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.
Years later and I love all kinds of contemporary music, and I've listened to Dawn Upshaw singing all kinds of things, and I've discovered this incredible pianist Gilbert Kalish who has done so much for legitimizing modern music through a historical context. Last night, I was able to hear these two iconic artists together in recital.
I have been unable to put much on my blog the last several months, but given that this week I have 3 marvelous concerts I get to go to, and my performing obligations are winding down for the year, I wanted to reflect on some of this music that i'm hearing. I'm less interested in giving concert reviews, than turn to some short-form thoughts and impressions from these performances.
Rarely will I ever get to hear such remarkable artists live. The communicative effort of both Dawn Upshaw and Gilbert Kalish was clear from the very first notes either of them gave in the recital. Their collaborative partnership is clearly affectionate and respectful.
I was explaining to my Dad-who accompanied me-what it was that made someone like Gilbert Kalish a better pianist than me. It seemed that the best thing I could suggest was that he has such wisdom in his playing. He's able to communicate his interpretation so clearly and so naturally, that I feel no need to consider any other interpretive choices. I could fully entrust his musical decisions. I don't know how much of this comes from someone who has performed, recorded and taught as much as he has, and how much of it he had when he was my age, but I can only hope to gain such wisdom as I continue to work.
Dawn Upshaw...Well, it was a dream to hear her voice live. I'm amazed at her clear language: She sang (and memorized!) a set of songs by Bartok, and between her diction and acting, I might have convinced myself that I understood Hungarian, were I not following the original and translated poetry in the program. Like Kalish, the musicality and poetry are so present. She rarely had to use her full voice in this program, but that didn't mean every note wasn't stunning and expressive. For all our talk as pianists of having a 'singing tone', she was able to utilize such direct softness in her tone, which still filled the room.
In this final section, I study what it means to perform beyond analysis.
In this middle section, I analyze a recording of Nyiregyházi, some of his compositional pursuits, plus dive into the conflicts between objectivity of today and piano playing from the Golden Age.
In this first part of the article, I discuss Nyiregyházi the man, and what it means to be a performer of the Golden Age of Piano Playing
Happy New Year!
A new year and some new plans for my blog. Over the next several months, I am planning to shift a lot of my focus towards a long neglected project: a sight-reading exercise book. I have several pedagogical exercises to specifically develop sight-reading skills and I think it's high time that I finish it.
But not to fear, my blog is a venue I value. So, I will be re-purposing some old articles that I have written but never published and presenting them in serialized form. First will be this article on Ervin Nyiregyházi which I wrote for a peer-reviewed journal but ultimately decided to pull. Second will be a doctoral essay that I wrote for a philosophy of education class on one aspect of college music curriculums. Finally, I will go all the way back to a master's degree work on Russian pianism in the music of Samuel Barber. Each article will come with an introduction to set the stage.
So-who was Ervin Nyiregyházi? I'll get to that answer more properly in the article. For now, I will say that he had a life story which can easily sound like a fantasy. Over years of talking about him, I think I've found the most concise way to make it most believable-which you'll read-but you owe it to yourself to check out the incredible biography, Lost Genius, by Kevin Bazzana.
I had heard his story and listened to a few recordings of his as an undergrad. I didn't understand his playing. His playing, to be sure, is difficult to understand without context. For me, that context came when I read After the Golden Age. Nyiregyházi's playing started to make sense, and the more I got to know his work, and the story of his life, the more I adored his true genius.
His playing truly transformed my sense of musicality, of what expressivity truly means. Studying Ervin Nyiregyházi was the true impetuous towards my artistic journey that I spoke of in my Artistic Messages series last fall. I wrote a clunky thesis on him for my master's degree, full of good intentions but weak arguments. I presented on him subsequently and honed my message, strengthened my scholarly skills.
This particular article came out of an international presentation that I gave in November of 2014 in London, England. It was to be published in a peer reviewed journal, but I decided that I didn't feel comfortable putting it out as a scholarly essay. Ultimately, it's still an impassioned, shamelessly subjective artistic credo, more than it's a scholarly essay. Sharing the work here seemed more academically honest, and certainly fitting with the message of my blog.
So, the article will come out in 3 parts: January 15th, January 25th and February 5th. It is a big read, but I do hope that it will prove useful for many people. For now, I thought it would be easiest to include the bibliography for the entire article all at once, from the outset, so it's down below. Let me know what you think!
In light of my last couple of posts about listening and recordings, I thought I would point you towards this interesting article I had on my 'to read' list for several months, that just happened to fit the subject perfectly. It's called "Learning from Listening" and the author holds some of the same opinions I do, and some differing ones. Taken as a whole, I thought it would be worth sharing several excerpts, annotated with some of my own commentary.
There are many benefits in listening to the repertoire you are working on, on disc and in concert, as well as “listening around” the music – works from the same period by the same composer, and works by his/her contemporaries. Such listening gives us a clearer sense of the composer’s individual soundworld and an understanding of how aspects such as orchestral writing or string quartet textures are presented in piano music, for example.
I've always had problems with "you have to", when it comes to interpreting music. As in, "You HAVE TO know the Beethoven quartets to understand his piano music" or "You HAVE TO know Schumann's love letters to Clara to play the Fantasy". In a blind listening, no one can say definitively that 'yes', I clearly know and understand Beethoven's late quartets. But I like this "listening around". Especially when it's expanded to other composers of the time period. Composers always notate their music with certain assumptions that performers would understand the written symbols. Seeing and understanding works of the time could give a fuller picture of what was implied or taken for granted in musical notation.
Conversely, hearing a performance which I may dislike is never a waste of time. When I heard Andras Schiff perform Schubert’s penultimate piano sonata (in A, D959), a work with which I have spent a long time in recent years, I found myself balking at certain things he did to the music – not that anything was “wrong”, it was simply not to my taste. But one thing I took away from that performance was his pedantic treatment of rests in the first movement (Schubert uses rests to create drama, rhythmic drive and moments of suspension or repose) and this definitely informed my practising when I next went to the piano to work on the sonata.
I confessed in my last post that I don't really care for Martha Argerich. Obviously, many people, including many musicians I love and admire, do care deeply for her music making. I don't necessarily dislike her music, and there are moments in her performances that I like but...On the whole her playing doesn't excite me. But I would be remiss if I ignored her completely. If great artists value her work, I should try and pinpoint what her attraction is to others, and perhaps add some lessons into my own playing. Just because I want to discover my own artistic voice, does not mean I'm excluding any opinions from outsiders!
Most of us are limited by our own imagination, experience and knowledge and great performances and interpretations can broaden our horizons, inspire us and inform our own approach to our music. But listening at concerts, and particularly to recordings and YouTube clips does have its pitfalls too.
There may never again be a time when performers will make a living off of recordings...But all the same, unless you are watching videos from an artist's personal page, or from the official page of a record label, please do not listen to recordings on YouTube. We want to ensure that videos are monetized for the proper people who created the content, and that is very difficult to do on YouTube. (My own videos have received copyright claims for being performances of Menahem Pressler, and Lili Kraus, and while I'm flattered, I clearly am not either). We can be sure that whatever money is coming in through streaming is getting to the right people if we use Spotify or Apple Music.
Recorded performances capture a moment in time and while they can certainly inform our playing, they can also become embedded in our memory and may influence our sense of a piece or obscure our own original thoughts about the music. This may lead us to imitate a magical moment that another performer has found in a note or a phrase – a moment over which that particular performer has taken ownership which in someone else’s hands may sound contrived or unconvincing.
What a magical way to say what I've tried to convey so often. Perhaps we can take general approaches to artistry, but not exact interpretations. But how often do we try to get inspiration from how someone else has interpreted a piece. Much better to focus on people as unique individuals, rather than gods of detective work.
The other problem with recordings is that some performers may take liberties with the score to make certain passages or an entire piece more personal. This tends to happen in very well known repertoire, where an artist will put their own mark on the music to make it their own, while not always remaining completely faithful to the score. They might take liberties with tempo or dynamics to create a certain “personal” effect. Thus, some recordings may not truly represent what the composer intended, yet these recordings have become the benchmark or “correct” version.
I suppose I have made similar arguments before. However, I don't like the term "composer's intentions" and always recoil when I hear it, no matter the context. In the New Year, I will deal with this term extensively!
So when we listen we should do so with an advisory note to self: that recordings and YouTube clips can be helpful, but we should never seek to imitate what we hear. It is the work we do ourselves on our music which is most important, going through the score to understand what makes it special, and listening around the music to gain a deeper understanding of the composer’s intentions so that our own interpretation is both personal and faithful.
And here we come rather full circle. I recently discovered the Mendelssohn Octet. What an INCREDIBLE piece of music. I don't know why I never listened to it, I've known about it for at least a decade, but just this weekend I decided to give it a listen. This music spoke to a part of my musical soul, and woke that soul up in such a way that I didn't want to play this exact music in particular, but I just wanted to make music. So yes, listen to artists that inspire you, listen to works of great composers, but have the right intention. Be inspired not to copy them, but to follow them in making beautiful, inspirational and artistic music.
Sometime in the midst of my master’s degree, after I had read Kenneth Hamilton’s After the Golden Age, I came up with a study that I think might demonstrate the effects that listening to recordings has on individuality in one’s artistry. At this point in time, I was very frustrated with the general state of piano playing. So many people seemed to love Martha Argerich, and I didn’t get it (I still don’t get it but that controversy is for another post). All this I ruminated on in my last blog post.
As I entered my doctoral degree, I thought I might have the chance to work the study into my program, but as graduate work goes, I got too busy, ended up going another direction in my research and lost the chance to have plenty of student pianists nearby to test my hypothesis. I thought it might be relevant to share the general outline of the study. Maybe someone will one day take it up and test it!
The procedure is simple enough: have two groups of pianists, likely undergraduates though their technical capabilities by no means need be similar. Each group would be given a score of some obscure work, likely from the early classical period, with relatively intermediate technical challenges. The score would make no reference to composer or style. I would recopy the score on notation software myself and include only the essentials: notes, rhythms, tempo indication, and meter. Dynamics, articulation, phrasing, metronome marking would all be absent.
The test group would be given free rein to practice and prepare the score for performance in a given time period. The only stipulation is that they may not consult with any other person in their preparation of the score.
The control group would also be given free rein to practice and prepare for performance in the same time period. They also may not consult with any person in their preparation, but, they are given a recording of the score which they must listen to every day. In the recording, which I would make with an attempt to sound stylistically appropriate, they would hear distinct choices in terms of tempo, articulation, dynamics, phrasing, rubato, etc.
All participants would, after the same amount of preparation, record a final performance. These recordings would be sent to adjudicators. These professional musicians would be aware of the score, plus an edited score representing the distinct choices I made in the recording. Adjudicators would be asked to grade how closely each group adhered to distinct, observable and (relatively) measureable interpretive choices in the recording.
My hypothesis is that the control group would make interpretive choices similar to the recording, more often than the test group would. As my goal in the recording is to not make controversial interpretive choices, I suspect that students in the control group would, without realizing, adopt the logical interpretive choices that I had made. While the test group may also make several interpretive decisions similar, given stylistic conventions, inevitably, something such as exact metronome marking, or articulations in a melody, or dynamics, will vary given complete freedom.
Upon further thought, it may make sense to make one controversial interpretive decision in the recording and see how many of the control group go along with it.
Secondly—What I would include in the score could change. I think it’s important to have as blank a score as possible, so that people’s artistry would be observable on a nearly blank slate. Perhaps I wouldn’t even need a tempo marking, “Allegro” for instance. That would be one way to see who in the control group would resist the pull of recordings enough to question what they were hearing. For instance-imagine having no tempo marking for the opening of Mozart’s Sonata K 545, and hearing it played adagio. One could feasibly, if you never heard this work before, yet intimately understood the style, not question the choice of tempo at all.
Thirdly, it would be interesting to run this study with proficient high schoolers making up both groups, as well as only graduate students, even run it with only professional musicians. Then compare the rate of variance at all 4 levels. What if, on the whole, the control group’s interpretations adhered to the recording at the same rate greater than the test group, whether or not we are dealing with high school musicians, or professional musicians?
I think the results of such a study would be fascinating. None of this is meant to discredit professional musicians, or students. The simple aim is to observe the roots of our artistry, and to find one way of explaining how our general sense of style in interpretation might have a fundamentally different basis than that of artists when the composers of the classical canon were themselves writers of ‘new music’.
"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