Daniel Hsu happened to be about an hour away this past Sunday afternoon, at a concert hall I'd never seen before, in Findlay, Ohio. Beautiful hall and beautiful Bosendorfer piano. Daniel Hsu was my favorite Cliburn competitor last spring so I had to make the trip.
I still loved his playing these many months later, probably more than before. I was rereading some of my comments about him (see the rest of the Cliburn Competition Reports categories) and during the finals, I commented that it was as if he was playing the premiere of the Tchaikovsky concerto. His playing just has so much freshness but also naturalness.
My favorite had to be the Chaconne. It sounded more like a set of variations than I'm used to hearing, and that's a very good thing. Every single variation felt like an original composition with it's own unique voicing, subtleties of rubato. But it still held together and was clearly a single narrative. I've rarely ever heard the piano sound so much like an organ: layers of sound all emanating from the same source (I say this to differentiate from sounding 'orchestral' at the piano), but beautiful layers that were phrased individually and as a whole.
He had some beautiful things elsewhere, of course. I was particularly drawn to lyrical melodies in the opening of the Chopin Fantasy. Where Chopin added a countermelodic harmony in the right hand, Hsu voiced them so subtly as just a tinge of color, instead of a full fledged second voice. I've been teaching about spectral music in both my piano repertoire class and with a private student, and specifically how these composers seek to alter our perception of the piano's timbre by specifically voicing complex, dissonant chords. It is a remarkable affect that does work, and Hsu seemed to capture an element of that: not letting the countermelody compete with the principle one.
I found him focusing a little too much on the "dance" side of Chopin's famous 'concert-dance': his agogic accents were a little redundant for me. But overall his playing is imaginative, clean and energetic. Pictures sounded nowhere near its 30-minute length, and everything from the most bombastic to the most simple was given a thorough, thoughtful musical treatment.
Occasionally I find that a certain theme shows up in my teaching, with all my students, whether they're little kids or college performance majors. It just happens to be one pedagogical or performance idea that I'm thinking a lot about that ends up applying to a majority of my students. Eventually that idea either becomes a mainstay of my teaching or it disappears.
Sometimes it's a saying, but this week it's been an analogy.
I always try to shift how my students practice, especially older ones. I talk endlessly about strategies and techniques (which I summarize in an e-book, which you can get for free by signing up for my mailing list on the right). I talk about isolating sections. But I find it really difficult to break their mentality that practicing means starting at the beginning of a piece, playing through till they make a mistake, stopping and restarting at the point of the mistake. I could go on about the errors here, but the point of this post is to discuss the analogy I've been trying out.
I've been comparing this kind of practicing to reading a book, but not really reading. We've all experienced having words in front of us, knowing that our eyes are going over the words line-by-line, but our conscious brain isn't receiving any of it. We're 'reading', but we aren't processing; our mind is on something else.
At the piano, so much of student practicing is skimming the piece, and allowing little conscious processing attention until we realize there's been some kind of error.
In the past, I've asked students how they would go about memorizing several paragraphs from a book. Would you read it through, starting at the beginning and going to the end? Then repeat (not even any washing or rinsing).
Of course not, they would study one sentence at a time, repeat it, review it, think about the point its making. When they can recite it, they add another sentence.
If it's academic writing, we need to be able to track the argument the author is making. Study the thesis, the background evidence, and weigh that against the process of study, analyzing application of the results. Paragraph by paragraph, we can break down and analyze the overall structure.
Even my young students understand this at a gut level, when it comes to reading and learning or understanding a text.
I'm not sure why students have trouble applying these reading analogies to piano practicing. Perhaps seeing the final musical composition as a whole creates a desire to approach learning and practicing a piece as a whole. Maybe with text it's easier to see individual moments and practice and rehearse as such.
I've had success with students breaking this habit, make no doubt. Sometimes they make the connection and change their habits drastically. Sometimes I force students to practice only individual measures by covering all other measures up with sticky notes. Sometimes I point them to a random number generator app, have it dictate the single measure number that they focus on. Or, number every system of the piece and practice just one line at a time.
But so often, we talk about why it's so important to practice in small, isolated sections. They understand these analogies. We pull a random number generator and declare we're going to play one single measure. We talk about the difficulties in this measure, and what the student needs to pay attention to. Then the student goes to play it, and they try to continue past the measure. They don't seem to believe me that I mean literally, stop at the barline, or at a predetermined section.
I wonder awareness of stopping points comes from a general mastery of piano playing. Maybe it's easy for me to practice this way because I've synthesized piano technique, artistry, theory and history to such a degree that I can become aware of good isolated practice segments at a metacognitive level. I'm still exploring the best way to instill this practice in my students. I'd welcome anyone's input on this issue!
On March 23rd, I had the pleasure of seeing a recital by Joel Schoenhals, a pianist I’ve happily gotten to know this year. He’s embarked on a couple remarkable projects: performing all 32 Beethoven Sonatas in 8 programs over 4 years, and now the Bach Partitas and Brahms short pieces on 4 programs over 2 years. This concert was the last of that latter series.
I’d encourage you to check out the write ups that he has linked on his website about learning the Beethoven cycle (here and here). I love his dedication to the music and sharing it in both intimate and large environments.
I also appreciate that he has focused on presenting complete and unedited performances of these concerts online. He sure doesn’t make many mistakes-whatever that term even means!-but the musicality and personality from doing it live is so engaging. I’ve never done studio recordings where every mistake can be rerecorded and spliced in, but I love the magic, the humanness of live performances.
Check out the back catalogue of all of his recitals. What I love about Joel’s playing is that I’m always drawn in to what he’s doing that it never occurs to me to question or criticize his playing. I’m not actively thinking about reviewing or analyzing his playing as a musician myself. There’s something in his playing that invites trust in the work that he’s done and the performance journey that we’re on together. The music exists and for whatever period of time that he’s playing, it needn’t exist any other way.
This was especially evident in the Brahms Ab Waltz that he played as an encore. You can check out his performance of the whole set here.
"Modern performers seem to regard their performances as texts rather than acts, and to prepare for them with the same goal as present-day textual editors: to clear away accretions. Not that this is not a laudable and necessary step; but what is an ultimate step for an editor should be only a first step for a performer, as the very temporal relationship between the functions of editing and performing already suggests." -Richard Taruskin, Text and Act