Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Daily piano tip #27.

One of the things that most throws us out of balance when playing in public is a heightened awareness of what is going on. You can, and should, prepare for this when you practice. Before you practice, close your eyes and take a few deep breaths. Hold the air in and then concentrate on the way your body relaxes as you breathe out. Now start to notice and label the different sounds you perceive, trying to listen to the most distant of these; other people talking outside of your practice room, cars passing a nearby street, the sound of your own breathing, the sound of the pipes in your house, etc. You will quickly notice how much more noisy it is when you start noticing all these things. Now be aware of how the seat feels beneath you, of the solidity of the ground, of the air around you, of the temperature. Now look around you and notice the appearance and position of objects in your room, the way your hands and the keyboard look.

Take a few minutes each day to settle into your practice environment, it will help you practice better. It will also prepare you for the heightened sensory awareness that is the result of the adrenaline rush that comes from the fear of public performance.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Daily piano tip #26.

The audience is not "out to get you". They are either listening to you play because they want to enjoy your performance or they have to be there because of some sort of obligation- in which case they really aren't paying attention anyways. If you have prepared correctly and sufficiently, then identify those worries and fears about the audience for what they are: irrational and unfounded.

Most people don't want to see you fail, they are actually rooting for you. When you make a big deal about a mistake, you are actually creating a situation that is both awkward and uncomfortable for you and for them. If you just go on and don't pay the mistake any attention, the audience will forget it and forgive, and so will you. Never break your rhythm or your timing- don't apologize or make a big "oops" gesture- and learn to laugh at your mistakes.

All of the great pianists made mistakes when they played, some of them catastrophic; some of their recordings that we preserve today have some big clunkers by great musicians like Rachmaninoff and Horowitz. Arthur Rubinstein used to say that you could make a whole new piece with all of the wrong notes he played each time he played a concerto. They weren't great because they played all the notes, they were great because of their musical ideas- which were still there regardless of how many wrong notes they hit when they played. Attend a lot of live performances; perfect live playing is very rare. Realize that most of the note-perfect recordings that you have of the greats are pieced together from various takes in the studio, or are altered with the computer, or were made after many a run-through of the piece. Live recordings are usually taken from that one near perfect performance out of the nearly 300 per year that an artist gives. In a lot of cases, the artists themselves still felt they were making a compromise with the recording because the performance was not up to their standards. Annie Fischer refused to release her superb studio recording of the Beethoven sonatas while she was alive because she was never happy with them. What you listen for in what you play is wildly different from what the audience listens to. Even the different members of the audience listen for different things, as you can see when you read two different critics' takes on the same concert.

Get over the sense of shame that comes with making a mistake. That is good for improving yourself when you practice, but not good at all at the very moment of the performance. If you have a recording of a bad public performance of yourself, share it with a friend or family and laugh; an artist has to have confidence in himself when he goes out in public. You can't go in front of an audience feeling ashamed of what you do. Being cynical, most of the time people won't even notice when you make a mistake unless you stop playing, blush, repeat the passage, start over, smack your lips, frown, grumble or make some visible sign; even when the mistake was a real clunker. Are you doing all that because you are angry at your mistake, or is it because you want the audience to notice that you don't always make mistakes and that this one is so unexpected that you have to make a big deal out of it? If that is the case, then there is also a problem of arrogance or vanity that you might not be aware of.

Play in public a lot. At least five or six times before the big day. You can ease into it. Play it first for a single friend or family member and once you are comfortable start adding people. It will also give you a better idea of what needs more work and how the piece is going to feel in the actual moment. I tend to use the shock method with my students and just unexpectedly fill up my classroom with their friends to hear them run through their programme once.

Don't be afraid of your audience.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Daily piano tip #25

Introspection is an essential part of getting over performance anxiety.  Identifying what is actually causing your stage fright is very important. The most common causes of stage fright are:

- You are scared of the judgement of other people.

- You are afraid of making a fool out of yourself; of failing.

- You are worried that if you do badly, your future is at stake.

- You are unsure of what you are doing; insecurity.

- You are not comfortable with the way you look and feel.

In short, the main areas to focus on to solve these problems are:

- Focus on the moment and not on what will happen in the future.

- Accept yourself the way you are.

- Prepare as thoroughly as possible.

- Focus on the positive aspects of playing in public.

In the following posts, I will try to cover each of these causes and solutions individually. If you have a performance anxiety problem, take a moment to sit down and think about what may be causing it. Don't wait until performance day.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Daily piano tip #24.

When we rest from practicing is when a lot of the processing of what we are learning goes on.

Be sure to rest about ten minutes for every fifty minutes that you practice. You don't need to have been physically playing for those fifty minutes to require a small break, good practice is mentally taxing.

Also make sure that you set clear easy attainable goals for each practice session so that you know when to stop and go on to something else. Otherwise, you'll realize that you just spent two hours playing the same two bars while neglecting everything else. That kind of perfectionism has its place, just make sure you do it because you plan it and not because it happened to be that way.

Clear your mind when you take a break. Drink some water, walk around, stretch out, have a chat with a friend, have a light snack or smoke a cigarette if you like that sort of thing (I don't smoke, but your lungs are your problem). Apparently one of the best things you can do during your break is play with your pets.

And don't turn on the TV, because you are not going back to the piano if you do.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Daily piano tip #23.

Breathe when you play, like a singer.

It makes all the difference.

Take singing lessons if you can afford it and they are available.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Daily piano tip #22.

After yesterday's article, I don't want you to think that I refuse to say good things to my students and only criticize negatively. One must be careful with compliments, though. Here are some things to remember when complimenting students:

1. Be sincere, phony compliments help no one.

2. Never compliment the person, compliment what that person does.

3. Don't pit students one against the other.

4. Be as specific as possible.

5. If there are too many absolute compliments (that don't have a "but" after you say them), they tend to lose their worth.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

The Grandmaster Experiment

Playing a musical instrument is not innate, it is not a "gift"- it is the result of education and long hard work. Talent means nothing in the long run. Very early on, a musician running on talent alone, without the hard work to back it up, will hit a wall in his development. Barring any kind of crippling birth defect, mental retardation or physical deformity, anyone can play the piano on a professional level, provided they practice and study.

Today I was reading a very interesting article from 2005 on Psychology Today called "The Grandmaster Experiment". It is about how Laszlo Polgar, a Hungarian psychologist, set out to turn his children into prodigies of whatever they showed interest in, eventually succeeding in forming three female chess grandmasters. My respect for his teaching abilities couldn't be any greater. Lots of people talk, but Polgar announced that his daughters would be prodigies before they were even born and actually did it, also raising them to be happy well-adjusted individuals in the process. He turned them into three of the finest chess players the world has ever known. Now, don't get the wrong idea, I am not in favor of more crazy parents out there wanting their little kids to be the next Van Cliburn by chaining them to the piano and forcing them to practice grueling hours against their will. Notice how the article specifically shows how the three kids in question were having the time of their lives, how it was always fun for them and was integrated into their normal education. The ultimate goal here was to make the children happy with what they have achieved, not having them achieve the goals and dreams their parents were too daft to achieve for themselves.

[caption id="" align="alignright" width="300" caption="Amazing Laszlo and his wife. In an alternate universe, this guy probably has three daughters who are the greatest female pianists or violinists of all time. "]Amazing Laszlo and his wife. In an alternate universe, this guy probably has three daughters who are the greatest female pianists or violinists of all time. My respect for his teaching abilities couldn't be any greater. Lots of people talk a lot, but Laszlo announced that his daughters would be prodigies before they were even born and actually did it, also raising them to be happy well-adjusted individuals in the process. He turned them into the three of the finest chess players the world has ever known.[/caption]

There were two paragraphs in the article that really caught my attention, because they strongly reflect some basic principles in the way I teach:

Carol Dweck, professor of psychology at Stanford University, has found that people's beliefs about their abilities greatly influence their performance. When she praised children's intelligence after they succeeded at a nonverbal IQ test, they subsequently didn't want to take on a new challenge—they preferred to keep looking smart. When they were forced to complete a more difficult exercise, their performance plummeted. In contrast, some children were praised for "how" they did a task—for undergoing the process successfully. Most of the children in this group wanted to take on a tougher assignment afterward. Their performance improved for the most part, and when it didn't, they still enjoyed the experience.

Never ever tell a student that he is good. Things like "You are so talented!" or "You are the best in my class" do more damage than they do good. A quick boost in the student's self-esteem is not worth the fear of failure they acquire. Failure is an important part of the learning process, the very act of practicing involves trying out different ideas and discarding them through trial and error. Playing a musical instrument well involves a certain element of risk, telling a student that he is "the best", "really good", "amazing" and all that kind of stuff just takes away his focus from the music. He ends up more worried about what people think of him, of gaining praise from his teacher.

Instead of generalizing, it is better to as specific as possible with the compliments. It is also best to aim them at the work that the students did and the specific results, not praising the students' qualities but their acts. Whatever you do, the thing you must avoid at all costs is praising some kind of innate ability in the student. I wont go so far as to advocate completely doing away with complimenting students, but compliments from my teachers were always few and far far apart and I tend to be equally sparse with them.

"You played this piece very well, you are so talented" is complimenting a characteristic of the student that he supposedly already had- "You played this piece very well, you must have worked very hard" or "you must have found a really good way to practice this part" are much better because they are complimenting the strategy the student used in solving a problem and his effort to get around it; they compliment his growth.

Compare the two kinds of compliments:

By complimenting a student's talent or intelligence, you are creating a specific mindset; a mindset that if he fails, it is because he is stupid, or not talented enough. You are teaching him that if he shows that something is difficult for him, that it requires effort, it is indicative of that very same stupidity or lack of talent. You are encouraging him to be defensive about his mistakes in an effort to look smart, not admitting to himself or others when something goes wrong and responding to obstacles by actually working less, or avoiding them altogether in the long run. He will view performance as dependent on intelligence and talent, as something that is unchangable and depends on how good you are, he will tend to lie about his performance and be defensive about his defects, seeing as they reflect his own self-worth. Because of this, many students who have been constantly told, their whole lives, that they are the best of the very best are severely impaired after a bad performance, to the point of mental illness in the most extreme cases.

By complimenting a student's work or effort, you are creating a specific mindset as well; a mindset that if he fails, it is because he didn't work hard enough, or that he did not practice it in the right way. You are teaching him that effort and overcoming difficulties are what proves and uses intelligence effectively. He will be more open to feedback on his playing and will be more enthusiastic about overcoming challenges when he practices and he will be much better at getting up after a bad performance.

From the former we can conclude that compliments must never be aimed at people, but at what they do. Another thing that one really has to avoid with compliments is setting students up for competition. Things like "You are the best of my class" or "You play that piece so much better than [insert famous pianist in here]". The only healthy competition a student can have is with his own self.

With my piano students, I tend to reward hard work, over anything else. I have kicked out students with much more facility and capacity than their peers based completely on their lack of work and general laziness. On the other hand, I've kept students who practice constantly and make music part of their every day life even when they have severe problems that prevent them from playing effectively (most of the time the result of a very bad teacher). The reason for this is that practice makes musicians. Objectively speaking, whoever practices the most (considering a competent teacher in all cases) will generally play better. As taken from the article:

Anders Ericsson, a professor of psychology at Florida State University, argues that "extended deliberate practice" is the true, if banal, key to success. "Nothing shows that innate factors are a necessary prerequisite for expert-level mastery in most fields," he says. (The only exception he's found is the correlation between height and athletic achievement in sports, most clearly for basketball and volleyball.) His interviews with 78 German pianists and violinists revealed that by age 20, the best had spent an estimated 10,000 hours practicing, on average 5,000 hours more than a less accomplished group. Unless you're dealing with a cosmic anomaly like Mozart, he argues, an enormous amount of hard work is what makes a prodigy's performance look so effortless.

From my experience, and nothing has led me to believe anything different yet, good musicians spent a lot more time practicing than mediocre musicians. I know some people that don't practice much now and are amazing, but I know for a fact that they practiced a lot as children or teenagers. There are exceptions, but generally speaking it is no secret that the more you train, they better you get.

So, in short:

Stop telling your students they are good and make them practice as much as they can.

Daily piano tip #21.

A common problem is clenching the jaw. It is a bit hard to spot and a lot of pianists underestimate the detrimental effects this kind of tension has on playing. An easy way to spot it is by practicing with your tongue out, between your teeth. Without a doubt, you will notice when you bite down on your own tongue. A good way to solve it is by chewing gum while you practice and paying attention to how your shoulders, neck and face feel when you play.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Daily piano tip #20.

Have an open mind.

By adding labels to things and making broad uninformed generalizations, all you do is enclose yourself into an ever smaller cell. There are all kinds of musical styles, and in all styles you can find music that is good; music that goes beyond the superficial and expresses a universal truth, however banal it may be. Popular music is not bad just because of it being popular; classical music is not always good just because it is classical music. Centuries ago, many works that we regard today as artistic masterpieces were considered trash by the snobs, a lot of what we call "classical music" nowadays was the equivalent of Ricky Martin and Shakira in the 1800s and things like Strauss' waltzes were considered dirty and immoral. There was also a lot of extremely badly written music back then in the sonata, concerto, symphony or operatic genres; not everyone was a Haydn, a Bach or a Beethoven. For every Schubert lied, there are twenty songs in German for voice and piano with dirty lyrics and boring harmony; for every one of Wagner's operas there are a hundred pieces like the Shoot-a-pistol Polka and the Show-your-knickers March; for every one of Chopin's nocturnes, there are a million salon piano or harp pieces with titles so horribly corny and kitsch that they would seem effeminate to Liberace; for every Don Giovanni and Rigoletto, there are hundreds of short lived operas and operettas which are basically just a mash-up of popular songs from the time with musical numbers and dancing thrown in.

Keep your mind so open that your brains fall out; there is music to appreciate everywhere. Sometimes one will find musical gems in the most unexpected places.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Daily piano tip #19.

No one is impressed when you play the first few bars of the Rach 3, the third movement of the Moonlight Sonata or the Tchaik 1; do you honestly think that anyone out there is going to think you actually play those concertos because you go around playing the beginning over and over again? Most probably, you are making people feel a bit sorry for you.

It's the same as with classical guitarists; take any gathering of teen and pre-teen guitar players and you are guaranteed to have someone start playing the first couple of bars of Concierto de Aranjuez.

Stop wasting your time.

Practice what you are supposed to be practicing and maybe you will get to a point where you can actually play those things instead of pretending that you do.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Daily piano tip #18.

As a teacher, dealing with the money is usually kind of awkward, and sometimes seems like it is in a bit of bad taste. We are making music, not running a sausage shop. Even so, we can't avoid it, we've grown attached to things like food and a roof over our heads. I recommend either making an agreement to get payed in advance for lessons monthly or bi-monthly. In any case, I try to avoid the actual daily cash transaction; a closed envelope works well, or just leaving the money on the piano, a table or the mail slot works as well. Chopin asked his students to leave the money on the mantle and was actually pretty offended when any of his students tried to give him cash directly. I am a bit of that mentality as well. It might be old-fashioned, but to me it doesn't feel completely right dealing directly with the cash after every lesson.

Seven things we can learn from Schroeder.

For many of us, Schultz' Peanuts cartoons were one of our first contacts with jazz music, with a great soundtrack by Vince Guaraldi. My favorite character is Schroeder. He brought classical music to the strip, usually playing music by his idol Beethoven but sometimes Chopin, Schubert and Brahms. I love the way he plays like a virtuoso on his little toy piano, and how it sounded like a Hammond organ in Charlie Brown's Christmas. Like many great virtuosos, he had his weird and eccentric side too; he kept a closet full of busts of Beethoven and, when he actually sits at a grand piano for the first time, he starts crying and doesn't want to play it. I love the way he tries to emulate Beethoven's lifelong bachelorhood and always ignores Lucy van Pelt. He is also one of the few characters on the strip that isn't mean to Charlie Brown, defending him when the others pick on him. Here are my favorite quotes from Schroeder, perhaps we can learn something from him:


[caption id="attachment_303" align="alignleft" width="198" caption="His priorities are obvious, Beethoven before girls."]His priorities are obvious, Beethoven before girls.[/caption]

Schroeder: Charlie Brown, let me give you a little advice. As long as you think only of yourself, you'll never find happiness. You've got to start thinking about others!
Charlie Brown:
Others? What others? Who in the world am I supposed to think about?
Schroeder: Beethoven!
Charlie Brown:
Oh good grief!

I can't agree more; to find happiness, you have to think of music and to think of others. Nihilism has a detrimental effect on a musician, and Schroeder clearly understands that. We can also learn from his enthusiasm in enlightening his uncultured bunch of friends by bringing Beethoven up as the answer to all of lifes troubles. If Beethoven doesn´t bring you happiness, then there's probably no hope for you. Not just Beethoven, which brings us to our next quote:


Schroeder: Buying records cheers me up. Whenever I feel low I buy some new records. I was so depressed today I bought Mendelssohn's violin concerto and Handel's Ode for St Cecilia's Day.
Lucy: Wow! How depressed can you get!

Music is food for Schroeder's soul, he's not just a trained key-pushing monkey, he is an artist that needs his art the same way the rest of us need air or water. Notice how what he bought is not piano music. Not another record of the Rach 3 and Chopin's greatest hits; he is a musician, not a pianist.


[caption id="attachment_301" align="alignright" width="144" caption="He had a closet full of these!"]He had a closet full of these![/caption]

Schroeder: The joy is in the playing.

He understands that the actual physical act of playing is a pleasure in itself and connected intimately to the music. Music is not to be contemplated or to be kept on a shelf; the joy for an artist is sitting down and actually taking part in our art.


Schroeder sees Lucy and Snoopy brawling: Fighting under the mistletoe? How unfeminine...how unromantic...how gauche!

An artist is an aesthete, with impeccable taste and an eye for what is beautiful or graceful. He is a gentleman and appreciates the finer things in life as well as the common things like playing baseball with Charlie Brown and hanging out with Snoopy and the gang. He is already a man and shows greater maturity than his peers, and he is not afraid to let them know when they are not acting in a proper manner to the occasion.


Lucy asks if musicians make a lot of money: Who cares about money?! This is ART, you blockhead! This is great music I'm playing, and playing great music is an art! Do you hear me? An art! (pounding on piano) Art! Art! Art! Art! Art!"

As pianists, we are artists making great music. Money is not our concern, talking about money is even somewhat offensive. We are not running a butcher's or a sausage shop and the main point of what we are doing should not be getting payed. It is always about the art. Art! Art! Art! Art! Art!, as he puts it so clearly.


Lucy asks him what the answer to life is: BEETHOVEN! Beethoven is IT, clear and simple!! Do you understand?

He can't be any more clear with this one, Beethoven is the answer to life. Life is music. As John Cage so aptly pointed out to everyone, everything is music.


When Charlie Brown asks him how he's able to play such complicated pieces on his toy piano when the black keys are just painted on:


I practice a lot.

He makes no excuses, everything can be solved with hard work. With so many musicians out there blaming the piano, or the hall, or the weather every time something goes wrong it is refreshing to see him make great music with a toy piano, with no black keys. More than anything else, it teaches us about the power of our imagination and sheer force of will when making great music. He doesn't let his toy piano bum him out, he just takes it in stride and practices a lot. So should we all.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Daily piano tip #17.

Keys are meant to be pressed with a downward motion, they move up and down. When doing big leaps on the keyboard or playing chords, it helps me to stop thinking of movements in straight lateral lines. Think of arcs, of parabolas. If you make the leap in a straight line, then you actually have to make a sharp corner to play and you have a higher probability to miss or hit the note without any control. By moving in arcs- however shallow or close to the keyboard- you play the keys in the best way possible, you have better control of your weight and over the attack.

The shortest distance between two points is a straight line, except in a piano. The shortest distance for us is usually curved. Avoid sharp turns, stunted movement or sudden stops in your motions; your movement should flow naturally from one position to the next.

Think curves.

[caption id="attachment_295" align="alignnone" width="300" caption="A parabolic curve."]short[/caption]

Friday, September 19, 2008

Daily piano tip #16.

Imitation is sometimes one of the best paths towards understanding. When you are practicing a piece, improvising something similar to what you are playing helps get to the heart of what you are trying to learn. It can make the difference between learning something in two months and learning something in two days.

What is easier to learn, to memorize: a text in your own language or a list of random letters of the same length? The obvious answer is the speech because it can be organized into coherent structures and concepts which are easier to learn. In the case of the list of random letters, you are required to learn and organize one thousand or so individual things, while the speech can be reduced to only a handful of concepts, most of which fit the pattern of everything we have learned before.

The key towards effective and long-lasting memorization is a clear understanding of what is going on.

One of the best ways to get an understanding of a piece is by imitating what the composer did, trying out variations that the composer himself might have tried out himself and also completing ideas that are not completely developed. An insight into a piece of music from a composer's point of view is a very useful things, and one of the factors that made musicians such as Glenn Gould great.

When playing a cantabile passage, you can try changing the key, you can try re-harmonizing the melody with the same functions but substituting the actual chords (like putting a minor IV instead of a major IV or a V instead of a diminished chord). You can try using the same model as the piece -for example, arpeggiated accompaniment in the left hand with melody in octaves- and make up a new piece of your own. If you run into a melodic or harmonic sequence- for example, in a Bach Invention- you can try taking the sequence out of context and completing it, instead of breaking it off where the music does. You can try fitting a different motif into the sequence.

This is a very useful practice technique that can be applied to children as well. Most kids interested in the piano will usually jump at the chance of improvising or writing their own music. In many cases, after I finish working on a small piece with a child, we talk about the piece and make some rules up. Things like: "this piece only uses the notes middle C, D and E", "this piece only uses half notes and quarter notes" and "this piece plays the same thing with both hands all the time". Once we do that, I let him improvise or write a piece following those rules, name it (whatever he wants- "The singing turtle song", "The snail song", "The Kung Fu Panda, Wall-e fighting ninjas and shooting Kame-hame-has song"), and then learn it along with whatever he is learning at the same time.

[caption id="attachment_291" align="aligncenter" width="357" caption="And now, the Singing Turtle Song."]And now we will play the "Singing Turtle Song"[/caption]

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Daily piano tip #15.

Whatever happens in a lesson, it is never personal. Once you are done with the lesson, no matter what happened, say "good bye" or "see you at the next lesson" calmly and with a smile. If you bump into your student in the hall, don't brush him off and don't scold him again. What happens in lessons stays there. You don't want your students to think that you hate them, that you "just don't like them", that you have it in for them in some way. Every negative comment in lessons must be the result of a musical problem and it is very important that the student understands this. Don't slam the door after them, don't start yelling at them when you meet them in the hallways of the school or at the bus stop and remember to greet them and to let them go with a smile. I come across students that I personally dislike now and then, but there is no reason for them to know that. You have to stay professional.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Daily piano tip #14.

Quantity of repertoire does matter. If a pianist has played ten or fifteen Beethoven sonatas, most of the time he will have a better understanding of the style and will have an easier time approaching a work with similar elements than a pianist who has only played one or two. Quality is important, but when one is studying it is very important to be familiar with as much repertoire as possible, not only by listening to it but by actually working on it for a few days at least. It is a good idea to start with much more repertoire than one will play in the school exams or recitals and eventually pick a few of the pieces and bring them up to performance level. As long as it doesn't interfere with practicing your normal repertoire it is a good idea to read through staples of the piano repertoire, and try to work out how the difficult passages would be played. It is also a good idea for when one is burned out from over-practicing the same repertoire all the time.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Daily piano tip #13.

Stop obsessing about your hands, specially before a performance. They're cold, they're sweaty, they're sticky, they're dry, they're shaky- you've played with your hands in all kinds of states when you practice with no problem. It's usually the nerves that make you extra aware of how your hands are feeling before you play,  it's panic looking for reasons to trip you up.

After a concert, a woman asked Joseph Hofmann how he could possibly play so well with such small hands. He responded: “Madam, what makes you think that I play with my hands?”

Forget your hands; practice is for your mind, not your fingers.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Viva México!

[caption id="attachment_269" align="aligncenter" width="395" caption="Viva México!"]Viva México![/caption]

Tradition says that on the night of September 15th, almost before midnight, the reverend Miguel Hidalgo went up into his church steeple and rang the bells to call everyone to rise up and send the Spaniard imperialist dogs back home.  To mark this event, in every single plaza in all the towns in Mexico, at every single town hall, from the huge Zocalo in Mexico City, to tiny "Tanque de agua número 56" (Water tank number 56) in some remote corner of San Luis Potosi- that is an actual town, by the way- governors and mayors will ring the bells or shoot a gun, give a speech and yell "Viva México!" right at midnight. Lots of fireworks, drinking and food will follow and then everyone will gather, hung-over, on the 16th to watch the obnoxiously early military parade.

[caption id="attachment_270" align="alignright" width="236" caption="Mexican super-hero Miguel Hidalgo leads the revolt against the Spaniards. Not pictured: super-strength and laser beams shooting from his eyes."]Mexican[/caption]

All over Mexico, orchestras annually present their "Mexican programme". Most of these will include either the Huapango, by José Pablo Moncayo or Danzón no. 2 by Arturo Marquez. Other works usually included are Chavez' Sinfonía India and Silvestre Revueltas' Sensemaya. The music of Silvestre Revueltas, is being rediscovered by the rest of the world and Sensemaya recently made a brief show in the pop culture scene when it was featured in the soundtrack of the movie Sin City.

There is some Mexican music out there that is immensely popular here in Mexico, but practically unknown in the rest of the world. The Huapango and Estrellita are probably as well known here as Beethoven's fifth and Mozart's Eine Kleine Nachtmusik.

Here are three works that are very popular here in Mexico that are really worth knowing. While popular doesn't necessarily mean quality, the three composers behind these works are very good and these works are a good starting point to get to know the rest of what they wrote.

1. Huapango (1941), José Pablo Moncayo

This is a bright symphonic piece that is usually included in pop concerts of Latin American music. It was written by José Pablo Moncayo, an extremely talented pianist, composer and conductor who studied with Carlos Chavez and in Tanglewood with Copland and Bernstein. Here is a short video of pretty Mexican landscapes and Moncayo's Huapango:


The great tragedy of Moncayo's life is that he is known best for one of his least accomplished works, made while he was a student while many of his masterpieces are completely unplayed, even in Mexico. His teacher, Carlos Chávez, sent Moncayo and Blas Galindo to Veracruz to study local folk music; much like Bartok and Kodaly did a few years earlier in the Balkans. The local music features the harp and constantly changing accentuation that is typical of Mexican music; a 6/8 measure that constantly turns into a 3/4 without changing speed, sometimes played one on top of the other. (You count ONE-two-three-FOUR-five-six and also ONE-two-THREE-four-FIVE-six). This rhythmic phenomenon is called hemiola. Moncayo used three Huapanagos (the name of the local folk music genre) called El Siquisiri, El Balahu and El Gavilancito and made a symphonic work based on them, first exposing them as he originally heard them and then developing them and combining them according to his own taste.

In 1941, Chávez (who was directing the National Symphony Orchestra) replaced a potpourri of huapangos that was usually played every year with Moncayo's Huapango. The Huapango became a tradition. It is full of solos and it is a lot of fun to play for horn and harp players. It is not difficult and is constantly played by youth orchestras, and the constant infectious 6/8-3/4 rhythm has any audience tapping their feet along to the music immediately. Moncayo.

Moncayo's life has not been studied in-depth and his important role as a conductor is not currently given the importance it deserved. While he was conducting, the national symphony orchestra gained international renown, and due to World War II in Europe, many great soloists brought their art to Mexico for the first time. As he grew older, his work fell out of fashion; composers abandoned the nationalist style of composition that included epic scale works featuring Mexican elements. His death marked the end of the nationalist era in Mexican music. Towards the end of his life, he was struggling with a bad political situation in Mexico and a difficult cultural environment. He died prematurely at 46, with the new generation of composers moving on towards serialism and a completely different school of thought.

If you like Moncayo's work, I highly recommend Amatzinac for flute and string quartet (1935); his Symphony (1944); Sinfonietta (1945); Tierra de Temporal (1949) and among his works for piano, Muros Verdes.

2. Danzón no. 2 (1994), Arturo Márquez

Along with the Huapango, Danzón no. 2 is practically the second national anthem of the Mexican people. It is based on a Cuban dance form that became very popular in a variant played mostly in the southern and south-eastern zones of Mexico since the end of the 19th century. Like the Huapango, rhythmic hemiola plays a big part in the danzón. In this case, the changes are in 8/8, changing from 4/4 to 3/8+3/8+2/8 constantly. The measure changes are complicated in this work, but the accentuation is much more important and remains constant throughout.

[caption id="attachment_271" align="alignright" width="150" caption="Arturo Marquez, a really cool laid-back guy."]Arturo[/caption]

Arturo Márquez wrote a series of works based on the danzón, commissioned by the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM). In these works, he explores a variety of ideas, using the language of danzón as a basis; these works include a guitar concerto (Danzón no. 3), a piece reminiscent of Tchaikowski's fifth symphony (Danzón no. 4), a saxophone quintet (Danzón no. 5) and a work modeled on Ravel's Bolero (Danzón no. 8); of all these, Danzón no. 2 gained international fame.


Danzón no. 2 is a beautiful thing to watch in a concert hall; it has a lot of visual appeal. The violin and viola bows move hypnotically, reminding one of feathers swaying, of fish gliding through the water; whole sections of the orchestra jump in and out, dancing with every changing theme, built like a jigsaw puzzle out of danzón elements. The work has been played by many orchestras around the world, notably by the Berlin Philharmonic. I have yet to see a version I like by non-Mexican orchestras. Foreign versions I have heard tend to have too much piano and a percussion section that tends to be behind the beat

If you enjoy Danzón no. 2, Márquez has recently composed a series of works for solo piano that are beautiful and highly idiomatic to the instrument. My favorite in the danzon series is number eight, homage to Maurice. It is modeled after Ravel´s Bolero, featuring a conga line instead of the original snare drum and following the slow build-up of the Bolero. Here it is, played by the Silvestre Revueltas Youth Orchestra:


I personally played the piano in the world premiere of his Cantata de los sueños (Cantata of dreams) in its version for choir, soloists, narrator, piano and percussion. Here is the final number from this work that is part cantata, part opera and part musical theatre and protest song. I am the pianist on the left, and my wife is sitting beside me turning the pages:


It was a lot of fun to play. It treats the piano as a percussion instrument integrated to the rest of the percussion ensemble. The music was very nice, but the subject matter was not so much to my taste. I tend to dislike music that features political content (the cantata talks about world peace, the internationalization of global resources, the decline of ethnic cultures and racism, among other current themes).

3. Estrellita (1912), Manuel M. Ponce

[caption id="attachment_272" align="alignleft" width="133" caption="Manuel María Ponce, along with Carlos Chávez, the grandfather of current Mexican music."]Manuel[/caption]

I won't bore you with a biography of Manuel M. Ponce. His Wikipedia page is pretty complete and includes most of what you need to know about this man, one of the first Mexican composers to gain international recognition. His song Estrellita became very popular in the first part of the twentieth century. Along with Estrellita, it is practically impossible to attend a school recital in a Mexican conservatory where someone isn't playing Ponce's Intermezzo or his Scherzino Mexicano either on piano or guitar. Estrellita was also transcribed by Jascha Heifetz, and his version of this work for the violin is played by young would-be virtuosos around the world. His work also jumped to the international scene when Andrés Segovia played and recorded many of his works transcribed for guitar. His Concierto del Sur for guitar and orchestra is played by guitarists everywhere.

Here is Alfredo Kraus singing Estrellita, to the general swooning of all old ladies in the audience:


Here is Joshua Bell playing Heifetz' transcription of this work at the proms, to the general swooning of all teenage girl violinists in the audience. It is not easy to play at all, featuring very high positions, a constant vibrato and cantabile and lots and lots of accidentals.


You can also listen to his two other most popular works, Intermezzo for piano and Scherzino Mexicano in transcription for guitar. You can find a ton of Mexican pianists playing the Intermezzo on Youtube. Here is a version of the Scherzino Mexicano played by John Williams on guitar:


Even with its salon music writing and romantic turn of the century style, there is still a Mexican element to the writing. The hemiola is ever present even here and the bass line is very similar to mariachi playing. The endings of the phrases are also typically folksy.

Ponce's most famous works were in his salon music, romantic style. He later evolved into a quasi-impressionistic style and later adopted a more avant guarde nationalistic composition style. I highly recommend going through his catalogue, which includes such gems as the violin concerto, different poems for the piano and music based on the baroque and neo-classical styles.

Daily piano tip #12.

To a certain point, make sure you can describe with words what is going on in a piece. The deeper things in music are pretty hard to describe, but the structure of the piece and the superficial levels should all be crystal clear to you. Narrating the piece, actually putting it into words, helps unmuddle our minds and have clear exactly what is going on and what we are supposed to be doing each step of the way. Organizing your thoughts and the structure of what you are playing does not hinder spontaneity or emotion, it actually gives you freedom to be spontaneous and a more meaningful comprehension of the music. By really understanding the superficial goings on of a piece, a musician gains the freedom to start thinking of deeper things.

For example, to describe Mozart's sonata "Semplice" in C major (the easy one everyone plays, K.545) you can start by saying:

The main theme starts with an arpeggio of the C major triad, going to the dominant and returning with a mordent on C; the second part of the main theme is in the sub-dominant resolving with a I-V7-I cadence. Meanwhile, the left hand has a Basso de Alberti realization. Our first bridge is made up of scales in the right hand going through each step in the diatonic scale while the left hand plays the chords in half notes....

There is no need to have an advanced knowledge of music theory, though. You can just as easily say to yourself:

The first four measures of the piece are the main theme, which is repeated in another key starting the third page (according to your edition). The left hand alternates between the the fifth finger and the rest, playing chords...

It is best to start from general things, and later on specify more and more:

The first half of the first page goes like this (sing the theme) which is kind of a singing theme, then there are a lot of scales that go on until we get to this other thing (sing it) which sounds kind of bouncy and then to finish it up, we have a kind of triumphant ending theme and the repeat sign. We have a middle section with the original theme sounding kind of gloomy and then....

The number of musicians who can't really describe what is going on in their music in really simple terms is surprising. It will help you understand what is going on, and it is a very important skill for a teacher to have. The ability to describe music in words.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Daily piano tip #11.

When practicing a piece, it is a good idea to divide it into small segments. Just remember to always have those small segments overlap. When you practice a small segment, end with the beginning of the next one and start with the ending of the previous one. It is important to preserve the continuity of the whole piece in your head; to never lose track of how the little fragment you are playing fits into the rest of the whole puzzle.

When learning a whole recital programme or a piece with several movements, it is also a good idea to practice the first few bars of whatever comes next whenever you come to the end of a piece. It is a terrible experience to suddenly be stumped about how the next movement starts!

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Daily piano tip #10.

Take lessons.

There is a common misconception that piano lessons are only for those interested in learning the classics. Regardless of what you are playing, to do it properly and with any kind of proficiency you need skills that are best gained through regular piano lessons with a certified teacher; not books, not video courses, not trying to learn by yourself. The point of piano lessons is not to learn how to play a particular piece, but to learn proper posture and technique, how to practice and read a musical text, how to follow and play a melody and an accompaniment, how to properly play different types of passages integral to pianistic writing -like scales, arpeggios and chords- transposition and music theory, etc. You can apply the above to whatever you are playing. The point of taking of piano lessons is not to learn how to plunk out a couple of tunes (or even a lot of tunes) but to have all the skills to sit down and learn anything you want to learn, from Mozart and Bach to the complete works of Richard Clayderman and the theme from Titanic.

Friday, September 12, 2008

For the love of God, learn another trick!

When re-harmonizing a melody, one of the oldest tricks in the book is substituting the dominant (usually V7) with a major chord a diminished fifth above it. It is usually the last trick a jazz pianist is taught, for a very specific reason. It is so easy to do, and so effective, that many pianists out there don't learn anything else. The problem is that after hearing it so much, it just screams of cheese. I think it actually catches me more by surprise when a pianist uses a regular V7 instead of the tritone substitution.

When playing a melodic solo, one of the oldest tricks in the book is playing a whole tone scale on top of the dominant chord. It kind of turns the dominant into a V7 with an augmented fifth. It is also the only thing about harmony that many mediocre horn players bother to learn.

For the love of God, learn some new tricks. You can substitute every single chord in a progression with its "ii-V-I". That leads to the typical I-iii-VI-ii-V-I progression in which all you are really doing is branching the "ii" into it's "ii-V-I" (which in the original key would be "iii-VI-ii"). Once you do that, you can use tritone substitution on that "VI", since it is actually working as a dominant for the "ii". There are so many possibilities in jazz harmony, that it really sounds lazy and cheap hearing the same stupid substitution over and over again.

The circle of fifths is your friend when trying out new harmonic progressions. Just give it a spin through the whole circle. When you play something in more than one key, you are learning the idea behind the harmonic progression, not the actual chords. That is very useful for classical pianists too. Transposition is a huge aid to memorization, it helps you understand what is going on. You learn the actual functions of the chords, and not the notes in themselves. As a jazz musician, it is very easy to get bogged down repeating over and over the same cute tricks without realizing that you are doing it. Mastering new harmonic progressions or solo patterns seems like forced labor, but what it actually gives you is freedom. Freedom from the cage of cliches into which you force yourself because of ignorance.

[caption id="attachment_244" align="alignright" width="215" caption="The circle of fifths is your friend."]The circle of fifths is your friend.[/caption]

Also beware of signature chords, usually dissonant, and usually way overused. They are sometimes cool, but lots of pianists tend to find a chord or a run they can play comfortably and shoe-horn it into everything they play. It's the same case with the trumpet player who just realized he can hit a high-E and even give it a nice shake. He will play anything, even a slow ballad, and force the damn thing in there so everyone can see his nice new trick. The music turns into a succession of cute tricks, instead of an actual artistic enterprise.

To open your harmonic horizons, analysis of jazz standards and Gershwin songs is a must. I also really recommend listening to and playing a lot of Bill Evans. He will either use quartal harmony, or he will use really normal triads, but in very intelligent and interesting ways that show you all the possibilities in simple three-part harmony. Something classic like Waltz for Debby uses harmony that is very simple on the surface, but treated in a way many jazz pianists avoid, almost as if it were something from Chopin or Schubert; and it will sound really awesome too.

And unlike many jazz pianists, the man had a beautiful round tone as well. I would kill to have that piano sound for Chopin, Grieg or Mozart. Miles Davis said it best. Bill played the piano the way it should be played.

Daily piano tip #9.

The sustain pedal is not something that only works "all-in" and "all-out". It's not the clutch on your car's transmission.  The damper pedal, or sustain pedal (the pedal to the far right) lifts all the dampers from the keys, letting them resonate freely. It is important to pay attention when you use it so that the harmonies remain clear and transparent, varying from case to case according the the style in which you are playing.

[caption id="attachment_234" align="aligncenter" width="374" caption="Notice how there are three different kinds of dampers in this picture of an upright piano's strings."]nnnn[/caption]

I have found that, in my experience, the problem with the pedal in young students is not that they use too much. The problem, is that they don't use the pedal enough. If you just stomp all the way down on the pedal and don't ever lift it or clean the sound up, then you are not using the pedal enough. Usually you will find indications in a score that ask you to use one pedal per measure, or changing it with each harmony. Even so, there are many small adjustments you constantly have to make when you play and these you have to do by paying attention to the sound that is actually coming out.

The pedal should be treated as if it were another finger, always active and changing. A static pedal leads to blurry, messy playing. Playing with absolutely no pedal tends to give us a dry sound, with almost no harmonics. When used properly, the pedal is like the piano's lung, it gives life to your sound.

There are two things that one tells the student that sometimes are met with skepticism, specially when their taste is not fully developed and they can't distinguish very well between good and bad tone:

1. The sound a piano makes is richer and fuller when you use the pedal, even if it is just a single note.

2. You can press the pedal half-way, or only a quarter of the way, or really fast (like a vibrato) and it will work in different ways.

These are very easy to prove for yourself.

[caption id="attachment_236" align="alignright" width="144" caption="Notice how the dampers for the notes with three strings can differ. They can be almost completely flat, or have little wedges that fit into between the strings."]nnn[/caption]

Play a loud middle C without pressing the pedal and listen to the result. Notice the quality of the tone, and how long the sound takes to die. Now press the pedal and play the C again. There should be a definite difference. If you don't hear enough of a difference, you can try something else: press down on a C with an octave in the lowest register of the piano. Just enough so that the damper leaves the string, but not hard enough to make sound. Now play a loud middle C while you press those two other keys, and immediately let it go. The keys you are pressing in the lower register should echo with the sound, if the piano is in tune, they should actually sound quite loudly. These keys are vibrating by the phenomenon of sympathetic resonance. When you press the pedal, all of the strings are free to vibrate in sympathy with the sounds you are actually playing. In some pianos, it might even sound as if a sound has an octave below it even if you are only playing one line.

Vibrating pedals and gradations of the pedals can also be explained objectively. Notice that in a piano, not all dampers are shaped in the same way. Some are flat, some hug the string, some are like a wedge that goes between the strings. Also notice that in different registers, you have different kinds of strings and they behave in different ways when they vibrate. Try this: press the pedal only a tiny little bit. Play staccato in the middle register, notice that the notes continue to sound? One reason for this is that the dampers are flat and immediately leave the string. Do the same with keys in the lower register, it should be much more staccato than the higher register. That is because the damper goes in between the strings and does not rest on top of it. Another reason for this is that the string has a wider vibration, so it will hit the damper and stop sooner. Usually, a very light pedal will lift the higher strings, but for the lower strings you need to press the pedal deeper. Now try this: play a note loudly in the middle register and hold it with the pedal instead of your fingers, then very quickly release the pedal and press it all the way down again. The note should have stopped practically immediately. If you try this in the low register, the note will not stop, only diminish slightly in volume. That is because the vibration in the lower string is wider and the strings bigger; a quick tap from the damper won't stop the sound, it needs to actually drop down and rest on the string.

These quick experiments are not something that you can immediately put to practical use, but they do prove those two points about the pedal. A real pedal has many more little quirks than the pedal on an electric keyboard. You can adjust constantly and use half pedals, or quick pedaling to achieve the sound you want. It is important to learn to use the pedal to its full potential and the sooner you start trying, the better.

The above are very basic concepts about the pedal. Remember that "press and release" are things one works as a child. As one gets older usage of the pedal is much more complicated. A good pianists can use very long pedals to play a melody, but it wont sound blurred because of the way he is playing with his fingers. He can use the pedal in ways that would sound terrible with an amateur by balancing correctly dynamics and inner voices with his fingers.

Whole books can be written just about the pedal, and my point is just to open your eyes (and ears) to the possibilities. If all you are doing is pressing the pedal down and lifting it up because it says so on the score, or because your teacher wrote some markings in your music, you are missing out on a lot. You are pretty much still in diapers in regards to pedaling. Actually, whole books have been written about the pedal. Here are a couple of classic guides that are worth reading:

The Art of Piano Pedaling (Rubinstein, Carreño)

The Pianist's Guide to Pedaling (Joseph Banowetz)

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Daily piano tip #8.

Make your own etudes that are suited to your needs.

If you have a problem either memorizing or playing a particular place in a piece of music, make variations on it. That is basically what we do all the time when we practice well. Isolate a specific problem, take it out of context and approach it from different angles. Imagine the piece as a fully finished construction, a toy car for example. You want to learn how it works so you can reproduce it, so you take it apart; if there is a particular cog, gear or wheel that you don´t understand, you pick it up and look at it. You turn it around in your hand, see how it fits with the rest of the toy car. Then you take all the dismantled pieces and put them back together again.

Something easy that you can do, is take a small motif and play it in all keys. Or you can take it and play it on each step of the diatonic scale in which you are in. We do it constantly when we play something with dotted rhythms, or slowly and more articulated, or legato instead of staccato; this is just taking it a step farther. You can play it simultaneously in both hands, not getting too specific with the fingering; you can play it with both hands in mirror image- the result will be dissonant, but it does give you an idea of the movements and fingerings you are using. Play different versions of the passage you are having problems with, improvise a small piece using it as a base, re-harmonize it.

In the end, it's not the fingers that do the playing, it's your head. All this helps your head work, and keeps it alert and focused while you practice.

Uninformed opinion.

The great irony of the information age is that uninformed opinion has gained a status that it never had before, being widely available to the public. It used to be that a newspaper, magazine or the evening news had a professional academic or journalistic work done behind them. Now, with the Internet, no matter what you believe, you can do a Google search and find someone that agrees with you, even if what you believe is completely unproven and contradicts reality in every way. People can find validation of their own ignorance everywhere.

The same goes for music. It used to be that to get heard by other people, you had to work very hard. These days anyone can tape himself playing the theme from Rach 3, upload the video to YouTube and get 800 comments with half of them saying "OMG, that song is sooo beuutiful!!!!11".

I do believe that the great benefits of being able to communicate freely outweigh the spread of ignorance.

Given the volume of uninformed opinion out there, it is important to know who is writing that article you read. Perspective is very important. In that sense, I really recommend that you take a quick look at the "About the Author" page, and a quick listen in the "Recordings" page. Most of the things I write on this website are my opinion, and are derived from my own experience, my teachers and my own search into things that I find fascinating. I am still learning every day, and I welcome any suggestions or discussion you may have on these subjects.

I hope you enjoy this website. In the title it says "for the discussion of life and music". I really hope this site sparks a lot of it.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Daily piano tip #7.

Many teachers ramble on and on about keeping your muscles relaxed. This tends to lead to students that confuse "relaxed" with "limp". Your whole muscular system needs a balance between relaxed and tensed muscles. If that weren't so, we would be limp piles of bones just lying on the floor, unable to move around.

There are volumes written about how the body actually works when you play the piano, some people see in it the key towards perfect performance. I strongly recommend you read up on things like Alexander technique and the Feldenkrais method as ways to be more aware of what your body is actually doing, and what not to do. Even better, find a qualified instructor and take a course. It will give you a strong background that will help you judge more accurately what actually works and what doesn't in regards to technique.

Remember, the key is in natural movement. When you walk, you don't swing your legs around like John Cleese in the Ministry of Silly walks. Your muscles should have a kind of solid flexibility. They are strong, but in no way locked into a rigid position. They are relaxed, but in no way limp and ineffectual. They are ready to move, just as your legs are when you stand in a normal pose before you take a step.

Let you arm hang down by your side. Now lift it up, but keep your hand an wrist in the same position as they were when your hand was hanging. Your wrist should be holding up your hand, it should not be rigid and clenched and it should not be limp and useless. When you play, you move your fingers; grab something, an apple or a pencil. Notice how you just pick the thing up with your fingers? Notice how, when the rest of the muscles in your arm are relaxed but solid, they will just move naturally behind the fingers to complete the motion? That is what you should look for when you play, natural movements that you use every day. This is the key to not getting injured when you play, and it will also help you avoid harsh ugly sound and broken phrasing. And, if it is any incentive, I'll bet you can play faster too.

When you grab an apple with your hand, you don't raise your shoulder and clench your jaw, then twist your wrist above the apple before letting it go limp so you take it in between your outstretched rigid fingers; why would you do all that for pressing a key on the piano? When I see someone that is playing do all kinds of silly movements with their wrists, shoulders and arms I am always reminded of the Ministry of Silly Walks. It looks funny and will not help you at all.

Stop being a pianist.

How do you define a pianist?

Well... it's someone who plays the piano. Teach a monkey to play chopsticks and, technically, you've got a pianist. I was brought up by Russian teachers though and, for them, the word pianist is capitalized; the Pianist. You can't call yourself a Pianist in that sense unless you can really play; Rach 3, Tchaik 1, Prok 2 and all the other monosyllable + number combinations; play those, and then you are a Pianist.

[caption id="attachment_207" align="alignright" width="247" caption="Like it or not, this is a pianist."]piano monkey[/caption]

But, is being a pianist such a good thing? Arcadi Volodos always insists that he is a musician first and pianist last. No one can deny that he is an amazing Pianist in the technical sense, but he doesn't spend his day playing scales, he does an intellectual job. He thinks and imagines.

Having a solid technical foundation is very important, but I don't think it should be any person's goal to be a pianist, regardless of capitalization. The piano is a vehicle, a tool we use. In that sense, we are not pianists. We are artists. The piano is our medium. Music is the way we express our artistic ideas. We are also intellectuals, ever day we work with history and aesthetics. We make informed decisions constantly, weighing different points of view against our own emotions and intellectual understanding of a work of art.

"Just a pianist" is too little to strive for. It's the difference between craftsmanship and art. There is nothing wrong with craftsmanship, but for an artist, playing the piano well is a tool, not an objective. If your goal is to play faster, clearer and brighter than everyone else, you will be missing out on something greater, in my opinion you would be settling for too little. If you improvise a solo and all you are doing is showing off for applause, you probably won't accomplish much more than that. Wynton Marsallis had that insight when he was a teenager. Having just mastered circular respiration, he would play solos without stopping for a breath for five or six minutes at a time. In the end, the audience clapped, but he was little more than a trained monkey performing for them.

As an artist you can inspire your audience, communicate your love for music and share something with them that goes beyond our everyday lives. As a Pianist you can make them think "wow, he plays good". In the end, each of us decides what we want to be.

Stop being a pianist. Be an artist.

Daily piano tip #6.

The left pedal is not just for "playing soft". Once you start using it, don't think of it as a device for "volume control". Think of it as a device for changing the color of your playing.

In a grand piano, the left pedal will shift all the hammers a little to one side. That means that they will not strike all the strings in a single note (each note in the middle to high registers has three strings). It also means that the hammer will strike the string with its side, which is softer since the felt is not smushed up by constant use, as it is in the middle part of the hammer.

The left pedal has many different gradations, it usually isn't used "all in" or "all out". It's not the clutch on a car! Try to listen for the differences in sound quality that different amounts of left pedal give you in the different registers. If you learn to use it, it will give a whole new dimention to your playing. You get to control where and with which part of the hammer you are striking the strings. Think of it as a string player playing more to the bridge or more to the board, or with all of the hairs of the bow, or tilting slightly to get a thinner sound.

The left pedal is one of our resources for changing the sound we make, don't neglect it. And don't treat it just as the I-can't-play-pianissimo-so-I'll-just-press-this-instead pedal.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008


Far too many pianists out there live in a fairy tale world. I have mentioned before that one of the key elements of getting over stage fright is being completely honest with oneself. If every time you play in public it is a complete mess, maybe it isn't just the nerves' fault. It might be that every time you play, you are making a complete mess but are only aware of it when you are in front of an audience and have no other option but to plod on and finish what you started- no second chances, no do-overs. It may be that you are living in denial.

The possibility for denial haunts musicians every day, all the time. The sources of self-delusion are many, including parents, friends and teachers.

Are you actually practicing, or are you just deluding yourself into thinking that you are practicing? Perhaps you are sitting in a small room with your instrument every day for hours on end without actually practicing, just playing over and over. Maybe instead of trying to make progress when you practice, you are just fulfilling a requirement, so you won't feel guilty at the end of the day, when you sit in front of the TV.

You kept stopping and hesitating at that recital, was it bad because of nerves, or uncomfortable shoes? Perhaps it was bad because even after months of practicing a piece, you never actually sat down and played it from top to bottom without stopping or repeating yourself.

Every single one of your students has carpal tunnel syndrome or tendinitis. Maybe it's that nasty cold wave we've been having? Maybe they practice too much. Perhaps there is a serious problem with the technique that you teach.

You practice hours on end and do everything your teacher tells you to do. Your teacher has a big name and everyone says he is good, he is intimidating in class and talks really big. Even so, it seems that your results at master-classes, auditions and competitions have been severely lacking since you started with him. Every time you get an outside opinion, they eat you alive! Maybe you are just stupid or slow, as your teacher keeps telling you. Perhaps your teacher isn't as good as your friends tell you. Maybe his fame comes from being related to a more accomplished musician, or because there simply isn't any competition in your area.

We tend to make excuses for ourselves and for our teachers. Identifying a problem is the first step towards solving it. Unfortunately, many of us tend to ignore the problem and live in denial. Convince ourselves that it is not there. All those recitals were a disaster because of the crying baby, or the stomach cramps. We carry around all sorts of impressive scores, that must mean that we actually play them well! The sheet music is full of scribbling in all sorts of pretty colors, that must mean that you really know the piece. And if you spend hours and hours locked in a room, that somehow means that you practice a lot and are doing your best.

Stop living in denial now.

There are three basic principles that can help you see behind all the smoke and mirrors that our mind creates.

The best way to judge something is by the end result. You are not a good musician because you practice ten hours a day. You are not a good teacher because you studied at the best possible school. The good pianist/violinist/conductor is the one that plays or conducts well. The good teacher is the one that produces good musicians. That's it. The same goes for methods. Comparing the '"Russian school'" vs the "German school"  vs the "Himalayan school" of piano has no point unless you are actually looking at the results each one gives. There are two kinds of teachers and methods. The ones that turn out good musicians, and the ones that don't, regardless of their origins, methodology, color, smell or taste.

Things don't happen without a reason. "Just because" is never an explanation. Every single note you play wrong, every single problem you have with a student or with an interpretation has a cause. There is no esoteric mystic cause to problems. If nerves constantly beat you when you play, than maybe you are not practicing how to play with nerves. Play for people, use your imagination and do some role-playing when you practice. Imagine the crowd, play from beginning to end, as if you were in the situation. If you sometimes mess up the same passage in a piece of music, maybe you are not understanding completely what is going on there, or you having trouble maintaining your concentration. In fact, if you are having trouble maintaining your concentration when you play, it might be because you practice with an unfocused mind, without paying attention. If your students are consistently messing something up, there is probably a problem with something that you are teaching them. Things happen for a reason, and one of the key elements of good practicing and good teaching is identifying the causes of each problem and solving them. Learning how to accurately solve problems is the goal of taking piano lessons, just remember that to prevent denial, Occam's Razor is your friend. The simplest most direct solution is usually the best. If three of your students have developed a strange painful bump on their wrists. Then it may be that one practices too much, the other practices too little and does not listen to you, and the other one was carrying heavy stuff and it's been very cold lately- or maybe you are just teaching them wrong. Specially if you've got those weird bumps yourself.

An objective observer is your best friend. Your grandma will tell you that you are her little Jascha Heifetz, your teacher might constantly heap on the praise in front of the other students, you might be the best kazoo player in the whole county (probably because you are the only one). In the end, the best thing you can do for your playing is to get as many outside informed opinions as you can. Attend masterclasses, conferences and competitions. Take an occasional lesson with other qualified teachers, or listen in ; if your teacher is really good, he should not object, provided you do so in a respectful manner to all involved and don't go sneaking around. You can be your own best judge, but it is almost impossible to be objective while you play. Record yourself, on video if you can, and sit down and listen. Criticize yourself. The first few times, I can guarantee that the results will be really bad, but over time you will get better. Most important of all, you will get to know yourself and have a real idea of your playing. That way, when you go out in public, it won't catch you by surprise.

Denial is a terrible thing. If you tend to cry after your recitals and be depressed about how terrible your playing was, or if you tend to run out of your recitals and don't actually even finish, you need to sit down and think. Exploring your own personality is as important as practicing for every musician. Just remember not to confuse being honest with yourself, with being nasty to yourself. Avoid negative thinking since it is also denial, but in the other direction. All you have to do is be honest with yourself when you do some self-examination and do everything that you can to get to the point at where you can be happy with the results.

Daily piano tip #5.

Write things down!

While you practice, write down your fingerings and phrasings. After a lesson with your teacher, write all information down so you can remember it when you practice. It's even better if you can record your lessons. That way, your teacher won't have to say things over and over again.

You can go too far -I have known people who write every single finger number on top of every single note of everything they play- but writing something down can save you a lot of time, both practicing and during lessons. Just remember to use it for things that are necessary, some people get so carried away with their pencil, ruler, colors and highlighter, that they end up writing more on their music than they do actually playing and practicing. Only write down things so that you can study them more efficiently, having something written down is not the same as being able to play it. You have to practice to do that.

Don't forget to use a pencil, though. If you use pen, your sheet music will end up looking like a big mess.

Monday, September 8, 2008

Daily piano tip #4.

As soon as you can, try to get used to doing trills with fingerings that involve more than two fingers, like the classic 1-3-2-3-1-3-2-3 fingering. It's one of those things that doesn't make a big difference early on, but is essential when one is more advanced. Those kinds of fingerings will help you develop finger independence and they give you much more control over speed, evenness and dynamics in the long run.

Some editions of beginner level pieces, like the Bach inventions or little preludes use these more complicated fingerings for mordenti and other ornaments. Students like to skip over them and just use a simple 3-2-3 or 1-3-1 instead of the harder 3-1-2 or 4-1-3.

If you learn these kinds of fingerings as soon as you can, it will make a big difference later on.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Daily piano tip #3.

Get one of these:

Learn how (and when) to use it.

Rach 3 cadenzas and musical integrity.

[caption id="attachment_170" align="aligncenter" width="280" caption="I wonder how many people out there decided to become pianists because of this movie."]wer[/caption]

Like many other pianists that saw "Shine" when they were teens, I've had a thing for the third Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto for a long time. It's one of those scores that I've had around and occasionally read through, going from the "holy crap, this is impossible" phase to the "well, it's playable" over the years. It's now time for me to pick it up seriously and actually see it through to the very end with an orchestra.

There are a couple of decisions one has to make with this concerto. Cuts or no cuts? Long cadenza or short cadenza? I'm not going to bore you with all the details. If there is one work for piano that is ever-present on the Internet, it's this one. Do a Google search for "Rach 3" and you will get almost three and a half million results. Guys writing on their Myspace pages about how awesome it is and how much they want to play it, people who collect all available recordings of the concerto and compare them, hundreds of videos on YouTube of amateur pianists playing the opening theme and even more videos of students butchering the cadenzas (usually the big ossia cadenza). People all over the net, most of which probably have never played the concerto (and probably never will) debating about how the short cadenza is for wimps or the long cadenza is overblown and against Rachmaninoff's wishes.


Did he record it the way he did because of time issues? Because he was bored with it? (He recorded it 30 years after he first debuted the concerto). I honestly think that his recording of the concerto and his own recordings of his other works tell us as much about the interpretation of this work as the score itself. It seems his interpretation of his own music is so different from what has become popular and accepted these days that pianists are a bit disappointed, and want to justify what he did; they want to give excuses for him.

I love the Van Cliburn and the Volodos versions too, though. I believe that they choose the cadenza that best suits their pianism and their big sound and long lines. The reasons I like these recordings are more about their intensity and power and not so much about the concerto in itself. In my case, I feel I would have a harder time with the short cadenza. Big chords and octaves are easier for me than quick light playing. Even so, I feel that the short cadenza makes more sense within the context of the concerto, and is the one that Rachmaninoff himself would have included if he had published another edition of the concerto. It is also played in some of the versions that make more musical sense to me, like the Horowitz/Ormandy, Jorge Bolet and Rachmaninoff recordings.

The one thing I do not want to do, is grab the ossia cadenza because it makes me look better. It would lead me to a fundamental question about why I am playing the concerto. Am I playing it because it is famous for being hard? Is it about showing off? Am I doing it because I love the music? With the Rach 3, I have to scrutinize very closely the reasons behind everything I do. I have heard way too many versions where the musical lines are fragmented and things are played faster, louder than necessary  or completely blown out of proportion to make it more impressive than it already is. It is a question of musical integrity; when I play this for an audience, I should be playing a piece of music I love and transmitting Rachmaninoff's musical ideas and emotions by being as faithful as I can to the spirit behind the notes. On the other hand, I could go out and show off, play to make myself feel good and important.

Perhaps there is a little of both. There is a place in music for fireworks, excitement and a little circus; it's just a question of finding the right place for them.

Even Horowitz went crazy and recorded the fast and wild Barbirolli version. It is obvious that they are having a lot of fun. The short cadenza there sure doesn't sound wimpy:

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Daily piano tip #2.

If there is something in a piece of music you can't play or are having trouble understanding, there are always two things you can do to it:

1. Play it slower.

If necessary, you can end up playing at one beat per minute. Once you find a tempo that you can play something at, however slow it is, you can always speed up gradually from there.

2. Break it up into smaller pieces.

Even the most difficult piano music is made up of individual notes, you can break the music into pieces following musical patterns, or the sequences of the movements you make to play them. In the end, you can end up with single isolated notes. However small the fragments are, start joining them again once you are comfortable.

Friday, September 5, 2008

Daily piano tip #1.

When learning a new piece, the first thing you should do  is research.

Ten minutes on Wikipedia or Google, or the Grove dictionary of music will save you hours of practice. It will also save your teacher from having to tell you a lot of things you could easily find out by yourself with just a quick check on the Internet, a book, the prologue to your sheet music or in a CD jacket. Make sure you can answer a few simple questions about what you are about to play.

Who is the author?

Where was he from?

When did he live?

What was going on in his life when he wrote the piece of music you are about to play?

Did he write anything else related to or that is like the piece?

What is the title of the piece? You'd be surprised at the number of students who don't even know what the piece is called. I am sure it makes a difference if the piece is called "Roses of Spring" or "Clashing thunder" or "I'm so happy, happy, happy." or "Death, Death. Oh sad music of gloom and despair" or "I sound like I am happy but I am really very sad."

Is the piece based on something? It irks me to hear people play the second movement of the Prokofiev seventh sonata without the slightest idea that it has the same melody as a song by Schumann that is about showing a happy face to the world while being torn up inside. They'll even come out and say "Wow, this movement seems really out of place, it's so happy."

How were similar pieces played back then?

What does the name of the piece mean? You should at least try to learn the meaning of "suite", "sonata", "fugue", etc.

After all that, check through the piece. Did you find any words that you don't know the meaning to? Look them up! All those Italian, French or German terms have definite meanings that are easy to find, and they also have a big impact on how you are supposed to play a particular place in a piece.

With the Internet at our disposal, and thousands of interpretations of classical music free on the web, there is absolutely no excuse to not know at least what it is that you are playing. Before sitting down to play the first note, go out and look it up, it will only take about ten minutes of your time but it will save you hours of practice. It will also make your piano teacher like you a lot more.