“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 29, 2018

Smoothing Bumpy Scales

     A student writes: "I have noticed that if (during practice) scales or runs begin to feel a bit uneven or bumpy, this can often be corrected by playing the scale or run up and down four octaves at a moderate tempo while randomly stopping momentarily just before playing a particular note (i.e. stopping short and then continuing without any preconceived pattern in mind). The “stopped” finger (the one that would play next) is held back from playing for a quarter-note rest, and then I continue on for a few more notes before stopping again with another finger, etc.
     My best guess is that the sudden stopping of a finger and then releasing it has the effect of contracting and then releasing opposing muscles that I was allowing to tense up.  This random-stoppage approach seems to add something to the rag-doll relaxation-and-shake-out approach to creeping tension."

     Without seeing what he is doing, it is difficult to diagnose the unevenness of his scales. What he describes as a remedy strikes me as arbitrary and perhaps less reasonable than examining underlying causes. 
     Usually "bumpiness" is the result of a misunderstanding of how the thumb works in crossing. When anticipating a thumb crossing, allow the thumb to hang—yes, hang—behind the next finger. It should hang more or less behind the finger that is playing. Also, he should allow the forearm to move at an angle behind the playing finger in the direction of the music. This puts the playing apparatus in a perfect position to play the thumb rotationally. 
     But first, he should make sure that he is really completing each note of the scale before going on to the next. This is an opportunity to review basic forearm rotation. If the weight of the forearm is really transferred to each note as if walking, and if his fingers are each "at rest" at the bottom of the key, evenness should come easily. Feel the rotation a little exaggerated  at first, but then in speed don't think of it at all. I know, this is what confuses a lot of people. In speed we rely more on shaping and the "memory" of the sensation of completing each note.

     There are video demos under the iDemo tab above.

Tuesday, November 27, 2018

Chopin's Ocean Etude

A student writes: "Many of [Chopin's] etudes seem to require what feels like an impossible speed to sound even like a slow version of themselves. Short of just working on other things until my technique gets closer to what is needed, is there anything that can be done with the etudes themselves? The Op.25, #12, for instance, is more meaningfully expressive than the combination of groans, sighs and screams that suggest themselves as alternatives. Is there a general strategy to learning “impossible” pieces that is neither a waste of time nor harmful?"

Chopin's Ocean Etude
     The simple answer to the question is yes, there is a strategy for learning the impossible, which, of course, renders such passages possible. In this example the main technical issue—its "etudeness"–has to do with how the hand moves from one octave position to the next. 
     First, a word or two about the Chopin Etudes. These are concert pieces designed to show off different aspects of skilled pianism. They are not a pedagogical tool, at least not in the sense of so-called progressive studies such as Czerny, Hanon or method books. They require an advanced insight into piano technique. Having said that, any piece of music we study is at least in some sense an etude, especially if it contains passages that require special attention to mechanics.
     If this student enjoys the sound of the "Ocean" Etude, then by all means he should work on it. This means that he should first decide on the required movements and work them in gradually, short sections at a time. As always, we use the last note of one group to propel us to the first note of the next group. In this case, the right-hand fifth finger takes the hand rotationally to the thumb. (The left hand is the same movement, thumb to five.) For a succinct demonstration click here:

     Even if he doesn't get the tempo up right away, he will develop important technical concepts and in the process have a head start on a piece he enjoys. 

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.