On Passagework

There are innumerable examples in the piano repertoire of what is commonly known as “passagework”, a string of fast notes that lasts either a few bars, a whole section, or an entire piece. The function of this passagework may be decoratively melodic (rather like the singer’s coloratura), but is most often associated with bravura display. Even though I don’t really like the term, let’s stick with it as we all know what we mean by it. It is hardest to bring off at either extreme of the dynamic spectrum, loud or soft, but I think the difficulties are compounded by the sameness of the rhythmic value. If the passage were interspersed with slower or faster note values, this would act as terrain in an otherwise flatter landscape. Extended passages played fast and loud, or fast and soft, demand considerable control. I think immediately of two opposite examples from Chopin, the finale of the Funeral March Sonata (fast and soft, the difficulties compounded a hundredfold because both hands are in unison for the entire movement): and the Prelude in B flat minor (the right hand would be hard enough, but Chopin adds insult to injury with the left hand leaps): As a guiding principle, the finger plays from the surface of the key and releases to the surface (and not a squilimeter higher). The exception to this is martellato or when the passage (or elements of it) is controlled by forearm rotation. While the end result is that the fingers should be extremely close to the keys – in contact with the key surface – the practising dictates that we might regularly and deliberately use a raised finger. In the central nervous system, reciprocal relations exist between […]

By |November 27th, 2011|Practising|3 Comments

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, […]