Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Conflicting advice on practicing?

As a pianist most of my hours at the instrument are spent practicing. A successful 30 minute concerto performance is the result of 20, 30, 100 hours of work alone in a practice room. So *how* I practice is one of the most important topics for me to consider.

As a teacher, "how to practice" is likewise a central subject of conversation between my students and me. They spend many more hours practicing on their own each week than they do with me. With this in mind, it is not surprising how many books and articles have been written on the subject of practicing. I myself have given presentations on practicing to various music-teacher's groups, and have more than once been a part of public "panel discussions" on the topic of practicing. Recently, there have been two articles gaining a lot of attention among musicians that both give good - but possibly conflicting - advice. I am sharing them both here for you to read for yourself and decide what you think.

First is an article from Time Magazine from August, entitled "Over-Practicing Makes Perfect" ( The basic premise of the article is that practicing well beyond the point of knowing something ("over"-practicing) is not useless repetition, but in fact is teaching our brains (and/or fingers) to do the task more and more easily. The ultimate result of this "ease" is that we can devote more attention to other tasks. In other words, if we practice a difficult passage of music enough, it will require little or none of our attention and we can focus on the musical expression or something else.

This article suggests that when we continue to repeat or "drill" certain tasks, it may appear that we are not making progress (beyond a certain point), but there is in fact something being gained. This is probably the advice we (and/or our students) would NOT like to hear - it implies that we all should be practicing MORE, that we should be repeating things more. We would all much rather hear that there is a shortcut, a quick way to learn things so that we can move on to other activities, like watching baseball games or blogging.

A more recent article ( from the interesting blog "Bulletproof Musician" is more immediately appealing in that sense: it suggests not a shortcut, but certainly a more interesting way to practice than mere repetition. The article is well worth reading yourself, but some of the salient points include the fact that our minds tend to "tune out" sameness - our brains are instead wired to be alert to changes, rather than things that remain the same. So when we practice in the same way (or practice the same passage of music) over and over again, we quickly become mentally disengaged and much of the work we do doesn't "stick," according to the article.

The remedy for this is not so easy to describe, but basically it is to vary - constantly - what or how we are practicing. For example, we can take a specific passage of music and practice it different ways in succession (first hands separately, then in rhythms, then slowly, then back to hand separately, etc.). Or we can intersperse the practicing of one passage with another (first a few minutes of the Liszt Sonata octaves, then a few minutes of the Fugue section, then back to the octaves, back to the Fugue, etc.)

At first glance, this method of practicing is very appealing precisely because it is very much unlike the way I have practiced, and the novelty is fascinating. It can, however, also seem a bit chaotic - rather than sticking with something until it's good, we keep going back and forth between different tasks. The purpose is to keep our minds engaged, but I can easily imagine that we can lose our focus and end up half-learning many things rather than fully learning a few things.

I do recommend reading both of the articles, and coming to your own conclusions. I welcome hearing your comments and ideas here on the blog. Do you think the two methods contradict each other, or can they coexist?

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Convincing others (or ourselves?) to take music lessons

For about a year now I've been teaching the Piano Pedagogy course at Boston Conservatory, a requirement for undergraduate pianists. It's been a learning experience for me, as I never actually took a course on the subject – my own abilities as a teacher have been formed by experience and by seeing the examples of many wonderful teachers who taught me.

But one of the particular challenges as I think about helping conservatory students become better teachers is that most of their future students are likely to be less gifted and ambitious than they are. Only the most interested and talented students end up attending music school for college or graduate school, but many of these will end up spending at least some portion of their careers teaching students who may not even want to be there. They may have parents who drag them kicking and screaming to their lessons, or (if their teachers are lucky) they may want to play the piano but will not be willing to put in the work required (I can relate to this myself – I don't always WANT to put in the work needed, but I have learned through experience that hard work makes me play better, obviously).

A further challenge to the future incomes of these students (who, by the way, are spending quite a lot on tuition!) is that piano lessons are not something every kid (or parent) is interested in, and I would guess that the numbers have decreased over the past 10 or 20 years (though I don't know for sure). There is certainly no doubt that funding for music education in schools is lower than it once was. The debate over funding for arts education is constant, and it has led to a variety of studies attempting to show the benefits of music, for example, beyond the attainment of skill at an instrument or the increased appreciation for Beethoven Quartets. Recently, my Facebook friends have been gleefully sharing this article about the recent Nobel Prize winner (in medicine), Thomas Sudhof, who credits his bassoon teacher with teaching him his most valued skills (work ethic and listening).

I would certainly concur that childhood music lessons teach much more than music (though that it in and of itself is valuable and enjoyable of course). What I don't know is how much is specific to music lessons and how much is gained by the mastery (or the process of mastering) any skill. My daughter, for example, spends about 2 hours a day, 6 days a week, at the ice rink, and I'm proud of her accomplishments. But while it would of course be an amazing (and unlikely) achievement one day to go to the Olympics, the real benefit of all those hours (and all those thousands of dollars spent on coaches) is that she is learning to be disciplined, to perform in public, to cope with nerves and disappointment, to have courage (it's pretty scary doing a double lutz), and of course it's also good physical exercise. Some of these same skills or personal qualities might be developed in music lessons. And these life skills are clearly beneficial in many fields, as the Nobel Prize winner Sudhof said. On the other hand, more time spent on music means less time spent on, say, computer programming, or some other potentially useful skill.

Another article making the rounds on Facebook is on a familiar subject: what kind of qualities or activities separate the great achievers from the rest of the world? This particular article uses high achievers in distinct fields (Mozart and Kobe Bryant) to illustrate some key elements of success: The two main points are that when we practice, it will take time (10 years, in fact) before we achieve greatness, and that our practice needs to be with a specific purpose (something I've been telling students for years). Mozart is cited as an example of the first point, and Kobe Bryant as an example of the second.

Do articles like these help to persuade parents to sign their kids up for music lessons? I think there are some who look at kids' extracurricular activities as a stepping stone to college admissions. There are many kids who diligently practice an instrument only to stop the moment they arrive at Harvard. The number of adults in community orchestras clearly is much smaller than the number of kids in youth orchestras. Is this because they don't have the time? (That is certainly possible! But many kids in youth orchestras get there only because their parents act as full time chauffeurs and secretaries). Is it because they now hate music? (That doesn't seem likely – I assume their appreciation for music would be greater). Are there a lack of community orchestras for them to join? (Possibly, depending on the community where they live).

I think that aside from the time issue (which can be real – some adults work multiple jobs, and/or have children to care for, etc), I think adults simply don't value their own “extracurricular” time as much as their kids'. That is, they might set aside many hours (and dollars) to take their kids to take music lessons, but they themselves think “it's too late for me.” When it comes to sports, I can see this line of thinking – a 40 year old might hesitate to start learning to ski for fear of injury, whereas a 10 year old can heal quickly. And in music it is true that an adult learner will never be able to achieve what a 15 year old who started at age 5 can do. But I think many are enrolling their kids for “extra-musical” reasons (get in to college, develop a work ethic, learn an appreciation for culture) that isn't necessary any more for an adult (or so they think).

I have to express admiration for those adults who do see that education (musical or otherwise) can and should continue throughout our lives. I have an adult piano student who is 74 years old. I know some skating parents who take lessons once or twice a week (I took an adult class for a few months years ago, but it doesn't fit in my schedule any more), amazed to see how much braver their kids are on the ice than they are. My mother, when she was in her 60's, took the same introductory computer course two or three times in an attempt (not altogether successful) to be more comfortable with word processing and other basic computer skills.

Many years ago, as a college freshman, I was in New York rehearsing with a violinist friend in the home of the great pianist Ilana Vered. I was giving some musical advice to my friend when Ilana walked in the room and said “you should give the same advice to yourself.” Many of us devoted parents who take our children's mental, physical, emotional, and spiritual development very seriously might think about being good “parents” to our own selves.  

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

How to be a better teacher: keep being a student

I have taught at the Boston Conservatory for over 10 years now, and I have been teaching Piano Literature during that entire time. I am glad to say that it is a well-liked course, and that over the years many students have gained from it. My aim has been in part to give the students a detailed idea of what piano repertoire exists (it's a four-semester series of classes, required for undergraduate pianists) and also to focus their attention on some important musical features of different composers and their works.

Over the years of introducing, say, Scarlatti Sonatas or the music of George Crumb, I have gotten pretty comfortable with what I know and how to share that knowledge with the students. But there is no question that I am more engaging and more interesting when I don't rest on my laurels, when I share something that I myself have learned recently. The truth is that the class was a good class 5 years ago (at least the students thought so back then), and it would be easiest simply to rehash the same material in my lectures now. After all, Schumann's "Kreisleriana" hasn't really changed since then. But when I spend time to learn more (and believe me there is ALWAYS more to learn about great music), I know I am a more effective and inspiring teacher. Lately I've been reading (on the subway ride to and from school) a book called "Twentieth Century Piano Music" by David Burge, which has given me new insights, and I just checked out Kenneth Drake's "The Sonatas of Beethoven," from the library as I prepare to explore this subject with the students for the 11th year in a row. I think the students can tell when I am eager and excited to share something with them - as opposed to rehearsing one of my well-worn old lectures from 2002.

I have noticed the very same thing in my applied teaching. When I am busy practicing for a concert, I might be more tired in a lesson than I would otherwise be (and perhaps even slightly annoyed that my practice time is being interrupted by giving a lesson!) but I am a much more energetic teacher, with important musical and technical ideas on my mind that I am ready and eager to share.

So the moral of the story: to be a good teacher, keep on learning. My own teachers have all been wonderful examples of this.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Can music schools stifle creativity?

I haven't written a new blog post in nearly a year, and part of the reason for this was the chilling effect of a job interview. About a year ago I was being considered, along with over 100 other candidates, for a teaching position at a university with a fine, though smallish music department. In the end I was not offered the position, which spared me having to make a difficult decision (the position was thousands of miles away from where I live and work now). Fortunately for my professional growth, I was able, some months afterward, to get some feedback about my application. As this was a university and not a conservatory, the search committee wanted to insure that their choice could not only teach piano (where my qualifications are not in question) but also academic classes, like music history or theory. Although I have taught a number of academic courses (Piano Literature and Piano Pedagogy among them) at a college level, I do not have a doctorate that officially would certify my knowledge of academic subjects.

Some members of the search committee apparently looked at this blog and felt that it did not exhibit the level of academic rigor that they were looking for. But I am assuming that no one reading a blog is expecting (or wanting) an academic thesis! I certainly don't think of this anything other than an opportunity to voice my opinions and to hear others'. But as you can imagine, I have felt a bit paralyzed by the fact that someone – a potential future employer – might be reading this blog and finding examples of lapsed scholarship and statements made without citing sources.

It leads me to a subject that has been on my mind recently. Do music schools stifle creativity? This would certainly be a problem if true, and I think the general public tends to assume that arts schooling fosters and encourages creativity. But I think that for better or for worse, music schools (and perhaps other institutions about which I am less qualified to express my opinion) can be bastions of tradition – both a positive and a negative.

For example, I recently had two troubling conversations with students in a course I teach at Boston Conservatory. In one of the Piano Literature courses I teach, we have been discussing Mozart. During a recent class, I talked about the Fantasy in D minor (K. 397), which lacks a proper ending by Mozart – traditionally performers play eight measures written by someone named August Muller, though these were for many years thought to be by Mozart. The ending has always seemed unsatisfying to me, at least, and while most people play this ending, Mitsuko Uchida, one of the great Mozart interpreters of our time, plays a different ending using some of Mozart's music from earlier in the piece. (For a very interesting – and academically sound – treatment of this subject, read this DMA thesis by student at Indiana named Ephraim Hackmey:

The troubling thing to me was a question a student asked me in class: “But will I get in trouble if I play a different ending than the traditional one?” Mind you, this “traditional” ending is not written by Mozart, and really sounds abrupt and unsatisfying. But this student was concerned with what a jury of pianists – at a competition, at a music school entrance audition, at end-of-the-semester exams – would say if he played a a different ending. And truthfully, I understood why he was concerned. While individual musicians can be open-minded and interested in new ideas, it often happens that when you put a bunch of them together, the conservative ideas win out. There are right ways and wrong ways to do things, or so it seems when you get a group of pianists together.

In a previous meeting of the same class, we listened to a number of cadenzas to Mozart Concertos written by other composers. (Mozart wrote cadenzas for the majority of his piano concertos, even writing multiple versions for some, but several of the most frequently played, such as the D minor, K.466, C major, K.467, and C minor K. 491, require performers to find or compose one on their own). For the D minor Concerto it is most usual to play Beethoven's cadenza, but we listened to cadenzas to a variety of Mozart Concertos by Brahms, Alkan, Dinu Lipatti, Fazil Say, and others. I have not heard it but I believe there is a cadenza by Phillip Glass, which would be fascinating to hear. As a college student I wrote my own cadenza to the D minor Concerto, but it was definitely a student work and not quite good enough for my professional use nowadays. Still, it was a good exercise (and I did play it once as soloist with a student orchestra at Harvard when I was a sophomore).

After class, having discussed the myriad options for cadenzas, a student asked me which cadenzas were “permissible” for use at a competition. The official answer, of course, is that any cadenza is fine – but this student and I both understood, sadly, that the unofficial answer is that a competition jury will not always look kindly on an off-the-wall cadenza. Yet a concert audience might enjoy hearing something fresh and novel. In that way, the competition jury is not in sync with the kind of creativity or out-of-the-box thinking that is desirable in the “real world” of concerts. And it is troubling to think that while audiences crave and appreciate creativity (understandably), neither competitions nor music school entrance committees are always open to it.

There is, of course, a difference between being creative in a meaningful way, and just being “different” for the sake of being different. There is, for example, a male musician I have heard of who makes a career of playing relatively standard repertoire, but who dresses in women's clothing and wears his hair in a colored mohawk. I'm not sure how this aids or serves the music of Beethoven or Brahms more than wearing a tuxedo would.

I wonder whether these tendencies to be concerned with what are the “right” cadenzas for Mozart are also a function of the fact that we performers have become more and more divorced from the compositional process. Long ago, performers were composers and composers were performers. That is still generally the case in rock or jazz. But in classical music we have become specialists to a large degree. The performers job consists, in part, of accurately recreating music that someone else has written, and we engage in this process aided by an ever-increasing awareness of historical performance practice and the way earlier performers have played the same music on recordings. Of course any performer knows that there is a great deal left to us to interpret. Nevertheless, I think the preoccupation with being “correct” in our performances can cause us to miss spontaneity, spark, and excitement. It is no wonder that an audience can be bored by an orchestra that has spent a very limited amount of expensive rehearsal time primarily on insuring that the ensemble is together and in tune, and that the balance is good – but having no time left over to take risks, to try new and unexpected things. This is partially a result of finite money to pay for rehearsals, but I wonder if it isn't also part of a reluctance by classical musicians in the year 2013 to do something that might be considered “wrong.”

Please share your ideas and thoughts on this this subject. I'd love to hear from you!  

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Shostakovich's Tempos

This week I am rehearsing the Shostakovich Piano Quintet for a concert at the inaugural Foulger International Music Festival (, which takes place during the month of July. (This particular concert is on Friday, July 6, 2012). As with any chamber music piece, my colleagues and I have been trying to agree on good tempos for the various sections of the piece. (I am happy to be playing the piece with violinists Miranda Cuckson and Anton Miller; violist Christof Huebner; and cellist Tom Landschoot).  Shostakovich has indicated some metronome markings in the score, but while some of them are feasible others seem less than ideal. In fact, I have had this experience with other pieces by Shostakovich. Was his metronome inaccurate? Were mistakes made in the printed edition (or were the metronome marks even made up by editors)? Or was he just crazy?

I have not undertaken anything like a systematic study of Shostakovich's metronome markings, but one advantage we have with this composer is that he himself made recordings of some of his own music. One philosophical question is, should we play a piece of music the same way a composer plays his music? And if we don't try to imitate that 100%, what things are important to "copy" and which are more open to our own approach?

This is really the central question for all performers: what is the best way to play a particular piece of music? What were the composer's intentions? (It isn't always obvious just from reading the score literally). And do composers sometimes not see the possibilities or potential in their own pieces? When a composer lived recently enough (like Shostakovich) that we can hear their way of performing a piece, does it automatically mean that is the definitive version of the piece?

Further complicating matters, in just the area of tempo: Shostakovich doesn't follow his own metronome markings. In fact, the deviation between score and his performance (a recording he made with the Beethoven Quartet made in 1960, about 20 years after the same five musicians premiered the piece) is quite large. In the first movement, there are two important metronome markings: the opening is quarter note=72, according to the score, and Shostakovich plays it at about quarter note=50-54. The next section is marked as dotted-quarter note=72, and Shostakovich plays it around 48! Here is the audio for the first movement, as played by Shostakovich and the Beethoven Quartet. A few other versions follow:

Richter and the Borodin Quartet, in the following performance, start at a similar tempo. The second section starts slowly and ends up getting faster, but ultimately around 57 at its peak (still about 20% slower than 72). (The whole work is here, not only the first movement)

Glenn Gould plays with wonderful attention to counterpoint (of course) and with a more Romantic approach than either of the Russians. In any case the tempo of the opening is just as slow or perhaps even slower, about 44. The next section is the fastest so far, at about 61. Unfortunately the quartet he is playing with (the Symphonia Quartet) is not at the same level of technical or musical command as Gould is.

Finally, a much more recent performance by my friends and colleagues the Borromeo Quartet and Alexander Korsantia, in a live concert from about a year ago. (I myself had the privilege of playing the same piece with the Borromeos many years ago, when I was in school, and will be playing the Strauss Violin Sonata in about 10 days with first violinist Nick Kitchen). Their tempos range quite a bit in the opening, from about 41-60, and in the next section around 60.

In other words, no one plays anything close to Shostakovich's printed metronome markings - not Shostakovich, nor anyone else. A pianist named Alice Shapiro wrote about her experience actually asking Shostakovich about his metronome markings in another piece here:
And if you would like to measure how fast people are playing, you can use the "tap" function on this online metronome:

If you want to hear my performance of the piece (all five movements, of course, not just the first!) you can actually hear it streaming live this Friday night, by clicking here:

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

I don't understand Classical Radio

This is not the first time I've ranted about classical radio.  I have been fortunate to live in some places with really good classical radio stations (I grew up with KUSC in Los Angeles, where I heard many great pieces and performers for the first time, and, here in Boston, WGBH is one of the best).  However, I am often perplexed at the programming choices, and I wonder if anyone else feels as I do.

What confuses me is the amount of second-rate music being programmed.  I understand that there would be *some* interest in hearing lesser-known music.  But today in the car - during morning "drive time," when I assume competition for radio listeners is particularly keen - we had, in succession, works by: Antonio Salieri; Lennox Berkeley (who?); Jean-Louis Tulou (again, who?); Ottorino Respighi (a known composer, though not of the first rank); and Bernhard Henrik Crusell (who??).  I know a lot about classical music and had never heard of these composers.  And trust me, there was not a single piece among these that I need or want to hear a second time.

Who, among the listeners of classical radio, would rather hear that much garbage without being interrupted by SOMETHING by a great composer?  Today's experience was not an isolated one - I have noticed this time and time again during the morning when driving to Boston Conservatory, when I am made to wonder, "Is Classical Music really this boring?" only to realize that there have existed, throughout history, mediocre, uninspired composers, and fortunately I usually don't bother to listen to their music.

Now I understand that people are excited to discover something "new," though the Spohr Violin Concerto I managed to miss hearing this morning (thankfully) was written 200 years ago - we've had plenty of time to figure out that this is not important music.  

On this very same radio station in the afternoon, the programming was MUCH better - a Brahms Symphony, a Beethoven Quartet, and yes, the occasional novelty, but one that had been carefully selected as a neglected but worthwhile piece (say, the Poulenc Flute Sonata, or a less-played Tchaikovsky orchestral piece).  Am I the only one who doesn't like having my time wasted?  And was the programming better in the afternoon as a response to different kinds of listeners?  Are the afternoon listeners more discriminating, or less forgiving of banality?

I think the reason I am so worked up about this is that some people in the world - most, probably - see classical music as dull, sleepy, a relic of bygone eras.  I KNOW that it isn't this way - and when radio stations play @#)$(* like I heard this morning, they are losing the opportunity to open people's eyes to the Beethoven "Appassionata" Sonata or Schubert's "Winterreise."  It is only confirming those listeners' impression that classical music is irrelevant, when they hear the Tulou Nocturne for harp and flute.  Little do they know what they are missing when they don't know the Shostakovich 10th Symphony, or the Bach Chaconne.  

By the way, I should clarify that I don't mean music always has to be serious.  I don't mean to suggest we should only be dining on steak, but there is such a thing as a great dessert.  I do NOT usually enjoy Saint-Saens (that's like ordering a steak at Denny's) but I certainly enjoy the music of Fritz Kreisler, for example.

Friday, April 20, 2012

An invitation to list your desert island repertoire

I have to admit I love reading lists like "The Top 50 Movies of All Time," or "The 10 Most Important Inventions of the 20th Century."  It doesn't matter if I agree or disagree with the choices - it is fun to compare my choices with someone else's.  So I thought I'd make my own list (and invite you to submit your own) of the following: if I could listen to only one piece by each of the great composers for the rest of my life, which one piece would I choose?  I might have a different answer to this question next year, or maybe even tomorrow.  One observation about this list: there is very little piano music!  I should point out this is not a list of what I would PLAY if I could only play one piece, but what I would listen to, and I honestly find it hard to listen to piano music strictly for pleasure.

So here it is, in something approaching chronological order:

Bach: The Brandenburg Concertos (don't make me choose one!)
Mozart: Don Giovanni (OK, maybe choosing an entire opera is cheating)
Beethoven: Symphony #7
Schubert: Quintet in C major
Chopin: Polonaise-Fantasy (if I learn it I probably won't want to listen anymore)
Schumann: Dichterliebe
Wagner: The Ring Cycle (I know, I know, it's 4 whole operas - guess I'd take Gotterdammerung if I had to)
Brahms: Symphony #4
Tchaikovsky: Symphony #6
Dvorak: Cello Concerto
Mahler: Symphony #4
R. Strauss: Ein Heldenleben
Debussy: String Quartet
Ravel: La Valse (by a hair, over Daphnis and Chloe)
Rachmaninov: Piano Concerto #3 (again, a piece I haven't actually played)
Stravinsky: Firebird
Prokofiev: Romeo and Juliet
Shostakovich: Cello Concerto #1
Bartok: Concerto for Orchestra
Schoenberg: Verklaerte Nacht

Please feel free to post your own list in the comments!

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Bach's "Ich ruf zu Dir"

Throughout my life, I have always loved Bach, but over the past few years haven't focused as much of my time or energy on playing or teaching his music. I think this is because it is less "practical" in the sense that it is less helpful in winning a competition, passing an audition, etc. than, say, the Chopin 2nd Sonata, or Beethoven op. 57. Lately I have been happily reminded of the fact that Bach is, as one of my students recently remarked, food for the soul. He is not only the great mathematician / architect / problem-solver portrayed in "Godel/Escher/Bach" but also the deeply emotional and expressive and human man brought to life in "Night in the Palace of Reason."

Since childhood I have found that Bach is the best therapy, at least for me. When I was growing up, if I was sick and home from school, I would listen to Bach because it made me feel better, even physically. This evening, I was feeling a bit down and happened upon a piece by Bach I didn't know: "Ich ruf zu Dir, Herr Jesu Christ," which is originally (I think) for organ. I heard it first in a transcription for solo piano by Busoni, but discovered that there are also versions for cello and piano and a slightly different piano arrangement by Wilhelm Kempff.

As a pianist, I tend to ask my students to try NOT to sound like the piano, but in the end I have to admit I like the piano version better than the organ. But the cello and piano version may be the best of all. Here are a few for you to compare:

Grigory Sokolov - what an amazing sound!

Vladimir Horowitz - would have loved to hear this extraordinary singing sound live.

Tatiana Nikolayeva - very slow! But her laser beam of sound makes it possible to sustain the line even at this tempo. You may note that this is the third Russian in a row here. It seems that playing Bach transcriptions is and has been more fashionable in Russia than here in the US, where I only recently played a Bach transcription for the first time (Myra Hess's "Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring").

Murray Perahia - as if to disprove my assertion that Americans don't play these Bach arrangements, here is always poetic Perahia. He doesn't have that same bold sound that the three Russians do (perhaps by choice), but also shows greater care for phrasing, and more interest in the accompaniment.

Wilhelm Kempff - playing his arrangement, which to my ear is hardly different at all from Busoni's. He has some of the same singing sound that you hear from Sokolov, along with a nice way of shaping the accompaniment.

Anne Queffelec - a beautiful performance in every respect, and it's nice to see this live. It reminds me that as much as I enjoy recordings, there is something more engaging about seeing a live human being actually making the sound we hear.

On the organ now, by Ton Koopman. He can (and does) take this quite slowly, as the organ is capable of sustaining notes indefinitely, unlike the piano where the sound will, eventually, decay and die away, making too slow a tempo somewhat inadvisable. Note also that the pitch sounds a half-step lower (all the pianists sound like they are playing in F-minor, while this sounds like E-minor). I assume that this organ is tuned to a lower pitch than what we use today. I admit that I am not an organ aficionado, but I have to say the relentlessly sustained quality of the organ is almost hard to take for me in this piece.

And finally for two on the cello: first Pierre Fournier, whose playing is beautiful, even if I find the slides to be overly-Romantic (you might expect to hear something similar in Stokowski's orchestral arrangements of Bach):

Maurice Gendron's playing of a slightly different arrangement: his cello playing is wonderfully elegant and refined, and I like it better in this octave (Fournier starts the piece an octave higher than this, i.e. in the same octave as in the piano and organ versions). Somehow, being more in the "comfort zone" of the cello seems to suit the character of this piece better.

What do you think? Do you know of another recording that you prefer? I didn't know this piece at all before this evening, and now have listened to it about a dozen times - and I feel better than I did before I listened to it.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Chopin Etude op. 10#1

This evening I was introduced, by my friend and colleague Roberto Poli, to an unusual and wonderful performance from 1911 of the Chopin Etude in C major, op. 10#1, by the pianist Vladimir de Pachmann. I have never heard anyone else perform the piece this way - it is much slower, more poetic, not at all a virtuoso showpiece. And my first reaction, after realizing how beautiful the piece was in this "outside the box" performance, was that this celebrated pianist would probably not be accepted to a conservatory after performing the piece in this way. It is too, well, out of the ordinary. I am going to post the performance below, as well as a good number of other recorded performances I found on youtube. First, see what you think of de Pachmann:

Now for a few of the more "standard" performances. I don't mean that as a criticism - these are amazing achievements, and beautiful for many reasons. But you will probably notice how similar Pollini, Lugansky, Ashkenazy, and Ohlsson are. It brings to mind the book I read recently by chef Jacques Pepin (see my previous blog post) where he explained that when he was younger, a chef at a great restaurant in Paris was trained so that he and all the chefs could prepare a dish in exactly the same way, so that a diner at the restaurant would not be able to tell who had prepared it that evening.

Pollini (generally thought of as the gold standard in this piece):

Lugansky (fantastic - to his credit, almost imperceptibly different from Pollini,but it does beg the question - why record the piece when such a similar interpretation already exists?)

Ashkenazy (some differences of articulation, but otherwise basically the same approach - but he proves here he can do it live, like a tight-rope walker without a safety net):

Ohlsson (another live performance, with the pitch nearly a half step sharp - I assume it is the recording rather than the instrument, suggesting that perhaps this has been *slightly* speeded up)

Now a couple of more "poetic" versions of the piece, from Claudio Arrau, Alfred Cortot and Wilhelm Backhaus. Cortot is often cited for his wrong notes, but I believe that in his time it was not yet possible to splice recordings so this is basically a live performance, and honestly the standard of "cleanliness" is simply much higher today than it used to be (sometimes at the expense of other priorities like imagination, risk-taking, etc). As for Backhaus, it is no-nonsense, perhaps a shade Teutonic, but really beautiful.


Arrau, both astounding technique and a beautiful sound:


And the final three, all essential listening:

Richter is always recognizable - this is no-holds-barred, a bit rushed, anything but flowery - and it's live:

One more person who might be laughed at at a Conservatory audition, Georges Cziffra - but this is truly astounding technically (so that might win over the conservatory faculty) while being absolutely unique. It is probably closer in spirit to the Romantic approach in that the performer is unapologetically inserting his own ideas in to the piece. And this was the one where, alone in my room watching, I said out loud "Holy #$(*&#"

And finally, the pianist that all other pianists aspire to be, Martha Argerich. Probably my desert-island choice:

Now that you've seen all these performances, you might want to listen to de Pachmann again - is it refreshing to hear something different? Does it sound too slow to you now after hearing that everyone else plays it faster? And to those of us (I include myself) who make decisions about who should and shouldn't be accepted to conservatories, how can we make sure we don't close our minds to the beautifully unusual?

Friday, March 2, 2012

We don't need no education

I just saw an eye-opening video of a lecture by Sir Ken Robinson, from the "TED" series.  It is not a new video (in fact it is from 2006) but I would urge you to watch it.  One of the major points here is that our education system doesn't necessarily foster creativity (in fact, he argues, it stifles creativity).  The question on my mind is: how can we help children (and everyone) develop their flexible, creative, problem-solving sides?  I have two children and while they are both intelligent, one is great at memorizing and creating systems for herself, while the other is more flexible in her thinking (and, incidentally, is lazier).  I try to foster their creativity (knowing that this is useful for all fields, not just the arts) by encouraging them to draw, dance, play music, etc.  Is that all I can do?  I'd love to hear suggestions.  Meanwhile, enjoy the lecture - it is well worth the 20 minutes of your time it will take to watch it. 

Wednesday, February 29, 2012


In honor of tonight's "Top Chef" finale (my favorite TV show)   I thought I would share my observations about the last two books I read: Jacques Pepin's "The Apprentice: My Life in the Kitchen" and Anthony Bourdain's "Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly."   Both are chefs made famous by TV, and both offer a lot of insight to someone like me, who loves food and enjoys cooking, but has never seen what REALLY happens in a professional kitchen.  The books are quite different in tone, as you might expect if you have seen them on television: Pepin is warm, easy-going, and avuncular, while Bourdain is biting, sarcastic, and takes no prisoners (including himself - he is not at all self-serving, and subjects himself to the same criticism as everyone else). 

What I gained, as a musician, from reading these books (and that is not the only reason I read the books, mind you) is the realization that we are not the only ones who experience ups and downs.  Both chefs have experienced, in the broad sense, huge progress in their careers, but things did not go in a straight line, without the occasional miscalculation or string of bad luck.  Neither was too proud to work in less-than-glamorous situations, even after being, for example, the official chef to Charles de Gaulle (as in Pepin's case).  I have likewise experienced highs and lows, and just because I have played a recital in the Wigmore Hall doesn't mean I am unwilling to play a concerto with a student orchestra (schedule permitting).  It worked for Pepin and Bourdain, and in the end the thing that shines through is that both of those chefs love to work, almost regardless of the restaurant. 

My own grandfather worked as a chef, though I didn't get to know that part of his life too well before he died.  I remember very vividly how much I love eating Oysters Rockefeller at his restaurant in California as a young kid, and I remember another time when he made escargots at home.  If I ever have the time, I would love to take a serious cooking course at the Cordon Bleu or something like that.  Maybe when the kids are grown up (and aren't only interested in macaroni and cheese and chicken nuggets).  But it does seem, based on what Bourdain says that one's hands can get pretty gnarly from repeated use of sharp knives, splattering oil, etc.  So I'm not sure I should risk my career just to be able to make a great meal. 

One of my first conducting performances was at a "Symphonies for Youth" concert organized by the Los Angeles Philharmonic, at their former home, the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion.  I was conducting my school's orchestra (I was 16 or 17 - the Crossroads Chamber Orchestra was no ordinary school orchestra, having produced the concertmasters and principal players of several major orchestras including the Chicago Symphony, Boston Symphony, New York Philharmonic, and many others) in a piece I had written (nothing special, mind you).  The theme of the Saturday morning concert was "Cooking with Strings," an attempt to help kids understand music through an analogy with chefs and cooking.  I was supposed to be a "real live chef" (unlike, say, Beethoven) and had to conduct the orchestra with a chef's hat on.  I had been asked to conduct with a wooden spoon, but even as a teenager I just had to draw the line somewhere, and was allowed to use a baton.  I don't know if the orchestra really respected me with my chef's hat on, but in any case I wasn't quite up to being respected by an orchestra even without a silly costume. 

Life interferes with Art: Beethoven on hold

As it is the last day of February (the 29th!) I am due to report on the progress of my Beethoven Sonata project. I am trying to learn one new Sonata each month, with the goal of having them all in my fingers in about a year-and-a-half. This month I decided to learn op. 31#1, a wonderful piece while not quite the life-altering experience of op. 111 or op. 57. It isn't quite as far a long as I'd like it to be, mostly because my progress was interrupted by some surgery. It wasn't a life-threatening procedure, though I was nervous anyway (first time to have any surgery), and I was not quite at 100% for a while.

But I DID get the notes learned fairly well (I was hoping to have the piece memorized, but no luck) since I worked hard on the piece at the beginning of the month, prior to my surgery. At the time, the little red devil whispering in my ear said "Why hurry - you have the whole month!" while the other part, fortunately, won over and convinced me to practice right away, while I could.

So the moral of the story is: take advantage of time when you have it. I have already admitted to being a terrible procrastinator, one who has succeeded too many times in getting things done at the last minute and so I am not quick to change this. And in the context of non-urgent tasks (see Stephen Covey) like my Beethoven project, it is all too easy to let those things slide when life interferes with realities like surgery or flight delays or any other unexpected events.

So I'm hoping to catch up in March (while also playing a lot of repertoire unrelated to this project) AND to keep forging ahead, maybe with an easier sonata like op. 14#1 or op. 49#2. We'll see how it goes - wish me luck!

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Chronological Survey of "Eroica" opening

I'm not sure if anyone else will find this interesting, but thought I'd share it: someone has compiled 20-30 different recordings (from 1952 to the present) of the Beethoven 3rd Symphony opening two chords.  Most people would probably be struck by the variety of pitches used as E-flat major - some of them sound a half-step high to my ear, and in the 1980's you hear a few of the "period instrument" groups playing a half-step lower than a "modern" E-flat. 

I think it's interesting to see, in this very brief and not exactly scientifically controlled experiment, how differently people can play the exact same two chords.  And all of them, I'm sure, were doing what they thought best suited Beethoven. 

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Alexis Weissenberg and overcoming first impressions

I have mentioned before in this blog that I appreciate both the control of being able to hear whatever I want, whenever I want, thanks to my iPod; AND giving up control of my listening to the local classical stations (WGBH 99.5 and sometimes WHRB 95.3), as I often discover pieces or performers I didn't know about.  This happened a few days ago when I was in my car and heard a wonderful performance of the Chopin 2nd Piano Concerto slow movement, but didn't know who it was.  It turned out to be Alexis Weissenberg, somewhat of a surprise to me since I had decided many years ago (decades in fact) that I didn't like his playing.  As a kid I remember owning two LP's, one of some Bach ( I can't remember what it was) and the other a recording of the Brahms Violin Sonatas with Anne-Sophie Mutter.  I didn't like either, and so I hadn't bothered to listen to him ever since.

Now having spent a short time perusing recordings of Weissenberg that people have uploaded to Youtube, I can say that he is great, but perhaps not 100% of the time.  I heard some wonderful Chopin and Rachmaninov, but also a dry Bach Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue that lacked fantasy.  But in any case I am glad for the discovery that, despite my first impression years ago, there is wonderful artistry to be heard from among his many recordings (Weissenberg died quite recently, on my birthday in fact - the New York Times obituary is here).

I know this is hardly news, but first impressions are powerful - maybe too powerful!  I remember that the first time I heard the Mahler Fourth Symphony, I thought the 3rd movement was boring (granted, I was in middle school at the time).  Now I love it so much that I would have it played at my funeral, if possible.  (That probably won't work out since it requires a whole orchestra, but my other top choice for music at my funeral is the slow movement of the Schubert C major Quintet).  I also remember, once upon a time, not liking the Richter's playing, or foods like avocadoes, ikura (salmon roe), or anchovies, all things I love now.  But I wonder if there are other things to which I need to give a second or third chance - am I missing out on something because of a bad first impression?

A piece of practical advice: if you are a student auditioning for a conservatory, always start with your best piece.  Many students seem to think they are somehow obliged to start with Bach (don't know where this idea came from), but if that isn't your best piece, start with something else.  That first impression, even within a 15-20 minute audition can change the way we hear you the rest of the time. 

Here is the Rachmaninov Sonata #2, 1st Movement, played by Alexis Weissenberg (who, as it turns out, bears some resemblance to Rachmaninov, I think!)

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

A little love music for Valentine's Day

In honor of Valentine's Day, a couple of my favorite love-related pieces of music - what are yours?

Prokofiev "Romeo and Juliet" (here is the Balcony Scene), from the Mariinsky Theatre:

 Schoenberg "Transfigured Night" (Juilliard Quartet, with Walter Trampler and Yo-Yo Ma)

Wagner-Liszt "Liebestod" (played by me)

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Pianists and public transportation

I have just returned home from a trip to Dublin, Ireland, where I had the great pleasure of playing a concert with many of my fellow winners of the Dublin International Piano Competition: Phillippe Cassard, Pavel Nersessian, Davide Franceschetti, Alexei Nabioulin, and Romain Descharmes, along with the founder of the competition, John O'Conor.  (The two other winners, Antti Siirala and Alexej Gorlatch, couldn't be there).  The first half included each pianist playing a short solo piece, and after intermission we returned as a group to play some pieces (arranged) for seven pianos.  Here is a photo I took while the piano tuner was scrambling to get all of these 9-foot Steinway Model D's tuned:
 It was a great time for us, performers of an often-solitary instrument who had a chance to play together.  

I've been to Ireland about 15 times, I'd say, and the people I know are all very eager to be helpful.  I usually stay in a friend's home (this time my friends Myles and Laurie), and if I ever need to go somewhere, there are people who are quick to offer me a ride in their car.  But a few days ago I ended up taking the train (the "DART") to get from Dublin's Royal Irish Academy of Music (I'd been practicing) to the home where I was staying.  And I realized that I LOVE taking public transportation, especially when I am away from home.  I have very happily ridden the subway in London, Paris, Tokyo, Moscow, New York, Chicago.  In fact I vastly prefer taking the train to riding in a taxi.  When I left Dublin I very happily took a bus from the city centre to the airport - in fact I was happier doing that than I had been on the taxi I took from the airport when I arrived.

It made me wonder why.  I think what I like about it is the independence.  I grew up in Los Angeles, where most people I know go everywhere by car.  When I came to Boston for school, the idea that I could hop on the Red Line and go wherever I wanted, whenever I wanted, was wonderfully liberating.  But I wonder whether being a pianist has helped contribute to this preference for independence.  Pianists, when playing solo piano repertoire, don't need to ask for anyone's opinion when making musical decisions (this of course is different when playing music for 7 pianos!) and when we take public transportation, it feels less like we are depending on someone else.  (Of course this is partly an illusion, as we all depend on the driver of the train, and are subject to limitations of the train's schedule and route).  I have noticed that different musical instruments tend to be correlated to different personalities, and pianists tend to be the loners, the eccentrics, the dreamers, the awkward nerds.  And I bet I'm not the only pianist who prefers the independence of public transportation to the dependence of asking for a ride. 

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Beethoven op. 111 progress report

Earlier this month I made public my goal to be able to play all of the 32 Beethoven Sonatas in about 2 years.  With that in mind, I set myself the shorter term goal of learning the last of his Sonatas, op. 111 in C minor, over the month of January.  It has not been easy!  I am a pretty quick learner at this point - years of leaving things to the last minute have helped me hone my ability to learn fast.  But even so, squeezing in the hours around all of my other responsibilities - for example, practicing for other concerts, teaching, taking care of my children, etc. - has been difficult. 

But today, on the last day of January, while practicing in a lovely home in Dublin, I played through the entire piece.  It is a privilege to know the piece much more intimately than when I started.  And it is good to know that while a month of sporadic work has been enough to get the notes in to my fingers, it is nevertheless a piece that will, I'm sure, reveal more and more to me as I live with it longer.  In fact this is why I started my Beethoven project with this piece - I am counting on the blessing of time to help me digest this piece more fully. 

My students know that I love to say how tired I am of the sound of the piano, which is partially true (but not totally).  One of the remarkable things about op. 111 is the way it sounds so unlike a piano piece to me.  Perhaps it is fitting that it is his last piano sonata (although several important piano pieces, most notably the "Diabelli" Variations, were written later) as the first movement sounds to me more like a symphony and the second like a string quartet, the genre which seemed especially to captivate Beethoven in his later years.  By the time this piece was written Beethoven was, I believe, totally deaf, and he was writing, perhaps, not for the earthly instruments we hear every day, but for the heavenly sounds he could hear in his own mind.  It presents the wonderful challenge of creating this palette of colors on the piano. 

Now tomorrow, my day is filled with a master class at the Royal Irish Academy of Music, a radio broadcast, and a rehearsal with some old friends (all former winners of the Dublin International Piano Competition) of fun, entertaining music for as many as 8 pianists at once (including arrangements of Flight of the Bumblebee, the William Tell Overture, and "Tea for Two.")  It may not be op. 111, but it has its place too! 

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Music for normal people

I just started teaching a new course at Boston Conservatory, the first they are offering for adults via their extension division.  It is one semester class, meeting once a week, called "Getting to Know the Piano Repertoire" and when I was explaining what I was doing to one of my undergraduate conservatory students, she helped me find the word to describe the students who would be enrolling in the course: "NORMAL people."  At a conservatory, I spend most of my time working with students who have studied piano music for most of their lives - (abnormal people?).  Even then I have to make an effort at times to imagine what it is like to hear about a piece for the first time, when I have performed it in concert 100 times.  That, of course, is what teachers do all of the time, in all sorts of fields. 

But it is always healthy for a performer, like myself, to come face to face not with musical colleagues but with the "normal people" who make up the audience of concerts.  What do they think about when they hear music?  What do they like or dislike?  The great artist is not, of course, supposed to play in a way that panders to the audience, but he does need to consider what is valuable to them - it is about striking a proper balance between entertaining and challenging.  

In any case, I enjoy helping opening people's eyes to things I already know and love.  I admire the "normal people" in this course, some who appear to be working, some possibly retired, but all challenging themselves to learn something new, rather than sitting in front of the TV and coasting through life on the education they acquired in high school or college.  In the last year or two I have begun to do more private teaching, including students who are 14 years old, and one who is over 70.  It has helped me to see clearly how valuable playing the piano and getting to know great music, intimately, is to everyone, not just professional musicians themselves. 

Friday, January 20, 2012

The problem with perfect practice?

I just read (and recommend) this blog post by Dr. Noa Kageyama, on the subject of practicing.  About a year ago I gave a presentation to a group of Los Angeles piano teachers entitled "Making Practice Perfect" where I explored and shared various techniques that I find useful for myself and students.  Dr. Kageyama points out, however, that the attempt to be "perfect" in the practice room can actually prevent us from learning.  One such reason occurs especially in conservatory environments: we want to sound good to our peers in the hallway or the practice room next door, and will avoid working on pieces or passages we aren't so confident with.  Or we might avoid taking a risk with tempo or musical idea, for example, because we will (probably) sound terrible, at least at first.

As a kid, one of my friends (now concertmaster of a major American orchestra) would sometimes go over to an older friend's house (he is now the concertmaster of another major American orchestra) to practice.  My friend said it helped him focus and not screw around.  But I wonder if it might have also made him avoid practicing brand new repertoire, say, or trying out new interpretive or technical ideas.  Now mind you, he is a great (and successful) violinist so he obviously wasn't damaged by this much, if at all, but it makes me think that it's important, in practicing, not to focus on what others think, but to listen to ourselves and evaluate how we are doing.

To my Conservatory students: ignore everyone else practicing nearby!  Your job is not to impress them in a practice room - your job is to do your best on stage, in a concert or competition or audition or recording studio. 

On the other hand, I remember quite vividly the experience years ago as a Fellow at the Tanglewood Music Center that I often ended up practicing in a room near Leon Fleisher's office.  Being within earshot of one of the world's greatest pianists definitely made me sharpen my focus, and I had the nervewracking privilege of having him come in once or twice to advise me on something he heard me doing.  

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Goldbergs are not enough - now for all the Beethoven Sonatas!?!?

I recently blogged, happily, about my successful project to learn the Goldberg Variations in a month, working gradually, one variation each day. A brief update: I am reviewing what I worked on and it will be a few more months certainly before I feel ready to let anyone hear it! But I try to remind myself that I learned it not for the purpose of performing it (a departure for me), and that if I do program the piece on a concert in the future that will be icing on the cake. (Well, I have to say I do like icing! And in a VERY tangential footnote: my manager got me a chocolate cake for my birthday last week from Magnolia Bakery in NYC and it was absolutely the best cake I have ever eaten. That is not an exaggeration.)

I am now embarking on a project that I hope will take not one month but 2 years - I want, finally, to know all 32 of the Beethoven Sonatas. I feel very much at home with about 12 of them. There are a few more that I have worked on (and one I have played in concert) but that really warrant a thorough reworking. And then there a dozen or more that I have never worked on at all. My intention is to share some of my reflections on this, perhaps once a month as I hope to get one Sonata in my fingers every month. I decided to work from the end, for now at least, so I'm working on op.111. I'll write again about that in a week or two.

I am saying it here, publicly, to help me stay on track! My friend Ali Binazir, a wonderfully tireless high achiever, recently alerted me to the existence of a web site that is supposed to help people keep up with their personal projects, whether losing weight, or exercising, or reading a book every week. The site is here: I haven't tried using it, but they have some great ideas there, and a mechanism for enlisting support from others to help get your projects done.

My challenge, aside from finding the time to do this and the tenacity and endurance to follow through for many months of work, is to translate my big goal in to smaller daily goals.  I find that the only way not to procrastinate is to have something VERY specific to do every day.  Wish me luck, as I wish you luck on YOUR projects.