Inspiration

The Transcriptions of Alexander Siloti

As an impressionable teenager I was awestruck by the incredible sounds Emil Gilels managed to draw from the piano in Alexander Siloti’s gorgeous Prelude in B minor, a transcription of Bach’s E minor Prelude that appears both in the Clavier-Büchlein für Wilhelm Friedemann Bach and as Prelude no. 10 from Book 1 of the Well-Tempered Clavier. The way Gilels let the melodic line emerge from the rippling accompaniment in the repeat without any trace of harshness made a huge impression on me. I now realise that Gilels’ performance was an object lesson in voicing and tone colour.  Siloti moves the music from Bach’s original key of E minor down to the darker key of B minor, and gives a repeat where the player has to change the texture and voicing. The first time through, we focus on the right hand semiquavers; on the repeat, we shine a light on the melody created by the left hand thumb (the semiquaver figuration now retreating into the background). According to the dedicatee, the composer’s daughter Kyriena Siloti, it was her father’s practice to leave out left hand arpeggiation the first time through, but to include it on the repeat so that the thumb line could be emphasised more easily.  Here is Bach’s original, played with great energy and quirkiness by Friedrich Gulda. And here is Gilels in Siloti’s transcription in a recording from a Berlin recital in 1965 (it was his last encore). If you love to play this transcription you might consider exploring some of the other Bach transciptions made by Siloti, and there are quite a few. Here is the Andante from the Sonata for solo violin, BWV 1003, played by Alessio Bax. I have on […]

Schumann’s Romance in F Sharp

In 1839, Clara Wieck received a Christmas present from her fiancé, Robert Schumann – a set of three Romances (published with some slight alterations the following year as opus 28). She was particularly smitten with the second one, describing it as “the most beautiful love duet”. Fast forward several decades to her deathbed, when Clara asked her grandson Ferdinand to play her husband’s F sharp major Romance for her. It was the last music Clara Schumann heard; she died on May 20, 1896. Robert Schumann’s Romance in F sharp major, op 28 no 2, remains one of the composer’s best-loved short pieces for the piano. In ternary form, the mood is contemplative, serene and tender in the outer sections, somewhat turbulent and dark in the middle section. It is an ideal repertoire piece for the intermediate student and I think it makes a great encore.  Written on three staves to make the main melodic line clear, the piece is still a bit of a trap when it comes to reading it (the key signature is six sharps, and there are plenty of accidentals along the way). Take care when learning the notes and you’ll find after a while that the plethora of black notes means the piece lies very well under the hands.   On closer inspection we find that the profiled melodic line is shadowed in the other hand, giving the sense of two companions staying close together. I hear two cellos, and I imagine Robert and Clara walking hand in hand. The arpeggiated chords radiate outwards from the melodic lines in such a beautiful (and very pianistic) way. The two melodic lines could be played using just the two thumbs, but you may find […]

Silent Movie

First published in March, 2015, I decided to republish this post on the importance of imagination in preparing for performance. ***   ***   *** Someone recently asked me what I think about when I am performing, and whether this is different from what I think about when I practise. Very good question – I am going to aim to address it here. When I practise, I need to listen very critically and analytically to what I am doing. Practising involves experimentation and working often in small sections at a variety of different speeds – with frequent stops.  Performing is all about letting go of self consciousness, getting into a flow state and communicating the message of the music to the listener. Essentially practising is more a thinking activity, and performance a feeling one. The critical inner voice is therefore necessary in practice, but a liability if we bring it with us onto the concert platform or the exam room. I don’t want to be consciously thinking about fingering or pedalling on the stage, or judging myself. Concentration is very necessary, but what is it that I’m concentrating on exactly? For more on the different states involved in practice and performance, follow this link to my blog post Cavaliers and Roundheads: Developing Performance Skills Total Immersion I once gave a class at which a student presented Des Abends from Schumann’s Fantasiestücke, Op. 12. She played accurately and fluently but she clearly hadn’t any idea of what the piece was all about. I asked her what the title meant, and she told me she didn’t know. I explained it was German for “of the evening” and that this was a gentle picture of dusk where atmosphere, calm and stillness are paramount. I […]

Why Perform? Resources for Pianists

I first published this post a few years ago, but I have recently been sent details of brand new piano meetup groups in the UK, and decided to republish this post with all the updates. Please let me know if you run a piano group and I will be happy to include your details. * * *   * * *   * * *  When we perform, we call on a different part of ourselves from when we practise or play alone, because these are completely different activities. The concert stage is no place for shrinking violets. In performance we need to project our ideas about the music – as well as our sound – outwards to the listener, and we must make sure we do this convincingly so they really get it! When we perform authoritatively we summon feelings of abandon, spontaneity, and creativity. These qualities are associated with right-brained activity, whereas practising relies on thoughtful, analytic procedures where we constantly evaluate – repeating and refining our results until we are satisfied they are correct. These are more left-brained activities. We must be prepared to go with the punches – there’s no point worrying about the piano, or that you weren’t happy with how you played that opening phrase. In practice we go back and get it right, in performance we have to accept what comes out and just deal with it. Performance Mindset In performance, we need to leave our inner critic in the green room and go into another state of mind once we are on the stage, one where we are not engaged in thinking, but rather in being and doing. We probably all know an excellent pianist who is not able […]

By |February 21st, 2019|Inspiration|7 Comments

How Slow is Slow?

How much notice should we take of a composer’s metronome markings, and how do we decide the tempo of a work that contains neither a metronome mark nor a tempo or character description? Is it carte blanche? The Dolmetsch site has plenty of very helpful information on the various indications we find throughout musical history, particularly useful when we are dealing with baroque dances or dance-like pieces that would fall into a specific category. Did you realise that in 1703 France the menuet was a very merry dance, whereas in 1750 France it became noble and elegant, moderate rather than fast? Neither did I until I looked it up. But what about Bartók’s ultra-precise metronome markings and timings at the end of a work? Surely these are too fastidious and deliberate to ignore? Bartók’s student György Sándor explains all this in an interview with Bruce Duffie: GS: “Why did he [Bartók] write so precisely the metronome signs; why did he write so precisely the duration of the piece?”  That’s simply because in those days when he wrote his music, nobody knew a thing about his style; they didn’t know what to do with it at all!  So he had to write a lot of information.  But when he played those pieces which he marked so very carefully he played them completely differently! BD:  So he assumed that any performer who got under the skin of the music would then make it his own and take it beyond the printed page? GS:  Just like any other music!  Just like with any other music!  Very often he wrote down exact metronome markings, and he played those totally differently.  A very good example is the First Piano Concerto.  I happened to […]

Where Do We Find Musical Expression?

This week’s guest blog post features an article on finding musical expression when learning new pieces by Ken Johansen. In this post, Ken suggests practise methods using examples from various pieces featured within his From the Ground Up series to help you discover an interpretation for yourself from the inside rather than relying on external instructions. *** *** *** Where Do We Find Musical Expression? Some years ago, I took a class and several individual lessons in the Feldenkrais Method, a technique developed to improve physical functioning by imparting an awareness of how we habitually use our bodies. In this training, the instructor doesn’t issue prescriptive instructions (“keep your back straight,” “don’t let your shoulders sag,” etc.). Instead, she guides the students through simple movements and exercises that allow them to experience new sensations. Simply by being consciously aware of these sensations, the students re-program their own brains to learn new, healthier movements and habits. It immediately struck me that this kind of instruction, in which the teacher is more of a facilitator who creates conditions that allow students to make their own discoveries, rather than a master who dictates the “correct” way of doing something, was of great relevance to music teaching. So much music teaching relies on correcting mistakes (“your left hand is too loud,” “don’t accent that note”) and giving instructions (“make a diminuendo here,” “slow down there”). What if, instead of correcting mistakes, teachers could help their students to discover the logical, natural expression of a piece from the beginning? Perhaps instead of just giving students instructions about how something should sound, we could devise exercises that would help them to experience the music directly and develop their own responses to it. Why, one might ask, […]

Making the Well-Known Our Own

This week’s guest blog post features an article on how to approach interpretation of well-known works by Ken Johansen, author of the From the Ground Up series. In this post, Ken shares his thoughts on preparing a new edition for his series featuring Chopin’s Nocturne in E-flat, Op. 9, no. 2 (please see further information at the end of this post) and provides some suggestions as to how one can develop a personal interpretation of popular works. *** *** *** Making the Well-Known Our Own Thoughts on Learning Chopin’s Nocturne in E-flat Why do certain piano pieces become so well known? A catchy title seems to help, whether given by the composer or not. One thinks immediately of Mozart’s Rondo Alla Turca, Beethoven’s “Moonlight” Sonata, and Chopin’s “Raindrop” Prelude. In addition, these popular pieces combine high musical quality, compelling emotional content, and technical approachability. And of course, the more they are performed and recorded, the more other people hear them and want to play them, making them still more popular. Playing a popular piece of music brings a certain pleasure, like visiting a monument we’ve seen countless pictures of (the Eiffel Tower, the Little Mermaid). We already have an emotional connection to the piece, and our aural familiarity with it gives us easier access to it. But familiarity also poses challenges. It’s difficult to explore a score with fresh eyes and ears when we’ve already heard others play it countless times. Rather than searching for our own understanding of the music, we may subconsciously be trying to recreate a recording we admire. These thoughts occurred to me as I was preparing an edition of Chopin’s Nocturne in E-flat, Op. 9, no. 2 for my series, From the Ground Up. […]

Eunice Norton on Schnabel and Matthay

It can be awe-inspiring to talk to someone who studied with a legendary musician about their personal memories, anecdotes and experiences of their lessons. I have a particular fascination with two great figures from the past who contributed so much to the legacy of piano playing – Tobias Matthay and Artur Schnabel. It was a great privilege to have participated in Leon Fleisher‘s weekly piano classes for piano majors at Peabody during my year there in 1982, and to have received so much of Schnabel‘s wisdom (Fleisher is connected via Schnabel to a tradition that descended directly from Beethoven himself, handed down through Carl Czerny and Theodor Leschetizky). A student of both Schnabel and Matthay was American pianist Eunice Norton (1908 – 2005). She studied as a child at the University of Minnesota with William Lindsay, who later introduced her to Dame Myra Hess. Hess was so impressed with the 15-year-old Norton’s playing that she arranged for her to study in London in 1923 with Hess’s own mentor, Tobias Matthay, with whom Norton would remain in association for 8 years. A glittering career then followed. A decade later she heard Schnabel’s performances of Beethoven’s sonatas and spent three successive seasons under his tutelage in Berlin and Italy, and later enjoyed many rewarding years of friendship and association with him. Fortunately, Eunice Norton has documented her experiences with both Matthay and Schnabel in a series of extended video lecture-demonstrations, and there is a substantial archive of her work available on this YouTube channel. Schnabel (Part 1 of 18)   Matthay (Part 1 of 10)   There is a little book I can highly recommend to anyone playing music from the mainstream classical period, and that is Schnabel’s Interpretation of Piano […]

The Mysterious Ending of Mozart’s D minor Fantasy

Mozart’s Fantasy in D minor, K. 397, is one of his most popular and accessible works for the piano. It may surprise you to learn that Mozart left it unfinished (his manuscript stops on a dominant 7th chord in bar 97), and that the ending we all grew up with was probably finished by August Eberhard Müller. Scholars believe Mozart might have intended to write something else in conclusion, possibly a fugue, but mystery still surrounds his plans for the work. The idea of a fugue is a distinct possibility as there is a precedent, the Fantasy and Fugue in C minor, K. 394, written around the same time (1792). Here it is (with rolling score) played by Gianluca Cascioli in a performance that shows great attention to the composer’s articulation markings but without sounding at all dry or pedantic. If you are looking for an interesting alternative to a Bach Prelude and Fugue, you might want to consider this piece. Returning to the D minor Fantasy, many listeners are startled to hear what Mitsuko Uchida does at the point Mozart left off. Rather than finish with the traditional ending (we can’t be 100% sure it was by Müller, but we know it wasn’t by Mozart), she feels justified in coming up with her own ending. And fascinating it is too (listen from 5:50)! If you would like to delve further into the story of the D minor Fantasy, Ephraim Hackmey’s thesis is well worth reading. I have made my own walkthrough of the piece for the Online Academy, giving suggestions for pedalling, articulation and practice. Here is a short excerpt, focussing on the Adagio. Click here to view the complete video on the Online Academy (requires login or sign-up)

Can Sight-Reading be Taught?

The Online Academy’s collaboration with the Read Ahead team is a very happy one for me, since I can heartily endorse the innovative programme they have created to help pianists develop their sight-reading skills. Today’s post is a guest post by Ken Johansen and Travis Hardaway from Read Ahead, and I shall now pass you over to them. ***   ***   *** Most piano teachers agree that fluent sight-reading is a very important skill, one that ideally all students should develop. Fluent readers are more at ease at the piano, learn music more quickly, have broader musical horizons, make music more often with others, and receive more opportunities to perform. The question is, how do we help our students to develop this fluency? We can start, first of all, by teaching them the skills that make good sight-reading possible. In reality, sight-reading is not one skill, but a set of several inter-related skills that include: scanning the score intelligently before starting, maintaining a steady pulse, keeping our eyes on the score, hearing the music in our minds, reading in groups of notes, looking ahead as we play, and simplifying the music when necessary. With the exception of the last one, these are all skills that apply not only to sight-reading, but also to learning repertoire. If we bring these elements into play at every lesson, in every piece the student learns, we will be teaching him or her not only the piece, but also the musical skills needed for fluent sight-reading. Of course, it is not enough to work on these skills solely on repertoire pieces, and only during the weekly lesson. Students must sight-read unfamiliar pieces regularly, not only at lessons, but at […]

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