Artur Rubinstein

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 […]

On Demonstration

There are those teachers who demonstrate for their students all the time in piano lessons, and those others who don’t go near the instrument. I have studied with both types. Does a demonstration necessarily have to be a perfect model though, to be listened to reverentially and copied verbatim? Or might a teacher’s hands on the keyboard serve other purposes? To illustrate different ways of practising, or to give various suggestions as to how a phrase might be shaped, or indeed how not to do something? In his interview with Frederic Gaussin for Yevgeny Kissin reminisces about his teacher, Alice Kantor. Mrs. Kantor never played herself during her lessons. She never voluntarily played piano, for me or her other students. In studio classes, she never demonstrated herself what she expected from us, simply because she didn’t want us to mimic her. Mrs. Kantor only used verbal cues. Her teaching was entirely passed on through speech. And everyone, every single student, kept their own demeanor, their particular manner. Regarding this last point, I knew – and I knew this even at the time – that this was not necessarily the case in other schools. For me the term “demonstration” does not capture what’s really going on, it feels way too pretentious. I like to think of what I do at the piano in a lesson as an extension of speech, a soundtrack over what I am saying. The Dangers of Copying Have you noticed how listening to a recording of a great artist playing a piece you are learning can immediately change your own playing? The danger of listening to recordings is that you can easily end up copying without developing your own authentic ideas about the […]

A Technical Problem?

My new teaching term began this week with a new student, a young lady preparing for an advanced ABRSM exam. She told me she was having technical problems with some of the minor scales beginning on black notes, and needed some help. When I asked her to play Eb harmonic minor, it was clear to me the problems she was experiencing were not technical in any mechanical sense but rooted in a lack of perception about the patterns of black and white notes that make up this particular scale. I asked her to play the scale in one hand using just one finger – something she struggled to do. After the shape and structure of the scale had become clear in her mind and she could play it fluently with one finger, I invited her to try the scale again with both hands together. She was most surprised to discover she could now play it easily. Clearly not a technical problem, then! I have noticed a tendency among pianists to address issues such as this by immediately going into elaborate technical detail, when this might not be the correct diagnosis at all. In order for the fingers to cooperate, they need to be given very clear commands from our brain as to exactly where they are supposed to go, and what they must do when they get there. If we are woolly-minded about the patterns in a piece of music or the type of sound (mood, character, etc.) we are after, how can we expect any kind of fluent or meaningful result? As the young lady left at the end of the lesson, she asked me the best way to practise her scales during the week. My answer was […]

By |September 8th, 2016|Technique|13 Comments

Securing a Fast Passage

The other day I was practising Chopin’s 3rd Scherzo, a piece I have played regularly over the years. Because I haven’t touched it in a while, I found it needed a bit of dusting off and some cobwebs removing before I could get it back into shape and find the sparkle and security it needs for performance. The obvious thing was to go back to some slow practice, and this is great of course. But because slow practice is only part of the story, I decided to work on the coda (from Tempo 1 below) by mixing up slow practice with up-to-speed playing. I’ll explain in a moment how this works. With extended fast passages such as this coda, it’s not just finger control we need but of also control of rhythm. It’s so important to know, and to feel, where the first beats of each bar come – even if we don’t want to end up emphasising or accenting them as such. In music in fast triple time, we often feel each bar as one beat of a larger 4-bar unit. We can of course count it “123, 123, 123, 123″, etc. (fine at slower tempos) but at speed it is more natural to feel “1 (23), 2 (23), 3 (23), 4 (23)” or (more simply) “1 2 3 4“. Here are the stages I recommend: At a slow speed, count aloud each crotchet (quarter note) beat, emphasising the first beats. At a medium speed, count aloud the first beats of each bar according to the longer phrase structure (“1 2 3 4“), emphasising the 1s. When this is easy, begin alternating two tempos – fast and half speed – in a controlled and methodical way. Be […]

Great Pianists Interviewed

One of my favourite books of interviews is Great Pianists Speak with Adele Marcus. It is full of insight into the pianist’s art, and Ms. Marcus’ questions are always very astute. Along with Pianists at Play by Dean Elder, I turn to  Abram Chasins’ Speaking of Pianists for inspiration. How wonderful to find these clips on YouTube, conversations and interviews with famous pianists as well as some interesting documentaries. I hope you enjoy them! Vladimir Horowitz Artur Rubinstein Daniel Barenboim Evgeny Kissin Sviatoslav Richter Maria Yudina The Art of the Piano Greats of the Twentieth Century Imagine Being a Concert Pianist Do or Die: Lang Lang’s Story Resources Great Pianists Speak with Adele Marcus (click here) Pianists at Play by Dean Elder (click here) Speaking of Pianists by Abram Chasins (click here)

By |January 7th, 2016|General|3 Comments

Making Friends with Fiddly Fiorature

Over the past couple of weeks I have had a few requests for advice on how to handle the flurries of little notes we find in the music of Chopin. I am republishing a post I wrote back in 2013 – I hope it helps! When you’ve been teaching the piano for as long as I have, there are certain problems that are universal. It might be a particular spot in a particular piece that will always need to be brought up, or it might be a concept – such as how to manage the fioratura in the music of Chopin. Before we go any further, let me explain what this term means. Taken from “fior”, which means “flower” in Italian, fioratura refers to the flowery, embellished vocal line within an aria. Chopin was a diehard fan of the bel canto tradition, and we find its influence throughout his music. Some of these passages look extremely scary, for example the coda of the posthumous C sharp minor Nocturne: The first thing to realise here is that Chopin did not intend the notation of his fiorature to be mathematically precise. The whole point is for them to sound free, improvisatory and personal. In my lessons with Ann Schein on Chopin’s Second Concerto, I was instructed to start the fiorature fast and take time at the end of the groups. Since Ann was one of only two students of Artur Rubinstein – no slouch when it came to the interpretation of Chopin – this has always been good enough for me. Because the notation is free, I feel we should retain a sense of freedom and even whimsy about how we play our fiorature, being unconstrained by the mathematics […]

Improve Your Sight Reading – Away From the Piano!

According to his memoirs, Artur Rubinstein learned César Franck’s Symphonic Variations on a train on his way to the concert. As there was obviously no piano on the train, he made use of his photographic memory and practised passages in his lap. I doubt that many pianists would either be capable of such a feat, or willing to trust this process under such pressure, but it does show how much can be achieved away from the instrument. Nowadays, musicians are learning a lot from the field of sports psychology. Have you wondered what happens when elite professional golfers or tennis players prepare to take a shot? They are running an imaginary movie of the shot in their head, seeing exactly the intended outcome in vivid detail. Only after this mental rehearsal do they hit the ball. Except for the primary motor and sensory areas of the brain, many of the other regions of the cortex normally active during actual playing are also active during virtual practice, or visualisation. According to scientific research, there is also activity in premotor and supplementary motor areas. Many studies have shown that the combination of mental rehearsal and physical practice achieves better results than physical practice alone. Mental rehearsal allows us to imagine an ideal sound or the perfect performance in the future. This may include imagining exactly how we want to phrase a passage, or shape and colour a whole work. We can imagine doing this in our practice room, and imagine ourselves doing this (perfectly!) in performance. Kinaesthetic Sense When we imagine ourselves playing, we can allow our muscles to make minuscule movements in the air or even in our lap. They are so small as to be virtually […]

Keep Calm and Carry On Practising

When I was on the selection committee for the 11th Unisa International Piano Competition, we listened to two solid days of audio recordings, one after the other. Our selection of those pianists who would go forward into the competition was made purely by listening – we weren’t given their names, ages or any other information about the entrants, they had to make their impression on us solely by the sounds they made. There are viral performance on YouTube of young pianists playing their exam pieces. Judging by the number of hits and likes they receive, they are (all) destined to be the next Horowitz. I wonder if the wow factor has anything to do with the antics they have been taught to do, such as swaying around and flailing their bodies across the keyboard? This may look impressive to the layman, but I would invite you to experience such a performance in two ways. Mute the sound and just watch. Now for the acid test, replay the clip but turn the screen off and just listen. Doing this experiment, I have been struck by the disparity between the way the playing has been packaged to look and the actual quality in terms of skill – musical comprehension and technique. There’s something of a gulf here. In my adjudication work I notice constantly how excessive physical mannerisms detract from the quality of the playing. It is often the most musically intense who seem to need to do this. In their desire to be expressive, their bodies contort as a substitute for the real thing – having a sound in their head and calling on the body to produce the sound in the most natural and economical […]