Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Help Available for Plate-Spinners!

It has been my experience in working with students of all ages, that we have become a culture of plate-spinners.  Whether it is participating in several after-school activities or getting members of one’s family from said place-to-place, there seems to be too many activities and not enough time.  Students get overwhelmed, skim over their assignments (without looking at the assignment sheet), and come with very little accomplished from the previous lesson.  Never fear – help is here for the “music plate!” Once you have the music plate spinning smoothly and efficiently, you may find that you can apply the same principle to the other plates in your life.
  • Look at your assignment sheet.  Make sure the goals for the week are prioritized.  If you and your teacher did not do this at lesson, do it now.  What is item one   that one thing you want to make sure you accomplish this week?

  • Go the item one. Take the tool from your practice tool box that will help you most. Maybe it is focused hands-alone playing of a small section 7-10 times accurately. Perhaps it is time to put the section hands-together, which requires super-slow practice in tiny tidbits. Look at previous blog posts for more ideas if the practice strategy isn’t listed on your assignment sheet. 

  • With focused attention, work on item one for a large chunk of your practice time on Days 1-3. If you are honest with yourself, you will know when you are devoting the appropriate amount of time!

  • By Day 4, item one should be more readily under control, taking up less of your focus and requiring much less of your practice time.

  • Take the extra time now available from having accomplished item one, and apply it to the next item on your assignment sheet (priority list).

See?  It is really that systematically simple:  Do one thing, do it well, and move on to the next thing.  The research is in…multi-tasking is not a thing; it doesn’t work.  It simply fragments the mind, sends anxiety through the roof, and results in ever-diminishing mastery of whatever tasks are at hand.

With diligent application of these steps, your plate spinning will become smooth and efficient.  You will find yourself enjoying the array of creative orbs filling your life in a harmonious flow.

Saturday, February 11, 2017

Fingering Choices for Musical Gain in Eighteenth-Century Piano Performance

This Blog was first published by Oxford University Press:

The proper use of fingering to perform accurately is of concern to all instrumentalists.  However, there is a dangerous pitfall awaiting keyboard players that does not exist for other instrumentalists.  Simply put, for non-keyboardists, wrong fingering usually equals wrong note. But for the pianist, we can stumble along, playing the right pitches, while all the while making a complete mess of the musical message because of inept fingering.  As C. P. E. Bach cautions: “Today, much more than in the past, no one can hope to play well who does not use his fingers correctly.”[1]  Therefore, it is not surprising that C. P. E. Bach devotes 37 pages to proper scale fingerings of all stripes and colors for good execution in chapter 1 of Versuch, and Türk devotes 60 pages to the same in Klavierstücke.

What is distinctive to eighteenth-century performance practice is the acknowledgment of the important role fingering plays in musicality; how it is completely interconnected.  It is inseparable from interpretation.  It serves a vital musical function so much so that Bach believed the musical function of fingering was more important than its technical role.
Clementi puts it succinctly: “To produce the best effect, by the easiest means, is the great basis of the art of fingering.”[2]  The best fingering is achieved by the easiest means, which is not always a 1-2-3-4-5 legato approach. Instead, this suggests choosing fingering that supports a hand shape and execution which will facilitate a reliable technical and musical outcome. Türk demonstrates the concept well in Klavierstücke.  As suggested in Discoveries from the Fortepiano (2015, OUP), try the excerpt below using consecutive fingering (1-2, 2-3, 3-4…) while at the same time following the slur indications.  Now, play it with Türk’s suggestions which require one gesture, one muscle movement, gliding up and down the keyboard – the best effect by the easiest means.

 Türk, Klavierstücke. 158.[3]

Oftentimes today, scores are interpreted with a fully-connected, legato execution. The Mozart example below is a case in point. The fingering choice suggested by the editor in the right hand on beat one of measure 33 is 2-1-2-4-5. This proposed fingering implies connecting the line through the slur which contradicts the articulation subtleties Mozart notated. If we are to play the score as directed by Mozart, this “easiest” fingering approach, in reality, becomes more difficult to execute musically and the following interpretation usually results.

 Mozart, Piano Sonata, K. 309/II, mm. 33-36 (Henle)

Instead, using 1-2-4-5-3 on beat one of measure 33 produces Mozart’s notated articulation by using the natural inclination of the fingers: starting with a heavier gesture with naturally heavier fingers, breaking the legato after finger 5, and landing with a rich, thick finger 3.  A natural gesture followed by a newly articulated stroke. The best effect by the easiest means. Listen to the difference that is demonstrated on the fortepiano:

By following these principles on the modern piano the same nuanced interpretation is readily achieved:

The conscious employment of this technical approach provides rational solutions to the perceived “problems” of executing eighteenth-century repertoire. The added bonus? A style that is easier to execute, that offers a variety of articulation, that contains new palettes of color, and that provides imagined sound energy through intentionally executed technical paths.

[1] C. P. E. Bach, Essay on the True Arts of Playing Keyboard Instruments, (Leipzig: Schwickert, 1753, 1762), translated by William J. Mitchell, (W. W. Norton and Company, Inc., 1949, renewed © 1976 by Alice L. Mitchell), 41.
[2] Muzio Clementi, Introduction to the Art of Playing on the Piano Forte (London: Clementi, Banger, Hyde, Collard & David, 1801), reprinted (Da Capo Press, 1974), 14.
[3] Daniel Gottlob Türk, Klavierschule (1789, Leipzig and Halle), as translated by Raymond H. Haggh (University of Nebraska Press, 1982), 158, with permission from the author’s daughter, Barbara Haggh-Huglo.

Sunday, January 1, 2017

New Year Wishes

As we look toward the new year, I wish for one and all, a year full of:

Good health

Nurtured relationships of old and new ones on the horizon

Growth – in mind, body, and spirit

New possibilities, exciting opportunities, and the faith to go for at least one of them

Enlightened perspective on current musical repertoire and new pieces to keep the spark ignited

Fortitude to work through the hard stuff and relaxation to make sure it’s not all hard stuff

 Happy 2017! 

Thursday, December 8, 2016

Get to the Point…with “The Viennese Sigh”

This blog was first published by Oxford University Press:

Whether speaking in simple conversation, acting dramatically on stage, singing in the shower, or performing on a musical instrument in a recital hall, the common goal is to “get to the point” in some way or another.  In Classical Era music, a tool that facilitates getting to the point is the use of small gestures that are designated with a slur. 

The small slur — a stepwise appoggiatura figure — is the cornerstone to expressing the musical point. This type of slur is a sign of clarity, not a phrase mark. A two- to four-note group under a slur simply indicates “we belong together.” The slur gives intentional direction — gestures; much like a painter’s small brush strokes.  It provides guidance for rhythmic groupings and dynamic direction. It allows the performer to articulate or set aside important or new ideas. The slur indication enlivens and gives energy to the music by lightly end­ing one gesture and clearly articulating the next. The point is to make the music more interesting! In combination, small slurred gestures create phrases that are built, one upon another, to clearly define the larger structure.  This type of expression originated in Vienna in the eighteenth century and became so popular that it was trademarked “The Viennese Sigh.”

With this expressive tool at our disposal the possibilities are boundless. It is discussed specifically and extensively by Leopold Mozart in his pedagogical writings. In his Violinschule, he provides an example of three measures in triple time with thirty-three different possibili­ties for accentuation. He then proclaims: “Now this changes indisputably the whole style of performance.”[i]

This fundamental eighteenth-century indicator is a quite simple and nat­ural concept based on Classical Era stringed instruments that used a convex bow which naturally creates a diminuendo. The first note under a slur is accentuated more strongly because of the natural tendency of the bow with a slackening of volume on the remaining notes. This practice is also a natural vocal tendency. Take a moment to verbalize any number of two-syllable words that contain a first-syllable accent to easily understand the concept. Likewise, due to the rapid decay on the fortepi­ano (the eighteenth-century piano), the first note under a slur is accentuated while the remaining notes under the slur create a diminuendo.

Properly executing these markings is what makes the message comprehensible. Notes under the slur should be played on the piano in a single impulse without making any movement of the hand. Beethoven teaches, “This will be achieved if it [the hand] is always placed firmly on the first of the two slurred notes and is lifted almost ver­tically as the second note is touched.”[ii]  Notice that it is the hand, led by the wrist, that initiates the release. Following this advice will prevent hopping off the key to avoid a choking, unmusical staccato, or pushing off the key to avoid that terrible clunker — the undesired accent.

The slur indicates attack and release. The first note of a slur and the first note after a slur (which may well be a new slur grouping) is articulated or set-off through a clean attack (with varying degrees of emphasis), a clean release (with varying degrees of lightness), and a separation of sound (with varying degrees of time) between the two gestures. The extent of articulation depends on influencing traits derived from affekt (expression).

Eighteenth-century style is closed related to expository speaking. (The Classical sonata with its exposition, development, and recapitulation blossomed during this time). Articulate, “clean-speaking” execution is of utmost importance and is done so with clean articulation of the downbeat. Therefore, eighteenth-century slurs almost never continue over the bar line.

Not only does following slur markings create an articulate sound it also creates an extremely intimate, complex, and beautiful affekt that can be realized beautifully on the fortepiano.  Follow the link to hear an example from Beethoven, Six Minuets, WoO 10, No. 2, Trio on fortepiano. Copyright 1990 by G. Henle Verlag, Munich.

And with careful attention to subtleties in the wrist it can be pleasingly achieved on the modern piano:

There are some understood rules regarding eighteenth-century notational practices of the slur. It is customary to indicate only the first few sets of accentua­tion in prolonged successions of detached or legato notes. Succeeding tones follow suit until another kind of mark inter­venes.

In the Beethoven example, articulation begins with two-note slurs in ms. 47.  It is understood that this grouping will continue through mm. 48–49 until the articulation is changed in ms. 50.  Incidentally, it is common practice for the accompanying part to follow suit with the designated articulation.  Therefore, in this example, the left hand may play two-note slurs along with the right hand.

Beethoven, Bagatelle in G Minor, Op. 119, No. 1, mm. 47-52. Copyright (1978) G. Henle Verlag, Munich.

This practice is clearly and cleanly heard on fortepiano:

 and, again, can be achieved with aesthetically pleasing results on the modern piano:

For all pianists, regardless of the instrument, to “get to the point” utilize a simple practice: Each slur is a gesture from more to less with the wrist initiating the lift.

[i] L. Mozart, A Treatise on the Fundamental Principles of Violin Playing, 123-24.
[ii] Johann Baptist Cramer, 21 Etüden für Klavier: Nach dem Handexemplar Beethovens aud dem Besitz, as translated by Rosenblum, Performance Practices in Classic Piano Music, 200.

Monday, October 31, 2016

Let the Magic Happen

The Fall Season is a magical time of year in the Midwest.  Trees and bushes that were flush with deep green leaves begin to change color ever so slightly as the nights lengthen.  And then suddenly, after one deep frost, the magic bursts on the scene – golden yellows, blood reds, dark magentas, vibrant oranges.  With a light jacket, one can traverse the neighborhood to breathe in the crisp fall air, lean toward the autumn sun, and delight in the visual magic.

This magic is a gift from the universe.  It is nothing that can be managed, controlled, or manipulated.  Yes, one can plant wisely (and even take a chance on that favorite plant that might not be perfect for our climate), prune carefully, and fertilize and water faithfully. But the magic is largely out of our control.

Likewise, for musicians, we give the gift of magic for the universe in our performances.  We plant wisely in choosing our repertoire: Do I best highlight my gifts? What is the best opener? Where do I sneak in that piece I want to share despite the challenges? Is the show-stopper timed to grab the listener? We prune carefully: Is the program an appropriate length for my ability; for my audience’s attention span?

We fertilize and water faithfully in our practice habits.  Have I decided the mood and emotion behind the piece before I take it to the piano? Do I know the structure?  Where are the high points?  Where is the surprise? Where will I need extra stamina? When I take practice to the piano do I employ careful note-reading from the outset at a slow enough tempo and in small enough segments to develop accurate and reliable muscle memory?  Do I play, rich with expression - dynamics, articulation, and phrasing – all the colors?

Once all is said and done, the bigger, more over-riding question must be asked:  Am I allowing the magic to unfold?  I think for musicians that means, “am I releasing control over every note, dynamic marking, and articulation direction to simply let my heart and soul make connection with another?”  This is the scariest leap of faith we can make.  And the most rewarding. When it happens, the colors take on a rich hue, the sun shines deeply in our hearts, and we experience a magical link between ourselves, the audience, the composer, and the universe.

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

The Eighteenth-Century Rhythm Riddle: What is the Quarter Note Quandary?

This blog was first published by Oxford University Press:

If you were to ask a modern musician what the quarter note means in Common Time the answer would be simple: “It lasts for one full beat, to be released at the beginning of the succeeding beat.” Ah, but eighteenth-century rhythm reading is not a simple “one-size-fits-all” affair. Just as spoken language has evolved over time, so has music notational language.  The notation has remained much the same; it is how the notation is read that has changed.  So, how is the quarter note quandary solved?  Gazing at the issue through an eighteenth-century lens will answer the riddle.

Eighteenth-century style is one of clarity – expressive rhythmic clarity – that projects character or affekt through the notation at hand.  And the crisp, articulate fortepiano is the perfectly suited instrument for executing the style. All rhythmic elements are chosen to reflect affekt; so much so that when certain elements are present a particular affekt is understood. The Rhythm Schemata diagram provides insight to the interacting elements:

Rhythm Schemata

Notice that affekt is at the center of the wheel.  All notational decisions – appropriate tempo and meter, carefully crafted formal and phrase structure to allow for execution of rhetoric, and specific rhythm choices – are made to express the desired affekt.

Execution of the quarter note varies greatly depending on tempo and meter choices, which are directly related to period dances. For example, a march in duple meter commands a different affekt than a minuet in triple meter. Just like there are heavy and light meters, note values act in much the same way.  A time signature with a 2 in the bottom denotes heavy affekt, one with a 4 lighter, and one with an 8 in the bottom lighter yet.  Note value choices within the meter provide execution clues.  For instance, a piece made up primarily of half and quarter notes would be heavier than one of eighth and sixteenth notes.  A comparison of Beethoven’s Piano Sonata, op. 10, no. 3 to his Piano Sonata op. 14, no. 2 demonstrates how note values take on differing character based on these period practices. So, the quarter note may take on a variety of characters, and consequently lengths, based on affekt.

Today, legato is the ordinary way of playing.  If a line is presented with no markings (staccato or legato), the performer assumes to play legato, holding every rhythm for the full value. Not so in eighteenth-century style.  This is where the answer to the riddle lies: The quarter note is held for its full value only when it occurs under a slur or a tenuto marking. How long should it be held?  Just when is it appropriate to release the quarter note?  This is where affekt is essential (and why it is at the center of the wheel). Depending on affekt, a quarter note may be cut quite short (like a crisp timpani attack) or held for most of the beat (as in a forlorn oboe solo). One must turn to the nuances of notation –  formal structure, meter, expression marks, dynamics, and beaming – for clues. 

Taking specific steps will facilitate creating a rhythmically authentic and personal eighteenth-century style on the modern piano. 

  • Begin with Urtext editions. It is essential to work from an authentic score to determine how best to follow the clues left by the composer rather than an interpretation offered by an editor.
  • During initial experiences work with a piece that contains simple textures and is quite bare (few slurs or dynamic markings). Simple dances from Mozart’s Klavierstücke, Beethoven’s German Dances, or Piano Sonata in C Major, K. 545 by Mozart are good starting places.
  • Do some digging: What dance is being described? Is the meter heavy or light?  In context, are the note values heavy or light? Unearthing answers will impact the length of the quarter notes.
  • Hold the quarter notes for full value only when under a slur or tenuto.
  • Strive for a strong metrical pulse. The down-beat is extremely important in this style.
  • Allow the energy and expression (determined by the affekt) to influence carefully placed timing and rubato within metrical boundaries.
  • Sing each line; this will go a long way in deciding tasteful rhythmic length and timing.  
  • The fortepiano’s strength is crispness and clarity of tone, the modern piano’s is to produce a long, legato line. Listen carefully and continually.  Adjust to the feedback from the instrument to prevent a choppy tone and choked endings of phrases. 

Hear the improvement in the sound aesthetic as you move through the following audio examples: 1) a frequently-heard modern rendition, 2) an interpretation on a Belt-Walter replica ca. 1780’s five-octave fortepiano, and 3) a reconciled and historically informed rendition on a modern piano. The energy and vibrancy provided by using period rhythm-reading strategies is markedly noticeable.

Taking the time to view the score through an eighteenth-century lens and apply the period performance practices judiciously to modern playing provides the opportunity to discover an old language that may be recreated in a new way.  

Thursday, September 1, 2016

Music on the Trail:  New Beginnings!

It is that time of year!  Whether it is your first day of school or you are remembering your first day many years ago, there is something about the excitement and promise of new beginnings!  New school supplies, new books, a new backpack, new shoes, new clothes…new, new, new!  And, the butterflies!  Who will be my new teacher?  What will he or she be like?  Who will be in my classes?  During my college days, I remember looking at my new textbooks before the first day of classes and wondering how in the world I was ever going to learn all of that stuff – and in 15 short weeks!

Having had the opportunity to bring Music on the Trail to a wide variety of audiences over the years, I am reminded of the hundreds of thousands (estimates range anywhere from 400,000 to 650,000) of overlanders (they did not call themselves pioneers) who felt an excitement all their own as they prepared for a new beginning: an excursion across the Oregon Trail to a new life in the West.  From the US Army Expedition with 4,000 soldiers that covered the route in 1842, to the last Prairie Schooner that landed in Oregon as late as 1912, it was an exciting time.  Appropriate preparation was the difference between making it to Oregon or turning back; sometimes between life or death.

After a few wagon trains had successfully made the trek, booklets were available for 35¢ to aide preparations and guide one on the trail. One such book guided journeys that used Omaha for the jumping-off point. It covered everything about the route down to the minutest detail, including the accurate location of all landmarks, river crossings, desirable camping places, and posts. The farther out they got, the more the overlanders found it to their advantage to follow the little booklet’s directions quite literally.

Equally important to the trail directions were complete directions for provisions necessary for a months-long, 2,000-mile journey and supplies for a new growing season after arriving in Oregon. What were some of the provisions necessary for the trip?  Here is a sampling:

Food for a Family of Four

  • 600 lbs. of flour
  • 100 lbs. of sugar
  • 200 lbs. of lard
  • Eggs packed in corn meal to prevent breakage
  • 120 lbs. of biscuits
  • 400 lbs. of bacon, often hauled in large barrels packed in bran to avoid melting the fat
  • 60 lbs. of coffee
  • 4 lbs. of tea
  • Baking soda
  • Corn meal
  • Hardtack
  • Dried beef
  • Molasses
  • Vinegar
  • Salt and pepper
  • Sacks of rice and beans
  • Dried fruit and pumpkin         

Everything needed had to be anticipated and packed:

  • 1 -2 sturdy farm wagons
  • 6 - 10 head of oxen
  • 1 - 2 milk cows
  • Food
  • Clothing
  • Wool sack and rubber coats
  • Cotton dresses, shirts, socks
  • Flannel shirts
  • Wool pantaloons
  • Buckskin pants, duck trousers
  • Boots and brogans
  • Felt hat, palm-leaf sun hat, green goggles, sunbonnet
  • Bedding - blankets, ground cloths, pillows, tent, poles, stakes, ropes
  • Utensils needed for survival: dutch oven, kettle, skillet, reflector oven, coffee grinder, teapot, butcher knife, ladle, tin tableware and cups, water keg, matches
  • Weaponry
  • Tools: augers, gimlet, ax, hammer, shovel, spade, whetstone, oxbows, axles, kingbolts, ox shoes, spokes, wagon tongue, heavy ropes, chains, good hunting knife
  • Farm implements for use upon arrival in Oregon: shovel, scythe, rake, hoe, saw, broad axe, mallet, plane, seeds for crops
  • Handy extras: surgical instruments, liniments, bandages, campstool, chamber pot, washbowl, lanterns, candle molds, tallow, spyglasses, scissors, needles, pins, thread, brandy for "medicinal purposes"

And what did they take to pass the time, to make the journey go by more pleasantly?  A special small toy, a favorite book, paper and pencil to write back home, and a prized item to lift the spirits – music!  Although there are stories of attempts to take a piano, most likely portable instruments such as these would fit the bill: fiddle, violin, tambourine, flute, jaw harp, accordion, guitar, dulcimer.  Folk song favorites included Skip to My Lou, Cindy, Froggie Went a-Courtin’, Shenandoah, My Country ‘tis of Thee, Sweet Betsy from Pike, America, the list goes on and on!

As you feel the rush of excitement for this new season, whether it be for a new school year, the opportunity to start lessons on a musical instrument, the turning from Summer to Fall, or the beginning of football season, take a moment to revel in joyful anticipation and maybe send up a little “thank you” to those daring overlanders who showed us that anything is possible – with preparation and perseverance, determination and perspiration, and a “can-do” attitude!