great pianists, great pianists speak, piano, piano blog

“Great pianists speak about imagination and the singing approach”

I’m grateful to Pianist/Teacher Emma Leiuman for posting this recorded ensemble of inspired voices.

Leon Fleisher, Daniel Barenboim, Gyorgy Sebok and Arthur Rubinstein share an approach to music-making that is devoid of mechanics, didactics, and methodology. They speak about a cosmos of internally imagined tonal images, emotions, colors, and orchestration that spring from the keyboard’s vast repository.

For Sebok, contouring of lines with shapes, swells, nuances, have a group dynamic that reflects in freedom of the arms, hands and wrists, as opposed to restricted finger-centered activity. (The pianist’s influence on my own teaching cannot be overemphasized as my students constantly hear me rhapsodizing about playing well beyond the fingers.) Too often pupils think of “hitting” the right notes as being the centerpiece of learning, without allowing the breathing space to hear before they play (Fleisher), to take the time to practice silently with a sense of inner calm and contemplation.


In the late 1960’s, I was privileged to attend one of Sebok’s Masterclasses at the Oberlin Conservatoy, where his fluidly expressive relationship to the piano drew on the imagination as well as upon the physical resources that freed the arms, wrists and hands of tension. Each stroke of the keys had a follow-through as if he was mesmerized by the very rainbow he envisioned in the video collage. It was an illusive reference, but nonetheless an important ingredient of poetic expression wedded to the singing tone.

Sebok’s philosophy and demonstrations were most memorable as he sat beside a student who was trapped in a self-made, note-perfect, finger-generated speed zone, only to be enlightened by the maestro, who effortlessly breathed out a set of phrases, with groupings that flowed through his hands in a sculpted manner. He then modeled how one can enter a note with a delay, giving the illusion of the very glissando that pianists believe is out of their reach.

I often use the violin or the human voice as an analogous to playing beautiful phrases at the piano.

With a bow, one can apply pressure to the string or lighten it to vary dynamics and phrasing. And with vibrato, one can intensify a note or notes. A string player can control the speed of the bow which can be physically observed. (Pianists can think about the violin when phrasing– bowing with their right hand, applying various weight transfer into the keys, even thinking about vibrato in an abstract way. There are cello sections in Bach’s Keyboard Prelude in F minor, BWV 881, for instance, that evoke deeply drawn “bowed slurs” in two, that if consciously explored in the BASS, can expand the depths of interpretation.

In the vocal universe, singers control their breathing and infuse notes with increased or less air flow, and though their internal apparatus is not visible to the listener, they nonetheless display organic/biological, respiration dependent resources that we can more readily appreciate than that which pertains to a pianist who’s often short shifted as deprived of a “real connection” to his instrument. (It’s based on the distance of the player from from the strings, and how hammers must be activated by finger-generated efforts) But pianists must be eternal SINGERS and not be dismissed as technique bound, keyboard wizards.

In this regard, I watched a Masterclass with a celebrated trumpet player who winced when looking over at the accompanist (collaborator), saying that pianists don’t have the ability to express what brass and woodwind players can via their instruments. (Naturally, I didn’t hesitate to email the Masterclass Foundation CEO about my disagreement and offense, after which I received a note of apology)

Pianists are full-breathing, expressive musicians when they become aware of their potential to Hear before they Play; to appreciate the “illusions” that are embedded in a beautiful performance, and to cultivate their imaginations allied to physical movement, shapes, forms that are born of supple, relaxed, uninterrupted fluid motions whether in Legato, staccato, or combined, articulations, etc. But like all musicians, they have to explore their inner consciousness and rise above the mechanics of their instrument, imbuing a “singing” model in their playing, even when detractors insist otherwise. (I refer readers to my blog posting on Emanuel Ax’s view of playing ONE note and whether a pianist can vary it through various physical approaches.)


Finally, as a coda to the inspired words of the masters as expressed in this posting’s opener, I add this personal favorite:

P.S. Reprised gratitude to Emma Leiuman for posting the you tube video of Great Pianists’ musings.


Emma Leiuman: The Art of Piano Technique

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