Piano Instruction: Allemande from J.S. Bach French Suite no. 5 in G Major

Andras Schiff, known for playing Bach “purely” without pedal, encourages piano students to indulge J.S. as actors cultivate Shakespeare. It’s our daily “bread,” he insists. Regardless of his mixed metaphor, I concur that studying the works of Johann Sebastian Bach builds a solid foundation for exploring music of all historical eras. And to pore over the master’s ingenious counterpoint through Inventions, Fugues, Partitas, French and English Suites, etc. is a compulsory universe of education and enlightenment.

Having begun to explore the opening Allemande of J.S. Bach’s French Suite No. 5 in G, BWV 816, I found myself immersed in a step-by-step, voice parceled analysis, before permuting treble and bass; treble and alto or tenor as applied, and finally combining three voices. I tracked harmonic movement, sequences, cadences, scoped out balance of voices, dynamics and shadings. It was a riveting, introspective journey that kept me firmly grounded and on task—requiring the same type of discipline that Schiff applied to absorbing Shakespeare’s great body of works.

In the realm of a French Suite:

In my two videos below, I reveal a beginning learning process that encompasses many elements and grows by increment.

First I offer an updated, in tempo play through of the Allemande followed by my study suggestions.

Bach French Suite p. 1

Instruction:

As William Shakespeare well said, “If Music be the Food of Love, Play On!”

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Does practice make perfect?

WQXR F.M. (NYC based) has posted its latest set of meta-based analyses of “deliberate practice” studies. (A mouthful of confusion to begin with!)

Three researchers teamed up to discount the wise old adage that “practice makes perfect.” (In their probings, they were “virtuosity” centered) The trio concluded that a much smaller percentage of so-called high-powered “experts” in their respective fields were churned out by mega-practicing regimens. (Dr. Brooke Macnamara was their spokesperson)

http://www.wqxr.org/story/are-virtuosos-born-or-bred-new-paper-renews-debate-over-practice/#.U9Ol0iP6O5k.mailto

Yet starting with the simplistic premise that all kinds of “practice” produce high end results is an exaggeration of the truth.

As I listened to the WQXR delivered Podcast I became increasingly confused. It lumped so many ingredients into a befuddled menu and concluded with Moderator, Naomi Lewin, making matters worse by bringing up Lang Lang’s abusive father as the spark of his bedazzling career. Her verbal counterpoint in the music realm, suggested that researchers should add emotional abuse to the virtuoso breeding ground.

The only participant that made any sense, in my humble opinion, was Dr. Anders Ericsson, who addressed the whole matter in the context of high quality student/teacher interaction plus long hours of finite, well-focused practicing. Naturally, innate musical gifts were part of the parcel. (Thank Goddess his 1993 based studies had GRAVITY, WEIGHT, and substance, not AIRY, UP IN THE CLOUDS pronouncements floating away all sense of REASON)

Likewise, comments that followed the podcast were as earthy as Dr. Ericsson’s approach and demeanor. (He had insisted that Millennium meta-researchers failed to isolate the mentoring factor in their “expertise” collations)

Riveting words posted by Emily White, a piano teacher at the Special Music School in New York City, intelligently framed practicing, its context, and value in seeding and growing exceptional musical expression. (Italics, for emphases, are mine)

“Time is important, but there are many functions served by musical repetition toward the attainment of goals that are more efficiently managed by a compatible mentor than by hours of isolated discipline: first, the decoding of notation, the tightening or loosening of strict rhythmic pulse, the incremental building of speed and note articulation, and the solution of the spatial-muscular problems associated with the instrument; but later, the exploration of sound colors and the communication of the world-view and psychology of a composer, the use of imagination and taste in portraying the composer’s theoretical style, and the simmering of meditative processes that will give authority to a performance. A teacher’s pedagogical lineage and personal attention can affect the progress of a student as much as the expenditure of time, shaving hours off the excess hacking mistakenly called practice and interspersing moments of leisure and reflection in order to foster meaningful, healthy playing.”

Ms. White should have been invited to the WXQR studio in the heat of the music-related exchange. After all, why compare Scrabble playing to high level, expressive music-making in the first place?

Examining bulk area expertise and managing to conjoin musical virtuosity into the mix was a half-baked effort at best.

Make your own voice heard at the website.

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An adult beginning piano student helps to shape his musical journey

When a newbie knocks on my door, not knowing how to read music, but is starving for a connection to the great “Classical” piano masterworks, I have to figure out a way to engage his interest in the earliest phase of learning without losing him along the way.

One approach is to go the “method” book route which can be stultifying for teacher and pupil alike. Another is to hybridize the journey, and not commit the fledgling to ONE-track learning that often ends up in a despairing ditch!

Using “Peter” as a “classic” example, I started him in the basic FABER Primer Piano Adventures, just because I liked the introductory black key duets which were within his easy reach. These afforded a landscape to explore “singing tone” production (supple wrist/relaxed arms) and dynamic variance, while imbuing a fundamental “singing pulse.”

Following notes floating in space, (not yet on the staff) taught step and skip relationships, with finger numbers assisting, but not yet associated with MIDDLE C, the death knell of most method-driven materials.

The duet form, wholly expressed on black notes and framed in lovely harmony through the teacher “Secondo,” (part) kept Peter engaged, until we proceeded onward.

Naturally, the Faber path eventually led to fixed five-finger positions springing from MIDDLE C, so while we sampled a few of these beginner pieces, TRANSPOSITION became a mandatory ADD-ON–making the parallel minor a defining option.

As an aside I hand-picked “Midnight Ride,” in duet form from Faber’s Older Beginner Accelerated Piano Adventures not adhering, again to any fixed method-oriented material. This particular piece was quite engaging so I extracted it, as well as a Minuet or two from the same source.

(I sent the student secondo parts that I recorded to you tube, first in slow tempo followed by a faster rendering) In this one, I recorded 3 tempos using a metronome.

Back to Five-Finger positions and transposing

Parallel minors introduce a mood change, so lowering the third of a five-finger position stimulates the student’s vivid imagination. (while introducing a flat into the musical universe)

Though letter-naming is synchronized with a stream of five-finger based pieces, teaching solfeggio side-by-side with a knowledge of the musical alphabet is pertinent.

It proved especially useful when Peter was asked to “transpose” his pieces to more adventurous locations. (i.e. D E F# G A or A B C# D E, or F A Bb C D) By then he was not deprived of learning to alter notes in sharp or flat directions, while he easily memorized do, re, mi, fa, sol….before adding la, ti, do. (He would move the DO to different locations as he played his short five-finger pieces in various “keys.”)

The problem with most method books is that they fixate on white notes for too long, keeping a student in a narrow geographic universe, thereby increasing anxiety about stepping out into an integrated world of blacks and whites. (See my post: http://arioso7.wordpress.com/2012/02/23/bias-against-black-notes-stopped-me-in-my-tracks-video/ )

A Better Route

For Peter, having to learn an adjustable “center of gravity” with each new tonality propelled him toward his next “integrated” adventure:

Dozen a Day gymnastics. (Edna Mae Burnham)

“Walking and Running” in Book 1, afforded more opportunities to transpose through the Circle of Fifths, though pentascales (five-note positions) would not reveal all accidentals (sharps in particular) in a full-fledged 8-note scale.

Dozen a Day Walking running and hopping

Of greater significance was his practicing a singing tone LEGATO and then snipping it into staccato (short detached notes) within proportioned rhythm changes from quarters to 8ths to 16ths.

Given his unique physical talents, he easily slipped into 32nds.

Peter has the gift of fine motor skills and coordination so I refused to impede him from advancing his own journey according to his abilities. A fixed “method” book, or one-size-fits-all instruction would not have worked for him.

In the repertory realm, I found five-finger pieces in Faber’s Developing Artist Series, Elementary, that offered short one-page Classical selections that could be played in parallel keys (Major and minor) keeping Peter in touch with sharps and flats.

“Melody” by Beyer, is especially beautiful, attaching a lovely teacher “arpeggiated” Secondo in broken chords. The student simultaneously plays a broken chord pattern in the bass that lends itself to “blocking” in the early practicing phase. The duet scoring is particularly full, harmonically rich and satisfying.

melody by Beyer p. 1

(Here, Peter and I collaborate in the MAJOR key of G, though we easily transposed the piece to G minor by lowering the third, B, to Bb)

I strongly believe that five-finger positions have pedagogical relevance in early study because of their springboard value in teaching the legato singing tone, and providing transposition opportunities.

In the solo universe, Peter worked on a Minuet in G by Reinagle that contained an F# in the bass. He easily transposed it to G minor.

Minuet by Reinagle

At the 6th-month juncture of his studies, Peter routinely warms up with Dozen a Day in various transpositions, adding the HOPPING exercise in parallel thirds (staccato) advancing from quarters through 8ths to 16ths. (in Forte–BIG, and piano, soft) Scales have been added as I note farther down in this posting.

For Sight-reading and transposing I use Snell and Ashleigh
Fundamentals of Piano Theory

This was a first integrated sight-reading and transposition experience for Peter adding this material. Besides Parallel Major and minor transpositions, the concept of the Relative minor was woven in.

Transposing

For more note reading practice, (and teaching use of ROTATION) I selected the following two studies by Leo Barenboim (No. 8) and (No. 6) by Y. Chernavskaya

Study 8, integrates descending five finger positions in various keys, so these “shifts” advance coordination skills by nursing “rolling” motions through groups of notes. In the Theory realm Peter applies his knowledge of Major and minor pentascales to organize his learning process.

Study No. 8 by Birnbaum

Study 6, provides another opportunity for rotational practice through every group of three notes, while offering a parallel minor playing.

Study no. 6 by Chernyavskaya

Peter reached beyond five-finger positions at the 3rd-4th month juncture of study at first playing one octave scales in C, G, and D, but quickly he progressed to 2 octaves and more.

Here he is practicing a one-octave scale in parallel and contrary and motion (4th months)

With his advancement to playing two or more octaves, he routinely organizes his scales by practicing separate hands slowly, then marking out common fingering points, and bridge over the octave crossings. Such spot practicing has nudged him along to fluency in moderate tempo in legato and staccato. (Exposure to connecting and detaching notes in five-finger positions greatly assisted his progress to full scale playing)

I use the FJH Classic Scale book that also includes arpeggios, and chord inversions.

Peter regularly practices 4-octave scales and arpeggios in progressive rhythms as part of his warm-ups. We devote about 20 minutes of his lesson to these romps.

Where we go from here will be determined by the student and teacher in a working alliance.

I have an intuitive hunch to next give him this beautiful Elizabethan style piece: (pp. 1 and 2)

Go No More A'Rushing

Go no More A' Rushing p. 2

And “Sadness” by Turk

Turk Sadness

While this particular journey has unfolded well for Peter, it might not be the right one for another newbie.

Shaping a music-learning pathway has a lot to do with a student’s needs, abilities and desires, so it’s best to be flexible and open to new ideas often suggested by the student.

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An adult piano student floats a Chopin Nocturne

Chopin Nocturne in e p. 1

The E minor Nocturne Op. 72, No. 1 has a redundant flowing broken chord bass that becomes intensified through melodic climaxes. Still, the binary division of each measure, with some relief on the second half of each, preserves a relentless rocking motion throughout the composition.

In this lesson-in-progress, an adult student who returned to the piano after a long hiatus, reveals his conscientious approach to refining phrases, floating them, and experimenting with tempo rubato all within a slow practice frame.

He and other adult students are to be admired for their tenacity, patience and commitment to learning while combining complex work schedules 5 days a week.

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Nocturne played In tempo

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Staccato scales: Staying on the PLANE without a bumpy ride

Most students become very disconnected when traveling through a staccato scale so their journey from lift-off to landing is often bumpy.

In the E minor Natural form, for example, a redundant E, F# occurring in every octave will fool a player into thinking he’s got to brace for ELEVATION that makes his hand jerk forward on the seemingly higher black note.

e minor staccato

Psychologically and physically, the student will have lost his “center” of gravity in this lunge, deterring a smooth, even, horizontal passage from octave to octave.

On this particular journey of crisp, detached articulations, an adult pupil worked on braving obstacles that impeded him from enjoying a turbulence-free roll-in to final resolution by applying specific practice routines that included clustering or “chunking.”

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Two side-by-side approaches to Schubert and ONE wins a prize

The BACKDROP

Over in Fairbanks, Alaska the awards ceremony that capped a prolonged Internet channeled e-competition was dragged out mercilessly. Every sponsor under the sun had to be acknowledged, including Yamaha International that put its Disklavier center stage, UP-staging the old-fashioned way of delivering music to audiences.

Would you believe, laudatory performances were memorialized on a big screen, while a LIVE Disklavier cranked them out like a player piano would, but through a MIDI process. It was both bizarre and intriguing to see the instrument without a performer at the bench.

When all was said and done, the results came in with mixed reviews among pianists, amateur and professional, who were watching and prognosticating around the globe.

Just for purposes of identification, I’ve extracted two side-by-side performances of Schubert Sonatas that have glaringly different approaches– one which landed the entrant from Denmark/Sweden the Schubert PRIZE, and eventually, the big CHEESE first place, $30,000, plus a bunch of prestigious concert engagements.

And as happens in the course of many COMPETITIONS (where music is uncomfortably placed in the SPORTS arena), disappointments abound among the players and fans. (The fervor of World Cup Soccer and other athletic events have set unhappy precedents where emotions rise to fever pitch, sometimes spilling into physical confrontations)

Within the more sedate Fairbanks concert hall, by contrast to an open mega sports stadium, disenchantment with the final POINTS tally was nonetheless manifest in posted comments on a rolling Internet board.

Heated exchanges surrounding the choice of winner resulted in one particular posting being removed for no apparent reason. (Perhaps because it de-commercialized the event and begged for a showcase, and not a round of gladiators vying for victory)

But what makes money are competitions and products that are promoted in the process.

Onto the Schubert AWARD

My personal pick for this particular prize was Mariana Prjevalskaya (Spain) playing the A Major Sonata, D.959 (Fast forward to 9:50 for the performance start)

http://new.livestream.com/uafairbanks/events/3111439/videos/55778003

In my opinion, she spun gorgeous singable lines, and had just the right timbre and tone that blended with the Romantic era and the composer’s alliance with lieder. (Songs permeated his body of works) There was no pounding or Brahmsian climaxes. She stayed true to the era, and was not trying to impress with bravura splurges or dramatic pauses. The pure liquidity of her playing was a hallmark characteristic of all her offerings, and perhaps its intimacy, for the most part did not carry her to the winner’s circle as the competition progressed to the big Concerto round.

To the contrary, the WINNER, Peter Friis Johansson, viewed Schubert in bigger proportion, inserting pauses (fermati over rests) that were so long that an audience member could go out for a cafe latte and return in time for the next phrase.

And his fortes rose to fortissimo levels, notching up the drama quotient to questionable levels for this music.

(Fast forward track to 6:08 for official start of Schubert’s Bb Sonata, D. 960)

http://new.livestream.com/uafairbanks/events/3111439/videos/55787617

In the last analysis, rating a performance is a matter of personal preference and aesthetics, so the judges did what they thought best in awarding a PRIZE for a reading they were comfortable with.

But did that mean all the right notes were played, and minor memory lapses were verboten?

Because music-making is not a sport, the whole presentation was marred by the very ethos that doesn’t fit well within the arts environment. (i.e. scoring phrases and musical expression–trying to level the playing field among star players by slipping into accuracy tallies) It might have been pertinent to icy Alaska where dog races have a clear, decisive victor but not on the universal concert stage, LIVE-STREAMED or just plain LIVE!

As a former piano competition adjudicator poetically expressed:

“Music should promote communication, not competition.
“Music should encourage connection, not comparison.
“Music should be about confirmation, not criticism.
“Music should celebrate creativity, not confusion.
“Music should engender congratulations, not consolation.”

He added a quote from the Schola Cantorum:

“One does not make music against someone else.”

Let the E-Competion contingent of producers, directors, trustees, and sponsors be awakened to the sensibility and sensitivity of these words and proceed accordingly.

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Pianist, Beth Levin weighs in on Competitions

469994_4195297599622_986356431_o(2)-2

Beth Levin is more than a pianist. She not only concertizes, records, presents symposia and teaches, but devotes quality time to arts commentary. At La Folia.com, she critiqued Schumann’s Kreisleriana in tribute to an era she embraces in her spread of LIVE performances and recordings.

http://www.lafolia.com/schumanns-kreisleriana/

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(Imported photos and video produced by Randolph Pitts)

And not surprisingly, even her FACEBOOK entries rise above run-of-the-mill social networking updates. They’re engaging snippets of poet laureates, distinguished authors, great composers, golden age piano pedagogues and memorable musical performances.

With her inquisitive mind in high gear, I thought to tap into her thoughts about piano competitions since she’d once been an entrant at a celebrated European venue.

1) What are your feelings about piano competitions? Of what use are they in today’s cultural universe?

I think the desire to be heard is very strong in almost any talented young person and a competition can be an excellent goal and outlet for those artistic ambitions. But a teacher should be careful in judging the personality of his or her student- if she might be scarred by losing and not able to take it in stride I would say not to enter that pupil. I remember being so perfectly prepared by my teacher for a Philadelphia Orchestra Young Person’s audition. I won and it fueled many years of study, performing and the love of playing.

As an aside I went to the Leeds Competition on my honeymoon! Not something I would recommend.

2) Did you have to enter a competition along your journey as a performing
pianist?

I don’t think competitions are necessary to a career. I remember at Music from Marlboro a very promising cellist deciding not to enter the Tchaikovsky Competition simply because losing was too great a risk. Today he has a flourishing career and achieved it without a competition. Each case is different. If one has a burning desire to enter then it is the right thing to do- otherwise I think one can find alternate paths to a career.

3) What is the best way to expose your art to the public? Are LIVE piano recitals a thing of the past? (Being so costly to present, etc.)

Personally I like to both perform LIVE and record. Recital series seem to be shrinking but New York City has a few intimate (and economical) halls and there are excellent piano festivals around the country. Chamber music is a large part of my musical life and performing it LIVE is always a thrill. Nothing can replace a LIVE performance.

4) How do you feel about Mp3s and Mp4s as vehicles for your music?

Mp3′s and Mp4′s can be very useful in certain cases and provide another way to be heard. But I think it is still worthwhile to make a good CD.

5) Would you prefer to play LIVE than make recordings?

Playing LIVE and recording are two sides of the same coin. Presenting a recital program in several venues and honing it; then recording it down the road makes sense.

(Beth revealed a lighter side, by inserting a colorful quote of Sergiu Celibidache, distinguished former conductor of the Munich Philharmonic. He said, “Recording was like going to bed with a picture of Brigitte Bardot ;->”)

Our conversation steered quickly back to the serious side of music-making and its career challenges.

6) How can a gifted musician survive economically given the competitive cosmos of pianists who win competition after competition and still find themselves spinning wheels looking for more contests to enter?

I think that having a full musical life is more important in the end than making a huge living from it. Luck may play the largest role in that particular sphere. But if one can keep learning, studying, teaching, playing and loving their art- the benefits will come. Competitions should never become the reason for making music.

7) What is your current creative undertaking?

I’m preparing a recital program to play and record in Munich and Vienna in the Fall of 2014. The repertoire is Kreisleriana of Schumann, the C minor sonata of Schubert D.958 and an unpublished work, Versione, by the Swedish composer, Anders Eliasson.

8) Can you provide background on why you have chosen particular repertoire
to perform/record?

I think my main influences, Rudolf Serkin and Leonard Shure contributed greatly to my love of Beethoven, Brahms, Schumann, Schubert, etc. The recording I made of the Goldberg Variations was a complete anomaly. I’ve always been a kind of big, romantic player.

9) What do you see in your future as far as playing, teaching, and
recording?

I hope to keep recording, performing live and perhaps even to a greater extent in the future. I hope I will teach more and more in older age.

Many thanks for the chance to think about these important topics.

***

Beth Levin’s Website

http://www.bethlevinpiano.com
Her album, A Single Breath: Beethoven’s Last Three Piano Sonatas is listed among others.
Beth Levin, pic, A Single Breath

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