Here’s a helpful post from Gretchen Saathoff’s blog Gretchen’s Pianos for those of us who are feel certain parts of our anatomy need some care & attention.
Any type of pain associated with playing an instrument needs to be addressed.
Let’s talk about neck pain in this post, though, to keep things manageable for readers.
When and how did your neck pain start? What were you doing at the time?
What do you do when not playing the piano? For example, do you drive long distances? Work at a desk? Use a computer for long periods of time?
Your work setup, car seat, steering wheel angle, different mattress, different pillow, bicycle handlebars, even not wearing sunglasses outdoors can all be factors.
Look at your practice setup.
Bench too high or too low?
Music at a comfortable height?
Have you had your eyes checked recently?
A glare on the music
Recent changes in technique
Practicing too long without a break
Learning a lot of notes all at the same time
Sight-reading for hours
A look at some other factors
Not getting enough sleep.
Not eating regular meals.
Being under the weather.
Having a cold
Coming down with something
Ask a friend to watch you play
Videotape yourself playing
Make small changes as indicated above
Stretch before and after practice
See a doctor who treats musicians
Get a massage
See a chiropractor
Work with a physical therapist or sports trainer to strengthen back and shoulder muscles
Letting pain continue while proceeding as usual is not a solution, but will exacerbate the problem. Even if you are busy, have several performances coming up, or can think of a list of reasons not to address the pain, you must. Your longevity as a musician depends on it.
Who or what inspired you to take up composing, and make it your career?
It grew as I made my way into the musical world. From early childhood composers inspired me – and still do. The ‘urge’ to create is not unlike feeling hungry or any other ‘needs’, part genetic (nature), part imparted (nurture). The rest is discipline and hard work as you keep learning (which is also an urge) and developing (which keeps the urge alive) – voilà, a virtuous circle. Out of all the things I have done in music, practical and theoretical, composing slowly began to take over.
Who or what are the most important influences on your composing?
‘Inspiration’ or ‘influence’ comes from many sources, from nature to books, from people to science and technology, from a musician’s special skills to the nature of a commission, from a problem to the search for a solution. In different stages of my career, different influences dominated. For example, when I was infatuated with Xenakis, his music and writings, his persona and reputation left noticeable traces in my music.
What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?
To stay alive and make a living out of a profession which has become ever harder to pursue in a musical world that tends to cling on to the familiar rather than to taking risks – especially in times of hardship, such as now.
Apart from that, the greatest challenge was to discover my strengths and weaknesses, to acknowledge that I cannot be Bach, Beethoven, Debussy, Stravinsky or Varėse, and find Jan Vriend.
Which compositions/recordings are you most proud of?
Huantan (1968), Heterostase (1981), Jets d’Orgue (1985-91), Hallelujah II (1988), Hymn to Ra (2002), Anatomy of Passion (2004), Echo 13.7 (2006), Meden Agan (2006)…
Who are your favourite musicians?
Young people, who are still full of curiosity and passionate in their commitment to the cause of the music they play, as opposed to the pursuit of fame and fortune or as a chore to making a living.
What is your most memorable concert experience?
A concert in Amsterdam in the 1960s, when Yuji Takahashi performed Eonta by Xenakis with a brass ensemble from Paris conducted by Konstantin Simonovich. Details of that experience are in a book I am about to finish.
What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians/composers?
The question encompasses too many issues (ideas and concepts) for an easy answer. But here is a thought: whatever sounds you choose to work on in whatever combinations, the point of their interactions is to make musical sense. To find out what that means is a lifelong preoccupation, something we put to the test again and again in each new composition (project) we undertake.
What are you working on at the moment?
A work for string orchestra – a challenge, an ambition I have been harbouring for many years but never had the chance to concentrate on. The difficulty is that I haven’t yet been able to find an ensemble to take it on, which makes it a somewhat fortuitous (gratuitous?) enterprise and has given me my first ‘writer’s block’ in many years.
Where would you like to be in 10 years’ time?
On holiday in a sunny resort by the sea.
What is your idea of perfect happiness?
Being in love and in the closest possible proximity of the beloved.
What is your most treasured possession?
My piano – since I cannot claim my two daughters among my ‘possessions’.
What do you enjoy doing most?
Work… when it goes well.
What is your present state of mind?
It’s in survival mode. But, overall, I look on the bright side.
More details are on my website and the real ‘story’ is, of course, in my music.
Jan Vriend’s ‘Degrees of Freedom’, written specially for Ensemble Matisse, receives its premiere on 3 November 2014 in music and media event ‘Interference Patterns’ at London’s Kings Place . The work aims to explore the provocative idea that freedom cannot exist without boundaries. Further information and tickets here
Recently, The Guardian published an article by Leo Benedictus on the subject of badly behaved audiences at theatre, film, concerts, and similar events. The article included a sort of ‘manifesto’ for audiences, with tips and advice on how not to behave. It is both amusing and true. I ran an informal poll amongst Twitter and Facebook followers, asking for people to submit their particular “audience irritations”. The best ones follow below:
People who sit behind and scratch their knees… An odd one I know, but sat in a tiered theatre their knees are at ear level!
Flash photography when one is performing – very distracting!
People talking through overtures is my worst bugbear. I was at South Pacific in Cardiff recently and it was so noisy throughout the overture, and the chap behind me constantly was singing and humming along to most of the songs and making comments….
At a Proms concert once, I saw a Prommer reading a John Grisham novel while Abbado conducting the Bruckner’s 9th symphony provided some no doubt pleasant background music.
Child unwrapping sweets during a Bach Suite… grrrrrr!
People who go to a concert with a cold! Sniffling every other minute. So distracting, inconsiderate and unhygienic!
Re. hummers, I remember childhood carol services at church where every year, without fail, one old man who couldn’t sing in tune to save his life would persist in joining in with the solo first verse of Once in Royal. Pity whichever poor child had been given that dubious privilege…
I was at a Chopin recital where the man next to me hummed tunelessly throughout Chopin’s last Piano Sonata (indeed, throughout the entire concert!). It reminded me of a sketch from ‘Alas Smith & Jones’ in which a certain concert-goer (Smith) hums throughout the performance. Another (Jones) becomes very irritated by this and starts shushing the hummer, only to be told by others around him: “Would you please be quiet? We have come here tonight specifically to hear Mr Smith humming!”
Because of the average age of its audience (very elderly), the Wigmore auditorium is often a cacophony of whistling hearing aids, snuffling, stentorian snoring, and – particularly at lunchtime recitals – satisfied, fruity farting (the sign of a good lunch in the Wigmore restaurant!)
My father’s first visit to Carnegie Hall was marred by a man in front of him who conducted, from his seat, with full score, throughout a Beethoven Symphony.
Please feel free to share your own particular “audience irritations” via the comments box!
Who or what inspired you to take up the piano, and make it your career?
An old friend of mine who is an accomplished amateur pianist was playing Beethoven’s Waldstein Sonata and I just absolutely fell in love with everything about the piano. It was at this time I decided I wanted to be a concert pianist. Every time I hear the Waldstein Sonata I have the same sense of excitement that I remember experiencing when I first heard my friend play it. It is one of the few pieces (along with Tchaikovsky Concerto No.1) that makes me wish I had two hands so I could play it.
Who or what were the greatest influences on your playing?
The greatest influences on my playing are the two teachers I feel I’ve learnt the most from over the years. I studied with acclaimed pianist Lucy Parham whilst I was at the Junior Guildhall School of Music & Drama. It was then that I was introduced to left hand repertoire and my journey as a left hand pianist properly began. I gained so much from Lucy and I always hold her in high esteem as I feel that without her guidance and high expectations I would not have been awarded a place at the Royal College of Music where I’m currently in my graduation year.
My second greatest influence is my current teacher Nigel Clayton. I have found out so much about myself as a pianist since learning with him: he seems to be able to explain things to me in such a way that it instantly transfers into my playing. Aside from being a great teacher he is also very supportive of the things that I do outside of the Royal College. Whether I have a concert or a television interview he always calls or texts to see how it went or to wish me luck.
Which CD in your discography are you most proud of, and why?
One of the first classical CD’s that I bought and am still proud of owning is a box set of Bach and Chopin performed by Martha Argerich. A few of the pieces on the disc really astounded me, the English Suite in A Minor by Bach and Chopin’s Piano Sonata No.2. I couldn’t seem to stop listening to these two pieces in particular; in my opinion they are the perfect recordings of these works.
Doyou have a favourite concert venue to perform in?
I adore playing in St Martin in the Fields. The acoustic is great and I really love the piano they have there. I also think the central location gives any concert a bit more of a ‘grand’ feeling. It is exciting for a performer.
Favourite pieces to perform? Listen to?
My favorite piece that I perform a lot is the Prelude and Nocturne Op.9 by Scriabin. I have a lot of nostalgia over these beautiful pieces as they were the first pieces for the left hand that I learnt. Ever since I mastered them I have included them in every single recital that I have played and just adore performing them. I would play Scriabin all day long if I could.
Who are your favourite musicians?
As mentioned before, Martha Argerich is a real favorite of mine. Though I also enjoy listening to Stephen Hough, especially his Rachmaninoff. I also listen to the violinist Nicola Benedetti a lot, I think her musicianship and technique is unsurpassed.
What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to students/aspiring musicians?
I think that the most important concept for students is to always be musical. One could walk down the practice corridor of any conservatoire and hear perfect notes coming from all the students practicing, yet sometimes I think musicians easily forget about the music itself and worry far too much about correct notes. I personally would rather go to a recital and hear an exciting, atmospheric and electric recital with a few wrong notes thrown in as opposed to a note-perfect performance with no excitement. I always try to impress on my students that correct notes are very important but are certainly not the be all and end all.
What is your idea of perfect happiness?
Perfect happiness to me is being content and fulfilled in both work and personal life. I think that if you have problems in your work life or problems in your personal life you cannot be fully happy. For me it’s about finding a fine balance between both.
Nicholas McCarthy was born in 1989 without his right hand and only began to play the piano at the late age of 14 after being inspired by a friend play Beethoven’s Waldstein Sonata.
Having once been told that he would never succeed as a concert pianist, Nicholas would not be discouraged and went on to study at the prestigious Royal College of Music in London. His graduation in July 2012 drew press headlines around the world, being the only one-handed pianist to graduate from the Royal College of Music in its 130 year history.
Nicholas is a champion of the dynamic and brave world of left hand alone repertoire, a repertoire that first came into being in the early 19th century and developed rapidly following the First World War as a result of the many injuries suffered on the Battlefield. Paul Wittgenstein was responsible for its 20th century developments with his commissions with Ravel, Prokofiev and Benjamin Britten amongst others.
Most pianists are surprised at the abundance and variety of repertoire for the left hand alone. I know I was. In the early years of my right hand injury, I never gave serious thought to a career as a “left hand only” pianist, because I was completely unaware of the vast amount of very fine left hand literature. I recall thinking that there was barely enough to put together one “just OK” solo recital, and the only two concerti I knew were the Ravel and Prokofiev. It hardly seemed enough to build a performing career. It was many years before I really started to investigate and discover a whole world of music that was available for me to play; that there is really enough music for me to play and enjoy for my lifetime!
Well, maybe it is OK that I did not know sooner: otherwise, I may not have had the opportunity to edit, write, and produce all the teaching material that I have. I wouldn’t trade that — I have been most fortunate. But, in 2004, I realized that a very important piece of my life was missing, that the creative process of practicing was essential for me. When I started practicing again, I felt like I had been in the desert and finally found water. My soul was being fed. And as I worked, I uncovered more and more… and more! wonderful music written for the left hand alone. I started playing left hand alone concerts in 2006. I love sharing this music, and it is so wonderful when people hear it for the first time and are amazed at how beautiful sounds, and how complete the musical experience feels. The best compliment I get is when someone says, after a concert, “I enjoyed that music so much, that I forgot you were playing with just one hand!” My particular interest in piano music for the left hand alone began with the onset of focal dystonia in my right hand; but my passion for left hand alone music grew from my need for self-expression through music.
You may wonder, “Why is there piano music for the left hand alone?” There are four basic reasons composers write music for the left hand alone:
1. Technical development: As we are all aware, the standard repertoire for the piano generally places greater demands on the right hand than the left. The need for strength, speed, and the ability to project a melody (especially with the weak fifth finger), are most often found in the writing for the right hand. However, every pianist at some point will encounter a passage for the left hand that will expose the unequal development between the hands. Certainly there are two-hand etudes, such as those by Czerny or Chopin, which emphasize the development of the left hand; but we also have a significant body of etudes for the left hand alone, designed for the same purpose. The most prolific composer, and one of the best composers of music for the left hand alone, was Leopold Godowsky (1870-1938). Of his fifty-three Studies on Chopin Etudes, twenty-two of them are for the left hand alone. He became fascinated, even obsessed with the idea of a greatly developed left hand. His theory was that if the left hand could be trained to do the work of two hands, then, when you added the right hand back in, the pianist could manage, or at least sound as though they were doing the work of three hands! The Godowsky Studies on Chopin Etudes are at the very top in difficulty, played generally by the greatest virtuosi. Mozskowski’s Op. 92 is a set of 12 Etudes for the Left Hand Alone, which are not as formidable as the Godowsky. There are ‘Schools for the Left Hand’ by Berens, Blanchet, Bonamici, Phillip, and Wittgenstein. Czerny’s Op 718 Left Hand Studies are played with both hands, but the etudes emphasize the development of technique in the left hand.
2. Injury: The truth is, most pianist will not play music for the left hand alone until the have to, usually because of injury – whether temporary or permanent. Many of the works written for the left hand alone were written for pianists with an injured right hand or arm. Some of the most well known and best music was written for Paul Wittgenstein (1887-1961), who lost his right arm in WWI. The wealthy Wittgenstein family commissioned dozens of pieces — about forty works. Among those are some truly great concertos for the left hand alone: Ravel Concerto in D, Prokofiev Concerto No. 4, Britten Diversions, and Korngold Concerto in C-sharp. The Czeck pianist Ottakar Hollman suffered permanent injury to his right arm during WWI. Several of his fellow countrymen wrote music for him, including Janacek (Capriccio for Piano and Winds), Martinu (Divertimento for Piano and Chamber Orchestra), Tomasek (Sonata), and Schulhoff (Suite No. 3). British pianist Harriet Cohen suffered permanent injury when a glass shattered in her right hand, and the English composer Arnold Bax wrote a concerto for her. Dutch pianist Cor de Groot had a temporary injury that produced works from six different Dutch composers, as well as his own set of variations for piano and orchestra. Of course, present day pianists Leon Fleisher and Gary Graffman have had music written for them as well. I have been fortunate to have works written for me: Verbs is a set of Twenty-four Preludes for piano left hand by the Irish American composer Kalthleen Ryan, and Canadian born English composer Beverley Flanagan wrote a four movement suite called Without a Trace. American composer Andrew Norman has been commissioned to write a Piano Quintet for string quartet and piano left hand for me and the San Francisco based Ives Quartet.
3. Virtuosic display: We certainly have many two hand “concert” etudes intended for the demonstration of technical prowess; and what could be more impressive that an etude which shows mastery of the left hand? Especially since the left is generally considered the lesser of the two! Many of the virtuoso pieces for the left hand alone were written by two handed pianists, who wanted the opportunity for LH display. Bartok (“Etude” — which he included on his Berlin debut), Godowsky (Studies on Chopin Etudes), Leschetitzsky (an opera paraphrase on the sextet from ‘Lucia di Lamermoor’ by Donezetti). A century earlier Alexander Dreyschock and Adolfo Fumagali also wrote “show-stoppers” for the left hand alone which they always included as featured works in their otherwise two-handed recitals.
4. Compositional challenge; The first three categories of left hand piano music are from the viewpoint of the pianist. Now, we will think about left hand music from the view of the composer. It is a distinct compositional challenge, for which the composer must be motivated. It seems to me that most music for the left hand alone usually falls into two or more of the above categories. For example, a composer may undertake to write for the left hand alone because the challenge is of interest, but they may be writing for an injured pianist. Or, a pianist/composer may start by writing an etude for left hand technical development, and end up with an excellent concert piece of virtuoso display. There are particular challenges in writing for the left hand alone. First, is the challenge of working around being in two places at the same time, i.e. bass and treble, or melody w/accompaniment. (However, there is also left hand music which moves in single notes, or single line texture.) To utilize the rich textures possible with the piano, composers look for ways to use a great deal of pedal and frequent lateral movements of the left hand, to blend melody and bass. The most skilled left hand writers, such as Godowsky, Scriabin, or Ravel, find ingenious ways to integrate the melody and accompaniment in a seamless and natural sounding way. One of the very finest examples of all is the Etude in A-flat by Felix Blumenfeld. The least effective writing for the left hand, I think, is when a composer thinks in too much in a “two handed” way, requiring the breaking of chords and constant use of grace notes from bass to treble
Left Hand Pianists in History
Czech pianist Alexander Dreyschock (1818-1869) is the first pianist known to perform with his left hand alone. He was a fanatical practicer, keenly obsessed with developing the technique of his left hand. Dreyschock was particularly know for his skill with 3rds, 6ths, octaves. He played the left hand part of the Chopin Etude Op. 10 no. 12 entirely in octaves! From all reports, his technique was astounding, and equal to that of Thalberg and Liszt. The first known concert which included a piece for the left hand alone is in 1843, at Dreyschock’s first concert in Paris, when he included his own Variations for the Left Hand Op. 22. His very successful concert tours took him throughout Europe, and the Variations for left hand alone became a successful “gimmick” for him. At a concert in Brussels, the audience reacted so strongly to the left hand piece, that he had to play it a second time. In Copenhagen, the same piece caused such a sensation that the King of Denmark gave him a box of cigars wrapped in 100-thaler bank notes. Eduard Marxsen (teacher of Brahms) wrote Three Left Hand Impromptus with a subtitle ‘Hommage a Dreyschock’. Leschetizky’s paraphrase of the sextet from Lucia di Lammermoor is dedicated to Dreyschock.
In 1862, Dreyschock became a staff member at the newly-founded St. Petersburg Conservatory, at Anton Rubinstein’s invitation. He was appointed Court Pianist to the Tsar, as well as Director of the Imperial School of Music for the Operatic Stage. He maintained this double post for six years, but his health suffered from the Russian climate. He moved to Italy in 1868 and died of tuberculosis in 1869.
Italian pianist Adolfo Fumagali (1828-1856), was ten years younger than Dreyschock. There were four Fumagali brothers, and they were all professional pianists, and published composers. Adolfo was the most successful. Although he looked rather frail, he had a phenomenal technique and strong fingers that astonished everyone. He was respected and loved by both the critics and the public, but did not become a truly unique sensation until 1855 when he began performing his work for left hand, Fantasy on Meyerbeer’s Robert le Diable – a 27 page blockbuster for LH alone. It brought down the house! He also had great success with his left hand version of ‘Casta Diva’ from Bellini’s ‘Norma’. But it was the Fantasy which really made his name. With many wonderful reviews, a repertoire of successful “salon” pieces, and a half dozen left-hand opera paraphrases, Fumagali was on the verge of a hugely successful European career. However, he contracted cholera at the age of 28 and died. Italy lost its most celebrated pianist of the day.
Fumagalli’s output is quite extensive, though almost all of it is extremely difficult to obtain today. Theodore Edel writes about him: “Although he was perhaps not a very inspired or ingenious composer, his works for left hand alone stand nonetheless as an important testament of the progress in technique and virtuosity of the period, especially of single-handed works.”
The Hungarian pianist Géza Zichy (1849 – 1924) was the world’s first professional one-armed pianist. He lost his right arm in a hunting accident at the age of fifteen. After the hunting accident, he became determined to be independent and learn to do as much as possible with one hand — to dress, eat, even peel an apple and clip his own fingernails. His determination to be a pianist seems to have begun after losing his right arm. “I did not ponder over theories of one-hand playing; I knew nothing about how it could be done, but I did it.”
At 26, in 1875, Zichy impressed Franz Liszt with his arrangement and performance of the Schubert Erlkonig. Liszt encouraged him to publish as set of Etudes, for which Lizst wrote a preface. By 1880, Zichy had about 15 pieces of his own devising, and he began his concert career in earnest. Dreyschock and Fumagali had really made their careers by playing left hand alone works; but they were two handed pianists, and that was only part of their performances. Zichy was the first to make an entire recital of just left hand. Liszt wrote in a letter to a friend: “Geza Zichy created a sensation at a recent concert (the first time he has favored Budapest with his extraordinary virtuosity). The hall was packed and his success complete.” Later, Liszt also wrote: “Geza Zichy’s reputation is not just parochial Hungarian. He is an astounding artist of the left hand, which is so remarkably dexterous to the point that the greatest pianists would be hard put to match him.”
Since Zichy was quite a wealthy man, he gave every penny earned from concerts to charity. Despite his great wealth, he did not commission composers to write for him. This seem so unfortunate, especially considering his close friendship with Liszt, but also for the fact that he was a rather unremarkable composer. His left hand piano music, although plentiful, is among the least played of the repertory. It is interesting to note that he wrote the very first concerto for the left hand alone. Besides an active concert schedule, Zichy served forty-three years as director of Hungary’s National Conservatory.
In 1915, Zichy gave a concert to one-armed men crippled in the first year of World War One. The purpose of the concert, and the lecture which followed, was to be inspirational: Zichy wanted to lift these men from their despair, and show them that it was possible to feel whole again. He also wrote The Book of the One Armed, in which he gave advice on how to learn skills to live independently. The book included exercises, 40 photos, and explanations, so that the reader could learn to use his one hand – and two feet – in ways he would not likely have devised. During the First World War, it went through five printings.
The Austrian pianist Paul Wittgenstein (1887-1961) had a most fascinating and courageous career as a one-armed pianist. He was called for service in the Second World War, was wounded, and had his right arm amputated. With a remarkably tenacious personality, he became determined to pursue a career as a one-armed pianist. Wittgenstein became the second one armed pianist in history, after Zichy. An interesting difference between Zichy and Wittgenstein is that Zichy was an amateur when he lost his arm, but Wittgenstein was already an aspiring professional. Before the war, as a two-handed pianist, Wittgenstein had studied with Leschetizsky, and made his Vienna recital debut at the age of 26, in 1913. Then in the following year, made his debut as concerto soloist.
The Wittgenstein family was extraordinarily wealthy. At an estimated £4 billion at the start of the war, it may have been the largest private fortune in Europe. As a result of their prominence, the Wittgenstein home hosted the cultural elite. As a child, Wittgenstein sat at elegant dinner parties with Brahms and Clara Schumann. The first performance of the Brahms clarinet sonatas was in the Wittgenstein living room. Casals, Bruno Walter, and Mahler, were all guests in the Wittegenstein home. Paintings by Klimt hung on the walls, and there were Bach and Mozart manuscripts on the piano.
Despite loosing his right arm, he refused to give up. His teacher, Leschetizsky was dead, but Wittgenstein practiced seven hours a day, keeping his teacher’s principles before him — especially the loose wrist. He wrote: “It was like climbing a mountain. If you can’t get up one way, you try another.” He was clearly determined to be a pianist, but he had to find repertoire. Wittgenstein knew Zichy in passing, and was inspired by him as a performer; but found his music trivial and did not play it. He admired the Bach/Brahms Chaconne, the etudes of Saint-Saens and Reger, and the Scriabin Op 9 Prelude and Nocturne. Sifting through the hundreds of German salon pieces, he found the excellent music of Alexis Hollander for left hand. He was of course also taken with the great music of Godowsky for left hand. To this repertoire he added his own transcriptions of opera, lieder, and two-hand piano works, arranged for one hand.
Wittgenstein used his substantial financial resources to commission original works. He returned to the concert stage in 1916 performing a Kozertstuck by his composition teacher, Josef Labor. The list of commissions reads like a who’s who of 1920’s music, but most of these are not composers we are familiar with today. However, there are a few distinctions, such as Ravel, Britten, Strauss, Korngold, Hindemith, and Prokofiev. The premieres of concertos by these prominent composers were “star” events; and Wittgenstein played with great orchestras, and prominent conductors such as Bruno Walter, Pierre Monteux, Furtwangler, Koussevitzky, and Ormandy.
Wittgenstein received about 40 works in all — the most for any single musician in history. He paid enormous fees to his composers, but they had to put up with his many complaints and difficult personality. Wittgenstein had a pugnacious spirit and relished a good battle with colleagues. He was also quite possessive with works he commissioned, and insisted on exclusive lifetime performing rights for all the pieces written for him. “You don’t build a house just so that someone else can live in it. I commissioned and paid for the works, the whole idea was mine […]. But those works to which I still have the exclusive performance rights are to remain mine as long as I still perform in public; that’s only right and fair. Once I am dead or no longer give concerts, then the works will be available to everyone because I have no wish for them to gather dust in libraries to the detriment of the composer.” However, he did not play every piece he had commissioned. He told Prokofiev that that he “could not yet understand the 4th Piano Concerto, but would play it when he did.” However, he never reached that point! He rejected outright Hindemith’s Piano Music with Orchestra Op. 29. He hid the score in his study, and it was not discovered until after his widow’s death in 2002 (by which time Hindemith himself had been dead for 39 years).
Wittgenstein was not permitted to perform in public concerts under the Nazi regime. He departed for the United States in 1938, and became an American citizen in 1946. Wittgenstein spent the rest of his life in the United States, where he did a good deal of teaching as well as playing. He died in New York City in 1961.
Who or what inspired you to take up the piano, and make it your career?
I guess I would have to credit my mother as the first inspiration to take-up the piano. She was a very fine pianist who earned her degree from the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston. When I was an infant and young child (and even when I was in the womb!) she was regularly practising four hours a day, and playing a dozen or so concerts each year. So I heard all the big works of Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin, Brahms, Debussy, and so on, from the time I was born. She also had a record collection which I regularly availed myself of — I remember that it included a recording of La Traviata that I listened to so many times, that by the time I was five I had completely ruined the vinyl! So, I guess it was fairly natural given my ear and inclination for music and the piano, that I was begging for lessons, which she gave me, starting at age four. My mother also regularly took me to concerts, and I remember vividly going to hear Rubenstein, Horowitz, and Van Cliburn before I was even a teenager. I think this early exposure to hearing pianists in concert, along with listening to my mother practice, and the family friends who were also concert performers, gave me an early notion of what it meant to perform. So, I suppose this really lit the spark within me. I recall making a conscious decision when I was about twelve years old and watching the Finals of the Van Cliburn Piano Competition on the television. I remember listening and watching and thinking “I’m going to do that.” Well, I did win one international competition, but by 1989, which was the year I had always planed on entering the Cliburn, my right hand was already suffering from focal dystonia, so I was unable to compete.
Who or what were the greatest influences on your playing?
I have been fortunate to have had many wonderful experiences which have influenced my playing, but to narrow it down, besides what I discussed in the first question, I would have to credit two of my teachers in particular. At the University of Southern California, I was a student of John Perry for six years. His approach to teaching suited me so perfectly, and I trusted him completely. What I have always appreciated the most about how he taught me, was that he gave me the tools to do what I wanted to do, better — rather than trying to make me into a replica of Perry. I never had the feeling that he tried to change me; instead he was able to show me how to give my own voice wings, to have the freedom to play as I wanted.
As great a gift as Mr Perry’s teaching was to me, I must still credit my teacher before university, Maria Clodes Jaguaribe, as being the deepest, most profound influence on me as a pianist. I worked with Maria during the Summers I spent at the Tanglewood Music Festival, while I was a teenager. Musically and technically she is at the core of my approach: the sound I listen for, the way I make a line “speak”, rhythmic inflection, and the attention to harmonic movement as well as the inner life of each line in counterpoint. (I remember working with her on the Schubert Op. 90 No. 3, and she had me sing the tenor line as I played the whole piece!) From her I truly gained the understanding of weight transfer, the importance of a relaxed and flexible wrist, and the necessity of strong fingers and a stable bridge of the hand to support the weight of the arm. All of these things were hugely important parts of both my mother’s and Mr Perry’s teaching as well, but there was something particular in Maria’s teaching, and her own playing, that resonated with me most strongly. From the time I first worked with her, there has rarely been a moment when I have not felt her presence while at the piano.
What have been the greatest challenges of your career?
With out a doubt, the greatest challenge for me was the development of focal dystonia in my right hand. If you are unfamiliar with focal dystonia, here is a link where you can read about it: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Focal_dystonia. About a year and a half after I made my London debut at the Queen Elizabeth Hall (1984), and a year and a half before my return engagement at the Barbican Centre (1987), I began to notice something very subtle, but very deep, was going wrong in the 2nd finger of my right hand. The first thing that gave-way were scale passages, or anything which required individual finger movements. The gradual breakdown of control happened over the course of several years, not all at once. Not that it was easy, but I think this actually helped me adjust to the loss, rather than having it all taken at once. I do remember in 1988 when I had to cancel a Tchaikovsky concerto that I was engaged to play in California, I had a bit of a break-down. But, as I tend to do, I rallied and proceed to embrace the idea that when life deals you lemons, make lemonade! I focused more deeply on teaching (which I had already been doing since I was a teenager). My teaching eventually led me to ideas for educational products which got me stated in publishing. Later, I dug into the wonderful world of music that is available for the left hand alone, and have enjoyed playing this music in concert over the last decade. Despite the injury to my right hand, I have enjoyed a rich and wonderful career in music, and have come to believe that our greatest challenges often reap the greatest rewards.
Which CD in your discography are you most proud of?
This is going back a bit, but I still feel such a thrill about the recording we made in 1987 of the Carnival of the Animals. The other pianist was Anton Nel, and we played with the Academy of London Orchestra under the direction of Richard Stamp. We recorded it for Virgin Classics. The disc also included Prokofiev Peter and the Wolf and Mozart Eine Kleine Nacht Musik. This was all wonderful, and we did a good job and the disc sold well; but the things that still really thrill me are the fact that we recorded in Studio One at EMI Abbey Road Studios, and that the narrator was Sir John Gielgud. I mean, really, how do beat that for a thrilling life experience?! (I also recall that the Steinway D I used for the recording is still one of the finest pianos I have every played.)
I will speak first about music for left hand alone that I love to play most, since that is what I do now. Then, a little bit about favourite pieces from my life as a two-handed pianist.
The first piece the comes to mind is the great Chaconne, from the Violin Partita in D minor by Bach, transcribed for piano, left hand alone, by Johannes Brahms. I never get tired of practising or performing this incredible piece of music — there seems to be no bottom to the gratification of working with this monumental masterpiece. Of course the powerful concerto by Ravel for the left hand alone is another work that one never tires of playing. I also adore the Scriabin Op. 9 Prelude & Nocturne for the left hand alone — so very beautiful. These works I have mentioned are among the most known of left hand literature, but there are also a few lesser known gems that I cherish. One is the Etude in A-Flat, Op. 36 by Felix Blumenfeld. Pretty much a perfect piece that is lovely to play, and always the stand-out audience favourite when I include in a recital. There is a little piece by Godowsky, the fourth of his six “Waltz- Poems” which is a real juicy delight. He manages to create three and four voice textures that hold together incredibly well in one hand. I am also a big fan of the Concerto in C-sharp by Korngold. A fantastic piece, rarely heard. I’ve not had the opportunity to play it yet, but do hope to do so!
Looking back at my two-handed days, pretty much anything by Mozart was a favourite. I loved to play the Chopin Ballades, and especially the Barcarolle. I also loved to play the Schubert Op. 90 and the Wanderer Fantasy. The “Deux Legendes” by Liszt (one usually only hears the second) were favourites; and Mussorgsky Pictures from an Exhibition frequently found its way onto my my recital programmes. Oh, and I love the Schumann G minor Sonata — especially the second movement is so gorgeous. The D minor Piano Concerto of Brahms is my hands-down favourite concerto, but I do adore any Mozart concerto as well.
As far as what I like to listen to, any and all Mozart — he would be my desert island composer. I also love the symphonic and chamber works of both Beethoven and Brahms. But I could easily start to spin out of control with this question, so I will stop here — there is just so much wonderful music in the world, and and for me, favourites ebb and flow at different times of my life.
Who are your favourite musicians?
I will stick to pianists for this, even though that field is rather wide as well. I have always found Evgeny Kissin’s playing a realisation of my ideals about piano playing. Many times after listening to him, I have thought that he played something how I always thought it should go, but just did not know that it was actually possible! I love how, despite his apparently unimpeded technique, he always sounds completely engaged in the process, nothing ever sounds too easy or too tossed off. To my ears, he pushes levels of expression and excitement right to the edge of the precipice, sometimes narrowly escaping falling off. I have never understood those who find his playing “cold”. Those who do must listen for something very different than I do.
I am also very fond of Marc-Andre Hamelin. Partly, I must confess, because of the friendship that has developed between us; but even before that, because he plays and has recorded so much of the left hand literature. He is the only one to have recorded the Korngold piano concerto for the left hand, and his recording of the Godowsky Chopin Studies is definitive (22 of the 53 are for the left hand alone). On his Wigmore Hall debut, he included the Alkan Fantasy for left hand alone, and the Etude No 7, from his own set of 12 Etudes in All the Minor Keys, is for the left hand alone. Needless to say, he was my left hand “hero” long before we met. But, setting his enthusiasm for left hand piano music aside, I find that there seems to be no bottom to Marc’s musicianship, pianism, artistry, or intelligence. He is, I believe, one of the most remarkably brilliant musicians in the world today.
What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to students/ aspiring musicians?
Play musically always. Listen, with a sense of responsibility, to every note. Say something; express something; find your own voice. I am so tired of listening to young pianists who play all the right notes of all the hardest pieces faster and faster and faster. It is a crashing bore! We take for granted that you will be accurate and have sufficient technical command, but that is all meaningless if the music is not about self- expression and revealing something of the human experience.
What are you working on at the moment?
My newest pet project is the Twelve Etudes for the Left Hand Alone, Op 92, by Moszkowski — a fabulous set of richly diverse pieces. I have also been looking a bit at the Seven Polyphonic Pieces for Left Hand Alone by Kapustin. The jury is still out on that one.
What is your idea of perfect happiness?
I love my morning tea ritual, and sitting for a bit staring at a beautiful view. Then, those first few minutes at the piano…and I always start my day playing Bach.
The Cross-Eyed Pianist is free to access and ad-free, and takes many hours every month to research, write, and maintain.
If you find joy and value in what I do, please consider making a donation to support the continuance of the site