Theory and Harmonic Analyses serve musical expression

Theoretical analysis has been part of my personal immersion at the piano since I began studies at the New York City High School of Performing Arts. As a student enrolled in the the Music department, I had three years of Sight-singing/Ear training, extensive exposure to harmony and musical structure, all within a performance-centered curriculum. And while I obsessively mapped out my piano pieces for every vestige of primary and secondary dominants, pivot chords leading to modulations, deceptive cadences, first and second themes, variations, points of Development and what characterized every section of a composition, I didn’t fully understand how to synthesize these analytical ingredients into expressive playing. (At that point in my adolescent life, I was more of an “intuitive” player.)

It was after years of study at the Oberlin Conservatory with its enriched courses of Theory, Music history, Eurhythmics, Keyboard Harmony and Piano Literature, that an expressive musical dimension surfaced as a resonating theme in my approach to learning piano works of varied historical periods. I would no longer compartmentalize what I considered to be a unity of elements in pursuit of beauty.

I still inveterately mark up a “new” composition with harmonic tracking, structural annotations, and fingering choices that comport with what I believe serves the best realization of phrases and this unshackled habit is fully fleshed out in the attached score. (Enrique Granados, Valse Poetico No. 1)

In synch with these scribbles, I dared to upload a video on my second day of practicing as I slowly waded through the music, bar-to-bar, separate hands, no less, with in-depth scrutiny of harmonic and interval analysis; symmetries of phrases; what was different?–how certain harmonic progressions created an “emotional response.” The iii chord, for example, known as the “Mediant,” was a heart-wrencher as it was poignantly “unexpected.” And in this cosmos of “affect” linked to harmonic events, expected and unexpected, I’d been taken by the book, Emotion and Meaning in Music by Leonard Meyer.

In a second video posting, which was my reconnection with Burgmuller’s “Barcarolle,” Op. 100, I embraced “Elements of Expressive Playing” that underscored awareness of pivotal harmonic junctures (modulations) that necessitated an emotional and physical synthesis. (i.e. How to “delay” the approach to certain sonorities in modulation; how to use a supple wrist to soften the impact of after beat chords, and to sensitively advance tapered cadences; how Rotation factored into a bridge back to a Recapitulation; how the beginning and end of the Barcarolle must be related, with a sense of reflection, mood connection, etc.) All identified key departures had an embedded affective significance that was bonded to choreography. In this pursuit, labeling a key shift needed translation into the physical playing experience with the “singing tone” as an underpinning.

In summary, a music-learning journey should deeply plant the seeds of cognitive, affective and kinesthetic awareness in the earliest phase of exploration. It must ideally include an array of analyses that serves the highest form of musical expression and shared human emotions.

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Favorite you tube video picks for 2018! (carried over from 2017)

I slipped up and missed the deadline for my end of 2017 super You Tube picks–realizing a bit late, that readers were celebrating the New Year in different time zones. Piano lovers from Japan and Australia had already popped champagne bottles 18 or so hours before those of us partook on the West Coast–And with USA Central, Mountain, Pacific and Eastern Standard times causing out of synch drifts of celebration, my Big Five You Tube List fizzled at 9 p.m. P.S.T, Dec. 31, as the stroke of Midnight Times Square (E.S.T.) ball drop welcomed 2018!

Still, redemption lay in a timeless series launched by the New York Times with long columns of piggy-backed you tube videos, Classical in genre, that were time-monitored for their mind-blowing moments. They fleshed out feats of virtuosity; heaven-on-earth phrase turns; wailing trills and heart-melting cadences. A harpist, Amy Turk, was singled out for her miraculous transcription/performance of Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D minor, amassing over 4 million views!

It became my bonus heist pick, falling outside keyboard bounds.

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In the Piano Universe

Luis Fernando Perez

http://www.luisfernandoperez.com/homepage.html

The artistry of Luis Fernando Pérez (Spain, b. 1977) topped my list, though choices following, from various years, accorded no preferential order.

Pianist, Perez, was my most treasured “new” You Tube surfing discovery, though he’d been circulating through Europe for years as soloist, chamber music player, and recording artist, earning performance awards along the way. Yet even with prestigious IMG Management, Perez had not reached the pinnacle of “big Name,” billboard success, having instead chosen a more true-to-art journey, reflected in his passion for Spanish repertoire that he chose to play in selected concert venues. (Carnegie Hall, or the Walt Disney complex were not along his musical route)

Perez’s website had revealed touch-downs at European Festivals interspersed by a foray to Kansas for a Master class and performance. He landed in North Carolina for a recital, though his travels inevitably pointed back to Europe.

In 2014, Perez played in Bilbao, Nantes, Paris, Madrid, Valencia, Zaragoza, San Sebastian, Brussels, Saint Petersburg, Budapest, Warsaw, Tokyo, Lyon, and Toulouse, with no further Internet posted concerts on his site. Judging by a significant escalation in Internet exposure post 2014, his energies seemed redirected to the recording cosmos.

Bryce Morrison, published a 2012 review in Gramaphone that amply described the pianist’s abundant gifts.

“RISING TO PRISTINE GLORY: Luis Fernando Pérez is clearly among the most individual and gifted pianists of today’s generation.

“And, in his more recent disc of Granados’s Goyescas, his playing is audaciously personal and has an improvisatory freedom and coloration very much his own. He achieves a superb senseof contrast, of innocence and experience…”

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Perez’s interpretation of Spanish music is compelling as “channeled” through his performance of Enrique Granados Valses Poeticos. His radiant singing tone; broad palette of “colors,” and poignant creation of emotional intimacy draw the listener into a deep and abiding relationship with the composer.

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Seymour Bernstein: A newly discovered awakening to tempo and mood in the Schumann Arabesque

A previous blog gave details and background about Bernstein’s epiphanies:

https://arioso7.wordpress.com/2017/08/30/pianist-seymour-bernstein-revisits-the-schumann-arabesque-at-the-age-of-90/

Seymour’s performance speaks for itself with its effortless spill of melody bundled in harmonic warmth. There’s no tempo impetuosity, or pre-meditated, boundary-determined section transitions. It’s all woven together as pure poetry flowing from the heart.

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David Fray: A humbling encore follows a concerto performance:

J.S. Allemande from Partita No. 6 in E minor

This is an inspired rendering, well-voiced by Maestro Fray.

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Irina Morozova – Bortkiewicz Etude Opus 15, No 9

Heaven on earth playing with impeccable fluidity. No words suffice to describe.

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George Li plays Haydn with his emblematic liquidity and singing tone.

The complete Haydn sonata in B minor was the divine opener to Li’s October 2017 recital at S.F. Davies Hall.

https://arioso7.wordpress.com/2017/10/09/a-worthwhile-journey-to-george-lis-triumphant-davies-hall-piano-recital/

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Finally, Happy You Tube Surfing to All in 2018!

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Navigating Tricky Trills

Experimentation is central to piano learning in all its phases, including that which applies to the build-up of trills. Unfortunately, for many students engaged in such a learning process, rapid alternations of notes will often ignite instant panic and fear which tighten muscles, inhibiting a smooth flowing musical line. In some instances, the initial approach a pupil undertakes in practicing trills becomes marred by poor fingering choices and a precipitous push to play these figures at a “fast” pace too soon.

In my own experience practicing trills over decades–a journey that’s been introspective, experimental, and open to new and creative fingering assignments, I’ve had epiphanies that have grown my technique while filtering down to my pupils in productive increments.

Currently, I’m preparing the Enrique Granados Oriental (Danza Espanola No. 2, Op. 5) that one of my students plans to study. In this particular undertaking, I’ve been laying the groundwork for smoothly rendering a tricky set of three trills for the Right Hand–each with a different resolution that presents a technical and musical challenge.

All 3 trills, however, share a sustained alto note under them, with quick grace note driven resolutions requiring not only fingering that is “natural” to the hand/fingers, (different for each player) but can propel an uninterrupted shimmering beauty to resolution. When I sampled the editor’s recommended 3, 5, 3, 5 etc. trill fingering, I could not nearly realize a fluid progression of notes to my satisfaction. And with a subsequent realization that R.H. trill fingers 2, 3, 2, 3, etc. were my most reliable ones, I immediately tried these as I attempted the first unfolding figure in the Spanish Dance. (This trill springs into an awkward resolution divided by an octave bundled into a Major Third) Unfortunately, my choice resulted in an immediate surge of strain and tension that sparked an experimentation most likely considered unorthodox. Still, I persisted with a “creative” exploration that ultimately produced desired fluency.

In the video tutorial posted below, the final fingering that became a springboard for further development of each trill, relied on right hand fingers 2, 4, 2, 4, etc. in conjunction with a hanging hand, energized by relaxed arms and supple wrists. I even added a “sigh” to my trill executions to bundle them in warmth and lucidity. (The breath is so intrinsic to a fluid trill outpouring that’s imbued with a singing tone) Trills, are essentially fast melody, vocally modeled.

Fundamentally, the build-up of each trill in the Granados Oriental was based on a sighing back tempo approach that flowed gradually into the tempo desired, using fingering that not only worked for me, but well served the music.

(P.S. The footage encompasses fingering decisions for each trill sample that naturally considered the grace notes and how to navigate all three trill settings to full resolution.)

Oriental Play through:

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A deep immersion in Schumann’s Wiegenliedchen, Cradle Song No. 6, Op. 124

Who would have thought that a Romantic era character piece of short length could have so much to savor on multi-tiered levels? Relentless triplets with double stemmed quarters, seemed at first glance to direct the player toward a horizontal rendering of a conspicuous melodic thread that’s reinforced by the highest notes in the Right Hand. It’s clearly a vocal line that requires a singing tone wedded to a seamless legato.

But the more one delves into the score, an awareness of note groupings, within phrases, requires the player to breathe as a vocalist would, with an attendant understanding of how fingering, harmonic analysis, rotational motions, and exploration of the bass line all factor into a deeper rendering of the composition.

While the piece only landed in Berkeley just two short days ago, having been emailed in attachment form from a Scottish Isle, it was “cradled” with great care upon its arrival in the Berkeley flats–having passed through an embryonic stage of discovery to a more heightened level of understanding.

Since a tutorial is like a diary of epiphanies, the one I’ve included below, is a springboard to further learning discoveries that grow from repeated exposures and more intense scrutiny of what the composer, Robert Schumann, intended.

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Our individual musical study grows our piano teaching

For the past year I’ve devoted many daily hours to the study J.S. Bach’s six French Suites while simultaneously keeping pace with my students’ passage through diverse repertoire. The decision to take on this additional musical challenge apart from meeting my basic teacher obligations of being present at lessons; knowing the material assigned, and dispensing meaningful suggestions, is to advance my own personal musical development. By growing my technique and musicianship; organizing music with a theoretical lens; getting deeply embedded in form, harmony, phrasing, and noting the very steps taken in my early learning process, I grow my teaching to the benefit of my students. This message I gladly send along to colleagues who enjoy comparable journeys of self-discovery.

A few weeks ago, I received a pertinent message via You Tube from an adult learner in Israel who was challenged by the Allemande of the B minor French Suite No. 3, BWV 814 and wondered if I’d a posted a tutorial about ways to approach the opening dance movement. Although I had studied the Sarabande, Anglaise, and Minuet/Trio of this work, I hadn’t yet commenced an examination of the Allemande. Her request, therefore, was perfectly timed to nudge my practicing of this movement with an enlisted analytical approach–breaking down the “subject” or main germ cell, and discovering any and all fragments of the smallest idea that unraveled in two-voice counterpoint (and inversion) through the binary form. (Fingering naturally factored into foundational practicing along with the preservation of a “singing” tone.)

The video that I uploaded just three days into my exploration, contained the basic elements of structure/counterpoint that fed the musical/expressive side of interpretation and spawned an early play through that reaped the benefits of my self-driven pedagogical analysis.

Tutorial:

Play Through

I continue to make challenges like these for myself, not just through deep explorations of Johann Sebastian’s Bach’s music in its many forms (Fugues, Gigues, Allemandes, Courantes, etc.) but by stretching the mind in expansive directions: studying repertoire from various historical periods; exploring harmonic flow, rhythm, and theoretical framings that are in the service of how to phrase and imbue emotion governed by what is expected and unexpected in the course of a composition.

Finally, this investment in individual study is not only a promotion of self-growth, but it becomes a gift to our pupils to whom we are teaching the very rudiments of learning so they will become truly independent in their own study as it matures, and ripens over time.

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W.A. Mozart Minuets: Valuable Journeys of Discovery

It’s easy to be dismissive of the Classical era Minuet form, though in the hands of a wunderkind like Mozart, a set of these 3/4 meter Binary dances springs to life with a myriad of embedded learning and performance challenges.

For example, the Minuet in F Major, K. 2 composed by Mozart at age 6, (1782) and notated by his father, Leopold, presents a motif of broken chords cloaked in repetitive rhythms of two eighth notes followed by two quarters. If these figures are played without a consciousness of harmonic function, they will march along lacking the expressive dimension they deserve. Given the composer’s formidable vocal signature that cannot be lost through permeating rhythms, the performer must nuance phrases guided, in part, by how each unfolding broken chord in the melody, flows into the next. (An economy of TWO VOICES still provides the very markers of harmonic expression that enrich a reading.)

In the first measure, the outline of the F Major Tonic leads into the second bar on the level of the Sub-dominant (Bb Major outline), yet an illusion of the first measure feeling like the DOMINANT of Bb Major to an imagined new Tonic in a related key sets up a nice dip from Dominant to Tonic. I found this nuance to work well in the harmonic universe of thinking and interpretation. Naturally, the vehicle of redundant rhythms also demanded a decision about second and third beat note repetitions. Instinctively, I lifted the third beat and therefore lightened the repeated note (last beat) of each measure. Suspensions and appoggiaturas suggested a leaning on the dissonant note with a wrist forward relaxation motion upon resolution and groupings of notes/leanings and detachments in tenuto style factored into interpretation.

Measures 5, 6, and 7 encompass a blossoming crescendo that has a directional shift UPWARD through the broken chord melodic outline as compared to the opening. With the added vitality of an inserted triplet figure, the music spills robustly into a semi-cadence at m. 8 with a LEAN/relax appoggiatura. This DOMINANT C Major Cadence at mid-point, is UP-lifting!

The longer B section (measures, 9-24) proceeds with a tad of operatic drama, though one cannot take this perception to an extreme given the concise confines of a charming Minuet. Yet, the very entry into these measures through a broken diminished 7th chord resolving to the “minor,” (g minor) creates a mood shift that suggests a feeling of pathos. Such should not be lost or overlooked. (The B section, in general will provide elements of “development” that will unfold, albeit briefly, in the language of key change or modulation.)

Finally, a pivot broken chord in G minor serving as the ii chord of F Major (the home key)–measures 13-14, gracefully sequences the music back to the refreshment of F Major and the return of a more lighthearted conclusion to the work, but with a heartfelt delay of a Deceptive cadence (vi chord) in measure 20. (A fermata gives emphasis to the unexpected, and this infusion of embedded emotion defers gracefully to a charming ending on the tonic in the last measure.

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The Minuet in F Major, K. 5, (1762) is almost a polar opposite in character when compared to K. 2. Its formidably bi-rhythmic dimension juxtaposes a division of the quarter note in triplets against a division of the same into 4-sixteenth notes. (and in reverse) Yet, as always, the SINGING dimension of this composition must be preserved through its outpouring of rippling notes while an awareness of SEQUENCES, particularly in the B section is paramount to a convincing musical interpretation.

Page 1:

My Tutorial: (Provides details of analysis and strategies of learning)

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Minuet and Trio in G Major, K. 1 represents a form that adds a 3-voice Trio section. The outer sections, in two voices, are notably permeated by parallel tenths, with still quicker inserted 16th flourishes in tenths evoking an operatic duet.

The tutorial below explores structure, voicing, and ways to nuance phrases using a supple wrist, singing tone approach.

According to Notes provided in the Alfred Edition, this Minuet is “unusual in its shifting phrases and rhythms.” The composition was Mozart’s creation at age five.

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A Guest Post by Frances Wilson: The Pianist’s Solitude

“The loneliness doesn’t worry me……I spend most of my life alone, even backstage…….I’m there completely alone. I like the time alone….”
– Stephen Hough, concert pianist

The pianist’s life is, by necessity, lonely. One of the main reasons pianists spend so much time alone is that we must practice more than other musicians because we have many more notes and symbols to decode, learn and upkeep. This prolonged solitary process may eventually result in a public performance, at which we exchange the loneliness of the practice room for the solitude of the concert platform.

Most of us do not choose the piano because we are loners – such decisions are usually based on our emotions, motor skills or the aural appeal of the instrument. For me, as a child – and an only child – the piano was a companion and a portal to a world of exploration, fantasy and storytelling. It remains a place to retreat to and time spent with the instrument and its literature can be therapeutic, rebalancing and uplifting. For many of us, being alone is the time when the sense of being at one with the instrument is strongest.

In addition, there is time alone spent listening to recordings – one’s own (for self-evaluation) and by others (for inspiration and ideas on interpretative possibilities, or purely for relaxation) – and time simply recovering from practicing and refocusing in readiness for the next session. Many pianists tend to be loners – the career almost demands it and self-reliance is something one learns early on, as a musician – but that does not necessarily make pianists lonely or unsociable.
 
The life of the concert soloist is a strange calling, yet many concert pianists accept the loneliness as part of the package, together with the other accessories of the trade. The concert pianist experiences a particular kind of solitude (as noted by Stephen Hough in the quote at the beginning of this article). The solitude of traveling alone – the monotony of airport lounges, the Sisyphean accumulation of air miles, nights spent alone in faceless hotels. Dining alone, sleeping alone, breakfast alone, rising early to practice alone. And there is the concert itself: waiting backstage, alone, in the green room, and then the moment when you cross the stage, entirely alone….. The pianist Martha Argerich has described the “immense” space around the piano that has always made her feel alone on stage. But it is this aloneness, this separation, which the solo pianist exploits for the purpose of captivating and seducing the audience, drawing them into his or her own private world for the duration of the performance.

I suppose being an introvert in a ‘public performance’ profession has been my greatest challenge. It isn’t straightforward, of course – I seem to have a deep need to communicate music to an audience and get their reaction, and I love to be appreciated, but there are many other aspects of being ‘on show’ that don’t come naturally. I’m very interested in people, but I’m quite a private person and need lots of time to myself.
– Susan Tomes, pianist and writer

The traditional positioning of the piano on stage, so that the pianist sits side on to the audience, heightens this sense of separation and aloneness. In a concert, the pianist must navigate a path between private, subjective feelings and public expression in a curious display of both isolation and exhibitionism. The power of performer, and performance, is this separateness from the mass of audience. Some performers may exploit this to create a sense of “us and them”, while others are adept at creating an intensity or intimacy of sound and gesture during which the audience may feel as if they have a private window onto the pianist’s unique world, in that moment.

Up there on the stage, one can feel more alone than anyone would ever care to be, yet it can make one better than one thinks possible because one’s ego is constantly being tested when one plays. To meet a Beethoven sonata head on, for example, it stops being about you – how fast you can play, how technically accomplished you are. Instead it is about getting beyond oneself, becoming ego-less, humble in the face of this great music, developing a sense of one-ness with the composer…..

After the performance, when the greeting of the audience and CD signing is over, the pianist may happily retreat to his or her solitary practice room or studio. Many of us long for this special solitude and actively relish the time spent practicing alone.

Frances Wilson is a UK-based pianist, writer, concert reviewer and blogger on classical music and pianism as The Cross-Eyed Pianist

http://www.crosseyedpianist.com
 
 

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