I've been giving a closer listen to Anton Rubinstein's Concerto #4 in d minor, Op. 70, since finishing his biography last week. You can check out the score here.
Listening to the first movement, one cannot avoid the connections between this work and the more famous 1st piano concerto of Tchaikovsky. A tendency towards heavy blocked chords jumping across piano registers, the piano accompanying a lyrical orchestral melody with scalar passages, alternating octaves. The piano textures are remarkably similar, and take nearly the same kind of technique from the pianist. The cadenzas also begin the same way: arpeggiated Gb major chords in the LH, like a harp, while a RH melody slow builds.
So the question is: who copied?
Clearly the answer is Tchaikovsky. Rubinstein's concerto was written in the early 1860s, and the first version of Tchaikovsky's came in the early 1870s (never mind the revisions that it went through). According to the biography, Tchaikovsky adored the older Russian from a young age, and though Rubinstein could be considered the younger Russian's teacher, he rarely gave him much mind. Evidently Rubinstein was mostly a teacher by example, rather than a mentor.
Tchaikovsky eventually tired of the relationship and felt taken advantage of. But clearly in this early work, he took many ideas from Rubinstein.
I wouldn't say Rubinstein managed to create moments that are quite as memorable as Tchaikovsky's. The concerto opens without much note, and though the first piano entry is energetic and extroverted, still has no match to Tchaikovsky.
Rubinstein's melodies are beautiful, but not quite the earworms as Tchaikovsky's.
Still: this is a worthwhile concerto. It is very dramatic, especially the coda which follows the first movement cadenza. It shows off the pianist very well, but isn't tremendously difficult.
I'm surprised more students don't pick this piece up. It would make a great stepping stone to the more famous Russian concertos that followed it, but it's still a great piece. I suppose it doesn't have quite the practicality, because few competitions would accept it, nor would many orchestras think to program it.
But there are some excellent recordings out there (I've listened to Matti Raekallio and Joseph Banowetz) and I think many people know of the piece. Let's hope that more pianists pick it up.
Many learning strategies include setting goals. There's lofty goals like winning an international piano competition and landing a full-time University teaching gig in 7 years. Or one might look more at the short term. A piano major at the beginning of a university semester might set the goal of performing a senior recital in 8 months time with a certain set of repertoire. Then working backwards, they decide what progress needs to be made and at what point in time.
I did this with preparation of my Choosing Joy Recital. A few months out, I decided how many complete run-throughs from memory I'd like to do in the weeks leading up to the first performance. I decided which pieces or even which sections of pieces would be most difficult to memorize. I decided where the most pressing technical challenges were and I made set goals of when to manage these goals. I thought intently about how much time I needed to solve the most difficult sections, but also how I could spread these out so that any one or two weeks wouldn't feel overwhelmed with work.
In the end, I had a week by week list, and in some cases, day by day breakdowns, of what practice accomplishments I needed to make. And I didn't follow any of it.
Really by the second week, I was off track. Inevitably something got in the way, and probably something legitimate. I didn't practice when I wanted to, I didn't get done all that I wanted, and soon my schedule was worthless.
This article helps explain why. It states what's perhaps on obvious trap (but one we always fall into) which is that unreasonable goals are so easy to make. You can decide on a goal to become a millionaire in 5 years, even break it down into smaller savings goals of $30,000 every two months, you're still probably not any closer to reaching your goal.
I'm lucky that my failure to reach my goals never made me unhappy. In fact, while perhaps a little behind, I was well prepared for my recital, and it went off rather well. This is likely because I followed the suggestions in this article, namely that I set rules, and enjoyed the process.
I'm very keen on a keeping a set schedule (I'll probably write about some of my routines in a future post). As I prepared this program, I had set days and hours that I practiced. I tested myself regularly (see Monday's post), and I adopted daily or weekly goals based on those results.
The work got done, and I enjoyed myself. I didn't feel guilty about not setting an arbitrary schedule which had no flexibility for life to get in the way. The older and more advanced a performer you become, the better to trust your instincts. Have deadlines, and have routines in which the work can get done. Work, and let the results happen on a smaller scale.
I recently finished reading Anton Rubinstein: A Life in Music, by Philip Taylor. I had been eager to become more familiar with the life of Anton Rubinstein (not the better known, more recent pianist, Artur Rubinstein). Rubinstein is today known as a gargantuan pianist from the latter half of the 19th century, a contemporary of Liszt, and epitome of the Grand Romantic Artist. Many people have compared my beloved Nyiregyhazi to Anton Rubinstein: the huge romantic gestures, passionate performances full of equal parts enthralling personality and wrong notes.
In the end, Taylor's biography focussed less on pianistic aspects of Rubinstein's career. In fact, more insight into his playing can be found in the occasional mention of his work in After the Golden Age. There was some insight into his general artistic vision, and his dedication to performing. Across many months in 1872 and 1873, he performed over 200 concerts in the USA, including one stop very close to my current home, performing in Toledo, Ohio (I want to see if there is any record of this event locally).
The book did emphasize his work as a composer, more than that of a performer. This was intriguing. I suppose I realized that he had written a lot of music, but I had only really heard his 4th piano concerto, and then, not in a professional setting.
In fact, Anton Rubinstein seemed to regard himself as more of a composer than performer (similar, again, to Nyiregyhazi). He wrote over a dozen operas, several symphonies, an abundance of chamber music, lieder and a tremendous amount of piano in the form of concertos, sonatas, variations and character pieces.
I've been looking at a lot of his music and listening to some. It seems fair that his output here has been forgotten some. It is rather conventional, and dare I say derivative of Beethoven, Mendelssohn and Schubert, with a few certain Russian touches. Not that there's a lot that is bad but given when he wrote, history was ready to give posterity to composers doing something more new.
Some of it is very beautiful. As I write this, I'm listening to his Ocean Symphony for the first time. There are many beautiful melodies and gorgeous climaxes. He seems to understand writing for the orchestra very well as all sections are utilized in turn, and he writes quite a bit of polyphony. He seems to use form well to create drama and arch. But none of this is anything Beethoven hadn't done.
I may learn a few piano pieces, perhaps to build a repertoire of encore pieces. I think it's most interesting to observe how much history can change our perception of artists. Perhaps if Anton Rubinstein had been alive during Beethoven's time, we'd speak of him as a giant, and Beethoven as a side character. Perhaps if Anton had been alive 20 years later and been recorded, biographies of his life would focus much more on his pianism. As it is, it's difficult to say a lot, other than report on reviews and accounts of his recitals.
I wonder what it would have been like to hear him play, but for now, we must focus simply on his legacy as heard through his student, Josef Hofmann.
This post is a direct follow-up from last Friday’s post, “Two types of practicing”.
Today I’m again drawing inspiration from The Bulletproof Musician, and specifically a post called “When is the Best Time to Start Memorizing a piece for Fast, Accurate Results?”.
I’ll let you read the article for yourself, but I want to highlight some of his practical applications:
The best memorizers began testing their memory much sooner, by trying to sing at least a few bars of the song from memory in their very first practice session. And this self-testing ramped up even more in their second practice session… while the fast memorizers made many more errors in their early practice sessions, they fixed them, and made fewer and fewer errors toward the latter practice sessions. The slow memorizers avoided errors early on by singing from the score, but had more and more memory issues as they began testing themselves in the latter practice sessions, ultimately making a ton in their final session when they were furiously trying to cram the piece into memory.
As I describe in my e-book “Pianist’s Guide to Practicing”, I differentiate between memorizing as just playing without the score, and memorizing implicit cues necessary to perform a piece; by this I basically mean “choreography”. Last post I emphasized that pianists should practice small sections in depth, and my point really is so that they’re building implicit memory early on. They should take risks, they should mess up.
In doing so, they are testing their memory. In my experience, testing my practicing early is essential to guide my next steps. Testing my implicit memory means deciding on a predetermined section of a piece, at a predetermined tempo (one that is reasonable to achieve, but not too comfortable), with a certain set of decided interpretive decisions in place. Then I play the section, and try to execute everything, without stopping, until the end of the section. Then I analyze the results.
It may be messy, it may sound horrible. But I’m testing my implicit memory, and I’m getting a lot of information I use to decide on my next steps.
I’m a huge advocate of active practicing. Too many university performance majors practice passively, without taking risks, without testing wherever they’re at.
Through years of graduate work, I’ve spent a lot of time sitting in my office overhearing other piano students practice. One thing I’ve noticed is a tendency to perform, instead of practice, in the practice room.
Maybe put another way: some students practice with the intent of performing, while others practice with the intent of learning.
In the first category, students run through pieces, constantly. When it’s new, they run through the piece slow, eventually they try it faster. When they’re perfecting a piece, they’re simply performing, performing and performing. I’m not sure where the nuances of interpretation are addressed in this process; presumably they analyze issues in their performance in bulk at the end of one run.
In the second category, a students practicing doesn’t exactly sound like the final result. They work in short section which they repeat often, one right after another. They manipulate passages of the score, working in a variety of ways to create challenges for themselves within the text. On a certain passage, they may go from a slow practice to performance tempo in a matter of 10 minutes, but they’ve covered just a small patch of ground.
I’m highly in favor of the latter approach. I would always rather make a lot of progress on a small section of music, rather than a small bit of progress on a lot of music. If I dig into a passage intensely, I’m going to make observations, solve problems and test solutions incessantly. More than likely many of the strategies I use in the first one or two sections are going to inform how I work on the rest of the piece. In the end, I’m going to have a much deeper understanding of a piece that’s going to make the rest of the learning process much faster.
I also think it’s going to be more secure, but more on that on Monday.
How do you get young students to slow down? Certain children love to speed through their playing. This causes, at best, the stuttering mentioned a few posts back, at worst, general frustration.
But “slow down” doesn’t make sense to them! Their desire to speed precludes any logical thinking. Even when I manage to slow them down they don’t see the connection between tempo and success in a passage.
One pedagogy mentor explained it this way: kids who have high energy, and love playtime, associate “slow” with one of two things. You slow down either when you’re tired, or when you’re sick. If I’m asking one of these kids to slow down, they think I’m asking them to be tired or sick, and why would they voluntarily feel like that?
I’ve had success with certain kids to play like a turtle. Occupying their imagination with thoughts of imitating slow-moving animals ‘tricks’ them into adopting a successful tempo.
I’ve been trying out one new strategy, one that I think will work best with 9 or 10 year old students (or older); kids that understand fast and slow, probably even know that slow practice is better, but choose not to do it. I ask them to adopt “thinking” speed. I’ll explain thinking speed as the tempo where their brains and their fingers can talk to each other. (Or if it’s a reading exercise, I’ll sometimes substitute brain for eye; for my Suzuki students it’s sometimes their ear.)
Again, the idea is to fill their mind with a different thought that inadvertently causes them to adopt a desired tactic.
I think with certain students, saying “slow down” causes a certain number of guilt, especially when they know that a slow practice tempo will be more successful. Using ‘thinking speed’ instead allows me to make a more neutral suggestion that gets the same result.
I've always had the best intentions to get to know The Bulletproof Musician blog. If you don't know it, you owe it to yourself to visit. Here a musician-turned psychologist-turned musician/psychologist posts weekly studies on cognitive and behavioral practices and finds deep and insightful conclusions meant to bring out best practices in performing musicians.
Going through some archives, I was recently intrigued by this post about how easy or how difficult our practicing feels. He’s studying the difference between practicing “to make things easier” and “wanting practice to be easy”. There’s a slight difference: in the former, our practice goal is to start with something hard and progressively make it easier to play; in the latter, we start with something easy and end with something easy, in fact, we avoid difficulties altogether.
The article is based on a study of people playing a simple control game; some were allowed to practice at consistently difficult levels, others were held back. Both groups practiced the same amount of time. Tested at easier levels, both groups performed well. When the stakes were raised, the first group performed significantly better.
The author suggests this is an obvious conclusion (“well duh”). But he’s concerned about the practical application to us as musicians. When we learn a piece, we know what to do, but at some point we plateau (as he says, when we need to get from “good to great”). His suggestion is that things not be perfect before we make our practicing difficult, to avoid plateaus where our practicing is easier. Think about applying this principle to practicing your repertoire, where he’s saying it’s okay to move on before something is perfect as the more we challenge ourselves, the better the finished product:
“Like assigning a set of scales at quarter note = 60, but asking a student to increase the metronome by 2 clicks as soon as they can play it  times in a row with < mistakes. As opposed to simply asking that they play the scales at quarter note = 60, and not increasing the tempo until they’re 100% mistake-free.”
As a follow-up to the last post: I can’t stress enough how important it is to sing while you practice.
Playing the piano is a study of diminuendo. Every note dies away right after it begins. It takes a special ability to make a true musical phrase that isn’t full of false accents. It takes an even greater ability to make a phrase that is truly beautiful at the piano, one with direction, one that pulls on the heart-strings.
By singing, I’m not just getting a shape of the melody. I think singing a line actually helps me shape the accompaniment. Take a simple melody and Alberti bass, something like Mozart’s K. 545. The left hand accompaniment helps lead the phrase along. With subtle rhythmic acceleration and dynamic shape, it can build the perception that the melodic notes are actually growing and transforming. We can trick audiences into hearing shape on single notes.
Many students are resistant to singing out loud! Usually at first I don’t require them to in front of me, but I suppose I need to build the resilience that my undergraduate teacher used with me (spoken of in yesterday’s post!).
At some point in my undergraduate years, my teacher began forcing me to count out loud while I played and practiced.
This was incredibly difficult at the time. She of course wanted me to become aware of my poor rhythm, or unstable tempo. But it seemed that counting out loud just exaggerated the problem. I could either count out loud, or play, not both.
But she was insistent! I imagine now that I had one or two lessons where most of the time was spent with me struggling to count out loud (because I was stubborn and didn’t try it in the practice room during the week!). If my counting drifted off, she’d stop me. If I counted incorrectly, she’d stop me. If I played incorrectly, she’d stop me. We would repeat and repeat endlessly.
I’m so glad for her stubbornness!
Eventually I was able to do it, and it’s an indispensible part of my practice toolbox. I found once I got it, it’s been easier since. I don’t even use this just to fix tempo or rhythmic issues: it’s more about having a metacognitive awareness of the piece. By multi-tasking, my sense of time is sharper, but my technique is more independent, and I listen much better than I ever have.
Those weeks of struggle forced me to transcend passive practicing and cultivated greater awareness of my work. Adding my voice to practicing led to me singing while I practiced (more on that in tomorrow’s post), and helped me collaborate, as I could be more attuned to the rhythmic events outside of my own playing.
I often doubt or second guess the things I say in lessons. Sometimes it’s just a lack of clarity. I don’t always think ‘on my feet’ very well and use a lot of extra words that just don’t get my point across clearly.
Sometimes I say the wrong thing.
Yesterday I used an analogy with a student that I’m not sure about. She was playing a soft, romantic, broken chord pattern in both hands and encountered several problems: her soft tone was nearly inaudible, and uneven, and the small knuckle of her fingers collapsed. All of these problems were interrelated of course!
Part of the issue was the piano in my teaching studio: it has stiff keys that are hard for students to adjust to. Part of the issue was also a recurring problem with this student of inattention to hand position, and flow.
So, I wanted to give this student a kinesthetic experience to get the desired affect: I suggested curved fingers, and under each finger she was crushing brittle little bugs. I wanted something that would give her a sense of stability in the structure of her finger, that she could then transfer all the way to the key-bed.
The result was very effective: she had a consistent, singing piano tone, and she achieved a projecting soft dynamic immediately.
My fear, though, is that the idea of crushing something with her fingertips could lead to a complete isolation of the fingers. Instead of integrating her arm, the rest of her body would be cut off by a tight wrist and her fingers would try doing all the work.
In the short term this was an effective strategy. I’m curious to see how this student develops and whether it inhibits her technique later.
Have you found a better, more technically sound, analogy for this type of problem? Any thoughts about how to adapt this analogy to a good technical approach? I’d love to hear from you! Please send me an email by clicking 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