Perhaps you have already listened to my recent performance of the complete Chopin Scherzi on the Weekly Acorn. Despite its billing, that was not a bite-sized concert. The good news is that the Chopin Scherzi on YouTube below are listed separately at plus or minus 10 minutes each. I think they are great inspiration for Music Monday!
My sampling method wasn’t scientific; I had a list in mind of some of my favorite Chopin interpreters, and was lucky enough to find enough decent videos from which to choose. There is one notable omission: Arthur Rubinstein. I recommended several of his Chopin recordings, including a wonderful one of the third scherzo, in a prior Music Monday.
I had to include a recording of my master teacher’s teacher among the batch! Of course, hearing him live during the last years of his life was really special! His legacy of regal playing is sustained by an immense recording library. Plus, he took the time to teach, and thus several generations of students are continuing in his tradition linking back to Liszt and Beethoven.
Chopin Scherzo No. 2 in B-flat minor – Martha Argerich
Argerich’s fiery style of playing is on display here. Her way of playing is very different from mine, as was that of her teacher, Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli. Despite her unique style of playing, it’s always a breath of fresh air to hear her play. She gave a free online concert earlier during Covid-19 confinement that is worth finding!
I only discovered Kate Liu as a result of her numerous performances in the 2015 Chopin Competition. She is a 26-year-old Curtis- and Juilliard-trained American pianist with a very prosperous career ahead! One of the benefits of making it to the final round, and taking third place, is that you generate many recordings!
Chopin Scherzo No. 4 in E Major – Sviatoslav Richter
There’s really not much I can say about one of the legendary pianists of the 20th century. Perhaps Emil Gilels, his Russian compatriot said it best. When he arrived in America to glowing praise, he mentioned that they should “wait until you hear Richter.” I don’t know that there is a better interpretation by anyone of this scherzo.
That’s it for my notes on the Chopin Scherzi on YouTube. Do you like getting occasional recording recommendations like this? Are they helpful in clearing through the morass of recordings out there, to find the artists that really must be heard?
The four Chopin Scherzi have always had a special place in my heart. I was looking for a flashy piece to play for a local scholarship competition when I was a senior in high school. My teacher Susan Starr suggested that I learn the first scherzo, though it would be a tough go to learn in just three weeks, with at most two lessons beforehand. It was tough to learn, and I didn’t learn it well enough to place in the competition. I did end up playing for one of the winners, though, as a collaborative pianist!
As a 17-year-old, I was very impressionable. I got to know many of the pianists who were on the scene, since I went to several solo piano recitals and concerto appearances at Carnegie Hall during my senior year, often on school nights! Although I never heard Ivo Pogorelich play live, I do remember listening to his recording of the Chopin Scherzi on my Sony Walkman as I waited in the infamous Port Authority Bus Terminal to get home. Someday maybe I’d play all of those pieces as well! Back then, he dressed like a rock star and had hair that matched.
Virtuosity needed but don’t forget the musicianship…
Although a large hand is helpful, what makes Chopin difficult is the frequent stretches between the fingers, and the weird passage work that isn’t made easier by simply knowing your scales and arpeggios fluently. Of course, having good technique, including scales and arpeggios makes playing Chopin possible. However, you also have to learn his unique, frequently-occurring virtuosic passages as well. Despite all of that, the music needs to keep shining through despite all the difficulty.
Learning and relearning is hard work…
While I was at Purchase College, I added the third scherzo to my repertoire, and at some point, I also added third ballade, maybe during my gap year between Purchase and Juilliard? However, I guess I lost the urge to complete the set with the missing two scherzi. That came later, a lot late, as in last year! It wasn’t until last 2019 that I relearned the first and third scherzi and learned the second and fourth for the first time. The performances were far from stellar, and my playing of the fourth was pretty awful in spots!
This year, I finally feel like these pieces are starting to sound decent. They’re not yet memorized, which will be the next step since turning the pages during passage work detracts from the performance. There are also still some rough patches, which only can get worked out by repeated playing in practice and for some “tune-up” recital audiences. Even famous recitalists play for friendly audiences with a hushed invite list and zero publicity. It’s the type of thing you need to do to make sure you are giving the professional venue your very best playing.
Success depends on your metric…
It’s easy to get depressed by listening to pianists like Arthur Rubinstein, Sviatoslav Richter, or even newcomer Kate Liu, because my playing is not anywhere near theirs. However, it’s back to a level in some ways similar, and in some ways even better than when I was in music school. That’s quite difficult to do when your life doesn’t revolve around performing. So many people leave music altogether after graduating with a Bachelor’s or Master’s degree. If they stay in music, they often don’t have the time or energy to practice after spending their days in administration or teaching lessons.
Please enjoy this project for what it is! And just in case if you’re curious, I looked up Ivo Pogorelich. He sort of disappeared from the concert stage for a long time, and his recent recordings have gotten mediocre reviews. Age has also not been kind. With a bald head and an aged face, he looks more like an Eastern European hit man on an episode of a TV crime drama than a former rock-star pianist! I have the memories from that old cassette tape, but it’s anyone’s guess where it actually is. Besides, I’m too old to remember that!
When I came back to piano teaching in earnest several years ago, I learned about the types of skills progressive teachers teach their students. One of them is lead sheets, sometimes called fake sheets. It’s certainly nothing that I studied with any teacher privately or in college. However, I did remember having to “fake” my way through playing from them as the unwilling jazz-band pianist.
In July 2020, just last month, I became the pianist for my church’s praise band, which plays Christian Contemporary Music. All of the piano scores are lead sheets, not fully-composed music. The notation is pretty basic for the most part. But it does take practice and experience to become skilled at this type of playing. I’m decent but nothing spectacular at this point!
Predecessor of the Lead Sheet
Very simply, a lead sheet has a melody with chord symbols, instead of a fully-notated piece of music. This is quite a bizarre concept for many classically-trained pianists, since we’re used to playing from fully realized scores. However, lead sheets have some connection to the types of minimally composed music harpsichordists and organists faced mainly in the Baroque period, but appeared as late as Mozart operas. The harpsichord, along with a cello-like instrument called the viola de gamba, provided a bass line and harmonic support to a soloist. That soloist might be a singer or instrumentalist. The harpsichodist and gamba player would be what you’d call the back up band.
Figured bass accompaniments from the Baroque aren’t exactly notated the same way as modern lead sheets. However, the concept is the same. For the composer, writing in this style was a time saver. However, the shorthand technique developed to provide the harpsichordist some freedom to arrange the accompaniment according to his own style and the needs of the soloist. Today, many of those parts are available fully written out, because many of us never learn those skills. I encountered them in a keyboard harmony class, which I didn’t appreciate at the time. It was a requirement for all pianists and organists at The Juilliard School.
How A Lead Sheet Is Used
There are really several basic components that can be expressed by a pianist in a praise band, depending upon the needs of the group. Our group currently has no percussion, so providing some type of driving rhythm can be helpful to the group. Although there is no printed bass line, providing an improvised bass line can also help if there is no base guitar playing to define that.
Even though there is a melody printed, it’s more for the lead singer to sing and not for the pianist to play. If the lead singer needs some support with her vocal line, she may ask you to play it. That’s fine at rehearsal, but it’s not really great to be doubling the singer with a piano melody line. There’s much more chord playing and even improvising of some counter melodies with the right hand that can provide more variety to the music.
Watch Me in Action!
I’ll update this article with links to the songs that we play at tonight’s service. We’re adding a new Wednesday evening service, starting tonight, as an online event. We cannot do our in-person pre-Covid activities, so this provides a substitute. If you want to watch the service live, you can go to the First Methodist Facebook page just before 6:30 pm to snag the broadcast link.
I was asked by Sarah Folkerts to write a long-form blog post, on the subject of Music Reading Through Rote Teaching. She works with Nicola Cantan on the Colourful Keys Website and the membership site Vibrant Music Teaching. It all started as a result of my trying to reconcile how something sounds with the musical notation. Perhaps that was bolstered by spending hours of listening to orchestras play and reading along with the score during my formative years. I chose the opening motive of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony as an example. This point was peripheral to the article I ended up writing. However, since it’s where the idea originated, I wanted to briefly explain it here.
Although many conductors get the motive right, there are some conductors who more dramatically interpret the first three sixteenth notes on G as if they were a triple upbeat to the long E-flat. Wrong! There is no accent on that first note. You can see that I believe in faithfulness to the score. However, every note on the page first was heard in the ear of the composer, or sometimes improvised on the piano or other instrument. The notation was just a way to preserve it for posterity.
Why Do We Torture Our Music Students?
Why, then, do we fixate on putting the cart (the notation) before the horse (the music)? We can teach preschool kids to sing (or play) many short pieces by rote, so why do we torture our old ones with the notation before they are ready? Read my article to get some suggestions as to when it might be helpful to teach the music before the notation.
One related point I make to the idea of notation not being the place to start is in music that we fundamentally don’t understand. I first explored this in a blog post from 2018 called Where Music Notation Fails. In a case from last fall, I was helping a very skilled student in my studio audition for a jazz workshop. He had to learn music from different styles, but the bossa nova piece was just not clicking. I had played some music like this in my high school days, but even I wasn’t totally understanding the piece just from looking at the page. After we both listened to a recording of the piece, as well as to others from the genre, the notation clicked.
Please let me know how you like the article in the comments below. I’ve already come up with an idea for a second article that I’d like to get published. Please let me know if there’s something else that you would like to see me write. My goal is to be helpful to my students and their parents.
Today begins a new program year for fall 2020 piano lessons. Every year there is some type of turnover. I expect that some families will move away; such is life in the Walmart vendor community of NW Arkansas. I also expect that some older students will want to narrow their focus to just one or two extra-curricular activities. That sometimes means piano is cut. Even really good players approaching the mid-teen years will quit simply because they get involved in academics, a sport, or even a part-time job. That’s okay, and I support a student who makes the tough decision to quit piano because that time has come. I also applaud families who purposely limit extra-curricular activities for their children to allow them to do one or two things really well. Dabblers are never great students!
Sitting on the Fence Has Greatly Increased
Occasionally students leave to study with other teachers closer to their home, or maybe to find a teacher who better fits their needs. No one likes to lose students for these reasons, but I cannot control traffic, nor can I be everyone’s best teacher. As you move through the recruitment process, some parents will typically not follow through. However, the magnitude is quite different this fall: Several piano parents who were valuable studio members have put piano on hold. Several other families who seemed very enthusiastic and close to committing have instead climbed onto the fence. Piano parents on the fence are not wanting to try either online or in-person lessons.
Playing piano is one of those pursuits that becomes infinitely more enjoyable as skill increases, unlocking more and more repertoire.
In mid-March, when schools converted to virtual teaching virtually overnight, I did too! I don’t offer the fanciest online lessons; mine are one camera – the one on my iPad! I teach through FaceTime or Zoom. Some teachers use multiple cameras and explore all of the possibilities of screen sharing. Some even continue teaching buddy or group lessons through Zoom as if the students were in the studio. However, no matter how simple or fancy the technology, online lessons are fine for some, but not so great for others. Older students seem to do fine, but the youngest ones seem least able to focus over video. This is even the case when they have an extremely willing parent who in effect becomes my teaching paraprofessional.
In June, I offered the possibility for in-person lessons, but all of my families stayed online. Two families transitioned back to in-person lessons in July, and more returned in August. There is an advantage to in-person lessons – seeing and hearing is more difficult even over the best Internet connection. The set up at Central Methodist, the home of Shepherd Music School, is all you could want. We have two grand pianos side by side, with enough space between to provide six feet of distance. We sanitize the keys between families. Require masks. Make temperature checks. Ask for sign-ins to detail everyone present, kids and adults alike. It’s not risk-free, and your comfort has to be there! However, of all the places I go in the public, it’s the one in which I feel the most safe.
For families that don’t want to do either of those choices, I haven’t found an adequate option C. It’s truly lose-lose, because I lose income that I had planned to have, and the student loses motivation to practice without a weekly lesson as a checkpoint. If a family truly wanted to come back at a designated time, I would be willing to put some games and other fun activities that can promote learning for a reasonable rate. For older students, that might involve a theory or composition project. Or, it might include a different curriculum of age-appropriate independent learning materials.
Loss of Learning Opportunity
I’m very concerned about students who fit in that sweet spot of ages 8 to 12. These students are old enough to make great strides in music learning but have not yet become distracted teenagers. As a piano teacher, my goal is to provide a positive experience that in turn will help my students become lifetime musicians. A life of music enrichment, from listening and performing, is a very worthy goal. Playing hymns at church or Christmas Carols at home counts just as much as playing Chopin and Beethoven. Playing piano is one of those pursuits that becomes infinitely more enjoyable as skill increases, unlocking more and more repertoire.
Feedback from Other Teachers
I posted my concerns to one of my most trusted private teaching communities for two reasons. One, to see if what I was experiencing was just me, or common behavior. It was the latter! Also, I was looking for feedback on channeling my negative energy into positive action. I got some amazing feedback, which I’d love to share:
The 2020-21 season is going to look very different from 2019-20, regardless of what marketing efforts I make. Families are in a different place; why should I expect that my studio to be the same?
Even though my marketing efforts have yielded new students, I have to double-down on my efforts to face what every entrepreneur faces when trying to grow a business. Just do it!
Some families may eventually come back, some may not. Worrying about that now is an unpaid headache; this will solve itself eventually.
What are your thoughts about fall 2020 piano lessons? Do you prefer in-person or online? What would you say to a family that decides to put lessons on hold in what is actually a very good environment for learning to play? From a personal standpoint, it’s my goal to stay in business as a teacher. I hope to be around to teach both the families who have remained in my studio as well as those piano parents on the fence when they are ready to jump off.
Last Updated 2020-08-18 | Originally Posted 2020-08-10
When I grew up, there were a certain number of pianists that I idolized. All but one of these were still alive and actively concertizing. That one, Arthur Rubinstein, is who I will first discuss in this series of profiles of my piano idols. Although he died in 1982, when I was still in high school, he stopped concertizing in 1976, so I never got to see him play live.
It wasn’t a difficult decision to choose him, since I am presenting five Chopin Waltzes as postludes in church this month, and getting ready to record all of the Scherzi for the Weekly Acorn starting next week as well.
On the Radio and in the Record Store
The reason I felt that I grew up with him was his legacy, and that his recent retirement and then departure meant he was still played often on the radio and available in record stores. Although he played a wide variety of repertoire far beyond Chopin, he was always mentioned as the go-to pianist for his countryman. Both were born in Poland and emigrated when they became adults.
Curating His Recordings
I think it’s healthy to listen to several different interpretations to get a rounded view of a composer’s music. However, if you don’t have that luxury, or are just looking for the one, I’d say Rubinstein works pretty well even today! Unfortunately, there isn’t a lot of video footage, since back in the day audio recordings were primary. Plus, when you search for Rubinstein on YouTube, you’re mostly going to just find audio recordings with pictures of record covers instead of accompanying video. They’re still worth hearing, though their audio quality can be pretty bad. That’s something I’m more willing to forgive when video is included.
Learning Dupré is quite difficult. He had the proverbial silver spoon in his mouth from birth, at least in a musical sense. His father Albert was an organist in Rouen and good friends with iconic organ builder Aristide Cavaillé-Coll. The latter built a house organ for the Dupré family when Marcel was 14. He certainly must have used it, since by the time he was 18 he was studying at the Conservatoire de Paris with three organists/composers of historical importance: Alexandre Guilmant, Louis Vierne, and Charles-Marie Widor. Any musician would be lucky to study with just one of these gods.
Comparisons to J.S. Bach
Of course, one’s education is never a guarantee of success, but Dupré certainly didn’t disappoint. Although few outside of the organist world would consider Dupré worthy of comparison to J.S. Bach, there are some parallels. Both organists are what would we would call extremely well-rounded. They took both composition and performance seriously. In Bach’s day, that meant learning the emerging pianoforte as well as the established harpsichord and clavichord. Dupré only had to contend with the piano since the other two instruments practically vanished a century earlier.
Also, both advanced the technique of the music they wrote to the extent that their contemporaries often couldn’t play their music. One of Bach’s contemporaries, Sorge, wrote that Bach’s chorale preludes were “so difficult and almost unusable by players.” By that, he was talking about most other church musicians of the time. Dupré’s own teacher, Widor, who preceded Dupré as titular organist at Saint-Sulpice, declared the first and last Preludes and Fugues from Op. 7 to be unplayable.
Although the music of both composers evolved over time, their music was always unmistakably theirs, in a style that evolved but never drastically changed. Bach never gave up composing in a contrapuntal style even though most other composers moved to the simplified Rococo style with simple tonic and dominant harmony. Dupré never signed on to neo-classicism or neo-romanticism after atonality became passé.
Listen to the Bach Prelude in C Major, BWV 846, followed by the Dupré Invention in C Major, Op. 50, No. 1. Do you hear the influence of the German master on the French one?
Bach wrote two cycles of 24 keyboard works, the Well-Tempered Clavier, which explores every major and minor key. Certainly, Dupré knew and played these works as well. It wasn’t until he was 70 that he published his own cycle of 24 pieces, called the Inventions, Op. 50. In structure, they could be more accurately comparable to Bach’s Inventions and Sinfonias. However, Dupré undersold these pieces a bit since his Inventions almost always have three independent voices, counting each of the hands and the feet together.
Learning Dupré takes hours of practice, even for these relatively simple Inventions. There is rarely a time where I spend so much time in study on the bench and feel like I’ve accomplished so little. Many people avoid this composer because learning Dupré isn’t easy.
More to Come
Having only learned the first four of these Op. 50 Inventions, and several of his Op. 18 Antiphons, I wonder if I’ll ever get to the point that I feel comfortable and in command of Dupré’s complex textures. Even if I do, will I be a good ambassador of his music towards others, especially given that his music doesn’t appeal widely. Although his music is not as atonal as Schönberg at the height of his career, there is something about the atonal style that makes liking the music difficult. One critic mentioned that the pieces become so involved in the exploration of compositional technique that the music sometimes suffers.
Frame of reverence is also important. This music evokes for me being in a large cathedral filled with all of the symbols and pageantry of high liturgy. If you can put yourself into that space, you may find a way to enjoy his works. If not, that’s okay too. There’s plenty of organ music that is a bit less high brow.
When I was in public school, you learned quickly whether the teacher required a pen or pencil for class. Once you got past early elementary school, pretty much every class except for math required a pen. It’s always been a surprise to find that kids typically don’t bring anything to write with to lessons. In case your kids missed the onboarding notice, here’s the announcement once again: Sharpen your pencil!
The most important thing we’ll often discuss at a lesson is fingering.
How can you possibly remember what we’ve discussed unless you write it in your score? Sometimes I’ll give two different fingerings to try, each with its advantages. A good fingering often simplifies the execution of a passage. Or, at the very least, it makes it possible to play a certain series of notes.
Other Score Markings
There are other things that you might want to write in your score. It might be the metronome marking of practice and goal tempos. It could be to circle a dynamic, or write a reminder on the page. Sometimes a student will take that to an extreme. However, this is much preferable to seeing a page with no markings, which to me means no extra effort.
Sign of Respect
I had a boss several jobs ago who would call me into his office to deliver very specific instructions. One day, I guess I just wasn’t thinking, and just plopped down in his guest chair empty handed. He asked me where my pen and paper were. The point he was making was that I wasn’t being invited for a social visit. He wanted something done, and I wasn’t prepared. Lesson learned. When I see a student with a pencil, I see a student who cares and is ready to learn. When I don’t, I often think back to that day in Fred’s office.
Sharpen Your Pencil
In choosing the wording of the title of this brief blog post, I was trying to be a bit clever. Bringing a pencil is one thing, but when you sharpen your pencil, that goes the extra mile. This points to other parts of preparedness, like being ready to play the scale that was assigned, knowing the pieces in your repertoire, and what our goals were from the last lesson. A sharp pencil won’t solve any of those problems, but it is a step in the right direction!
My professor of keyboard harmony at The Juilliard School, Baruch Arnon, suggested that Edvard Grieg was a first-rate composer for the piano. Mr. Arnon was an all-business type of instructor, so when he gave off-topic recommendations it was worth noting. Grieg is one of those composers that a pianist typically knows, but doesn’t know well. As a child, I had played Elfin Dance for a National Piano Guild of Piano Teachers exam. As a young adult, I heard the Holberg Suite played in the string orchestra arrangement played by the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra at Carnegie Hall. I knew that some day I had to play that on the piano. The story of Grieg Galore follows.
From Holberg’s Time
The connection between falling in love with that work and learning it took more than 30 years! The five pieces that make up this suite are dances written in a Baroque style to honor the eponymous Dano-Norwegian playwright. Though Grieg wrote the pieces in 1884, they celebrate Holberg’s 200th birthday. Thus the framework of the Baroque, with the unmistakable Norweigan romantic harmonies worked into the dances. Even though the Holberg Suite is much more well-known in its string orchestra arrangement, it was originally written for piano.
I programmed this work as part of my Piano Postludes, which take the place of organ postludes at First Methodist once per quarter. The Chopin Waltzes I played in May worked so well in the online church format that I sought to play more piano music. To listen to each one of the movements, you’d have to fast forward to the end of each church service between May 31st and June 28th. They are available on the Facebook page of First Methodist. While you are welcome to do that, I plan to reprise these pieces. They will appear either on a mini-recital or on my Weekly Acorn series.
Peer Gynt, Suite No. 1
Certainly more famous, but not originally written for the piano, are the orchestral pieces written as incidental music to Henrik Ibsen’s play Peer Gynt. From the smattering of incidental pieces, two suites were extracted, the first of which has best stood the test of time. When most classical aficionados think of Peer Gynt, they are likely thinking of the four individual pieces comprising this suite. Despite being originally written for orchestra, these pieces work really well on piano.
When I originally conceived doing the Holberg Suite as part of Piano Postludes, I thought programming the Peer Gynt on the Weekly Acorn would be the perfect complement for one June program. However, they are a bit trickier to learn than I first assessed, so I will instead debut them in July.
About Grieg’s Fame
Grieg never attained the fame of other contemporary first-rate composers. I think there are two obvious clues. One, he stuck close to his Norweigan roots, including melodies from traditional music in his compositions. Two, he didn’t like to travel, and only did it begrudgingly. One might say from today’s perspective that he was poor in marketing!
Although Dvorak was very much a composer in the same mold, championing his Bohemian routes, he took a more international approach. He left Prague for a three-year stay in the United States. He cemented fame in the United States that endures to this day by composing his New World Symphony. The piece is filled with American musical and literary references. While Grieg took a different route, his music is wonderful, and deserves to be celebrated! A concise history of Grieg’s life can be found on the Classic FM Website.
This article first appeared in my Curious Squirrel Newsletter in May 2020.
Although I could be confused about what day it is upon waking even in normal times, I’m pretty aware of what day of the week it is in general. Like everyone else, my driving schedule has little to do with work; it revolves more around grocery shopping and picking up my bread order for our local artisan boulangère. Perhaps I’m lucky that my workdays are similar to before: online instead of in-person piano lessons on Monday, Tuesday, and Thursday. Plus, working at the church on Wednesday; yes, complying with social distancing including a maximum of four people in our fairly large sanctuary!
What Week Is It?
That last part is the weird part. Wednesday afternoon would be our choir rehearsal, and I’d typically practice into the evening after eating a communal dinner. Now, my Wednesday work revolves around recording the next Sunday’s service: starting with our two or three hymns, accompanying a soloist for the offertory, concluded by playing a prelude and postlude. Sure, there’s still the practice, but practice for the next recording. I feel like I’m playing a part in a movie. While others have lost connection to the day of the week, I’ve lost connection to week of the year. I didn’t feel much during the second half of Lent or Holy Week, and I don’t feel much now during the Easter season.
Sure, I’m probably partly to blame, because in full confession I haven’t kept up my daily Bible reading and prayer. That inward discipleship, as much as it would be good for me, isn’t what my soul is craving. It’s external celebration. It’s shouting Hosannah on Palm Sunday, and The Lord Is Risen on Easter Sunday. It’s hearing my music director’s bad puns at choir rehearsal, and one of those occasional long reminiscences. It’s sitting at a communal dinner in Becker Hall and hearing a bit of gossip from church folks that I wouldn’t have expected!
“Inward discipleship…isn’t what my soul is craving. It’s external celebration.”
What Do You Miss?
Church has always been a big part of my life. Since age 15, it’s been about job and worship together, except during college and for a brief time when I first arrived in Arkansas. Perhaps the church isn’t big in your life, but you have some other place of celebration that you miss. It could be your workplace, choir rehearsal, or a particular eating spot where you meet your friends once a week. What is the one celebratory thing that you truly miss about your weekly routine? I’d be glad to publish them in the next newsletter, either credited or anonymously!
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