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Gems of wisdom about piano playing from Lisitsa!

My hopes were dashed for posting a Back to Bach blog when I sprang upon a 4 minute feast to my ears! It was so pertinent to our lives as music teachers, where we must put words to real time demonstrations at the piano– searching for the right balance that will amply communicate an idea about a phrase, or an approach to the very opening breath of sound.

In this video, Valentina Lisitsa excels at this pairing of playing samples with a running commentary.

Besides engaging our ears in an ultra attentive journey, the feedback of “feel” and the “loop” between “feel” and “listening” are so nicely examined by the pianist.

The hear it before you play it mantra so memorably shared by the late Leon Fleisher, goes a a step further through an experimental approach of “mindful” practicing that a player explores in steps. (Lisitsa delivers artful playing samples as she weds these to how and why they sound so poignantly expressive.) Sometimes she will make her point through the dire contrast of flattening phrases, revealing the antithetical percussive nature of the instrument. It’s clear that the player must find a way to rise above the mechanics of hammers hitting strings.

In creating “color,” shades, and nuance, Lisitsa amply fleshes out a “voicing” balance between hands in Chopin’s Db Nocturne, Op. 27, No. 2. By leaning toward the Right Hand, sculpting the melody, giving it a principle vocal role, she wraps the Left Hand in a warm bed of intertwining broken chord harmony that doesn’t overshadow the soprano!

During a lesson framing of Chopin’s Nocturne in Eb, Op. 9, No. 2, I found myself in the same cosmos, trying to improve a student’s phrasing. Besides working with relaxed arms and supple wrists, I realized that the pupil’s Left Hand was out performing the Right Hand, creating the very imbalance that Lisitsa referenced. With an adjustment in “voicing,” enlisting arm weight variation, and encouraging keen listening in a satisfying “loop” of feel/hear, the student’s phrasing improved.

Though the Lisitsa segment was an excerpt of a larger masterclass, I’m sure the pianist had eventually addressed the “breath” in piano playing that’s one of my regular lesson infusions. In this universe I draw on Mildred Portney Chase’s Just Being at the Piano with its self-hypnotic prompts of Oneness in our relationship to the piano and music-making.

As a complement to what Lisitsa meaningfully imparted, I located one of my lesson videos that focuses on the ingredients of a singing tone, integrating the breath into relaxed, flowing motions of the arms and wrists. Naturally, at the core of this posting is the very attentive listening dimension that’s central to Lisitsa’s feedback loop.

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