Leon Fleisher

On Rhythm: Classical v Romantic

Have you considered there might be a different way of playing rhythmically depending on the style period? I’m not talking about rhythmic conventions (such as double dotting, rhythmic assimilation, etc.), but how we organise the relationships between long and short notes, where we might take time, and where to do so would disturb the music. Leon Fleisher explains this beautifully using the famous theme from the 18th Variation from Rachmaninov’s Paganini Rhapsody. He plays it in two ways – one Romantic (the way this piece should of course be done), and the other Classical (to illustrate his point). This sort of rhythmic articulation and shaping is a million miles away from the tyranny of the metronomic beat. As I have discussed before, too much metronome practice will tend to kill natural rhythm – but as I eavesdrop in institutional practice room corridors I am struck by how many pianists are using it as the backbone of their daily practice. While there are some effective ways of using this tool, coinciding each beat of the music to a metronome click is a very good way of filling in practice time without necessarily achieving anything helpful at all. We’ve all experienced how occasional, focussed metronome practice can help stabilise a wayward pulse by drawing attention to those places where we might be rushing or dawdling, but we have to be very careful about this or we risk ending up flattening out the natural ebb and flow of the music until we sound like a robot. Consider the opening of Schubert’s first Moment Musical in C, op 94 no 1. Marked Moderato, this looks like it should be played pretty much in time, right? I sampled 5 random elite recordings from YouTube, and found that […]

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 Music by Konrad […]

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, […]

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, […]

Flexibility in Interpretation

You only have to listen to the same piece played by different pianists to appreciate there is no such thing as the one “correct” way to play it. Tempo and timings, pedalling, style, phrasing – the list of variables goes on and on. Here is an example of such diversity, Liszt’s La leggierezza study as recorded by Carlo Vidusso, Earl Wild and Georges Cziffra. Each performer plays the piece in his own unique way. There are some pianists who agonise over each and every detail of their interpretation in the studio, sweating blood until they have crystallised their vision of the music and got it just right. Their one true version remains steadfast, a statue permanently carved in sound. Here is Clifford Curzon‘s working copy of No. 5 from Schubert’s Moment Musicaux, completely covered with his annotations. You can listen to his performance here, from 11:40 Shura Cherkassky, on the other hand, said he never played a work twice in the same way. He didn’t know how he was going to play even as he walked out onto the stage; it was as though he were improvising his interpretation in public. He had the necessary technical control that gave him absolute freedom of expression, and this is one of the reasons his live performances were always so exciting and unpredictable. A paradox exists in musical interpretation. If we haven’t made any decisions about what we want to do, we have no idea what is going to come out in our performance. It might be wonderful or it might be terrible, but it will certainly be unpredictable. If our performance decisions are too rigid, our playing risks sounding stiff, staid and boring. We set ourselves an impossible task, since the rigidly planned approach does not take […]

How to Begin a New Piece: Part 4

Last week’s guest post by Julie Garnham raised some interesting discussion in Facebook piano pedagogy groups (click here to read). I feel the idea of beginning a new piece away from the piano needs to be clarified – Julie went through this process as an elected assignment on The Piano Teachers’ Course (UK), in the spirit of research. She decided to do this for a full 20 days. It is not necessary to spend this long if you want to get some of the lasting benefits of having your brain a few steps ahead of your fingers. If doing this type of preparatory work away from the piano intimidates you, just spend a day or two reading the score making as many observations as you can. Or you might want to engage your analytic skills as you learn the piece at the piano – the way we learn is very individual! Julie has written a few words about why she undertook the assignment: The small part of the learning and practising process I described in my article helped me overcome the dangers of dodgy thinking that might arise as a result of the brain’s natural and quick processes of ‘trying to help’ us. It does this by skimming and making decisions quickly, that’s its evolutionary task, to save our lives! In a ‘safer’ environment, (music room) we don’t want our brain to carry out such instinctive, habitual, quick, not properly informed decision-making processes that may make our piano playing hit-and-miss, so we want to retrain it.  (That’s the way I see now how things may have happened in my previous learning, when I didn’t  know sufficiently how a piece was created or perceive aurally the deeper relationships within its musical structures.) If I had had years of conservatoire […]

Beethoven Masterclasses

Beethoven wrote his 32 piano sonatas between the ages of 25 and 55, thus they span the composer’s so-called early, middle and late periods and paint a rich picture of his stylistic development. When I study a Beethoven sonata, I like to consult two or three different editions but my working score is Henle Urtext – that’s where I put in my fingerings and other annotations. While I have a soft spot for the commentary and fingerings in the old Craxton-Tovey ABRSM edition, the latest ABRSM version by Barry Cooper is more scholarly, with editorial slurs and other unhelpful markings removed from their earlier publication (when such tampering mattered less). Artur Schnabel’s edition makes an excellent supplement to a standard Urtext, and it is also worth looking at Hans von Bülow’s for fingerings and footnotes (available on IMSLP). There are some recent Henle editions of individual sonatas with excellent fingerings by Murray Perahia, I heartily recommend these. I would urge you to listen to the podcasts of András Schiff’s Wigmore Hall lecture recitals on each of the sonatas. Books I can recommend include A Companion to Beethoven’s Pianoforte Sonatas by Donald Francis Tovey; Beethoven’s Pianoforte Sonatas: A Short Companionby Charles Rosen and for a more general handbook I think Performance Practices in Classic Piano Music by Sondra P. Rosenblum should be on every pianist’s bookshelf. I have heard great things about Jonathan Biss’s online course, Exploring Beethoven’s Piano Sonatas. I was a contributor to the latest special edition from Pianist Magazine – Great Piano Composers of the Classical Era, with my article on the Beethoven sonatas. For more details, click here. Here are some of the best of the masterclasses available on YouTube. Please let me know if you find any more you feel […]

Freeing Up Space

I have had quite a lot of feedback from last week’s post on the benefits of speaking aloud to ourself as we practise – it seems that many of us do it! Just after I hit the “publish” button I remembered two other uses for the voice in our practice. I could have simply added these to what I had already written but decided to make a separate post, since there was quite a bit more to say – here it is! I think we would all agree that playing the piano is a complex mental and motor activity, one that takes a lot of application, dedication and perseverance to master. I work with some students who are incredibly coordinated at the piano and experience very little technical difficulty. After careful guidance and detailed instruction, these fortunate players get it relatively quickly and easily. For others acquiring these skills is time-consuming and more of a process – much depends on how the individual is wired. If you find you still struggle with a passage even after careful practice, or if you just want to dig a bit deeper for greater understanding and security, there is a process you can use that I learned from Leon Fleisher – counting aloud. Counting Aloud Main Beats and Subdivisions I have mentioned before on this blog and elsewhere that one of the highlights of my musical education was Leon Fleisher’s weekly class for piano majors at the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore. He mentioned on more than one occasion that we should practise counting out aloud. The effort and concentration needed to accomplish this extra task takes more brain power than we require for the playing alone, so that when we stop the counting we find […]

Memory Tips: Analyse

We can trace the tradition of playing solo piano music from memory back to Franz Liszt and Clara Schumann. Before that, it was inappropriate to play without a score in front of you. Chopin even got angry at the prospect of a student playing one of his pieces from memory, since, according to the traditions of the day, it would have looked like it was not from Chopin’s pen at all but being improvised or embellished by the performer. Indeed Liszt, when he played his own works, used the score to show to his audience these were not improvisations but composed pieces. Thanks to the many recordings freely available, today’s audiences are generally very familiar with the mainstream works. To add insult to injury, these recordings are often made under artificial conditions with retake after retake, each clip spliced together to make one “perfect” whole. This adds to the pressure in a live performance, since anything untoward is immediately noticeable. Pianist and writer Susan Tomes writes eloquently and persuasively about her own feelings and experiences on the subject of memorisation, and ends her article with this pertinent question: Must musicians waste so much of their time and emotional energy on memorisation? If we’ve prepared the music thoroughly, does playing it from memory really add an extra dimension that is worth all the pain? Pianist Gilbert Kalish has long played his entire solo repertoire using scores, even standard works. As a faculty member of the music department at Stony Brook University, Mr. Kalish helped change the degree requirements. For the past few decades, piano students have been able to play any work in their official recitals from memory or not. They needed to decide which resulted in the best, […]

Controlling Tone

There has been a heated discussion this week on a Facebook piano pedagogy page concerning how we affect tone quality at the piano. This argument is nothing new – it has been going on for very many years and has never been settled to my satisfaction. It probably never will. Do we pianists need to know that much about the science behind how sound is produced in order to achieve artistic results? We all know that the faster we put the key down, the louder the sound but is the way we send the key down a factor in this (using this type of movement or that), or is it simply a matter of controlling the speed of the one key in relation to the speed of the next key in a melodic line, or a stream of chords? Most people seem to agree that applying this test to one note in isolation is meaningless (since music is not made with a single sound) but there are very many differing and contradictory views on what we need to do to control tone and other aspects of technique. It’s a minefield, and much as I might disagree with others they will disagree with me. If you want to read the post that sparked last week’s debate here is the link to Shirley Kirsten’s blog, Journal of a Piano teacher from New York to California.  I firmly believe the way we move at the piano is reflected in the sound. If I use angular, jerky movements I will create angular, jerky sounds. If I hit the keyboard I will produce ugly, percussive sounds. Individuated finger movements produce very articulated, non-legato sounds (the equivalent of a wind player putting a “t” tonguing on […]

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