Pianist

In The Studio: Why is technical work always left till the “last minute”? – Part One

The short answer: because the majority of students just, plain and simple, don’t like it.

The long answer: it is difficult to be objective in this area of pedagogy, mainly because I love technical work. I love studies – I love Hanon – I love scales and arpeggios. Every time I convey this to a student, I get “you’re crazy” or “wow, what is wrong with you?” which, normally, then encourages  bouts of laughter before moving on to something else. There is something immensely satisfying about seeing your hands glide up a piano or swiftly taking an arpeggio at break-neck speed without fault. The majority of my students, however, just don’t see it this way (with the exception of one or two), and even when I present a masterclass, a top question that is always asked is “how can I get them to practice technical work?”

It really does come down to HOW you teach it and not WHY you teach it. We all know that the concept of technical work consists of the building blocks for successful pianism. So, why then, are there so many famous pianists (past and present) who lay claim to NEVER utilising a scale or an arpeggio in their practice? Why are there so many pianists who believe that it is the repertoire itself which provides all the technical work they need? It is because they have found ways of making technique work for THEM and not the other way around. Many of them DID start with scales and arpeggios when they were younger and later evolved into pianists who started deciphering, unraveling, and using the technical challenges in their repertoire to their advantage.

While I appreciate this, I am not an exponent of using JUST repertoire to teach technique (even though I can see the advantages), instead, I believe in a combination of all things from collections of exercises, scales, and repertoire. My aim as a teacher is to always try my best to provide pathways to solutions regarding current physiological hurdles (tension, posture, injury) and technical inadequacy. In discovering various methods of teaching technique (of which there are thousands), there are some core fundamentals I like to teach my students aside from the usual “scales and arpeggio manual” – first and foremost, I like them to become investigators. To me, this is the most important skill I can give to any of my students. Without it, technique is a pointless and, dare I say it, obsolete journey.

The concept of the ‘mistake’, why it happens, and when student needs to become investigator:

“When a car crash happens, the impact is NOT the mistake. The mistake happens before hand. When someone is illegally talking on their mobile phone while driving, someone has run a red light, or a driver misses a “Give Way” sign, THAT is what we need to be looking at. Anything that happens afterwards is the RESULT of the mistake.”

This is how I explain mistakes to my older pupils. The point is that so many people believe the crash itself to be the mistake when it isn’t. If this were the case, there would be no need for Crime Scene Investigators, Traffic Control, or forensic teams to rush to the scene of the resulting accident. These people are required to investigate the circumstances leading up to the crash in order to determine WHY it has happened. These “accidents” in music happen the same way.

By encouraging students to become investigators, we open up the doors for a “critical thinking” or “self-directed” approach to analysis of their playing and of their technique. For example (and one that I see a lot of) is the Dominant 7th of F. The keys which need to be played are C-E-G-Bb with the fingering of 1-2-3-4, 1-2-3-4 ascending and 4-3-2-1, 4-3-2-1, descending. It is when the arpeggio descends that I tend to see a banging 4th finger (akin to hearing the triplet accented sound in three note arpeggios) it also when I have heard many a piano teacher say “stop banging that 4th finger” which, unfortunately, puts all of the focus on the fourth finger. The banging fourth finger is the RESULT of a mistake that happens previously. There are a tonne of reasons for this: incorrect hand position, inability to touch and release with correct weight, lazy or late movement of the wrist, lack of rotation, incorrect direction – the “where am I going to?” effect, flat fingers and inflexible forearm, shoulder and tension across the scapular, hunching and poor posture. This is precisely the moment where teacher needs to be encouraging student to investigate more thoroughly. One of the most popular “old wives” techniques of getting rid of this 4th finger accent is asking a student to count in 5 when playing the four note arpeggios (similarly, count in 4 when playing three note arpeggios), but, as successful as this can be, it alone is not going to fix the problem if it happens to be rooted in tension and poor posture.

I have seen many exciting outcomes with technique by teaching my students to investigate why something is going wrong, or, what is happening in the lead up to the “car crash”. Teaching technique can be a struggle, mostly because it isn’t fully understood by the student (and sometimes, too, by the teacher!). Furthermore, an analytical framework is often just left up to the teacher, when understanding mistakes should be encouraged between student and teacher. This stepping stone is paramount in all aspects of technique, from the physical to the mental.

In part two: questions to guide a student through the investigative process, methods for exciting technical work approaches such as books, games, resources, and personal studio tools. And also…why technique really DOES tend to be left till the “last minute”.

 

 

Perspectives: Why I play with sheet music…

The last piece I played memorised was the Brahms Piano Sonata no. 3 in F minor over ten years ago.

I perform with music because, simply put, I can no longer perform without it.

I still, to this day, get asked about it after nearly every recital, which leads me to believe that it is just as relevant a topic as it ever was. So, today, I would like to talk about my decision to no longer play without music and the two major events that lead me down this path.

My “second” university: 

Up until starting at this university, everything I played was from memory. I had recently finished at the Conservatorium and, under the advice of another teacher, I was sent to further my study at this second university, where the focus was to be on the music I wanted to play/specialise etc. Looking back on it now, not much good came from this experience other than meeting who was to be the greatest pianistic influence of my life. The university didn’t (and still doesn’t) have much going for it. I was beginning my third year of study and I was broke; I don’t even think I knew what money looked like anymore! I couldn’t afford shoes for my concerts, I couldn’t afford clothes, and I could barely afford to eat. The shoes that I did have were so close to breaking and falling apart that every day in them was like a torturous journey, hoping against hope that they did not disintegrate because they were all I had.

The last crushing moment on my memory happened at the hands of a staff member. I had been trying for years before hand to get my memory back up to scratch like it was during the Brahms days. I felt so good about the fact that I had all of my pieces memorised after so many years. I was set to play in a lunch time concert and everything that day was going to plan. We were all backstage waiting to go on. I was playing some Chaminade, Chopin, and Hyde – I remember that much! Yet, as I walked out on stage to bow, I felt the arch in my shoe split and the colour drain from my face.

It got worse.

When I sat down to play, I couldn’t lift the front of the shoe to pedal because it was loosely hanging and floppy. I had to, comically, lift my entire leg to place it down on the sustain pedal. To make matters worse, the pedal then got stuck in the underside, causing me to trip into the piano when I got up to bow. Enter mediocre staff member and her friends – who laughed and pointed. The fact that, as staff members, they went to the level of pointing and laughing so publicly, created feelings in me that I had never experienced before concerning music – crippling anxiety, humiliation, and shame. Suffice to say that said staff member was who we used to refer to as a “backyard pianist”, and really should have acted more professionally.

After that incident, I didn’t return to university for almost 5 weeks. I also never got to sit with the woman in question and explain to her how that felt and that what she did was wrong. I tell this story in a rather hilarious vein to my pupils. It almost always comes up when we have a joke about the pitfalls of playing the piano. Little do they know how much psychological damage that situation caused (short and long term!)

Medical:

Two years ago, I got sick. Very sick. The culmination of 12 months of the worst stress I had ever experienced caused my body to scream “no more!” and shut down. Test after test and scan after scan – all to no avail. Weight gain skyrocketed, my hands began to hurt, arthritis had begun to set in along my spine, and life really started to get me down. Health anxiety was, however, the worst part of all of this (sitting and waiting for tests should almost be outlawed due to the strain it can put on your well-being!).

ALL of the anxiety came flooding back ten-fold. I had convinced myself that, for the most part, it was all under control. Unfortunately, that was not to be the case and the same battles I had fought years ago were, all of a sudden, so fresh and new.

Frankly, I felt like a walking disaster.

Full Circle:

It is now 12 months on from my medical issues and 8 years since that awful moment at university. I feel better and I feel supported. However, I still choose to play with music. That will never change. That decision is firmly rooted.

Why?

Well, why not?!

I feel at one with music. I practice exactly the same way as I did before when I was memorising. I don’t see the issue.

I get asked about my students memorising all the time. The answer is, yes, I do encourage them to memorise the music. I also tell them that, at the end of the day, it doesn’t equate to much if (even from memory) it is unmusical, unmeasured, and overall poorly performed.

Ultimately, I felt like a circus animal. Even after bashing out a near 40 minute Brahms Sonata and being questioned about how I store that in my brain, I did not feel propped up. I felt like screaming “You’ve no idea what it took…” – but, that’s just me. My hat goes off to anyone who can do it and do it consistently well in spite of what life throws at them. I, however, am not one of those people.

Don’t me wrong, it was not without trying either. I saw many councillors concerning memory function, I wrote papers concerning it (I was a double degree psychology major!) and spent many years after the fact trying to retrain myself. I could memorise a few small piano pieces here and there, but never again to the level of the Brahms. I play fairly regularly across Australia and overseas and I still see a few raised eyebrows when I mention that I play with sheet music. Sometimes, you even expect patrons to ask for their money back. Very sad…

Just as Liszt changed attitudes with memorisation, I sincerely hope the attitude shifts on playing with sheet music. We are there for the music. There is no certifiable evidence to suggest that memorisation promotes a more musical performance. After all, put your headphones on and listen to the page turns in some of Ashkenazy’s recordings (he is only one of many where the sheet music can be heard “turning” in the recording). It is laughable that he is seemingly “allowed” to use sheet music while he’s in a recording studio away from an audience, but would be condemned by some for using it on stage. What is worse is that his musicality (which is of the highest order) would be challenged and, quite possibly, ridiculed. The entire notion is ridiculous and the contradictions many.

I play with music because it makes me feel safe in my job. It calms whatever nerves I have which can greatly affect the music.

Honestly, I would rather give a good performance with music, than a bad one without, for whatever that is worth.

As a side note, I also pay my page-turners rather handsomely.

Dan.

Rarity Wednesday: “Chopin” from Lanterne Magique Op. 66 no. 2 – Benjamin Godard

As explained in an earlier post, Rarity Wednesday is just a brief little post that comes out mid-week with the idea of presenting a rarely heard/performed piece for your consideration. I appreciate that not every piece will be to the liking of all, but it is hoped that, regardless, it encourages further research. The Romantic period is a mind-blowingly excellent example of a period of time that produced such treasures of the unknown! Benjamin Godard, relatively famous for a small amount of works, fits into this category with the majority of his compositions hidden from the limelight.

Chopin’ op. 66 no. 2 from Lanternes Magiques – Benjamin Godard

Aside from the many transcriptions of the Berceuse from the opera, Jocelyn, French composer Benjamin Godard (1849-1895) had an enormous output which remains, unfortunately, untouched. His life was a short one, dying from tuberculosis at 45, with many works (including large symphonies and no less than 8 operas) absent from the modern concert program. Although originally a violinist, Godard left a sizeable amount of piano music which includes Mazurkas, Waltzes, Etudes, and Character Pieces. None of the works are daringly virtuosic like other pianist/composers of the time; they are more comfortably placed beside the highly stylised piano music of Moritz Moszkowski. The piece we are looking at today comes from the collection of pieces divided into five books called Lanterne Magique (The Magic Lantern) Op. 50, 55, 66, 110, 115. Each opus number contains a handful of character pieces either based on dances from foreign lands, scherzi, nocturnes, programmatic pieces,or characterisations of composers. Incidentally, the most famous piece across all of the collections is the piece Chopin Op. 66 No. 2

The Polish style is alive and well in Godard's waltz!

The Polish style is alive and well in Godard’s waltz!

The piece is a perfect homage to the Polish composer Frederic Chopin. One only needs to look at the score to see direct rhythmic and harmonic quotes from a handful of Chopin’s waltzes, Mazurkas, the Nocturne Op. 32/1, and the Fantasie Impromptu Op. 66. It isn’t above a grade 7-8 AMEB standard, and thanks to John Thompson’s Modern Piano Method, gets some coverage with student pianists. Chromaticism abounds with a few twists and turns for the student:

A few little tricks and turns in these mysterious and nostalgic chromatic runs.

A few little twists and turns in these mysterious and nostalgic chromatic runs.

We have melodies which are interchangeable between left and right hands (reminiscent of a certain “Grande Valse Brilliant”) and an overall harmonic flavour that is very much in line with the style of the Polish master. The piece wouldn’t be complete without a sweeping, ascending run of chromatics and then an arpeggio cascade to finish:

A beautiful and unexpected turn of harmony reminiscent of the Nocturne Op. 32 No. 1

A beautiful and unexpected turn of harmony reminiscent of the Nocturne Op. 32 No. 1

A pastiche of Grand Valse Brillante and Impromptu all woven into a new and beautiful soundscape

A pastiche of ‘Chopinesque’ Valse and Impromptu all woven into a new soundscape

A delicious blend of Fantasie Impromptu and Nocturne with the previous left hand melody now in the right

A salon blend of Impromptu and Nocturne with the previous left hand melody now in the right

A sweeping

A sweeping “drawing room” finish!

I’ve been wanting to teach this piece as a “regular” with my advanced students for many years now. I thought about it the other day and immediately raced to grab it from the shelf for a play-thru. Here is the best recording I could find on YouTube: The score is readily available on IMSLP (links provided below) http://imslp.org/wiki/Lanterne_magique_III,_Op.66_(Godard,_Benjamin) Enjoy! Dan xo

Perspectives: Why Miriam Hyde?

Perspectives: Why Miriam Hyde?

Easy: because her music appeals to every aspect of my teaching and performing practice.

Over the years, especially as a ‘student’ pianist, I always wondered if I was going to find my niche. Much the same as Ashkenazy, Lortie, and countless others have traversed the complete works of Chopin, I wanted to find the composer who was going to be just for me; I was so frightened of becoming a modern-day pianist who was required to “specialise” in everything. It’s not that I don’t see the value in being multifarious in an approach to music, I just wanted a composer where the passion would be continually ignited; playing their music would be “my” thing.
Thankfully, I found that in the music of Miriam Hyde. Oddly enough, this has been going on for years without me recognising it.

It began with a grade 6 exam – my first ever piano exam, I might add. I remember hearing a piece by Hyde called Woodland Sketch and wanting to learn it. The girl in my class who used to play it was, herself, a marvellous pianist and I was forever asking her to perform it for me; it was my first Miriam Hyde experience. The piano exam allowed for the last piece to be an “own choice” item, so I leapt at the opportunity to play Woodland Sketch. The rest is history and I have recorded it and performed it ever since. I use it for encores, I teach it to my students, and I am fairly certain that it will remain a piece very close to my heart for years to come.

This lead to experiences with other, beautifully characteristic pieces on the AMEB exam list: Ear Rings from Spain, Minarets, Study in A minor, Water Nymph, and Scherzo Fantastico. At university, I performed many of her concert works and even accompanied a few of her songs. This opened the doors to many of her poems and her autobiographical work, Complete Accord. Among all of this, I got to perform The Fountain and Study in Blue, White, and Gold for her in a workshop environment. I always viewed her as quite a stern woman in her approach but, after the workshop, I experienced a gentle nature which I continue to remember fondly; it remains my last interaction with her.

Since then, my research has been concerned with investigating her pedagogical and concert works for piano. Miriam was a fine concert pianist with a formidable technique – the evidence of this can be found in the recordings of her piano concerti among others. These pianistic elements filter their way through to her compositions from Preliminary to LMUSA and many of these works (Woodland Sketch included) remain the favourites of piano student and piano teacher alike.

With companies like The Keys Press in Perth, Wirrapang Publishers in NSW, along with wonderful people like Dr. Rita Crews, Phillip Wilcher, Hyde’s daughter Christine Edwards, and Professor Larry Sitsky, there is now a growing collection of information regarding her life, pianism, and seemingly endless list of achievements. I am fortunate enough to be adding to that with what is the largest recorded collection of her works for piano (80 videos so far on youtube!). Even though I have a long period of work ahead of me, I am indebted to many of these Australian luminaries for their help. Their writing and, in some cases, their friendship, has helped motivate me even more. I am always discovering new things about Miriam Hyde – there is never a dull moment. I continue being in love with the process of shining light on her work as I progress with honours and masters research.

My first CD will be released in August. It has been recorded and is now in post production. The Complete Piano Music of Miriam Hyde Volume 1 is a labour of love. I specifically searched for recording studios in Sydney and was over the moon when I found Sound Heaven Studios in The Blue Mountains – a place Miriam admired. It felt good to record this music surrounded by such beautiful scenery, which, in essence, is what Miriam’s music is all about.

Enjoy!

Dan
xo

Woodland Sketch: