Artur Schnabel, Journal of a Piano Teacher from New York to Calfornia

“Hear it before you play it!”

Leon Fleisher, an icon in the universe of pianists, put it succinctly.

He channeled the wisdom of Artur Schnabel that embodied the idea that a musician must have an internal sense of what he expects to hear before playing a single note.

Fleisher further insisted that playing by accident, or having a pile of notes flood the air waves without intention and meaning, is meaning-less. (You can bundle “technique” into a ball of unspun yarn if scads of notes, by chance, are aimlessly rendered)

So how does pre-hearing apply to the whole learning process from beginner level to advanced?

In my experience, there should be no differences in approach among players of varying proficiency, because all music must reside in the imagination in embryonic form before sound emerges from silence. (Daniel Barenboim concurs)

By example, I recapitulated my own process as I learned the “Courante” from J.S. Bach’s French Suite No. 5 in G. (BWV 816)

At first I looked at the opening page, encountering a sea of 16th notes, but to help organize them, I “sang” phrases to myself and then aloud. How would I shape the treble melody that launched the basic motif or germ cell that sprouted into a two page development?

And how would I group the notes, execute the ornaments, swell and taper phrases? (not to mention consider the contrapuntal/imitative relationship between voices)

Fleisher urged young musicians to “experiment” in the privacy of their studios and practice rooms–certainly an ideal way to sort through the complexities of phrasing.

But where did fingering come in since it must serve the shape of lines that flow from the very first note?

I believe that fingering choices should be ruled in or ruled out through a process of trial and error, (more “experimentation), making sure these decisions comport with what the player imagines as he journeys through infinite measures. (in accordance with PERIOD STYLE)

In the attached video sample, I imagine, sing, play, experiment and refine. (repeating the sequence as I fine-tune my explorations)

After all, music-making evolves, transforms, and absorbs new awakenings.

In brisker tempo:

7 thoughts on ““Hear it before you play it!””

  1. Fascinating discussion. I would add that for me, as an adult beginner at playing the piano, my challenge is not just seeing a blur of notes on the page, but hearing a blur of notes being played. When I listen to pieces that I am preparing to play, I may forget what I hear at the beginning by the time I am at the mid-way point. Or the notes may be played at such a tempo that I can not parse out what each hand is doing. But, I have found an app, called Tempo, that is very helpful to me in the beginning stages of learning a piece. I can download a performance of the piece into the Tempo app and play it at a slower tempo than the professional artist does. This way I can keep up with what is happening musically. I also can put the app on a loop around any section I find challenging and easily repeat it until I truly “hear” what is going on. Certainly, it is an app that is best used at the early stages of learning, along with the others you recommended, but it sure has helped me. Thanks for posting this on your blog. I think my favorite piano music CD is Leon Fleisher’s, Two Hands. Absolutely, magical playing!


    1. I wrote the following at Piano World in regard to your post: I teach by Skype.. but my assessment of this situation is not complete. Every teacher has convictions about teaching and sometimes the student/mentor match is not ideal. I mentor only adults at this point, but each student merits an approach that fits his or her needs. I frankly would not put the study of pieces on hold, in deference to focusing exclusively on technique, since the scales, arpeggios, etc should find expression or application in music with substance. Since I’m Classically oriented I would feed the scales into early sonatinas and relevant repertoire from other eras. It would not be a One size fits all program of learning.. It would accommodate the needs of a student.. I don’t want to criticize the current teacher but the student should certainly begin to discern what he might be missing in his piano study and go from there. By all means ask the teacher if you can move along with repertoire and allied technical work.


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