Bach

On Touch, Articulation and Phrasing

This week my third video demonstration on touch went live on Pianist Magazine‘s YouTube channel. When I was given the original commission for three articles for the magazine, I knew I wanted to write firstly on legato and staccato touches, and secondly on those grey area non-legato touches, but I wasn’t sure at that stage how to round off the series. It struck me that there was a lot of confusion about how to articulate the music of Bach, in particular, and I’m constantly frustrated by how pianists can misunderstand the short slurs we find from Mozart onwards, right up to Brahms. So, I thought I would pull this all together and give some suggestions for articulation. Three main points come out of all of this for me: In the absence of any markings from the composer, articulation is decided based not on whimsy or for cosmetic reasons, but rather on the structure of the musical material. There is usually a variety of possible articulations of a given subject, theme or motive. When playing Bach, some pianists have the mistaken sense that the music is to be curated rather than enjoyed and fully lived. Here is the video: ***   ***   ***   ***   *** I am launching the first two volumes of Practising The Piano ebook series! It is presently in “beta” mode which means that while the publications are fully functional and the content is of a high quality, there are still a few small issues that we are ironing out.  Furthermore, I would also like to obtain further feedback and suggestions during this beta phase in order to refine the final versions.  As a concession I am offering the publications at a […]

On Attitude & Gesture

Some years ago, I had the privilege of sitting in on some lessons taught by a colleague who specialised in teaching talented youngsters. Because she also had a background in dance, she managed to bring to each lesson some of the qualities of a classical ballet class where every gesture counted and no sloppiness of any kind was permitted, ever. The lesson began when the child walked into the room. Formalised greetings were exchanged, and there was a tangible sense of occasion in each lesson which bordered on the ceremonial. There was certainly a feeling of  specialness and magic about it all. Nothing was routine about the lesson, everything was focussed on the meaningfulness of every sound and gesture, and the beauty of what was being engaged in – music as art and self-expression. I am certain this attitude of mindfulness and respect in the learning environment has a knock-on effect in the day-to-day practising of the student. Young pianists brought up in such a way learn to love and respect music – doodling at the piano or hacking away at a passage during practice would be as foreign as a slouched seating position. GESTURE Gesture is defined as the movement of part of the body, especially the hand or the head, to express an idea or meaning. We all know that gesture is vital to piano playing – our gestures at the keyboard are translated immediately into sound. If we use smooth and flowing movements, we get a smooth and flowing sound. An actor friend uses the gestures and body language associated with a particular state of mind or emotion to get into character, to evoke a particular emotion and then to communicate this. Lang […]

By |November 17th, 2012|Performing|5 Comments

On Touch (Part One)

I was recently asked by Pianist Magazine to write a series of three articles on touch, which turned out to be more challenging than I had anticipated. The second article on non-legato touches was especially difficult, since these various touches overlap (no pun intended), and any attempt to classify them risks ending up confusing rather than clarifying. The first article, just published, is on legato and staccato. In this, I talk about four different types of staccato and three different types of legato – our plain vanilla default touch, legatissimo for cantabile melody lines and ‘finger pedalling’ where notes are deliberately held down and overlapped. I want to distinguish between finger pedalling as a specific touch and the bad habit of neglecting to pick up the finger after its written note value. Beginner and elementary pianists are constantly being told (quite correctly so) by their teachers to pick up their fingers. Holding fingers down beyond the written note value at this stage is bad technique and produces unwanted blurs and smudges. However, at the advanced level an overlapping touch (finger pedalling) is indispensable. Let’s say we have an Alberti bass (or broken chord pattern) with a melody above it. It sounds dry and clattery, but pedalling blurs the melody and adds too much resonance. The best way of adding resonance is to use finger pedalling. Instead of releasing the notes of the Alberti bass in a conventional legato touch, we hold onto them, creating a harmonic effect. This enables us to play broken harmonies without dryness, and yet to play the melodic line above without the smudging that would happen if we used the sustaining pedal. Actually, we are still able to use the sustaining […]

Contrapuntal Playing: The Art Of Disentanglement

On my shelves, I have several copies of Bach’s 48 Preludes and Fugues, ranging from modern Urtexts to some dodgy editions by luminaries of yesteryear, with fancy performance directions, dynamics and phrasings, and even corrections to the text. It can be interesting to try out some of the performing solutions offered by these various editors, many of the ideas are good ones. Even though I always prefer the Urtext, I am fond of my old Tovey edition in particular – it is familiar, not loaded with graffiti, and Tovey’s observations and commentaries always shed light. I remember to this day my frustration with the first fugue I ever studied, as I struggled to manage the counterpoint – one finger needed to stay down while others lifted up around it but my hands would not cooperate. This would have been easier had I practised some preliminary exercises in finger independence – I suggest the first few from Dohnanyi’s Essential Finger Exercises to prepare the hand for contrapuntal playing. I have since devised my own little contraptions, where the one hand has to deal with a cross rhythm in two voices, played legato. I am particular that keys are released very precisely in each voice, with no overhang and with no gaps. After some dexterity has been achieved, we play these exercises using two dynamic levels, and then using different touches within the hand. Playing a number of the Two- and Three-Part Inventions (Sinfonias) of Bach prepares us beautifully for fugal playing, since these pieces teach us to think and listen in lines. Strands Separately – Not Hands  I’m a stickler for practising fugues one voice at a time, and in all possible combinations and permutations of voices, not […]

Practising on Tour

I have been away for the past three weeks on a concert and teaching tour of Singapore and Australia, the focus of my work there was three performances of Bach’s Goldberg Variations. I thought it might be of interest – and hopefully of use – to talk about how I prepared this magnum opus for performance having not played it at all in about a decade, and how I approached the practice time I had while on the tour itself. Quite early on in the life of this blog I devoted a whole post to how I set about learning the Goldberg Variations in the first place, very much an obsession and a labour of love. Sometime last year, I was engaged by the Kawai Series at the Queensland Conservatorium in Brisbane to play the Goldberg this Easter; a piece eminently suitable in its grandeur and magnificence for such a Festival (especially given Bach’s own strong religious views). I played the Shigeru Kawai, the model EX concert grand, and wonderful it was too! From this engagement, I was also invited to play at the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory of Music in Singapore, and on the Team of Pianists’ series in Melbourne. In addition to my performances, I gave masterclasses and taught a fair number of individual lessons as well as giving a lecture for the Piano Pedagogy programme at the Queensland Con. I thoroughly enjoyed all of these experiences. I started to resurrect the Goldberg Variations just before Christmas, figuring that I would need four months to get the piece back into my fingers and into my head. This would also allow enough time for what I can only describe as the Olympian training component – regular […]

Practice Makes Permanent

We all know that “practice makes permanent” and that if we try to learn a piece by constant repetition via repeated complete up-to-speed readings, we are going to regret it eventually. What we gain in instant gratification we lose in the ability to ever really get a grip on the piece, because a mistake, an unhelpful fingering or any other sort of sloppiness repeated often enough to become ingrained, is like one of those stubborn stains that refuses to come out – ever! The attitude seems to be: “Yes, I know it is wrong, but I’ll fix it later”, and this might seem reasonable if you are an amateur who, after a long day at the office, wants to come back home and relax at the piano. Yet I would offer an alternative. How can something be all that satisfying when you know, in your heart of hearts, that you are compromising not only the music but also yourself? The deepest form of satisfaction comes, surely, from a job well done, from seeing an investment mature (I always think of practising as investing, and playing as spending). I contend that there is an ENORMOUS amount of satisfaction to be had from playing a piece, or (preferably) a section of a piece through at a quarter of the speed. And I do mean a quarter, not just a bit slower. Provided you know how the piece is supposed to sound, you’ll find an ultra-slow practice tempo gives you exponentially increased control of everything, and if done regularly you will hear and feel fantastic results. This is also a bit like a meditation, and even if you have been using your brain during the working day, you […]

The Baroque Urtext Score (4): Tempo and Rhythm

I was hoping this would be the last post in this series, but I can’t quite squeeze everything I want to say in this week’s offering, so I crave your indulgence and will wrap it up next week when I bring some loose ends together. Fortunately, I have already covered ornamentation in my very first two blogposts ever (probably because I wanted to get it out of the way?). If you haven’t read them, here is the first post, and here is the second. Tempo I don’t want to get bogged down in complex baroque theory about time signatures, “good and bad” notes, etc., as outlined in the numerous treatises of the period. The subject is too vast for this. The purpose of this post, along with the others in the series, is simply to highlight the main areas of concern in the form of a potted digest so you can feel empowered, not restricted and even more confused! Thus I will touch on the most important areas and leave you to fill in the gaps – the reading list at the end is a good starting point. Meter Baroque musicians would have worked on the principle of a hierarchy of beats, the first beat of the bar the strongest, the last beat the weakest. 2/4 time was felt as “strong-weak”, 3/4 as “strong-weak-weaker”, and 4/4 as “strong-weak-less strong-weaker”. I am sure we all remember this from elementary theory lessons. This really doesn’t apply to the same extent in romantic and modern music – a residue of this remains but factors such as the long legato line and other phrasing/accentuation modifiers have diluted it and smoothed things out significantly (except, perhaps, for characteristic forms such as waltzes, marches […]

By |November 11th, 2011|Practising|2 Comments

The Baroque Urtext Score (3): Articulation

Articulation in music is understood to mean the way notes are connected or grouped – this involves accentuation and, to some extent, rhythmic inflection. While François Couperin was an obsessive control freak in this regard, it was only from Beethoven onwards that composers routinely marked articulations into the score. Open a score of Beethoven and you will see at a glance how he wanted the music to be articulated. You will find a few dots and slurs in Bach’s keyboard music, but for the most part we have to make our own decisions. How? On what basis do we decide? I don’t think this can be done cosmetically, by which I mean I don’t think we can add slurs and staccatos willy-nilly  (“Oh, I haven’t had a staccato for a while, better stick one in on this note”). The articulation should enhance phrasing, help project rhythm and show the design features of the thematic material. The long legato line is a 19th century concept – 18th century phrasing was based more on the articulation of shorter units, at the discretion of the player. Long legato lines are just as out of place (and boring) as long staccato ones, and the still-prevalent idea that quavers in baroque music should be detached is just not correct. Now for some examples. The first is the subject from Bach’s B flat major Invention, for which I have given three possible articulations (scribbled, somewhat clumsily, one on top of the other). There will be other possibilities, but these were the first that occurred to me: I would say it is important to stick with the same articulation in the second half of the bar as you use for the first half, because the second half is an inversion of the […]

The Baroque Urtext Score (2): Dynamics

I would like to suggest some guidelines for using dynamics in the music of Bach (and others) at the piano. The only absolute rule, in my book, is to play expressively! When all is said and done, we are making a transcription from 18th century instruments – and 18th century ears – to 21st century ones, and I sincerely doubt that the 18th century musician felt restricted, that the answers were to be found in some dusty book. Texture The subject of dynamics in Bach playing relates to choices about the louds and softs in a score where the composer has not explicitly instructed these by way of performance directions (such as f and p, crescendo and diminuendo). We have to determine the dynamic level (and the tempo) from the general character of the music, taking into account the texture. Thick textures are strong, thin textures lighter. The opening of the C minor Partita has an implied dynamic level of forte. We would reach this conclusion even if we did not appreciate it was a French Overture (with all its associated grandeur), because of the big, thick chords and springy dotted rhythms. It would be hard to play it otherwise. Within the overall dynamic of forte, there is an implied crescendo to the second beat in bar 2, because of the structure of the phrase. Harmonically, this is the moment of greatest tension; melodically, it is the highest point (this is reinforced by the tonic pedal C in the bass). Then, allow the tension to release at the cadence on the third beat using a small hairpin diminuendo: The second section, now in two voices, is obviously intended to be softer and more melodic: The final fugue […]

The Baroque Urtext Score: A User’s Guide (Part The First)

PART ONE: GENERAL Further to last week’s post about taking ownership, I thought I might say a few words about this in relation to Urtext scores – of  Bach in particular. Personally, I wouldn’t want to play Bach in a romantic way, but I can appreciate, respect and even enjoy performances in this style, where the pianist is totally committed to it. You only have to listen to iconoclastic Bach players such as Glenn Gould, Rosalyn Tureck and Andras Schiff to hear that there are very many different approaches, all of them valid. It’s about taking ownership and believing in what you are doing. But may we take the absence of performance directions in a score of Bach as carte blanche to do what we want, or are there rules? If so, where do we find them? While some of the answers are indeed implied by clues in the score and others by performance tradition, a lot of the choices are indeed at the discretion of the performer. As I write in an article on my other website: The ultimate intention of all notational details is to reduce the performer’s choice  From the time of Beethoven onwards, the performer’s choices are much more restricted because the composer’s instructions as to speed, character, articulation and dynamics are usually extremely explicit. So how do we decide what to do with an Urtext edition of Bach where all we see are the notes? What sort of articulations and phrasings ought we to use, how do we decide the dynamics, the tempo and general character? How comforting it must have been for our pianistic forebears to open the Czerny, Selva or Busoni editions (amongst many others) and find answers to all these […]

By |October 23rd, 2011|Practising|1 Comment