. Mindless rote has no place in our work. 
    It's remarkable to me how many pianists set about practicing without a plan. Their thinking, and I use the word loosely, goes something like this: play the piece, have a problem, stop for repetitions, play the piece. Instead—and I discuss practicing in detail elsewhere in this blog—in order to use the time efficiently and ensure progress, the student should identify the problems first. Then decide on the nature of the problem and solve it before engaging in repetitions. What specific movement will make the passage feel easy? What is the best fingering that will produce fluency and serve the music? This approach will cut practice time, at the very least, in half. Probably more. I promise. Try it.
    Remember, every time we play a learning process is taking place, whether we play correctly or incorrectly. Thinking is easy when we train the brain.