Inspiration

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 […]

Learning from Listening

I am delighted to publish this guest post by Frances Wilson, aka The Cross-Eyed Pianist, entitled Learning from Listening. Over to you, Fran… *** *** *** There are many benefits in listening to the repertoire we are working on, on disc or via a streaming service, and in concert, as well as “listening around” the music – works from the same period by the same composer, and works by his/her contemporaries. Such listening gives us a clearer sense of the composer’s individual soundworld, their distinct musical idioms, and an understanding of how aspects such as orchestral writing or string quartet textures are presented in piano music. Keep ears and mind alert to details such as articulation, phrasing and breathing space, dynamic shading and nuance, wit and humour, giving rests their full value (or slightly more) to create drama, tempo, and a sense of the overall architecture and narrative of the piece. Since November 2014 I have been studying Schubert’s penultimate piano sonata, No. 20 in A, D959. This large-scale work contains many fine examples of Schubert’s skill as a composer of orchestral music and tautly-constructed string quartets, as well as his expert handling of melody and lyricism (as evidenced, of course, by his many Lieder). As part of my study of this music, I have spent a lot of time listening not only to his late piano music (the Impromptus D899 and D935, and of course the other two piano sonatas which form the final triptych), but also to his late string quartets, the ‘Great’ C major symphony, and songs from the Winterreise cycle (composed the year before the A major sonata). Such listening has proved invaluable in my understanding of Schubert’s very distinct soundworld and […]

Pause for Thought

Have you ever stressed about what to do during a long rest that appears in a piece you are playing? In my experience of listening to pianists, rests often get shortened – sometimes really drastically. Because you’re at the instrument in the middle of a piece, you should be playing the piano, right? Not sitting there doing nothing. Quite apart from the logistics of maintaining the pulse during the silences, there’s that awkward question of what you should be doing with your hands. Do you keep them hovering eagerly over the keyboard, waiting for the moment you can start playing again? Or do you feel a sort of musical tea break is in order, and simply move your hands into your lap while your inner metronome keeps count? Rests are a vital part of musical communication, and just because for a moment or two we are making no sounds we must not assume that nothing is happening. Actors know that by pausing before they deliver a line they grab our attention – we are agog and wondering what’s coming next. By pausing after a line, they give us the chance to digest what has been said, a moment to think and reflect on it. Great actors milk this. Beethoven was a master of the pause – sometimes writing it out with rests, other times using a fermata. What do you feel is happening during the two rests in bar 9 of the introduction to the Pathétique? Players almost never realise the dramatic significance of this moment, it is as though they can’t wait to get to the next sound (bar 4 in this extract). Very often players do not seem to have worked out this bar rhythmically, […]

Mind the Gap! (Part 2)

Following on from last week’s post on slurs and short phrases in the Baroque and Classical periods, I thought I would look at some other examples from Beethoven, Brahms, Chopin and Ravel and try to distinguish a bit between those phrase marks that show the grammar of the music (those places where the commas and full stops go, indicating where the music breathes) and those that show the articulation. Phrase marks in Baroque and Classical period music tend to be shorter, and usually indicate articulation. Whether we make an audible separation at the end of a slur or short phrase, or whether we simply play the start of the phrase stronger and then lighten as we move towards the end of the phrase depends on context. It is not possible to make a hard and fast rule, but we do need to consider these markings – we cannot just ignore them. Needless to say, a reliable Urtext edition is absolutely essential. I was working with someone today on the Appassionata Sonata of Beethoven, who was using the old ABRSM Craxton-Tovey edition. While it has many excellent qualities, this edition contains numerous errors when it comes to slurs – including a whopping great phrase mark over the whole of the first four-bar phrase when Beethoven’s autograph clearly shows a break. We need to consider how we are going to realise Beethoven’s intentions here, evidently not a long seamless legato line as the Tovey edition suggests. But not a gap either – we might best realise this by giving a slight stress or placement of the first beat of the new phrase. In Romantic music we often find long phrase marks that indicate not only a prevailing legato approach but also the long […]

Mind the Gap!

There is a problem with certain performance directions composers write in the score – or the lack of them. Especially articulation marks. Some of the markings we find can easily be misinterpreted, especially when applied generically across the style periods or from one type of piece to another. The staccato dot is one example – sometimes it means a literal shortening of the note, other times it might mean a type of accent. And it does not mean we can’t use the pedal either. Notice the dot on each of the main beats in the LH of Chopin’s E flat Nocturne. This signifies a slight stress on each bass, and it is evident not only from Chopin’s pedal markings but also from the harmonic context that the bass notes are to be caught in the pedal. In the absence of specific markings, is a piece legato or staccato? May we add slurs and phrasing of our own? This depends on the speed and character, as well as its style period. There is only a certain amount of information a composer can write on the page, and in much music from the earlier periods performance decisions were either left up to the good taste of the performer, or players would have known how things were supposed to be done. Bach left a certain amount of articulation markings but a glance at a page of any Urtext edition may show none at all, or very few. In music from later periods, particularly the Classical period, a question that regularly comes my way is how to play the slurs and short phrases that are marked in the score. Do we always need to make a gap in sound between the note at […]

On Singing

I had always sung in choirs and choruses from my childhood to the end of my student days, and one of the highlights of my week as a postgraduate student in New York was my voice lesson. I came away from it feeling energised and exhilarated (as well as hungry) from the wonderful sensations I felt in my body as it became my instrument. This background in singing prepared me extremely well for my life in music, and I firmly believe that every pianist needs to know how it feels to shape music by singing the lines – be they melodic lines, bass lines or humble inner parts. I would go so far as to say I believe if you can’t sing a melodic line, you can’t really play it. You might be able to move your fingers over the right notes but you probably won’t be shaping it or feeling it expressively. The roots of music lie in rhythm and song, and we pianists devote our time to making our so-called percussion instrument sing. String players connect notes with their bow and wind players with their breath, but the way pianists achieve a singing style is mostly illusion, of course, since the moment we play a note on the piano the sound begins to decay. Keeping moving at the keyboard is one solution – not letting the arm stop as we move through a phrase and remembering to breathe, as Chopin taught, through the wrist. From the very first lesson to the very last, piano lessons need to be filled with singing, and no pianist should be shy to sing a melodic line in the practice room until they have found the ideal tempo, shaping, […]

Anyone Can Improvise!

Dedicated to helping everyone play the music they love and long to play, Lucinda Mackworth-Young has developed a step-by-step system for learning to play by ear and improvise, so that even classically trained pianists can play spontaneously, anywhere, anytime – and say “Yes!” when asked to play Happy Birthday! Hello Lucinda, I am delighted to be welcoming you as a contributor to the Online Academy. At present, we are happy to present the first installment of your series on playing by ear and improvising. You are one of the most passionate, inspiring and committed teachers I know – can you give us some background on your own pianistic journey? Hello Graham, it’s a real pleasure and privilege to be invited to contribute. Thank you, and for your kind words! My earliest piano memory is hearing my oldest sister play when she was 10 and I was 4. To me it sounded fast – and glittery, and I knew then that that was what I wanted to do – play-the-piano-very-fast! Lessons began when I was 8, and I was well (if conventionally) taught. The fun was with my three sisters at home playing Chopsticks and Heart and Soul etc. We played them over and over, and rhythmic and melodic variations evolved naturally. It never occurred to us that we were improvising – but we were! So have you always been able to play by ear and improvise? Far from it! Aside from Chopsticks and so on, I could hardly play without books at all unless I’d made a conscious effort to memorise. And, since I was supposed to be quite good, it was annoying and embarrassing that I couldn’t even play Happy Birthday spontaneously at social events, […]

Czerny Says You Can!

Have you ever pondered how many teaching hours in the course of piano teaching history have been devoted to certain famous passages from the repertoire? How much time, how much blood, sweat and tears have gone into the short introduction to Chopin’s G minor Ballade, for example? I am usually unimpressed when I hear an awe-struck student recount how their teacher spent a whole lesson on just the first phrase, sometimes even on one bar – or one chord! Is this something to be respected and admired, or is it an ego trip on the part of the teacher and actually a colossal waste of lesson time? Some places in the piano repertoire are so loaded with historic angst and baggage that the teacher feels the weight of tradition and, instead of just giving some suggestions or a few specific directions based on what the student might want to do with the passage, spouts forth from on high. No matter how well the student plays, the teacher has his or her prescription and is darned well going to pass it on. Chances are an hour spent thus on a bar of music will forever burden the student, making them feel they are never going to be able to reproduce what the teacher wanted. They will always feel unworthy – jinxed, even. Don’t get me wrong – there is no substitute for incredibly detailed and painstaking work at the piano, sitting hour upon hour day after day in our practice striving to get something just right. However, we all know that there is no such thing as the one perfect interpretation of any piece, and that great art allows a multitude of possibilities. You only have to listen to a number of different recordings […]