Chopin comes before us, then, as a man of extremely complex make-up, and there is no easy solution to the problems which his personality and the music through which it was expressed present to his modern interpreter. One can only approach him by sweeping aside the clutter of trivial romantic legend which has accumulated around his name and his works. When all the sentimentality, pathos, patriotic fairy-takes and garbled ‘memories’ have been cleared away he appears in simple dignity as Thomas Carlyle saw him in 1848-a great artist and ‘a noble and much suffering human being’. He was more than any other musician of his period the ‘artist’ in that word’s most absolute sense. His mind was never diverted from its single, absorbing preoccupation by any chasing after will-o’-the wisps in the field of literature, the visual arts, politics, social questions or abstract theorizing. To some it will seem a weakness that he should have lived in a world of upheaval and rapid change without ever allowing himself to be ‘committed ‘or ‘engaged’, as our modern jargon puts it. Yet it was therein that his strength lay. He was dedicated to the one task of exploring the world he new best -that of his own heart and imagination; and in giving shape to what he discovered within himself it turns out that he was embodying in his music those unchanging essentials of feeling which ordinary inarticulate humanity recognizes but cannot express for itself. In limiting himself to the piano he in no way crippled or tied down his genius, for by his natural affinity with his instrument he was provided with a sufficient outlet for the wealth of sensibility with which his double inheritance had endowed him…
In the sphere of piano performance or piano artistry there are few human activities where the necessity for extraordinary physical prowess is so closely aligned with the greatest intellectual and emotional capacities.
The virtuoso must possess a memory capable of maintaining thousands of pages of music in the mind and fingers, under the stress and distractions of public performance; the virtuoso must be cultured and self-aware, musically able to convey the great range of meaning embodied within a chosen repertoire; the virtuoso must project both physical excitement and emotional communication; and the virtuoso must experience life to the fullest while remaining cloistered with an instrument in a relentless quest to maintain his or her craft at its highest level.
A capricious, even morbid, temperament is demanded, and there must be the fire that kindles and the power that menaces; a fluctuating, wavering rhythm yet a rhythmic sense of excessive rectitude; a sensuous touch, yet a touch that contains an infinity of coloring; supreme musicianship-Chopin was a musician first, poet afterwards; a big nature overflowing with milk and honey; and, last of all, you must have suffered the tribulations of life and love, until the nerves are whittled away to a thin sensitive edge and the soul is aflame with the joy of death’ James Huneker
There are so many different ways of practising the piano and whilst it’s relatively easy to identify those that are ineffective or plain incorrect, it’s much harder to establish fail-safe methods which will work every time on every piece. Many believe slow practice is of little use and can be distracting or even damaging, but if worked at regularly and accurately, it promotes a much more thorough approach. In fact, practising at very slow speeds employing total concentration can transform a pianist’s playing.
The first obstacle to successful slow practice is encouraging students and young pianists to view it as a valuable process. Many think it is a good idea in theory, but when it comes to practice time, it’s far easier (and more pleasant too) to play as usual; up to speed with the usual hesitations or errors. It takes vast amounts of discipline to play at a fraction of the speed, which is no easy feat, but…
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Fingering is a crucial element in piano playing and surprisingly it’s often overlooked even at advanced levels. Many piano students have never adhered to any at all. Fingering is necessary because it helps a pianist remember which one of their four fingers or thumb (in each hand) is required to play a particular note or notes. It is a really useful skill to cultivate as without it piano playing will become haphazard and uneven. It’s difficult to achieve any kind of consistency or fluency without sticking to the same finger patterns in a piano piece.
Some pieces will have all the fingering written in and others will need it annotated on the music or score. A good teacher will write all the necessary fingerings on the music so when you practice you will know exactly which finger goes where. This is vital for smooth fluent playing. Initially, your piano books will show you how the fingers are…
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Physiologist Homer Smith cites skilled piano playing as one of the pinnacles of human achievement because of the “demanding muscle coordination of the fingers, which require a precise execution of fast and complex physical movements”. This remarkable human ability provides an insight into the power of the brain. Consider Frédéric Chopin’s popular but challenging Fantaisie-Impromptu. This work requires playing approximately nineteen notes per second. The performer must learn these notes to such an extent that conscious attention to them is virtually no longer necessary. This is the aim of any playing of music—to render the technical demand to an almost unconscious level. Daniel Levitin says, “Plain old memorization is what musicians do when they learn the muscle movements in order to play a particular piece”. Much of this repetitive practice routine is more or less an algorithmic task. There’s nothing particularly creative about learning the motor mechanics of a phrase…
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Toccata BWV 915
The toccata an extensive piece intended primarily as a display of manual dexterity written for keyboard instruments reached its apex with Johann Sebastian Bach in the eighteenth century. Johann Sebastian Bach’s seven Toccatas incorporate rapid runs and arpeggios alternating with chordal passages, slow adagios and at least one or sometimes two fugues. The Toccatas have an improvisational feel to them analogous to the fantasia. Unlike the Well Tempered Clavier, English suites, French suites and other sets, Bach himself did not arrange them into a collection. When JS Bach left Weimar the Toccata at that time was out of fashion. They became in vogue again after his death and were organized into a collection. The g minor Toccata is one of the more obscure of the toccatas and has rarely been performed partially due to the extensive second fugue with its many thorny passages of the contrasting gigue rhythm. However, this Toccata has many fascinating effects. It is one of the only pieces by JS Bach that has dynamic markings of piano and forte.
The g minor Toccata opens with a flourish, which leads into an expressive adagio with an improvisational feel. The adagio is interrupted by a lively allegro in the relative major key of Bb which includes concerto-ritornello passages of imitation and solo/tutti passages. A deceptive cadence leads back into the adagio where it was interrupted and then closes the adagio with a perfect authentic cadence in Bb major. This aspect provides a unity to the different movements of the Toccata. The other striking example of unity between movements is the beginning flourish repeated at the end of the second fugue, which leads into a formal closing of the work.
The extended fugue in a gigue has a subject of an ascending sequence combined with a countersubject of driving triplets. The subject of the fugue has twelve expository entries followed by eleven entries. There are inversions, permutations, combinations of minor with major, which is varied by modulating to the subdominant, then to Eb major and then back to the g minor tonic. The vivacious counter subject of driving triplets provides a symmetrical balance.
To learn more about Fugues please read my other Hub: The Art of Fugue
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