“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, May 12, 2019

Piano Technique Books: Summer Sale

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The Collaborative Pianist's Guide To Practical Technique 

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                           Scales and Arpeggios

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The Pianist's Guide to Practical Technique

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Saturday, May 11, 2019

Staccato, Accent or Both: The Wedge vs the Dot


     A pianist writes: How do you explain to your students, interpretively, stylistically and practically the tied B pick-up to measure 5 (Ex. 1)? And later, the wedges (Ex. 2)?

Mazurka Op. 17, No. 1,
Ex. 2 Mikuli Edition (1894)

Ex. 3 Schlesinger Edition (1834?)

     In the first example most pianists, myself included, repeat the tied B. (I interpret the tie as a slur and the dot as a direction to re-articulate.)Think of it as a two-note slur but staying on the same note. This is sometimes referred to as an accented slur.
Mazurka: Polish folk dance 
in triple meter
     The wedge (staccatissimo) is often clouded in confusion. In the early 18th century it was interchangeable with the dot and both meant staccato. Later in the century it could be interpreted as a staccato, an accent or both (Schubert used it as the latter). The wedge was defined as shorter than the dot, 1/4 and 1/2 the note's length, respectively. It was codified into the three types—short, accent or both—in 1821 by Friedrich Starke in Wiener Pianoforte Schüle, to which Beethoven
Friedrich Starke
contributed some of his Op. 119. 
We apparently don't know if Beethoven subscribed to the precise definitions of lengths of these articulations, but he did make the distinction between the two. Beethoven: "Where there is a dot above a note a dash must not be put instead, and vice versa...they are not identical."
     Unfortunately, publishers were sometimes cavalier in their representation of these similar marks in their editions, so we are not always sure what was intended. And composers were not always consistent in their usage—I'm thinking now of Schubert, who was apparently somewhat casual proofing gallies. At the risk of sounding like a secluded monk trying to decide how many angels can dance on the head of a pin, I hasten to point out that a first edition of the Mazurkas (1834?) edited by Maurice Schlesinger, placed dots on the three quarter-note Es (Ex. 3), not wedges. All subsequent editions in popular use place wedges over those notes.
     So, after all that, musical context and artistic instinct are the deciding factors. In example 2, I would aim for a separation (not an accent) for the wedges, leaving the most strength for the accented third beat. Unsystematic accents on the second or third beats were characteristic of the Mazurka. Pedal, yes, but discreetly.

Saturday, April 27, 2019

On Practicing the Piano for Children

     A Teacher writes: Would you encourage a
talented 9-year old to practice the piano for 6 1/2 hours a day? What dangers do you anticipate, if any?

       I respond:  My first question would be: Of what does this "practice" consist? Every student is different, of course, but this 9-year-old may be over doing it. Try making out a plan with him. For example: He could start his practice with the newest
piece/concept or memorization while his mind is fresh. Then move on to something that is already underway, trying to move it to the next level. Next, practice performing something that is finished or nearly so, especially if a performance is coming up. This should feel like a performance, so no stopping. Save the post mortem for afterward. Then, if something needs to be fixed,  make the local repairs and, if you like, play the entire piece again as a performance, but under tempo, leaving every passage feeling under control. For desert, some sight-reading of unexplored material that may be in his future. (I used to think of sight-reading as desert.) 

    The danger of setting an arbitrary amount of time for "practicing" may result in rote playing, that is, forgetting to keep the mind engaged at all times. This is the roadmap for future "memory slips" and possible technical misunderstandings. I don't know of any adult who can really focus for such a long period of time, even with coffee breaks and lunch with a walk in the park. This used to be my plan when I was at the conservatory in Berlin, where there were many tempting parks. But my day at the piano was at most five hours. For such a young person, 2-3 hours of work should be more than enough, especially since there probably are—and should be—many other demands on his time.

     For the record, there is a difference between practicing and playing.

Monday, March 11, 2019

Chopin's Octave Etude

     Sometime ago I posted a YouTube video
demonstration of octave playing in Chopin's octave etude. (You can view it HERE.) My point was that fingering octaves using fourth finger on black keys does not make the octaves faster or more legato and the potential for injury is considerable. 

     I received the following two comments:
     "What is wrong with chromatic octave fingerings? My teacher and many pianists use the 4th finger on black keys and 5th on white keys. Is it only bad for small hands? I am confused because all other sources told me to use the latter fingering when playing this piece."
      "I agree that fingering octaves doesn't necessarily make them faster or more legato, but it comes down to the pianist's hands. Some people might find using 4 on black keys more comfortable since there's less movement. With smaller hands this might be uncomfortable but I don't agree with telling everyone to always use 5 just because it's better suited for your hands."

     My use of all fives has nothing to do with the size of the hand. Practicing octaves repeatedly, enough to make virtuoso octave passages secure, the potential for injury is considerable when stretching—1-4 or 1-3 (yikes)—even in a large hand. FYI, moving is more efficient than
Muscles Pulled Against
One Another
stretching. When stretching, muscles tend to work against each other, hence the feeling of tightness pianists often feel when playing these passages. Forearm rotation alleviates this problem. I play consecutive chromatic octaves in line with the black keys and hinged at the fifth finger. The rotation is so slight as to be virtually invisible (something Matthay described at the turn of the last century). 

     Since you agree that nothing is to be gained by fingering octaves, why not explore using the hand the way it was designed to be used? Look up Gary Graffman and Leon Fleisher, the latter of whom developed focal dystonia, a condition ​caused by muscle stress and overuse. Try this: First play a black key octave with 1-4 (or even 1-3). Then, play that octave with 1-5 and ask yourself which feels smaller.

Saturday, March 9, 2019

Muriel Kerr plays Hindemith 3rd Sonata

Muriel Kerr on the Cover of her
RCA Recording
   One afternoon in 1962 I arrived for my piano lesson with Muriel Kerr to find her practicing the Hindemith 3rd sonata, one of her signature pieces. I didn't know the sonata and walked over to the other piano, not the one students played, to look over her shoulder. There was no score. I said,
Paul Hindemith
"Well I guess I'm not ever to know what this is," or words to that effect. She laughed and gave me the title, playing all the while. 

     I never had the pleasure of hearing her in recital, though I played double bass in the university orchestra when she played Brahms' B-flat concerto. There was also  a chamber music concert with Jascha Heifetz, Gregor Piatagorsky and William Primrose in the Brahms C minor Piano Quartet. She appeared again with the university orchestra with the other two faculty pianists in a performance of Liszt's "Hexameron," a pastiche of variations by five  composer-performers, each contributing one variation: Frédéric Chopin, Carl Czerny, Henri Herz, Johann Peter Pixis and Sigismond Thalberg. Kerr played the variation in double notes. (To understand better why she was asked to play the double-notes variation, See Scriabin under the "listen" tab above.)
     Here is the Hindemith from that commercial recording: Muriel Kerr plays Hindemith 3rd Sonata.

Thursday, February 28, 2019

Piano as Sport: Is Competition Really Necessary?

     A FaceBook page I came across offered a comparison of sixteen celebrated pianists playing in succession the famous octave passage in Tchaikovsky's first concerto. The participants in
the discussion opined on which was best, meaning who played them the fastest. This reminded me of being at the horse races, where the winner received a prize and those who bet correctly came away with cash.
     Each of these performances was accurate, dramatic and musically appropriate. How fast does it need to be in order to make the musical point? I
have to wonder why some folks want to turn art into sport. In music, it seems to me, faster is not necessarily more effective musically. I heard a very distinguished pianist with a justifiably legendary technique play the Rachmaninoff 3rd concerto so fast I was left wondering where all the great moments had gone. There's a Sufi saying that goes something like this: The man was in such a hurry to get to heaven that he ran right past it.
      Since concert fees are negotiated in advance, why not just enjoy the music on its own terms? There will be no prize money and the audience hasn't placed any bets. We can compare and admire pianists for their artistry without making a competition out of it. Jody Foster does a funny take in the film Maverick when she asks, "Do you want to see the fastest gun in the west?" Then immediately without moving at all says, "Do you want to see it again?"

Monday, February 11, 2019

Rachmaninoff 2nd Concerto: Small Point, Universal Application

My student complained of awkwardness in the second movement of Rachmaninoff's C minor concerto, where the hands cross over one another. These measures are in the poco piu mosso section. He tried to keep his left hand in place, which put the thumb on G-sharp bringing the left hand in toward the black keys. This made it more difficult to cross the right hand over to its G-sharp thumb an octave below. Having both thumbs in and the hands crossed is a prescription for awkwardness, if not disaster. Collision is likely. In
physics we learn that two solid objects cannot occupy the same space at the same time. 
Of course, the right hand could play its G-sharp with the second finger, but that feels farther. Use the F-natural as a spring board in order to move laterally (rotationally) over the lower left hand to the low G-sharp.

     Two measures later a similar passage places the thumbs again on the same plane with a crossing, this time out on the white keys—that is, if one chooses to use the thumb both times. I prefer to use the second finger on the low right-hand G-natural this time in order to avoid a possible collision. Keep the left hand out and as low as possible  Because of the ritardando, though, this is not as big an issue.
     The moral, then, is to plan hand crossings in order to avoid having the hands on the same plane whenever possible. One hand is higher, the other lower. I'm thinking now of Ravel, particularly the Sonatine opening. The piano literature is full of these small issues that, without planning, can cause large problems.

Tuesday, February 5, 2019

Brahms and Chopin: Impossible trills in the First Cello Sonata, B Minor Rhapsody, Heroic Polonaise and G Minor Ballade

     My very advanced student (young artist, really) had an opportunity to play the Brahms E Minor cello sonata with a colleague. Chamber music excursions are to be encouraged,  as there can be no better opportunity for soloists to learn how to listen to themselves in relation to their surroundings. As we all know, Brahms' piano writing can seem pesky when taken at face (score) value. Consider the "impossible" trills in the D Minor Concerto. But I'll leave those to another time.
     Beginning in measure 20 of the cello sonata's
third movement, a series of octave-infused trills presents pianists with a quandary. We can be pretty sure the rascally composer doesn't mean to trill in octaves with one hand. (This is not the aforementioned concerto.) My student asked the relevant question: "How in the h*** do I do that?" He is not the first to ask. 
     The solution is really quite simple. Get off the thumb immediately after striking it and move the weight of the hand over to the ornament. This means that you—yes, you—take your thumb with your hand; don't leave it extended to where it used to be. Now, instead of throwing yourself at a wild and crazy machine-gun trill, decide on how many notes will fit into the space you've allotted. This depends to some extent on your tempo. I've found that a simple turn of five notes creates the desired effect. A touch of pedal added, and the thumb octave also gets its due. My student found that moving from the last beat of measure 23 was the most challenging, which is the 2nd example below.
Brahms E Minor Sonata for Cello and Piano,
third movement mm 22-23
     A similar approach, that is, closing the hand in 
order to accommodate an ornament, may be
Not this!
applied in other repertoire. Look at the opening of Brahms' B Minor Rhapsody. Here the composer writes a changing note group after an octave. This is not the same as a trill, I know, but you would be surprised at how many students don't release the octave, due perhaps to the heightened agitation of the musical effect. Play the octave alone, then begin over with  the triplet, connecting the two with pedal. I call this a technical grouping, not a musical one. 

     And again, in Chopin I can think of two examples off the top of my head (where there used to be a lot more hair). In the "Heroic" Polonaise, second page, play the first sixteenth alone, then group the next four sixteenths together beginning from the short trill, a triplet, really. This approach helps to close the hand, which should not remain open. The solution is similar in measure 119 of the G Minor Ballade, where octave scales begin with a trill on top of an octave. Again, get away from the thumb. Here I play a group of four notes beginning with the thumb F-sharp and moving to the upper F-sharp (1-4-5-4).

Tuesday, January 8, 2019

Brahms Op. 117, No. 1, by Carl Friedberg

Carl Friedberg 1872-1955

     Carl Friedberg was one of the most successful and distinguished pianists who emerged from the studio of Clara Schumann. He was one of the early piano professors at what would later become the Juilliard School. From his studio came some of the biggest names of the first part of the 20th century: Malcom Frager, Bruce Hungerford, William Masselos and Elly Ney. His professional debut was with the Vienna Philharmonic under the baton of Gustav Mahler. Not so bad.
     Now here's where I sat up and took notice when reading his bio. In 1893 he played an all Brahms program with the composer in the audience. Apparently, Brahms admired his playing and coached him in private on most of his pieces. Coached by Brahms! So, when we listen to his playing, we may in fact be coming as close as we can to hearing Brahms himself. Maybe. It's a big responsibility to pile onto Friedberg's hands. Still, we listen to his one commercial recording—Friedberg apparently disliked recorded piano sound—and it gives us food for thought. The eighty-one-year-old pianist plays here the first of the Opus 117 Intermezzos: Carl Friedberg.

Friday, January 4, 2019

Bach on the Piano

J.S. Bach
     A student asks for opinions regarding articulation when playing Bach on the piano. Should it mostly be detached in order to imitate the harpsichord, she wonders, "which couldn't sustain long notes like the modern piano does."
     She's right. The harpsichord can't sustain long notes "like the modern piano," though it can sustain significantly longer than many modern pianists seem to think. This is based on my observation of how short and detached harpsichord imitators of today play. 
     And to those who declare Bach didn't know, play, approve of or write for the new fortepiano I say nonsense. Though his friend and instrument builder Silbermann was at first unsuccessful in
impressing the composer with his first attempts in the 1730s, eventually Bach declared his "complete satisfaction" with the improved fortepiano. According to pianist and musicologist Charles Rosen, the six-voice ricercare from The Musical offering, a fugue many consider Bach's greatest, was "
the most significant piano work of the millennium, as it is perhaps the first piece composed for the recently invented piano—at least, the first piece that a composer knew would certainly be played on a piano."
     Articulation is of course a main consideration in Bach. How we treat the differences between long and short notes is crucial to bringing the music to life and giving it its Baroque flavor. Some rules of thumb (no pun intended) might be to play conjunct notes more connected and disjunct notes more detached. Two-note slurs are virtually always realized with emphasis on the first note, relaxing on the second. This can be achieved with sound (louder/softer) or by length of notes (longer/shorter). The last note in a group of conjunct notes might be articulated. These are, of course, just general guidelines. As CPE Bach writes: "If it doesn't sound good, don't do it." In the final analysis, our expressive decisions are based on taste, for which there is often no accounting—and study.
     In the introduction to the Inventions and Sinfonias Bach writes: "Those desirous of learning... [will] ABOVE ALL [my emphasis] achieve a cantabile style in playing." Length of notes relative to one another becomes more crucial in quick, characterful pieces; it is less so in slower arias. We get to decide if we want to imitate the harpsichord, as many do, or play the piano using its resources, which I personally believe Bach would applaud. As long as the counterpoint isn't swamped with pedal, the piece will still sound like Bach. My personal view is that if you want "authenticity," play the harpsichord, which I have done on occasion. I prefer the piano.
     I came across a comparison of these instruments, which includes the clavichord, reportedly Bach's favorite: Listen.