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Pianist, Beth Levin weighs in on Competitions


Beth Levin is more than a pianist. She not only concertizes, records, presents symposia and teaches, but devotes quality time to arts commentary. At La, she critiqued Schumann’s Kreisleriana in tribute to an era she embraces in her spread of LIVE performances and recordings.


(Imported photos and video produced by Randolph Pitts)

And not surprisingly, even her FACEBOOK entries rise above run-of-the-mill social networking updates. They’re engaging snippets of poet laureates, distinguished authors, great composers, golden age piano pedagogues and memorable musical performances.

With her inquisitive mind in high gear, I thought to tap into her thoughts about piano competitions since she’d once been an entrant at a celebrated European venue.

1) What are your feelings about piano competitions? Of what use are they in today’s cultural universe?

I think the desire to be heard is very strong in almost any talented young person and a competition can be an excellent goal and outlet for those artistic ambitions. But a teacher should be careful in judging the personality of his or her student- if she might be scarred by losing and not able to take it in stride I would say not to enter that pupil. I remember being so perfectly prepared by my teacher for a Philadelphia Orchestra Young Person’s audition. I won and it fueled many years of study, performing and the love of playing.

As an aside I went to the Leeds Competition on my honeymoon! Not something I would recommend.

2) Did you have to enter a competition along your journey as a performing

I don’t think competitions are necessary to a career. I remember at Music from Marlboro a very promising cellist deciding not to enter the Tchaikovsky Competition simply because losing was too great a risk. Today he has a flourishing career and achieved it without a competition. Each case is different. If one has a burning desire to enter then it is the right thing to do- otherwise I think one can find alternate paths to a career.

3) What is the best way to expose your art to the public? Are LIVE piano recitals a thing of the past? (Being so costly to present, etc.)

Personally I like to both perform LIVE and record. Recital series seem to be shrinking but New York City has a few intimate (and economical) halls and there are excellent piano festivals around the country. Chamber music is a large part of my musical life and performing it LIVE is always a thrill. Nothing can replace a LIVE performance.

4) How do you feel about Mp3s and Mp4s as vehicles for your music?

Mp3′s and Mp4′s can be very useful in certain cases and provide another way to be heard. But I think it is still worthwhile to make a good CD.

5) Would you prefer to play LIVE than make recordings?

Playing LIVE and recording are two sides of the same coin. Presenting a recital program in several venues and honing it; then recording it down the road makes sense.

(Beth revealed a lighter side, by inserting a colorful quote of Sergiu Celibidache, distinguished former conductor of the Munich Philharmonic. He said, “Recording was like going to bed with a picture of Brigitte Bardot ;->”)

Our conversation steered quickly back to the serious side of music-making and its career challenges.

6) How can a gifted musician survive economically given the competitive cosmos of pianists who win competition after competition and still find themselves spinning wheels looking for more contests to enter?

I think that having a full musical life is more important in the end than making a huge living from it. Luck may play the largest role in that particular sphere. But if one can keep learning, studying, teaching, playing and loving their art- the benefits will come. Competitions should never become the reason for making music.

7) What is your current creative undertaking?

I’m preparing a recital program to play and record in Munich and Vienna in the Fall of 2014. The repertoire is Kreisleriana of Schumann, the C minor sonata of Schubert D.958 and an unpublished work, Versione, by the Swedish composer, Anders Eliasson.

8) Can you provide background on why you have chosen particular repertoire
to perform/record?

I think my main influences, Rudolf Serkin and Leonard Shure contributed greatly to my love of Beethoven, Brahms, Schumann, Schubert, etc. The recording I made of the Goldberg Variations was a complete anomaly. I’ve always been a kind of big, romantic player.

9) What do you see in your future as far as playing, teaching, and

I hope to keep recording, performing live and perhaps even to a greater extent in the future. I hope I will teach more and more in older age.

Many thanks for the chance to think about these important topics.


Beth Levin’s Website
Her album, A Single Breath: Beethoven’s Last Three Piano Sonatas is listed among others.
Beth Levin, pic, A Single Breath

Chopin Prelude in E Minor Op. 28 no. 4, Frederic Chopin, piano, playing piano, word press, word, wordpress,, you tube, you, yout tube,

Play the piano like it’s a violin (Thoughts on practicing Chopin’s Prelude in E minor, Op. 28 no. 4)

At a recent Skype lesson to Greece I found myself drawing on violin bow analogies to make a point that as pianists we have to DRAW out certain notes, by DELAYING our entry into them. For a string player, the process would be easily understood. He places the bow at the frog, (as opposed to the TIP) and makes a slight hesitancy before applying pressure into the string, sinking into it with a lush sound. The bow can produce a full length stroke in one timbre, or just as easily, it can “lighten” up depending on physical pressure exerted by the player’s arm and wrist.

I studied fiddle for at least 6 years, and crossed over to the piano, retaining many of the color change techniques associated with string playing.

When I practiced Chopin’s Prelude in E minor, Op. 28 No. 4, I envisioned a violin soloist playing the treble line, and an accompanist (pianist) providing the harmonic (chordal) underpinning. In this composition the HARMONIC Rhythm (rate at which chords change) directly affects melodic shaping and phrasing.

Others might imagine a soprano in the starring role, with the accompanist doing double duty.

At today’s lesson, I explored the slow entry into notes, particularly those dotted halves, (3 beat duration) that follow an upbeat quarter note. If the player just pokes these longer notes, and holds them for 3 counts, without a second thought, the listener will not appreciate the “color” change that embodies these swelling-with-feeling progressions.

For me, the most glaring underlying motif is the descending melodic second, CB, CB, CB etc continuing in sequence, in a “sighing” gesture that’s transformed by the harmonic changes under each.. And later in the piece there’s a transposition to a MAJOR 2nd F# E. Totally amazing strand.. I love relationships like these.. and discovering them.. passing them on to my students. (Don’t forget a glaring deceptive cadence V to Vi at measures 20-21) The heartfelt harmonic pull of this Prelude is compelling, along with its moving along in TWO… not in FOUR.. again I emphasize the “lift” of the second impulse, though harmonic considerations take precedence at any point in the composition over a discernible metrical pattern.

The Prelude, therefore, is about divine harmonic shifts and their impact on a simple foreboding and doleful melodic progression.

Having said this, it was natural to recommend that the student come “UNDER” the longer notes with a dipping wrist (in slow motion) and follow through with a forward movement. It was my string persona reaching into the keyboard universe, realizing emotional shifts through a physical translation of movement. For a violinist the bow arm is the conspicuous choreographer.

Pianists should learn from string players–from violinists and cellists in particular. They like other members of the string family, are organically connected to their instruments because of a direct, physical relationship to the sound source.

Pianists, on the other hand, are separated from string contact, and activate hammers to strike strings mounted on the “harp.” In truth, they’re more than an arm’s length from where the action is. (pun intended)

It’s no surprise therefore, that many armchair musicians will classify the piano as a percussion instrument.

Yet those in the know, who are POETS at the piano, will affirm that pianists can get around mechanical challenges through their imagination and will. (The physical and emotional bond together in the act of creation)

At this juncture, I will refer readers to my blog about what pianists can learn from string players followed by two video postings. The interview with a renowned cellist is compelling:

The first is my most recent performance of Chopin Prelude in e minor, based on an awareness of the piano’s capability to SING, if not, CRY like a violin.

The second is a SKYPE supplement to my “LIVE” lesson today, where I explored ways to practice the Chopin’s E minor Prelude, Op. 28 no. 4, making a direct reference to the violin and use of the bow.

Skype lesson-in-progress (Excerpt)