“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.”

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.