Piano seminar with Carlo Grante

This week I had the pleasure and privilege of attending a piano seminar with acclaimed Italian pianist and pedagogue Carlo Grante. Held over two days (I attended the first day only), the seminar focussed on a number of topics, drawn from Carlo’s book Fundamentals of Piano Methodology and his new book, currently in preparation, including:

  • “Chunking up and down”: the Lisztian legacy of problem-solving in piano writing
  • Identifying structures in seemingly complex music
  • Voicing and tone production
  • Mind-mapping and memorisation

Presented in the form of a lecture with musical examples, student participation and demonstrations at the piano by Carlo himself, the seminar offered stimulating and interesting food for thought for piano students, teachers and professional musicians.

In the first lecture of the day on “chunking up and down”, Carlo demonstrated how apparently very complex music can be reduced into small units or motifs, enabling one to simplify the music for learning. This practice also has benefits for memory work, as well as musical analysis.

Using Liszt’s ‘Mazeppa’ (the fourth Transcendental Etude) as an example, a work that on first sight appears highly complex and virtuosic, Carlo highlighted recurrent patterns, both thematic and harmonic, and showed how Liszt manipulates and expands this material, while never really deviating from the opening statements.

This approach encourages one to:

      • Simplify the structure of a seemingly highly complex piece of music
      • Looking at harmonic progression to help fingering
      • Learning the shape of the harmonic “chunks” to learn appropriate/most comfortable/efficient hand shapes
      • Looking for predictable/familiar devices, such as chromatic scales, arpeggios or triads
      • Putting all these “chunks” together to create a whole

The second morning session used Brahm’s Intermezzo in A, Op 118 as the example for a discussion of how music can be divided into smaller elements, “zooming in” on these constituent parts to achieve more focussed practising.

For example, the right hand part divides into two distinct “voices”, upper and lower: practising each part or “voice” separately enables deeper learning. Much of this seems quite obvious, but it is surprising how many piano who play and study piano music do not use these kinds of learning tools.

After lunch, during which I enjoyed talking about concerts and piano repertoire with some of the other participants, Carlo presented a session on memory work, demonstrating once again how reducing the music into small sections and patterns can facilitate memorisation. The musical example was Busoni’s elegaic barcarolle All’Italia.

Busoni

The session finished with some discussion on expressive grammar, the study of which is necessary for a truly coherent reading of a piece: by this, Carlo means not only the obvious dynamic, tempo and articulation markings, but other aspects such as the “stretching” intervals (in the manner of a singer), masculine and feminine endings and cadences, different types of accents and so forth.

Throughout the seminar, Carlo stressed that these aspects of piano study and method should not be seen in isolation and that the ultimate goal is to encourage deep, thoughtful practise resulting in an profound understanding of the music and the ability to play with expression. He also stressed the need to be a “curious learner”. All in all, it was an extremely valuable and thought-provoking seminar and I left full of new ideas for my own piano study and my teaching.

Carlo’s book Fundamentals of Piano Methodology is available in English (publisher Rugginenti)

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