“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.”

Saturday, December 18, 2021

A Prayer in Sound: Dame Myra Hess

    Myra Hess (1890-1965) plays her very famous arrangement of Bach's Chorale "Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring." Listen and watch here: Myra Hess 

Her favorite anecdote relating to "Jesu, Joy" concerned a British soldier who whistled it on a train during the war. 

    "Are you interested in Bach?," the soldier was asked by a journalist.

    "No," he answered.

    "But you are whistling a Bach composition," the newsman insisted.

    "That's no Bach," he replied indignantly. "That's Myra Hess."

    (From Marian McKenna's "Myra Hess -- A Portrait")

I have had a life-long appreciation of Dame Myra. I first heard her name when I was a boy of ten. She was still active on the concert stage, indeed she was still playing as I approached my mid-college years. I never had the opportunity to hear her live, though my teachers often referred to her—she was a presence in the musical world.


    As an adult, I became aware of her heritage—she
had been from the age of twelve a pupil in London of Tobias Matthay and it was under his supervision that she made her professional debut at the age of seventeen with Sir Thomas Beecham in the Beethoven Fourth Concerto at the Royal Albert Hall. Matthay is credited with the observation that the forearm is of primary importance in efficient piano technique. Watch her hands on the keys. One can't always see what's going on underneath the technique, but in her case notice how "closed" her hands are and hear the well-focused sound she produces. Dorothy Taubman was the next to take up Matthay's ideas on forearm rotation and run with them, and it's Taubman's research that informs my own playing, teaching and writing.

Lunchtime Concert

    In addition to her artistry, Hess is remembered for her bravery and public service during WWII. Because of the nighttime blackouts, she organized nearly 2000 daily 
lunchtime concerts that took place during the German blitz. These took place at the national Gallery in Trafalgar Square. During bombing, the concerts moved to a smaller, safer room. The concerts served as an opportunity for emerging artists to perform alongside established artists, including Hess, who took no fees for herself. Nearly one million people attended these events during the six-and-a-half years of the war. She personally appeared in 150 performances.

    Her students, the Contiguglia brothers, report the following in an interview: "I want to just say a few more words about turning pages for her because it was really an extraordinary experience. One experience was turning when she did the Mozart E-Flat Concerto K. 271 with the New Haven Symphony, and I remember it was a memorable performance, simply beautiful. It stirred my emotions and made it very difficult to turn, but at the end of the finale she turned to the audience, because they wouldn’t let her leave, and she said ‘you know, the slow movement of this concerto was one of the most beautiful things that Mozart ever wrote, I would like to repeat it’, and so she went and played the slow movement again with the orchestra, and then she turned to me and said ‘that time it worked’.

    "She was so human and she seemed to value the

 impression that her page-turner had from her concert. Of course, I was so moved that I wondered whether I was ever going to be able to turn pages, but I managed. I like to think of Myra Hess as being a sort of platonic ideal. You know, she represented an artistry that all the rest of us aspired to. Of course we never can achieve what she was, but it is an ideal, a platonic ideal, for me; this is the way perfection is.

Official Portrait, National Gallery
     "I remember that the last Carnegie Hall recital that we heard her perform, she did the last three Beethoven sonatas; Opus 109, Opus 110 – one sonata was just more magisterial than the next. When she finished Opus 111, there was total silence in that sold-out house, not one single clap, nobody said anything and nobody made a sound, and finally after an inordinately long time the entire audience rose to its feet, still silently, and then burst out into tumultuous applause. And that’s the effect a Myra Hess recital had, at least on an American audience."

If you have time, here's a live radio broadcast from 1946:

Dame Myra Hess & Arturo Toscanini: Beethoven Piano Concerto No.3 (pitch-corrected)

If you have still more time:

Brahms 2nd Concerto, live, Carnegie Hall, 1952, with Bruno Walter 

If you would like to hear more, select the "Listen" tab above and scroll down to the Brahms D Minor Concerto with Dimitri Metropolis.

Sunday, December 12, 2021

Piano Teachers and Their Materials: Hanon? Czerny?

      Some time ago a pianist wrote to me in defense of using exercises for developing piano technique. It was a response to my contention that most composers of these morsels had in mind to strengthen fingers and somehow create finger independence (and to make money?). He argued that "most exercises are NOT training for strength, but rather they are more NEUROMUSCULAR in nature." And he has a use for exercises. I'm glad he feels that strength training is not a reasonable objective. 

Charles-Louis Hanon
Looking diabolic!

     Unfortunately, the impression most students and teachers take away from collections of exercises does have to do with strength training. The two most ubiquitous composers of etudes, Hanon and Czerny, have created a strength and finger-independence cult. 

    Hanon was trained as an organist and there is no evidence that he ever received advanced training in music or that music was ever his primary vocation. In the preface to his 60 Exercises, Hanon states that "The fourth and fifth fingers are almost useless for lack of special exercises for these fingers, which are always weaker than the rest." I'm happy to report that he is wrong. There is nothing

wrong with the fourth and fifth fingers unless at some point they've been slammed in a car door. Our job at the keyboard is to learn how to use them according to their design. (Making the fingers feel "strong" is addressed elsewhere in these pages.) Further, he instructs students to "lift the fingers high." This is pointless and possibly dangerous, but again that is a different topic. The fingers are not physiologically independent of one another but can be made to sound that way.    

Carl Czerny
(Doesn't he resemble Schubert?)
  Czerny, on the other hand, was a highly regarded pianist, having begun his career at the age of five, reportedly. He gives almost no instructions on how to master his studies—just play them. Some of the titles in The Art of Finger Dexterity, though, give hints as to what he is thinking: "Action of the Fingers, Quiet Hand." One of my favorites is titled, "The Passing Under of the Thumb." This isn't really about strength, but it is one of the old wives' tales that have come down to us. The most efficient use of the thumb is not achieved by "passing under." (See the previous essay on use of the thumb.)  Hmm—I often wonder what studies the five-year-old prodigy practiced?

     But my correspondent's main point of contention, which he argues ever so politely, is that exercises are useful because they are not music. "They are NEUROMUSCULAR in nature." "Technique," he says, "is in the brain, not the body."

    The first half of that statement is right on point. Yes, we think first. But we think about what the body needs to learn. This is what I call practicing on purpose, working into an automatic response the appropriate technical solutions which we first have to conceive of.  Everything we play is, of course, neuromuscular. We rely on physical conditioning, particularly in speed. He points out that students have "too many distractions" in a piece of music: "reading, tone productions, balance, phrasing, tempo." If he really wants to play unmusically (I'm sure he doesn't), he can do that in passages in a piece of music just as well as in an exercise.

     And this is really what I'm talking about. When I say ignore exercises in favor of music, I mean select challenging passages in the music to use as etudes. This might be a scale passage, an arpeggio, two measures of double notes or an octave group. In so doing, we have a head start on a piece we really want to play. If you master Hanon, you have, well, an exercise that trained your hands to play that exercise. This will not necessarily transfer to a piece of music. 

     "With exercises," my correspondent states, " we can revel in the beauties of pure technique." We can do that in technical excerpts from music, too. If a student has a problem in a particular passage, that becomes an etude independent of the rest of the piece. Personally, I see no reason to ever play ugly; we should always be aware of the quality of sound, articulation and dynamics. That's not too much to think about in, say, an eight-measure excerpt. I have the sinking feeling that many teachers run to the shelf to select a book of exercises because that seems easier than thinking about what technical help the student needs for a particular piece. Just because the student is confronted with passages of arpeggios in his Beethoven sonata doesn't mean he should be assigned a Czerny study with arpeggios.

     When I was in graduate school, I overheard one of my very accomplished colleagues practicing scales and Hanon, which were perfect in every way. She had just performed a heavenly Beethoven fourth concerto. I asked her why she spent so much

time on that fruitless exercise. Her reply? She blushed and responded: "I enjoy it." Well, for me that is a way of postponing the next challenge. But I can hear my teacher now: "Dear, you can play whatever you want as long as you play it correctly." Of course, if you know how to play your exercise correctly, then you don't need to play it at all—unless you enjoy it. It's probably better than other delay tactics such as checking email or starting the laundry.

The Pianists Guide to Practical Technique

The Pianists Guide to Practical Scales and Arpeggios

Saturday, December 11, 2021

The Piano and the Thumb: Useless Lump or Full Partner


There was a time, long ago, when the thumb was considered a useless appendage when the fingers were called upon to play keyboard instruments. That is, officially the thumb was not allowed on the keys at all. Personally, I think there must have been the occasional scamp who saw its practicality and surreptitiously snuck it up onto the keyboard. Papa Bach may have been one of these, as the use of the thumb became normal during his lifetime.

Once the ignored and much-maligned limb gained full access to its rightful place, there ensued decades of debate as to how it might be used. Stretching and pulling became the default instruction. Exercises were devised to train the innocent, unsuspecting thumb to press itself under the hand and wait there until it was time to play, at which time all it could do was fall on the note, not play it like its finger colleagues. This resulted in a bumpy-sounding scale and not a little discomfort. When the time came to play scales hands together, the bumps and discomfort might often be compounded.

    Here's my modest proposal: Let's figure out how to play the thumb like a finger, without falling on it, and in so doing establish the ground-work for smooth crossings and excellent coordination between the hands. If a passage sounds and feels uncoordinated, it is most likely because one hand is trying to do what the other one is doing rotationally. (See above tab for demos on rotation and crossings.)

    1. The thumb plays rotationally, not by being pulled under the hand.

    2. When crossing, the job of the thumb is to play its note and move the hand into the new position.

    3. The thumb connects to the key at the fleshy side of the nail, not by falling on the first joint.

    4. If the scale sounds uncoordinated, check the movement of the thumb at its crossing and compare it to what the other hand is doing.

    Once the concept of crossing the thumb rotationally in a scale hands alone is mastered, create nutshell exercises at each crossing. It is not particularly helpful to play the entire scale up and back until the coordination at the crossings has been worked in.


    For much, much more on this and other topics, have a look at the following:

Piano Technique Demystified

Mystified no More


Friday, December 10, 2021

Bach as Teacher

J.S. Bach was a teacher. In his day, teaching was not only about keyboard facility but also included elements of composition and style. In short, Bach taught music. In his preface to the Inventions and Sinfonias, he explains that he has created an “honest method” for the purpose of learning to play “clearly” first two parts, then three parts. Along the way he hoped the “amateur” would develop, in addition to the ability to handle all the parts well, “good ideas.” He writes that “above all” the player should “achieve a cantabile style in playing and acquire a strong foretaste of composition.”  


   This is my favorite Bach quote. I raise it whenever I encounter a  pianist who attempts a harpsichord facsimile on the modern piano. You know the type of player I mean. This is someone who feels that all Bach playing is detached.  Even the great harpsichordist Wanda Landowska declared that her playing was connected, not detached. I understand why some pianists do this. They hope to imitate the quill plucking the strings. In the process, they discard the natural reverberation that plucking produces. 


     Let’s talk about cantabile. Musicians agree that the literal meaning is "in a singing style." Well, okay, but what is it that singers do? They tend to connect notes, even sometimes leaps, and articulate by using consonants and, importantly, they breathe. On the keyboard, one useful approach is to, in general, connect conjunct notes and separate disjunct notes. And, of course, notice beginnings and endings of phrases.

   We know that Bach favored the clavichord for its ability to produce nuanced inflections, not unlike a piano, though very much more subtle. The clavichord was an entre nous instrument, its sound intimate and not designed for a modern concert hall. It seems to me, Bach had this reference in mind when he wrote that his music should be expressive in the way that singing can be expressive. 

      So here we have a conundrum. On the one hand we are to play the parts clearly, but at the same time be expressive. No worries. We can separate out the two parts of the puzzle and put them back together again. Bach would be proud. 

   In the first Invention, I have noticed from time to time that students trip over the first leap in measure one. The intention is to begin lyrically with the sixteenths, but the leap from five on G to three on C sounds like a hiccup. Well, it is.

       Use the fifth finger as a hinge to move rotationally to three, and in the process separate the G from the C. It feels connected because of the rotation. Slightly shortening the G, however, gives the passage a characteristic articulation. Imagine that a singer wishes to emphasize an expressive consonant. This is still cantabile. (An alternative fingering is possible by opening the hand, but the above achieves the desired expressive musical result.)

   We look for musical and technical shapes in order give expression to what we play. Here is a good example of grouping and shaping in both guises. Group notes together that move in the same direction. Class, what are the appropriate shapes? Yes, over on the way down, under on the way up. It's the reverse in the left hand.

Invention No. 1, MM 3-4
Grouping and Shaping

   There is of course much more to consider, and it is a fascinating topic. Every student plays at least some of the inventions at one time or another. Maybe I should write a book on solving technical problems in the Inventions and Sinfonias. Oh, wait. I did.

Demystifying Bach at the Piano