“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, November 8, 2018

Instructive and Cautionary Stories from Musical Life

Other Stories from Musical Life


   One of my readers, a former student, found a few typos in the first edition of my collection of autobiographical stories (sigh). What can I say? Everyone needs an editor. So, I looked at it yet again and made a few changes. Those of you who already have the first edition should hold on to it, perhaps have it bronzed, because one day it will undoubtedly be very valuable. 

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Chopin Etudes

A number of readers have asked me, repeatedly, to write about
 the Chopin Etudes—all of them. This, needless to say, would be a huge undertaking. It's a request I've not taken seriously. Call me daring (foolish?) but now I've decided to at least explore the challenge.  
    The catalyst is a student's gleeful reminder of Alfred Cortot's edition, which carries the misunderstandings of the 19th century to the nth degree, that all we have to do is stretch and pull our limbs until they are "strong"(sic). 
Alfred Cortot
Cortot was himself a remarkable artist, his artistic feet planted firmly in the 19th century. He was supremely gifted as a youth, if not a child prodigy in the usual exploitative sense, as he was admitted to the Paris Conservatory at the age of nine. His professional debut came in his 19th year. This suggests to me that it is unlikely he practiced the etudes using the guidelines he later 
published, which he did, I'm sure, in good faith. This is just a supposition on my part, not unlike my supposition that Czerny never practiced his exercises. Czerny made his official debut at the prodigious age of nine, although he began private concerts much earlier.
     My purpose here is to inquire of you, gentle reader, whether you have particular technical issues in any of the etudes that I might be able to shed some light on. If so, identify the passage using measure numbers and I'll try to include it. Use the  Contact Me tab above or the comment button below, which, I've just discovered has been out of order..

Tuesday, September 4, 2018

Brahms Paganini Variations

Brahms in his study.
A pianist writes asking for suggestions on technical approaches to the fourth variation in this technically challenging set of etude-like variations. I use the word etude advisedly. Everything we play that is of consequence requires us to figure out its etude-ness, the how-tos and where-fors. 
   "The first 4 measures require a trill," he writes, "presumably on the top note, seemingly with 4 and 5, with other notes of the chord beneath it briefly played by other fingers and then released.  Certainly trills with 4 and 5 are difficult." In his quest for information, he "found a heated debate about whether it is acceptable to use other fingers on the top trill when they become available after releasing the lower notes, especially for smaller hands, or whether one is obliged to employ the very difficult 4/5 trill in these 4 measures." I believe, according to his report, that the word cheating may have been bandied about. (As far as I know, Brahms did not indicate any fingering.)
Brahms Paganini Var. 4, MM 1-2

   Such an important issue has been raised here—yet again. I'm very familiar with the "cheater" school of thought. My answer to that is the score tells us how the music should sound, not how it feels in our hands. This means that we get to choose fingerings and redistribute notes between the hands in any manner that suits us as long as in so doing we don't hamper the musical objective, even uncross hands if it makes the music more technically accessible. The audience doesn't care what fingers you use. They just want a nice concert.
   Most of the concert music we play on the piano was written by great (mostly) pianists for themselves to play. So I read these scores assuming that some built-in accommodations are intended. The composer can't really give technical explanations in his score, if you follow my logic. In the above example, the octave chord is one unit, the trill another. By that I mean, play the chord with 1, 3, 5, bouncing immediately to 5 on the F (yes, 5-5) and trill with 5-3, the F being the second note of the trill. This works very well if the arm is kept at a slight (slight!) angle, the elbow a tiny bit in toward the torso. (It is also possible to begin the trill by starting on 4, yes, over 5, and trill with 2-3 until the triplet [see below], which would be 2-4-3 in order to get the thumb closer to the next octave position.) The D-sharp is the end of the group, which provides the spring-board (slight up) for landing down again on the next chord. This is really rather easy once worked in carefully.

Brahms Paganini Var. 4 M1
Fingerings and Rhythm

More important than fingering, though, is the rhythm of the trill. Many pianists make the mistake of seeing trill and throw themselves at it. All ornaments indicated with a symbol require a place in time. Figure out how many notes you will play and in what rhythms and how they fit with the left hand. Try starting with four groups of two 16ths for each of the eighths in the left hand, making a 16th-note triplet on the fifth eighth. Depending on your tempo, this might actually be enough of a trill. If you want a faster trill (slower tempo?) try making triplets on each eighth. (I think duple is fast enough.) The upshot here is that once this coordination has been well worked in, it is possible to abandon the precise rhythms, letting the trill find its own number of notes. The process teaches the hand what it feels like to be free, and not jam, which is what can happen if tackled without thought.
   In sixty years of playing the piano, I have never felt required to play an extended trill with four and five. If you know of such a passage in standard repertoire, I'd be glad to know about it.

Monday, August 20, 2018

Stories from a Musical Life

I've just published a collection of autobiographical stories. Call them sins of my old age, if you like (apologies to Rossini). Strange as they may at first seem, these stories are as close to the truth as words on paper can achieve. Distinguished young cello virtuoso Sarah Mae Spieler really did receive a dire warning in a Chinese restaurant under the watchful eye, singular, of a lime-green dragon. And only moments later, the oddest coincidence involving a pastry she’d never heard of changed her life. Axel Stowne, in a muddle over a Beethoven piano sonata and, well, his life, really did find a Goldfish on Palm Avenue. Gilbert Trillweiler without a doubt took the most circuitous route possible on the way to finding his way in music. The offspring of British actress Margaret Rutherford makes an entrance at a very unusual tea party in the garden of an historic home in Charleston, South Carolina. 
    The thoughtful reader will notice here an overlapping of certain incidents, the retelling of stories in different contexts, which, if nothing else corroborates their veracity. Sarah Mae, Axel and Gilbert are pseudonyms, as are Dorothea, Cheryl, Susan and Morris. The others are real. Here you will find, gentle reader food for thought, or at the very least, entertainment. I can attest to the fact that the incidents are all true because I was there.
     Read an excerpt here: The Grapefruit Cake incident.

Sunday, June 24, 2018

Alfred Cortot and "The Poet Speaks"

Alfred Cortot
     My pianist friend reminded me the other day of the great early 20th century French pianist Alfred Cortot. He made many recordings, some more accurate than others, but always with the musical objectives in tact. Don't bother with his editions of Chopin Etudes with endless examples of mindless exercises meant to strengthen the fingers. They are at best a waste of time and potentially harmful. Personally, I doubt he ever used them himself, as he was a prodigy. 
     Still, he was a fine musician and eloquent teacher. Here is his explication of the final piece in Schumann's Kinderszenen, Der Dichter Spricht: Cortot and "The Poet Speaks."

Thursday, June 21, 2018

Bach-Philipp and Issues of Pedaling

J. S. Bach
     My far-flung student, the one who prefers not to Skype but rather send videos with written questions, startled me with some unusual pedal issues. He is playing the Isador Philipp transcription of the "Little" G Minor organ fugue of Bach. He complained of cramping in his calf as the result of pedaling in this piece. Well, I've never before heard of leg injuries from playing the piano. Since I
Isador Philipp
didn't have a clear view in the video of his foot, I responded first to his written statements with some basic pedaling techniques in Bach.

      In unadulterated Bach, which this isn't, pedaling is almost non-existent. That is, we pedal in such a way as to avoid blurring textures. So, we can use pedal on a single chord for warmth or accent; we can use pedal to assist in making a legato connection in a melodic leap (rarely necessary). In Philipp's transcription, I would begin with these ideas in mind, particularly regarding clarity of textures—where he allows for that possibility. We can think of this piece as more romantic than Baroque, imagining a large organ resonating in a cathedral.
     Now, for the more pertinent issues of pain in the leg. Remember, playing the piano is easy and doesn't hurt, not even when using the pedals.  The ball of the foot remains on the pedal, rising only to the point where the dampers release. More than that is overkill. With a properly adjusted pedal, the movement of the foot is almost imperceptible. The basic pedal technique is the so-called syncopated pedal in which the pedal acts on a note to sustain it while the hand moves to a different note, at which time the pedal is reactivated. A flutter pedal is used to release some of the accumulated sound, but not all of it. You can experiment with this technique by playing a chord, putting the pedal down, releasing the keys just to near the point of sound and allowing your foot to come up only part way, not all the way to a complete release of sound. 
     Listening to the sound you make is, of course, always a good
approach, particularly apropos of clarity. I think most advanced pianists pedal "by ear." That is, listening for the degree to which sonorities overlap and how much of that is desirable. If there are passages that are particularly confounding, you can take a technical approach to the use of the pedal, deciding when or if it should be applied and on exactly which note it should be depressed. Do this slowly and thoughtfully, gradually working in the pedal technique the way you would other techniques.
     I concluded that his piano has to be some how out of adjustment if he can't depress the pedal easily with the ball of his foot. He should not have to stomp on it.

Wednesday, June 6, 2018

Beethoven's Waldstein Sonata: Food for Thought

     One of the questions tossed at me during my doctoral orals had to do with the importance of music theory when making interpretive
decisions. In other words, why bother to analyze a score? Isn't this a little bit like having to understand how a car works in order to drive it, as one colleague put it?
     If in performance our objective is to convey meaning or emotion, then one question is, whose meaning or emotion are we offering? Is it our own, the performer's point of view? Or the composer's? Both? If the performer is the interpreter, then what is he/she interpreting? For me, performance begins with the score. There we find the composer's precise intentions, that is, precise as notation and words with all of their limitations allow. The notes and other markings are surface directions; in order to go deeper, we performers have to think.
   This, it seems to me, is why we need to understand how the piece was put together structurally. Where are the sign posts, the guard rails, the inn at the side of the road? In Beethoven's time a diminished seventh was still a scary chord. A deceptive resolution was still a surprise. In other words, we need to learn how to take the scenic route and enjoy its offerings. Stay off the interstate and much more will be revealed. And no, we don't have to be an auto mechanic to drive a car. We just have to know how to tell it where to go.
     So, I propose some questions. What does it mean that, in his Waldstein Sonata Beethoven  repeats the opening statement on B-flat, pianissimo? How incongruous is that? We are prepared for sunshine on a field of poppies and instead we get a small lake. Soon, with all those borrowings from the parallel minor, we get a sliver of doom, perhaps precipitation, on the horizon, only to be saved again by the sun. What do we think about the choice of keys? Is that incongruous B-flat a hint that things are not going to be as expected? What should we—could we—do about the second subject appearing in E Major instead of the usual dominant? E major seems to me even warmer, after  C major and especially after that soggy B-flat.
     Hah! I'll bet you thought I would tell you the answers, as if there were absolute answers. No, this is my way of thinking aloud, my way of getting the engine started. To view one person's analysis of the first movement, visit Waldstein. And do enjoy the view.


Monday, May 28, 2018

Haydn Sinfonias for String Quartet

     Yes, I know this is off topic. But, I hasten to point out that many of my followers play string instruments, as do I. So it may be of interest to those folks that I have been at it again, transcribing from one venue to another, which would be considered quite normal in Haydn's day.
Joseph Haydn
Many of the symphonies of Joseph    Haydn, delightful as they are with wind doublings, work very well as string quartets. Titled "Sinfonias" by the composer, these charming morsels provide an informing glimpse into the musical development of one of the Classical period's great composers, the composer credited with inventing the string quartet. Do we really need more Haydn quartets, someone asked. Well, I respond, does one really need a slice of Sacher torte or a glass of schnapps? Play through these movements and travel along in time with the composer as he almost single-handedly invents the classical style.

     Have a look at these five Sinfonias, full score and individual parts, at Amazon: Haydn Sinfonias for String Quartet.

Monday, May 21, 2018

Jakob Gimpel Plays Johann Strauss: With the Help of Tom the Cat

   Every now and then I find myself reminiscing. This, I'm told, is a symptom of age. Never mind, I say. As long as I don't stay there in the past, it's okay to visit. And if I'm repeating myself, well just nod politely and pretend interest.
Jakob Gimpel
   When my undergraduate piano teacher, Muriel Kerr, died, her replacement was Jakob Gimpel. Gimpel was a distinguished Polish pianist with an established European career, although he lived in Los Angeles. I hadn't heard of him, though, until I met him that fall of 1963 when he took over Kerr's studio. I hadn't heard of him, but I had indeed heard him without knowing it.
   Gimpel was the go-to pianist in Hollywood. He provided the piano in "Gaslight," in which he appears on screen, "Possessed," "Letter from an Unknown Woman," "Strange Fascination," "The Story of Three Loves," "Planet of the Apes" and "The Mephisto Waltz." But perhaps most notably were his performances in two Tom and Jerry cartoons, one of which, "Johann Mouse," won an Academy Award for best short.
   I had been admiring Gimpel’s virtuosity, albeit unwittingly, since childhood. Some afternoons in the summer of my tenth year I would be allowed to visit a school friend, Marlene Harkelroad, who lived on my street several houses down. Her family owned a television, a rarity in those days. My mother was suspicious of the contraption, so these cherished occasions would be rare. Marlene and I watched “Sheriff John’s Lunch Brigade” and ate along with one of the sheriff’s many cartoon characters, Crusader Rabbit. The sheriff was a remarkable man, as he could see into TV land and would know if we had finished our milk and made our beds. If we were good, that is, if we didn’t talk back to our mothers, Sheriff John played special cartoons for us, one of which was  “Johann Mouse.” 
"Johann Mouse"
   Narrated by the distinguished actor Hans Conreid, the cartoon begins: "This is the story of a waltzing mouse. His name was Johann and he lived in Vienna in the home of Johann Strauss."  Jerry is the waltzing mouse who can’t resist coming out of his mouse hole when Strauss plays the piano. While the maestro is away, Tom, a cat with homicidal aspirations, learns to play the piano in six easy lessons in order to entice jerry back out into the open. It’s Jakob Gimpel who provides Tom’s virtuosity with his own extravagant arrangements of “The Blue Danube,” “Kaiser-Walzer” and “Trisch, Trasch Polka.” I didn’t realize it at the time, but it was Tom’s remarkable piano playing—after only six lessons—that gave me the courage to stamp my little foot and demand that I be allowed the same. If you've made your bed and finished your milk, you can watch some of it here: Tom and Jerry

Wednesday, May 2, 2018

Khachaturian Toccata: Polyrhythms

Aram Khachatrurian

A student writes that she struggles in Khachaturian’s Toccata with the polyrhythms in the slow section—mainly measure 110.
Khatchaturian Toccata MM 109-110
   Without seeing what she's doing, I can only make some general suggestions. I'm guessing her problem is with the combined rhythms and not so much the technique. That is, she is able to play the hands separately.
   On the first beat of M 110, notice that the right hand is duple, the 16th-note triplet equals one eighth. So in the RH you have the equivalent of 2 eighths. Against that in the LH you have an eighth-note triplet, which makes this first beat 2 against three:
Khachaturian Toccata M 110
Try it that way first, then add the extra 16ths. The hands come together pretty much as printed, at least close enough.

   The 3rd beat of M 110 is also 2 against three, but with 16ths, so it feels faster. One way to solve this is to first set a constant eighth-note pulse and fill in the spaces once that pulse is in your bones:
Khachaturian Toccata M 110
   I'll keep you posted as to whether this helped.

Monday, April 23, 2018

Beethoven Op. 111: Double Trills in the Arietta

 Notice the Evil Smirk

A student writes asking for help with this pesky passage in the trill variation. He wants to know how to practice it without damaging his fourth finger, which, no doubt, feels inadequate. This is a very good question indeed.
                                           Beethoven Op. 111, M 121

     I use a trill of a 4th to a 6th, 2-4 to 1-5. (Some folks have tried to trill in fifths, which can be done, but is not worth the trouble. I also think that is not what is meant.) Since this pianist expresses concern about his fourth finger, I conclude that he is isolating fingers, separating them from each other, trying to make a "clean" trill. 
     I suggested he not think fingers so much as shaping, that is, a tiny (tiny) move in for the thumb (1-5) and back out (tiny) for the 2-4. He should practice it rhythmically feeling pulses, remembering that, even though he's identified a technical issue, it isn't what is featured here. So, show the bells in the left hand. If truth be told, and please don't yell at me, a tremolo works just fine, and it wouldn't surprise me to learn that the master played it that way. It'll be one of my first questions in the great beyond.