expression

Taking Ownership

Some years ago, Dame Fanny Waterman gave a masterclass for the BBC (Beethoven Sonata, op. 2 no. 2 , I think it was) and had made some suggestions to the student who then proceeded to play it back, respectfully verbatim. Dame Fanny likened this to loaning the student a dress for a party, but that to prevent it from looking borrowed or passed on, the student would need to add a brooch, a belt or some other accessory to make it her own. The lesson, of course, being that aping someone else’s playing or ideas won’t end up sounding authentic no matter how well you do it. The first stage of taking ownership of a piece of music is to process all the information from the composer’s score. This is the explicit instruction (notes, rhythm, tempo modifiers, articulations, character descriptions, dynamic markings, etc.) as well as the implicit. Examples of the latter might be the implication of più forte when the composer doubles in octaves a bass line previously written in single notes, or diminuendo when the texture thins out. It may take a while to understand the meaning behind all this so that we come up with our own understanding of the composer’s message, but digest it we must. (Implicit directions are much more significant in baroque music, say, when the composer’s score is devoid of much else, but that’s probably a subject for another post.) I am sure we have all heard performances where all the notes were there, all the I’s dotted and T’s crossed, but you weren’t moved or stirred. There is nothing worse than a safe, boring, non-committal, grey, correct performance and obeying the composer’s instructions is only the first step – […]

A Make-Up Removal Tip

Someone once said to me “As long as you are trying to do something, you are not actually doing it”, and this resonated with me. When we first start working on a new piece, there is certainly an element of striving. We desperately want our fingers to obey our vision of  how we feel the music should go, to reproduce the ideal we have in our imagination. I would even go so far as to call this a yearning, and this is what spurs us on. But, if we have put in the slog, there has to come a time when we must let go of the reins and allow the music to take flight. OK, given that we are constantly striving for perfection, a piece will probably always feel like work in progress, but there has to be some mechanism where  in performance we let go of effort, and trust ourselves. For some this is much easier said than done. How often do we walk onto the concert platform feeling totally satisfied that we have put in enough practice hours, that we have covered all our bases (or should that be basses)? My first year of overseas study was at the Peabody Conservatory of Music in Baltimore, Maryland, and what happy memories I have of that short time! I made many lifelong friends and started to get to know a culture that was very different from the one I grew up in. My formal lessons were with the wonderful pianist Ann Schein, one of Artur Rubinstein’s very few protégés (I have quite a few of the maestro’s special – and rather cheaty! – fingerings for Chopin). I will never forget a recital she gave where we […]

Practising Softly

One of the most skillful and useful ways to practise is softly, especially loud passages. Let me start with an anecdote. In the early 80s I had the great good fortune to have a few lessons with Andras Schiff at the start of my postgraduate studies in New York. I remember one occasion when I arrived at the building and, having been admitted by the doorman, made my way to the apartment. As I walked down the corridor, I heard Andras Schiff practising, but extremely softly. Fascinated by what I was hearing, I was in no hurry to press the buzzer. Assuming this had something to do with neighbours and decibel levels, I was surprised to learn that he always practised softly, saving fortes and fortissimos for the concert stage. My teacher at the time, Nina Svetlanova, was always telling us the same thing; this seemed to be a theme of her teaching, it would be mentioned at each lesson. The way we produce sound at the piano is to depress keys (a vertical activity) whereas music tends to move in horizontal lines. While the distance the key has to travel from top to bottom remains the same whether we are playing soft or loud, fast or slow, the energy used to play forte or fortissimo is greater, as is the key speed (the speed at which the key descends) and the recovery time at the key bed (for a skilled pianist, we are talking about tiny fractions of a second). Physical problems in loud playing come from an excess use of force, and a slow recovery. This translates into tension, which gets carried from one event to the next. The sound gets rougher and rougher, […]

The Three S’s (Part Two)

The next installment of “The Three S’s”, this week SLOWLY. I confess to having appeared in print many times on this subject. You can read the full text on my website – http://grahamfitch.com/articles.htm#2 (then scroll down a bit). For those who don’t want to read the article, here’s a summary: We practise slowly so that the brain can move faster than the fingers. Each note is carefully pre-heard, then played and evaluated. It won’t help only doing this once or twice, it’ll need to be done daily for some time for it to have any lasting effect. It’s human nature to do this once or twice then to want to play it at the proper speed. Try not to, try to go the distance and do it for a week or so! And yet… no amount of slow practice will equip us to play fast, so there has to be an interim process. You can speed up gradually (each time you repeat the passage it can inch towards the full speed) or  – I much prefer this –  you can build up sections by playing ever-longer soundbites at full speed. You start with two or three notes which you think of as one unit. Do a few repetitions at full speed (or close to full speed). Don’t be mechanical though – play with the intended dynamics and range of expression as though you were performing. Then, add another note or two and repeat. You’ll now have a longer soundbite. Go on adding notes until you feel like you have a section that is still within your grasp, then establish a new starting point. That starting point could be the second bar, or half way through the […]