“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.”

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Practicing Scales and Arpeggios

     A student asked me recently about the
importance of practicing scales and arpeggios. "Do I really have to," was the gist of her plea. I was happy to oblige with the answer, no, of course not.
     Years ago, when I was a new university professor, this answer got me into some controversy with the local music teachers. Word got around that I didn't "believe" in scales, as if scales were somehow decreed in the Ten Commandments. Well, I had some explaining to do to avoid being excommunicated from the music community.
     Here's what I think. We have to know all the major and melodic minor scales as a matter of basic keyboard topography. The thumb crossings should be well worked in and the coordination between the hands second nature. After that, though, practicing scales for "technique" is a waste of time. Or let's say it's a delay tactic. It's
something that can be done without thinking, the operative root here is think. Scales and arpeggios rarely, if ever, appear in repertoire they way we practice them in isolation. When we encounter them in music we have to re-learn them anyway.  

     So, if you want to practice scales, practice them in music you want to play. We pause here for a message from the sponsor. I have put together just such a volume: The Pianist's Guide to Practical Scales and Arpeggios, As they Occur in Pieces You Want to Play. The excerpts are the result of rummaging through a significant amount of repertoire—Bach, all of the Haydn, Mozart, 
Beethoven and Schubert sonatas, as well as selected fantasies, variations, concertos and occasional pieces. There are also fragments from Chopin, Brahms and Debussy, although what was once ubiquitous in the Classical period becomes in later periods less so. 
The repertoire encompasses middle intermediate to advanced levels. Of course, the preponderance of material lies in the least complicated keys, although there are examples in theoretical keys such as G-sharp major, D-sharp and C-flat, keys the indignity of which only pianists bear; string players are generally excused, except in certain orchestral works by Mahler or Richard Strauss.
     Have a look. I'd be glad to know what you think. It's available here.

Monday, September 11, 2017

CHOPIN DEMYSTIFIED: Problem Solving in the Nocturnes

Announcing a new volume to be available soon:

Here is an excerpt from the introduction:
In this volume we consider the technical means by which a happy collaboration between the hands becomes second nature. In my experience, if there is an impediment to a successful performance, that impediment originates in the left hand. If the fingering and its technical logic are not well understood, the right-hand fioriture have no place to take root, and more often than not die on the vine. If you will pardon a metaphor shift, when the coat-hanger is shapeless and weak, the garment has nothing to cling to.
     Recently, a student brought the Nocturne Op. 9, No. 2, that expressive and, well, ubiquitous exercise that all students seem to take up and all teachers must endure. If there is fault, it is of course not with the work itself, but rather with the approach to it. My student complained of confusion as to where to place all of those “extra” notes, the ones that don’t really have rhythmic specificity. I responded, cipher that I am, that the right hand is confused because the left hand jabs aimlessly at notes in what I call a hunt-and-peck manner. (Those readers old enough to remember manual typewriters will identify with that description.) The left hand hasn’t discovered its path. It doesn’t know how to group those chords or where the bass notes belong. It, therefore, hasn’t learned to use each eighth as a direct spring-board for each succeeding eighth. This is what I mean when I say notes must proceed easily and naturally from one to the next, as if each propelled the other inevitably. When the first bass-note sounds, the hand must already know its next landing place. You wouldn’t jump off a diving board without first looking to see if there is water in the pool.
     Chopin advised that in this nocturne, in order to avoid sounding
like a waltz or worse—an Austrian oom-pah band, the “bass be practiced first by itself, divided between the two hands; and each of the chords following the main bass beats in the 12/8 should sound like a chorus of guitars…This should be done piano and in a strict time, maintaining an absolutely steady allegretto without the 12/8 lapsing into triplets.”   This is not a bad idea, and I blush at my impertinence. But the master stops short of telling his student the technical how-tos and where-fors. In this example, as in virtually all of the examples we shall examine, the technical solutions tend to be variations on similar ideas having to do with grouping notes together for ease and selecting fingering that allows the hand to move fluently, without feeling overly extended.

 Once the accompanist left-hand knows its job well, we shall 
introduce it to the singing right-hand. It is at this point we find ways to accommodate the seemingly arbitrary fioriture, the melodic embellishments that distinguish Chopin from all other masters of concert music for the piano. We learn how to manage an accompaniment figure that seems to tease the hand into awkward stretches. We explore ways of organizing melismas of 27 notes against 6. We learn how to interpret all those dangling grace-notes, wantonly attached to arpeggiated figures, not to mention all those other enigmatic symbols.

Sunday, September 3, 2017

Chopin's Octave Etude

(Resting his hands?)
 Many students have asked about  Chopin's octav
e etude. I'm guessing this comes under the heading of "because it's there." It seems to me that this is not a very attractive piece—that the only reason to play it is to show that you can. As we all know, Chopin's collection of etudes are not really etudes in a pedagogical sense. Rather, they are show pieces designed to display a range of facility. Nevertheless, we learn from any piece we play, so in that sense passages in Mozart might be thought of as etudes. The Chopin etudes as a rule require considerable expertise to begin with, but for showy octaves, this etude is as good a place as any to begin. You can watch me talk and poke my way through it here.


Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Dame Myra Hess Interview 1963

Chopin Nocturne in C Minor
I came once again across this interview of one of Britan's great pianists, a link to the 19th century and a student of Tobias Matthay. It's worth a re-post: Dame Myra Hess Interview 1963. Among her students is the noted pianist,  Stephen
Kovacevich (then known as Stephen Bishop). Here is a radio broadcast (1948) of Chopin's C Minor Nocturne at generously laid-back tempos.

Friday, May 26, 2017

Chopin's Polonaise in A-Flat, Op. 53: Chromatic Fourths

A student writes asking for a demonstration of the opening passages of Chopin's grand Polonaise. The question came out of my earlier presentation of the etude in sixths, no doubt because all passages in parallel double notes have much in common. That is, we choose a fingering that will allow us to play legato without feeling clingy. This often necessitates crossing a longer finger over a shorter one, which both Bach and Chopin taught us to do.
Chromatic means "colorful."
(Yes, really.) The technique will also demand an understanding of how to use one note of the chord, usually the top note, as a hinge and use forearm rotation to facilitate the movement.

Chopin Polonaise Chromatic Fourths
In speed, which is not really very fast, we can also feel a slight (tiny) up before each thumb. Rotation is crucial in the third example, where the thumb is repeated. See the demonstration here: Chromatic Fourths.

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Parallel Intervals On the Piano: Sixths in Chopin's Op. 25, No. 8

A perceptive student writes: 
"The Chopin Etude op. 25, no. 8, in sixths is marked molto legato.  What are we to make of this marking?  A lot of advice given on the subject of double notes seems to suggest connecting the top notes but allowing the bottom notes to be detached.  This certainly seems more comfortable and less likely to result in some kind of injury and sooner or later even connecting the top notes brings about some questionable stretches.  Yet when I listen to recordings of great artists it really doesn't sound like many of them connect the top note.  In fact, some of them really sound quite detached and almost toccata-like.  Others seem to adapt a sort of varied approach in touch which, I must admit, sounds very interesting though not necessarily what Chopin might have in mind.  Sooner or later even connecting only the top notes brings about some questionable stretches.  I suspect that Chopin's instrument
No Stretching
would have allowed the legato for which he appears to ask but which may be injurious on our modern instruments.  So, my question to you is how we are to handle Chopin's instruction of molto legato in such a piece as this etude.  Is it a literal finger legato?  I don't see how it can be without risk of injury.  I had considered separating each sixth just slightly to at least suggest legato through consistency with use of the pedal."

My Response; You ask excellent questions. The simple answer is no, it is not a literal finger legato. And yes, it is more comfortable and less strenuous to repeat the thumb, staying as close to the key as possible, as if stroking it. As you know, legato on the piano is an illusion at best. We can
It's an Illusion
conceptualize all we want, imagining organs and choirs, but the fact of the matter is that in the physical world the piano is a percussion instrument; its sound is produced by a hammer striking a string.  Chopin took this into consideration when marking his scores. So when he gives us the instruction to play molto legato, he's telling us to select a fingering and manner of playing that is connected given the circumstances. He reportedly offered this advice: “.. mould the keyboard as if with a velvet hand and feel the key rather than striking it!”.

The closest we can come to legato on the piano is to over-hold each note until striking the next or playing in the decay of each note. This latter approach can be very effective, reducing the amount of percussion, though it produces a diminuendo. Neither of these approaches is practical in speed. So what we are left with is Chopin's advice, to stroke the key, which I take to mean we should stay close to the keys and use pedal as appropriate. Remember, too, the faster we play, the more obvious the articulation becomes, that is, the hammer striking the strings.

So, fingering and a connected feel are what we should explore. Use five and four on the tops, repeating thumb on most of the lower notes. For most of the ascending top notes, consider crossing a longer finger over a shorter one. I use the thumb on most of the lower notes. In order to feel connected, use a tiny (minuscule) rotation toward the thumb side. Consider regrouping the triplets to facilitate the above. (See example, in which the brackets show how I group some of the sixths.) For a demo of the rotation, click here: Parallel Intervals
Opening Measures of Op. 25, No. 8

Thursday, March 30, 2017

Bach's A Minor English Suite: Oh, No! Three Separate Lines

     My student brought the prelude to Bach's A
J.S. Bach
Minor English Suite, which he played quite fluently and with excellent understanding of the style. He knows not to accept "just okay" technically, because he knows complete ease is possible. So, he asked me about measure nineteen, where the bass note is held while the tenor rambles about in the same hand. Although he could play the notes so that they sounded just fine, he felt constricted. Clever lad that he is, he asked about the rotation.

Bach A Minor English Suite, M 19 Prelude, Rotation
     Remember, forearm rotation is only an underlying tool. The concept sometimes confuses and confounds the uninitiated, especially absent an in-person demonstration. In this case, feeling the difference between single and double rotation can help to unlock the hand where it feels constricted. Admittedly, this example is a somewhat small point, but working in the rotation here can have a profound result elsewhere.
     Notice the angled arrows in the example. The angle indicates the direction from which the finger strikes the key. Since the fifth finger remains in place, the rotation can't be very exaggerated. This is fine, because we always want tiny movements for speed anyway. Where there are consecutive arrows in the same direction, the movement is called a double rotation, rotating both to and from a note. When the music changes direction with each note, the movement is called single rotation. This is what most pianists think of when forearm rotation is mentioned; it is what occurs in an Alberti bass figure or a trill. (For more on forearm rotation and other issues, see Piano Technique Demystified: Insights into Problem Solving.)
     What happens here, then, in measure nineteen, is a release of tension in the left hand, slight though it may be, by allowing the rotation its freedom. The result is an avoidance of finger isolation.
There's more to it than spinning.
      It turned out, though, that there was also a coordination issue in my student's approach. We pianists learn from day one to spin a musical line beautifully to the right. This is good. But what if we have two or more lines that crave spinning beautifully to the right. What then?
     Ah. I'm glad you asked. We have to ween ourselves from the horizontal and consider the vertical. That is, what happens at points (as in counterpoints) where the voices come together. Here, if there is a coordination issue, we have to feel the combined downs, the verticalness as indicated but he doubled-headed arrows in the example.
Bach A Minor English Suite, M 19 Prelude, Verticalness

          Practice stopping on each eighth and notice which two fingers are partnered. Feel the down into the keys in each hand. My teacher used to say, 
"Dear, the piano is down. We only come up in order to go down again." Say the finger numbers numbers aloud. Notice how the pairs change. I know it seems silly, but do it. It works. (For more on coordination in contrapuntal music, see Demystifying Bach at the Piano: Problem Solving in the Inventions and Sinfonias.)

Sunday, March 26, 2017

How is Schumann's Fantasy Like Beethoven's Sonata Op. 111?

Robert Schumann
My very advanced student brought the first movement of Schumann's Fantasy, Op. 17. He played rather convincingly, if a bit overwrought for my taste. That is, he had in mind that this

is a 'big' piece. Well, yes, it covers a lot of emotional ground, but sometimes, as in the opening, it's only forte strings with no brass doublings.
     His question for me, though, had to do with discomfort on the second page where the second violins play trills against the first violins' descending melody notes. This became a technical challenge for him:
As Written
     I told him to reference the penultimate page of Beethoven's Sonata Op. 111, where a similar confusion of voices and trills encumber the unsuspecting pianist. The Schumann example is played:
As Played
     Once the coordination between the voices in the right hand has been solved and coordinated with the left hand, the thirty-second-note trills can relax a bit, if desired.
     I leave it to you, gentle reader, to solve Beethoven, armed now as you are with the technical tools.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Kabalevsky's Sonatina, Op. 13, No. 1: A technical Detail

Dimitri Kavalevsky

     My adult student brought this familiar foray into classical style a la the 20th century. He stumbled often, but not always, at the two scale passages, G minor as shown here (Ex. 1), and the same passage on C minor a few measures later. Notice that nothing could be more innocent harmonically: a G minor scale over a first-inversion arpeggio, also G minor: 
Kabalevsky Sonatina, Op. 13, No. 1, Third Movement
Reliable fluency, however, eluded my student. So, we set out to solve this mystery.

     Two issues are in play here: the musical objective and the
technical means. I know, I know. What else is new? I point this out because my student fell victim to the musical objective as indicated in the score, trying for a whoosh without feeling the milestones along the way. 

 Step one is to notice which fingers of each hand partner and encourage them to cooperate by feeling a down together. Do this very slowly. (I've indicated these fingerings in Ex. 2.) Feel these pairs first on each eighth. Then, moving on to step two, feel the pairs on each quarter—still very slowly. Then comes the crucial third step: Notice the pair of fingers on the downbeat of measure two. Aha! This is not the beginning of the scale. Feel a secure starting place here. Gradually work up the tempo feeling, though not necessarily hearing, the pulses. Go ahead. Try it. It's fun.
     I'm happy to report that my student was able to solve the issues in the lesson. I sent him home, though, having elicited a promise that he will continue to practice along the same lines.

Saturday, February 25, 2017

Pianist's Puzzler Solution

In modern notation, the bracket means non-arpeggio. Some pianists think this bracket means to play both notes with the same hand. It does not. It means play the notes as an unbroken chord. Yes, I know, unbroken implies play it with the same hand. But what if the chord is too large to avoid breaking it? Now we're getting to the right question. If I wanted to observe the notation strictly, I would put the offending note in the right hand, which is very easy to do. Remember, the score shows us what the music sounds like, not how it feels in our hands.
Puzzler Solution
Arnold Dolmetsch
(1858-1940). French-born
 but of Swiss origin
     For those readers who demand chapter and verse, well, here they are. You can view common symbol notation at the Stanford University WEBSITE. Some confusion has arisen because the bracket in some Baroque sources could mean to arpeggiate, yes, the opposite of its current meaning. The Dolmetsch website, that would be a reference to the distinguished re-discoverer of Baroque instruments and their uses, gives us this chart for arpeggios:

Bracket Symbols, Including Two Obsolete

The text reads: [Arpeggios are] "indicated by a vertical wavy line, a vertical square bracket or a curved bracket (the latter two signs are now uncommon)." In a lifetime of staring myself nearsighted at an enormous variety of scores, including facsimiles of original manuscripts, I do not recall ever seeing a bracket that might be construed as an arpeggio. In fact, except as noted above in a more modern context, I don't recall ever having seen a bracket. Let it be briefly noted that we do see the curved bracket in certain editions of Chopin's works, which does mean to arpeggiate.

Saturday, February 18, 2017

A Pianist's Puzzler

In the example below, what is the meaning in today's notation (hint) of the bracket? How would you play this passage? The answers will appear in a few days, just as soon as I figure it out. Ready? Pencils up.

Friday, February 17, 2017

Finding a Hand Position at the Piano


     The shape of the hand when playing the piano is rounded, like a ball. No, wait. It's flat like a pancake. That's not it, either. I know! It's splayed like roadkill. Or maybe it's all or none of the above. 
     Method books and their instruments of propagation, piano teachers, often mislead the unsuspecting student into a concept that will one day have to be unlearned. That is, they teach that the hand needs to be molded into a particular shape and made to hold that shape. Usually, the preferred shape is rounded, with all fingers on the keys, including
the thumb. Gentle reader, let me dissuade you of this practice as it requires that the fingers pull in toward the palm, which is work. Though we pianists are not really lazy, we want to avoid unnecessary work.
     This topic came up yet again in an online thread prefaced with a gif of adorable chicks entering a nicely rounded cave formed by, yes, a pianist's hand. You can view the gif here: Chicks in Hand. The pianist who posted this gif swore she meant it as a charming side note and did not mean it as gospel. Well, the ensuing discussion became a firestorm of approval and disapproval. I decided not to weigh in, except for the query "what is to be done when the chicks become adults?"
     The best hand position at the piano is the shape the hand takes when it dangles at one's side while window shopping. It is the naturally rounded shape of a hand that hasn't a care in the world. Try this: Drop your hand to your side, raise the forearm in the elbow hinge and turn the hand/forearm in that elbow hinge toward the thumb (rotation), placing the fingers on the keys. No, do not include the thumb. Conjure up enough tension to allow the fingers to stand there; it takes very little. This is an excellent hand position. Notice that the thumb's position is in the air, in front of and not over the keys. Yes, the thumb is a dangler. Incidentally, this is another one of those early-learned concepts that must at some point be unlearned. The fingers do not each live in their own little houses, they are instead itinerant. And the thumb, poor thing, is at best homeless, finding temporary shelter only when specifically needed. (For a video demonstration of this, click on the iDemo tab above and select Forearm Rotation.)
     So, whether or not you decide to use chicks to demonstrate the shape of the hand, try to avoid teaching that which needs later to be unlearned. This includes, by the way, teaching that a whole note must be held down for four counts...but don't get me started.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

The Pianist's Guide to Practical Scales and Arpeggios

     I love it when my students pay attention.
Today my student brought in excerpts from Beethoven's Op. 57 sonata, the Appassionata. He has been working from my book of scales and arpeggios extracted from standard repertoire. (No, I don't make my students buy my books.) Ever so discreetly, he asked if he could use a different fingering. Well, I'm nothing if not flexible. But  when I looked at what I had written in this example (page 113, example 276, for those of you who are following along), I realized it wasn't actually what I do. The fingering works, but here's a better one, the one my student picked up on.

Beethoven Sonata Op. 57