“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.”
Plato

Friday, June 26, 2020

Beethoven and the Metronome: An Uneasy Alliance


My student forwarded me a link to an originalist pianist who is caught up in a study of Beethoven's intended tempos for the piano sonatas. He argue's that in the final movement of the Moonlight Sonata Czerny's metronome marking (yes, Czerny's) of a half-note equals 92 really means a quarter-note equals 92. He gives as evidence a passage toward the end where thirty-second notes seem to him to require slowing the tempo to one-half. He compares his version with the extravagant pianist, Valentina Lisitsa. It's a stark contrast. His performance at this tempo sounds to me like an andante amiable, not a presto agitato.

Beethoven Op.27, No. 2, 3rd Movmt.

Beethoven Op. 27, No. 2, 3rd Movmt, MM 62-63

I'm glad he cares enough to take up this study, though it seems to me he misses the
point. There has been a great deal of research regarding B's tempos, so I won't burden my comments here with much of that. Definitive conclusions are difficult to come by, anyway. (One good resource is Beethoven on Beethoven: Playing the Piano Music His Way by William S. Newman, pp. 83-120.). We have only Czerny and Moscheles (who differ) for metronome references in the piano sonatas (except Op. 106), the provenance and meaning of which have remained unclear. This has led to considerable confusion. On what are their numbers based, anyway? On Beethoven's performances, which according to contemporary accounts varied considerably?
Though B. set out to add metronome marks to his works retroactively, he didn't get to the piano sonatas. He gave up entirely at the end, leaving the last six string quartets and the last three piano sonatas unmarked, giving rise to the speculation that he lost faith in the usefulness of the metronome. (There is quite a bit of back and forth on this in letters to publishers and colleagues.) 
This is not really this pianist's point, though. In my performances, I take more seriously the composers written instructions regarding a work's desired affect. In this case Presto agitato is the main clue. This pianist's choice of tempo achieves neither. And it should be mentioned that the Op. 27, No. 2, was written for the composer to perform at a time when his reputation was that of a virtuoso.
Also, the comment regarding Lisitsa's
Valentina Lisitsa
performance is not accurate. Like it or not, she (and others) make an artistic choice, not a technical one. The passage he cites is playable in her first tempo, without slowing— rather easily, in fact. In my view, Lisitsa plays many things faster than necessary or even desirable just because she can—I suppose. I would describe her tempo as Prestissimo, also not in keeping with the composer's wishes, though it is agitato.

You'll have to forgive me if I keep returning
Carl Philip Emmanuel Bach 
to a favorite reference. C.P.E Bach in his treatise on keyboard playing gives us all the rules governing performance practices of his time. I love the passage that begins, "My late father told me..." After giving many
specifics, he concludes, "But if it doesn't sound good, don't do it." So, in matters artistic, the choices we make are to some extent matters of taste. And as we all know, there's no accounting for that.




Monday, June 22, 2020

Great Pianists of the Past: Food for Thought

I write to call attention to the "Listen" tab above. Do give it a try, as it is a secret door into the past where keyboard giants once roamed the concert halls of the world. These artists were steeped in Romantic traditions now nearly lost to us. They touched the hems of some of the many composers we idolize today.

Wednesday, June 17, 2020

Immense. Harrowing. Exhilarating.


I've discovered a new pianist, new to me, that is. He is the epitome of the thoughtful artist responding to the world by which he is surrounded. Beethoven is his meat and the piano his heart. Have a look/listen: Igor Levin on Beethoven.

Sunday, June 14, 2020

On difficulty Memorizing Music

REPOST

                 A mother, concerned about her 14-year-old son’s difficulty memorizing music, writes: “Do professional performers have serious problems memorizing pieces, so that it takes [them] much, much longer than average to memorize even using all the standard techniques (repetition, memory stations, practicing away from the keyboard, counting/humming the piece, identifying patterns, etc.)? If so, did it have a negative impact on your studies at conservatory or college? Did you fail to get the instruction on other aspects of the pieces? Did you ever get a pass on memorizing?”
     Well, there is no "average" study time when it comes to learning music. The audience doesn't care how long it took to learn the piece, just that it sounds good. Many artists will have a piece in their hands for a year or more before performing it in public. But this mother is really talking about being locked into a student’s situation, bounded by semesters and exams.
     My personal experience is that I can memorize rather quickly, largely, I think, because I learned early on to read well. I am reading oriented, so I had to learn techniques for memorizing, which came more easily because I understand quickly what I am looking at. This understanding is the result, too, of years of experience studying and performing many types of music. (Some students are more aurally oriented and find it difficult to read. These students, I find, often present an approximation of the score when memorizing, i.e., incorrect inversions of chords or missing notes. A few are adept at both reading and playing by ear. We try to love these people anyway.) Most of the time in lessons I used the score. This did not have an impact on my studies, as I always had something prepared to play even if not memorized, or better still, I had questions about problem spots.
     For me, the primary expenditure of time is in proving to myself that I really know the piece. In this regard, the best technique I know is to play the piece eliminating as much digital memory as possible. I use two devices: 1) I play excruciatingly slowly, placing fingers deliberately, thoughtfully, not automatically as we do in performance; 2) This one is harder. I play the piece in my mind, visualizing my hands on the keys (not looking at the score in my mind). These devices force us to use all the other types of memory, eliminating most of the digital memory. They are both excellent ways of uncovering shaky spots, spots that may only have been in the fingers.
     A side note about the power of device 2: I once was waiting my turn to play Davidsbündlertänze in a master class, a piece I had performed often. I was so confident that I hadn't brought the score with me. As I waited outside, I went through certain passages in my mind, visualizing my fingers on the keys. Alas, I came to a spot where I couldn't continue. I could leap over the spot, but couldn't for the life of me find the correct notes in my mind. So, I imagined what it must have been and played it that way in class. Afterward, I checked the score and found that what I played in class was something I made up in my mind. It took precedence over all of the previous muscle training, mostly likely because it was fresh.
  Here’s another thought: As this student gets a bit more experience, a few more pieces memorized and more comfortable with the methods that work for him, I suspect the process will begin to move more quickly. Again, I wouldn't limit his performance opportunities just because of memory issues (except where statutory, which is not in real life). Unless there's some disability, what the mother describes sounds to me as if there's something missing in her son’s understanding of the music. And of course, contrapuntal music is more difficult to memorize.
     The late Peter Serkin began his performing career reading from the score and that was 50 years ago. I heard Lang Lang play a concerto with the Los Angeles Philharmonic with the score. Cellist Lynn Harrell played a concerto with the score. Pressler played a Mozart concerto with the score. Admittedly, getting started through the usual channels using the score will be a challenge but if there are other compelling reasons why he should perform, then I say he should try for it. As for preparing for college level lessons, he can memorize pieces before he takes them in to class. One writer suggested that the only option for this student is to become a collaborative pianist. There's nothing wrong with becoming a collaborative pianist, but he should only do it if that’s his calling, not by default.
     To this day I'm not convinced that all of the time and nervous energy expended on performing from memory is worth the trouble. It continues to be the standard for schools and competitions, but is gradually losing some importance in the professional world. Some personalities seem more at home playing without the score, but it seems to me that music making is not primarily about performing without a net. In the 19th century it was considered presumptuous to play another person’s music without the score. Maybe its time for performers to become a bit more humble and make the concert more about the music and less about themselves.

Sunday, May 24, 2020

Is It Really Necessary to Practice Scales?

     Well, yes and no.
      I recently read a comment from a pianist (?) who didn't like something I'd written about the relative benefits of practicing scales. This person
sounded angry. It may be because I propose using the body in the way it was designed to be used, which sets aside all those chattering
old wives who think we need to train for physical strength. Folks who have been shooting themselves in the foot all their lives often don't like to hear that that approach does not produce excellent results.

   
 So. Yes. We have to learn all scales, major and melodic minor, for two reasons. First, we need them as a function of keyboard harmony and topography. More importantly from a technical point of view, we need to be completely fluent coordinating thumb crossings in both hands. As interesting as they are, the harmonic minor scales don't really pop up in pianistic gymnastics all that often. But do include them, if you want, for a feeling of completeness.

     And no. Once the scales are well worked-in and completely fluent in both hands together at a moderate tempo, there is no reason to practice them on a daily basis for technique. This is not an efficient use of time. When we confront scale passages in a piece of music, they are rarely (never?) in root position the way we learned them. So we have to practice them again anyway. I would rather spend time working on technical issues in the music itself. These are my etudes.
     My critic also took issue with  my mention of practicing scales in rhythms, something some of my early teachers advised without explaining why. (I don't think they knew why.) There is some confusion here. By practicing in rhythms, I mean stopping on each note in succession. For example, in running sixteenths with groups of four, stop on the first note, then the second, third and so on. The point seems to be to feel the weight of each finger when it takes its turn. This is more efficiently and easily accomplished by understanding how the forearm works on every note with every finger. (See chapters on forearm rotation.) 
     For the record, I have no objection to practicing scales with different pulses, as in duple, triple, quadruple. This is a good way to work on coordination.


Monday, May 18, 2020

Chopin's F Major Ballade: Double-Note Tremolo

     A pianist writes: "I was wondering if you could
F. Chopin 1810-1849
offer any suggestions for how to approach the following right hand passage in the F major ballade, particularly the lower line. 
 I don’t see another fingering option besides 32-51.  The thumb and fifth finger are so different in length that I can’t get them to sound their notes simultaneously, and I feel like I am sort of stabbing at the B natural and A with an independent motion of my thumb.  At speed, it doesn’t work at all."  
Chopin F major Ballade Excerpt

     Since I can't see exactly what she's doing, it's
hard to give a precise diagnosis. However, there are certain issues that are common to this sort of passage that she might want to consider. The first three bars apparently work satisfactorily. One way to start is to try to figure out what is different about the first three bars and the subsequent bars. Yes. Instead of relatively small intervals in close proximity, we now have larger intervals making the distance between the top notes farther.
   
    Since the passage is directly in front of the torso, try leaning slightly to the left in order to avoid twisting and feeling constrained. Remember, too,
that the thumb likes to play in the direction of in. Play slightly in the direction of in for the chord with the thumb and five (shorter fingers) and slightly out again for the longer fingers. These are tiny gestures. 
      This shaping may solve the problem for her. If not, she can try adding grouping from the wider interval to the smaller one. It's a little like a series of two-note slurs, but very close to the keys and virtually imperceptible. By thinking of starting from the larger interval, you give yourself a nano-split-second of time to get to it from the interval of a fourth without stretching.

.

Friday, April 17, 2020

Concerto Accompanying

     My student asked for advice on playing the orchestra part to the Grieg concerto so that he could accompany several of his students. He showed me certain tutti passages that presented technical problems, which we solved. But we both
agreed that his main issue was that the notes weren't learned. I know. Bummer. Just because you can play the solo part doesn't necessarily mean you have the accompaniment in your fingers. When sight-reading is not your forte, there's no way around learning the notes. 
     Still, other considerations arose. An orchestral reduction is just one editor's opinion as to what
notes to include, even if that reduction is by the composer himself, it isn't necessary, especially for rehearsal, to be locked into those particular notes. So, pick and choose what to play. My suggestions are these: 

Cut tutti passages (unless the soloist really wants to feel a completeness). This will save note learning time. Play a few measures before the solo entry to give the soloist a running start.

Keep a steady tempo under the soloist, allowing his/her rubato to play off of your regularity. This is the most important. The second piano in this situation is both conductor and orchestra. Breathe with the soloist without disturbing the pulse. The orchestra is not allowed to adjust the tempo in order to search for the correct notes.


Play with sufficient sound so that the soloist feels  supported.

Listen.

Tuesday, April 14, 2020

Bach Sinfonias for String Trio; Haydn Sinfonias for String Quartet

During this period of sheltering in place I have felt inspired to be better organized and review my publications, among other things. For my string-player friends, I can now offer transcriptions of Bach's keyboard Sinfonias at 15% discount. Each part is now $5.95. The score is $6.95. As an amateur cellist, I find these morsels both fun and inspiring, having played them all on
J. S. Bach
 the keyboard. Bach stated in his introduction that "...above all a cantabile style" is desired. What better way to realize Bach's objective that to play them with instruments whose primary goal is to sing. Click on the links below to visit Amazon:






Score



                 
Franz Joseph Haydn
In other news, selected early Haydn Symphonies are available in string quartet form for immediate digital download HERE. What! You say. No offense to our wind-player friends, but they work quite well as quartets.

To be used only after the all clear is sounded!

Monday, April 6, 2020

The Pianist in Isolation

     
    Today I finally finished all of my New Yorker back issues, all the way back to January of 2018. Yes. Then, thinking forced isolation shouldn't mean that my brain and all systems need to be shut down, I read through all the Haydn piano sonatas. Yes. This was very enjoyable. Next are the Mozart sonatas, then Beethoven. Probably then I'll finish all the oatmeal cookies I baked three days ago.
Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven

     It's very satisfying to go through "all of" something. My German friends tell me that finishing something, anything, is considered a good deed in Germany.
     So, my piano friends, during our isolation period, why not make a point of, say, reading through a complete cycle of something. Take some music at your level. Take music you can manage without struggle, even at a snail's pace. This can be very instructive. If you
don't have any complete cycles in your library, you can fill in the gaps for free at imslp.org.

     Do it. Start now.

Thursday, March 26, 2020

Grapefruit Cake Incident on Kindle

Dear Blogees,

Some of my readers—well, a few—okay, two have wondered why my semi-autobiographical book The Grapefruit Cake Incident and Other Stories Instructive and Cautionary from a Musical Life isn't available on Kindle. This set me wondering, too. And, having put the correct wheels in motion, the said book is now available for direct download to your own device or visit Amazon here:




Thursday, March 12, 2020

Chopin's Barcarolle: Trills and Other Imposibilities

     A student writes: "There are so many passages [in Chopin's Barcarolle] that at first view seem basically impossible. I am intimidated any time I see trills and other ornaments."
      Whenever a student complains of difficulty with ornaments, I feel moved to begin my standard lecture on the topic. It begins: All ornaments indicated only with a symbol require a place in time. We pianists have to decide which notes to play, how many, in what rhythm and how to fit them with other voices. When someone has trouble with a particular ornament, it usually means they are throwing themselves at it, trying for a machine-gun effect, when in fact, a carefully worked-out rhythmic plan will solve the problem. 
      This does not mean that in performance a trill or other ornament needs to sound pedantic. Once the design of the passage that includes the ornament has been carefully worked-out, it is usually possible to disguise the rhythmic regularity or abandon it entirely, leaving the coordination between it and the other voices intact.
       Consider this example in measure 20. It really is not necessary to hire an assistant.
Chopin Barcarolle, M 20
      Now have a look at a simple solution.


Where you see the arrows, use the 5th-finger E-sharp to rotate the hand toward the chord. It is not necessary to hold down the thumb eighths, as the pedal will do that for you. Likewise, measure 21 may be executed as follows.
Chopin Barcarolle, M 21, As Played
(Alternatively, the 16th-note F-sharp may be played with the left hand.)
     Understandably, my correspondent adds to his complaint several passages of trills in thirds, such as the ones in measures 27 and 28. They all may be handled in much the same way. I finger them using 1-5 to 2-4. It is possible to use 2-3 on the minor third.
Chopin Barcarolle, MM27-28, Thirds Trill
     
The upward pointing arrow signifies a slight move in toward the fall board. Remember, the thumb likes to play in the direction of in. The downward pointing arrow indicates a slight move back out again toward the torso. Practice these gestures first alone very slowly to feel the pulse. Then add the left hand to feel the coordination. At first, it may seem a little like patting the head and rubbing the stomach. Allow the hand to be mostly perpendicular to the keyboard in this case, rather than at a marked angle.
     The next impossibility has to do with playing passages in sixths. Very often, perhaps usually, the technical grouping is different from the way the notes appear on the page. The sixteenth-note sixths in measure fourteen are printed with six notes under one bar. This causes brain freeze. We could try to play in groups of two from upper to lower. This is already an improvement. But there is a still an easier way. Do you see it? Try this:
Chopin Barcarolle, M 14, Sixths grouped in pairs from lower.
A few comments: I play the dotted-quarter sixth with 1-5 (a small point). Remember, after a long note it is perfectly alright to start over with fingering; it is not necessary to make a literal connection to what follows. No one will yell at you, or even notice. The final sixteenth, the octave, will propel you very easily to the next downbeat if you use the fifth finger as a hinge and move rotationally. This approach to parallel sixths works well in other passages.



      

Sunday, February 23, 2020

Arms and the Pianist

     A student writes: "For years I have heard about
using arm weight when playing and that we should 'drop weight' into the keyboard. I have seen demonstrations of this method in which people have literally held their arm up high and then allowed it to drop as dead weight into the keyboard espousing this to be how we should get a deep, rich tone and also how to play forte. This has always seemed so vague to me as how can one be close to the keys and also drop from a distance? How can one play this way? And should one?" 
     
     
     The weight of the forearm is essential to all playing. We apply more or less weight depending on the dynamic. This begs the question of how to get that weight into the key. Yes, we can drop from above into the key. I use this gesture in teaching, but only to help the student feel what it's like to play a single note that is supported by the arm. This is not a 'dead weight,' but rather a controlled movement. (I use the idea of 'dead weight' in the context of making leaps, which is another topic.) If you do this, go no farther down than the bottom of the key with the forearm. The downward motion stops at that point. I mention this because many pianists continue to drop the wrist after the note has been struck.


     We need the wrist to be straight (but flexible), like a bridge, between the hand and forearm in order to access the weight of the forearm rotationally. If you allow the wrist to drop, the weight goes into the floor, which is counter-productive; once the note has been played only God can change it. But this is not, of course, a quick movement.  
     The rotation of the forearm is how we transfer
the weight from one note to the next. It's like walking, putting one foot in front of the other, shifting all the weight in doing so. This is another tool I use to help students feel what it's like to have the arm behind the note that is being played. Again, though, forearm rotation is only a tool designed to demonstrate a sensation. In order to progress laterally up and down the keyboard in speed, we rely on a more general way to get the arm behind the finger. This is called shaping. 
      
     The student responds: "Then it is not necessary to lift high and drop? But what about very loud, chordal playing? Does this involve a drop from above? I have seen pianists play chords with their hands already resting on the keys with no drop at all. Is the sensation anything like pressing into the keys?"
    
     No, it is not necessary or even desirable to drop from a height, which is not a quick movement for fast playing. In fact, the chances of hurting yourself increase proportionately the higher you drop from. I tell children not to hit the piano or it will hit you back. As I mentioned above, I use this "drop" only as a teaching tool to feel the sensation of weight. 
     For slow playing you can "use a broom handle," as Taubman would say. You can get just as much sound springing from the key as you can dropping from above, as in, say, the opening chords of the Tchaikovsky concerto. The sensation is rather like flexing your knees when attempting to dive from a diving board. If you want a percussive sound as in, say, a Prokofiev concerto, go quicker into the keybed, but still from the key, or slightly above the key, depending on the tempo. Though it may sometimes look otherwise, most playing is from the key, yes, even leaps.




Friday, February 14, 2020

Notes from a Life in Music

   
 WE NOW INTERRUPT OUR REGULAR PROGRAM FOR A COMMERCIAL MESSAGE 












Neil at Six,
Music still in his future.
He could, however, carry the
Beethoven 5th in a 10 lb.
album of  78s



     (You may fast-forward to the next entry. Oh, shoot. I haven't written it yet. But it will probably be about articulation in Mozart and how, despite modern scholarship, the primary sources haven't changed. )  
  
     My recent autobiographical, not entirely expurgated collection of stories is available again freshly proofed. If in the process of reading these blog entries you've ever wondered how the author came to be or what influences shaped his approach, here is your chance to explore those questions.  

All Southern California High School Orchestra. I'm the principal Double Bass at the right


A House Concert in New York
Juilliard Years



Be the first on your block to find out why eminent young cellist Sarah Mae Spieler really avoided Mondays. When anyone asked her, "Sarah simply referred them to the policies of fine restaurants and hairdressers. Even her astrologer wouldn't take clients on Mondays, except in emergencies." Who do you think the woman in
Newly graduated trained killer.
black is, the one who posited a riddle, and was then erased as if she'd never been? Find out how he learned to "get after" a technical problem and play more "honestly." Follow the protagonist's circuitous routes and happy accidents to 

The Porgy and Bess years.
performances at Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Center, The Kennedy Center, Moscow, Berlin and a career in music. 



(Sales of this volume help support the continuation of this blog.)