Friday, September 25, 2009

Alicia de Larrocha

The first recording I ever owned, when I was about seven years old, was of Alicia de Larrocha playing Mozart's concertos 9 and 21 with the English Chamber Orchestra.  Over the years, I have owned at least three copies of that recording because I keep wearing it out. To this day, it is the one piece of music for which I am always in the mood. I can always count on it to lift my spirits and rekindle my love for music. Listening to that record always cheers me up, even in my darkest times.

The first time I listened to that recording was one of the most powerful musical experiences of my life. At the beginning, I thought it was only the instrument that had that effect on me, it was the first time I had even heard a piano properly played. After that, I saved up my allowance for months until I had enough to get one of those boxed sets of "Great Piano Concertos" which you can find lying around really cheap in most bargain bins. Those discs were the first time I listened to Rachmaninov's second concerto, the Tchaikovsky concerto, Beethoven's Emperor... it also included a version of Mozart's 21st Concerto. I remember only ever listening to it once, and not getting all the way to the end. After listening to Alicia de Larrocha for such long time, this other version felt wrong to me, it didn't make me happy.

For years, every time I saved up enough money, I would buy an Alicia de Larrocha record. She was the only pianist I knew by name. The next recording I got was of a Mozart recital, then some more Mozart piano concerti and, after that, her recording of the Khatchaturian piano concerto. Every single one of those recordings had the same effect on me; they felt fresh every time I listened. Listening to her made me ecstatic, I couldn't explain why; her recordings made me want to dance and jump around, there was always something so beautiful about that sound, so round and full. It made me want to play the piano, or just go out and make music in any way I could.

My collection of recordings continued to grow over the years and every single piano recording in it was by Alicia de Larrocha. I had no idea who she was, where she came from, or what she was best known for, all I knew was that something in her playing spoke to me on a deeper level; it reached out to me in a way that other recordings didn't. In my eight year old mind, she attained a mythical status, some kind of piano God with powers beyond mere mortals. Ironically, the one recording I never heard was her landmark rendition of Iberia. When asked who my favorite pianist was, I'd always answer: "Alicia de Larrocha" without the slightest idea that she was really good with music from Spain. It wasn't until years later, when I was a teenager that I was completely blown away by her recordings of Albeniz, Granados, Soler and Falla.

Alicia de Larrocha is the reason I fell in love with music, and especially with the piano. In many ways, she represents for me an ideal of what a musician should try to be. Today I was greatly saddened when I heard that she passed away at 86 years of age. I felt as if a big piece of my childhood had passed away. I know that her recordings will be rediscovered by generations to come, as it happened to me. It's a playing that is unmistakable, of such individuality and so full of life that no one can listen to it for the very first time and remain untouched.

Friday, August 7, 2009

Behold, the Katzenklavier!

[The cats] be arranged in a row with their tails stretched behind them. And a keyboard fitted out with sharpened nails would be set over them. The struck cats would provide the sound. A fugue played on this instrument--when the ill person is so placed that he cannot miss the expression on their faces and the play of these animals--must bring Lot's wife herself from her fixed state into conscious awareness.

Imagine a piano.

Remove all the strings and replace them with cats.

Arrange the cats in a chromatic scale.

When you press a key, a pin hits the designated cat.

Behold, the Katzenklavier!

[caption id="attachment_667" align="aligncenter" width="300" caption="This is the kind of thing people did for entertainment before television and the internet."]This is the kind of thing[/caption]

Created in the 17th century by Athanasius Kircher, this instrument was invented with the initial purpose of waking up catatonic patients. It was actually built and used for entertainment purposes.

Here's the Wikipedia page. Follow the references at the bottom of the page for additional information on this crazy contraption.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

#71 Think in the long term.

A big mistake I see many pianists make is focusing on the wrong things and taking short term gratification over long term success. This can happen in all stages of our professional development--- from student to concert pianist to teacher.

When teaching or studying, we must always resist the temptation of doing what "makes us look good" instead of what will actually help our development. It is a very common situation to have a student that is particularly good at one aspect of music and almost completely useless in another (in my particular case, when I was just starting out, I had extremely good octave and chord technique but couldn't play a clean fast scale to save my life.) Many teachers will opt to ignore the problem--- sometimes on purpose, more often through self deception--- and have that particular student play repertoire that is easy for him, that shows off what he can do and hides his defects. In the short term, this will make the teacher look good since his students are playing so well, and it will make those students look good in front of their peers. In the long term, it's disastrous.

It is well known that the earlier we can fix problems with our technique, the easier they are to fix. By constantly ignoring them, or hiding them, we are making the problem harder to solve in the long term--- sometimes it becomes impossible to remove. In the same way, a teacher that constantly does this ends up having very few student who go on to become professionals, hurting him in the long run (not to mention how unethical it is to hurt your students in this way.) We are all guilty of this to some degree, but the those teachers that do it purposefully are like predators that take in students, use them up until their ability to make music is damaged beyond repair and then discard them for newer, undamaged students--- usually blaming them in the process for not advancing fast enough.

Another common problem with short term thinking occurs with those musicians that are fresh out of music school. I believe that self promotion is necessary. It is absolutely essential that a musician know how to conduct himself in society and the proper channels for obtaining opportunities to play and to teach. Even so, a lot of inexperienced musicians will neglect the quality of their playing and gaining new repertoire because they are too busy playing politics, presenting projects to every single cultural institution they come across, meeting up with patrons of the arts, festivals or concert promoters. What they don't realize is that by neglecting the quality of their playing in favor of trying to "get their foot in the door", once that big break comes, they won't be able to do anything about it and probably won't get called back. I firmly believe that, if you focus on making music as well as you can, everything else will eventually more or less fall into place, as long as you aren't going to the other extreme of acting like an isolated weirdo.

I've seen it too many times to count in my fellow students or in the ones I see graduating every generation. Imagine the case of a pianist that practically stopped learning new repertoire in the two years after he left music school. He spent all his time coming up with projects and trying to get concerts. When he finally got a much sought after audition, he played in a very mediocre way. They asked him what concert repertoire he had and that pianist could only list one or two concerts. He played a recital, and they never called him back again. In that same year, he got six or seven opportunities to work with other musicians and to give concerts but, they all fell through or they never amounted to anything.

In my case, I made that mistake early enough for it not to have a significant impact on my development later so, when I left school (which wasn't that long ago,) I tried to concentrate on learning as much relevant repertoire as possible and trying to fill up all the gaps left in my education. I didn't get so many opportunities and invitations to play in the first couple of years, but every single invitation I did get turned into a modest success which invariably led to other opportunities with the same institutions and with others, through word of mouth.

As a music student it is also very important to think of long term results. In the short term, it is easy to give up because we can't really see the progress we make unless we have some perspective. A lot of students tend to stick to a practice regime or to a different way of playing for only a little while and then, when they don't see quick results, they'll stop doing it. Many things affect how you play on a given day. You probably won't see results immediately when you practice, but as the weeks go by your average ability will always go up. Think of it like of following a diet. If you are losing weight, your weight loss won't go like this: 100kg-99kg-98kg-97kg-96kg-95kg-94kg... in a steady straight line decrease. Many things can affect it, how much water or food you have on a particular day for example. It will look more like this: 100kg-96kg-99kg-97kg-93kg-97kg-92kg... in a jagged line, but always decreasing on average. In the same way, if you follow a good teacher's recommendations, you won't see a linear rise in your abilities but, on average, you will get better.

It is simple really, to get good results in the long term you must be honest with yourself and with your students. As a teacher, always do what is best for the development of your student, even if it gets you criticized by your fellow teachers because your student's repertoire isn't as flashy or they aren't playing that many concerts. As a student, don't try to hide your problems, a student's role is to fix them with guidance from his teacher. As a professional, focus on making music as best as you can above all other considerations. I believe that by doing this, in the long term, it all works out.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Bach does Arnstadt. The most metal of composers.

Johann Sebastian Bach was not a boring person. Considering that eighteenth century Germany was extremely conservative and that musicians in his situation depended almost entirely on the patronage of the church, Bach had a surprising disregard for authority and for society's conventions. During his life, he produced some of the finest music the world has ever known while being a constant source of problems for his employers. The picture that is often painted of Bach is that of a dour personality concerned only with a higher calling. Bach's first job in Arnstadt shows him in a completely new way; young Bach was surprisingly metal.

The pipe organ of the eighteenth century ranks as the most complex piece of machinery that the world would see until the industrial age. Although there is no record of how Bach acquired his knowledge, by the time he was 18 years old he was an expert in its workings and was in high demand by organ makers and churches to test and certify new organs. When testing an organ at St. Boniface, in Arnstadt, his knowledge combined with the sheer virtuosity of his playing prompted the church to fire the organist they already had and hire Bach in his place. Adding insult to injury, they payed him a sum of money unheard of for someone so young (especially considering that St. Boniface was a very poor church). Even so, in the years that followed he bickered constantly with the officials about the nature of his duties and the sum of money he was being paid--- although realistically speaking, can you really pay J. S. Bach too much?

In the few years Bach spent in Arnstadt, he was summoned many times by the Consistory (a board of clerics that made sure that everyone working for them was behaving properly.)  He was constantly getting into arguments with his musicians and he was continually reprimanded for not paying any attention to the boys' choir. Bach would argue that his contract only required him to play and maintain the organ and that they should hire a choir director to which the church would reply that they were paying him so bloody much that they couldn't afford to hire anyone else.

In one of his arguments, he called one of his bassoon players, a certain Geyersbach, a Zippel-Fagottist (goat-bassoonist). Later that day, while Bach was out taking a stroll with his cousin Barbara, goat-bassoonist showed up with a walking stick demanding satisfaction. Bach repeatedly refused to apologize and goat-bassoonist attacked him. Bach pulled out his sword and proceeded to put goat-bassoonist in his proper place (which begs the question, why is a church organist carrying around a sword?) The Consistory was definitely not pleased.

Only a couple of months after the sword incident, Bach asked for permission to visit Lübeck, home of the legendary organist Dietrich Buxtehude. He was granted four weeks. Not being one to waste money on such unmanly matters as transportation, Bach walked the whole way covering 250 miles in under ten days. Apart from his desire to listen to Buxtehude play, Bach was also there for another reason: to check out Buxtehude's unmarried daughter. Buxtehude had a very lucrative position in Lübeck and he was quite old. By common practice, the person that would would take his job would have to marry Buxtehude's daughter. Several other prominent musicians of the day (including Handel) had already made the journey with similar intentions. Bach definitely did not like what he saw because he returned to Arnstadt and immediately married his cousin Barbara--- seeing Bach draw his sword on goat-bassoonist would probably have been enough to make any woman fall at his feet. Bach's little four week trip to Lübeck ended up lasting almost four months. Needless to say, the Consistory was not pleased with Bach's trip.

The congregation of the church was also quite confused with the way Bach would accompany the chorales during the services. He would play highly ornamented versions of the choral music which, while amazing, were too complicated for the people to follow. Bach was also reprimanded for allowing a "stranger maiden" to show herself and make music. It was not customary to allow women to sing in church and the "stranger maiden" was probably Barbara.

In at least three different occasions in the months that followed, Bach had to appear before the Consistory for neglecting the boy's choir and for letting Barbara sing in church. The people in Arnstad were in awe of Bach and amazed at his ability but it was always an awkward relationship. The authorities were always patient with young Bach, but I'm sure there was a collective sigh of relief when Bach decided to leave the town.

Bach's short time in Arnstadt would set the tone for what was to come. In the years that followed, while writing some of the greatest music the world has known,  Bach managed to get himself thrown into jail for refusing to continue working for duke Wilhelm, remarried to a woman that was half his age, had 20 children and also adopted the four children of a man with whom he had a bitter rivalry, made one of the most renowned organists of his time chicken out of an organ duel, grabbed and threw people's wigs, and wrote a full cantata with the only intent of selling coffee (the Coffee Cantata might be the world's longest and most complicated commercial jingle.)

Bach's music is often associated with mathematical complexity and an expression of his deep-seated Lutheran faith. Another side to his music which is sometimes overlooked has to do with the sheer force of his character, which is apparent in the way he lived his life. For me, the work that best embodies this is the fifth Brandenburg concerto.

Throughout the concerto, the harpsichord constantly erupts into virtuoso scales and trills all over the keyboard until finally, much like Bach's peers, the rest of the instruments simply cannot keep up. Then follows a harpsichord cadenza that is unique among the music of its time. I like to imagine Bach playing it for the first time; wig askew, sweat pouring; while the rest of the people in the room watch in complete shock as the little pudgy man goes crazy (like The Who breaking their instruments on stage or Hendrix playing the guitar with his teeth). It has scales up and down, all manners of trills and diabolic ornamentation, it has the left hand leaping around in octaves (which in baroque music is amazing in itself), it has the theme jumping around from voice to voice--- it's practically Liszt at his most diabolical.

Here is the complete first movement of the concerto:

Here is Gustav Leonhardt playing the cadenza. The playing is amazing although dressing up in wigs and tights for a concert isn't really my kind of thing:

And here is Glenn Gould playing the cadenza on the piano:

Monday, May 11, 2009

Building webs instead of chains.

What is the meaning of a piece of music?

Is it the quality that lets us recognize it upon hearing it? Does it lie in the ability to play the notes or understanding what is going in the composition? Is the meaning of a work in the emotional connection you have with it? Even then, if you are not the composer, can you ever really know the true meaning of a piece of music?

To know a piece of information and to have the ability to extract  meaning from it are two very different things. A computer can know millions of variables, but it derives no meaning to itself from that information. What something means really has to do with the ways it connects to all the other things we know. The more such links, the more that thing will mean to us. Looking for one "true" meaning for anything in particular is futile. If something had only one meaning it would only be connected with one thing in our minds and would hardly mean anything at all.

Understanding this is very important for a musician. It affects the way we try to learn our music and how we try teach our students.

The worst teaching tries to shape concepts into a tower or a chain instead of trying to build cross-connected webs. The problem with chains is that they will break at their weakest links and towers easily topple. That's what happens when our mind, or a child's, wanders for just a moment.

As a way of reaching a useful conclusion, for a mathematician or a philosopher, simple straight lines are best. What we must realise is that our purpose is not the same. We need our ideas to be as cross-connected as possible if we wish to have any hope of retaining them. We think that we are helping our students effectively by showing them a simple single path and hammering away at it, but instead we are making things worse most of the time. The focus should be on building robust networks in our students' heads.

This is the problem with the so-called "miracle methods" of teaching. There is no magic shortcut to being a musician. Music comes with time, and it comes as a result of a whole organic process in which we integrate the entirety of our experience. We can help this process by helping our students look at the music from all possible angles.

We can apply this to our own practice. The greatest advantage of learning through webs of concepts instead of chains of reasoning is that the knowledge gained is long-lasting and almost impossible to forget. That should be the biggest selling point for any performing musician, since a typical fear is forgetting the music while performing in public.

Practically speaking, this concept is easy to apply. When teaching or practicing a piece, instead of following the same tired route of "learn one hand, learn the other, play both hands together and speed it up" try a more roundabout way of learning it. Start by reading up on the piece and the composer. Learn only the rhythm and clap it out. Sing all the intervals. Try playing the melody with different hands and changing the harmony. Play everything in octaves. Play everything with one hand. Play everything at half the tempo. Play with both hands what a single hand would play. Break it up into phrases and only play one phrase at a time. Play all the phrases backwards. Play it in a different key. Don't play the music, play around with the music.

The best teaching and learning needs variety. By observing all the different meanings that something has and could have, we are building webs instead of chains and ensuring that the whole thing won't come down in pieces when a single link breaks.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

The Universal Mind of Bill Evans.

Every musician should learn jazz.

As most musicians today understand it, jazz is a musical style. That is not wrong, but it's not really the most important thing because jazz is also a process. It's the process of making music in the moment, an essential skill that was mostly lost in classical music towards the end of the nineteenth century.

A long time ago, musical notation was developed out of the necessity to make a piece of music permanent. Without recording technology, it was necessary to write the music down if it was to be played more than once. Music, up to the end of the eighteenth century, was improvisatory in a very high degree. Even in the romantic period, there was still a great deal of improvisation serving as the basis for concert music.

Musical notation allowed composers to write works of increasing complexity, to the degree where a composer could take months to write a single minute of music. It also marked a new division between composer and interpreter. Today we have composers that can't play a single note of music on any instrument; some of the really bad ones are also practically tone-deaf. There are also interpreters out there that can't pick out a melody on their instrument, let alone deviate from their precious score-- even when the musical style demands it!

The necessity for the ability to improvise goes beyond being able to pluck out a cadenza in a classical work or playing a jazz standard by ear, it affects everything we do as musicians.

It affects our interpretation. When we hear or play a piece, being able to follow along with the "jazz process" of the composer is something that gives us depth and insight. It gives an interpreter the ability to see what a composer didn't write and what he could have written instead of what is on the page. This ability also allows to understand the "why" and the "how" better. I've been to too many classes where the lesson the teacher is able to give with his limited insight does not go beyond correcting the note values and marking the tempo by clapping along. There is no talk about the musical process the composer followed and there is no deeper meaning to what is being done. Too many musicians go through their whole careers thinking that an interpreters job is just counting , measuring and following along with what is written like a good little bureaucrat.

Being able to improvise also affects the way we teach and learn. I believe that the best way to learn is by playing around. In many languages, the word for playing an instrument and the word for playing with a toy is the same. I have found that the best way to teach a child is through improvisation. By letting them write their own songs and trying out alternatives to what is written down. In the same way, good practice is really the process of teaching ourselves. In that sense, one of the best ways of learning is by making variations on the music and playing the things that are not there.

Most important of all, the jazz process allows us to be real with what we play. Particularly with the piano, it is easy to play a note without feeling it, without thinking it. You drop the finger, and the instrument makes noise. You could just as well have hit the piano with a pencil, or thrown something at the keys. It is absolutely essential to listen in your mind to every thing you play or it isn't real. This is more apparent when making jazz. It is easy to play scales up and down, or have a few formulas that sound good almost anywhere, without really feeling the different harmonies or thinking out the melody that you are improvising. The sense of actually doing what you are singing in your mind is quite hard to do, but being honest and real with your playing really makes a difference in the end result and in what you, as an interpreter, get out of your music.

In The Universal Mind of Bill Evans, Bill Evans sits down and has a talk with his brother. I consider this video essential viewing for any pianist, specially those of us who play mostly classical music. Bill Evans was not only a great pianist, he was also a philosopher of music and, in my opinion, one of the greatest musical minds that the world has known. I don't compare Bill Evans to other jazz pianists, I think of him as a modern day Chopin or Schubert. Here is part one of the video, the whole thing is up on YouTube:

Friday, April 17, 2009

You need to say "Yes."

Last year I was invited to play Shostakovitch's second piano concerto. The orchestra was doing a programme of classical music used in the movies, with half of it dedicated to Disney's original Fantasia and the 2000 version. About a month before the concert, the conductor called me up.

Due to that concert being done by a guest conductor, there were going to be some changes to the programme. "Can you play Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue?" he said. I had never played the Rhapsody before, but back in high school I'd played around with the score a few times. I was pretty sure that I could learn it in five weeks, before the rehearsals with the orchestra started, but I decided it was better to make sure and play through the score once. "I'm not sure," I said, "let me look at the score and I'll get back to you in about an hour."

I sat down and played through it, didn't find anything that was really hard to play and saw it was pretty straightforward to memorize. Most of it is also played solo and very improvisatory, so there was a lot of freedom to move around. Just as I suspected, I could easily play it by then. I called the conductor back in 40 minutes to tell him that, only to have him say: "Oh, I'm sorry, we already got another pianist to play it. We'll do Shostakovitch with you next season."

This is a very competitive field. I was lucky to get a shot at playing it and forgot that there were a dozen other pianists ready to play it in case I wasn't; and that's just locally. Two weeks later I got another invitation to play Rhapsody in Blue with even less time to learn it. I said "Yes. No problem." on the spot. I did what I had to do to get the piece ready and a couple of suitable encores (I prepared Gershwin's Lullaby in Blue and a short piece by Kapustin) and the concert and rehearsals went very well.

If you are one of those pianists that always says "I'm not sure," "Maybe," "Who knows" in answer to the question: "Can you play this?" you need to learn to say: "Yes" or "No" because it is nobody's problem but your own whether you can learn a piece on time or not. I've written about this before on this page: one of the most important things a musician must have is a realistic view of what he can and can't do.

As a student, a lot of the repertoire we play is designed to overcome hurdles, to learn to do things we hadn't done before. Our attitude when faced with a new piece is usually one of "I'm not sure if I'll be able to play this."  Because of this, it's easy to fall into the habit of prefacing everything we do with an excuse. Excuses are just a projection of our own insecurity. They can ruin your performance because you end up sounding as if you are apologizing for playing. The "student" attitude also can be terrible for your own self-worth. As we gain maturity and technical mastery, that attitude has to change. When learning a new piece it's not about whether you can or can't play it, it's about when. You have to do what you can to make it good, and that is nobody's problem but your own.

The manager, the concert promoter, the conductor, the old lady from the music society that hired you to play the recital, the people in the audience; they don't care how much you had to practice-- or how little-- or whether its the first time you play it, or if you get nervous in public, or if you don't play the really hard passage in measure 243 perfectly clean. All they want is to hear a piece of music. To be, for a moment, lifted from every day's routine by art, beauty and emotion.

Don't give excuses.

Just say "Yes, absolutely," or don't do it at all.

Monday, February 2, 2009

#70 Winning.

Music should not be a competition; the music you play, should not be some kind of monster you are trying to slay.

The piano is not meant to be won. It's meant to be played.


There is a quality in each person's playing that is completely unique. An approach to music that is completely our own, that comes from within and which is part of a personal quality that has been there from the very beginning. It can't be taught and it can't be learned; I think it is something that has to be remembered.

When I work with children approaching the piano for the very first time, I get a glimpse of it. In the very enjoyment and curiosity that a child displays when doing everything for the first time-- his first song, his first time playing with both hands together, the first time he actually sits down and presses a key-- there is an unimpeded deliberation. A sense of  doing and being that gets lost over time with all the "what ifs" and the "should haves" and the "would haves" the fill up our mind almost immediately after we start.

This quality is stifled by fear and soon forgotten. Over our lives as we learn to make music, our own mind works against us in subtle ways. Before a musician makes that big step from being a student to being a professional, it is important that he deals with his own demons and emotional baggage.  I experienced a kind of release-- of shedding away some unwanted load-- before I started feeling a bit more comfortable with my own playing. While building up all the necessary skills and knowledge we need to be musicians, we also must experience an intense personal search of ourselves. Our goal: to play-- in the broader definition of the word.

Some people physically exhaust themselves trying to reach that goal, playing everything in a million different ways, practicing hours and hours; through constant repetition and hard physical labor, they bang their head over and over again on a brick wall hoping to make a dent. Other people analyse every single aspect and possibility that the task at hand offers, they read every single book there is about technique and spend hours just thinking; by arming themselves with knowledge, they try to outsmart the wall. Both of these ways eventually reach a point of saturation either by complete physical exhaustion-- repetition until the task loses all meaning-- or information overload in which our knowledge reaches a point of impracticability.

At that moment,  a release comes and when it does, the wall is gone.  It's fear; fear of what we are. Once the fear is gone, we are free to play as we played that very first time we sat at the piano; but knowing what we're doing this time.

That is what I admire most in the small children I teach for the first time. Their complete fearlessness. It is a fragile thing, but as a teacher, I try to help them hold on to it as long as they can. Hopefully, it'll be that much easier to remember once the time comes.