The excitement of learning a new work starts to build when you’re past carefully
reading all of those marks on the white page, you’ve figured out a preliminary
fingering, and you begin to plow into it to get a feel for how its musical statement
might lay out. For me, that’s when some of my freshest responses and ideas start to
happen. It’s almost like experiencing an improv as I allow myself a lot of leeway to
just play around with it. By sensing it this way, some things are voted into my
learning process, and others aren’t. The overall design – tempo, phrasing, key points
for structural meaning, dynamics – starts to reveal a draft version of where I’m
likely to go with it.
This leads to the next set of decisions: fingering. What is the best road map for
moving around inside this piece? Often the editors of the publication have solved
some problems, or suggested a path forward. But it needs to be personalized – make
it yours! My hand and my comfort zone are the final judge for how I’m going to move
through the new work. Some of the fun for me is experimenting with the acrobatic
moves and deciding whether non-traditional or traditional pathways work. This is
also the stage when re-examining why something feels confounding or
uncomfortable can lead to a whole new set of fingerings. Especially if one hand’s
fingering is out of sync with the other hand’s fingering – causing problems all
around. But the final point is that at this stage of getting into the piece, the
physicality and the musicality are starting to meet on an equal playing field. That’s
where the excitement is!
Dr. Patricia Gray
With the recent posting of the Blue Danube Waltzes on pianosoundings.com, I am reminded of how fortunate we pianists/keyboardists are with our rich literature related to the dance. The English Virginalist School gave us the spirited dances of Byrd and Gibbons, among others. Listen to Glenn Gould's fleeting recording "A Consort of Music..." for a lesson in sparkling articulation. The French gave us the "The Great" Francois Couperin; numerous recordings capture the picturesque movements of his Ordres. The Germans culminated the writing of Baroque dances with the Suites of J. S. Bach. For me, the intrinsic nature of each dance is found in the recordings of Rosalyn Tureck. I would tell my students that performing a Suite was not only challenging for them, but also for the audience. There are several movements, all with repeats and all in the same key, so it is imperative that the performer convey the different character of each dance via the meter, tempo, rhythm, accentuation and articulation.
The following eras gave us waltzes of Schubert, Brahms, Chopin, Liszt, Ravel, etc. The dilettante/amateur pianists welcomed the numerous, accessible waltzes of Schubert while Brahms contributed his somewhat more sophisticated set. Both composers can thank their heritage where the waltz evolved from the "Landler", a German folk dance.
Chopin presented the waltz as a musical genre, not necessarily to dance to. Liszt gave us the demonic and alluring Mephisto Waltz, the charming Valse oubliée (there are 3 in all), and entertaining transcriptions like the Waltz from Gounod's opera, Faust. In contrast to the ostentatiousness of the latter, Ravel offers the suave and exotic Valse nobles et sentimentales, a homage to Schubert. The Russians also contributed many waltzes by Tchiakovsky, Arensky, Rachmaninoff, Shostakovich, and Prokofieff. Obviously, there are many other composers of waltzes, too numerous to mention. We pianists are quite lucky to have such a vast literature to dance to!
Getting back to the Blue Danube Waltzes posting, it as a transcription borrowed from the Schultz-Evler version and arranged for 2 pianos by Abram Chasins, a pianist, composer, teacher, and more. Chasins (1903-1987) studied piano at Juilliard with Ernest Hutcheson and at Curtis with Josef Hofman. He was on the piano faculty at Curtis, and performed his 1st Piano Concerto, and later his 2nd, with the Philadelphia Orchestra. From 1946-1965, he was Music Director of WQXR in NYC.
Pianists going back to Liszt and company could transcibe and perform works, mainly for orchestra or from operas, with such gratifying results. For centuries, symphonies were arranged for the piano. Liszt gave us all 9 of Beethoven's; how else would pre-radio audiences hear them if they had no access to a major orchestra. For honing sight-reading skills, the Haydn Symphonies arranged for piano duet are ideal, and unlike solo reading, there is no stopping! The art of transcibing was a natural progression for the great pianists after Liszt, e.g. Tausig, Busoni, Rachmaninoff, Cziffra, Horowitz, Pletnev, Volodos, Wild, to name a few. The sonorities of the piano, and multiple pianos, are endless and envious.
Joe Di Piazza
Depending on where you are in your development of piano technique, you need to know and embrace your body’s natural abilities and understand its abilities to learn new tricks (like piano technique). For instance, are you right handed or left handed? It matters. Because your brain’s hook-up with a dominant side of your body favors quick learning and longer-term memory for patterns, it’s important to build a stronger relationship with your back grounded, less called-to-action side. In other words, the goal is to become ambidextrous – i.e. equal ease. Note that I use the term ‘side’ and not just ‘hand’. Because playing the piano well is a full-bodied sport, it’s important to be inclusive of the larger physicality and its smooth integration with/from the brain.
How? Bring the less dominant side forward in all of your daily life. Brushing teeth, opening doors, writing (teach yourself to write with the other hand), stirring a spoon, reaching for something, tying knots, catching an object. You get it. Open up the neural and muscular connections to the side of your body that is usually less employed. Become mindful of your duality and reconsider how to equalize your relationship with both sides of your body. That focus will lead to changes in the way you approach piano technique.
Ever think about the lineage of pianism and its ongoing impact? Joe’s blog focuses on the dynamic winning performance of a young 18-year-old Korean pianist, Yunchan Lim, at the Van Cliburn Piano Competition 2022. His stunning technique and interpretations of the competition’s challenging repertoire requirements placed him ahead of all 388 other competitors. Yet his performances at all levels including the Rach #3 were mentored and honed in Seoul, Korea! How does it happen that the European and Russian musical traditions of the piano literature and the critical technical know-how pass their DNA across so many continents?
Look to the teachers. For instance, Lim’s teacher at the Korea National University of Arts, Minsoo Sohn, studied with Russell Sherman in the USA, and Russell Sherman studied with Eduard Steuermann who immigrated to the USA from Austria where he had studied with the great pianist, Ferruccio Busoni. In systems science, Steuermann represents a major node of influence – someone whose life interlocked with a host of significant change-making musicians including Arnold Schoenberg, Alfred Brendel, Menahem Pressler, Gunther Schuller, and many others. That’s the rich legacy conveyed by Sohn during those precious one-on-one lessons to young Lim in Seoul, Korea.
This DNA trail of pianism and the great piano literature continues in many ways. It came out and grabbed me too while I was studying with Mdme. Olga Conus, an immigrant to the USA from Moscow via Paris, and a former student of and dear friend of Rachmaninov. She had many of his personal scores with his fingerings in her library! One day I brought her my interpretation of Scriabin’s 4th Piano Sonata. She sat quietly after the last note had ended and said, “That’s not the way Scriabin played it. I remember the night he finished the sonata and came to our apartment to see if another pianist got what he had put on the page.”
That’s how the legacies – the DNA lineage – of the piano and its traditions live on today.
To tie in to our posting of Rachmaninoff's Romance on our website, the 16th Van Cliburn Competition recently concluded with its youngest winner, 18 year old Yunchan Lim, whose performance of the Rachmaninoff 3rd Concerto in the finals was phenomenal.
For a sampling of his performance go to https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lV_xKVZSUEU, the youthful commentator has a look of amazement when he turns his head to the side and says "the tempo!" as the Korean virtuoso floored his Ferrari-like mechanism at the "piu mosso" B-flat section of the chordal passage in contrary motion. It floored me too, I almost fell off my stool, and no, I was not at a bar, I was at my kitchen island. Vladimir Ashkenazy was 18 when he won 2nd place at the 5th Chopin Competition in 1955. Might this be an omen for the career that is in store for this recent 18 year old winner? The 3rd concerto of Rachmaninoff has had an extensive role in Ashkenazy's career, having made several recordings as a soloist and as a conductor. At the International Rachmaninoff Society Conference devoted to the 3rd Concerto that I attended at Juilliard in the early 2000's, there was a Q & A session with Ashkenazy after he conducted a performance with a Juilliard student. His response to a person who exclaimed "Oh, Mr. Ashkenazy, you are the guru of the Rach 3rd" was very serious and silencing. He said "No, the best performance of the 3rd concerto was Van in 1958, he played it with such freedom". Of course we all knew he was referring to Van Cliburn's monumental victory at the 1st Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow during the Cold War. Van was 23, and Vladimir was 25 when he tied for the Gold medal with the English pianist John Ogden at the 2nd Tchaikovsky competition. To conclude my musings, a few later weeks later, Van Cliburn played the Tchaikovsky Concerto with the Winston-Salem Orchestra at the bequest of Mrs. Hanes of "undies" fame. She was having a decade changing birthday, and wrote a sizable check to secure the soloist.
It was a powerful and nostalgic performance by this legendary pianist. After the performance, I went backstage and told him what Ashkenazy had said about him at Juilliard. He was visually moved, and wanted to hear more about "Vlodya's" comments to the annoyance of the people behind me waiting to greet the maestro.