Beethoven

The Myth of Perfection

The Myth of Perfection was first published in February of 2014. I’ve decided to republish as part of this summer holiday series of posts from the past, in the hope that it will give a little perspective on the subject. ***   ***   *** Many of us are caught in the trap of perfectionism, and yet attaining flawlessness is so anti-human. Music played perfectly would actually be boring and predictable – what makes performance interesting is the human element, and what makes it electrifying is the element of risk when the performer is pushing the boundaries of what is possible or imaginable (and might even teeter over the edge here and there). Here’s what Beethoven had so say about this! To play a wrong note is insignificant; to play without passion is inexcusable. No live performance can ever truly be note-perfect, and no single interpretation can ever be the one true realisation of the musical possibilities of particular piece. It’s precisely this difference between the ideal and the reality where the humanity of musical performance lies, and the wrong notes in Alfred Cortot’s recordings matter not one iota to the communication of the music’s beauty. I would even go as far as to say it what makes me love his recordings all the more – they show greatness and fallibility at the same time. The problem is that audiences raised on a steady diet of today’s recordings (often a collection of the best takes spliced together) only recognise the perfection possible in that scenario, and are unprepared for live performances. Perfectionism has been defined in psychology as: A personality disposition characterized by an individual striving for flawlessness and setting excessively high performance standards, accompanied by overly critical […]

Seeing the Forest

This week’s guest blog post features an introduction to the From the Ground Up series by its author, Ken Johansen, following its launch last week on the Online Academy. In his post, Ken describes the “from the ground up” approach to learning pieces and the rationale behind his project. I wholeheartedly recommend this approach for anyone who wants to learn new works in a less daunting and more enjoyable way! *** *** *** A page of piano music, taken at a glance, looks a bit like a forest, the black notes forming more or less dense thickets of trees and shrubbery against the white page. Seen from afar, this forest looks fairly uniform; it’s difficult at first to distinguish its content and boundaries, or to see the variety behind the uniformity. But we’ve heard that this forest is enchanted, and we want to explore it for ourselves, so we approach it with a mixture of excitement and trepidation. How do we enter this musical forest, which may sometimes appear dark and impenetrable? Some pianists choose to listen to a recording first, but that is a second-hand experience. We want to walk in the woods ourselves, not listen to someone else’s account of it. A few musicians spend some time just sitting with the score, listening to it inwardly, finding its phrase and section divisions, perhaps analysing the harmony. But most pianists are too impatient for this; they want to start playing right away. If they are good sight-readers and the piece is not too difficult, this can make for an easy and pleasant stroll. But if their reading ability is mediocre, or if they are learning a piece that is at the upper limit of their technical ability (which […]

Practising Polyrhythms

Following a question on a Facebook page about coping with polyrhythms, I decided to republish this post from 2012. I hope it helps! I want to suggest some ways of solving a polyrhythm where one hand is playing in divisions of four while the other in divisions of three. I am going to leave out 2 against 3, as this is relatively straightforward – as long as the second note of the duplet comes precisely between the second and third note of the triplet, then bingo! I’ve decided to go with a common example that trips people up, the 4 against 3 in the second movement of Beethoven’s “Pathétique” Sonata (last beat of the second bar): Fitting together the two hands slowly here relies first of all on knowing precisely where each note goes in one hand in relation to the other. In a 4 against 3 group, the only place where the hands coincide is the first note of the group. To work the placements out mathematically, on a piece of graph paper draw two lines and divide the top one in 4 and the lower one in 3. You will see that the second LH triplet comes between the second and third demisemiquaver of the RH but not half way (it actually comes a third of the way between). The third LH triplet comes just before the last demisemiquaver. Do this first by tapping your hands on your knees, using the words “What Atrocious Weather” or “Pass the Goddamn Butter” to help. If you repeat this enough times, you’ll get better and better at it, and you can transfer the activity from patella to keyboard. The main thing is to feel the rhythm in […]

Q&A: How Can We Use Rotation in a Scale?

Q. You speak about forearm rotation in your eBook and in your YouTube video on scales and arpeggios, but I think of rotation as a large movement for things like tremolos and trills. Can you explain how to use it in scales? A. Great question, I’m very glad you have raised it. Until I studied the theory of forearm rotation with Julian Martin (who was working with Dorothy Taubman at the time), I had also only thought of rotation as a large movement  – something you could really see and really feel. I had two eureka moments close to the beginning of my investigations into all this, one was during a large leap when I was told to “untwist” during the journey from one position to the next (this made the leap feel fast, extremely free and reliable) and the other was in the broken diminished 7th in the Adagio espressivo section of the first movement of Beethoven’s Sonata, op. 109: I was struggling to get enough power in this place, especially because I needed to hold onto the notes of the chord as I was spreading it. Even when I incorporated the finger strokes into one slower movement of the arm, the fingers were still doing an awful lot of the work. There was undue effort and a moment of tension. When I was able to experience the rotary movements, it suddenly became effortless and strong – as though I had flipped a switch to a new power source. The tiny backflips of the forearm are absolutely possible at high speed, and even though they are virtually imperceptible to someone watching I could definitely feel them. The difference in sensation between the rotary version and the […]

There’s a Hole in my Bucket

Imagine a situation where you have to fetch water using a bucket. The problem is your bucket has a few holes in it, and on the journey from the well to your bathtub most of the water leaks away. You’ve got two choices – either make dozens of journeys before the tub is filled, or fix the bucket! Now imagine you are preparing a recital or examination programme, and there are holes in that. That part of your fugue where you know you haven’t organised a good enough fingering, those few bars on the third page of your Schumann that always seem to trip you up, and you’ve never quite sorted out the coda in the first movement of your Beethoven sonata. Of course, you will finally start practising your scales soon, it’s just that there never seems to be enough time to practise the pieces… How tempting it is, having become aware of these issues, to carry on playing with thoughts like: “Oh darn, that keeps happening. Still, let’s hope it will correct itself tomorrow”. This is rather like trying to enjoy a bicycle ride in the countryside aware you have a slow puncture or your saddle is loose. The Pareto Principle The Pareto Principle, or the 80-20 Rule, is named after Italian economist Vilfredo Pareto, who had a eureka moment when he made two unrelated observations. He noticed that during 1906, 80% of the land in Italy was owned by 20% of the population, and that 80% of the peas in his garden came from 20% of the pea pods! This principle is widely used in the fields of business- and time management, and is very useful to know about in relation to practising […]

Solving a Problem in Beethoven’s op. 79

The other day, a student brought in a problem with Beethoven’s Sonata in G, op. 79 – the cross rhythms in the last movement. In several places, one hand is playing in 3s and the other in 2s, thus: With any passage like this, it is tempting to try to solve it with lots of slow practice but as Hans von Bülow says in a footnote to his edition: Every attempt to divide mathematically the triplets of the accompaniment with the couplet rhythm of the theme will prove futile. A diligent practice with each hand separately will alone lead to the requisite independence. The key is in the word “mathematical”. Rhythm can’t be mathematical, it has to be felt physically –  experienced through the body.  Sure, we can divide up the beats on paper and see where one note goes in relation to the others but this gives us a distorted and mechanical view of the passage that in my experience won’t translate well into performance. My solution to passages like this is to practise alternating one hand with the other, having established an absolute and unerring sense of pulse. We maintain this pulse at all costs, feeling it in our body as though we were conducting and not letting it sag for a moment. With this process, using the metronome is not a bad idea. I prefer to leave a bar’s rest between each repetition or new variant, being strict about keeping the beat going during this measured silence. Having alternated one hand with the other, here is a possible plan: This ends with both hands playing together, but it is bound to take several attempts before the hands synchronise correctly. Rather than playing the hands […]

The Monkey And The Typewriter

If you gave an infinite number of monkeys an infinite number of typewriters, would they eventually produce the complete works of Shakespeare? This favourite question of barstool philosophers seems relevant to us pianists when it comes to why we do what we do as we practise. Eavesdropping outside practice rooms (as I have been known to do), it seems that after countless repetitions an interpretation, or a solution to a problem, is supposed to emerge fully formed out of thin air. If I hack away at it for long enough, I’m bound to get there eventually… This week I was directed to a short video clip of Leon Fleisher. He is coaching a group of students, and quotes from his teacher, Artur Schnabel: “Hear before you play. If you play before you hear what you’re going for, it’s an accident, and everything is built then on an accident.” Leon Fleisher, Carnegie Hall YouTube Channel Liszt had a similar maxim: Think Ten Times, Play Once. The problem with embracing this in our practising is the mistaken belief that unless we are moving our fingers, training muscles and making sounds, we are not really practising. In reality, thinking ten times and playing once would mean pausing regularly in our practising, awakening our imagination, inwardly hearing how we want the phrase to sound, rehearsing this in our mind until it is vivid, and only then playing. Extremely challenging, enough to try the patience of a saint, surely? As a student, I recall lessons where my teacher would talk about a passage in my piece with such incredible insight, making the character and the meaning so vivid and real to me that the penny dropped and I would replay with […]

By |September 5th, 2012|Performing|4 Comments

More On Octave Displacements

Annoyingly, last week’s post on eliminating tension (which was to be the first of two or three on the subject) has itself been eliminated. It disappeared into the ether when my web host was down. While I attempt to retrieve it, I will make a small detour and complete a post I started a while back on skipping the octave. The subject matter is not unrelated. ***   ***   *** I am a great believer in the attitude of a closed hand as default, any stretches happening at the last second when the hand opens and then immediately closes again. This is based on the abiding principle that a stretched out hand is prone to tension, and that tension leads directly to lack of mobility. In my teaching, I occasionally make use of an octave displacement of an individual note (or perhaps a group of notes) in a line or a passage. I do this when the note involves what might be perceived as a stretch, whereas an actual stretching out of the hand is either unnecessary, unfeasible or downright impossible. It doesn’t stop pianists trying though, even if they are not aware of this. By placing the note in question an octave higher or lower, it is obvious that any attempt to reach it by the finger is futile. Thus, we retain our closed-handedness and (depending on circumstances) either use the note before as a springboard to landing on the note in question, or we use forearm rotation, getting there quickly and loosely that way. When we to back and play the written note, we will have solved a technical problem. Since I used an example from Beethoven’s Pathétique Sonata in a previous post, here […]

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 […]

Practising Fast

Common sense suggests that if we can play a fast piece faster than intended, it will be easier to manage at the proper tempo, since we will have gone the extra mile. We’ll have stretched our resources and sharpened up the reflexes, and this is indeed an excellent thing to do from time to time in our practice sessions. Short bursts rather than complete performances are fine, and it is often preferable to play lighter, like the singer who marks rather than sings out full voice. When we go back to the normal tempo, it all feels easier. I like the idea of practising at a variety of different speeds but not mechanically – aim to make the music meaningful in each tempo. This is great if you are learning an accompaniment or an ensemble work, where the flexibility gained from this endeavour can only assist in maximising valuable rehearsal time when you get together with the other player(s). I would like to put the cat among the pigeons here and state that I don’t believe there is any such thing as the ONE CORRECT TEMPO, even despite indications from the composer. If I am playing a work in a cathedral, for example, I will necessarily have to slow it down to accommodate the acoustical space. If I am playing on a small instrument in a heavily carpeted room, I will most likely go for a faster tempo. The tempo of a piece of music is chameleon-like, surely? If I have had one cup of coffee too many for breakfast, then my performance that evening will likely be faster, because my metabolism and heartbeat will be faster. Music is organic, and performance is inextricably linked […]

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