Pianist, Leon Fleisher has given us his notable artistry over decades, while his insights about practicing and teaching have been invaluable for a vast community of mentors and students.
In his latest interview that coincided with the release of a new album, All the Things You Are, Fleisher spoke eloquently about the intrinsic relationship of vocal modeling and beautiful musical expression at the piano:
“I think, possibly … especially for pianists, to think in terms of ‘vocal.’ If you can sing something, and I don’t mean to sing all the notes, because the range of the piano is way beyond one person, but if you can sing the music, articulate it, then you can play it.
“One of the great challenges of a pianist is that every other instrument (I discount mallet instruments), violin to double bass, piccolo down through tuba, they have three things to think about: they have to think about how they attack the note; they have to think about how they support the note; and they have to think about how they stop the note. Most pianists just think of the first of those three, how they are going to attack the note, and not even all of them think about that. If they can expand their approach, new revelations will appear. You would be amazed how seldom one comes upon somebody who thinks in those terms or makes music on the piano in those terms.”
Fleisher has also given us the mantra, “Hear it Before you Play It,” which is an internalization of what the pianist imagines in sound before placing his fingers on the keys. (The opening notes of a composition are not haphazard, but instead, are planned in advance in the psyche.)
While the aforementioned ideas (including vocal modeling) are essential to a well-meaning approach to the piano, a student journeying through the masterworks with the counsel of teacher, needs MORE than a vocal paradigm to make significant progress toward sensitive music-making.
For example, once a pupil can “sing” what he wants to produce at the piano, he needs to know HOW to realize his own model which will encompass a host of ingredients that are included in the following set of questions:
1) What are the physical means to the end? Are there blocks to freedom of expression because of tension in the arms and wrists that need to be identified? What about the breath? Does the vocal model suggest places to breathe in the natural ebb and flow of a phrase? Is the breath short due to tension which inhibits free expression?
What about the nuts and bolts of playing staccato, legato in complex strands of notes? These surely warrant modeling by the teacher at the piano. (How are notes “grouped,”or “spaced?”) What about “Rotation” and its effect on phrasing. etc. A pupil, needs hands-on knowledge that a mentor needs to provide. These encompass issues of traction and weight transfer into the keys, etc.
What role does the pedal play in beautiful phrasing? These require demonstrations as well. (Again, vocal modeling is not enough, but ATTENTIVE LISTENING and harmonic understanding are a must.)
2) Is faulty rhythmic framing blocking the flow of what is internalized? Are legato triplets, for example sounding angular and choppy? If they are, then it follows that a teacher must enlighten a pupil about the “color” and motion of these threads and how they can be liberated in a seamless, horizontal flow. (Teacher demonstrations at the piano can include supple wrist grouping of notes.)
If a fundamental beat is non-existent, or if a true “singing pulse is absent,” a student needs to understand what is causing note crowding, undirected accelerations, or interludes of lagging. Often a teacher will remedy such problems by “conducting” the student, simultaneously instilling a sense of shape and contour to musical lines.
3) Does a pupil comprehend the relationship of harmonic rhythm or flow of harmonies to phrasing? (cadences, modulations, etc.) Even with a well-defined vocal model, a student would still need to realize the dips in phrases that occur with various progressions (like Dominant to Tonic), or to understand the emotional ramifications of Deceptive cadences, parallel minor/or Major transitions.
Decays of notes also factor into phrasing. Is the student keenly aware of how what comes before affects what follows? What about sub-destinations and full destinations in a chain of measures?
How do dynamics, crescendos and decrescendo’s contribute to the sculpting of lines?
4) How does the historic period of a composition influence the whole approach to sound imaging? (Debussy vs. Bach; Mozart vs. Chopin) This opens up a universe of tonal variation and exploration. (Mental imagery contributes to a realization of a sound ideal.)
In truth there are so many ingredients in an artfully sensitive music-making process that just one central focus, like vocal modeling, is clearly not enough.
In exploring my archive of videos, I found two that resonated with a multi-dimensional approach to creating beauty at the piano.
1) Footage from the first sample is derived from my 2014 visit to New York City where I filmed Irina Morozova teaching one of her young students. (Franz Liszt La Leggierezza) The Special Music School/Kaufman Center.
2) Excerpts from an ONLINE lesson to Scotland: Felix Mendelssohn Venetian Book Song Op. 30 No. 6. (The split-screen recording is a valuable playback reference for the student)