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One grand piano in, and another out, but not forgotten

My tiny Berkeley apartment had been shrinking by increments with its herd of tight-squeezed grand pianos and digital keyboards. Count in a Baldwin grand acquired in April, 2015; a medium size Steinway grand (5’7″) bequeathed by my father after Oberlin graduation, and two side-by-side digital keyboards–YDP 105, and Yamaha Arius 141. The electronics were fun to play in the wee hours of the morning, with a snug pair of earphones to ensure privacy.

In truth, I had no real need to seal off my practicing from an appreciative audience of neighbors. Many admitted to eavesdropping–pressing their ears against my door, to savor a “free” concert of diverse timbres.

Why, then would I want to add a 6’2″ grand to my overflowing, “colorful” instrument collection?

I had no intention of allowing a tenuous keyboard situation to spiral out of control, until one Saturday, a neighbor’s baritone voice boomed through my door, announcing with urgency that “a Steinway A grand piano” was the centerpiece of a nearby Estate sale.

Instantly, I recognized the Letter “A,” like a dog sniffing out and pursuing a tantalizing beef bone– the impetus of which triggered a Pavlovian response.

I sprang out the door, running like a fiend to the McGee Street framed house only a block away, in hot pursuit of a prized instrument that I’d fantasized about since adolescence.

***

 

The ebony grand with lid open, was a 1911 model, making a stately appearance, and begging to be sampled. In a heartbeat, I was seated at the piano bench, running my fingers over its immaculate set of original ivories that afforded a fluid passage from phrase to phrase.

Steinway full view

Ivory keys

The piano sang like a nightingale and was smooth as silk to the touch. It sparked an impulse to possess it that barred a shred of doubt and common sense.

It was a mad love frenzy that sent me scrambling for my check book.

But first I’d dispatch a technician for a piano inspection.

His thorough assessment came within hours, and was so remarkably positive, that I sensed the man’s imminent, if not fantasized desire to rob the cradle of my future piano-playing pleasure.

I responded with a hasty offer aimed to thwart a bid by side-by-side salivating contenders. A few had huddled around me as I sampled the ‘A,’ with servings of Romantic era repertoire– the last offering was the first tableau from Schumann’s Scenes of Childhood. (Kinderszenen, “Of Foreign Lands and People.” )

As I inhabited my ethereal playing universe, a Chinese couple had edged close to the keyboard, breaking a spellbound immersion with a barrage of questions about the ‘A.’ They wanted to know if they should purchase it.

With a tiny, transparent sales slip chugging slowly out of a machine, I quickly sealed my ownership of ‘A’ and promptly contacted the piano movers .

While the logistics of containing THREE grands in a pod-size space were beyond my comprehension, I chose to let my fever pitch excitement abate before making a final decision about the fate of my PIANOS.

Somberly, I concluded that Steinway ‘M’ had to go with its modest, though resonant voice that matched its “medium” size and proportion.

My ads for an adoptive family spread far and wide in neighborhood Online listings. ‘M’ would either be placed in a temporary home with a suitable environment, or be sent to climate-controlled storage in a bumpy ride to Oakland. The latter seemed like a death sentence.

Israel Stein, my retired technician had e-mailed me a set of valuable recommendations that supported the well-being of my ‘M.’ These were borrowed and inserted in my posts.

“1. Keep it out of direct sunlight – always. (“only an hour or so per day” is just as damaging).
“2. Keep it away from open windows and doors (especially in the winter)
“3. Keep it away from heat sources (radiators, heat vents, space heaters, etc.)
“4. Keep it away from steam, vapor, and other excess moisture (in today’s “open” floor plans, pianos often get subjected to kitchen steam and vapor).

“Unfortunately,” he emphasized, “people too often placed pianos in accordance with their home decor needs, not considering what was good for the piano.”

My ardent pursuit of a caretaker took many twists and turns.

One eager prospect, was a song writer with admirable credentials. She and her composer husband who lived about 2 miles from Steinway ‘M,’ almost became its temporary parents, but for their open kitchen in close proximity to the grand. The gas heat, and vapor would swell the soundboard, ushering in a compensatory contraction. Their bedroom was at first a possibility for containment, but ‘M’ could not fit into the small space.

Other wooing adoptive applicants were ruled out by radiators, and very young children. Still, I was clinging to the hope that perhaps my neighbors down the walkway would agree to take my ‘M’ in exchange for piano lessons bestowed upon their chirpy 8-year old daughter who sang past my door each day. It was her dad who had first alerted me to Steinway ‘A.’

***

Through this whole, foster care-seeking process, I felt more than a shred of guilt for abandoning ‘M’ though I knew that it was time for ‘A’ to claim the rightful space that had been taken up by ‘M’ these many years.

To my great relief, my neighbors came through in the wee hours of the morning with a text that they would take ‘M’! And that’s how the piano shuffle began.

(‘A’ now sits snugly beside ‘B’ (Baldwin) in my music room, as ‘M’ is resting comfortably in her neighboring abode)

side by side piano best

 

Finally, piano lessons will soon start where ‘M’ resides, and I’ll keep my ties to a piano that will not be forgotten.

Little girl in front of M

LINK
http://www.mcpianomove.com/mccreas_piano_moving/McCreas.html

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Mirrors and piano playing

As we age, we’re reluctant to look at our reflection in the mirror, but as we grow over time as musicians, the mirror of our playing in recorded “reflections” can foster quality adjustments in phrasing and interpretation.

If we nudge ourselves to step back and be “objective” about what we’re hearing, we may try to amend our next playing so it’s not a static, unaltered repeat of the last.

When I observe my own false starts, phrase imbalances, thumb pokes, and breath-short measures, I aim to improve these shortcomings by studying physical and musical dimensions that must be intertwined and synthesized.

***

In a separate but related universe, Alfred Brendel, renowned pianist, puts a negative spin on the “finished” recording, while his comments upon careful scrutiny, support the self-educational value of making longitudinal student recordings. (While these exist in an “unfinished” form, being raw and home-based, they still have significant redeeming value)

In the following abridged paragraph of his newly released book, Music, Sense and Nonsense, the celebrated pianist bemoans the “impalement” by the public of renderings that permanently emblematize player. Yet amidst a string of professionally recorded efforts, Brendel appreciates an evolution of artistry that ripens over time– permeated by modified creative perceptions.

“But a recording is… simply the fixing of a moment.. so the artist should have the right to identify his work within a certain phase of his development… (And) it is only the continuous renewal of his vision – either in the form of evolution or of rediscovery – that can keep his music-making young.”

The last sentence fits perfectly into the paradigm of enlisting recordings to illuminate a particular developmental phase and to move it along to the next with sensitive adjustments and acquired awakenings. These flow through an artistically dynamic chain of youth-preserving efforts that should draw students toward recorded reflections of their playing, not away from them.

For piano teachers who evolve beside their students in a comparable growth process, home-created recordings can mirror efforts that are undergoing constant refinement without their needing “fixed” deadline arrivals, or contrived makeovers to mimic youth appeal that has no depth or substance. (i.e. fast and furious top-layer playing without thought, emotion or REFLECTION.)

***
As a footnote to this discussion on the value of recordings in the learning environment, I offer a Student/Mentor mirrored-back lesson sample. (In teaching this Bach Invention repetitively, I will, no doubt, alter my ideas in consonance with an ever-changing process embedded in refined artistic illumination. The same metamorphoses will apply to the student.)

J.S.Bach Invention 13 in A minor:

LINK

http://www.theguardian.com/books/2015/sep/24/music-sense-and-nonsense-alfred-brendel-collected-essays-lectures-review-alan-rusbridger

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Livia Rev, pianist, ripens with age

Livia Rev at piano

Livia Rev, a seasoned pianist, ripened by her 99 years on earth, drew my attention during a You Tube search for performances of Chopin’s Nocturne in F Major, Op. 15. (It was at a time when I was studying and teaching the composition.)

The middle section of this work has a notable turbulent emotional shift that’s reflected in a technically challenging set of forte measures in F minor. They come with punctuated accents, and alternating, broken 6ths, 5ths, alongside larger intervals, etc. These roll over a tremulous bass carrying a melodic line that in conjunction with the relentless treble “accompaniment” above, break the spell of the opening “Nocturnal” tranquillity. (Often performers will race the tempo at this juncture in heightened displays of technical prowess.) And sometimes at break neck speed, the interlude can become a continuous blur with little definition, meaning or musical consequence.

nocturne-in-f-major-op-15-p-2

To the contrary, Maestra Lev, in her performance, resisted the temptation to significantly accelerate the parallel minor section, and instead paced it according to her artistic sensibility, still convincingly realizing the mood transition intended! (Unfortunately, this particular Chopin Nocturne video has been removed from Rev’s you tube archives)

Upon reviewing the pianist’s discography, I discovered that many of her performances have been recorded on Naxos and Hyperion labels and can be accessed accordingly.

***
Into the Present

A Hungarian born pianist, now living in Paris, Rev still teaches piano at high intensity, keeping a repository of technical skills wedded to expressive musicianship that’s shared among her international cadre of students.

In an enviable mentoring example, Livia demonstrates the supple wrist as an ally to beautiful phrasing, (This is a physical/musical hallmark of her approach to the piano)

 

In the following performance of Czerny studies, Op. 821, the pianist amply puts her ideas into practice in a display of her flexible wrist that often bends beneath the so-called “acceptable” level, inviting critics in pedagogical circles, to decry “the dangerous broken wrist approach.” Nevertheless, Rev’s playing philosophy has worked well for her, and for generations of students who have absorbed her focused concentration and sagacious comments.

REV’s BIO: (WIKI)
Lívia Rév (born July 5, 1916) is a classical concert pianist.

“Rév was born in Budapest, Hungary. She started her studies with Margit Varro and Klara Mathe. Aged nine, she won the Grand Prix des Enfants Prodiges. Aged twelve she performed with an orchestra. She studied with Leo Weiner and Arnold Székely at the Franz Liszt Academy of Music, with Professor Robert Teichmüller at the Leipzig Conservatory, and with Paul Weingarten at the Vienna Conservatory, having left Hungary in 1946.

“Rév lives in Paris, with her husband Pierre Aubé.

“She has won the Ferenc Liszt International Record Grand Prix.

“Rév has performed across Europe, in Asia, Africa, and in the United States. She has been the soloist with conductors such as Sir Adrian Boult, André Cluytens, Jascha Horenstein, Eugen Jochum, Josef Krips, Rafael Kubelík, Hans Schmidt-Isserstedt, Constantin Silvestri, and Walter Susskind.

“Her first US appearance was in 1963 at the invitation of the Rockefeller Institute.

“She is well known for her light touch and clarity. Her recordings vary from complete Debussy Préludes, Chopin Nocturnes, to Mendelssohn Songs without Words.”

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Schumann’s “Almost Too Serious” (Kinderszenen No. 10) requires get serious, step-wise practicing

When I first looked at a “seriously” complex page of dizzying tied-over (syncopated) notes in Schumann’s “Almost Too Serious,” (Fast Zu Ernst) I had a knee-jerk avoidance response–that is until I tapped into a permeating melodic thread that I isolated and wooed from its conspicuous alliance to myriads of off beats.

Fast zu ernst p. 1

Fast zu ernst p. 2

In other words, I simplified my journey in a baby-step voice parceling manner, de-intensifying a threat to learning a gorgeous harmonic mosaic that’s spun from broken chords and affectionately supportive syncopations. (I’m sure the composer’s passionate unraveling harmonies were a reflection of his love for a uniquely beautiful, self-created outpouring in the somber chosen key of G# minor)

First things first in approaching the tableau:

A behind tempo practicing approach to what looks rhythmically challenging is the only sensible antidote to anxiety that many adult students have when they perceive a score riddled with unusually foreign-looking notational strands.

And to allay their fears as well as my own, I set out to piece out “Almost too Serious” in a purposeful step-wise manner with a learning guide intention, blazing a trail that my students and others could follow without trepidation.

***

Various practicing constellations are explored in my video

1) Identify a treble line melodic thread–and practice in slow tempo with relaxed arms, supple wrists and a permeating singing tone.

2) Isolate (play) the alto line notes

3) Play the fundamental bass notes throughout the composition

4) Block three-note 16th groupings in the bass, that appear after the downbeat in each measure. (These will eventually unfold in broken-chord fashion, using ROTATION to avoid tension, and to play musically.)

5) All through the step-wise learning process identify keys and harmonic transitions (or modulations).

6) Listen for and tab suspensions/passing dissonances and how they resolve.

7) In the course of layered-up practicing, examine the BALANCE of voices as they are sewn together.

8) Explore the ritardandos at various cadences and practice relaxed breathing at bridges across measures with fermati (extra holds), to avoid “gasps” between phrases.

9) Pedaling as the final polish should be sensitive to dissonances, not causing conspicuous blurring of harmonic resolutions.

The aforementioned are suggestions that can be “seriously” supplemented along the way, but always with a defining awareness that the Romantic era singing approach to this music is at the core of practicing it.

My Instruction:

Play Through:

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The Anatomy of a Scale

If you want to pick your brain, ultra-analyzing a scale: finding symmetries, asymmetries, reciprocals, common tones with common fingers, upside down, inside-out relationships between the hands, and anything else that will solidify it, you might add an extra few senility-proof years to your life. Example: I can’t remember my neighbor’s first name, or my best friend in high school, but I can dissect all scales in the Circle of Fifths (Major and minor), taking them apart piece-by-piece and putting them back together in the holistic sense, guaranteeing their well-being in brisk tempo.

As an example, I offer my latest dissection of Ab Major, bestowed by a generous donor from the piano student population, whose interest in advancing  micro-exams of scales produced a mega-analysis beyond his wildest dreams. And in this essential post-mortem, after the scale was D.O.A. (dead on arrival), I posted a homework assignment for the catastrophe-prone pupil: Chart the 4-octave spree based on all the nit-picky relationships fleshed out in the attached video.

Once completed, he will diligently practice the scale, enlisting faith and determination, combining all the brain/brawn power necessary to resurrect it.

Ab Major:
Basic fingering, two octaves: (4 flats: Bb, Eb, Ab, Db)

Ab Scale two octaves

Bonus Scale exam: F# minor (Natural form)

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Two San Francisco musical attractions: Pianist, Trifonov and a Chinese Harpist

Within 48 hours, high-level music-making was heard in vastly different venues.

Louise Davies Hall with its golden hue of lights and balconies provided a stunning backdrop for Daniil Trifonov’s heart-throbbing performance of Chopin’s Concerto No. 2 under the baton of Michael Tilson Thomas.

Trifonov poster crop

balcony of Davies

Big hall gold

trifonov facing concertmaster

Respighi’s Roman Festivals that concluded the concert, pierced the sound barrier in percussive outbursts, while the featured pianist, to the contrary, had taken explicit care to melt his lyrical phrases with a pervasive singing tone.

Following his mellifluous Chopin, Trifonov rippled through an encore demonstrating his unconstrained virtuosity.

As if this was not enough of a musical banquet, I found myself the following day, at an opposite polarity when I encountered a Chinese harpist at the BART Powell station.

Chinese harp and player

According to the player, the instrument is notably ancient:
“The Guzheng musical instrument originated during the Warring states period (475—211B.C) in China and its tones sound like high mountain waves and continuous water flowing. It has been played over 2500 years.”

The harpist’s supple wrist was as graceful as Trifonov’s fluid approach to the pianoforte and to be sure, both understood the singing tone and how to produce it.

I noted the Chinese musician’s Internet Channel and her charming rendition of a song about a horse which simultaneously evoked a duet that Lang Lang had performed with his father, mid-point in the pianist’s Carnegie Hall debut recital. These offered a nice comparison of instrumental timbres.

http://zither88.wix.com/melody

“Horse Racing”

http://zither88.wix.com/melody#!videos/c9qb

Here’s Lang Lang and his dad playing “Competing Horses” which displays an ancient Chinese string instrument known as the erhu.

Without doubt China has a rich and diverse culture of musical expression that takes many ancient and modern instrumental forms.

Finally, it was a pleasure to experience a street musician and one inhabiting a concert hall in the course of two well spent journeys to San Francisco.