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“Listen to the Long Notes”

Five words resonated profoundly through a Masterclass given by Pianist, Andras Schiff at the Juilliard School. They framed a myriad of movements in Baroque, Classical, and Romantic eras.

Three students offered selections by Bach, Schubert and Schumann. (The event was Live-streamed)

While Beethoven did not grace the program, Maestro Schiff’s mentoring had far-reaching implications for piano teachers sifting through suggestions about attentive listening, phrasing, spacing, harmonic rhythm, instrumentation, voicing and much more. They flowed into repertoire well beyond the limits of programming.

In my domain of mentoring and eternal music-learning, the words, “Listen to the Long Notes” struck a riveting chord. The idea of hanging with a note, especially one that stood out as a destination in an unwinding melodic thread, was pivotal to beautiful phrasing. By coincidence, such instruction nicely trickled into a Classical work I’d been poring over.

The recurrent, heart-throbbing theme from Beethoven’s Adagio Cantabile, Sonata No. 8 in C minor, Op. 13 (“Pathetique”) was a Masterclass beneficiary.

The well-known middle movement, framed in Classical terms, but reaching toward full-blown Romantic effusion without over-exaggeration, requires “attentive listening” that underlies many dimensions of playing expressively.

The opening melody recurring in many musical “attires,” has a directional pull toward the very long notes that can be easily over-anticipated, or played before their time. (i.e. the dotted quarter note) Time, in this case, is not metronomically measured. It is has a breathing pulse that hearkens the arrival of a note in a fulfilling place. (The decay of a preceding one must be felt to its last in order to “know” kinesthetically and affectively what comes next.)

Instrumentation and voicing also apply to this universe of peak musical expression. (Schiff made many references to strings, trumpets, even percussion through his class that ignited the imagination of students who refined their thinking about phrasing.) His prompts and metaphors gave more context to their musical expression.

As pertains to the opening of Beethoven’s middle Adagio movement, a “violin” plays the lead melody within a Trio that includes a viola and cello. The viola renders wavy broken chord-like figures, while a significant underlying cello bass line provides a necessary Fundament-driven richness to the texture. Voicing decisions encompass how to balance the “instruments” especially as the “score” shifts to 4-voices, adding a “second violin.” By increasing the voices, the dynamics shift upward.

What needs formidable mention, notwithstanding Long Note to Long note emphasis, is an understanding of how harmonic flow or rhythm influence the crafting of phrases. (shaping, sculpting lines, etc.) A Dominant to Tonic progression suggests a dip down, but it can become a cliche if over-observed. Because there’s so much repetition of the theme, the idea of varying each statement, even with an unexpected diminuendo can create a heart ripple that is otherwise lost by rigid harmonic thinking.

And finally, without reference to supple wrists and relaxed arms, expressive music-making would be under-“played.”

While I’ve veered for a moment from the LISTEN to the LONG NOTES rubric, I’ve best communicated the value of Schiff’s all-embracing wisdom in my two video offerings.

1) A Play through of the Beethoven Adagio Cantabile

2) An analysis of theme repetition in the context of attentive listening that includes LONG NOTE awareness, scoring, notation, sequences, harmonic rhythm, dynamics, etc.

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Note: Juilliard Masterclasses (Andras Schiff and Murray Perahia) can be revisited at Medici-TV

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Keeping up our skills as piano teachers, with an “eye” to taking on challenges

I couldn’t resist juxtaposing the importance of learning new and challenging music with an “eye” toward how we can best accomplish our short and long-term goals within our teaching milieu. (The EYE metaphor becomes CLEARER and dual serving as the posting progresses.)

***

So many music teachers have a tight schedule of back-to-back students that precludes personal musical development. They’re caught in a tight squeeze, trying their best to keep up with the repertoire assigned to pupils, with the painful knowledge that they could use more than a spoonful of time to more deeply probe a Bach Fugue or a Beethoven Sonata movement.

Yet by not specifically setting aside daily periods for serious practicing, teachers are short-changing themselves and their students.

In my own professional development, I’ve been focusing on the J.S. Bach French Suites these past months– an undertaking sparked by an Online pupil in North Carolina who wanted to study the Allemande from French Suite No. 4 in E-flat BWV 814. Because I’d never worked on this particular movement, or the whole Suite No.4, I felt compelled to immerse myself deeply in the music so I could more effectively mentor the student. Otherwise, I would have been “winging it” without much depth.

The Allemande project led me to a set of independent discoveries within the total volume of French Suites. At first, I was drawn to movements that Murray Perahia had previewed in his you tube trailers where he covered all 6 of the French Suites. The last one in E Major caught my “eye” because it had an enchanting Courante and Bourree which I’d first explored before committing myself to a thorough study of the whole work.

(Without a doubt, the Sarabande proved to be a heart throb)

Perahia will play the French Suite No. 6 in E Major, BWV 817 during his appearance at Davies Hall, Sunday, April 25th. My pre-immersion in this composition will have deepened my understanding and subsequent revisit. It will keenly benefit my teaching on many introspective levels so the next student who embarks upon this work, will have the advantage of my intensified relationship to it.

***

An ongoing French Suite journey has brought even more musical growth opportunities. Sarabande from French Suite No. 1 in D minor, BWV 812,is a tender love note, filled with sadness that demands a sustained mood of pathos and tenderness.

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But my biggest learning challenge is embodied in the Gigue from French Suite No. 1 in D minor, BWV 812.

Upon first glance, the Gigue looked like an uphill climb with its complex rhythms and crossover voices from hand to hand. In fact, when I tapped into Perahia’s Trailer on this very D minor Suite which ends with a snatch of the Gigue, I realized it was DIFFERENT from all others I had encountered in Bach’s collection: The Gigue from French Suite in G Major, BWV 816 was one I had previously learned when a student asked to study it. In 12/16 time, it has the characteristic mood and motion associated with a Bach GIGUE while the D minor is a cut time (2/2), “triple fugue,” according to Perahia–a revelation that was invaluable to my assimilation of this work from the ground up.

In the first few days of my exploration, I knew tackling this Gigue would ignite a significant growth spurt–the kind that I welcome in my musical evolution. A triple fugue, with its internal complexity, was a big serving that required meticulous voice parceling and thoughtful, painstaking fingering decisions. (The internal trills and ornaments compounded the complex rhythmic overlay that I characterized in totality, as “a cow.”)

In a companion email to my students, I shared the agony and the ecstasy of my journey, putting an emphasis on this very COW aspect of my learning adventure. These pupils know by this time that I’m always looking for ways to notch up my skills, hoping my efforts will trickle down to their individual musical travels. The collaboration, we collective realize, is a two-way growth process.

Finally, with an EYE to taking these big leaps in our musical excursions, and making challenging opportunities for ourselves along the way, I conclude with what may seem to be a mix-and-match ADD-On. It suggests a FOCUS that we should be made aware of in our own playing and that of our pupils.

The attached video provides food for thought, suggesting a discussion about how we absorb, play, read, and retain music when sitting at the piano bench. It certainly factors into our whole creative learning process and how we shape our development as pianists and teachers.

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When a Virtual Piano Student becomes a Reality!

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Touchdown! Berkeley, California! An Online student landed in the East Bay just as the Carolina Panthers were bracing for a Super-Bowl match-up with the Denver Broncos in Santa Clara.

Sports-crazed fans were headed for a Big, crowded weekend with tailgate parties, packed hotels and traffic jams!

But my traveling, jet-lagged pupil from North Carolina had no interest in following the football event. Weeks in advance, she’d scheduled her LIVE lesson in Berkeley, with an additional request to sit in on one of my local student’s classes.

It was a slam dunk without a hitch as our scheduled doubleheader turned into spontaneous three-way sharing: an off-the-cuff exchange about LIVE lessons as compared to those transmitted Online. (by Skype and Face Time).

Naturally, April had experienced both sides of the lesson-receiving spectrum while Laura possessed a home-based perspective, and I had both.

So the inevitable outcome of our collective conversation was a recorded interchange without a shred of resemblance to the hair-raising mega-produced commercials that run full blast during Super-Bowl breaks.

This is the real deal, uncensored and refreshingly honest.

 

 

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Exploring Mozart Sonata No. 5 in G, K. 283 (First movement, Allegro)

The learning exchange between student and teacher is heightened when a new piece is introduced. In the case of Mozart’s charming, early period Sonata no. 5 in G, it became a revisit for me that brought new revelations that I shared during the course of weekly lessons.

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Mozart presents a challenge in capturing a singing tone that is emblematic of the opera. (From Wiki: “The work was written down during the visit Mozart paid to Munich for the production of his La finta giardiniera from late 1774 to the beginning of the following March.”)

At least when playing the opening allegro of K.283, even the Forte-pianos (f-ps), that might suggest more abrupt and decisive accents in Beethoven’s mid-period sonatas, are far more elegantly played in Mozart’s early sonata vocabulary so one should be able to sing them.

Bass notes in a parallel octave progression moving in an intensifying fashion seem to be yielding to those doubled in the treble, lest they sound too ponderous for the period. Therefore, one must respect a fine line of sensitivity in their execution.

Pianist, Murray Perahia speaks of the singing pulse in Mozart works, and I must agree. He states that a rubato lives within the composer’s music but not necessarily taken with such liberty as would apply to Chopin and the Romantics.

Finally, in my tutorial, I try to apply educated instincts and intuition to my exploration of the opening Allegro, K.283, with a focus on the singing tone, phrasing, harmonic rhythm and form.

The Exposition is naturally a springboard for my analysis of the whole movement that weaves in motivic and harmonic tie-ins.

Mozart Sonata K283 p. 1 Allegro 1

Mozart Sonata K283 p. 2 Allegro

Play Through:

Instruction:

From Wiki

“Piano Sonata No. 5 (Mozart)

“Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Piano Sonata No. 5 in G major, K 283 (189h) (1774) is a piano sonata in three movements:

Allegro
Andante
Presto

“This sonata is part of the earliest group of sonatas that Mozart published in the mid-1770s. The first movement is a sonata-allegro movement that is concise, with an economy of materials. The development section is a mere 18 measures long. The shorter length and moderate technical demands make it an ideal piece for early-advanced study and performance.

“A typical performance takes twelve to eighteen (Richter) minutes.”

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Piano Technique: Avoiding thumpy thumbs!

One of the biggest challenges for pianists, particularly in the staccato playing scale cosmos, is to avoid a downward, pack-a-punch “thumpy thumb!

This unwanted lead weight-loaded attack often interrupts a buoyantly springy journey, transforming it into crowded pile-up of space-less notes.

Yet it seems inevitable that the shortest finger of each hand would overcompensate for its size by adding clout to its arrival, unless the player deliberately deals with its over-assertion.

During a recent lesson with an adult student, a staccato romp in E Major imbued the “UP”-lift of the thumb to counter its fall down flat persona.

And a mental image of the “bouncy” rebound effect, with an infusion of UPWARD energy was enough to put the thumb in its proper place along the scale route. But it also needed to be folded into a finger family-centered smooth transit, not HANGING OUT, determined to throw its weight around.

In the universe of forearm staccato, we worked on the UP-ward release of the thumb in a slow, exaggerated tempo that “untangled” the scale. Eventually, it allowed a well-spaced, well-breathed out journey that was unencumbered by tension and nervous acceleration.

Our key lesson prompts were: “rebound effect, UP, short, springy, well-spaced out notes, FRAMING RHYTHM, composure, centering, relaxed breathing.”

Applying the unobtrusive thumb to practicing Bach Invention 1 in C Major, BWV 772:

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An Adult Piano Student teaches the Teacher

Awakenings alternately occur between teacher and student, especially if they’re collectively open to them. And embracing this sharing spirit, I welcome ideas from pupils about phrasing, technique, etc. since we enjoy a common journey of discovery.

By chance, one student brought a “new” fingering for his assigned D Major arpeggio in 10ths, and it worked so well that I tried it and liked it. Naturally, it wove its way into my recommended repertoire of fingerings and became an ever-flowing gift to other pupils.

In the White, Black, White stream of root position arpeggios  that use LH  5, 3, 2, 1, 3, 2, 1, etc. against RH 1, 2, 3, 1, 2, 3, 1, etc.. in the sequence for example of D  F# A,  D  F# A,  D  F# A, D instead of using the Right Hand fingering as a springboard for tenths, where RH F# A  D  F#  A  D  F# would enlist 2, 3, 1, 2,  3, 1, 2, etc. my student suggested for the same Right Hand sequence  2, 1, 2, 4, 1, 2, 4, 1, 2, 4, etc. which provided an inner symmetry between the hands and a nice RH spill into the last octave without an awkward thumb shift at the peak turnaround. (The “new” fingering explored also applies to A Major and E Major arpeggios in 10ths)

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The video below examines the feasibility of the revised fingering, showing its ease especially in brisk tempo. And where a crescendo to the peak note is needed, the RH 1, 2, 4 spread of fingers in the last octave is particularly defining. Viewing the hands together dimension there are convenient chord blocks in respective hands that if practiced in a parceled way, will aid fluency. And once the sequence plays out in broken chord fashion these symmetries will kick nicely into the speed zone.

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Piano Maintenance: Resolving a weighty problem

Chuck at work (Crop)

Chuck Terpo, who continues to finely regulate my Steinway M grand, gave an encore performance yesterday, as he meticulously “lightened” some weighty bass notes. His nifty maneuvers on display in my iPhone generated video, revealed an analytic approach and smooth follow-through.

Watch Chuck methodically check the bass range, that was a bit too heavy for me by comparison to the balance of tenor, alto and treble registers.

Using the principle of the seesaw, the masterful tech applied a small lead weight to a particular juncture of the keys under evaluation, and made each one depress with less resistance.

The whole process, so riveting to observe, deserved exposure among teachers, students and piano lovers so here it is:

PLAYING RESULTS:

My evening piano lesson on forearm and finger staccato provided an easier “feel” terrain in the bass range.

LINKS:

http://www.chuckterpopianoservice.com

https://arioso7.wordpress.com/2015/08/04/my-steinway-m-piano-is-back/

https://arioso7.wordpress.com/2015/08/01/my-piano-assessment-adventure-at-walnut-creeks-steinway-piano-gallery/